THE NFL

October 13, 1991

Blunder of the Season

This was the Eagles' quarterback situation entering Sunday's game in Tampa: The starter, making his NFL debut in this role, would be rookie Brad Goebel, who had thrown 13 passes as a senior at Baylor; the backup would be Pat Ryan, who had gone 94 weeks between snaps in a game before playing—and losing 23-0—the previous week at Washington; and the emergency reserve would be punter Jeff Feagles, who hadn't played quarterback since being a backup at Gerad High in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1983.

What a travesty. Can you imagine the 49ers losing Joe Montana and Steve Young and then settling for Ryan? Or the Giants losing Jeff Hostetler and Phil Simms and then giving the ball to Goebel? The Eagles lost any chance they had of reaching the Super Bowl when Randall Cunningham went down for the season with a knee injury in the season opener, and they blew a shot at making any noise in the playoffs when the front office botched the search for a backup to Jim McMahon, who had become the starter.

There are few times in a season when a coach or front office can influence a team's performance with a player acquisition. This was one of those times, and the Eagles screwed up. Don't blame the players for Philly's 14-13 loss to previously winless Tampa Bay. Don't even blame Goebel, who completed only nine of 20 passes for 62 yards and was intercepted twice. Blame coach Rich Kotite and the suits upstairs.

What could the Eagles have done differently after Cunningham went down, and again after the inevitable loss of the injury-prone McMahon on Sept. 30 (he's out three to four weeks with a strained ligament in his right knee)? They could have signed free agents Chuck Long, Turk Schonert or Anthony Dilweg, or they could have traded for the Rams' Mike Pagel, the Falcons' Billy Joe Tolliver or the Chargers' Bob Gagliano. Is a win in October worth a fourth-round draft pick, the usual compensation for a borderline backup quarterback? Sure it is. Philadelphia could have beaten the Bucs with an experienced warm body calling signals. Games sometimes are won and lost on days other than Sunday.

"We talked about a lot of guys—Kelly Stouffer, Jack Trudeau, Gale Gilbert, Stan Humphries, Scott Secules, all those guys—but the feeling was that none would be the answer," Eagle general manager Harry Gamble said Monday. "We honestly didn't see that much of a difference between the guys on the street and the backups. If in fact it doesn't work out, it's not because of any slipshod management on our part."

Tampa Bay, one of the most inept teams in recent history, turned the ball over five times in the span of 14 second-half plays and still won, because the Eagles could do nothing offensively. Philly running back Heath Sherman tied a club record with 35 carries, but they went for only 89 yards. The Eagles built a 13-0 lead in the third quarter thanks to an end-zone fumble recovery by linebacker Seth Joyner and two field goals, one of which was set up by another fumble recovery and the other by a pass-interference call.

In the fourth quarter, Philly ran 12 offensive plays, 11 of them rushes by Sherman. Six gained two yards or less. Two touchdown passes in the final 4:19 by Chris Chandler rescued the Bucs and sent the Eagles home with a 3-3 record.

After the game, the Philly defensive players sniped at their offensive counterparts. "They're asking the defense to shut the other team out and score, too," said cornerback Eric Allen. Added Joyner, "That's asking a little too much. You can't run the ball three times and expect the defense to keep holding them. You have to put the ball in the damn end zone to win in this league."

It didn't have to be this way. But the Eagles slept through their most important decision of the year, and now it's costing them.

The Bernstine Factor

The AFC's fourth-leading rusher, Rod Bernstine of the Chargers, lost a bet with two local radio disc jockeys on the outcome of San Diego's game against the Chiefs on Sept. 29. Naturally, Bernstine had said the winless Chargers would beat K.C., but it didn't happen. So on his off day the following week, he paid the bet by working the drive-thru window at a San Diego McDonald's, where the following exchange took place.

Bernstine to male driver: "Welcome to McDonald's. May I take your order?"

Male driver to Bernstine: "Yeah. I'd like a win."

On Sunday, the Chargers delivered a 21-13 victory over the Raiders, with Bernstine rushing for 66 yards to give him 482 for the season. As unlikely as San Diego's win in L.A. was, Bernstine's career has been even stranger. The Chargers wanted a running back in the first round of the '87 draft, and they had their eye on either Alonzo Highsmith or Brent Fullwood. Both were gone by the time San Diego got to pick, so the Chargers selected Bernstine, a 6'3", 238-pound prototype tight end from Texas A&M.

