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Inside the NFL

Click here for more on this story

Posted: Wednesday November 11, 1998 01:03 PM

This week's topics:
Double Trouble | Avoiding the Franchise Tag 
The Flawed View Of Quarterbacks | Oilers Consider Hiring Headrick
He's Elvis in Name Only | The Old Emmitt Is Back
The Buzz | The Inner Game

Double Trouble  

With both marquee quarterbacks injured, how far can the Vikings go?

By Peter King

Sports Illustrated
  Cunningham went from backup to top-rated quarterback in the league before getting hurt. Al Tielemans
At the end of the strangest football weekend of his life, Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson could offer only a wry smile. In 24 hours he had gone from second-fiddle passer to a player who apparently had won back his starting job to a patient of a Minneapolis hand specialist. By Sunday night Johnson had been relegated to sideline spectator again, the result of a broken right thumb he had suffered during an otherwise sterling relief appearance in a 31-24 win over the Saints earlier that day.

"That's the way life goes, I guess," Johnson said in his soft North Carolina drawl. "Hopefully I can come back to play Chicago [on Dec. 6], then take a run at the playoffs."

In one afternoon the Vikings went from having the healthiest quarterback situation in the league to one that's sickening. Ready to play for the first time since he broke his right leg in Week 2 against the Rams, Johnson was listed as backup to Randall Cunningham against New Orleans. Cunningham, who had taken over as the starter, was the NFL's highest-rated quarterback.

Yet as Vikings coach Dennis Green walked out of the Metrodome on Sunday night, he didn't know if either of his passers would be available for the stretch run. Cunningham was undergoing an MRI on his injured right knee, and Johnson was on his way to the hand specialist. "I've always said you need two good quarterbacks," Green said glumly. "I just hope I don't need three."

He does. Johnson had his hand put in a cast. On Monday morning Cunningham had arthroscopic surgery. The double hit could hardly have come at a worse time for Minnesota, which, in a 12-day stretch beginning this Sunday, plays host to Cincinnati and Green Bay and then visits Dallas.

The Vikings' two healthy quarterbacks are Jay Fiedler, a third-year pro out of Dartmouth who has thrown four NFL passes, and Todd Bouman, a rookie out of St. Cloud State who has been inactive for each of Minnesota's first nine games. Barring a miraculous recovery by Cunningham—"I know I'll be back in a week," Cunningham, a born-again Christian, said late Sunday. "God will make me well"—Fiedler will get his first NFL start against the Bengals. As of late Monday, Minnesota was hoping that Cunningham would be healthy enough to start in the showdown against the Packers on Nov. 22.

The bizarre injuries to Cunningham and Johnson occurred, coincidentally, on Minnesota's third offensive plays of the first and second halves. In the first quarter Saints defensive end Jared Tomich jumped offside, and the Vikings tried to take advantage of the free play. But Tomich pulled Cunningham down with an awkward tug on the quarterback's right leg. Cunningham also sprained his ankle on the play. In the third quarter Johnson banged his passing hand on the helmet of a New Orleans defender after releasing a throw. "I knew it was bad," Johnson said. "I looked down, and it was bent sideways. But there was no way I was coming out of the game."

From that point on Johnson completed 11 of 14 passes, though free safety Sammy Knight's interception return for a touchdown tied the game at 24-24. Johnson completed 12 of 13 third-down passes, the most notable of which came with about five minutes left in a tie game. Facing third-and-eight at the Saints 25, Johnson was caught from behind by defensive tackle Wayne Martin. But as he was falling, Johnson switched the ball from his right hand to his left and shot-putted a pass to running back Leroy Hoard, who raced to a 19-yard gain. Three plays later Hoard scored the winning touchdown.

Though now 8-1, the Vikings face their first crisis. Who could have imagined Minnesota being in such a predicament before Sunday's game? "This could end up being like the '72 Dolphins," Johnson said last week. "Randall could be Earl Morrall."

Twenty-six years ago the 38-year-old Morrall replaced the injured Bob Griese and led the Dolphins down the stretch of their 14-0 season and into the playoffs. Griese returned in the second half of the AFC title game and started the Super Bowl victory over the Redskins. If Cunningham is Morrall, that means Fiedler is Jim Del Gaizo, the Dolphins' third-string quarterback that year. Now it's up to Fiedler—whose grandfather was famed Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler's second cousin—to keep the fine-tuned Vikings offense playing smoothly.

"We won't change what we do to accommodate Jay," Minnesota offensive coordinator Brian Billick said on Monday. "He was a pentathlete in college. He knows all our routes well. You'll see he throws a nice, deep ball. Cincinnati obviously will load up on the run and force us to win with Jay. Great. Bring it on."

