The NFL

December 09, 1991

Designs on Desmond

Is the Canadian Football League preparing for another Rocket launch? Could be, if the Calgary Stampeders can find enough dough to lure Michigan wide receiver Desmond Howard (page 90) north of the border next spring, just as the Toronto Argonauts swept Notre Dame's Raghib (Rocket) Ismail away from the NFL on the eve of its 1991 draft.

As was the case with Ismail, Howard has one year of college eligibility remaining and hasn't said whether he will turn pro after this season. If Howard does so, he'll have some serious suitors. He would surely be picked in the top half of the first round of the NFL draft on April 26. And in the CFL, in which each team maintains an ongoing list of 35 American collegiate and pro players to whom they hold the negotiating rights, Calgary's aggressive new owner, entrepreneur Larry Ryckman, would have first crack at Howard.

Ryckman, 36, says that if he can find a Canadian sponsor or sponsors to ante up some money toward a Rocket-like deal for Howard—Ismail is guaranteed at least $18.2 million over four years—he'll try to steal him from the NFL. "He's not on our negotiating list by accident," says Ryckman, whose player personnel people added Howard to the Stampeder negotiating list in mid-October. "We're going to take a hard look at Desmond Howard."

Whenever he turns pro, Howard will take a hard look at the CFL. "The fact that Rocket did it before me and played well [in Canada] gives me more incentive to look at the CFL," says Howard. "I have two priorities right now—playing the Washington Huskies in the Rose Bowl and graduating from Michigan on time in May. But the CFL is definitely something I'll look at."

Whoever gets Howard might be getting a better player than Ismail. "There's a feeling in the NFL that Howard's a better all-around football player," says Charger director of player personnel Billy Devaney. "He may not make the flashy plays like Rocket, but this is a complete football player—better hands, better receiver, great route awareness."

The Weirdness Continues

In the space of a month, the Falcons have beaten the 49ers on a Hail Mary pass in the final seconds, have come from 10 points down in the fourth quarter against the Saints and won in overtime, and have gotten good field position on a muffed snap by Packer punter Paul McJulien with 1:34 left to set up the winning touchdown pass. "If this ain't destiny, I don't know what is," said Atlanta wideout Andre Rison, who caught the 16-yard TD strike from Chris Miller for the 35-31 victory over Green Bay on Sunday.

The crazy thing is, with three games to play, the 8-5 Falcons are only a game behind the once seemingly untouchable Saints, who lost for the third straight week, 38-24 to San Francisco. The Falcons can clinch the tiebreaker advantage with New Orleans by beating the Rams in Los Angeles on Sunday. This is heady territory for a franchise that hasn't won more than eight games since 1980.

The L.A. Lambs

John Robinson, the embattled coach of the 3-10 Rams, is nothing if not realistic. "If our staff is retained," he says, "we'll make some real progress next year. I think there's an understanding we have to rebuild this team. The question is, Can this staff rebuild it?"

What Robinson means is, will his staff be given a chance to rebuild? He knows the ax might fall at season's end, that executive vice-president John Shaw might look for a new man—University of Miami coach Dennis Erickson? NBC's Bill Par-cells?—to right the ship, which has foundered since reaching the NFC Championship Game 23 months ago.

The 1991 Rams, who lost 27-6 to the Redskins on Sunday, simply are not a John Robinson-type team. Only the Eagles are running the ball less effectively than L.A., which is averaging 3.3 yards per carry, and Robinson can't settle on a starting tailback. He knows Robert Delpino isn't the long-term answer, because Delpino has added value as a kick returner and couldn't withstand the excessive pounding of being an every-down back, and neither Cleveland Gary nor Marcus Dupree has played well in brief appearances. What's more, L.A.'s superb pair of wideouts, Henry Ellard and Flipper Anderson, entered December with a mere three TD catches between them.

The defense's adjustment this season, from former coordinator Fritz Shurmur's thinking-man's scheme to Jeff" Fisher's attacking style, has been woeful because of injuries to five linemen and because of questionable use of Jerry Gray and Kevin Greene. Fisher moved Gray, a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback, into a nickelback role. And he shifted Greene, the cornerstone of the pass rush at end under Shurmur, to outside linebacker for the first 11 games of the season. Greene, whose 46 sacks were the most of any NFL player from 1988 through '90, has one this year.