He was a backup tight end in his first two seasons, but when Dan Henning was hired as the Chargers' coach in 1989, he put Bernstine at H-back, the hybrid tight end-fullback position. Between stints on the injured list, Bernstine—an awkward-looking, upright, relentless ballcarrier—impressed Henning enough to win the starting running-back job over training-camp holdout Marion Butts.

Bernstine even survived challenges from Highsmith and Fullwood, whose sliding NFL fortunes led them to failed tryouts in San Diego. "I don't know if anyone's ever going to know who I am," says Bernstine. They'll know, Rod. Just keep wearing 82, a receiver's number, and keep running tall.

Contract Clause of the Week
The Falcons' first-round draft choice, cornerback Bruce Pickens, finally signed last Friday. Pickens, who is still 15 credits shy of his degree in consumer science at Nebraska, will get $50,000 from Atlanta if he graduates.

The Shame of the Pack

A 20-17 loss to the Cowboys on Sunday dropped the Packers four games out of first place in the NFC Central. Here's how bad things are in Green Bay:

•Three weeks after Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman was sacked 11 times by the Eagles, six days after the Packers traded holdout sack specialist Tim Harris to the 49ers and four days after an anonymous Green Bay player called his teammates "doormats," the Packer defense had no sacks of Aikman and the offense held the ball for only 19 minutes against Dallas.

•Bryce Paup, Harris's replacement as the designated pass rusher, has gone nine quarters without a sack.

•Every one of the four coaches that followed Vince Lombardi—Phil Bengston, Dan Devine, Bart Starr and Forrest Gregg—had a better winning percentage than Lindy Infante's .389.

•Thirty years ago this week, Green Bay kicker-running back Paul Hornung rushed for 111 yards and scored 33 points (four touchdowns, six extra points, one field goal) against the Colts. After six games this season, the Pack's leading ground gainer, Allen Rice, has a total of 100 yards, and their kicker, Chris Jacke, has 27 points.

Infante, who's 1-10 since last December, and general manager Tom Braatz should be looking over their shoulders.

Stats of the Week

•Ron Meyer, headed for the golf course after being fired last week, was 36-36 as coach of the Colts. Steeler coach Chuck Noll, headed for the Hall of Fame, was 36-36 over the same period.

•James Francis, who looked like a pass-rushing phenom last fall for the Bengals, played his 11th straight game without getting a sack in 0-5 Cincinnati's 13-7 loss to the Seahawks on Sunday.

•Jeff Kemp, Seattle's stand-in quarterback, has thrown more interceptions (nine, including three in Sunday's game with the Bengals) than 22 teams have.

Game of the Week

Cleveland at Washington, Sunday. Four years ago, Earnest Byner's fumble at the goal line in the AFC Championship Game kept the Browns from their first Super Bowl. A year later in the playoffs, Byner was flagged on consecutive plays for unnecessary roughness, and those two 15-yard penalties crippled Cleveland in a 24-23 loss to the Oilers. On the day of the 1989 draft, the Browns, wanting more speed and fewer snakebites, dealt Byner to Washington for Mike Oliphant, a running back-receiver-return man.

In the George Allen and Bobby Beathard eras, the Redskins made a jillion trades, but few were better than this one. In yards gained rushing and receiving since the trade, the score is Byner 3,238, Oliphant 119. Byner enters this first meeting with his old team as the featured back for a 6-0 team, and he ranks third in the NFC in rushing, with 526 yards. Meanwhile, Oliphant returns to Washington as running back Eric Metcalf's caddie—a special teams player only.

The End Zone
The Dolphins signed free-agent defensive end Donnie Gardner on July 11, cut him Aug. 26, re-signed him Sept. 4, cut him Sept. 14, re-signed him Sept. 17, cut him Sept. 28, re-signed him last Saturday and watched him get his first NFL sack, in a 20-10 win over the Patriots, on Sunday.

SAME OLD COLTS

While in Los Angeles for a recent game against the Raiders, Colt general manager Jim Irsay met with his friend rock 'n' roll singer Stephen Stills. Their visit prompted Irsay to think of a line in the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song American Dream: "How could something so good go so bad so fast?" That's the lament of the 1991 Colts, whose season of promise, tied to a diversified offense led by Jeff George and Eric Dickerson, has turned into an 0-6 nightmare, brought on by injuries to six offensive linemen and culminating in the firing last week of coach Ron Meyer. But the lyric speaks as well for the franchise's eight-year history in Indianapolis.