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Avoiding the Franchise Tag  

In the wake of the pathetic Eagles' signing of Bobby Taylor to a seven-year, $27.9 million extension, which made him the league's fourth-highest-paid cornerback, here's what the two parties who made the deal would like you to believe: Taylor felt loyalty to the team that made him a second-round draft pick in '95, and Philadelphia wanted to reward him for that loyalty.

In truth, here's what sealed the deal: The 2-7 Eagles were desperate to make a move that their fans, who despise thrifty owner Jeffrey Lurie, would perceive as a positive step. More important, Taylor knew that if he didn't sign an extension, Philadelphia could have slapped its franchise player tag on him in February, severely limiting his earning potential. With such a designation, the Eagles would have been obligated to offer Taylor a one-year deal in '99 for about $4 million, the average '98 salary of the five highest-paid corners in the league. Taylor could have negotiated with other teams, but any club that signed him would have had to send Philadelphia two first-round draft choices or some other agreed-upon compensation.

"I knew they would have put the tag on me, and that's the last thing you want," Taylor said last week. "You get no money up front, and you'd never see free agency."

Packers wideout Antonio Freeman and Vikings middle linebacker Ed McDaniel would be wise to follow Taylor's lead. Both are free-agents-to-be who are sure to be labeled franchise players if they don't get deals done before the end of the season.

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The Flawed View Of Quarterbacks  

One team's college scouting board, which rates seniors by position, has a particularly rank ranking at quarterback. Listed at No. 11—behind such big-timers as Mickey Fein of Maine, Ted White of Howard and Mike Cook of William and Mary—is UCLA's Cade McNown, who is only on an 18-game winning streak, is a four-year starter in a league renowned for preparing NFL quarterbacks, is running the same pass offense as the Packers' and has guts and guile. At worst the 6'1", 214-pound McNown, who has thrown for an average of 279.8 yards a game, with 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions this season, should be the third-rated senior passer, behind Central Florida's Daunte Culpepper and Syracuse's Donovan McNabb.

You would think that NFL scouts would have learned something from watching Doug Flutie. The Steelers' director of football operations, Tom Donahoe, who remains impressed with McNown, says, "Some people are maybe concerned with his measurables: You'd like a guy a little taller and maybe a little faster, but he's been a very productive quarterback at a high-level program, and you can't disregard that."

Oilers scout C.O. Brocato says, "He's got great touch, but what I worry about is the zip he needs for the 15-yard out." After watching McNown this fall, a scout for one NFC team wrote in his report, "Arm's a little short for throws he'll have to make.... Probably a West Coast [offense]-type player who can move around and make things happen."

Too many scouts operate on the assumption that every quarterback prospect has to be 6'3" and have an Elway-like arm. McNown may come up a couple of inches short, but consider this: This season 6'5" Colts rookie Peyton Manning has had 11 passes batted down at the line, seven more than Flutie. As one personnel director who likes McNown as a low first-round pick said last week, "If Doug Flutie hasn't proven anything to us, we all ought to be hung out."

Last Saturday, after his 377-yard, four-touchdown game in the rain at Oregon State, McNown said, "Wait until the combine. Then they'll see my arm strength. And I'm not five eight, five nine."

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Oilers Consider Hiring Headrick  

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue is pushing Oilers owner Bud Adams to hire former Vikings president Roger Headrick to run the team. Headrick interviewed with the club last week....

Raiders free safety Albert Lewis is bemused by those who doubt that Oakland's defense is as good as its stats. The Raiders have rocketed from last in the league last year to the No. 2 ranking this season. "Well," Lewis says, "Mike Tyson doesn't think Evander Holyfield's a good fighter either."

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He's Elvis in Name Only  

Last week People named Chiefs quarterback Elvis Grbac its sexiest athlete of the year. The news stunned his teammates. "Was that the Braille edition?" one player wondered.

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The Old Emmitt Is Back  

In a mostly empty Cowboys locker room last Friday, guard Nate Newton turned to running back Emmitt Smith and said candidly, "I can tell the difference in how you're running this year. Last year you were running on your heels because you just weren't sure [where to go]. It was my fault and the fault of the other guys on the line. Now I see you running on the balls of your feet. You've got confidence again." His 1,074 yards rushing last season was his lowest total since his rookie year, in 1990, and it looked as if the then 28-year-old Smith was past his prime. This season, new coach Chan Gailey has shown his confidence in Smith by calling more runs to the outside. On plays to the inside, Smith is more aggressive and is finding wide alleys to run through thanks to the dominant play of Newton and left tackle Larry Allen. On Sunday, in the Cowboys' 16-6 win over the Giants, Smith carried 29 times for 163 yards—his biggest rushing day since Oct. 29, 1995, when he had 167 yards against the Falcons—and passed Tony Dorsett to become Dallas's career rushing leader, with 12,105 yards. Now Smith, in his ninth season, needs 208 yards to pass Jim Brown, who quit after nine seasons, and move into fifth place on the alltime rushing list. Here's how Smith's 1998 totals stack up against his past top performances nine games into a season.

