On Dec. 1, the morning after the NFL awarded its 30th franchise to Jacksonville, the front-page headline of the city's Florida Times-Union screamed DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES? YES in type size usually reserved for men walking on the moon. A celebration at the Gator Bowl saw grown men and women weeping as the city welcomed principal owner Wayne Weaver (page 64).
All through this five-year expansion dog-and-pony show, Jacksonville had been an afterthought. It is the 54th-largest television market, even smaller than that of Albany-Schenectady-Troy, N.Y. On Oct. 26, after the NFL picked Charlotte as its 29th franchise, one influential owner handicapped the remaining contenders. The 30th team, he said, would probably be St. Louis. Baltimore was in the running, but it would fall short. Memphis had never been a realistic contender, and Jacksonville was just too small.
So what happened? Well, Baltimore fell victim to geography. Redskin owner Jack Kent Cooke is talking about building a 78,000-seat stadium, with 320 luxury boxes, midway between Washington and Baltimore, and the NFL thought that another team in the area would be overkill. As for St. Louis, it was hurt by flip-flops on ownership. By selecting Jacksonville the league acknowledged the boom in the Southeast. "It's a move for the next century," said Steeler owner Dan Rooney.
Jacksonville's climb to victory began in April with a visit led by the NFL's 34-year-old vice-president of operations, Roger Goodell. After escorting Goodell around the city and the Gator Bowl, Weaver asked him what Jacksonville could do to get a franchise. "Wayne," Goodell told him, "the stadium's not going to hack it."
The city was already planning a $49 million renovation of the Gator Bowl, but after his talk with Goodell, Weaver asked the city council to spend $121 million to all but rebuild the stadium from the foundation up. But the city fathers balked, and concluding that his franchise effort was doomed, Weaver began closing up shop. He refunded more than 1,000 deposits, at $750 apiece, from prospective club-seat owners. Then in August, after rancorous debate, the city council voted 14-4 for the major stadium rehab, and in 10 days the team found 10,314 club-seat buyers. Suddenly Jacksonville had momentum.
In the end the league voted less for a city than for a region. From 1990 to '92, every Southeastern state outpaced the overall U.S. population growth rate, and Jacksonville is the fourth-fastest-growing city in the country. The NFL is falling in line with other leagues; since 1987 the four major pro sports have added 14 expansion teams, and eight of them are in the Southeast.
Yet Baltimore and St. Louis may not be NFL-less for long. Four teams—the Rams, the Buccaneers, the Bengals and the Patriots—may be looking for new homes, and one or two of the losers in the expansion derby could soon be welcoming an established team. That may look like a pretty good consolation prize a few Novembers from now, when Jacksonville fans are trooping to the Gator Bowl to watch their hapless 1-8 Jaguars.
What does coach Bill Parcells do when he gets home from these Patriot games? Laugh? Blubber? Reach for the grain alcohol? Look at New England's last six games, all losses:
•Oct. 24, at Seattle: The Pats led 9-3 in the final minute. Seahawk quarterback Rick Mirer threw a touchdown pass with 25 seconds left. Seattle won 10-9.
•Oct. 31, at Indianapolis: The Colts' Dean Biasucci kicked a 37-yard field goal with 2:42 to go. Indy won 9-6.
•Nov. 7, at home: Leading Buffalo 10-0 entering the fourth quarter, the Pats allowed the Bills to tie the game with less than a minute remaining. Buffalo won 13-10 in overtime on a 30-yard Steve Christie field goal.
•Nov. 21, at Miami: The Dolphins scored 14 fourth-quarter points on two blown Patriot coverages to win 17-13.
•Nov. 28, at home: With the Pats trailing the Jets 6-0 in the final minute, quarterback Drew Bledsoe threw a strike to wideout Michael Timpson. As Timpson headed for the end zone, Jet safety Lonnie Young forced a fumble at the 10-yard line with a hard tackle. The Jets won 6-0.
On Sunday in Pittsburgh the Patriots faced fourth-and-a-foot for the winning touchdown with 17 seconds left. Bledsoe tried a sneak, diving for the end zone, stretching the ball out. Steeler linebacker Levon Kirkland hurled himself at Bledsoe. There was a collision. Bledsoe either missed the goal line by an inch or made it by an inch. One official looked at the other. "What did you see?" Bledsoe later said he heard an official ask. No arms went up. The Steelers won 17-14.
