BUILT TO LAST
As last week dawned, you couldn't blame the Buccaneers, pewter
pants and all, for feeling like the hapless Bucs of old.
Skepticism was running wild after Tampa Bay's 13-7 loss to the
Bears on Nov. 23, and more trouble was looming: games at the
Meadowlands against the Giants and the Jets sandwiched around a
home date with the Super Bowl champion Packers.
But these aren't the same old Bucs. Two days after the debacle
in Chicago, rookie running back Warrick Dunn, who was raised by
a single mother, donated more than $100,000 for down payments on
four furnished homes for single-mother families. The gesture was
a notable one for a member of a franchise that has traditionally
struggled for acceptance in its community. The following day the
organization took a big step to secure its future by signing one
of the league's most underrated players, outside linebacker
Derrick Brooks, to a four-year extension. On Sunday the Bucs
made a statement on the field. They went into a hostile
environment, faced a strong defense and a good running game and
beat the Giants going away, 20-8.
"There was a lot of symbolism in this game, and this week," said
strong safety John Lynch, who in September signed a $1.7
million-a-year extension that will keep him in Tampa through
2000. "We started the week with the same end-of-the-world
attitude around town that always exists when we lose a game we
shouldn't have. But instead of figuring the whole thing's
broken, we knew we'd just hit a bump. We came into Giants
Stadium, a tough place to play, faced turnovers and momentum
swings, and every time things started to turn, we met the
Dunn followed his magnanimous gesture early in the week with a
120-yard running day against the Giants, and road-grading
fullback Mike Alstott scored two touchdowns, one on a
soft-handed reception of a Trent Dilfer pass, the other on a
Ping-Pong run. Brooks was everywhere, intercepting a feeble
Danny Kanell pass, deflecting three others and racking up eight
tackles. Tackle Warren Sapp terrorized Kanell with four
pressures, while end Chidi Ahanotu had two sacks. (He has a
The Bucs have the pieces in place to win 10 games a year into
the next decade. Only two of Sunday's starters, guard Jim Pyne
and free safety Charles Mincy, are free agents after the season,
and the Bucs are confident they can lock up Sapp, their most
significant player who will be eligible for unrestricted free
agency after the '98 season, by next spring.
Last week, as word spread about Brooks's $3.25 million-a-year
extension, coach Tony Dungy tapped the linebacker on the
shoulder during prepractice stretching exercises. "I'm happy for
you," Dungy said. "We're going to grow old together here."
Old and successful.
THE NFC LEAST
"The NFC East is an enigma," Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason
said on Sunday after his team's 44-42 loss to the Eagles. Wrong.
Enigma suggests mysterious, not woeful, which is what this
division has become. Tennessee is 7-6 and likely to finish out
of the AFC playoffs. Tennessee is 4-0 against the Least, and its
average margin of victory in those games was 15 points. From
1982 to '95, NFC East teams won eight Super Bowls, an
unprecedented era of dominance since the title game was first
played in 1967. Here's what has happened over the last few
years: The division's playmakers aren't producing, and the
offensive lines, once the strength of teams in Dallas, New York
and Washington, are horrible. When the line is inconsistent, a
team is like a yo-yo, as the Redskins have discovered.
Washington belted Jacksonville and Detroit but has lost at home
to Baltimore and St. Louis.
Three weeks ago the Eagles were playing for next year. This
Sunday, with a win over the Giants at the Vet, Philadelphia
would be tied for first and thrust into the stunning role of
division favorite with road games against the Falcons and the
Redskins left. It's remarkable that a team playing for 1998 just
before Thanksgiving could be hosting a first-round playoff game.
Welcome to football's most mediocre division.
JAGUARS' JOHNSON A HOT COMMODITY
He has thrown only 34 passes in his three-year NFL career, and
he's not even going to be a free agent after this season.
Nevertheless, the Jaguars' Rob Johnson will be the most coveted
quarterback on the off-season market. Aside from Tennessee's
Peyton Manning and Washington State's Ryan Leaf (assuming the
latter bypasses his senior season), no blue-chippers are in the
draft, and free agency will produce the weakest crop of
quarterbacks since the unrestricted system began in 1993.
The biggest name is the Dolphins' Craig Erickson, but don't
expect him to go anywhere. Miami coach Jimmy Johnson will
probably persuade Erickson to stay put by guaranteeing him that
he'll be Dan Marino's heir as early as sometime next season.
