Inside The NFL

September 13, 1998

Housewarming
The Ravens opened a new stadium but seemed stuck in the same old
rut

"Welcome to the future of the NFL," a beaming David Modell said
on Sunday, minutes before the Ravens kicked off their first
regular-season game in their new, $223 million stadium. Even if
you had to climb 217 steps, as 40-year-old Baltimore corrections
officer Bob Weisengoff did around noon to get to his seat seven
rows from the top of the stadium, you wouldn't complain. "It's
magnificent," said Weisengoff, who paid a onetime $750
seat-license fee and doled out $350 for his 10-game season
ticket this year. "Finally we got our football team back, and we
can stop living in the past."

The players seemed in awe of the place too. "It's so beautiful
you don't know whether to have a picnic or play a football
game," said Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Added Steelers
offensive lineman Jim Sweeney, "I wish the people of Pittsburgh
could see this. They'd never vote down a stadium again."

Of course, there's still this little matter of playing football.
And in three hours and one minute, the Bob Weisengoffs of the
world found out that the more things change, the more they stay
the same. Baltimore had streaked through the '98 preseason
undefeated, outscoring opponents 89-26 in its four victories.
There the Ravens were on Sunday, outgaining the four-time
defending AFC Central champion Steelers 376-271, holding Pro
Bowl running back Jerome Bettis to 41 yards on 23 carries and
limiting quarterback Kordell Stewart to 173 yards passing. Yet
long snapper Harper LeBel misfired on a punt (which led to a
Steelers touchdown) and a pair of field goal attempts (both of
which were missed by the usually reliable Matt Stover, who blew
a third one, to boot). Cornerback Rod Woodson and wideout
Jermaine Lewis dropped an interception and a touchdown pass,
respectively. And Pittsburgh walked away with a 20-13 victory.

In a fitting end to the day, the Ravens had planned to put the
late-afternoon NFL games on the giant video screens so fans
could watch the games in the world's biggest sports bar. It
never happened. Something about a problem with the satellite
hookup.

Antonio Freeman
Rolling the Dice In Green Bay

In the off-season Packers wideout Antonio Freeman turned down a
multiyear offer from the club for about $3 million a year,
opting instead to sign a one-year, $1.15 million deal and test
the free-agent waters in 1999, after his fourth pro season.
Playing with the league's most explosive offense and preparing
to get rich in a market sure to be further inflated by the
expansion Browns and a salary cap expected to rise about $8
million per team in '99, Freeman should be licking his chops. So
why does he have reservations about his decision?

"The best quarterback's here, signed long-term," says Freeman,
who has become Brett Favre's favorite target. "The Packers are
one of the great franchises in sports. And this is such a
violent game. Careers end every Sunday. But I'm looking at free
agency as a one-shot deal. The Cleveland opportunity could be
the chance of a lifetime."

The Packers could protect themselves by slapping their franchise
tag on Freeman, who last season caught 81 passes for 1,243 yards
and 12 touchdowns. Another team could sign Freeman, but it would
have to send Green Bay two first-round draft choices or some
other agreed-upon compensation. If Freeman stayed put, the
Packers would be required to offer a one-year contract that is
equivalent to the average 1998 salary of the top five wideouts
in the league. In '99 that number will probably surpass $5
million. Either way, Freeman comes out a winner--provided, of
course, he can stay healthy in 1998.

Conrad Hamilton
Giants Corner Put to the Test

After breaking up a fourth-down pass that helped preserve a
31-24 win over the Redskins on Sunday, Giants cornerback Conrad
Hamilton jogged toward the sideline, where his teammates were
waiting to congratulate him. Hamilton, who replaced Jason Sehorn
after Sehorn was lost for the season with a knee injury on Aug.
20, said thanks, then added, "I just want you guys to believe in
me."

