The NFL

October 02, 1994

Overachievers

With one fourth of the season behind us, these truths are self-evident:

1. Stan Humphries is the NFL MVP.

His Chargers are a stunning surprise, the only 4-0 team in the league. On Sunday against the Raiders in Los Angeles, Humphries proved he is much more than simply the highest-rated quarterback in the AFC. In the fourth quarter Humphries's left knee got twisted like a pretzel by 315-pound Raider defensive tackle Chester McGlockton, and Humphries hobbled to the sideline. Figuring that Humphries was through for the day, coach Bobby Ross and his assistants began plotting San Diego's last drive of the game with backup quarterback Gale Gilbert. The Raiders led 24-23, and the Chargers had the ball, first down, on their own 20 with 7:01 left when Humphries stepped in between Gilbert and the coaches. "I'm going back in there," he said.

"No, you're not," Gilbert shot back, grabbing Humphries by the arm.

"No, I'm going. It's my game," Humphries said.

Gilbert quickly saw that he was going to lose this argument. "All right," he said. "Go get it done."

In the press box, offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen thought that Gilbert was in the game, and it took him three plays to notice Humphries's number 12 behind center. "In fact," Friedgen said later, "I was calling plays that Gale likes."

Humphries then led the Chargers on a 65-yard march that was capped by a field goal with seven seconds left, which gave them a 26-24 victory. Along the way he even threw a block on 290-pound L.A. tackle Nolan Harrison on a reverse. "I know we were wearing those old uniforms," Gilbert said later, "but Stan is the real throwback."

2. Dan Reeves is Coach of the Year.

Reeves, in his second season with the Giants, was one frustrated coach before the beginning of the year. Free agency had stripped New York of many key players, and the 49ers and Cowboys, who had played the free-agent market well, appeared to have put even more distance between themselves and the Giants. When he coached the Broncos, from 1981 to '92, Reeves made the personnel decisions. In New York he is just the coach. When asked a month ago how long he would work under those conditions, Reeves said, "I really don't know."

Now the 3-0 Giants are the NFC's biggest surprise, and suddenly their calculated personnel losses during the off-season (quarterback Phil Simms, guard Bob Kratch, safety Myron Guyton) don't seem so foolish. Reeves's strengths—motivation, preparedness and discipline—are working wonders. He told his players before the season how crucial it was to get off to a good start. In the 30 years Reeves has been associated with pro football as a player and coach, his teams have won their opening game 26 times, and on 21 of those occasions they have gone on to the playoffs.

3. Jerome Bettis had the most amazing iron-man performance of the first quarter.
If saves were a football stat, Ram runner Bettis would have earned one in L.A.'s 16-0 upset of the Chiefs. The Rams led 13-0 with 8:47 left in the third quarter. During the rest of the game they ran 22 plays; 17 were Bettis rushes, and two were Bettis receptions. The other plays were sneaks by quarterback Chris Chandler. So in the final 40% of the game, Bettis, who finished with 132 yards on 35 carries, was essentially the Ram offense. "You're down on the ground with your guy, and you look up and he's still going," said L.A. guard Tom Newberry. "He's got three guys hanging on him, and he's struggling to get a few more yards."

4. Jimmy Johnson is still the most coveted free agent on the market.

The former Cowboy coach has already met quietly with six teams to discuss future employment, but he has not decided whether he will return to the sidelines next fall. He has only recently completed the swimming pool, waterfall and landscaping at his house in the Florida Keys, so continued idleness in '95 looks like a strong possibility.

Should Johnson return to coaching, the teams with the best chances of landing him are, in order, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, Miami, the Rams and San Francisco (which could be shopping if the 49ers collapse late in the season). If he likes the setup with the 49ers or Dolphins—if he gets total control of on-field and personnel matters—his price tag would likely be less than if he had to be talked into taking over one of the other learns. Johnson will probably break the $4 million-a-year barrier wherever he winds up.

