PACKERS STAR MERITS A SECOND STRAIGHT MVP AWARD WHY SO MANY COACHES ARE GETTING AXED BEST AND WORST OF 1996

December 30, 1996

IN FAVOR OF FAVRE

The vote for MVP in the NFL should be as close as any in recent
history simply because there are too many deserving candidates.
However, there's one thing I'm sure of: The sentimental pick,
Broncos quarterback John Elway, isn't the Man. In fact, he's
fourth on my ballot. Here are my top five:

1. Brett Favre, quarterback, Packers;
2. Jerome Bettis, running back, Steelers;
3. Terrell Davis, running back, Broncos;
4. Elway;
5. (tie) Lamar Lathon and Kevin Greene, linebackers, Panthers.

There will be no denigration of Elway in this column, because,
at 36, he had one of the best seasons of his 14-year career. But
three players, including fellow Bronco Davis, meant more to
their teams in 1996 than Elway meant to Denver. Here's an
example why: In Week 3, with the Broncos trailing the Buccaneers
23-20 and 11 minutes to play, Elway trotted out for another of
his patented fourth-quarter comebacks. Denver won all right--as
Davis rushed eight times for 39 yards on the 14-play drive,
including a three-yard dash for the deciding score.

Only once in the 39-year history of the MVP award has there been
a repeat winner--49ers quarterback Joe Montana, in 1989 and
'90--but Favre should become the second. He led Green Bay to a
13-3 record (two more wins than in '95) and home field advantage
throughout the playoffs, an important consideration given the
January weather in Wisconsin and the fact that the Pack lost the
NFC title game in Dallas last year. He passed for a team-record
39 touchdowns (one more than in '95), and Green Bay led the
league in scoring (up from sixth last year). All this despite
the fact that 12-year veteran left tackle Ken Ruettgers retired
on Nov. 20 because of a bum knee after playing in only four
games, leading receiver Robert Brooks suffered a season-ending
knee injury on Oct. 14, wideout Antonio Freeman missed four
games with a fractured left forearm, and tight end Mark Chmura
was sidelined for three late-season games with a sprained arch.

"With everything I've been through and all the injuries we've
had," says Favre, who also overcame a dependency on painkillers
with an off-season stint in rehab, "winning the MVP this year
would mean a lot more than winning it last year."

Other selections for 1996 awards:

Defensive Player of the Year. Chad Brown, linebacker, Steelers.
After outside linebacker Greg Lloyd went down with a
season-ending knee injury in Week 1, Brown moved from his inside
position to Lloyd's spot and wound up with 13 sacks, second best
in the AFC, despite sitting out Pittsburgh's finale with a
banged-up ankle.

Rookie of the Year. Terry Glenn, wide receiver, Patriots. New
England coach Bill Parcells wanted to take a defensive player
with the seventh pick in last April's draft, but he was
overruled by owner Bob Kraft. A nagging hamstring injury kept
Glenn on the sideline for most of training camp, and after
reporters continually nagged Parcells for updates on Glenn, he
finally replied with the macho taunt, "She's doing better."
Well, she made an NFL rookie-record 90 receptions for 1,132
yards and six touchdowns.

Coach of the Year. Dom Capers, Panthers. He has been running the
zone blitz for three years, including his final season as
defensive coordinator of the Steelers, and offensive minds still
can't figure out how to attack it. Defense was the key to
Carolina's replacing San Francisco as NFC West kingpin in only
its second year of existence.

Executive of the Year. Mike Shanahan, Broncos. His only title is
coach, but Shanahan makes all the personnel decisions in Denver.
And he made the right calls--on and off the field--in steering
the Broncos to the best record (13-3) in the AFC.

