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Inside The NFL

Oct. 18, 1999
Oct. 18, 1999

Table of Contents
Oct. 18, 1999

Inside The NFL

RUNNING IN PLACE
Ricky Williams must get healthy, then get more work, to help the
Saints

This is an article from the Oct. 18, 1999 issue Original Layout

The biggest shame of the first month of Ricky Williams's NFL
career is that the Saints have reduced their supposed franchise
savior to the level of Ray Zellars, Mario Bates and Derek Brown,
marginal players who have carried the mail since the last time
this woebegone team made the playoffs, in 1992. Williams has put
up the kind of numbers--257 yards, 3.6-yard average, no
touchdowns--that got his predecessors run out of town, but his
statistics tell only part of the story.

The New Orleans offensive coaching staff has to answer for the
way it has used the former Heisman Trophy winner, who had an all
too typical day in a 20-17 loss to the Falcons on Sunday at the
Superdome. With first-and-goal at the one late in the first
quarter, the Saints opted against sending the 238-pound Williams
up the middle for the final yard. Instead they pitched the ball
to him running right; three speedy defenders beat the plodding
New Orleans line to the corner and nailed Williams for a
four-yard loss. What followed was an incomplete pass, a
completed pass that lost five more yards and a missed 28-yard
field goal. "I was surprised," Williams said. "I thought we'd go
up the gut."

Williams wasn't even in the game for most third-down plays; the
Saints think backup Lamar Smith is a better receiver. Williams
was also on the bench while New Orleans, which took possession
with 42 seconds to play, tried futilely to get into position for
a tying field goal.

Granted, Williams has been playing with a hyperextended right
elbow and a left ankle that's sprained in two places. But he is
playing, or rather making himself available. "In an age when
athletes are looking to get out of the game when they're the
least bit hurt," Saints coach Mike Ditka said last Saturday,
"it's refreshing to find a guy who will play in some intense
pain." On Sunday, Williams came out of the game four times
because of elbow pain, and in the middle of one grimacing
examination by a team medic, he rose from the bench and put
himself back in the game.

But the Saints have to make a decision: Sit Williams until he's
healthy or start pounding him into the line 30 to 35 times a
game--what they envisioned doing when they traded a king's
ransom for the opportunity to draft him last April.

Williams was drafted to be a workhorse, but offensive
coordinator Danny Abramowicz, who calls the plays (with Ditka
exercising occasional veto power), seems intent on using
Williams as a decoy, if that. On 14 of the Saints' last 15 plays
of the first half, and on the final eight plays of the game,
Williams either didn't touch the ball or wasn't even on the field.

Ditka was livid about some of the play-calling in the 14-10 loss
at Chicago on Oct. 3, arguing with Abramowicz on the sideline so
much that the coordinator moved upstairs to the coaches' booth
on Sunday. But no matter who calls the plays, Ditka has to make
the message clear to his quarterbacks that he wants Williams to
get the ball. With first-and-10 at the Atlanta 41 and about
three minutes to play on Sunday, the Saints called Williams's
number. However, when he got to the line, Billy Joe Tolliver
thought he saw too many Falcons in the box to run the play,
audibled to a pass, fumbled the snap and lost 10 yards. The
drive fizzled.

"I don't care if there are 10 in the box," Ditka snapped
afterward. "We're trying to run the ball down there with Ricky.
Call the running play! Put it in his hands!" Of course, Ditka
can change the plays he doesn't like, such as the sweep on
first-and-goal from the one. "You're right," Ditka said. "We
should have run it right at 'em."

So the Saints-Williams honeymoon has not yet started. In fact,
despite holding fourth-quarter leads in each of their first four
games, New Orleans is only 1-3. "No way I want to take a game
off now," said Williams, who carried 19 times for 53 yards
against Atlanta. "I'm a little banged up, but the team needs me.
The only way I wouldn't play is if I couldn't move."

Meanwhile, Williams has become something of an enigma in the
locker room. Once a week he does interviews in full uniform with
his helmet on, one time even sitting on the floor near the
walkway to the showers. Naked players had to walk through the
handful of media to get to their lockers. Williams says he does
interviews with his helmet on simply because he can--it was his
choice after a regimented college career. He also has little to
do with most of his teammates, choosing to do his job and go
home.

