NO HARD FEELINGS
If you had walked into the Astrodome seven Sundays ago, you
would have been excused for thinking a high school game was
about to be played. On Sept. 15 the Oilers and the Ravens drew
only 20,082 spectators, because few people in southeast Texas
much cared about the Oilers, the lame-duck franchise that is
scheduled to move to Nashville after the 1997 season. It was so
quiet in the Astrodome you could clearly hear the high school
cheerleaders, who were brought in because the team's dance
troupe, the Derrick Dolls, went belly-up four months after the
Oilers signed a relocation agreement in November 1995. One of
the perky cheers rattling around the dead Dome that day:
We got spirit, yes we do!
We got spirit, how 'bout you?
What a difference six weeks makes. On Sunday the line to buy
tickets to the Oilers-49ers game was a quarter mile long; 53,664
showed up at the Astrodome. At 5-2 the Oilers were tied with the
Steelers for the AFC Central lead, and the city of Houston was
back in love with its Oilers. WHEN WE SAID GO OILERS WE DIDN'T
MEAN IT LITERALLY! read one end zone sign. After Al Del Greco
kicked a franchise-record 56-yard field goal just before
halftime to give Houston a 6-3 lead, fans in old Earl Campbell
and Ray Childress jerseys and blue wigs danced in the aisles.
The high school cheerleaders were back, but they couldn't be
heard above the din of an almost full house, which included
hated Oilers owner Bud Adams, who was entertaining Tennessee
politicians in his private box. Even though Houston lost 10-9,
it didn't seem to dampen the fans' newfound enthusiasm.
It is an amazing rebirth, considering the off-the-field turmoil
that has surrounded the team in the past year. "We're the kids
caught in the middle of a divorce," linebacker Micheal Barrow
said last Saturday, referring to the Oilers' coaches, players
and staff. "And it's made us stronger. What's happening to us
happens in real life all the time. The parents are splitting up.
Dad's staying in Houston. Mom's moving to Nashville. Mom's got
custody of the kids, so we all have to go with her."
Barrow laughed. "In this case," he added, "Mom just happens to
be Bud Adams."
The Oilers act tough and play a gritty game. "They try to
present this bad-boy attitude, which is not a bad thing," says
Steelers linebacker Levon Kirkland. "The Detroit Pistons did it,
and they won two championships in a row. The Oilers will beat
you up." In Sunday's game they knocked out quarterback Steve
Young on the third play--he suffered a concussion and didn't
return--and limited San Francisco to 238 total yards.
Offensively, rookie back Eddie George rushed for 77 yards,
improving his season total to 717, best among NFL rookies.
"They're a really good team," 49ers safety Tim McDonald said,
"and what a strong, strong runner George is--much more
impressive than he looks on film. With that kid, in a year or
two, watch out." McDonald could have been talking about the
entire Houston team, wherever it may be playing by then.
VILLAIN OF THE WEEK
When the Raiders completed their move to Oakland this season,
Pro Bowl guard Steve Wisniewski was so concerned about finding
the right home for his wife and three children that he drove to
fast-food restaurants and gas stations all around the East Bay,
asking customers for their opinions on the ideal family
community near Oakland. As wholesome as that makes Wisniewski
appear, he has been notably unconcerned about the welfare of
those on the field.
Wisniewski was fined $5,000 for unnecessary roughness in a Sept.
8 game against the Chiefs. Three weeks later he made an illegal
cut block at the knees of Bears defensive lineman Alonzo
Spellman and was fined $10,000. Last week he was fined $50,000
for unnecessary roughness--he sprinted several yards to jump
into a pile of players--and for making contact with an official
in a game against the Lions on Oct. 13.
Wisniewski says that the league monitors him more closely than
it does other players, but perhaps that's also because he has
been fined three other times during an eight-year career. And
just look at a tape of the three plays in question this season
and you'll see that $65,000--which is $16,250 less than one of
his game checks--is barely a slap on the wrist, considering how
seriously he could have injured players. "I don't want to be
known as a dirty player," Wisniewski says. Then he should cut
out the garbage.
