HERESY IN MIAMI
Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson has thought the unthinkable:
benching future Hall of Famer Dan Marino in the middle of a poor
game in this, his 15th season as the Miami quarterback. "I would
consider it," Johnson says. "Of course, Dan would be right back
in there the next week. But it's possible."
For Johnson to admit that he'd consider subbing backup Craig
Erickson for Marino suggests that the coach doesn't think the
Dolphins legend is so legendary anymore. Marino turns 36 on
Sept. 15 and is coming off what for him was a pedestrian year
(59.2% completions, 2,795 yards, 17 touchdowns). But he looked
sharp in training camp and is in his best shape in years.
Johnson knows his offensive line is leaky and won't be able to
run-block in the dominant way he prefers, and he knows his team
will have to be supremely reliant on Marino to have any playoff
shot. The fact that he'd even think of pulling Marino will be
news to all of South Florida, just as it was to the quarterback
"It's his team," Marino said, appearing taken aback. "He can do
what he wants. I'm not going to worry about it. I mean, what do
you want me to say?"
When he was coach of the Cowboys, Johnson treated Troy Aikman
like a yo-yo after picking Steve Walsh in the 1989 supplemental
draft; Aikman was furious about it, but he wasn't an established
player then. If Marino is replaced by Erickson--who may have had
the best training camp of any Miami player--the controversy will
be huge. "Oh, I've never been afraid of that," Johnson says,
chuckling. "The point is, no one is untouchable here."
The honeymoon is over for the Panthers, who reached the NFC
Championship Game last season but went 0-4 in the '97 preseason.
Some Carolina fans have already turned nasty. "What's wrong with
you guys!" one leatherlung yelled at the players last week as
they worked out in preparation for their final preseason test.
That game, a 27-19 loss to Pittsburgh at Ericsson Stadium last
Friday, was the closest Carolina came to winning this summer,
following 14-, 10- and 20-point defeats. The problems that
plagued the Panthers in the loss to the Steelers were the same
ones they had throughout the preseason: fumbles, a sudden
inability to stop the run and a poor pass rush.
Carolina fumbled three times on Friday, losing one. Third in the
NFL last year in turnovers at +13, the club was -8 in the
The Panthers entered the Steelers game determined to stop the
run, yet even with steamroller Jerome Bettis sitting this one
out, Pittsburgh rushed for 144 yards on 24 carries. Carolina
allowed 97.6 yards a game on the ground in '96 but 142.3 this
Saddled with the holdout of outside linebacker Kevin Greene, who
led the NFL with 14 1/2 sacks last year, the Panthers had a
total of five sacks in the preseason. Last year they led the
league, with 60 sacks. With no end to Greene's holdout in sight,
Carolina got what it considered the perfect solution dropped
into its lap late Friday when the Saints released pass rusher
Renaldo Turnbull, who had played six years ago for Dom Capers
and Vic Fangio when they were assistant coaches with New
Orleans. Now the coach and defensive coordinator of the
Panthers, Capers and Fangio knew they could plug Turnbull into
Greene's spot in the Panthers' defense and have him game-ready
within a week. So late Sunday, Carolina waived Greene and signed
Turnball to a two-year contract and began prepping him for this
Sunday's season opener against the Redskins. General manager
Bill Polian said he had "reached the point of no return with
Greene" and decided to cut him while Carolina still had a chance
for a workable solution with Turnbull.
Before acquiring Turnbull, Polian expressed concern about the
play of the defense going into the regular season. "We're far
from a powerhouse right now," Polian said. "The worrisome thing
to us is defending against the run. That's what we have to
improve, and it may have to be with new people."
But the waiver wire is not the place to find quality defensive
linemen, and with Carolina facing Washington's Terry Allen (the
NFC's third-leading rusher in '96) and Atlanta's Jamal Anderson
(No. 6 on the same list) in the first two weeks, we'll find out
quickly if the preseason was just a bad dream for the Panthers.
A FAVRE CRY
It was a bittersweet off-season for two-time league MVP Brett
Favre of the Packers. There were the visits to a Mississippi
minimum-security prison, where his older brother, Scott, is
incarcerated for violating probation on a 1996 DUI manslaughter
conviction. Brett's wife, Deanna, underwent emergency ovarian
surgery but came through it fine. Finally, there was Favre's own
realization that he may need further counseling to deal with the
pressures he faces on and off the field.
"My lows can be pretty low," Favre says. "I love my life, but
I'd give everything back for my life to be as it was two years
ago"--meaning before his brother's legal woes and before his own
addiction to the painkiller Vicodin was diagnosed. He says he
doesn't think he'll ever go on painkiller binges again, "but you
never know. That's why it would do me some good to talk to
somebody about it."
Favre did have some fun during the break. "The highlight of my
off-season," he says, laughing, "was probably going to [agent]
Bus Cook's hometown in West Virginia and playing golf on this
nine-hole course with a graveyard in the middle."
