STATE OF THE GAME
This is an article from the Nov. 3, 1997 issue
Last week NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue sat at the conference
table in his 17th-floor corner office on Park Avenue and
dreamed. The people in northeast Ohio pray his rosy vision of
the future--an expansion team two years down the road, with most
of the start-up trimmings that the Jaguars and the Panthers had
in 1995--comes true.
"Imagine the Hall of Fame Game in 1999," Tagliabue said.
"Cleveland Browns-Dallas Cowboys. How many people are going to
try to get there? They'll have to build a special road for that
day. And then Monday Night Football opens. Browns against
whomever. The Jets! The Super Bowl champion Jets, led by Bill
Parcells and Glenn Foley. How about that?
"When the Cleveland Browns take the field in 1999, it's going to
be one of the sports stories of the century. It's never happened
before--a legendary franchise with a severe stadium problem
returns after a four-year period when the lights were out. It's
like the Dodgers reopening in a new Ebbets Field."
There's a lot that Tagliabue can't see in his crystal ball. He
doesn't know how a St. Louis jury will rule on a challenge to
the league's franchise-relocation policy. He doesn't know if the
Vikings will stay put. He doesn't know where a Los Angeles team
would play, who would own the franchise or when it would begin
He does know he wants an expansion team for Cleveland (the
league has promised the city a franchise for 1999 but hasn't
said if it would be a new or relocated one) and that it's
unlikely the league will add two teams in 1999. That means that
unless a franchise moves, Los Angeles will remain on the
expansion list, with long-shot Houston and, soon, Mexico City,
Toronto, Vancouver and--get this--a city in Germany. "A lot of
people feel going [from 30] to 31 makes a lot of sense for a
phased growth of the NFL," said Tagliabue, who foresees an NFL
team outside the U.S. by the year 2010. He envisions the new
Browns being built through an expansion draft, with each team
protecting a prescribed number of veterans (about 37), and
through double draft picks in at least the first year. However,
Tagliabue may push NFL owners to limit the Browns on what they
can spend in free agency in their first two years, unlike
Carolina and Jacksonville, whose opportunity to participate
without restrictions in free-agent bidding helped each team make
its conference championship game in its second season.
In an 80-minute interview Tagliabue touched on some of the other
major issues facing the league:
--Labor. NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw has expressed
reservations about extending the labor agreement, which is due
to expire in 2001, possibly three additional years. Such a move
would give the league seven years of labor peace and enhance the
NFL's position in TV contract negotiations. (The current
four-year television deal expires after this season.) "What's in
it for the union?" Tagliabue asked. "We could get commitments
from the networks at higher levels than they would otherwise be.
For the networks the longer-term the investment, the better the
investment is. This way we could plan the growth of the salary
--TV. Contracts may be shorter for cable (Tagliabue named ESPN,
Turner and Fox Sports Net as cable contenders) than for the
major networks, in part because the league doesn't like the idea
of all of its TV deals ending at the same time. If every one of
the contracts expired during an economic downturn, the NFL could
take a big hit on its next deal. He added that it was unlikely
another TV package would be added, meaning CBS will have to beat
out one of the incumbents if it expects to air NFL games in '98.
--Minority coach hiring. Although 67% of the players are black,
only three teams have a black head coach. All 11 head-coaching
vacancies that have been filled since late last season went to
white men. The league has retained former World League chief
operating officer Joe Bailey, now with an executive-search firm,
to ask coaches and club executives how to put more minorities in
CATCH OF THE DAY
Unhappy with the multiyear offers he got during a cap-squeezed
off-season, free-agent cornerback Ryan McNeil chose to gamble on
himself in two ways: 1) He signed a one-year, $1.25 million
contract with the Rams, turning down the Bengals' three-year, $6
million offer; and 2) He signed with a team that would ask him
to play a lot of man-to-man defense. After four years of playing
almost exclusively in zone coverages for the Lions, he had
become stereotyped as strictly a zone corner, and the Rams
planned to play man-to-man about 70% of the time.
Playing mostly man coverage seems to suit McNeil just fine. He
leads the NFL with six interceptions and has outplayed his
running mate at the other corner, Todd Lyght, who is in the
second year of a four-year, $10.7 million deal. "It took guts,"
McNeil said last week. "But I bet on myself, and that's a bet
I'll take any day. Here's what I faced: Did I want to tie myself
into a long-term deal and be unhappy [in Cincinnati] when I
outplay the contract I signed? Or did I want to prove how good I
think I am and then reap the benefits? I knew that after this
year the new TV deal was going to push the salary cap up, and
teams would have money to spend in 1998 that they might not have
this year. It's hard to delay gratification. But I just looked
at this year as though I was on a six-month business trip."
HOLD ON A MINUTE
Some coaches think offensive holding has become an unchecked
epidemic. Linemen are allowed to push defenders but not grab
them to maneuver them out of the play. Said one coach last week,
"Every Monday we look at tape and see our defensive linemen
grabbed and thrown to the ground. Maybe we should teach holding
like other teams obviously are." Maybe coaches should just speak
out more. Director of officiating Jerry Seeman says there hasn't
been an increase in the number of complaints about holding this
PHILLY'S MVP, BUT FOR HOW LONG?
In a cold rain at Veterans Stadium on Sunday, down 9-3 to the
Cowboys with less than 17 minutes left and with their season
hanging on the edge of another cliff, the Eagles turned to the
only player who could save them. Ricky Watters for 14. Watters
for eight. Watters for seven. Watters for four. Three plays
later, Chris Boniol kicked a 37-yard field goal. With his team
trailing 12-6 at the two-minute warning, Watters broke off a
14-yard run to the Dallas 11, and two plays later Rodney Peete
threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Chad
Lewis. The Eagles escaped 13-12. At 4-4 they're tied with the
Cowboys and the Redskins for second place in the NFC East, a
game and a half behind the Giants.