But after a performance by Hamilton that was no better than
adequate, the Giants' front office isn't sold on the 1996
seventh-round pick out of Eastern New Mexico. On Monday the team
continued talks with cornerback Carlton Gray, who was recently
cut by the Colts. "Conrad's a good player," defensive
coordinator John Fox said, "but is he one of the top four or
five corners in the NFL?"

That's the kind of talent the Giants had in Sehorn, an emerging
star who led the team in 1997 with six interceptions. Sehorn has
given Hamilton only one piece of advice: "Have a short memory."
That served Hamilton well in the first half on Sunday, when in
addition to getting spun around on a 17-yard touchdown pass from
Gus Frerotte to Leslie Shepherd, the 5'10" 195-pounder was
plowed over several times for big gains on the ground. Fox
called a lot of blitzes and rotated coverage to protect his raw
corner.

"I kept telling myself, I can do this," said Hamilton, who on
the Redskins' first snap of the second half made an acrobatic
interception that he returned 17 yards to the Washington two.
The turnover set up a Charles Way touchdown run, which gave the
Giants the lead for good. "By the end of the game I wanted them
to come at me," said Hamilton. "I was booming with confidence."
--David Fleming

Dispatches
Packing Another Weapon

The Packers are sky-high on their new return man, 195-pound
third-year veteran Roell Preston, who has two kick returns for
touchdowns in the last three games (on Sunday against the Lions
and in an Aug. 24 preseason game against the Broncos)....

Cardinals defensive tackle Eric Swann is remarkably immature for
a $5 million cornerstone player. On Sunday he was kicked out of
a game for the second time in three weeks, getting ejected for
fighting late in the first quarter. At the time the game was
scoreless, and the Cowboys had only 50 yards of total offense.
From that point on, Dallas scored 38 points and racked up 389
yards....

A trio of opening-day reflections: I never thought a Bill
Parcells defense would give up 36 points and 557 yards in two
games, never mind one--the one the Jets lost to the Niners on
Sunday. Second, I'm beginning to think Redskins quarterback Gus
Frerotte is the football equivalent of the Braves' suddenly
clueless reliever Mark Wohlers. Finally, the Dolphins, who ran
the ball 42% of the time last year and ran it 56% in a 24-15 win
over the Colts, will push that number to around 60% by December.

Send your NFL questions to Peter King and read more from Paul
Zimmerman at www.cnnsi.com.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO HARD FALL Duane Starks had an interception, but the Ravens made their share of mistakes too. [Duane Starks and other players in game] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH SPARK PLUG Flutie led the Bills to a pair of second-half scores but came up a little short. [Doug Flutie pursued by Chargers player in game]

The Buzz

1. Destiny's Child: Nice summer for Vikings coach Dennis Green.
He loses 40-plus pounds and gains the league's biggest new star,
rookie wideout Randy Moss, who grabs two touchdown passes in the
season's first 24 minutes. "He's not the greatest receiver we
ever faced," Bucs corner Donnie Abraham said on Sunday after a
31-7 thumping, "but he's going to be." And Green, with a new
contract extension, is $4.65 million richer. Dennis, can you say
Team of Destiny?

2. The Magic Flutie: Score round 1 of the Rob Johnson versus
Doug Flutie battle in Buffalo for Flutie. With Johnson sidelined
by a concussion, Flutie, the 35-year-old pixieish CFL refugee,
came off the bench in the third quarter and, on his second
series, threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Andre Reed. He
completed 12 of 20 passes, including another touchdown throw to
Reed, and almost rallied the Bills in a 16-14 loss to the
Chargers. A couple more performances like that, and Buffalo
coach Wade Phillips will have a controversy on his hands.

3. No Doubting Thomas: It's no secret that Chiefs linebacker
Derrick Thomas wants the single-season NFL sack record (the
Jets' Mark Gastineau had 22 in 1984), but this is ridiculous.
Thomas embarrassed the Raiders with six sacks on Sunday night.
"Maybe I'll go for 62," Thomas said.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)