The result of all this is potentially the worst season for Los Angeles since it went 4-10 in 1965. "I'm not suicidal or anything like that," says Robinson. That's good, because things can't get much worse for an NFL coach than being out of the playoff picture in November when his team was considered a contender back in the preseason.

Dispatches

The Chiefs are thinking about taking a quarterback with their first pick in the 1992 draft. The poor play of Steve DeBerg, who will turn 38 on Jan. 19, is pushing them into the sweepstakes for Houston's David Klingler, Notre Dame's Rick Mirer or Virginia's Matt Blundin. DeBerg threw a total of six interceptions in two recent K.C. defeats....

The Giants have to be worried about more than the three chipped vertebrae in quarterback Jeff Hostetler's back. Doctors say he may be able to play again this season, but he has another ailment—migraine headaches. Before New York's Nov. 4 loss to the Eagles, Hostetler nearly missed a start because of a migraine....

The Lions are 9-0 when they play indoors and 0-4 when they play outdoors.

Game of the Week

Green Bay at Chicago, Sunday. Not only is this the NFL's best rivalry, but this game also features a grudge match between quarterbacks Jim Harbaugh of the Bears and Mike Tomczak of the Packers. They were competing for the starting job in Chicago during the 1989 preseason, after Jim McMahon had been dealt to San Diego, when the Bears met the Chargers in an exhibition game. According to Harbaugh, who was on the field at the time, he caught Tomczak flashing signals for one of his plays across the field to McMahon. "That's absolutely false," Tomczak says.

McMahon, who's now with the Eagles, won't comment, but a source close to him says McMahon has told friends on the Bears that the story is true. And Harbaugh says that when he confronted Tomczak on the sideline that night, Tomczak admitted to having flashed the signals. "He said it happened one time," says Harbaugh. "He said they were just fooling around."

The End Zone

Pardon the Colts if they didn't warmly greet Eric Dickerson upon his return last week from a three-week suspension for insubordination. "As great a player as Eric is, sometimes he can do things to hold the team down," says Ken Clark, who took Dickerson's place in the lineup. "He brings his personal problems on the field."

Nevertheless, while trailing the Browns 31-0 on Sunday, the Colts allowed Dickerson to pad his stats in the fourth quarter, running him seven times for 82 yards. He finished with 117 yards to move past Jim Brown and into third place on the all-time rushing list with 12,367 yards. The Hoosier Dome crowd booed lustily when it was announced that Dickerson had overtaken Brown.

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PHOTOJIM GUNDMike Tomczak needed a helmet adjustment after Tim Green of the Falcons landed on him. PHOTOAL TIELEMANS

WHO'S HURTING WHOM?

In the space of four days last week, Cowboy running back Emmitt Smith carried the ball a career-high 34 times in a game against the Redskins and then had 32 more rushing attempts against the Steelers on Thanksgiving Day. That's 66 carries for 241 yards in two big wins for Dallas (8-5). "He's got to be hurting," says Cowboy defensive end Jim Jeffcoat.

For now, Smith is saying, "I feel fine; you're making more out of it than there is." But earlier in the season, after a 32-With 500 carries so early in life, Smith is in good company.
carry game against the Browns, he said, "If you're going to be carrying the ball 32 times a week, you can't last long."

As it turns out, a heavy workload for an NFL back at a tender age is a trademark of some of the league's best ballcarriers, past and present. Here are the five youngest players to reach 500 rushing attempts.

Player, Team

Age at 500th Carry

NFL Career

1. Walter Payton, Bears

22 years, 140 days

13 years

2. Barry Sanders, Lions*

22 years, 153 days

3 years

3. Emmitt Smith, Cow boys*

22 years, 197 days

2 years

4. Thurman Thomas, Bills*

23 years, 221 days

4 years

5. Jim Brown, Browns

23 years, 229 days

9 years

*Active

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)