NO OILER CHANGE
Amid the roar in San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium late Sunday afternoon, Oiler defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan unwrapped a stick of Juicy Fruit, stuffed it into his mouth and threw the paper angrily to the ground. With seven seconds left, Houston was leading the Chargers 17-15, but the San Diego offense had just moved 75 yards to the nine and an almost certain field goal. "How can they drive on us like that," Ryan said to no one in particular. "——ridiculous!" Then, San Diego kicker John Carney, who has not missed a three-pointer since Nov. 15, 1992, grooved the winning field goal, and suddenly the Oilers were 1-2.
So it begins anew, Houston's annual journey to frustration. When owner Bud Adams hired Ryan to replace Jim Eddy after the Oilers had blown a 35-3 second-half lead at Buffalo in the playoffs last January, the Houston D was supposed to lay down the law, not lay down. But in its first nail-biting challenge of '93, Ryan's defense twice blew fourth-quarter leads and let backup quarterback John Friesz—who had played one real game in the last 20 months—engineer the winning drive. Dare we say it? Friesz and the Chargers looked hauntingly like Frank Reich and the Bills on that crazy day in Buffalo.
In the decade that Warren Moon (page 60) has quarterbacked the Oilers, they have never made it past the first round of the playoffs. Defensive end Sean Jones stated the reason rather neatly on Sunday. "We have to make plays at consequential times, which we don't do," he said. The night before, wideout Haywood Jeffires had said, "What's wrong with us? Why can't we win? Do we choke? I can't figure it out, but it's like, if we've got a big game and we're up and there's one second to go and the other team has 99 yards to go, my money's on them."
The job of knitting this team together for a run at the Super Bowl falls to Ryan. Eddy was a nice guy. Head coach Jack Pardee is a nice guy. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride is a nice guy. The Oilers need cranky old Ryan to pick them up by the scruffs of their necks and give them a good shaking. "Look," Ryan says. "I've got a great rapport with the players and coaches here. They all know I know how to win. Everywhere I've coached, people have respected me."
Same old Buddy. But for now, same old Oilers, too.
TERRIBLE TAMPA BAY
The for-sale sign on the lawn in front of offensive tackle Paul Gruber's house in Tampa is a symbol of everything that is wrong with the Buccaneers, the most relentlessly dismal franchise in the NFL. Gruber, the Bucs' first-round draft pick in '88, has played every offensive down for the team since the first game of his rookie year, but he is now a holdout, having spurned an offer of $2 million a year. As Tampa's designated franchise player, he is not free to sign elsewhere this season and appears willing to sit out the year. But money is not the only issue. Says Gruber, "I want to go somewhere where there's a chance to win." Adds one of Gruber's friends, "Paul just views the situation of the team as hopeless."
Hopeless is the word for the Bucs, who have lost at least 10 games a year since 1983. How does a team sustain that sort of futility? Well, of Tampa Bay's eight first-round draft choices from 1983 to '92, only one—outside linebacker Broderick Thomas, its '89 pick—is still playing for it. Here is a rundown of Tampa Bay's wasted No. 1 selections, perhaps the sorriest record of talent acquisition and development in the history of football.
1983—The Bucs had traded the pick to the Bears in '82 for defensive end Booker Reese. He started seven games for the team and was out of football by '86.
1984—Tampa dealt the pick for Bengal quarterback Jack Thompson. He played in 18 games and was waived in '85.
1985—The Bucs chose defensive end Ron Holmes of Washington, passing up, among others, Jerry Rice and Jim Lachey. Holmes spent four unremarkable seasons in Tampa before being traded to Denver.
1986—Bo Jackson. Remember? Jackson never signed with the Bucs. The reason, ostensibly, was that they wouldn't allow him to play baseball.
1987—The Bucs took Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who became one of the game's biggest flops. He went to the Browns as a free agent in March.
1988—Gruber, from Wisconsin, was the fourth pick overall.
1989—Nebraska linebacker Broderick Thomas. In 1991 he had 11 sacks and 174 tackles. But in the other 50 games of his career, he has had a total of 14.5 sacks.
1990—Alabama outside linebacker Keith McCants was Superman on paper and Clark Kent on the field.
1991—The Bucs took Tennessee tackle Charles McRae. After a disappointing '91 and '92, he was deactivated in Week 2 of this season, displaced by Theo Adams, an undrafted second-year player who was claimed from Seattle on waivers.
1992—The pick had been traded to the Colts in '90 for quarterback Chris Chandler. Chandler threw 14 interceptions in 13 Buc games before being waived.
And what of April's No. 1 pick, Alabama defensive end Eric Curry? So far he has provided a glimmer of hope, earning a starting job and forcing two fumbles in Tampa Bay's first three games.
GAME OF THE WEEK
San Francisco at New Orleans, Sunday. We've all thought of the Saints as a running team during the Jim Mora years, but in Mora's seven seasons as coach, they have rushed for less than four yards a carry. Now the Saints are 3-0 after Sunday's 14-3 win over the Lions, and their backs, led by rookie Derek Brown, are gaining 5.6 yards per carry. Brown stepped into the breach when injuries finished Vaughn Dunbar and Lorenzo Neal for the year.
Forty-niner quarterback Steve Young finally admitted after Sunday's 37-30 win over Atlanta that the fractured tip of his left (throwing) thumb is bothering him. "My receivers are just going to have to bear with me," he said. "I'm not as accurate. I don't have the feel, especially on the medium passes." Young injured the thumb on Aug. 8 and missed the rest of the preseason. He has now thrown seven interceptions, equaling his total for all of '92....
In each of the last two weeks, Giant running back Rodney Hampton has carried the ball more than in any game in his 10 years as a high school, college and pro running back. In Week 2 he had 29 carries for 134 yards against Tampa Bay; in Week 3, 41 carries for 134 yards in a 20-10 win over the Rams.
THE END ZONE
Atlanta coach Jerry Glanville, on 335-pound (or so) rookie guard Lincoln Kennedy: "He can be a great player in this league for a long time if he learns two words: I'm full."
IT'S UP! IT'S...GOOD!
Two remarkable cuts made late in the preseason went largely unnoticed: The Giants waived kicker Matt Bahr though he had made 76% of his field goals in three seasons with New York, and the Broncos cut kicker David Treadwell though he had been successful on 78% of his three-point tries in four seasons with Denver. It appears that kickers must be well nigh perfect to be guaranteed job security. Bahr's replacement, none other than Treadwell, is nine for nine as a Giant. Treadwell's successor with the Broncos, rookie Jason Elam, was six for six entering Monday night's game.
On Sept. 12 the Saints' Morten Andersen established a league record by converting his 25th field goal without a miss, and on Sunday the Chargers' John Carney went six for six to lift the record to 29 straight. The 91 field goals in the first two weeks of the season was the highest total of any two-week period in league history. While most other statistical averages in the NFL have improved only slightly over the past three decades, field goal percentages have risen dramatically. In 1963 NFL kickers made 48.6% of their three-pointers. So far in '93 they've made 79.7%. The only pure kicker in the Hall of Fame, Jan Stenerud, is 36th on the alltime accuracy list with a percentage—.669—that might get him cut today.
What's going on? For one thing, the explosive growth of youth soccer in the U.S., producing, says Steeler kicker Gary Anderson, "a lot more kids who can kick a football soccer-style and kick it accurately."
The chart below illustrates the increasing accuracy of kickers over the past 50 years. The chart shows, at 10-year intervals, the leaguewide percentage of successful attempts for that year, the career leader in accuracy at that time and his success rate to that point.