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Inside The NFL

Jan. 14, 2002
Jan. 14, 2002

Table of Contents
Jan. 14, 2002

Inside The NFL

Double Feature
The Rams' Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk both deserve to be the
MVP

This is an article from the Jan. 14, 2002 issue Original Layout

It's a cop-out. No question. But there is not a Most Valuable
Player in the NFL this season. There are two. It's a freaky,
unprecedented thing, but they happen to play for the same team.
After much tormented consideration, I present the MVPs for 2001.

Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk.

Indistinguishable in value: mammoth, irreplaceable value. When I
submitted my vote to the Associated Press on Tuesday morning--50
media members cast ballots--I split my vote between the two St.
Louis stars. Who was better: Lincoln or Jefferson, Mozart or
Bach? Who's the more valuable Ram? I couldn't choose. So I chose
to split.

"There won't be many, if any, teams as good on offense ever
again, with players as talented as these," St. Louis coach Mike
Martz told me last week. "Do people realize they're watching one
of the great quarterbacks ever? And a back who will take his
place as one of the best ever?"

I was a Warner guy, narrowly, until the Rams' regular-season
finale, a 31-13 win over the Falcons that capped a 14-2 season.
My reason: Despite throwing the third-most interceptions in the
league (22), he had the second-most-prolific passing season
ever--4,830 yards, along with 36 touchdown passes--and served as
the triggerman for the best offense, and the best team, in the
league. I've never seen anyone throw the deep ball more
accurately, and no team throws it deep more often than St. Louis.
Plus, Warner's 68.7% completion rate was three points higher than
that of any other quarterback in the league. "Hands down, this is
my best season," Warner, the 1999 MVP, said the day before
completing 25 passes in 30 attempts with three touchdowns against
Atlanta. Then, in a rare display of bravado he added, "Week in,
week out, would the Packers be where they are without Brett
Favre? I don't think so. I feel the same way about my value to
this team."

The sad thing about selecting an MVP is that you exalt your guy
at the expense of other worthy candidates. Not this year. The
only popular pick I couldn't support was the Steelers' terrific
quarterback, Kordell Stewart, who wasn't even the MVP of his own
team at midseason. (Running back Jerome Bettis was.) There were
four other bona fide candidates. San Francisco quarterback Jeff
Garcia, who has as much impact as predecessors Joe Montana and
Steve Young, keyed the Niners' drive to 12-4. Favre, playing like
the man who won an unprecedented three straight MVPs in the
mid-'90s, threw for 3,921 yards and had 17 more touchdown passes
(32) than interceptions. If the Raiders hadn't suffered such a
precipitous drop-off in their performance down the stretch,
quarterback Rich Gannon would have been right there.

Then there's Faulk. Privately, he thought the two games he missed
with a knee bruise would kill his chances for a second straight
MVP. But, oh, those 14 games he played! He averaged 153 rushing
and receiving yards, just three fewer than he did during his
remarkable season in 2000. He's the first NFL player to have
2,000 yards from scrimmage in four consecutive seasons. He'd be a
Pro Bowl wideout if he chose that lot. Faulk bolstered his
candidacy with a 226-yard day against the Falcons. "I'd vote
Faulk," Atlanta linebacker Keith Brooking said. "I'll have
nightmares all off-season about the cuts he made on me. I've
never played against anyone like him."

Spurrier's New Challenge
Former Gator Will Find a Way

Every time Steve Spurrier's name came up in connection with an
NFL job in recent years, people around the league would mention
his addiction to golf and his reluctance to put in long hours day
in and day out. In fact, a source close to Redskins owner Daniel
Snyder says that when the two spoke about the Washington coaching
job last year, Spurrier told him, "I'm not going to be one of
those coaches who stays till midnight."

Last Friday, Spurrier surprisingly resigned as coach at Florida
to pursue NFL opportunities. The question isn't whether he'll
land a coaching job but rather with whom. Though he has never
developed a top NFL quarterback, Spurrier is widely respected
around the NFL for his offensive mind, his ability to motivate
and the quality of player his program has sent to the league
over the past decade.

So will Spurrier succeed in the NFL? Probably. Like Jimmy
Johnson a decade ago, Spurrier--whom Rams coach Mike Martz calls
"brilliant"--will be smart enough to adjust to the intricacies
of the pro game. Moreover, he's such a competitor that he'll
realize how hard he has to work to succeed.

