When the Kansas City Chiefs trek north to River Falls, Wis., to
start training camp this weekend, new quarterback Elvis Grbac
will throw to new wide receivers Brett Perriman and Andre Rison.
Grbac will hand off to the team's new starting running back,
Greg Hill, and break in the rookie tight end, Tony Gonzalez. All
told, Kansas City, tied for the NFL's third-best record since
the start of unfettered free agency in 1993, could have 12 new
starters in '97. "It seems like there's been a changing of the
guard not only here, but everywhere," Grbac said last week. "And
not just with the players."
The NFL has never had an off-season like the one just completed,
which is a big reason that training camp--all 30 teams will be
in pads by the end of the weekend--is so critical to so many
teams. Chemistry may be as important a subject for some teams as
strategy. The first six months of 1997 were volcanic, with
coaches and quarterbacks, the individuals most important to a
team's success, moving in unprecedented numbers. Sixteen teams
changed their coach, starting quarterback or both, and that's
not counting the Cincinnati Bengals' promotion in December of
Bruce Coslet from interim coach to coach. The 11 coaching
changes are the most from one season to the next since '71. The
eight quarterback changes are the most in this decade. Throw in
the fact that half of the 56 men who hold the title of offensive
or defensive coordinator are in their first year in their new
roles, and you have the makings of some serious chaos.
Both champs and chumps enter camp with new leaders. The New
England Patriots went to their second Super Bowl last season as
the ultimate dysfunctional sports family, and then owner Bob
Kraft completed a trade of sorts, allowing coach Bill Parcells
to flee to the New York Jets in exchange for a handful of draft
picks. The San Francisco 49ers won at least 10 games for the
14th straight year, but that wasn't enough for owner Eddie
DeBartolo. His risky hire of 41-year-old Steve Mariucci (SI,
Jan. 27), who has five years of experience as an NFL assistant
and only one as a head coach--at Cal--was among the most
intriguing coaching moves. The St. Louis Rams, tied with the
Jets for the league's worst record in the 1990s, will try to
break out of their doldrums under the guidance of 60-year-old
Dick Vermeil, who is returning to the sidelines after a 14-year
absence. His predecessor, Rich Brooks, was fired after winning
13 games in two seasons, five more than Bill Walsh and Jimmy
Johnson won in their first two years with the 49ers and the
Dallas Cowboys, respectively. "Patience is not something I saw
much of in St. Louis," says Brooks, now an Atlanta Falcons
assistant under new coach Dan Reeves.
You won't see much of it anywhere. Look at the coaching business
in 1997 compared with, say, 1987. The current crop of head
coaches has been on the job an average of 2.03 seasons. Ten
years ago that number was 4.95. Only two coaches--Marty
Schottenheimer in Kansas City and Marv Levy of the Buffalo
Bills--have been in the same job more than five seasons. In '87
there were seven who enjoyed that kind of longevity.
Not much more stability exists at quarterback. The Seattle
Seahawks picked Rick Mirer with the second overall choice in the
'93 draft, signed him for $15.7 million and then, following his
51 inconsistent starts, shipped him to the Chicago Bears in
February. Free-agent acquisition Steve Walsh got three starts in
St. Louis last year before he was benched in favor of rookie
Tony Banks, a second-round draft pick. Walsh has since moved on
to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he will back up Trent Dilfer.
But nowhere have the quarterback moves been more intriguing than
in Pittsburgh. The Steelers gave Jim Miller one start last year
before replacing him with Mike Tomczak, whose reward for leading
the team to the AFC divisional playoffs was the No. 3 spot on
the depth chart behind new starter Kordell Stewart and Miller.
"In just five years the game has changed tremendously, and not
just because of the advent of free agency," says Green Bay
Packers general manager Ron Wolf. "The tenets of building a team
have been put to rest. The new franchises [the Carolina Panthers
and the Jacksonville Jaguars] have had as much to do with it as
anything. Owners are looking at the two new teams and saying,
'These guys got to conference-championship games in two years
building from scratch. Why can't we do that?'"
The sudden success enjoyed by the Jaguars and the Panthers is
partly to blame for the rash of changes, but there are other
explanations. All but eight of the league's 30 franchises have
either moved into a new stadium this decade, are planning a move
or are pushing politicians for a state-of-the-art facility.
There is undying pressure to fill seats, which becomes more
difficult for a team that is losing.
"Clearly, there is great competition for discretionary dollars,"
says Detroit Lions vice chairman Bill Ford Jr., whose club fired
coach Wayne Fontes last December and replaced him with Bobby
Ross. The Lions could move to a new downtown stadium as early as
2001. "Fans have more leisure-time options than they ever had
before, whether it's 60 or 70 cable channels, Blockbuster videos
or more golf courses," says Ford. "We have to be responsive to
But changing coaches isn't necessarily a panacea. Take the
Falcons. A playoff participant as recently as '95, they look
like one of the league's worst teams heading into camp, and
owner Rankin Smith got none of the hoped-for bang for his buck
when he signed native son Reeves as coach in January. At week's
end the Falcons had sold only 33,000 season tickets in the
five-year-old, 71,228-seat Georgia Dome.
