Piling On In the season's crazy first two weeks, some erstwhile NFL have-nots have jumped all over venerable haves

September 26, 1999

Through the miracle of satellite communications, a football
fan's nirvana exists in the press lounge of Nashville's Adelphia
Coliseum, new home of the Tennessee Titans. Nine TVs are stacked
in three rows. On Sunday afternoon, just after two o'clock, the
nine games being shown on these sets held an increasing number
of media types, scouts and pro football executives captive.

Row 1: The surprising Indianapolis Colts had the favored New
England Patriots on the ropes, 28-7. The Carolina Panthers, one
of the worst teams in the NFL, led the Jacksonville Jaguars,
arguably one of the best, 14-12. The Pittsburgh Steelers,
43-point winners in their opener, were struggling to hold off
the Baltimore Ravens, 14-10.

Row 2: The Miami Dolphins, the best-looking team in Week 1,
trailed the Arizona Cardinals 16-13, and Dan Marino was throwing
as many balls to the Cardinals as he was to the Dolphins. Even
with Barry Sanders retired and wideout Herman Moore sidelined
with a knee injury, the Detroit Lions led the Green Bay Packers
14-6. As new Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren looked on
dourly, his team trailed the Chicago Bears 13-0.

Row 3: Oakland Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon, a backup most of
his career, had the Raiders up on the Minnesota Vikings 22-10.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were in front of the snoozing
Philadelphia Eagles 19-5. With an astounding 43 points in the
first 37 minutes, the Washington Redskins were routing the New
York Giants (a defensive team, we're told) 43-14.

In a dapper tan suit, Cleveland Browns vice president Dwight
Clark, at the Coliseum to watch his team play the Titans,
hunched down in a front seat to let the viewers behind him get a
good look at the weirdness that is becoming the last NFL season
of the 20th century. "I can't believe these games," he said.

Join the club. Late-afternoon games in which the Kansas City
Chiefs pounded the two-time Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos
and the New Orleans Saints almost knocked off the San Francisco
49ers only added to the insanity. Who could recall such an odd
beginning to a season? By the time Week 2 wound down, the
Broncos, Vikings, Atlanta Falcons and New York Jets, last
season's conference finalists, were a combined 1-7. Their
starting quarterbacks--Brian Griese, Randall Cunningham, Tony
Graziani and Rick Mirer, respectively--were all different from
the men who started Game 2 in 1998. The Lions, St. Louis Rams
and San Diego Chargers, a combined 14-34 a year ago, sat alone
atop their divisions. The Packers were a miracle Brett Favre
drive in Week 1 from being 0-2. The 49ers were a frantic, late
fourth-quarter comeback against the Saints from being 0-2. The
Bears and the Colts were each one defensive stop from being 2-0.

It's early. NFL cream almost always rises, but it just might
curdle this year, if the first two weeks are a barometer. The
Broncos, 49ers and Jets, all projected playoff powers, are in
serious trouble. Projected lollipop Detroit is two weeks into
embodying the story of the year (page 34). Here are four reasons
why weirdness has been the rule.

The dominant teams are coming back to the pack. The Niners have
been terrific for most of the past 18 years, an amazing streak
in the parity-driven NFL, but a team can put off the salary-cap
reaper for only so long. "When I came back to work for the 49ers
[last January]," says club president Bill Walsh, "the first
thing staring me in the face was that I had to cut $27 million
from our payroll to reach the salary cap." Six full- or
part-time starters disappeared, and San Francisco hadn't a dime
to spend on the Steve Young Preservation Society. No wonder the
offensive line looks so overmatched. If the 37-year-old Young
keeps getting hit as hard and as often as he was in the first
two weeks, he won't be able to play at 38--and his birthday is
Oct. 11. If the Niners' 38-point loss to the Jaguars and a
dreadful-looking win over the Saints portend anything, it's
this: 1999 may be San Francisco's Waterloo.

The 49ers aren't the only aging power. Denver's defense looks
creakier than the retired John Elway's knees. Reggie White has
left a big defensive hole in Green Bay, and Favre's vital
weapons are disappearing faster than they can be replaced: Gutty
wideout Robert Brooks (injured back) had to retire during the
preseason, and tight end Mark Chmura (neck) might have to soon.
Injuries to cornerbacks Deion Sanders and Kevin Smith and
fullback Daryl Johnston (who went on injured reserve last week)
are hurting the Dallas Cowboys, as is the substance-abuse
suspension of defensive tackle Leon Lett, who isn't eligible to
return to action until early November.

Most years the NFL experiences the decline of a perennial power.
But four in one season?

Great coaches don't look so great when their quarterbacks aren't
so great. Name the three best coaches today. Tough question, but
you could do worse than the Broncos' Mike Shanahan, the Jets'
Bill Parcells and the Seahawks' Mike Holmgren. Before the season
each was considered a good bet to take his team to the playoffs.
Now each has a quarterback problem, which is a big reason why
the three teams have combined for one victory: Seattle's 14-13
squeaker in Chicago.

Shanahan is nursing second-year signal-caller Brian Griese
through post-Elway syndrome. Holmgren thinks that young Jon
Kitna is his quarterback of the future, but Kitna missed
Sunday's game with turf toe; the backup in Seattle is Jets
reject Glenn Foley. Parcells lost his Super Bowl ticket, Vinny
Testaverde, to a season-ending Achilles injury in New York's
opener. Now the Jets are rolling the dice with the well-traveled
Rick Mirer (chart, page 36).

