The NFL Today
I'm sorry, but I like the P word. There's nothing wrong with parity in the NFL, and if you were at old Cleveland Stadium on Sunday, you understand why. With fog rolling in off Lake Erie, the 3-4 Steelers and the 3-4 Browns went at each other in the muck like two aging heavyweights in some crummy gym, cigar smoke hovering over the ring. "A classic game," said Steeler tackle Tunch Ilkin.
Cleveland had 19 first downs, Pittsburgh 18. Both teams averaged 4.7 yards a play. The Browns' Bernie Kosar threw a touchdown pass that deflected off one Steeler, went through the arms of two others and landed on the belly of running back Leroy Hoard, who was lying on his back in the end zone. In wicked conditions, Pittsburgh kicker Gary Anderson clanged a 52-yard field-goal try off the right upright that would have tied the score at 17-17 in the fourth quarter. Instead, Cleveland held on and won 17-14, and a good chunk of the 78,285 fans barked and howled themselves silly.
So now, what in the world is the loser of this game, 3-5 Pittsburgh, still doing with a chance to get into the playoffs? The answer: Such is life in the NFL. Since the league went to the 16-game schedule in 1978, at least 18 teams have been 3-5 or better at the midpoint of every season. By that measure, 23 teams are still in this year's playoff race. Heck, even the Patriots are only 1½ games out of the final wild-card spot in the AFC.
"I've put my thumb and forefinger close together, and I've told my team that's the difference between winning and losing in this league," says Chuck Knox, coach of the 5-4 Seahawks. "The majority of teams are even. The winning teams are able to make winning plays."
Sure, two or three dominant teams aren't consistently fighting over the league championship every year the way the Packers, Bears and Browns used to 30 years ago. Who cares? With rare exceptions, the best teams are still playing in January. It's good for the game that the Clevelands and Pittsburghs have something to play for with half the season to go. "Steeler teams tend to play well late in the year," says Ilkin. "We've got eight games left. Who knows? We could go 6-2."
Follow the Yellow Brick Road
The Eagles are a mess. "Some guys on this team need to see the Wizard—to get a heart," said Philadelphia defensive tackle Jerome Brown after a 23-7 loss to the 49ers. Philly has a leaky offensive line and the worst quarterback situation in football. Injuries have forced the Eagles to hopscotch from Randall Cunningham to Jim McMahon to Pat Ryan to Brad Goebel to Ryan to Goebel to McMahon to Jeff Kemp to McMahon to Goebel.
Further, Philadelphia has used two players at right tackle, three at left tackle, two at right guard and four at left guard. In the Eagles' last 53 possessions, they have scored one touchdown. Against the 49ers, they rushed for a total of 29 yards. Philly (3-5) is paying for the sins of Buddy Ryan, who as coach from 1986 through '90, did not strengthen the offensive line through the draft.
The Players Speak
As was stated in a similar SI poll of NFL players in 1989, their first priority in coming to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement with the owners is improved health, pension and severance benefits. In a recent SI survey of 205 players, 56% (114) said improved benefits were their No. 1 objective, with free agency being the first priority of 39% (80). Better working conditions (a ban on artificial turf at outdoor stadiums, a mandatory two days off per week, etc.) received four votes, and a wage scale that would guarantee that veterans received higher salaries than rookies got two votes. Five players were undecided or did not respond.
Management has given the players' attorney, Jim Quinn, its latest proposal for an agreement, but the Players Association seems intent on letting the courts decide the players' labor future. In antitrust suits filed against the NFL, the players are seeking total free agency. Still, Pats cornerback Ronnie Lippett was adamant about his preference for improved benefits. For instance, players with families have a $2,800 annual deductible in their medical coverage. "Free agency will only work for a few players," Lippett says. "Better benefits work for everyone."
What a long, strange trip it has been for Tom Waddle, the Bears wideout who caught a 12-yard touchdown pass with 54 seconds left, to give Chicago a 20-17 win over previously unbeaten New Orleans. The Bears have waived Waddle on their final cut day in each of his three NFL seasons, only to bring him back each time.
Quarterback Jim Harbaugh—who completed two of 19 passes for 16 yards in the game's first 58 minutes and three of three for 45 yards in the last two—found Waddle in a crowd at the New Orleans four, and Waddle dived between two Saints to score. "We called a play that we had tried to call all during the game, and guess who it was for?" said an effervescent Mike Ditka afterward. "Tommy Waddle. Amazing, isn't it?"
Waddle, all six feet and 181 pounds of him, came to Chicago as a free agent in 1989, and the Bears have always liked him for his guts and his hands. Until this year, though, they hadn't liked him enough to keep him as one of their four wideouts. His weird 30 months with Chicago:
Jerry Glanville doesn't hold a grudge does he? When he was coach of the Oilers, the team took quarterback Jim Everett in the first round of the 1986 draft. But Everett refused to play for Houston and forced a trade to the Rams. So whenever Glanville, now with the Falcons, faces the Rams, he blitzes Everett with everything he's got. In Everett's four games against his old pal, he has been a 42% passer with three TDs and five interceptions. In addition, he has been sacked six times. "Our defense can give you happy feet pretty fast," said Atlanta quarterback Chris Miller after the Falcons' 31-14 rout of L.A.