"Ricky likes for people to wonder what's going on with him,"
says Vikings rookie guard Jay Humphrey, a former teammate at
Texas. "It's part of the mystery. I mean, he's a very
down-to-earth guy, very genuine, but I think he also gets a kick
out of it when people think he's strange."

Count Tolliver among the perplexed. After one practice last month
he approached Williams in the locker room. The conversation went
something like this.

Tolliver: "Ricky, I want to be your friend."

Williams: "Cool."

Tolliver: "No, I want to be your friend."

Williams: "Fine."

Tolliver: "No, I need to be your friend."

Williams looked at Tolliver funny.

Tolliver, to chuckles from fellow Saints: "I want to make sure
I'm your friend, so when you come in here with a machine gun and
blow people away, you'll spare me."

After the Falcons game Williams sat at his locker chewing bubble
gum, trying to figure out what has gone wrong. "It's been so
long since I've been able to show the real me," he said softly.
"I'm starting to forget who the real me is."

Down on Dan
JOHNSON LETS MARINO HAVE IT

When Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino walked into coach Jimmy
Johnson's office on Oct. 6, Johnson's first words were, "It's
nothing personal." Whatever it was, public criticism of one of
the NFL's alltime great quarterbacks caught a lot of people off
guard--including Marino. "Dan's got to make some better
decisions," Johnson had said at his weekly press conference the
day before. "When he's getting banged around, he's made some
poor decisions."

Johnson was referring to Marino's play in a 23-18 loss to the
Bills on Oct. 4, a game in which Buffalo intercepted Marino
twice, returned a Marino fumble for a touchdown and limited
Miami to one third-down conversion in 14 attempts. Marino, who
had appealed to Johnson to return for another season after the
coach had said he was stepping down, was so angry about
Johnson's rip job that, according to a friend of the
quarterback's, "the damage between Dan and Jimmy is
irreparable." Johnson would have been wiser to sting Marino in
the privacy of his office, but here are three factors that may
have motivated him to go public.

--Since 1997, Marino's performance has been mediocre. Going into
Miami's 34-31 win over the Colts on Sunday, his 79.8 quarterback
rating was 16th in the league among quarterbacks who had made at
least 20 starts since the beginning of the '97 season. That was
just an eyelash above Tampa Bay's Trent Dilfer (77.6), who gets
booed at home and is the guy Johnson disparaged as a major
reason that he opted to sign on with the Dolphins instead of the
Bucs when he returned to coaching in 1996.

--Marino, 38, is on his last legs, and Johnson feels little need
to defend him. During the off-season Johnson and Marino's agent,
Marvin Demoff, engaged in a contentious renegotiation of
Marino's contract, a move that gave the Dolphins $2 million in
1999 salary-cap relief. Marino got two things out of the deal: a
$1.5 million roster bonus if he's still on the team next March 1
and the right to void his contract and become a free agent if he
chooses after this season.

--Johnson has no fear of signing a Rodney Peete type as veteran
insurance and letting backups Damon Huard and Jim Druckenmiller
battle for the starting job in training camp next year.

By week's end a sullen Johnson said he was finished answering
questions about Marino. But his silence about the rift between
him and the Hall of Fame-bound quarterback spoke volumes when he
said this about his offense: "We need to be better than one of
14 on third-down conversions. It's disappointing. We've got
everything we need on offense--depth at running back, talent on
the line, at wide receiver and tight end. We need to transfer
talent into performance."

On Sunday, Marino did just that. During their meeting after
Johnson's rebuke, the coach had warned Marino that he would pull
the quarterback if he turned the ball over against Indianapolis.
Who knows what Johnson would have done if the Colts hadn't
dropped the three potential first-half interceptions? Given
redemptive time, Marino responded with his best game under
Johnson, completing 25 passes in 38 attempts for 393 yards and
two touchdowns. "Dan was fantastic," Johnson said afterward, but
he made no apologies for his criticisms. "Hey, sometimes I don't
coach good, but I say what I feel."

For his part Marino wasn't shooting back, and he scoffed at the
notion that Johnson's remarks might have inspired him. But you
got the feeling this game changed nothing about Marino's future
in Miami. "After 17 years in the game," he said, "I don't know
how much longer I'll play. That's what gets me fired up."