Why are NFL owners so smug in anticipation of negotiations for a
new TV contract to replace the one that expires after the 1997
season? Here's one reason: Game 4 of the World Series, the
Yankees' extra-inning comeback win over the Braves on Oct. 23,
drew a 17.9 TV rating; Game 4 of this year's Monday-night NFL
schedule, the Colts' 10-6 yawner over the Dolphins on Sept. 23,
did an 18.1.... Wideout Rocket Ismail, whom the Panthers
acquired from the Raiders in an August trade, has one catch in
eight games. He was promoted to third receiver last week but
didn't have one ball thrown to him on Sunday against the Eagles.
"I'm very happy," said Ismail, one of the league's most
enigmatic players. "The next step is getting the ball thrown to
me." Nice to see that a player who is being paid $935,000 this
season has such lofty goals.... Where have you gone, Alvin
Harper? The $2.85 million-a-year Bucs wideout had one pass
thrown his way (a seven-yard catch) in a 13-7 loss in Green Bay.
With two years left on his contract, but only 16 receptions to
show for the first half of the season, he could be waived after
this year.... Niners QB Steve Young was vomiting on the
sidelines after suffering his concussion against the Oilers, and
then he played helmet tug-of-war with 49ers security manager
Ricky Sandoval. When Young finally wrenched his helmet away, he
put it on and tried to reenter the game. "He thought he was in
Pasadena," Sandoval said. Young also refused to have a CAT scan
until tight end Brent Jones said to him, "Unless you go to the
hospital, we're keeping you [in Houston] overnight."
THE END ZONE
Pastor Lee Drake of the Broward (Fla.) Community Chapel
delivered the invocation before the Cowboys-Dolphins game at Pro
Player Stadium on Sunday, praising God for "blessing us with a
healthy Dan Marino" and asking for a Miami win. That led Dallas
guard Nate Newton to growl after the game, "Tell them to find a
priest who will pray for both teams." The Cowboys won anyway
The NFL record for coaching changes from one season to the next
is nine, set during and after the 1991 season, but that dubious
mark could be in jeopardy. Already the Bengals have fired David
Shula, and the Saints' Jim Mora has resigned, and as many as
nine more teams (Cowboys, Falcons, Giants, Jets, Lions,
Patriots, Raiders, Rams and Vikings) could be shopping for a
coach in the off-season, if not sooner. SI polled NFL executives
for their top coaching candidates in what is widely viewed as a
CANDIDATE CURRENT JOB
1. PETE CARROLL DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR--49ERS
Go-getter who rebuilt Niners defense; fired unfairly after one
season as Jets coach ('94)
2. JIM MORA UNEMPLOYED
Quit 2-6 Saints on Oct. 21, but discipline-hungry owners love him
3. TERRY BOWDEN COACH--AUBURN
One owner who will be looking for a coach calls him Jimmy
4. EMMITT THOMAS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR--EAGLES
Learned the ropes from Joe Gibbs, is learning more from Ray Rhodes
5. GARY BARNETT COACH--NORTHWESTERN
Has strong organizational skills, and who can argue with what
he's done in Evanston?
6. CHAN GAILEY OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR--STEELERS
Adaptable former coach at Troy State and at Birmingham of the
7. NICK SABAN COACH--MICHIGAN STATE
Former NFL assistant, one of the best in college ranks at
mapping defensive schemes
8. MIKE DITKA STUDIO ANALYST--NBC
Of all those on the list, would sell the most tickets
9. STEVE SPURRIER COACH--FLORIDA
NFL execs don't think he's serious about leaving Gainesville,
and they're right
BILL SNYDER COACH--KANSAS STATE
BRUCE SNYDER COACH--ARIZONA STATE
Tough to tell these two apart, but no one questions either's
The next five: Panthers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio,
Packers offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis, Cal coach Steve
Mariucci, Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner and Raiders
assistant head coach Joe Bugel