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Up For Grabs Eight weeks into a season dominated by defenses, only this much is certain: It's anybody's ball game

Nov. 08, 1999
Nov. 08, 1999

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Nov. 8, 1999

Up For Grabs Eight weeks into a season dominated by defenses, only this much is certain: It's anybody's ball game

Standing together on the field at the St. Louis Rams' practice
facility last Friday were two men whose sudden prominence is
emblematic of a year in which things have grown exceedingly
strange in the NFL: Dick Vermeil, at 63 the second-oldest coach
in the game, and his quarterback, Kurt Warner, the instant
superstar. They are perhaps the last two men you would have ever
expected to be making headlines this year, but they are on top
of the world in this upside-down season. "You know," Vermeil,
flashing a quick grin, told Warner, "in seven weeks, you've
turned me from a jerk to a genius."

This is an article from the Nov. 8, 1999 issue Original Layout

Even a genius couldn't have predicted that the marquee game of
the first eight weeks would turn out to be the unbeaten Rams,
who haven't had a winning season since 1989, on the road in
Nashville against the once-beaten Tennessee Titans, a franchise
that last made the playoffs as the Houston Oilers, in 1993. The
biggest attractions from '98--the Atlanta Falcons, the Denver
Broncos, the Minnesota Vikings and the New York Jets--are 9-22.
John Elway, Reggie White and Barry Sanders have retired; Steve
Young, Michael Irvin and Dan Marino are injured and might have
to join them. Bad things happen in threes? The top three rushers
from last year--Terrell Davis, Jamal Anderson and Garrison
Hearst--are out for the season with injuries. The three leading
passers in '98--Randall Cunningham, Vinny Testaverde and
Young--have been benched, knocked out for the year by a ruptured
Achilles tendon and sidelined by a concussion, respectively.

More remarkable still, the fans don't seem to miss them. The NFL
appears on its way to an attendance record. Last year 75% of the
games played to full houses; this year 94 of the first 114 games
(82%) were sold out. Through seven weeks three of the four NFL
TV partners reported ratings increases (ABC was down a point),
thanks in part to a schedule that opened a week later than last
year in order to avoid the ratings-poor Labor Day weekend. CBS's
ratings, up 15%, are particularly stunning because the network's
biggest draws, the Broncos and the Jets, are in last place in
their divisions.

Denver fans might be mourning the departure of Elway, but local
TV ratings for Broncos games in the first seven weeks were up 11%
over the same period last year. Detroit Lions fans may never see
Sanders run in silver and blue again, but ratings in that city
were up 16%. Folks in Wisconsin have apparently gotten over the
Green Bay Packers' loss of White and coach Mike Holmgren, who
left to coach the Seattle Seahawks; in Milwaukee, Green Bay's
first seven games garnered a record 44.6 rating and 71 share,
meaning that 71% of all TVs turned on while the team is playing
are tuned in to the Pack.

There is some justifiable hand-wringing going on in NFL front
offices about the quality of play. "How much more can this
league withstand?" says San Francisco 49ers coach Steve
Mariucci, presiding over the decline of a once proud franchise.
"The injuries and retirements have had a drastic effect on
teams' production, records, confidence and swagger."

Pittsburgh Steelers president Dan Rooney is so concerned about
the degree of player movement since the 1993 advent of
unfettered free agency that he has persuaded NFL Players
Association executive director Gene Upshaw to convene a meeting
with leading players and owners after the season to discuss
revising free-agency rules. The Steelers have lost 37 players
from the 49-man roster that played in the Super Bowl in January
1996. Could free agency be revamped? "You never know," Upshaw
says. "At least we'll talk it through."

Some of the unimaginative strategy this season--the Baltimore
Ravens, the New Orleans Saints, the New York Giants and the Tampa
Bay Buccaneers have set offensive football back to the Nagurski
era--is due in part to the lack of cohesiveness caused by free
agency and the need for unproven or unskilled backups to step in
for star quarterbacks. "We're at the crossroads we all knew was
coming," says first-year Ravens coach Brian Billick. "We're in a
transition time for quarterbacks in a quarterback-driven league.
Three quarters of the teams are in quarterback flux."

But what's so bad about unpredictability? Fans like to watch
close games. They like exciting finishes. Sure, star players are
still a big attraction, but even more important to fans is that
their team has a chance to win every week. "In 20 years, when
you're gone and I'm gone," Bill Parcells told his precocious
quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, after Bledsoe found fame and
lucrative endorsements in just his second season with the New
England Patriots, "none of these fans around here will care
about you. They'll care about the next guy wearing the blue
jersey. Fans love the uniforms, not the players." Parcells's
words still ring true.