READY OR NOT
The NFL prohibits college freshmen and sophomores from entering
the draft, but either of two super sophomores--Wisconsin running
back Ron Dayne or Ohio State linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer--could
challenge that rule. Dayne, who set an NCAA record with 1,863
rushing yards as a freshman, says he may consider coming out
after this season. Katzenmoyer, with a team-high 12 sacks in
'96, says he anticipates playing in Columbus for at least three
Still, Buckeyes coach John Cooper realizes that the prospect of
a lucrative pro contract might lure Katzenmoyer away. "The NFL
has assured me that they would fight any challenge in court,"
Cooper says. "But let's face it, the kid is probably going to
win the case. How can you deny someone the opportunity at a
livelihood?" With seasons like they had last year, both players
would be among the top 10 picks in '98 if they won the right to
WHO IS THIS GUY?
The winner of SI's Player of the Preseason Award is...Jon Kitna.
The Seahawks' third-string quarterback, Kitna took a bruising
sack on his first play in the preseason opener against the
Vikings, then completed all 14 of his passes in that game.
Against the Colts on Aug. 16, he went 8 for 8. Kitna finished
the preseason 42 for 51 for 420 yards, five touchdowns and one
His arrival in the pros is an amazing story: A Tacoma native,
Kitna played for tiny Central Washington University. He was
spotted there in 1995 by Seattle coach Dennis Erickson, who was
watching one of his nephews play for CWU. After being passed
over in the '96 draft, Kitna was invited to the Seahawks' camp
and made the practice squad. Erickson sent him to the World
League last spring, and Kitna led all quarterbacks there in
attempts, completions, passing yards and touchdowns. He wowed
the Seahawks all summer with his precision passing and on-field
leadership. Now he's behind injury-prone starter John Friesz and
aging Warren Moon, so Kitna might actually play some in the
"If coach Erickson hadn't found me," he says, "I'd probably be a
high school math teacher and coach in Tacoma. Every day I think
about how lucky I am."
There is only one realistic way to cut down on serious injuries
to quarterbacks in preseason games: Put a red shirt on them, as
teams do in practice, and make it illegal for them to be
tackled. The defense could only wrap up the quarterback, not
take him down. If the red-shirt method had been employed in
August, Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell wouldn't be missing at
least the first month of the season with a knee injury, the
Panthers' Kerry Collins wouldn't be out for the first three
games with a broken jaw, and the Steelers' Kordell Stewart
wouldn't be trying to play with strained knee ligaments.
NOT MILLER TIME
Talk about a precipitous fall. One year ago this week, Jim
Miller was opening the season as the Steelers' starting
quarterback. But as of Sunday he was unemployed, beaten out for
the third-string job by someone named Mike Quinn from Stephen F.
Austin, who wasn't even drafted last April. What happened? Well,
coach Bill Cowher had an extremely quick hook to begin with,
yanking Miller in the third quarter of the '96 season opener at
Jacksonville; Miller had completed nine of 17 passes at the
time, but he'd missed two open receivers in the end zone. The
then 25-year-old Miller never got his job back. His replacement,
12-year veteran Mike Tomczak, earned Cowher's trust during the
five-game Pittsburgh winning streak that followed, and Miller
threw but eight passes the rest of the season.
In the off-season Cowher became enamored of the multitalented
Kordell Stewart. Even when Miller played well, such as in a game
against the Eagles when he threw for two touchdowns and ran for
another, he felt that in Cowher's eyes he could do nothing right
compared with Stewart. When the efficient rookie Quinn (who
earns $131,000, to Miller's $900,000) proved his worth in
Pittsburgh's preseason games, Miller was gone. There surely have
been some odd chapters in Steelers history (remember Joe
Gilliam?), but this one involving Miller has to rank as one of
Linebacker Chad Brown, on going from a $349,000-a-year Steeler
to a $4 million-a-year Seahawk via free agency: "The pressure to
make every play is huge. I feel like I'm the poster child for
[Seattle owner] Paul Allen's new regime. I don't regret signing
here, but I just want to make sure I don't disappoint
people."... The Redskins should have suspended wideout Michael
Westbrook for one regular-season game instead of fining him
$50,000 and holding him out of one preseason game as punishment
for his brutal attack on teammate Stephen Davis during an Aug.
19 workout.... Lions quarterbacks coach Marc Trestman, on his
ill-fated, two-year run as 49ers offensive coordinator with
special assistant to the coaching staff Bill Walsh looking over
his shoulder last season: "Bill Walsh and I never had a moment
where there was any friction. I loved working with him. But we
went 12-4 [in '96], and Steve Young had the second-best
yards-per-pass-attempt average in the NFL, and it wasn't good
enough. It seems like the stage was set for the perception of
failure, no matter what was accomplished." ... The Bills'
coach-in-waiting appears to be defensive coordinator Wade
Phillips, who seems likely to take over if 72-year-old Marv Levy
ever decides to quit.... Speaking of Levy, NFL Films asked the
other 29 head coaches in the league what they hoped to be doing
at 72. Twenty-eight said they expected to be enjoying
retirement. The 29th, Carolina's Dom Capers, said, "Coaching."
