The Missing Link
Yancey Thigpen's skillful receiving should pump up the Oilers
When Oilers coach Jeff Fisher sat down to contemplate
Tennessee's shortcomings following the 1997 season, everything
seemed to point to young quarterback Steve McNair's needing the
help of a veteran wide receiver. The stat sheet showed that the
Oilers' No. 1 receiver in 1997 was their tight end Frank
Wycheck. Plus, when several veterans knocked on Fisher's door on
their way home for the winter, each had shared the same message:
This team is one star player from a deep playoff run.
That player could be Yancey Thigpen, a two-time Pro Bowl wideout
with the Steelers, whom Tennessee signed to a five-year, $21
million contract in February, making him the highest-paid
receiver in the NFL. "Getting Yancey is very close to being the
most important acquisition we've ever had," says Fisher. "After
three years of looking, we found the receiver that can take us
where we want to go." Adds Oilers general manager Floyd Reese,
"For our team, this guy was very, very important."
It's not hard to see why. The 6'1", 180-pound Thigpen, a
fourth-round draft pick by the Chargers in '91, blossomed into a
star in '95, his fourth season with Pittsburgh. That year he
caught 85 passes, to surpass the Steelers' record set by John
Stallworth, and piling up 1,307 receiving yards on his way to
Super Bowl XXX and the Pro Bowl. After a string of leg injuries
reduced his playing time in 1996, Thigpen bounced back in '97
with 79 catches. He also broke another of Stallworth's team
records with 1,398 yards receiving.
It was Thigpen's performance in a 35-24 win against the Broncos
on Dec. 7 that really hooked Fisher. Thigpen had six catches for
175 yards and three first-half touchdowns of 33, 69 and 21
yards. It was then that the Oilers, who haven't had a 1,300-yard
receiver in 34 years, went into OT (Operation Thigpen). McNair
began sweet-talking Thigpen on the field after Pittsburgh and
Tennessee met in the teams' regular-season finale. More Oilers
cornered him at the Super Bowl. On the plane ride to the Pro
Bowl in Honolulu, Tennessee running back Eddie George sat in the
seat next to Thigpen and campaigned throughout the flight.
Oilers safety Blaine Bishop took over when they landed.
Thigpen says he chose the Oilers above 11 other suitors because
McNair's passing abilities reminded him of Pittsburgh
quarterback Kordell Stewart and because by staying in the AFC
Central, he'll face familiar defenses. Shortly after signing
with Tennessee, however, Thigpen had surgery to repair a screw
that had been inserted into his left foot last year for
stabilization. He missed almost all the Oilers' spring practices.
In the middle of Yancey's first minicamp with Tennessee, in
early June, his father, Edward, died after a battle with
Guillain-Barre syndrome. "All my life everyone has said how
blessed I am," says Yancey. "I'd give all that up to have my
Because of the injury and his dad's death, last week was the
first time Thigpen ran hard since the Pro Bowl, and he was sore
for two days after the workout. "But it's a good feeling," he
says. "It lets me know I've got my feet under me, and even
though things have been tough lately, I'm about to go to a whole
The Oilers only hope that Thigpen takes them along.
Shula a Risk in the Front Office
The facts are indisputable. There simply isn't anyone on the
planet with a better football resume than Don Shula, the
winningest coach in NFL history and a sure first-ballot Hall of
Famer. Last week, three years after his retirement as vice
president and coach of the Dolphins, Shula, 68, was introduced
as executive vice president of a group seeking to obtain the new
Cleveland Browns franchise. Although numbers and facts make the
hiring of Shula seem sound, it's a mistake.
Should the Dolan group, which includes Charles Dolan, the
chairman of Cablevision Systems Corp., end up with the Browns,
Shula would have input in football operations, including the
selection of the general manager, the coach and assistant
coaches. Although Shula would like to put Cleveland's front
office together and then step back out of the spotlight without
getting involved in things like player evaluations, on-field
strategies or coaching decisions, there's no guarantee that's
how things will work out.
