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Inside the NFL

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Posted: Wednesday November 25, 1998 11:54 AM

This week's topics:
Sudden Impact | Wanted: Home Field Edge 
Can Vermeil Save His Job? | Steelers Send A Message
When You're Hot, You're Hot | the buzz
Downsizing | Dr. Z's Forecast

Sudden Impact  

Rookie wideout Randy Moss is propelling the Vikings to new heights

By Peter King

Sports Illustrated
  Moss has caught 44 passes and scored eight touchdowns as part of the Vikings' triple threat. Heinz Kluetmeier
Under the Teflon sky of the Metrodome late on Sunday afternoon, the new boss met the old boss. The new most important player in the NFC playoff race, Vikings rookie wide receiver Randy Moss, embraced the man who previously held that distinction, Packers quarterback Brett Favre. "You're a great player," Favre told him.

There was an air of unreality in the visitors' locker room after the Vikings beat the Packers 28-14 to all but wrap up the NFC Central title, which has been won by Green Bay for the past three seasons. A sense of loss hung over the place, but just as prevalent was a sense that Moss had almost single-handedly lifted the Vikings to a level above the Packers. A reporter asked defensive end Reggie White what the biggest difference was between the Vikings of 1997 and this year's team, and he shot the guy a withering look. "Don't ask me crazy questions like that," he said. But wideout Antonio Freeman spoke for White and the rest of the Packers when he said, "The addition of Randy Moss has made Minnesota the most dangerous team we play."

In the three seasons before this one, Green Bay outscored Minnesota 62-48, 59-40 and 65-43 and won four of six meetings. This year, after selecting Moss with the 21st pick in the draft, the Vikings swept the Packers for the first time in five years and outscored Green Bay 65-38.

Moss's two-game totals against the Packers -- 13 catches, 343 yards, three touchdowns -- would have swelled even more if penalties hadn't wiped out catches of 61 and 75 yards. On Sunday, Randall Cunningham threw Moss an arcing spiral late in the fourth quarter that, for once, was underthrown. Moss slowed, pivoted around cornerback Craig Newsome, caught the ball and gamboled into the end zone for a 49-yard touchdown. "He adjusts to the ball in the air better than anyone I've ever seen," White says.

Moss is a Ferrari among Saabs. What makes him the most dangerous rookie receiver to enter the league in years is his combination of size (6'4") and speed (4.34 in the 40 -- a time that may be slow because Moss has another gear when he needs it). Brad Johnson, the injured Minnesota quarterback, tells this story from training camp: "We're trying to get to know each other, as quarterbacks and receivers have to do. So Randy comes up to me one day and says, 'When you see me running even with a corner--unless it's Deion [Sanders] or Darrell Green or somebody who runs a 4.3--just know that I'm playing with 'em. Just throw it far, and I'll catch up. Don't ever worry about overthrowing me.' You've got to know Randy. He wasn't saying it to be cocky. He was just telling me the truth."

Vikings fans get no sense of Moss's being cocky, which is how he was widely perceived as a troubled collegian at Marshall. He's respectful of the game. He talks only about winning. He hasn't groused once about not getting the ball, though he caught but nine passes in the four games before Sunday's.

After the game Lee Remmel, the Packers' 74-year-old executive director of public relations, compared Moss's arrival in the league to that of the man some call the greatest receiver in NFL history. Remmel was 11 in 1935 when Green Bay signed Don Hutson, who went on to set receiving records, some of which still stand. That year the Packers were trying to catch the rival Bears, who were coming off a year in which they finished the regular season 13-0 and won the NFL Western Division.

Remmel remembers Hutson for his blazing speed. "In our second game we played Chicago. Hutson caught a touchdown pass, and we won 7-0," Remmel said. "When we played at Chicago later in the season, we were down 14-3, but Hutson caught two touchdown passes late in the game, and we won 17-14. I'd say Moss's first year is approximating Hutson's."

Which is why the balance of power in the NFC Central has shifted. Dramatically.

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Wanted: Home Field Edge  

Last Friday a reporter stepped into an elevator at a medical building 15 miles west of downtown Nashville. Moments later two sniffling preschoolers and their mom got on. When the elevator doors opened on the second floor, Mom and kids went to the left, to the Old Harding Pediatric Associates. The reporter went to the right, to the offices of the Tennessee Oilers.

The Oilers practice on a windswept plateau hard by Interstate 40, across the street from a mall. They have just 41,600 seats in their temporary home at Vanderbilt Stadium, and they've been hawking those by appealing to Nashville's sense of civic duty. When the 6-4 Oilers, on a three-game winning streak and victorious in five of their last six, met the 6-4 Jets on Sunday, the teams played before a crowd that was 4,516 short of capacity. "I don't think these people understand what 6-4 in the NFL means," Tennessee star runner Eddie George said last Friday, sitting in the trailer that passes for a trainer's room. "They're like, 'Oh, the Jets are in town? Whatever. Let me know who wins.' They have no idea what the NFL game's about."

This is the Nirvana that owner Bud Adams talked about when he fled Houston after the '96 season? "This ought to tell you how it's been going around here," says Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher. "We beat Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh the last three weeks, two on the road, and we still can't find out what home field advantage means. But even though we've had plenty of reasons to make excuses, our approach is that we're not going to tolerate excuses."