In the first two weeks this fall, 17 of the 30 games ended with
the trailing team in possession of the ball and having a chance
to win or tie in the last two minutes. Green Bay's first three
wins came on last-minute touchdown passes by Brett Favre. Five
of New England's first seven games were decided by one or two
points. All told, 41 of the season's first 114 games (36%) have
been decided by a field goal or less; at the same point last
year 18% of the games were that close. Somewhere, Pete Rozelle
is smiling. One New Jersey country club has been holding an NFL
knock-off pool for years. The rules: Put $100 into the kitty.
Each contestant picks one team each week that he thinks will
win. He can't pick a team more than once, and as soon as he
picks a team that loses, he's out. Last man standing wins the
pot. Before the '99 season no winner had ever been crowned
before Thanksgiving. On Oct. 10 the last 29 players (of the
original 69 who entered) were knocked out, all victimized by
either the Philadelphia Eagles' upset of the Dallas Cowboys or
the Chicago Bears' win over the Vikings. (A rule change allowed
those final 29 players to start anew the following week.) "Paul
Tagliabue has exactly what he wants, and it isn't parity," one
pool player says. "It's creeping communism."

"You've got to bring your best to the stadium to win every
Sunday," says Patriots tackle Bruce Armstrong, a 13-year
veteran. "In the early 1990s we'd go to Buffalo, and the Bills
were just a better team. We had to play much better than them,
and they still had to turn the ball over for us to win. It's not
that way this season, and the players who've been around sense
it. It's why I keep telling our younger players, 'Just hang in
there and we'll have a chance at the end of the day to win.' You
have to accept that no matter what your team did last year or
how good anybody thinks you are, most games will go down to the
last minute."

"I like the game the way it is today," says Bucs director of
player personnel Jerry Angelo, "because I know when I go to the
stadium we're going to see two teams get after each other.
Seldom is the game over at halftime. I like to get to the last
chapter before I know who committed the murder. What we're
getting are games played with more intensity because the players
know anything can happen. No team can just turn it on at the end
and pull out a win like some of those teams could when they had
dynasties, like the Steelers of the '70s."

The biggest reason for so many close, low-scoring games?
Blitzing. Lots of it. From any position, at any time. Last
Saturday night, as the Rams' offensive players had one final
tune-up for their game at Tennessee, offensive coordinator Mike
Martz showed them a videotape of a play from the Titans' Oct. 3
game at San Francisco. Tennessee's defense was in its usual 4-3
alignment, but at the snap all three linebackers looped into
pass-rush lanes and stormed the quarterback. Mind you, this was
on first down--a rushing down. Three linebackers run-blitzing is
the kind of craziness that offenses have been seeing all year.
"Fellas, expect this kind of blitzing from the very first snap
tomorrow," Martz said. "They'll come after you all day."

That the Titans did. While allowing Warner to throw for 328
yards and three touchdowns, Tennessee also sacked him six times
and caused four fumbles in a 24-21 win. Coming off a bye that
gave them an extra week to prepare, the Titans' coaching staff
devised a bizarre 3-0-8 scheme--three linemen, no linebackers
and eight defensive backs--that was used about a dozen times.
St. Louis running back Marshall Faulk was also double-covered
almost every time he came out of the backfield.

"When we watched them on tape," said Tennessee coach Jeff
Fisher, "everyone except Baltimore laid back and played it safe.
And got beat by about 35 points. We said, 'Why not be
aggressive?' I thought the eight defensive backs would
neutralize Faulk and challenge their short and intermediate
routes."

Defenses are getting so sophisticated that some have taken to
calling audibles just before the snap. "The way we work it is if
we see one formation, we can blitz it; another formation, we
play zone," says Green Bay safety and defensive signal-caller
LeRoy Butler. "I think defenses are way ahead of offenses. They
know we've got a nickel in, but they don't know if we're going
to blitz or play zone or man."

Says San Diego Chargers coach Mike Riley, "I bet we're getting
blitzed 60 to 70 percent of the time, in some fashion. Either a
zone blitz or an all-out blitz."

"Never in my career have I seen some of the things I'm seeing
now," says Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith. "The Giants'
defense coming at us with eight to stop the run--and we've still
got Troy [Aikman, at quarterback]. Washington's putting an
eighth man up and blitzing to stop the run. I guess teams
believe what everybody's been saying about football in the '90s:
You stop the run, you win games."