When owner Bob Irsay, Jim's volcanic father, packed up the Colts and moved them from Memorial Stadium in Baltimore to the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, he got a state-of-the-art facility, a cushy lease and an arena full of grateful fans. However, when Irsay's first eight years as owner, in Baltimore, are compared with his seven-plus seasons since then, in Indy, it's clear that the franchise shift has had no impact on the football bottom line.

The Colts haven't built a solid base on their offensive or defensive fronts, in large part because they traded a total of six first-and second-round draft picks, plus All-Pro offensive tackle Chris Hinton, to get Dickerson in 1987, linebacker Fredd Young in '88 and the No. 1 pick in the '90 draft, which was used to select George. Indy also has a penchant for drafting players at the glamour positions.

Several times in recent seasons, the Irsays felt that they were one or two players from being a playoff team, when, in fact, they were a good five or six players short. "They could have had four or five good prospects, instead of going for the quick fix," says former Colt linebacker Johnie Cooks, now with the Giants.

Look for Indy to hire an offense-minded coach (Raider quarterback coach Mike White, perhaps) at the end of this dismal season. The Colts then will have to think long and hard about whom to choose with two high 1992 first-round draft picks—their own, plus the one they got from the 1-5 Bucs for quarterback Chris Chandler in 1990. "There's no doubt in my mind this team will be back," says Jim Irsay, "and it will be back big. We'll win big."

Pardon our skepticism.

PRO FILE

Welcome, Rook, To the NFL

Eagle Rookie tackle Antone Davis had four pro games under his belt, but he hadn't played in prime time, he hadn't gone up against a Pro Bowl player, and he hadn't faced an unbeaten team in a truly hostile atmosphere—until Philadelphia's Sept. 30 Monday night game with the Redskins, in which he lined up opposite Charles Mann at RFK Stadium. The Eagles had given away their first-round pick in the 1992 draft to move up in the '91 draft and select Davis, an All-America at Tennessee, because they needed him at right tackle in situations like this one.

On the game day, Davis sat in his northern Virginia hotel room, trying to relax. "I was nervous," he would say later. "It was the biggest challenge I'd faced as a player. So many people would be watching. I knew Mann was good, the best I'd ever played."

Mann was a little nervous, too, but for a different reason. He had watched Davis on film but couldn't find any tendencies. Part of being a good offensive lineman is not giving away your first move with some idiosyncrasy before the ball is snapped. "I went into the game not knowing what to expect," said Mann. "I just knew he was a load." Because he weighs 325 pounds to Mann's 270, Davis did not expect Mann to bull-rush him, to plow into him in an attempt to reach the quarterback. But part of Mann's job is a chess game: What does Davis expect me to do? What should I do instead? So the second time Philly had the ball, Mann decided to bull-rush.

On first down from the Philly 20, with the crowd roaring, Davis moved before the snap. False start. Five-yard penalty. First-and-15. "It's the loudest place I've ever played," said Davis afterward. "I just couldn't hear."

As Eagle quarterback Jim McMahon dropped back to pass on the ensuing snap, Mann startled Davis by plowing into him. Davis, feeling that Mann was running over him, grabbed Mann and dragged him down. Holding. Seven-yard penalty. First-and-22. Two plays later, on third-and-seven, Mann bull-rushed again, pushing Davis back, back, back—and into McMahon. Sack. Six-yard loss. Punt.

The rest of the night wasn't much better for Davis, who wound up allowing two sacks, missing two blocks that left Philly quarterbacks vulnerable to getting smashed, and being penalized four times. Afterward, Davis proved to be more of a stand-up guy, meeting four waves of the press. "I'm very disappointed," he said. "After a game like this, you can get better or you can get worse. I believe I'll get better. Ten years from now, when I'm playing a rookie, maybe I'll do the same thing to him that Mann did to me tonight."

Davis had better focus on the near future. In the next three games, he'll face potent pass rushers Rickey Jackson of the Saints, Tim Harris of the 49ers, and Carl Banks and Lawrence Taylor, both of the Giants.

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PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHNate Lewis's 56-yard kick return went for naught, but the Chargers still broke into the win column. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAIrsay's team is hapless wherever it's located. PHOTOED MAHANMann-handled, Davis was still a stand-up guy.

City

Eight-year Record

Winning Seasons

Playoff Wins

Linemen Picked in First Round

Baltimore (1976-83)

47-69-1

2

0

2

Indianapolis (1984-91)

45-72

2

0

2

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)