Who would listen if the Oilers were making them? One NFL team official visiting Nashville for a recent game called it the most apathetic scene he has ever witnessed. The Oilers have already sold 48,000 season tickets for the state-of-the-art stadium they are scheduled to move into next year, but that's doing nothing for them now.

Against the Jets, Tennessee gave the hometown fans little reason to cheer. New York rolled to a 24-3 win as Curtis Martin ran for 123 yards and a touchdown. Defensively, the Jets limited a running attack that had been instrumental in the Oilers' recent success to 94 yards on 24 carries. Tennessee, which lost for the fourth time in six home games, can take solace in knowing that three of its last five are on the road, even if two of those games are against the Jaguars and the Packers.

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Can Vermeil Save His Job?  

The team with the league's worst record, the 1-9 Panthers, came to St. Louis on Sunday to play the 3-7 Rams, who desperately needed to get well. But the St. Louis players don't respond to coach Dick Vermeil's impassioned pleas anymore; the Rams fell behind 17-0 en route to a 24-20 loss. The St. Louis fans don't believe in Vermeil anymore, either; there were 14,000 no-shows on Sunday. The Rams' best player, wideout Isaac Bruce, missed his 10th game in two seasons with a mysterious hamstring injury.

Club president John Shaw, along with owners Georgia Frontiere and Stan Kroenke, will decide Vermeil's fate. On Sunday night Shaw sounded like a man prepared to write a $5.5 million check to buy out the remaining three years of Vermeil's contract. "I don't know what to tell Georgia and Stan after games like this," Shaw said. "What indications are there that we will succeed?"

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Steelers Send A Message  

The Steelers have won the AFC Central every year since 1994, but the Jaguars walked into Three Rivers on Sunday with a newfound running game and an opportunity to all but lock up their first division title. Pittsburgh responded with a 30-15 win, holding rookie Fred Taylor to 67 yards on 20 carries and scoring on a pair of interception returns by cornerback Dewayne Washington. "When you're the king, you want to run the kingdom forever," Steelers linebacker Levon Kirkland said afterward.... In his briefcase 49ers coach Steve Mariucci is carrying a seven-year contract extension that he could sign at any time. What's the holdup? Mariucci wants to control the personnel side, including having the final say on draft day.... Running back Lawrence Phillips will try to rejuvenate his career next spring during the NFL's 10-game Europe League season.

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When You're Hot, You're Hot  

Getting in early on an initial public offering for an Internet stock called, Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson and his girlfriend, Rhonda Rookmaaker, bought 2,000 shares at $9 each. Shortly after the stock began trading, on Nov. 13, while Rookmaaker was playing tennis and Johnson was at work, their broker sold the stock at $87 a share.

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the buzz  

1. Sour Rice Entering Sunday's action, Jerry Rice had a league-high 58 catches; he finished his night, a 31-20 win over the Saints, with three more receptions, one for a touchdown. Fellow wideouts J.J. Stokes and Terrell Owens had six and four catches, respectively. That's the way the game plan goes sometimes. But for the second time this year after a San Francisco win, Rice reacted selfishly to how he was used. "Is this something that might make me want to retire?" he said. "Hell, yes."

2. Quiet, Please On the first play of Sunday's game in the Metrodome against the Vikings, Packers center Frank Winters couldn't hear Brett Favre's signals, leading to a fumbled snap. In the fourth quarter the Pack had five presnap penalties that were at least partially attributable to crowd noise. Favre appealed to referee Phil Luckett to quiet the fans. Luckett, who could have warned the crowd and subsequently charged Minnesota with timeouts or assessed a five-yard penalty, directed Favre to play on. The NFL has a month to get its decibel meters in gear.

3. Here Come the Cards By default, 6-5 Arizona is looking more and more like the NFC's sixth and final playoff team. On Sunday the Cardinals squandered almost all of a 31-point lead before holding off the Redskins 45-42. NFC powers must be salivating at the thought of getting Arizona in a wild-card game. "Whether people like it or not," Cardinals center Aaron Graham says, "we're a contender."

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At the NFL fall meetings last month, during glitzy expansion presentations by groups from Houston and Los Angeles, Redskins general manager Charley Casserly says one owner turned to him and whispered incredulously, "Can you believe we're in Nashville?" Now comes the news that the Patriots (above, shown playing against the relocated Oilers) have reached a tentative agreement to move from the suburbs of Boston, the nation's sixth-largest TV market, to Hartford, the 27th largest. Over the past 15 years teams have moved to medium-sized markets that are so desperate for prestige that they'll hand a club lucrative stadium deals. Connecticut offered Patriots owner Bob Kraft a $350 million stadium. In Massachusetts, Kraft would have had to build the stadium himself. Here's a look at franchise moves since 1984. (Rankings reflect the market position at the time of the team's move.)

Colts 1984 Baltimore 22 Indianapolis 21
Cardinals 1988 St. Louis 18 Phoenix 20
Rams 1995 Los Angeles 2 St. Louis 20
Raiders 1996 Los Angeles 2 Oakland 5*
Browns-Ravens 1996 Cleveland 13 Baltimore 23
Oilers 1997 Houston 11 Nashville 33

* Oakland is the smallest city in a combined market with San Francisco and San Jose.

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Issue date: November 30, 1998  

Related information
Inside the NFL: Dr. Z's Forecast
Inside College Football
Inside Tennis
This Week's Issue of Sports Illustrated
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