BOYS OF STEEL
Although the Steelers trailed the heavily favored Oilers 24-19 midway through their season opener at the Astrodome on Sunday, new coach Bill Cowher's troops were showing a lot of spunk. Houston had a first down at the Pittsburgh 43 when Steeler cornerback Rod Woodson blitzed, hurdled running back Lorenzo White and batted away a Warren Moon pass. On second clown Moon hit wideout Curtis Duncan for eight yards. On third down Woodson jumped over a lunging Houston lineman, ran all the way across the field and caught White from behind for no gain. And on fourth down Moon threw incomplete.
The Steelers went nuts and, unlike his predecessor, Chuck Noll, so did Cowher. He looks like a jut-jawed bulldog, and he was barking excitedly as the defense came off the field. Wide-eyed and screaming, Cowher congratulated Woodson—"That was a hell of a play!"—then he walked up and down the bench, exhorting his defensive players.
"We fed off it," tackle Tunch Ilkin said of Cowher's second-half show of emotion, "and it became like a feeding frenzy." And when the frenzy stopped, Pittsburgh had a stunning 29-24 victory.
What a difference a new coach makes. For the first time since 1968, the stoic Noll was not the boss of the Steelers—and it showed. Down 14-0 less than 10 minutes into the game, Cowher called a fake punt against a full Houston rush, and punter Mark Royals completed a 44-yard pass. Cowher had his secondary blitz Moon often, and the Steelers intercepted him five times. And on third-and-five from the Pittsburgh 36 with two minutes left in the game and the Oilers desperate for the ball, the Steelers called a reverse, and Dwight Stone steamed around left end for 18. Ball game.
Afterward Cowher beamed like any guy with the job of his dreams would beam after a rewarding first day at the office. "How many people gave us a chance to win this game?" he said. "I'm not sure anyone in America."
The local boy—Cowher was born in Pittsburgh and raised in nearby Crafton—made good on Sunday. Noll is still admired greatly around the Steeler offices at Three Rivers Stadium, and deservedly so. But it became apparent last year that he and player personnel director Dick Haley, since departed for the Jets, were both getting stale in their jobs.
Noll last year stubbornly refused to get a proficient long snapper, and lousy performances by center Dermontti Dawson cost the Steelers on several late-season field goal attempts. This year Cowher, a former special teams coach, has Kendall Gammon on the roster solely to snap on punts and field goals.
Even though the average age of Pittsburgh's starters on Sunday was a youthful 26.8 years, the Steelers' recent drafts have been terrible overall, and it will take Cowher and new director of football operations Tom Donahoe some time to build this team back into a Super Bowl contender. Early in camp, Cowher went to Donahoe and asked, "We can't cut first-round picks, can we?" Donahoe told him to keep only the 47 best players. So last year's first-rounder, linebacker Huey Richardson, who wasn't mobile enough to rush the passer and who was too light (233 pounds) to play inside linebacker, was dealt last week to the Redskins for a '93 seventh-round draft pick; he would have been cut if the deal hadn't been made. And two first-round picks from 1989 are also missing: Offensive lineman Tom Ricketts was waived last week, and running back Tim Worley is serving a year's suspension for violating the league's drug policy.
But another first-rounder, Woodson ('87), has been anything but a bust. He was magnificent on Sunday, returning two interceptions for a total of 73 yards, deflecting three other passes and making seven tackles. Playing left corner after spending the past two years on the right side, Woodson looked like a combination blitzing outside linebacker, sticky-coverage corner and punishing strong safety. "I've always wanted to play a great game against this team in this building," Woodson said after the game. "And today I think I was pretty good."
So were the rest of his rejuvenated teammates.
STATS OF THE WEEK
•Colt outside linebacker Chip Banks had four sacks in Indianapolis's 14-3 victory over Cleveland on Sunday. Banks, who went up against the Browns' 330-pound right tackle, Freddie Childress, for most of the game, had just 4½ sacks in the previous 22 months.
•After losing to the Vikings 23-20 in overtime, the Packers are 6-23 at Lambeau Field in nonstrike games since 1986.
•With quarterback Jim Everett throwing four interceptions in a 40-7 loss to the Bills, the Rams have now committed a total of 16 turnovers while losing their last three season openers.
•The Chargers started their sixth quarterback, Bob Gagliano, in their last six season openers on Sunday against the Chiefs. They've lost all six games, with Kansas City winning 24-10.
THE STATE OF MONTANA
At first you just want to slap Joe Montana and tell him to snap out of it, to stop being such a me-first guy. But after a closer look, his protests over the 49ers' decision to put him on injured reserve—guaranteeing he won't play in the first four games—seem justified. Montana, who is still recovering from surgery he had last October to reattach a tendon to his throwing elbow, says team doctors had told him he could begin practicing this week and perhaps start the third game of the season, that the club had never mentioned to him the possibility of going on injured reserve and that the team officials who made the roster move had done so without watching him throw in the days preceding their Sept. 1 decision.
Montana was the only one of the six San Francisco players on injured reserve to accompany the team to New Jersey and watch from the sidelines as the Niners, quarterbacked by Steve Young and Steve Bono, opened the season on Sunday with a 31-14 victory over the Giants. Montana is determined not to disappear while he's on injured reserve. He wants to be the starting quarterback in the first game he is eligible to play, Oct. 4 against the Rams in San Francisco.