Realignment Plan
NEW NFC WEST IS IN ORDER

Last week NFL owners awarded Houston an expansion franchise and
later announced that the team would be assigned to the AFC,
giving that conference 17 teams (the NFC has 15) and forcing
some form of realignment before the league's 32nd team begins
play in 2002. Owners also agreed that the league should then be
split into eight four-team divisions, so, barring the unlikely
event of a wholesale shakeup, at least one AFC team will have to
switch conferences.

We suggest the Seahawks be moved to a revamped NFC West that
also would have the Cardinals (shifted from the NFC East) and
the holdover 49ers and Rams (chart, below). Seattle is the only
AFC West team without ties to the old American Football League.
O.K.? "If we have to sell tickets to St. Louis and Arizona
games, we're dead," Seahawks president Bob Whitsitt said in
response to that proposal. "You talk about the tradition of the
AFL, but most of the people from the early days are dead. Our
tradition has been the AFC West."

If Seattle doesn't move, another AFC West team will have to.
Whitsitt says the Seahawks will be open to what's in the best
interests of the league, "not what's best for some owner who's
used to having dinner with some other owner for the past 20
years and doesn't want to change."

One other suggestion that two owners said will be considered
strongly is the scheduling of games between interconference
teams who are natural rivals. Matchups such as Dallas-Houston,
Jets-Giants, Philadelphia-Pittsburgh and St. Louis-Kansas City
would become annual fixtures. All this sounds good now, of
course, but remember this from the rancorous debate when the AFC
and the NFC were formed in 1970: Owners couldn't agree on
realignment, so they decided to settle the issue by having
commissioner Pete Rozelle's secretary, Thelma Elkjer, pick one
of five proposals out of a vase.

Bills Linebackers
COWART, HOLOCEK PLUG THE MIDDLE

Bills right inside linebacker Sam Cowart was sitting alone at
his locker after a 24-21 win over the Steelers on Sunday when he
felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Buffalo's owner, Ralph
Wilson, who had stopped by to congratulate Cowart on the team's
4-1 start and the defensive unit's rise to the level of the NFL
elite. "Tired, Sam?" Wilson asked. "You should be. You and John
[Holecek] made all the tackles today."

Wilson already knows what the rest of the league is coming to
fully appreciate: There is much more to the Bills than the
wizardry of Doug Flutie. Buffalo's ferocious defense is ranked
first against the run and fifth overall.

End Bruce Smith and nosetackle Ted Washington remain the heart
of the defense. But midway through last season, the combo of
Cowart and left inside linebacker Holecek developed to the point
where the Bills felt their linebacking corps was talented enough
to switch from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4 and focus on good,
old-fashioned run stuffing. "We know each other's positions, and
we watch each other's backs out there," says Cowart. "It's kind
of like we're soulmates."

Sitting in his office, admiring a stat sheet that showed his
unit had held the Steelers to 48 yards rushing, Buffalo
defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell heaped praise on Cowart and
Holecek. Cowart, whom the Bills drafted in the second round out
of Florida State last year, is a swarming, punishing tackler who
started 11 games as a rookie and finished second on the team in
tackles, with 119 to Holecek's 133. (They've flip-flopped in the
standings in 1999.) Following Cowart's lead, the Bills have
become so good at attacking ballcarriers that Cottrell has not
ordered up exhausting pursuit drills in practice.

Holecek, a fifth-round draft choice out of Illinois in 1995,
scored extremely high on the Wonderlic intelligence test given
to players eligible for the draft. After missing most of his
first two seasons with knee and hamstring injuries, he took over
for an injured Chris Spielman midway through the '97 season. In
Buffalo's 23-18 upset of Miami on Oct. 4, Holecek had 12
tackles, a sack, forced a fumble and had an interception,
leading to 10 points.