STORY OF THE YEAR

For many NFL coaches, 1996 will be remembered as the Year of
Living Dangerously. The Monday firings of June Jones (Falcons)
and Dan Reeves (Giants) brought to six the number of coaching
changes that were made during or after this season. And with
coaches' futures hanging in the balance in at least four other
cities as SI went to press on Monday, the single-season record
for coaching changes--nine, in 1991--was in jeopardy. What's
with all the upheaval?

For starters, the Jaguars and the Panthers have startled their
adversaries by making the playoffs after only two seasons in the
league. As a result, the front offices of other teams feel more
pressure than ever to produce postseason contenders overnight.
Take the Rams. Along with the Jets they are the NFL's losingest
team of the 1990s and are without a winning record since their
1989 playoff season. This year coach Rich Brooks went 6-10 with
a young team that started rookies at quarterback, fullback,
running back and one wide receiver spot. In two seasons he won
13 games, five more than Jimmy Johnson in Dallas and Bill Walsh
in San Francisco did in their first two years as NFL coaches. On
Sunday, Brooks was fired.

In justifying the dismissal, Rams president John Shaw mentioned
the win-now mentality that is pervasive in today's NFL, as well
as the progress made by the two expansion teams.

Successful coaches are feeling the pinch as well. More and more
of them are losing control to personnel men who are charged with
assembling the roster, and in some cases a coach's job is
threatened by his players. This year Bill Parcells coached the
Patriots to their first AFC East title since 1986, but he may
abandon ship, in part because he no longer has the final say on
draft day. The Chargers' Bobby Ross is one of the most respected
coaches in the game, but his job is in jeopardy two years after
taking San Diego to the Super Bowl because management wants him
to replace at least one coordinator. Giants management balked at
giving Reeves, the 10th-winningest coach in NFL history, the
authority to make personnel decisions.

The fate of embattled Lions coach Wayne Fontes may have been
sealed when quarterback Scott Mitchell recently spurned a $20
million offer, saying he wanted to see who would be coaching in
Detroit in 1997 before he re-signed. In Atlanta, Jones put
himself on the spot when he suspended quarterback Jeff George
following a sideline shouting match with him in Week 4 against
the Eagles. George never played another down for the Falcons,
and Atlanta's already shaky fortunes plummeted without a marquee
quarterback.

Coaches may feel as if they've got choke collars on, but they
apparently will have to live with them. "There are very few
Caesars in this business now," Giants general manager George
Young said on Monday, in announcing the firing of Reeves.
"Owners own, general managers manage, coaches coach."

HEADLINERS

Expansion, Schmansion. The Panthers and the Jaguars deserve
kudos for going a combined 21-11 and making the playoffs in
their second seasons, but enough of this talk about the
remarkable building jobs they pulled off. The availability of
unrestricted free agents and the additional draft picks the two
teams were awarded over their first two years in the league had
as much to do with their success as anything. "We as a league
probably screwed up for their benefit," says Buccaneers general
manager Rich McKay. "In 1976 the expansion teams were given
enough ammunition to fire a pop gun. In 1994 the teams were
given enough ammunition to set off a neutron bomb."

Home on the Range. The Cowboys may have won their fifth
consecutive NFC East title, but they made bigger news with their
off-the-field activities. In March wideout Michael Irvin was
arrested in a hotel room in which was found 60 grams of cocaine,
almost three ounces of marijuana and two "self-employed models."
The boyfriend of another woman was subsequently arrested for
trying to hire a hit man to kill Irvin. Irvin later pleaded no
contest to a felony charge of cocaine possession. It was also
revealed that in recent seasons some players had leased a home
near the club's headquarters and turned it into a party house,
where reportedly alcohol, drugs and women were readily
available. Defensive tackle Leon Lett received a one-year
suspension for violating the league's drug policy. "Outside of
murder, you can't do too much wrong on our team," said guard
Nate Newton.