As time wound down on Sunday, a half-dozen Eagles hugged Watters
and screamed variations of You da Man in his ear. But for how
long? Watters is eligible to be a free agent at the end of the
season, and the Eagles will likely let him walk, in part because
they would like to give promising fourth-year veteran Charlie
Garner a chance to shine, in part because they don't want to pay
Watters $4 million a year and in part because they fear he may
be close to burning out. Except for Emmitt Smith, Watters, 28,
has touched the ball more than any player in football over the
past 2 1/2 years.
The Eagles have put off negotiations until after the season. If
they let the mouthy and occasionally disruptive Watters go,
they'll be losing their only consistent big-play threat. "I put
my future in God's hands," Watters said after Sunday's game.
"Whatever happens, happens."
When linebacker Pepper Johnson returned to the Jets' locker room
last week after undergoing season-ending surgery on a ruptured
tendon near his left knee, coach Bill Parcells was waiting with
his motivational needle. "Hey, Johnson," Parcells said. "You
know what I'm going to do? I'm going to put two pictures on your
locker. One's going to be of a beautiful sunset, with you in it.
The other's going to be a picture of Evander Holyfield. You
figure out which one fits you--the retirement or the comeback."
Johnson, 33, responded with something unprintable, but it
approximated this: No way I'm retiring.
Sense a running epidemic around the NFL? Check out passaholic
Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda's plan in Sunday's win over the
Redskins. Bam Morris carried 36 times for 176 yards. Vinny
Testaverde completed 10 of 21 passes for 142 yards.... Charles
Way, the Giants' 6-foot, 245-pound fullback, is the surprising
star of New York's 6-3 start, sustaining drives with his
churning runs. In the last three weeks he has rushed for 91, 90
and 75 yards. "To me," Giants tackle Scott Gragg said after
Sunday's 29-27 win over the Bengals, "he's a picture of what
football used to be 100 years ago, when there were no such
things as cutback lanes. He just lowers his head and mashes into
the hole."... Sunday was Cleveland Day at Rich Stadium in
Buffalo, and sections of the sold-out stadium included fans who
had driven east from Ohio for the day. How fitting that John
Elway drove Denver to the winning score in overtime. CLEVELAND
STILL HATES ELWAY said one end zone sign.
THE END ZONE
The 49ers are moving their training camp from Sierra Community
College in Rocklin, Calif., to the University of the Pacific in
Stockton. The school was aided in its bid by Chargers owner Alex
Spanos, a Stockton resident and Pacific alumnus who lobbied the
49ers and contributed $1 million of the $3 million package in
improvements and incentives the university used to lure the team.
Send your NFL questions to Peter King and read more Dr. Z at
Chicago's QB Quagmire
Take away the glory years from 1984 to 1991, when the troika of
Jim McMahon, Mike Tomczak and Jim Harbaugh led the Bears into
the playoffs seven times, and Chicago has had as disastrous a
quarterback run as any team in recent history. Not counting
those eight years, the Bears have started 15 quarterbacks in 20
seasons since the AFL-NFL merger. The shuffle continues this
season, with coach Dave Wannstedt flip-flopping between Erik
Kramer and Rick Mirer during Chicago's horrendous 1-7 start.
Excluding those quarterbacks who have started fewer than 10
games, here's a list of the men who played exclusively before
and after the eight-year run of success, ranked by wins in games
QUARTERBACK W-L COMP. PCT. TD INT.
Bob Avellini 23-26 .501 33 66
Mike Phipps 14-6 .525 15 27
Vince Evans 12-20 .487 31 53
Bobby Douglass 12-25-1 .412 25 43
Erik Kramer 12-18 .582 46 29
Steve Walsh 8-3 .606 10 8
Jack Concannon 7-9 .511 16 21
Dave Krieg 6-6 .599 14 12
Gary Huff 5-17 .505 12 34
1. PURPLE POWER PLAY You'd think Dennis Green's controversial
book would distract the Vikings, but history says otherwise.
Last year, after rumors surfaced that team owners were feeling
out Lou Holtz about Green's job, Minnesota won four of five. On
Sunday the Vikings won a huge game over the Bucs.
2. THE OLD BRAWLGAME Former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, now
with NBC, recently called Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh a baby
on his Buffalo TV show. Harbaugh confronted Kelly in a San Diego
hotel on the eve of the Colts-Chargers game on Sunday. A scuffle
ensued, and Harbaugh cracked a bone in his throwing hand when he
reportedly punched Kelly in the head. Harbaugh's out, without
pay, until the hand heals. According to sources, both men have
refused to apologize.
3. SNOW JOB Broncos kicker Jason Elam, a Florida native who
attended Hawaii, was stranded in a Colorado blizzard along I-25
on Saturday. He used his cell phone to call authorities, was
rescued, made the team charter to Buffalo and went from ice cold
to red hot. Elam hit three of four field goals, including the
overtime winner, to boost the Broncos.
4. D-DAY? Dallas hasn't missed the playoffs since 1990. But at
4-4 (including a damaging 1-4 in the division) and with November
games at San Francisco and Green Bay looming, and with injuries
racking the roster, let's face facts. "We're not a great team,"
cornerback Deion Sanders says. "We're just a pretty good team."
Pretty good equals a wild-card game on the road. Maybe.
5. LIFE ON THE MOON The graying of Seattle continued on Sunday,
when the most senior of NFL citizens, 40-year-old Warren Moon,
threw for 409 yards and five touchdowns against the Raiders. The
Seahawks have won five of the seven games that Moon has started.