Impatience is at an alltime high. We say it every year, and
every year we get more examples of how the NFL is the most
what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league on the planet. Before
the season Browns coach Chris Palmer said he wouldn't have a
short leash on starting quarterback Ty Detmer, but he yanked
Detmer for first-round golden boy Tim Couch (page 90) after
three quarters of Cleveland's opener.

In Philadelphia, coach Andy Reid picked a peculiar time to give
rookie quarterback Donovan McNabb his first significant playing
time: the second half against Tampa Bay's stifling defense. This
occurred despite Reid's having said a couple of weeks earlier,
"Those young quarterbacks who've made it had time to learn. They
weren't thrown into the mix right away." Maybe Couch and McNabb
should be playing, but you can't blame players and fans for
looking askance when their coaches run reverses like that.

Teams are extending contracts for their own looming free agents
before the players hit the market, leaving a questionable crop
for other teams to pursue. Take the Raiders (page 38). They've
hit on a couple of players who have helped dramatically. Running
back Tyrone Wheatley failed trials with the Giants and the
Dolphins before finding a home. And how would we have known that
kamikaze outside linebacker K.D. Williams would emerge as one of
the Raiders' best defensive players? The Rams may have guessed
right on former Arena League quarterback Kurt Warner, who was
pressed into service after Trent Green went down in the
preseason with a knee injury. The Cowboys hit on behavioral
nightmare Alonzo Spellman as a replacement for Lett. Who knows
if Spellman will remain a valued player or blow up tomorrow? But
that's the point. The first two weeks have been remarkably
unpredictable.

Which brings us to the Broncos, the month's biggest mystery.
"This is basically the same team as our championship team--minus
one guy," befuddled owner Pat Bowlen said on Sunday, after the
toothless Chiefs beat Denver 26-10. Though Griese was pulled for
Bubby Brister in the second half, he has played passably as
Elway's replacement. Everything else is off-kilter. Terrell
Davis has run for a pedestrian 140 yards, largely because the
line isn't meshing as it did last year when Davis ran for 2,008
yards. "Nobody's been able to stop our run in the past, and now
they've stopped us the past two weeks," says left tackle Tony
Jones. "I've got worries, concerns, questions."

And perhaps a problem on the other side of the line. Right
tackle Matt Lepsis, who replaced free-agent defector Harry
Swayne, was flagged for four false starts on Sunday. Making
matters worse, Denver's defense was run over by the Dolphins and
the Chiefs. "We've got to get used to people getting sky-high
for us, because we're two-time Super Bowl champions," says
Shanahan, who is at the end of his motivational rope. Now the
Broncos' opponents will smell desperation: Only two teams--the
'93 Cowboys and the '96 Patriots--have reached the Super Bowl
after starting 0-2.

So who's the Super favorite now? Blink and it might change, but
our call is the Dolphins, who finally have a semblance of the
running game that a championship team needs. Miami has a strange
story of its own. After defensive end Dimitrius Underwood,
Minnesota's first-round pick, went AWOL from Vikings camp and
was subsequently released, the Dolphins picked him up. Underwood
practiced for a week and then separated a shoulder in his first
preseason appearance. Miami coaches think he'll be healthy and
in the defensive-line rotation in two weeks. "He's been
unbelievable," Dolphins assistant head coach Dave Wannstedt said
last week. "He's in early every day for treatment. And when he
practiced, I saw as natural a defensive lineman with his hand
movement as any I've ever seen. What happened in Minnesota is a
mystery to us."

Dimitrius Underwood, poster child for the first two weeks of the
season? It is shaping up as a strange year.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD MACKSON COVER BOTTOMS UP The Lions are on top, the Pack is on its back, and the Broncos, Vikings and Niners are reeling. What's going on? COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES Stunner The Lions showed they can stack up against the best when they handed Dorsey Levens and the Packers a 23-15 defeat. COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Head-turners Keith Poole and the Saints almost snuck out of San Francisco with a victory, while the Redskins ran LeShon Johnson and the Giants right out of the Meadowlands.
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Under the gun The Dolphins look strong, but they'll be weakened-- probably fatally--if Marino gets hurt.

Help Wanted

General managers have long regarded backup quarterback as one of
the most important positions on the team--with good reason. Last
season only seven starting quarterbacks played all 16 games.
However, with teams feeling the pinch of the salary cap, even
premier clubs have put the backup on the back burner. Four of
the 12 teams that made the playoffs in '98 began this year with
a No. 2 passer who had never started an NFL game, and the Jets
have already turned things over to backup Rick Mirer.

Team Backup Career starts Wins Att. Comp. TDs Int.

The Haves

Vikings Jeff George 107 37 3,402 1,971 124 92

In Better Shape Than Most

Bills Rob Johnson 7 4 142 92 10 6
Broncos Bubby Brister 75 37 2,187 1,194 81 75
Cowboys Jason Garrett 7 5 230 133 8 4

Question Marks

Cardinals Dave Brown 53 23 1,396 768 40 49
Patriots John Friesz 38 13 1,343 734 45 41

The Have-Nots

Dolphins Damon Huard 0 0 9 6 0 1
Falcons Tony Graziani 3 1 73 31 0 5
49ers Jeff Garcia 0 0 9 5 0 1
Jaguars Jay Fiedler 0 0 8 3 0 1
Jets Tom Tupa 13 4 501 258 12 24
Packers Matt Hasselbeck 0 0 0 0 0 0

NFL cream almost always rises, but it just might curdle this year.

"We've got to get used to people getting sky-high for us,"
says Shanahan, "because we're two-time Super Bowl champions."

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)