That's what makes Shula's role with Dolan's group so dicey. The
way Shula left the game after the '95 season suggests that the
sport had passed him by. In his 22 years of coaching following
his second Super Bowl win, in 1974, he was 9-12 in the playoffs
and didn't win a playoff game on the road. A member of the Miami
front office says the Dolphins are still hampered by the
economic and talent fallout from the end of his regime. Shula
sold out Miami's future trying to win one last Super Bowl. That
left new coach Jimmy Johnson nearly $5 million over the salary
Still, Shula seems unfazed. "You spend 33 years pacing the
sidelines, when it's gone, it's not easy," he says. "The chance
to start a franchise from scratch in Cleveland gets my juices
But will Shula be able to do the same for Cleveland?
Zampese To the Rescue
Maybe it's hard to imagine a guy with eight grandchildren being
on the cutting edge of offensive strategy in the NFL, but that's
the case with Ernie Zampese, the 62-year-old offensive
coordinator who will be entering his 23rd season in the league,
with the Patriots after he and the Cowboys parted ways. Known
for the legendary aerial scoring machines he helped run in San
Diego with Dan Fouts and in Dallas with Troy Aikman, Zampese has
been given the task of retooling the New England offense, which,
despite the presence of an accomplished quarterback in Drew
Bledsoe, averaged one touchdown over its final four games of 1997.
"Ernie's offense is proven," says Aikman. "He's one of the
alltime greats. He was good for me; I know he'll be good for
Zampese has focused on reducing Bledsoe's drop-back time and
distance. The deep threat remains, but routes for talented
wideouts Terry Glenn and Shawn Jefferson have also been
shortened. Says Bledsoe, "Hopefully, this new system will allow
us to be more successful and give us a chance to compete on the
same level as the top teams--which has been our goal for five
THE MR. IRRELEVANT award is given out to the last player taken
in the NFL draft. This year's honoree is Cam Quayle, a 6'7",
250-pound tight end from Weber State, who was selected by the
Ravens in the 7th round with the 241st pick. Former Mr.
Irrelevants include Redskins center Matt Elliott (1992) and
Patriots linebacker Marty Moore ('94). The highlight of last
week's festivities was a banquet in Quayle's honor, attended by
300 celebrants, in Newport Beach, Calif. That's where we caught
up with him.
SI: Tell us about being picked.
Quayle: I thought the draft had been over for a long time when
the Ravens called late Sunday afternoon. I was in shock. Coach
Ted Marchibroda got on the phone, and I almost said, "Which one
of my friends is this?" A few minutes later I called my agent.
SI: What was his reaction?
Quayle: He was laughing. He said, "You were the last one picked,
but I think they do something special for that."
SI: Besides the week of parties, and being allowed to go to the
front of the lines at Disneyland, what else did you get?
Quayle: I got a trophy from the Irrelevant Club. It looks like
the Heisman, except the guy has just dropped the football and
has this great look on his face, as if he's saying, "Uh-oh!"
SI: Did you get a lot of bad questions about Dan Quayle?
Quayle: I was told he was in the area, and I guess he almost
stopped by. From the first day, every reporter wanted to know if
I could spell potato. Each thought the question was original.
SI: Uh, uh...shoot! I forgot my next question. Spelling
irrelevant is much harder. I always get the second e and the a
Quayle: I've had to spell that for people, too. It wasn't a
SI: Of course not. You were an academic All-America and have
been accepted to dental school at Virginia Commonwealth. How
often do you brush?
Quayle: At least twice a day.
SI: Come on.
Quayle: No, I do.
SI: Tell us about your first minicamp.
Quayle: Boy, was that cool! I caught my first pass from Jim
Harbaugh, and I went, Whoa! I used to watch him on TV.
SI: Now you're famous too.
Quayle: For a week. And then it'll all be gone when I fly back
home to Ogden [Utah], where I am truly irrelevant.