BEST AND WORST

Offense. Arizona finished only 7-9, but two Cardinals had the
league's best single-game rushing and passing performances of
the year: On Sept. 22, Leshon Johnson ran for 214 yards against
the Saints; on Nov. 10, Boomer Esiason threw for 522 yards in an
overtime win against the Redskins....Panthers running back
Anthony Johnson, who hadn't had a 100-yard rushing day since his
senior year in high school, in 1985, had five such games in
'96....High-priced wideout Alvin Harper, who came to the
Buccaneers as a free agent in 1995, lost his job to Robb Thomas.
Thomas had been waived by two NFL teams before joining Tampa
Bay....Colts third-year running back Marshall Faulk, who rushed
for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first two years in the
league, averaged an NFL-low 3.0 yards per attempt.

Defense. The Panthers allowed five second-half touchdowns all
season....Jaguars rookie defensive end Tony Brackens had the
year's best individual game: nine tackles, four passes
deflected, one sack and an interception in a 20-13 defeat of the
Seahawks on Dec. 15....Redskins defensive coordinator Ron Lynn
coached a unit that on successive Sundays surrendered 266
rushing yards to the Bills and 615 total yards to the Cardinals.

WORTH REPEATING

--Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe, as caught by NFL Films,
speaking into a sideline phone during the Broncos' 34-8 rout of
the Patriots on Nov. 17: "Mr. President, call in the National
Guard! Send as many men as you can spare! Because we are killing
the Patriots! They need emergency help!"

--Bengals cornerback Jimmy Spencer, who lopped off the tip of his
left thumb with a kitchen knife in a Sept. 26 accident: "When
I'm thirsty, I just ask someone to bring me water. When I eat
steak, I have someone cut it for me. I don't go into kitchens
anymore, and I don't touch knives anymore."

--Associated Press writer John Bonfatti to Bills coach Marv
Levy, after Buffalo beat the Eagles 24-17 on Nov. 10: "What was
the key to finding the offensive synchronicity today?" Levy,
squinting in wonderment: "The what?"

BARGAINS

Kicker Chris Boniol scored 42% of the Cowboys' points (120 of
286), made a club-record 27 consecutive field goals, tied an NFL
record with seven field goals in a 21-6 win over the Packers on
Nov. 18 and was paid 0.5% of their salary-cap figure ($196,000
of $40.75 million)....Jets wideout Wayne Chrebet, who has earned
about $500,000 in his first two NFL seasons, set a league record
for most receptions in the first two years of a career, with
150....Third-year free safety Keith Lyle of the Rams (salary:
$250,000) tied for the league lead in interceptions, with
nine....The Packers' Desmond Howard ($300,000) returned three
punts for touchdowns.

THE END ZONE

Cardinals quarterback Boomer Esiason, on the death of former NFL
commissioner Pete Rozelle on Dec. 6: "Every person who makes his
living by some connection to the NFL should thank Pete Rozelle
for the money they make."

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Favre's quarterback rating may be down from 1995, but his TD passes are up. [Brett Favre] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS Safety Chad Cota and the rest of the Panthers' innovative defense have laid opposing ballcarriers low. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Reeves wanted to have a say on personnel matters, but his ideas increasingly fell on deaf ears. [Dan Reeves] COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Sharpe went to the top trying to get the Pats some help. [Shannon Sharpe in game]

A PASSING GRADE

Much was said this year about the dearth of talented young
quarterbacks in the league, yet of the 14 starters who finished
the season with a rating above the respectable 80.0 mark, half
of them were under 30. Here are seven reasons why the future of
quarterbacking doesn't seem so dim after all. (Rankings are
through Sunday's games.)

Rank, Player, Team Age Rating

1 Brett Favre, Packers 27 95.8
3 Brad Johnson, Vikings 28 89.4
7 John Friesz, Seahawks 29 86.4
8 Mark Brunell, Jaguars 26 84.0
9 Drew Bledsoe, Patriots 24 83.7
11 Ty Detmer, Eagles 29 80.8
12 Jeff Blake, Bengals 26 80.3

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)