What's frustrating is that so many offenses are incapable of
fighting off the superior defenses and are playing
ultraconservative football instead. "It's a reflection on the
caliber of quarterbacks in the game today," says Buffalo Bills
general manager John Butler. But that doesn't explain why the
Jacksonville Jaguars, who have a very good quarterback in Mark
Brunell and whose top running back, Fred Taylor, has been slowed
by a hamstring injury, are nevertheless second in the NFL in
run-pass ratio on first down, running the ball 63% of the time.
Even with a dominating line, the Jaguars are averaging only 3.9
yards per attempt, down from 4.7 last year. In fact, only 11
teams are averaging more yards per carry than they were in '98,
and the 3.75-yard league average is almost a quarter of a yard
less than it was last year and the second-lowest figure this
decade. Even in some of the prime-time matchups, teams play
snoreball. The winners of the last three Monday-night games in
October scored 16, 13 and 13 points. "If I'm the Packers, I say
my best chance every week is putting the ball in Brett Favre's
hands," says Holmgren. "But when your quarterback is young and
inexperienced--like our Jon Kitna--you approach the game
differently."

Of course, offensive coaches will eventually figure out how to
counter the latest defensive fad. Don't be surprised if they go
the way of Joe Gibbs's old max-protect package, using a fullback
or an extra tight end, or both, to pick up stray blitzers, then
run safe routes. Some of that's happening already; though the
league's overall quarterback rating is down from last year,
completion percentage is up a half a percentage point, to 56.8%.
Says Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who, after
losing Elway and then Davis and then tight end Shannon Sharpe,
has been patching together an offense all season: "For a few
weeks, defenses come up with a package that hurts you, then you
find the way to beat it, and you have a few good weeks."

After practice one night last week, in preparation for Sunday's
game against the Cowboys, the Indianapolis Colts' second-year
quarterback, Peyton Manning, spent 3 1/2 hours studying tape at
the team's training facility. "I try to play the game in the
film room," he said from his car phone shortly after 9 p.m. It
paid off against Dallas, as Manning completed 22 of 34 passes
for 312 yards and a touchdown, leading the Colts to a
come-from-behind 34-24 win.

Quarterbacks like Manning--and Warner--are beginning to break
the defensive stranglehold on the game. Soon enough, some of the
five quarterbacks drafted in the first round last April will
help fill the void at their position--and make their coaches
suddenly look like geniuses.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS Killer turnover In the marquee game of a weird half-season, the Titans recovered this Warner fumble and built a 21-0 lead, then held on to beat the Rams 24-21.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER New stars Warner (left) is on pace to set a passer-rating record, while Harrison has emerged as one of the league's top receivers.COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Hot stuff Davis, who had run for only five touchdowns in his first three seasons, has already found the end zone 11 times in '99. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Double trouble With 637 yards rushing and another 205 receiving, James is a dual threat coming out of the Colts' backfield.COLOR PHOTO: STEVE WOLTMANN Overlooked Pawlawski thinks he's more prepared for the NFL than when he was drafted in '92.COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Crystal ball Thanks to a stifling defense, the Dolphins will hoist the Lombardi Trophy after their Super Bowl victory in Atlanta.

Midseason All-Pro Team

Three months ago most of America hadn't heard of Kurt Warner.
Today, at least in the eyes of 25 pro personnel directors and
scouts polled by SI, the Rams' quarterback is the MVP of the
first half of the '99 season. "He may be a Cinderella story, but
he's for real," says St. Louis offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
The most interesting selection, though, was the panel's top
executive of the half season: former Redskins general manager
Charley Casserly, who was removed from his position by new
Washington owner Daniel Snyder in July. Casserly put a solid
nucleus in place--Washington is 5-2--and positioned the Skins
for long-term success, with three first-round picks in 2000.

OFFENSE

WR Marvin Harrison, Colts 22 1/2
WR Isaac Bruce, Rams 20
TE Tony Gonzalez, Chiefs 11 1/2
T Tony Boselli, Jaguars 17
T Orlando Pace, Rams 13
G Larry Allen, Cowboys 24
G Adam Timmerman, Rams 8
C Dermontti Dawson, Steelers 10
QB Kurt Warner, Rams 18 1/2
RB Marshall Faulk, Rams 10 1/2
FB Charles Way, Giants 2

DEFENSE

DE Tony Brackens, Jaguars 14
DE Michael Strahan, Giants 12
DT Warren Sapp, Bucs 24
DT Darrell Russell, Raiders 6
LB Junior Seau, Chargers 21
LB Ray Lewis, Ravens 14 1/2
LB Derrick Brooks, Bucs 9
CB Ty Law, Patriots 10
CB Charles Woodson, Raiders 7
FS Keith Lyle, Rams 7
SS Lawyer Milloy, Patriots 8 1/2

SPECIAL TEAMS

K Olindo Mare, Dolphins 19
P Mitch Berger, Vikings 12
KR Tony Horne, Rams 11
PR Charlie Rogers, Seahawks 9

HONORS

MVP: Warner 14
Coach: Dick Vermeil, Rams 15 1/2
Executive: Casserly 8
Offensive rookie: Edgerrin James, RB, Colts 20
Defensive rookie: Champ Bailey, CB, Redskins 19

Changing of the Guard

Take a look at 14 key individual statistical categories, and
every one is being led by a different player than the 1998
leader. Here are last year's top finishers compared with this
season's front-runners, through Sunday's games.

