A FIRE SALE FOR JEFF GEORGE ATTRACTS FEW SHOPPERS A TOP PICK HITS BOTTOM CENTERS'S MYSTERIOUS CONVERSION

October 06, 1996

TAKE HIM...PLEASE

Here's how far the stock of Falcons quarterback Jeff George has
plummeted: The Cardinals would rather have Kent Graham, a 1992
eighth-round draft pick who has thrown a total of 10 touchdown
passes with three NFL teams, be their starting quarterback than
George, the No. 1 pick in the '90 draft, who has 91 TD passes to
his credit. But doesn't Arizona have at least scant interest in
George, the free-falling former phenom?

"Scant interest?" Bob Ferguson, the Cardinals' assistant to the
president, said last Friday. "Wrong. There's no interest. Ask
our players. I think you'd probably find 52 players who'd rather
play for Kent Graham than for Jeff George. Nobody here wants to
put up with George. He has to realize he's 28, not 15, and grow
up."

Ferguson isn't alone in his low estimation of George. Last week
most teams in need of a quarterback showed a similar lack of
interest after George was suspended by the team and put on the
trading block. The suspension came in the wake of George's
repeated heated exchanges with coach June Jones on the sidelines
after George was pulled during the Falcons' 33-18 loss to the
Eagles on Sept. 22.

The Steelers are playing journeyman Mike Tomczak at quarterback,
but director of football operations Tom Donahoe was incredulous
last week when a report circulated that Pittsburgh supposedly
was interested in George. "That would be like Madonna marrying
Bob Dole," Donahoe said.

George is healthy, has a rifle for an arm and last season threw
for 4,143 yards. At a time when there are more oceans in the
world than promising NFL quarterbacks, it speaks volumes that
the Falcons have heard from few teams about George's availability.

Wherever George ends up before the Oct. 8 trading deadline--as
of Monday the Raiders, the Rams and the Seahawks were the only
teams that had appeared to express any interest--his toughest
job will be image rehab, not learning a new playbook. Yet after
braving a firestorm of criticism all week, George expressed
amazement that so many people thought of him as childish and
unprofessional. "I'm bewildered," he told SI last Saturday. "How
did I get to be so evil all of a sudden?"

Not evil, just selfish. It appears that most NFL teams prefer to
have a quarterback who has a mediocre arm than one who throws
darts but has a me-first reputation. George also has come up
short in the win column. In his seven seasons with the Colts and
the Falcons, his teams have lost 64% of his starts, and he has
played in exactly one playoff game. Granted, his supporting
casts have been ordinary. But the buck stops with the
quarterback, and the Falcons were 3-7 in his last 10 starts.

George has sparred with teams before. In 1993 he was a
training-camp holdout with the Colts and was traded to Atlanta
the following year. Last season he rejected a five-year, $25
million contract offer from the Falcons, claiming that the deal
was too heavily back-loaded.

On the field George's unwillingness to conform was apparent in
the way he directed the Falcons' run-and-shoot offense. In that
scheme the quarterback has as many as five options on any pass
play, but one Falcon said George often would go for the deep
route even when the short one was clearly the better option. "If
Jeff would stay within the system, he'd be a great quarterback
and we'd be better off," the player said.

George expresses little regret for his outburst, which came
after he had followed 11 straight completions with an
interception. "Am I sorry for what I did?" he says. "Yes. Would
I do it again? Probably. I'm a competitive guy. Things happen on
the sidelines during a game. It's hard for me to believe that
what happened is enough for them to feel like they have to trade
me."

The content of the sidelines argument between George and Jones
has not been divulged, but last Saturday night Jones said, "I
would be less than a man if I took what Jeff said to me, and the
team knows it."

George believes much of the rancor stems from his refusal to
accept the Falcons' long-term offer last year. "It was a bad
contract, and I wasn't the only one who thought it was," he
says. "Leigh [Steinberg, his agent] did too. There was no way it
was worth signing for five years."

So Atlanta signed him to a one-year, $3.6 million contract last
August with the proviso that he would become an unrestricted
free agent after this season. In effect, George was a lame duck
in Atlanta this year. Jones, whose team is 0-4, is on the spot
too. In the days leading up to the Falcons' 39-17 loss to the
49ers in San Francisco on Sunday, he was repeatedly explaining
his decision to suspend George. "I tried to tell Jeff there was
nothing behind this, nothing sinister, but he believes ownership
is against him and ownership was behind this," Jones said. "All
I can say is it's not true. This was my call."

Because there's a dearth of quarterbacks in the NFL, George will
get another chance. Whenever that time comes, he would be smart
to keep his mouth shut and exhibit a little humility. "If I can
just have a chance to sit across from a coach and let him get to
know me, I think I'll be able to find a place," George says.

Indianapolis, his hometown, was the place for him. Atlanta, with
a quarterback-friendly mentor in Jones, was the place for him.
His time is running out. George needs to look into the mirror
and see that his career hangs in the balance.

KNEE DEEP IN TROUBLE

The left-knee injury that the Bengals' Ki-Jana Carter suffered
in August 1995, requiring reconstructive surgery that sidelined
him all of last season, could keep him from becoming a great
running back, or even a good one. On Sunday against the Broncos,
Carter looked tentative and showed none of the explosiveness he
displayed during his career at Penn State. The Bengals can't
hide it any longer: Their best back is Garrison Hearst.