The Falcons were joined by the New Orleans Saints and the
Oakland Raiders as teams that changed their starting quarterback
as well as their coach. Atlanta didn't engender much fan
enthusiasm by acquiring journeyman quarterback Chris Chandler in
a trade with the Houston Oilers, or by signing only one impact
free agent (cornerback Ray Buchanan of the Indianapolis Colts),
or by trading down from the third overall pick in the April
draft, thereby avoiding having to pay a huge signing bonus.
New Orleans hired Mike Ditka to coach a mediocre crew in a
division dominated by the 49ers and the Panthers. Ditka's first
reclamation project: recently acquired quarterback Heath Shuler,
who never had the reins to himself in three seasons with the
Washington Redskins. "I look at Heath, and I honestly don't see
a weakness," says Ditka. Nevertheless, he used a high
fourth-round pick to select Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel
In Oakland, new coach Joe Bugel will see if golden-armed
vagabond Jeff George can make the league's most underachieving
team click. George wore out his welcome in Indianapolis and then
in Atlanta, but that doesn't stop Bugel from saying, "I truly
believe Jeff's the guy to take us to the promised land."
St. Louis isn't sure what it has in Banks. Vermeil says he sees
"ability, talent and immaturity," but Rams president John Shaw
figures the 24-year-old former Michigan State star will have to
excel for the team to win. "When you rattle off the top teams in
the NFL--Green Bay, Denver, San Francisco, Dallas, New England
and Jacksonville--the one thing they have in common is a great
quarterback," Shaw says. "Because the price is steep for a good
quarterback, the next significant way to change the direction of
your team is hire a new coach. With that comes some pressure to
win immediately. I hope there won't be a lot on Dick Vermeil,
but I'm sure there will."
Last week Vermeil sat in the Rams' 13-month-old, $15 million
training center, which is 13 miles west of the 20-month-old,
$260 million Trans World Dome. Both facilities were funded by
taxpayers for one reason--to lure an NFL franchise to St. Louis.
Vermeil knows today's NFL is more pressure-packed than the one
he left as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in '82. "The thing
I've noticed being back in it is there's more of a buy-a-team
atmosphere around the league," he said. "If this guy doesn't
work, get rid of him and buy somebody else and plug him in. With
a lot of teams it seems there's a new breed of owner, a less
patient owner who doesn't understand that this takes time."
Vermeil believes, however, at least one thing hasn't changed.
"In 1976, when I took over the Eagles, everyone told me, 'Oh,
the players have changed. They're so different today.' In 1997,
I took over the Rams and people told me, 'Oh, the players have
changed.' I've been in three minicamps. I've had personal
dinners with 31 players. I've seen tremendous attendance in our
off-season workouts. The players are bigger, stronger, faster
and richer, but I don't see them as being much different.
[Cornerback] Todd Lyght is financially set, but I can see from
talking to him and being around him that he's got a burning
desire to win."
But can Banks deliver? He was 5-8 as a starter last year and all
told completed 52% of his passes for 2,544 yards, with 15
touchdowns and 15 interceptions. "We chose not to go after Jeff
George in free agency," Vermeil said. "Time will tell if we made
the right decision."
Ditto the Bears. Chicago paid a handsome sum for Mirer, sending
the 11th overall pick in the draft to the Seahawks. He steps
into one of the league's more urgent win-now situations. Coach
Dave Wannstedt is 32-32 in four seasons, and last spring club
president Mike McCaskey took away many of Wannstedt's personnel
responsibilities, hiring Mark Hatley as vice president of player
personnel and giving Hatley final say in player procurement.
Wannstedt is under contract through 2000, but he'll be on the
griddle if the Bears fail to improve on last season's 7-9 finish.
To tutor Mirer, Wannstedt brought in Matt Cavanaugh, who is
starting his first tour as an offensive coordinator after two
seasons as quarterbacks coach of the Arizona Cardinals and one
season in that capacity with the 49ers. Cavanaugh has devised an
offense that combines a power running game with features of the
49ers' West Coast passing game. Wannstedt hopes to take
advantage of Mirer's athleticism, which largely went unused in
the traditional passing attack employed by Seattle. Still, Mirer
bears the scars of a couple of years of butting heads with
Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson. "The biggest thing Rick needs
early--this summer at camp, this fall in games--is to have some
success," Wannstedt says. "Chicago can be a tough town, and Rick
needs to be focused and get his confidence back."
There's another concern: McCaskey wants a new stadium, but he
has no concrete offers from local politicians. You'll probably
soon hear talk about moving vans. It's a distraction that
Wannstedt and Mirer can do without.
Why are so many teams depending so heavily on unproven
quarterbacks like Grbac, Mirer and Shuler? "The reason you see
so many starting quarterbacks being switched is that there's
such a shortage," says Floyd Reese, general manager of
the--speaking of new--Tennessee Oilers. Chandler became
expendable because the Oilers believe third-year quarterback
Steve McNair, the third overall selection in the '95 draft, is
ready to direct the offense.
The Chiefs are shelling out $20.4 million over five years for
Grbac, an eighth-round pick of the 49ers in '93 who has nine
career starts and has thrown only two more touchdowns than
interceptions. He becomes Kansas City's fifth starting
quarterback in the last six years. "It's been everything I hoped
it would be," Grbac said as he packed for camp. "It's my team.
It's my offense. If I play as well as I can, I know we'll get
close [to the Super Bowl]."
The fans, he said, "are so dang hungry." At one Chiefs function,
a fan called him "the messiah." These days that's what every
team seems to be looking for.