STAT CATEGORY 1998 1999

Passer rating Randall Cunningham, Kurt Warner,
Vikings, 106.0 Rams, 125.9

TD passes Steve Young, 49ers, 36 Warner, Rams, 21

Touchdowns Terrell Davis, Stephen Davis,
Broncos, 23 Redskins, 11

Rushing yards Davis, Broncos, Davis, Redskins,
2,008 yards 696 yards

Receptions O.J. McDuffie, Tim Brown,
Dolphins, 90 Raiders, 53

Receiving yards Antonio Freeman, Marvin Harrison,
Packers, 1,424 yards Colts, 794 yards

TD receptions Randy Moss, Vikings, 17 Harrison, Colts;
Isaac Bruce, Rams, 9

Field goals Al Del Greco, Olindo Mare,
Oilers, 36 Dolphins, 25

Points Gary Anderson, Mare,
Vikings, 164 Dolphins, 86

Punting Craig Hentrich, Mitch Berger,
Oilers, 47.2 yards Vikings, 49.3 yards

Punt returns Deion Sanders, Charlie Rogers,
Cowboys, 15.6 yards Seahawks, 20.0 yards

Kickoff returns Terry Fair, Tony Horne, Rams,
Lions, 28.0 yards 36.0 yards

Interceptions Ty Law, Lance Schulters,
Patriots, 9 49ers, 5

Sacks Michael Sinclair, Four tied with 7*
Seahawks, 16 1/2

*Tony Brackens, Jaguars; Chad Bratzke, Colts; Simeon Rice,
Cardinals; Warren Sapp, Bucs

Hit the Ground Running

It's too soon to tell how the five quarterbacks chosen in the
first round of last April's draft will pan out, but several
teams are already getting outstanding play from other rookies.
Here are the first-year players who have made the biggest impact
(pick in the draft in parentheses).

1. Champ Bailey, Redskins CB (7)
Showed his stuff with three interceptions in Oct. 17 win over the
Cardinals

2. Jevon Kearse, Titans DE (16)
Had three sacks against vaunted Browns tackle Orlando Brown;
wreaked havoc against Rams

3. Edgerrin James, Colts RB (4)
Looks like a better inside runner than predecessor Marshall Faulk

4. Tony Bryant, Raiders DE (40)
With 4 1/2 sacks in his first eight games, already getting
double-teamed on occasion

5. Andy Katzenmoyer, Patriots LB (28)
Has silenced critics with 76 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks and an
interception return for a touchdown

6. Mike McKenzie, Packers CB (87)
Third of three cornerbacks drafted last spring by Green Bay is
now best one on the team

7. Fernando Bryant, Jaguars CB (26)
A major reason behind Jacksonville's turnaround on defense

8. Cecil Collins, Dolphins RB (134)
J.J. Johnson, Dolphins RB (39)
Rob Konrad, Dolphins FB (34)
Backfield by committee combines Collins's burst, Johnson's power
and Konrad's blocking and pass-catching

9. Jon Jansen, Redskins OT (37)
Solid starter on right side from Day 1, he's helped keep
quarterback Brad Johnson upright

10. Ricky Williams, Saints RB (5)
Showed on Sunday what can happen when his number is called with
a 40-carry, 179-yard performance against the Browns

[BOX]

Arena Exits Still Blocked

When quarterback Mike Pawlawski walked onto the 49ers' practice
field for a tryout one day last month, he thought to himself,
Jeez, it's so wide open out here! How can you miss? After
throwing in Arena League bandboxes--50 yards long by 28 yards
wide--the past five years, he now stood on a regulation outdoor
field, 100 by 53 1/3 yards. "It felt great to be throwing
outside again," Pawlawski said.

In the wake of the remarkable early-season success of Rams
quarterback Kurt Warner, a three-year Arena veteran, and after
his own 79-touchdown, seven-interception season with the Arena
champion Albany Firebirds, Pawlawski hoped he might have an NFL
job by now. But three weeks after his workout with the Niners
(who never called back), Pawlawski--a Buccaneers' 1992
eighth-round draft pick out of Cal who was cut before the end of
training camp that summer--was still waiting for another shot.

