THE NFC CENTRAL

November 21, 1994

Sharper Than Sterling?

There was a time when Viking wide receiver Cris Carter wondered if he would ever be considered one of the NFL's elite. Although he led the Vikings in receptions for the past three seasons, Carter didn't get an invite to the Pro Bowl until January. Even then he came in through the back door after Sterling Sharpe of the Packers bowed out with an injury. However, that week in Hawaii did wonders for Carter.

"Cris saw that he could be one of those guys," says Viking offensive coordinator Brian Billick. "He's committed to going in the front door this year."

Not only is Carter committed to making the Pro Bowl as a starter this season, but he's also determined to separate himself from the league's Big Four receivers—Sharpe, Jerry Rice, Andre Rison and Michael Irvin. Carter, who caught five passes in Sunday's 26-20 overtime loss to the Patriots at Foxboro Stadium, is leading the league in receptions, with 77. He is on pace to break the NFL record for receptions in a single season, 112, set last year by Sharpe. At his current rate of 7.7 catches per game, Carter will haul in 123 passes this season.

"Cris is the consummate inside receiver—tough, strong, elusive and unafraid to catch balls in a crowd," Billick says. "Yet he also has the grace of a basketball player. There aren't many who can make a full-speed cut as fast as Cris can in the open field."

After the Pro Bowl, Carter, who at times in the past has been accused of lacking dedication, worked hard to improve. Viking coach Dennis Green opted not to re-sign veteran wide receivers Hassan Jones and Anthony Carter during the off-season, thrusting the 28-year-old Carter into the role of wise old man among the Viking receivers. His work ethic became stronger than it has ever been, in part to set a good example for the youngsters. This year Carter has been well prepared for meetings, has gone all out in practice and has brought a sense of urgency on game day. His new attitude—and his success on the field—have made things easier for the other Minnesota receivers.

"Cris plays at such a high tempo that he brings us up to his level," says fourth-year man Jake Reed, who is second on the Vikings, with 58 catches. "Even if he's double-covered, Cris runs his routes hard so that one of us can get open. He'll run 50 or 60 yards downfield and come back to the huddle hollering. I'd be exhausted. Sometimes I ask him where he gets all that energy."

Adds rookie Andrew Jordan, who leads Minnesota tight ends with 25 receptions, "Cris even tried to block [Green Bay defensive end] Reggie White—and got thrown 10 yards—but that shows he'll do anything to win. We take our cue from that."

Carter also seems to have settled down off the field. After his junior year at Ohio State, Carter was thrown off the team because he admitted to accepting illegal payments from two sports agents. With the Eagles, he was in coach Buddy Ryan's doghouse because Ryan didn't like his work habits. Philadelphia cut Carter before the '90 season. Carter tried to clean up his act—for starters he stopped drinking—but it wasn't until last spring that he really got his life together. Cris and his wife, Melanie, had been having marital difficulties, and they turned to religion for direction.

"Cris is finally at peace with himself," Melanie says. "I tell him, 'Live your life as an example, and you don't have to prove anything to anybody.' "

Adds Cris, "Everyone is trying to figure out what's different about me this season. I've evolved. I'm finally mature enough to handle this success."

On a Mission

Although Lion running back Barry Sanders has always taken a nonchalant attitude toward individual rushing records, his offensive linemen say they're intent on helping him get 2,000 yards this season, something only two runners—O.J. Simpson and Eric Dickerson—have achieved. On Sunday, Sanders rushed for 237 yards, and through 10 games he leads the league, with 1,319 yards.

"We're on a mission," says Lion Pro Bowl left tackle Lomas Brown. "Barry downplays 2,000 yards, and we won't even address it with him. We know what our goal is. Look, we get a bigger kick than he does when he gains 100 yards. Records are meaningless to him."

Adds center Kevin Glover, "If Barry can accomplish it [2,000 yards], that's something the line can be very proud of."

Since Wayne Fontes took over as Detroit's coach at the end of the 1988 season, the Lions have been unable to develop any consistency in their offensive line, a unit devastated by the death of Eric Andolsek and the career-ending spinal cord injury to Mike Utley. This season, however, things seem to be coming together. Brown and Glover, who have been with the Lions since 1985, are both having Pro Bowl-caliber seasons. They are joined up front by second-year Lion right tackle Dave Lutz and left guard Shawn Bouwens, who has regained a starting role in his fourth season in Detroit. Right guard Doug Widell, a free-agent signee, rounds out a unit that has been outstanding.