Hearst, a 1,000-yard rusher for the Cardinals last season whom
the Bengals surprisingly plucked off the waiver wire in August,
finished with 71 yards on 10 carries in Cincinnati's 14-10 loss
to Denver. Carter, on the other hand, ran five times for 13
yards. "Tentative? I don't feel tentative," said Carter, the
first player picked in the '95 draft. "Five carries aren't going
to let you get anything going. Healthwise, there's no reason I
shouldn't be playing. I'm fine."

He doesn't look it. He carried four times for nine yards on the
game's first series, and after that he was used primarily as a
decoy split end. For the first time the Bengals appear to have
doubts about Carter. Asked last Saturday if he felt Carter will
live up to his billing, offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet
wavered. "I hope he can, but I'm having a little doubt now,"
Coslet said. "He's a little tentative, and we didn't see that
looking at him in college. It's not a knock on him; he had a
major injury. We just need to see the confidence and instant
acceleration we expect out of him."

In his four-game NFL career, Carter has run for 103 yards. Take
away one 31-yard carry, and he has 44 carries for 72 yards, a
1.6-yard average. There's more bad news in the form of a clause
in the seven-year, $19.2 million deal that Carter signed in July
1995. It stipulates that if Carter plays at least 45% of the
offensive plays in either of his first two seasons, the contract
becomes a five-year deal, which would allow him to become a free
agent in 2000.

Carter is not playing much, he is not running well when he does
get on the field, and he is not a happy camper. "Sometimes I
wonder why they made me the first pick in the draft if they're
not going to play me," he said. Good question.

CENTER OF ATTENTION

No running back in NFL history has caught more passes in a
20-game stretch than the Cardinals' Larry Centers, who, after
catching 13 passes in a 31-28 overtime win over the Rams on
Sunday, has hauled in 131 since Sept. 10, 1995. By comparison,
Roger Craig's 115 catches for the 49ers, between Dec. 14, 1984,
and Sept. 21, 1986, is the best 20-game performance among the
five backs who caught at least 500 passes in their NFL careers.
With sure hands and a punishing running style, the 5'11",
215-pound Centers is Arizona's most effective weapon, having
become the first NFL back to catch more than 100 passes in a
season (101 in 1995).

But the big question about Centers has little to do with his
on-field success. It's this: What happened in the Pacific surf
during Pro Bowl week last February?

Centers was seen talking to himself and acting strangely at
practices before the game in Honolulu, and then he was replaced
on the NFC team by the league, which cited an undisclosed
illness. Forty-niners safety and former Cardinals teammate Tim
McDonald said Centers "looked possessed." All of which led to
perhaps the zaniest rumor of the season: Packers defensive end
Reggie White, an ordained minister, had performed an exorcism on
Centers.

Questioned last week, White said that what happened with Centers
in Hawaii is private--"but I did not perform an exorcism."
Centers, who is married with two small children, says he had
been having marital problems and was depressed about playing for
a perennial loser. He experienced a spiritual rebirth in the
ceremony in the Pacific with White, Vikings wideout Cris Carter
and Cardinals cornerback Aeneas Williams. "I've seen The
Exorcist, and my head wasn't spinning around or anything like
that," said Centers, 28. "I went through a religious conversion,
and I vowed that day to make more of an effort to live life
cleanly and be a better family man."

DISPATCHES

What a swell weekend it was for the Raiders. Amid rumors that he
might be part of a trade for Jeff George, defensive end Anthony
Smith proved that George has no monopoly on self-centeredness by
going AWOL last Friday and missing Sunday's game against the
Bears; cornerback Larry Brown, a $12 million free-agent
acquisition in the off-season, also didn't play on Sunday
because, he said, he still wasn't comfortable with Oakland's
defensive system; quarterback Jeff Hostetler did play but threw
four interceptions; the team was called for 10 penalties; and
Jeff Jaeger, waived by the Raiders in the preseason, kicked the
last of his four field goals, a 30-yarder with 11 seconds left,
to give Chicago a 19-17 win. "I feel bad for them," Jaeger said,
"but I'll get over it."...The NFL has endorsed a plan to build a
privately funded $300 million stadium/resort/theme park for the
Cardinals in suburban Phoenix. Included in the plan is a branch
of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That's news to the folks at
the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. "The idea of another Pro
Football Hall of Fame is ridiculous," said Hall spokesman Don
Smith. "There is only one Hall of Fame, and it's here."... A
tale of two Detroit teams: The Lions were 3-2 in September. The
Tigers were 4-22.

THE END ZONE

At week's end the Broncos were $5 under the league's $40.75
million salary cap.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS No NFL quarterback throws the deep ball better, but the fed-up Falcons are no longer inclined to let George do it. [Jeff George] COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Centers is on pace to break his own reception record. [Larry Centers]

TOUGH HOMBRES

Though only one of its five teams has made it to the Super Bowl
in this decade (the Chargers, in 1994), the AFC West is staking
its claim as the Division of the '90s on the fact that all five
teams have winning records outside the division during that
period. Here's how AFC West teams have fared in and out of the
division in the '90s.

Inside Outside
Team Division Division

CHIEFS 39-13 29-20
RAIDERS 26-24 30-21
BRONCOS 24-26 29-22
CHARGERS 25-26 28-22
SEAHAWKS 13-38 26-24

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)