The attitude of most NFL scouts toward Arena players is summed
up by one AFC pro personnel director, who still isn't sold on
Warner. "I think the NFL will catch up to Warner," he says.
"When we called Iowa [Barnstormers, Warner's former team] a
couple of years ago to talk about prospects for training camp,
they were lukewarm on him. So I don't see us running out to look
at Arena League tape."

The 6'2", 215-pound Pawlawski, a three-time Arena passing
champion, has an average arm and good speed (4.75 in the 40) by
NFL standards. "Our league places such a value on reading
defenses quickly, making decisions quickly and throwing
accurately," Pawlawski said from the Bay Area last week, while
prepping for his job as Cal's television colorman. "I'm so much
more ready to play in the NFL than I was before."

One NFL personnel man identifies Pawlawski, the Houston
Thunderbears' Clint Dolezel and the Nashville Kats' Andy Kelly
as bona fide quarterback prospects, but even though the
Cardinals recently signed the Arizona Rattlers' Sherdrick
Bonner, there has been little or no interest in other Arena
passers. "The complexity of the defenses up here is so great,"
says Browns quarterback coach John Hufnagel, who coached the New
Jersey Red Dogs of the Arena League for two seasons before
moving to Cleveland.

Granted, but if Stoney Case, a backup now with the Ravens, can
get a chance with three NFL teams, then quarterbacks who have
produced in Arena ball deserve a good look.

Sorting Out the Postseason

In a season marked by so much upheaval that the four teams in
last year's conference title games have spent much of the first
half in last place in their divisions, it might seem silly to
predict who will qualify for the postseason and how those
playoffs will shake out. But what the heck.

AFC

1. Jaguars (13-3) Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has them
playing the best D in the league. Competing in the AFC Central
doesn't hurt.

2. Dolphins (11-5) The bone spur in Dan Marino's neck is a big
concern, but the defense will take pressure off the Damon
Huard-led offense.

3. Seahawks (10-6) Quarterback Jon Kitna will continue to
improve, leading Seattle to its first playoff appearance since
1988.

4. Colts (11-5) Their remaining road schedule is easier than
that of any other AFC East contender.

5. Titans (9-7) They enjoy the luxury of having two quarterbacks
who can be competent in the postseason, and they play the type
of swarming defense that can create havoc in January.

6. Patriots (10-6) Everything's riding on whether they can keep
their Big Four--Drew Bledsoe, Terry Glenn, Ty Law and Willie
McGinest--healthy.

NFC

1. Rams (14-2) After facing the 5-2 Lions in the Silverdome, St.
Louis's last eight games will be against teams that could well
be .500 or below. "Our season last year gave everybody hope,"
says Falcons coach Dan Reeves. The Rams are the prime example of
that hope fulfilled.

2. Redskins (11-5) Assuming boy-genius owner Daniel Snyder
doesn't name himself defensive coordinator, Washington will ride
Brad Johnson's right arm to its first playoff berth since a
NASCAR owner prowled the sideline, in 1992.

3. Packers (10-6) With road games left against the Cowboys,
49ers, Vikings and Bucs, Green Bay will have its work cut out
for it.

4. Vikings (10-6) Can Minnesota really go 6-2 down the stretch?
Sure. You can't find a better tandem of understudies at
quarterback and running back than Jeff George and Leroy Hoard,
respectively, and those two will lead the way.

5. Buccaneers (9-7) As bad as the offense is, they'll claw their
way in. The defense is that good.

6. Lions (9-7) They'll qualify because quarterback Charlie Batch
is showing the poise of a Troy Aikman and because they refuse to
let the retirement of Barry Sanders distract them.

POSTSEASON

AFC wild-card round: Patriots 24, Seahawks 16; Colts 31, Titans 16

AFC divisional round: Jaguars 21, Patriots 17; Dolphins 25,
Colts 21

AFC Championship Game: Dolphins 20, Jaguars 14

NFC wild-card round: Packers 30, Lions 21; Bucs 16, Vikings 14

NFC divisional round: Rams 20, Bucs 19; Packers 24, Redskins 13

NFC Championship Game: Rams 35, Packers 24

Super Bowl XXXIV: Dolphins 27, Rams 10. Jimmy Johnson's men are
playing with such confidence that they think: Marino or Huard,
we'll win it all.

"You know," Vermeil told Warner (13), "in seven weeks, you've
turned me from a jerk to a genius."
"What we're getting are games played with more intensity
because the players know that anything can happen."
"We're in a transition time for quarterbacks in a
quarterback-driven league," says the Ravens' Billick.