Dallas's Bright Spot
Zimmer Turns Around Defense

Last January, as the Cowboys considered how to rebuild a
shattered defense, coordinator Mike Zimmer spurned the typical
NFL approach--which, basically, is to say, We've got all the
answers; we just have to work harder. "It was kind of humbling,"
Zimmer said last week. "We didn't have the answers. It's like an
alcoholic who has to ask for help because he can't beat it
himself."

The traditionally tough Dallas D slipped to 19th in the league in
2000, and Zimmer, with input from coach Dave Campo, went to work
on the reconstruction in novel ways, one of which is sure to
raise eyebrows around the league. With the blessing of Baltimore
coach Brian Billick, Zimmer spent two days breaking down tape of
the Ravens with defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. "I guess they
felt that because we weren't playing each other this year, we
weren't a threat to them," says the 45-year-old Zimmer. "We had a
good little clinic. I took away a lot of things, and one of the
big ones was stopping the run with a seven-man front instead of
an eight-man front, which they do so well."

During the off-season, Zimmer also brought in a teacher and
sports psychologist to critique each defensive assistant's
classroom methods and coaching technique. The staff broke down
tapes of six top defenses and stole ideas. Then, in the dog days
of training camp, he eschewed some late meetings and instead
showed the players inspirational movies like Lean on Me and
Remember the Titans. Each day in camp one player was awarded a
yellow jersey, signifying the leader of the day--as in the Tour de
France. Zimmer emphasized effort above all else, making an
emerging star out of relentless tackle Brandon Noble, an NFL
Europe alum.

Although Dallas finished 5-11, a moribund offense was largely to
blame. The Cowboys finished the season fourth in the league in
team defense--two spots behind Lewis's Ravens. "I wish I could say
I thought we'd be in the top five," Zimmer says. "But I had no
idea. What I learned most was that people look at talent so much
in the NFL. They should look more at effort and heart."

Quarterback Derby
Teams Will Have Plenty of Options

Benched Patriot Drew Bledsoe wants to revive his career
elsewhere. The Jets may throw Vinny Testaverde out the door
because of poor production and a $9 million bonus he's due in
June. In addition, the five-year extension that the Bills and
backup Alex Van Pelt hammered out last week may put injury-prone
Rob Johnson on the market--unless he agrees to take a big pay cut.
Houston, Washington, Chicago and Cincinnati will be major players
in the off-season quarterback market. "Until the Johnson and
Bledsoe issues get resolved," says Texans offensive coordinator
Chris Palmer, "it's hard to predict how things will shake out."

In the wake of the bowl season, the college quarterback crop
looks like this: Fresno State's David Carr, a 65% passer this
season with a big arm, is the favorite to go to Houston as the
top pick in the draft. Oregon's Joey Harrington moved from a
mid-first-round selection to a possible top five choice, on the
strength of a 28-of-42, 350-yard, four-touchdown Fiesta Bowl
performance; the Redskins may try to trade up for him. LSU's
Rohan Davey and Kurt Kittner of Illinois are low-first- or
high-second-round prospects. Texas's Major Applewhite played
himself into late-round contention with a strong Holiday Bowl.
He's not a franchise quarterback, but he could be a brainy career
backup a la the Giants' Jason Garrett.

My Two Cents
Sacking Favre, The Sack Record

1. In my mind there will always be an asterisk next to the sack
record of the Giants' Michael Strahan, because the Packers'
Brett Favre handed it to him by running a naked bootleg right
into an unblocked Strahan when he should have been running out
the clock late in a 34-25 Green Bay win. Sports should be about
fair competition, not the manipulation of records because one
player likes another one. But don't expect the NFL to do
anything about it. One top league official said on Monday that
the only way the sack could be taken away is if Favre
acknowledged that the play he ran was a setup. That isn't going
to happen.

2. Dennis Green wanted to get fired in Minnesota. That way he
could collect the $5.4 million owed him for the last two years
on his contract. Also, he wouldn't have to deal with rebuilding
a defense he had ignored for so long, and he could wash his
hands of Randy Moss, whom he never forced to grow up. This is
not a rip of Green's tenure. Over the past 10 years no team made
more playoff appearances than the Vikings' eight. Green wasn't
afraid to play kids (quarterback Daunte Culpepper and center
Matt Birk) and sack veterans. He has an excellent offensive
mind. He'll learn from his mistakes and return to coach well
again.