By the weekend Montana had accepted his injured-reserve status, which prohibits him from practicing with the team until the four weeks are up, but he remained anxious about whether his elbow would ever allow him to continue his career. "I know the elbow will be much better because of this," he said last Saturday. "But damn it, sometimes I'd rather just go out and throw, and if the darn thing tears off, it tears off."
Playing only when the Seahawks used a nickel defense, Keith Millard made his first regular-season appearance since injuring his right knee on Sept. 30, 1990. He had a sack, a fumble recovery and a deflected pass against the Bengals, who nevertheless won the game 21-3. "I feel as good as I ever felt," Millard said afterward. Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason was impressed with Millard, saying, "This is definitely not some beat-up retread. This is a hell of a player."
...Speaking of the Bengals, with 6:04 left in Sam Wyche's coaching debut with the Bucs—a 23-7 victory over the Cardinals at Tampa Stadium—he called for a timeout, and referee Gordon McCarter announced to the crowd, "Timeout, Cincinnati."
...Get ready for the fallout from the off-season ouster of instant replay. In Week 1 Oiler wideout Ernest Givins was credited with a TD catch against the Steelers even though one of his feet came down on the end line; and on the Jets' first play from scrimmage, a fumble that was recovered by New York was mistakenly ruled Atlanta's ball. The Falcons scored on the next play en route to a 20-17 win....
When William Perry ended his holdout last week and weighed in at 316 pounds, the Bears were genuinely stunned by the turnaround in his conditioning. One club source says the Refrigerator weighed as much as 390 last December and looked every pound of it. In the off-season Chicago had figured him for a hopelessly obese person who would never play football again. "I had absolutely erased him from my mind," says Bear defensive coordinator Vince Tobin. But last week Chicago signed Perry to a unique contract that will pay him a base salary of $400,000, with the potential of earning another $350,000 if he meets a complicated system of weight clauses....
Deion Sanders's decision to stay with the Braves through the postseason and report to the Falcons in time for their Nov. 1 game with the Rams apparently wasn't cast in concrete. Last week his agent, Eugene Parker, spoke with the Falcons four times in the course of two days, trying to thaw out negotiations and get the two-sport star on the football field sooner than later. At least one of Sanders's football teammates, center Jamie Dukes, prodded the Falcon management after the Atlanta secondary was shredded for 366 yards by new Jet quarterback Browning Nagle on Sunday. "Get [Deion] in here no matter what," Dukes said after the Falcons' 20-17 victory. "Quit fooling around with nickels and dimes."
GAME OF THE WEEK
Eagles at Cardinals, Sunday. A year ago, on the afternoon of Sept. 13, the temperature in Phoenix reached 98°. Apparently heat doesn't bother the Cards. When Phoenix and Chicago met in a preseason game on Aug. 15, it was 138° on the field for a 5 p.m. kickoff at Sun Devil Stadium. "Believe it or not, there was a nice little breeze for that Bear game," Phoenix tackle Luis Sharpe says. "It wasn't as hot as you'd think." Sounds like the Cards have a pretty good home field advantage.
THE END ZONE
With South Florida still digging out from the devastation left by Hurricane Andrew, the Dolphin-Pat game scheduled for Sunday at Joe Robbie Stadium was postponed until Oct. 18. Some of Miami's offensive linemen spent Sunday in ravaged Homestead, Fla., where they got into a pickup game in the middle of one of the tent cities set up for homeless victims of the disaster. On one play, 6'6", 298-pound quarterback Richmond Webb threw a rubber football to 6'2", 308-pound wideout Gene Williams, who, running at nearly top speed, was tackled on the open sand by 5'9", 160-pound Lance Corporal Erik Griffin of the 2nd Maintenance Battalion from Camp Lejeune, N.C. "My high school coach taught me if you wrap them up around the knees," Griffin said, "you'll drop them every time."
Despite living on the edge, Gray last year became the first return specialist in NFL history to lead the league in both kickoff-return average (25.8 yards) and punt-return average (15.4) in the same season. He clinched the punt-return title with a 78-yard sideline dash for a touchdown on a bitterly cold December day in Green Bay.
In the 1992 preseason he was up to his old tricks, returning a kickoff and a punt for TDs. "What an incredible weapon," says Detroit's new offensive coordinator, Dan Henning, who will use Gray sparingly at receiver—the position Gray favors—this year. "A great return man adds so much to a team."
Gray, 31, never imagined himself returning kicks for a living. He led Purdue in rushing in 1982 and '83, then ran for 1,151 yards in two seasons with the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League. Gray signed with the Saints as a kick returner in '86, added punt-return responsibilities a year later and has been doubling up ever since. When New Orleans naively left him unprotected in the first year of Plan B free agency, 1989, Detroit signed him.
Gray says there are two keys to a return man's success: Never think, and always move. "When I get out there, everything shuts off," he says. "It has to be that way. You can't be going through a long thought process when you're out there; it has to be natural. And I never stand completely still, even when the ball's coming to me. Watch me on a punt return, and you'll see that within a hundredth of a second of the ball hitting me, I'm moving. You have to make people miss."
LAPPING THE FIELD
AVG. YARDS PER SEASON
Thurman Thomas, Bills
John Stephens, Patriots
Barry Sanders, Lions
Marion Butts, Chargers
Emmitt Smith, Cowboys
Johnny Johnson, Cardinals