Game of the Week
Houston at Washington, Sunday. First, the good news for the Oilers: Although they play all eight of their road games in the eastern time zone, they are off to a 3-1 start away from home. The victories have come against the usually troublesome Bengals and the Jets and Dolphins, both of whom had not lost at home to Houston since the 1970s. Now, the bad news: No Oiler player has ever played on a team that has won at RFK Stadium. Washington (8-0) dismantled the last run-and-shoot offense it faced, beating the Lions 45-0 in the '91 season opener.
The End Zone
From the Steve Martin Must Be the Commissioner Dept.: The chairman of the Canadian Football League's Expansion Committee is Toronto Argonaut co-owner John Candy.
SCHOOL OF HARD KNOX
Quick! name some Seattle Seahawks! Dave Krieg, the quarterback, you say...John L. Williams, the running back...a receiver named Blades—hold it! Brian or Bennie?—and there's.... The point is that Seattle has the NFL's biggest identity problem, especially now that Steve Largent, Kenny Easley, Curt Warner and even Brian Bosworth are no longer around. Yet every December the Seahawks are in the fight for a wildcard playoff spot.
Maybe they are best personified by their rock-solid but unassuming coach, Chuck Knox, who has won at least seven games in each of his eight seasons in Seattle. In fact, the Seahawks have won at least nine games in four of the past five years, including 1990, when Devoid of big-name players, the Seahawks are made in the image of their coach, they missed a wild-card berth on a tiebreaker, despite having seven linebackers on injured reserve during the season. This year Seattle is 5-4, even though Krieg missed six weeks with a broken thumb on his passing hand. Knox has had to make do with journeymen and hard workers. "There's no doubt about it," Krieg says. "Chuck's overall presence, his intensity, his toughness, play a big factor in helping us win."
What's his secret? "Consistency of approach," says Knox, 59, who, including his stints with the Rams and with the Bills, is the sixth-winningest coach (176-120-1) in NFL history. "I take the same basic premise I took when I coached high school football in Pennsylvania: Hard work will win. I take the same professional approach every day and set expectations high. That way, it's easier to replace a starter. The replacement knows the standard is a high one."
Knox is known for one other thing: Knoxisms. He's constantly throwing clichès at his players, such as, "Work will win. Wishing won't." Krieg writes them in a notebook—he thinks he has the entire collection of Knoxisms recorded—including the one that says more about Knox and his team than anything. "It's one of my favorites," says Knox. "Here it is: 'What you do speaks so well. There's no need to hear what you say.' "
On the Outside, Looking In
Sometimes, when he is lifting weights at six in the morning or running at two in the afternoon or playing touch football on the weekend, Ron Heller wonders whether the phone is ringing back at his new home in Redmond, Wash. When he looks each week to see how all the tight ends did in Sunday's games, he thinks he might get a call from a team and hear these words: "We'd like to bring you in and sign you to play tight end for us. How soon can you be here?"
"Every time the phone rings, especially early in the week, when teams are making roster moves, I think, It's a team; I wonder which one," says Heller, who for the first time in five years is desperately seeking NFL employment.
All around the country there are Ron Hellers, recently released players who are hoping to get back into the league. "I know I can help somebody," he says, sounding like many others in his situation. "I'm in my football prime."
Players like Heller haven't rushed to get jobs in the real world, because they're still waiting for the Call. Heller spent 1986, his rookie year, on the 49ers' injured reserve list and then played for them in '87 and '88. He was with the Falcons in '89, and last year he played for the Seahawks, who waived him in August.
Two teams called during the first half of this season—the Dolphins, who said they would get back to him and never did, and the Lions, who brought him to Detroit for a workout. As it happened, the Lions didn't need him, because an injury to one of their tight ends wasn't serious enough for him to be put on injured reserve.
During phone conversations with Heller, who has call-waiting, you notice a little rise in his voice each time a beep signals that he has another call. However, when he comes back on the line with you, his voice has returned to a monotone. "The hardest part is when you're not prepared for it," says Heller. "I never expected Seattle to release me. I suppose it's like a middle-aged person owning a business all his life, selling it and waking up one morning and it's gone. What do you do? I know I can still play. But I look at teams with three tight ends, and I'm not one of them, and I second-guess myself. Am I fooling myself? Do they see something I can't see?"
The call-waiting beep goes off again. It wasn't a team. He continues: "The reality of the outside world shocks you. It bites you. Football's such a fantasy life. You make all this money, you have six months off to do whatever you want, and you have an absolutely set schedule. You go from that to the real world. It totally changes your life. It puts pressure on your marriage. You ask yourself questions you've never had to ask before: Where are we going to live? What are we going to do? What am I going to do for a job?
"Everybody talks about the transition, and let me tell you, it's as tough as they say it is."