Other available signal-callers include the Cardinals' Kent
Graham, the Eagles' Ty Detmer and Rodney Peete, the Chargers'
Jim Everett (coming off elbow surgery), the Falcons' Jim Miller,
the Rams' Mark Rypien and the Saints' Doug Nussmeier. (Another
player to watch is the Jets' Neil O'Donnell, who, because of the
emergence of Glenn Foley, is no longer the clear-cut No. 1 in
New York. If O'Donnell is still on the roster on Feb. 20, he'll
be due $2.75 million.)
With as many as 12 teams looking for long-term quarterback
solutions, Johnson will be in demand. He has completed 70% of
his preseason passes in three years, and in his only
regular-season start, in the '97 opener against the Ravens, he
completed 20 of 24 attempts and led Jacksonville to a 28-27 win
despite playing most of the second half with a severely sprained
left ankle. Johnson is signed through 1998, but the Jaguars are
comfortable with Mark Brunell and could try to trade their
backup rather than risk losing him in free agency. Brunell was a
year away from restricted free agency when Jacksonville got him
from the Packers in 1995 for third- and fifth-round draft picks,
but because of the current dearth of marquee quarterbacks,
Johnson could fetch much more. Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin says
only, "You need two quarterbacks in today's football. We'll look
at that after the season."
Look at it this way: If you can trade a very good backup for,
say, a mid-first-round pick and use that selection to get
something you desperately need, like a cover cornerback (North
Carolina's Dre' Bly?), the decision is not a difficult one.
SPEAKING OF RYAN...
Leaf, the 6'5" junior who guided Washington State to its first
Rose Bowl berth in 67 years, says he consults with one of his
predecessors, the Patriots' Drew Bledsoe, almost weekly. Bledsoe
left the Cougars a year early, in '93, and was the first pick in
the draft. Leaf, too, is expected to forgo his senior season. He
would probably be among the top three picks, along with Manning
and Florida State defensive end Andre Wadsworth.
Leaf says he won't pull a John Elway and refuse to report to
certain teams. "I'm not going to be selfish," he said last
Saturday from his parents' home in Great Falls, Mont. "If it's
the Colts, Bears, whoever, I'll be unbelievably happy. I hope I
can bring a lot to the table."
THURMAN'S NEW ROLE
For one afternoon, at least, it seemed like old times in
Buffalo. On Sunday at Rich Stadium, in a cold and driving rain,
Thurman Thomas led the Bills to a 20-10 upset of the Jets. A
week after quietly conceding his role as the team's featured
ballcarrier by sitting out the second half of a loss to the
Oilers, the 31-year-old running back showed he isn't ready to
call it a career. "My job now," Thomas said after the Jets game,
"is to let the younger players know there's no quit in the
There certainly was none in Thomas or the 6-7 Bills on Sunday.
Squeezing through tiny holes and bouncing off tacklers for big
gains, Thomas set the tone by gaining 34 yards--on a reception
and two runs--on the Bills' first three plays. He finished with
104 yards on 18 carries (his first 100-yard game since Nov. 3,
1996) and passed O.J. Simpson to move into ninth place on the
league's alltime rushing list, with 11,325 yards. "There's been
a lot of talk about Thurman losing a step or being too old,"
says Antowain Smith, the rookie who has replaced Thomas. "But he
never ceases to amaze me."
Beyond the stats, Thomas is boosting his image with his work on
the practice field. A player with a reputation for being curt
with fans and the media, Thomas wants to finish off his career
like Marcus Allen--a mentor who can still turn in an outstanding
performance. Early last week it was Thomas and other Buffalo
veterans who made it clear to their teammates that mailing in
the final four games of '97 would not be tolerated.
"I know he's not a 300-carry-a-year man like he's been," coach
Marv Levy said after Sunday's game. "But Thurman sure looked
quick and competitive today. I think he can play in this league
for a while. He can keep playing for the Buffalo Bills, I'll
tell you that." --DAVID FLEMING
TAGLIABUE: STAY IN SCHOOL
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue says the NFL will fight bids by any
second-year college players to enter the '98 draft. "We think
our rules [limiting signings to players with at least three
years of college] will stand up in court," Tagliabue says.
Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne is the most likely candidate to
test the waters next spring, but he, or any other second-year
sophomores, won't get any support from Packers general manager
Ron Wolf. "I hope if one of those guys wants to come out, we
discourage him by letting him know we'll fight it hard," says
Wolf. "We should make him feel like Curt Flood [whose ultimately
successful challenge to baseball's reserve clause dragged on for
years], so he'll stay in school."
Boomer Esiason, angered that the Bengals recently cut longtime
tackle Joe Walter, took to wearing Walter's number, 63, on the
back of his helmet instead of his own number. Last week the
league fined Esiason $5,000 for violating its uniform code.
Esiason wore his customary 7 on Sunday but printed a 63 on the
back of his helmet.... The Raiders (4-9) are on the verge of
losing 10 games for the first time in a nonstrike season since
going 1-13 in 1962.... Speculation is rampant about who will
replace Cowboys coach Barry Switzer if Jerry Jones cuts him
loose in the off-season. This much is certain: Jones isn't going
to pick some puppet who can't stand up for himself. My money's
on Bears coach Dave Wannstedt.
THE END ZONE
Nine-year-old Jaguars fan Andy Wilkinson went to ALLTEL Stadium
last week to get autographs from his heroes. While there he
stuck his head into the mouth of a 16-foot, 2,850-pound bronze
jaguar that sits in front of the west entrance to the stadium so
his mom could take his picture. Then he announced, "I can't get
my head out, Mom!" Andy was stuck for an hour, and one of the
cat's teeth had to be sawed off so the child could be freed.
Asked if he had learned a lesson, Andy replied, "Yes. Don't
stick your head in a jaguar's mouth."
Send your NFL questions to Peter King and read more Dr. Z at
1. BOBBYBALL Three weeks ago Eagles quarterback Bobby Hoying
took over a stumbling 4-6 team. Since then, he has completed 60%
of his attempts, passed for 278 yards per game and thrown six
touchdown passes and only one interception. The Eagles are
2-0-1. "A real star is born," Ricky Watters said after a 44-42
win over the Bengals.
2. THE RICEMAN COMETH A little more than three months after knee
surgery that would have sidelined mere mortals for 10 months,
Jerry Rice is expected to return to practice this week. "He'll
definitely play again this year," says 49ers president Carmen
3. LAWRENCE WHO? Lawrence Phillips was good for 66.6 yards per
game before he was released by the Rams on Nov. 20. His
surrogates, Jerald Moore and Amp Lee, ravaged the Redskins for
226 yards in a 23-20 win.
4. THIS IS NOT A MISPRINT The Falcons went 4-1 in November. They
won at Seattle without getting a first down in the second half.
Atlanta is 5-8. The Raiders are 4-9. Is this a weird league.
5. WHAT HORSESHOE? The Colts lost 20-17 at New England. "It's
like living a nightmare that never ends," Indianapolis coach
Lindy Infante said afterward. The Colts (1-12) have lost by two
to the Bills and the Steelers, by three to the Bills, the Bucs
and the Patriots, by four to the Jets and by six to the
A RUNNING PROBLEM
If Broncos coach Mike Shanahan were playing against his defense,
he knows what he would do: run the ball, often. "Wouldn't you?"
Shanahan said earlier this season. "If someone went in there
with 35, 40 throws, I'd think they were insane." Opposing
ballcarriers have indeed gone crazy against Denver, tearing off
15 runs of 20 or more yards, including touchdown runs of 79
yards by the Bengals' Ki-Jana Carter and 83 yards by the
Raiders' Napoleon Kaufman. Although the Broncos have stiffened
in recent weeks, they are still giving up a generous 5.0 yards
per attempt. In the last decade no Super Bowl winner has allowed
more than 4.0 yards per rush. After Sunday's 38-28 win over the
Chargers, here's how the Broncos (with three games remaining)
stacked up against the run compared with the last 10 NFL
YEAR TEAM RUSHES YARDS PER RUSH PER GAME
1997 Broncos 296 1,489 5.0 114.5
1996 Packers 400 1,416 3.5 88.5
1995 Cowboys 442 1,772 4.0 110.8
1994 49ers 375 1,338 3.6 83.6
1993 Cowboys 423 1,651 3.9 103.2
1992 Cowboys 345 1,244 3.6 77.8
1991 Redskins 348 1,346 3.9 84.1
1990 Giants 388 1,459 3.8 91.2
1989 49ers 372 1,383 3.7 86.4
1988 49ers 441 1,588 3.6 99.3
1987 Redskins 441 1,679 3.8 111.9