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

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Faulk is the first player to pile up 2,000 yards from scrimmage in four consecutive seasons.COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER The Cowboys finished 5-11, but their swarming defense was not to blame.

the football Beat

--WORD ASSOCIATION
With Dolphin turned Eagle cornerback Troy Vincent, a three-time
Pro Bowl selection

SI: Marino.

Vincent: A man ahead of his time. He used me like a debit card in
practice: "Like taking cash out of a cash machine," he'd say.

SI: Conquering the Giants.

Vincent: Next to getting married and having my children, beating
the Giants twice this year has been the most exciting time of my
life. Next to the pressure of taking the SATs, there was nothing
like the pressure of trying to beat them.

SI: Women's sports.

Vincent: It's a man's world. We forget the woman. I never
recognized it until my daughter got older. We had to send her
three hours away for sports camps. That's why my wife and I
started Troy Vincent Women's Athletics [which, among other
things, funds summer camps and leagues].

SI: Don Shula.

Vincent: I'll never forget him telling me early in my career,
"Your talent can only take you so far. You must become a student
of the game to have a big career." How true that is.

SI: Rams.

Vincent: If any team has a real shot at beating them, it's us. We
match up well with them defensively.

SI: On your nightstand.

Vincent: The edition of Forbes that has the top 400. My family
will be on that list one day. It serves as a constant reminder.

SI: Football goal.

Vincent: To leave the game healthy and with at least one
championship.

--MATCH GAME
Wild-card instant replay: Buccaneers at Eagles

Teams have faced off in a regular-season finale and a first-round
playoff game before--the Rams and the Saints did it last year--but
never has the 16th game meant nothing to the seedings of the two
playoff teams involved, as Philadelphia's 17-13 win over Tampa
Bay did on Sunday. "I could see one team try a trick play to get
it on film to have the other team say, 'Well, they did that in
the last game, so that means they're not going to do it again,'"
says Eagles punter Sean Landeta. "But then maybe they try it in
the playoff game. They figure it's the last thing the other team
expects."

--HISTORY BOOK
Jan. 11, 1987: A driven Phil Simms leads the Giants to NFC and
Super Bowl titles

Just before the NFL ferried New York quarterback Phil Simms to a
Friday-evening press conference in Manhattan hyping the 1986 NFC
Championship Game against Washington, Simms sidled up to
strength and conditioning coach Johnny Parker in the locker
room. "JP," he said, "I've got to go do this media thing. But
I've got to work out. Can you wait on me?" Parker agreed, and
Simms was back by 7:30 for the 90-minute workout. Then in the
howling Meadowlands wind, the Giants whipped the Redskins 17-0.
Two Fridays later, at the team's Super Bowl hotel in Beverly
Hills, Calif., Simms told Parker he needed another late workout.
Parker found a gym near the hotel; iron-pumping ensued. "That's
Phil," Parker recalled last week. "Never acted like a star.
Always committed to doing the work. Never took a shortcut."
Simms completed 22 of 25 passes in the win over the Broncos, a
Super Bowl record 88%. In the two title games he had a combined
four touchdown passes and no interceptions.

Dispatches

Looking for the 2002 version of the Bears? Try the Bills. They
have a solid young roster--their 2001 draft, led by corner Nate
Clements, was among the league's best--except for the question
mark at quarterback. The line needs a left tackle, but Buffalo
will have a shot to get one with the fourth pick in the draft.
General manager Tom Donahoe, who by cutting beloved veterans
(including defensive tackle Ted Washington and linebacker John
Holecek) has the team $8 million under the salary cap, will
fortify the defense through the draft and free agency. High on
the Bills' list is Steelers middle linebacker Earl Holmes. "I've
probably been the most hated guy in Buffalo the past year," says
Donahoe, who took over last January, "but we have a clear-cut
vision that will pay dividends next season."...

The Rams, tired of the fumbling by wideout-returner Az Hakim,
will let him test free agency. Re-signing middle linebacker
London Fletcher will be a priority....

The Browns, Packers and Texans will take a hard look at Patriots
bad-boy wide receiver Terry Glenn, while the Eagles might pursue
Vikings wideout Cris Carter, who would like to play one more year.