"We finally have great chemistry," says Brown, the only Detroit lineman to have made the Pro Bowl since Sanders arrived in 1989. "Make a mistake on the defensive line, and somebody can cover for it. But if an offensive lineman makes a mistake, nothing will work. Everything starts up front with us."

Says Glover, "People in the NFL have always overlooked our line, and I think that's driving us this season too. In other years we've had people moving in and out all the time. But we've adapted well, and we'd like to finally be recognized."

Receiver of Praise

When Bear coach Dave Wannstedt overhauled his offense in the off-season, he was criticized for acquiring wideout Jeff Graham from the Steelers for a future draft pick. The Bears, after all, desperately needed a first-rate receiver, and Graham, Pittsburgh's second-round pick from Ohio State in 1991, didn't seem to fit the bill. Although he had 49 receptions two years ago, Graham never really blossomed in his three seasons in Pittsburgh, scoring only one touchdown.

Graham, however, has made Wannstedt look good, becoming the go-to receiver in Chicago. The top target for quarterbacks Steve Walsh and Erik Kramer, the 25-year-old Graham is having his best season as a pro, leading the Bears with 38 catches for 506 yards and three touchdowns.

Graham traces the turning point in his career to the day in June he lost his 33-year-old brother, Walter, to brain cancer. Although they were never very close as children, their relationship grew stronger when they lived together in Pittsburgh after Jeff signed with the Steelers. Walter was Jeff's sounding board, toughest critic and mentor. "Walter always played the big brother," Jeff says. "He used to tell me how to do things. He was more experienced in life. After games, I'd ask him, 'How did I look?' I could always count on him to tell the truth, no matter how harsh it might have been."

After his brother's death, Graham says he became more focused, and that helped him on the field. "I realized that I had to be more mature," he says. "It was time for me to step up. I wasn't a kid anymore. I had to accept my brother's death. I had to accept being traded. And I had to prove myself.

"When I was traded to Chicago, I talked to Walter about it. He was in his bed, and he looked up at me and said, 'I want you to do well. Be the best that you can be.'

"I took his death hard," Graham says. "It hurt real, real bad. Walter's with me at all times. I have pictures, and I know he's watching me. Everything I do, I do to honor him. I want to make him proud."

Pass the Bucs

Last week's announcement that the Bucs are for sale was met with resounding applause throughout the league. "This is the best thing that ever happened to that franchise," says an NFC general manager. "The Bucs can be a very lucrative franchise. There's plenty of support in Tampa. When the team started winning in the late 1970s, you couldn't buy a seat."

Adds an NFC player personnel director, noting that the current system in the NFL favors teams that need rebuilding, "This is the perfect situation for a good owner and a strong coach. Buy it now, then go into free agency and get a facelift."

After the death of Buc owner Hugh Culverhouse in August, the trustees of Culverhouse's estimated $360 million estate announced that the team was not for sale. Now, three months later, it is, and a quick deal seems possible. The trustees have urged that the transaction (in May the team was valued at $142 million by Financial World magazine) be completed as soon as possible so that the Bucs won't get in late on the free-agent market, which opens up Dec. 27.

The 2-8 Bucs, on the verge of their 12th-straight double-digit losing season, need a change in leadership. Coach Sam Wyche, now in his third season in Tampa, has a 12-30 record, and it's obvious his regime has been a flop.

Some of the rumored buyers of the team include New York Yankee boss George Steinbrenner; entrepreneur Vincent Naimoli, who, along with Chris Sullivan, the Outback Steakhouse CEO, is heading a group trying to bring major league baseball to Tampa; trucking magnate Mark Bostick; pencil magnate Gina Pala of Orlando; and John Labatt of Labatt's brewery, the company that owns the Toronto Blue Jays. Whoever buys the club won't have to go far to find a coach. The state of Florida boasts three top candidates: Jimmy Johnson, Miami coach Dennis Erickson and University of Florida's head man, Steve Spurrier.

"This job could be very appealing to a coach who wants to run his own show," says one NFC general manager. "With a strong visionary at coach, somebody who knows football and personnel, this franchise could be a gold mine."

PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERWith 77 catches after 10 games. Carter is on pace to set the single-season record for receptions. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERLutz (73) and Co. are paving the way for Sanders to make an assault on the 2,000-yard barrier.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)