... Randall Cunningham, the former Eagles star quarterback who
came out of retirement this year to sign with the Vikings, says
Minnesota will be his last stop. "I won't play for another
team," he says.... Oilers general manager Floyd Reese has never
seen a better-behaved team in training camp than his. "In 26
days," Reese says, "we fined one player, and that was for not
informing the trainer he had back spasms, which forced the guy
to miss a practice. No one was late for practice, late for a
meeting, late for curfew." If only nice guys finished first.
THE END ZONE
The 49ers' new stadium initiative passed by a scant 1,500 votes
in June, and club president Carmen Policy believes one spring
Friday night he and owner Eddie DeBartolo spent in San
Francisco's gay district may have been crucial to the vote. They
visited 14 bars, shaking hundreds of hands. "We finished at a
gay country bar called Rawhide II," says Policy. "I think we may
have changed a lot of minds that night." ... There will be an
unusual carry-on item on flights to and from Dolphins road games
this year: Buttercup, coach Jimmy Johnson's three-pound Yorkie,
which will be toted by Johnson's girlfriend, Rhonda Rookmaaker.
THE INNER GAME
TACKLING BARRY SANDERS
Ubiquitous Buccaneers middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson is the
only NFL defender to regularly stymie Detroit running back Barry
Sanders, the league's leading rusher in three of the last seven
seasons, including 1996. In one of their two games against Tampa
Bay last season Sanders, who averaged 97.1 yards per game in
'96, was held to 73; in another game the year before, the Bucs
limited Sanders to 48 yards.
"The first thing I do is try to look eyeball-to-eyeball with
Barry," says the 6'2", 230-pound Nickerson, of lining up across
from the 5'8", 200-pound Sanders. "I might be able to see him
peeking in the direction he's running, but almost always he's
got his head down, not giving me or anyone else a clue. Then
I'll look to see who's blocking me. Usually it's center Kevin
Glover. When the ball's snapped, Glover or a guard will lunge at
me, trying to take me on. My job is to shed that block with my
hands as soon as I can. That's half the battle, getting rid of
the blocker. Assuming I do that, then I look for Barry.
"When he's got the ball, he'll usually run wide. Then I have to
figure out what angle to take on him. If there's a corner
forcing him in, then I can go right for him. If there's a safety
inside, I have to take a wide angle toward the sidelines, kind
of overrun him, so we're protected outside.
"When I get close, I pounce. I never wait for him to make a
move. A lot of guys sit back and wait for him to give them a
move, then go for him. I think you've got to initiate the
action, or he's going to make you look sick. When I get close
enough, I reach out to any part of his body, and whatever I
touch I lock onto. No way he'll get free then. I try to grab the
outside of his shoulders because that's where his jersey is
easiest to get ahold of. Then I just ride him. I will never,
ever let go. When he goes down, for me, it's like scoring a
touchdown. I've just done the hardest thing a defensive player
can do in the NFL.
"I love playing Barry. I pride myself on tackling, and chasing
Barry is the greatest opportunity I have to show what kind of
tackler I am." --P.K.
Several free agents who signed lucrative contracts with new
teams in the off-season will be under pressure to produce
immediate results. Among them are these notable newcomers to the
AFC West: quarterback Jeff George, return specialist Desmond
Howard and safety Eric Turner of the Raiders; linebacker Chad
Brown and cornerback Willie Williams of the Seahawks; and
quarterback Elvis Grbac of the Chiefs. All of them hope they'll
fare better than Neil O'Donnell (left, being sacked by Denver's
Jumpy Geathers) did in his Jets debut in 1996. Here's how
O'Donnell and some of his free-agency classmates played in their
openers a year ago.
PLAYER TEAM CONTRACT
CORNELIUS BENNETT, LB Falcons $13.6 million, four years
PERFORMANCE 11 tackles in 29-6 loss to Panthers
MARCO COLEMAN, DE Chargers $9.6 million, three years
[PERFORMANCE] Three tackles in 29-7 win over Seahawks
BRYAN COX, LB Bears $13.2 million, four years
[PERFORMANCE] Nine tackles, two fumble recoveries in 22-6 win
NEIL O'DONNELL, QB Jets $25 million, five years
[PERFORMANCE] 7 for 13 for 50 yards, sacked eight times in 31-6
loss to Broncos
LESLIE O'NEAL, DE Rams $9.5 million, three years
[PERFORMANCE] One sack, one fumble recovery in 26-16 win over