Holecek calls the plays in the defensive huddle, and whenever he
catches Cottrell sending botched signals from the sideline, as
the coach did late in the third quarter on Sunday, Cottrell has
to buy the defensive players doughnuts the following Saturday.
Soon, though, the Bills' defense should get something more
substantial than a box of crullers--like a little overdue
recognition. "People just seem to focus on the Flutie thing in
this town," says Holecek. "But we have a lot of talent on this
defense, and by the end of the season, I predict the focus will
all be on us." --David Fleming

Dispatches
RETIREMENT NOT ON YOUNG'S MIND

When the subject of retirement came up recently, Niners
quarterback Steve Young told coach Steve Mariucci, "Let's not go
there." Young sat out his second consecutive game on Sunday as a
result of the concussion he suffered on Sept. 27, but he
tap-danced around the r word last week, saying only, "I'm
getting myself ready to play Carolina next week." On Monday,
however, Mariucci said Young would probably miss his third
straight game. Young's agent, Leigh Steinberg, said, "Steve
wasn't himself all week, more than a week after his sixth major
concussion. He had headaches, grogginess, some dizziness. If a
doctor tells him to retire, he will."

...It doesn't seem to matter who starts at quarterback for the
woeful Giants' offense, which, after Sunday's 14-3 loss to the
Cardinals, was ranked 26th in the NFL with only 276.8 yards per
game. In the first three quarters of his first start, Kerry
Collins threw for 50 yards and led his team to zero points. "I
have no comment about them," New York free safety Percy
Ellsworth said of his offensive brethren after Sunday's loss. "I
have nothing to say to them."

... A bitter rivalry is born: After Akili Smith, the third pick
in last April's draft, drove the Bengals to a last-second 18-17
win over No. 1 pick Tim Couch and the Browns, Couch said he was
angered by Smith's excessive celebrating on the field. "I'll
definitely remember that," Couch said. Countered Smith, who drew
Couch's ire by pounding his chest after the winning score,
yelling at the Cleveland bench and then dancing in front of the
Dawg Pound after the game: "I hope he remembers it the rest of
his career. There's no doubt in my mind who the better
quarterback is. Period."

...With the Oct. 19 trade deadline looming, look for talks to
heat up this week between the Browns and the Dolphins over
third-string Miami running back Karim Abdul-Jabbar, who can
probably be had for a draft pick.

The End Zone
A PENNY FOR HIS THOUGHTS

To determine whether quarterback Kent Graham had recovered
sufficiently from a concussion to play on Sunday against the
Cardinals, a team doctor asked Graham a series of questions,
including how many nickels make up $1.35. "If I asked that
question in the locker room," said coach Jim Fassel, "I'd have a
lot of guys out this week."

Send your pro football questions to Peter King's mailbag and read
more from Paul Zimmerman at cnnsi.com/football.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES No one can question Williams's toughness, but New Orleans may be wise to sit him until he's 100%.COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Though Marino renegotiated his contract in the off-season, his days in Miami may be numbered.COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Cowhart (56), in only his second year, has already emerged as one of the Bills' defensive leaders.

the buzz

1. LIFE'S A BEACH The awarding of the NFL's 32nd franchise to
Houston ensures that Los Angeles, the country's second-largest
television market, will be without a team for the foreseeable
future.

2. PHILADELPHIA EVILS To the Eagles fans who cheered lustily
when Cowboys wideout Michael Irvin lay on the Veterans Stadium
floor with a spinal injury, then cheered louder when a stretcher
arrived to remove him, we hereby impose a life sentence--life
rooting for the Eagles.

3. THE LEGEND GROWS If their first four games had ended at the
two-minute warning, the Packers would be 0-4. But the 3-1
Packers have hope. His name is Brett Favre. For the third time
this season he threw a last-minute, game-winning touchdown pass,
this time beating the Buccaneers 26-23. "We got Favred," moaned
Tampa Bay quarterback Trent Dilfer.

Shuffling the Deck

When it realigns this time, the NFL will make sure the AFC and
NFC are roughly equal in terms of market size, meaning that
geography won't be the sole determination of the divisional
groupings. Based on discussions with several owners, here's a
look at how NFL 2002 might shape up.

NFC

East South Central West

Cowboys Bucs Bears Cardinals
Eagles Falcons Lions 49ers
Giants Panthers Packers Rams
Redskins Saints Vikings Seahawks

AFC

East South Central West

Bills Colts Bengals Broncos
Dolphins Houston Browns Chargers
Jets Jaguars Ravens Chiefs
Patriots Titans Steelers Raiders