Year Yards Rushes Avg. Per Rush
1995 1,137 216 5.3
1992 963 219 4.4
1994 911 219 4.2
1998 871 194 4.5
1991 829 186 4.5

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The Buzz  

1. GUT CHECK Here's how great the 49ers have it in the NFC West: On Sunday they sat Steve Young because of an abdominal pull, committed six turnovers and still beat the Panthers 25-23. Now they travel to 7-2 Atlanta. Take away a one-point Falcons win in 1995, and the Niners have won eight meetings between the two teams since 1994 by an average of almost 25 points. Time for the Falcons to prove they belong.

2. ENIS'S PLIGHT Lost for the season after tearing the ACL in his left knee during the Bears' 20-12 loss to the Rams, Chicago running back Curtis Enis might now regret his decision this summer to turn down a six-year deal with a $7.2 million signing bonus. Instead, Enis agreed to a three-year pact with $3.6 million up front because he wanted to be able to test free agency earlier. Now he'll be fortunate to be a starter in the third year of his contract.

3. HARDLY A NEW LEAF During the Chargers' bye week at the end of October, rookie quarterback Ryan Leaf returned to his college haunts at Washington State and, according to published reports, threw beer on two students, made obscene gestures and was thrown out of two bars and a convenience store. Leaf, who admits he and some old friends visited "places we used to frequent to have a good time," denies all the allegations of misbehavior. Leaf also looks immature on the football field—four completions in 15 attempts against the Broncos on Sunday—so it's no wonder that the Chargers are crying in their beer about their supposed franchise savior. "You've got to constantly work on him about being professional and having class," says coach June Jones.

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The Inner Game: Grooming a Young Passer  

Jim Zorn works on more than mechanics with Charlie Batch

There were still 51 seconds left in the second quarter of the Lions' game with the Cardinals on Nov. 1, when Detroit quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn began preparing rookie Charlie Batch for the following week's game against the Eagles. After throwing his third interception of the half, Batch took his spot next to Zorn on the Detroit bench. Zorn was about to tell Batch that he was being benched for the first time in his six-game NFL career, but before that Zorn wanted Batch to understand why his pass had been picked off.

"What did you see?" Zorn asked. Batch explained that he was throwing over the middle to tight end David Sloan. Zorn then produced a photograph of the defense on that play (shot from upstairs). Batch hadn't realized that the Arizona defenders were taking deeper drops than usual, and the result was an easy interception by Cardinals free safety Kwamie Lassiter. "For this defense that was not the right read," Zorn said.

The coach was more concerned with how his pupil would react to the benching. "I told him, 'Don't overreact. Let's watch films on Monday and see what took place,'" says Zorn, an NFL quarterback of 11 seasons who played for the Seahawks, Packers and Bucs. "First thing Monday at the quarterbacks meeting, I had to see how he felt about being pulled and get him to talk about it."

As soon as Batch and fellow quarterbacks Frank Reich and Scott Mitchell took their seats, Zorn addressed the class pup. "You are not always going to be benched when things go bad," Zorn told Batch. "At some point you are going to have to play through it." Batch's response was just what Zorn wanted to hear. "That's what I wanted to do, keep playing," Batch said. "I got us into trouble. I wanted to get us out."

Convinced that Batch had the right mind-set, Zorn spent much of the rest of the week trying to break two of the rookie's destructive habits. Batch has repeatedly missed receivers on corner routes because he throws to a spot before considering what impact the defender's positioning might have on the receiver's angle. "He can't anticipate," says Zorn. "He has to wait for the receiver to break." Batch has also been unnecessarily checking off at the line after misreading defensive adjustments. The best remedy for this deficiency is experience. "When I explain these things to veterans, I'm just refreshing their memories," Zorn says. "Batch is learning it for the first time."

Batch was back for some on-the-job training on Sunday. He completed 14 of 27 passes for 146 yards, and while he didn't throw any interceptions, he didn't get the Lions into the end zone either. He did drive them 40 yards in the final 3:23, but the Eagles hung on for a 10-9 win when Jason Hanson's 58-yard field goal attempt fell short. "He's a rookie, and we're going to wade through," Lions coach Bobby Ross said afterward. "We're struggling with some things, relative to reads. But we're going to work through that."

—By Richard Deutsch

Issue date: November 16, 1998  

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