"Earlier in the season," said inside linebacker Vincent Brown after Sunday's game, "I thought each week that nothing could happen to top what just happened. But each week it does. There's something more painful than the previous week, and this week was the worst of all."
He bats. He fields. He intercepts. He tackles. He receives. He passes. He delivers babies.
Last Thursday, Deion Sanders, the Brave outfielder and Falcon cornerback-receiver, raced out of a defensive meeting at Falcon headquarters to assist in the birth of his son, Deion Jr., who joins three-year-old Diondra on Deion's home team. Sanders got to the hospital in time to coach his fiancèe, Carolyn Chambers, and cut the umbilical cord, all the while talking to his mother from the delivery room on his omnipresent cellular phone. "I was giving her play-by-play," Sanders said on Saturday night before the Falcons lost 33-17 to the Oilers. "I'm telling her, 'Mom, she's pushing. Yeah, here comes the head. I see the head.' It was great."
Wonderful. Now he'll want to be a broadcaster, too. Or do stand-up. "There were a couple of agents down in the hospital lobby, wanting to sign my son," he quipped.
Sanders, the first two-sport, two-way player of our generation, rejoined the Falcons the day after the Braves lost the National League playoffs. The Falcons were 0-5 at the time and are 5-2 since his return. His blanket coverage on the opposing team's No. 1 receiver is a key to the Atlanta rebound, but he has also been contributing as the fourth receiver in many passing formations. Against the Browns, Sanders started on defense, caught one pass and threw another.
But that's not enough for Sanders. He wants to be the first full-time two-way player since Chuck Bednarik started at center and linebacker for the Eagles in 1960. "For me, running with the ball and catching it are natural," he says. "Plus, I'd love to get in there and block and become an all-around offensive player."
Coach Jerry Glanville, for one, doesn't think that Sanders's goal is realistic. "The season's gotten too long to go both ways on every play," he says. "But he should be out there on offense, maybe 15 plays a game. If you've got someone extraordinary, like Deion, you put the ball in his hands as much as possible."
Sanders will continue to report to the Falcons in October through 1995. After that? "People ask me how long I'll keep it up," Sanders says. "I don't know. I do know my heart truly belongs in football. I love this game."
Six weeks ago Detroit coach Wayne Fontes, who changes quarterbacks the way most of us change shirts, ended weeks of suspense by naming Rodney Peete as his starting quarterback. "The only way I'll take him out of the football game is if he's hurt," Fontes said then. But on Monday after the Lions' 13-0 loss to Minnesota, Fontes exiled Peete to third string. It was a panic move. Fontes also fired a very solid football mind, offensive coordinator Dan Henning. "The guy is doing what he has to do to save his job," Henning said Monday night....
Kudos to a couple of unsung guys: Seattle's Michael Bates, with 14 tackles, might be the game's best special teams player right now; Minnesota defensive tackle John Randle, who had 3½ sacks in the win over Detroit, has 11 for the year and is the best interior lineman you've never heard of.
STATS OF THE WEEK
•Atlanta kicker Norm Johnson is 67 for 67 over the last 54 weeks—41 extra points, 26 field goals. He hasn't missed a kick since Thanksgiving weekend of 1992.
•In his ninth season the 49ers' Jerry Rice is five touchdowns away from wresting the alltime TD record from Jim Brown, who retired after nine years with 126.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Cleveland at Houston, Sunday. Fourteen months ago the Browns felt that wideout Webster Slaughter wasn't worth the $1.15 million a year it would have cost to keep him. So Slaughter found a cozy home in Houston. With an AFC-high 74 receptions, he is shooting at a 100-catch season. His previous career high: 65.
THE END ZONE
Last Thursday, when a Jacksonville cabbie found out that his passenger was David Seldin, president of the Jaguars, he burst into tears. "The guy couldn't control himself," says Seldin. "He said, 'I've lived here for 20 years, and you don't know what this team means to me and this city. I never thought I'd see this day.' "