5. The 49ers are the '94 salary-cap winners.

The prevailing opinion about the 49ers is that they've sold their financial soul to the devil in an effort to win the Super Bowl this season. San Francisco has supposedly inserted a ton of bonus incentives into its players' contracts, and if the Niners win it all, they will have to shuffle their roster drastically next season to fit under the cap. Not true. A source with knowledge of every team's incentive-bonus structure and future contracts tells SI that nine or 10 teams are saddled with more bonus commitments than the 49ers.

San Francisco president Carmen Policy figures that his team will have to reduce its player payroll by $1.8 million if it wins the Super Bowl this season, and that figure could rise to as much as $2.5 million if some players perform extraordinarily well. Under NFL rules, if long-shot incentives are earned, the bonuses must be applied to the following year's cap. San Francisco will have two costly bonuses to pay if it wins the Super Bowl. Linebacker Rickey Jackson could make an extra $838,000 if he meets at least two of six incentive conditions and the 49ers win the NFC title, and cornerback Deion Sanders will make an additional $750,000 if he plays on a Super Bowl winner.

There's no chance, by the way, that the 49ers will pick up Sanders's $5 million option in '95, a contract formality that got far too much attention when Sanders signed on Sept. 15. But after his 74-yard interception return for a touchdown on Sunday against New Orleans, Sanders's value struck home again. Next year he'll be worth $5 million to someone.

Game of the Week
Miami at Cincinnati, Sunday. A Super Shula Bowl, this game marks the first time in NFL history that a father and son have faced each other as head coaches. Truth is, 64-year-old Don wishes he didn't have to face 35-year-old Dave. The comparisons are so natural yet so unfair. Don flourishes with a proud franchise, while Dave is saddled with a moribund loser. Consider this: If Don never coached another game, Dave would need to average 10 wins a season until 2027 to pass his old man on the alltime victory list.

Dispatches

Dan Marino is on pace to break the NFL record he set in 1984 for passing yards in a season—5,084. So much for that bum Achilles....

Is Dan Wilkinson destined to become the latest defensive player drafted in the first round by the Bengals who virtually disappears once he arrives in Cincinnati? Big Daddy has eight tackles and zero sacks in his first four games....

Ground Control to Major Joe Dept.: Joe Montana suffered a cut to the right side of his head against the Rams. He was hit after throwing a pass, and the speaker in his helmet jammed into his temple. "With all the technology, they came up with a speaker this size," said Montana circling his thumb and index finger together, "and it's hard plastic."

The End Zone
The negotiations between the Cardinals and unemployed quarterback Phil Simms stalled for 24 hours last week, from sunset Friday until sunset Saturday, because Simms's agent, David Fishof, is an Orthodox Jew who will not pick up a phone or work on the sabbath. He could not, however, avoid the Simms talk on Friday night at his synagogue. "The cantor told me to lead the service," says Fishof. "He said I needed help more than anyone else." The cantor must know Buddy Ryan.

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PHOTODAVID WALBERGBettis proved to be a potent closer in picking up a key save for the Rams in a shutout against K.C. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERReturn men like Seahawk Michael Bates are getting a bigger jump on kicks.

Tee Time

The first casualty of the new kickoff rules could be Pittsburgh's Gary Anderson, one of the best kickers of all time. He's having great difficulty adjusting to the one-inch tee (down from three inches) and to kicking off from the 30-yard line instead of the 35, and the Steelers last week worked out another kicker, Todd Peterson. Anderson's kickoffs have been too low and too short, and after four weeks not one has been downed for a touchback. Last year one of every four Anderson kicks was not returned. On average in '93 Pittsburgh's opponents began their first series after receiving a Steeler kickoff just shy of their own 24-yard line. This year they're starting near the 42.

In fact, the two rule changes for kickoffs have had the intended effect of benefiting offenses throughout the league, though not as much as some observers had predicted. At the season's quarter pole, the average kickoff is landing only three yards farther from the end zone than last year. On the other hand, there have been only 43 touchbacks so far this fall, which projects to 182 for the season. Last year teams downed 536 kickoffs in the end zone. Here's how kickoffs in '93 compare with those to date this year.

Year

Touchbacks Percentage

Where Average Kickoff Lands

Where, On Average, Receiving Team Starts Series

1993

.270

3.7-yard line

24.51-yard line

1994

.100

7.0-yard line

29.07-yard line

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)