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Posted: Thursday December 17, 1998 01:06 PM
'Aloha' Means 'Goodbye' | Dispatches
Horsepower | The Buzz
The End Zone | The Inner Game
Dr. Z's Forecast
The Bucs are making a late playoff bid, but did they wait too long?
By Peter King
"Playoff fever -- catch it!" yelled one of the players in the Tampa Bay locker room after the Buccaneers defeated the Steelers 16-3 on Sunday. Other Bucs gazed at the 31-inch television that quarterback Trent Dilfer controlled, flipping the satellite channels as one game after another with NFC playoff implications wound down.
Falcons-Saints, fourth quarter at the Superdome: New Orleans coach Mike Ditka paces the sideline. Dilfer watches a replay of Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler throwing a 63-yard touchdown pass to Terance Mathis. The Saints lose 27-17, falling a game back in the wild-card race.
Coming off a year in which they made their first playoff appearance since 1982, the Bucs were picked by many, including SI, to reach the Super Bowl. But after losing three straight in November to fall to 4-7, they were given up for dead. Now in the wake of Sunday's win -- their third in a row -- Tampa Bay is at least talking playoffs. As cocky as ever, the defense was ferocious on Sunday, holding the Steelers to 102 yards over the last three quarters and intercepting four passes in that time. The offense stumbled around in its typical fashion and did just enough to win in a rainstorm at Raymond James Stadium.
"The playoffs aren't in the back of my mind," says defensive tackle Warren Sapp. "They're in the front. I can smell 'em."
If it were only that easy. Tampa Bay closes its season with winnable road games at Washington on Saturday and at Cincinnati on Dec. 27, but the Bucs need help. The Vikings, Falcons and 49ers have already locked up playoff spots. The Packers need to win over Tennessee on Sunday or in Chicago on Dec. 27 to secure a wild card, and the Cowboys must win only one of their last two -- home games against the Eagles and the Redskins -- to wrap up the NFC East. That would leave the Cardinals and the Bucs vying for the last wild-card spot, which, by virtue of a better conference record than Tampa Bay's, would belong to Arizona if the two teams sweep their final two games. (The Cards have home games left with the Saints and the Chargers.)
Tampa Bay has nobody to blame but itself for that predicament. After handing the Vikings their only loss of the season, a 27-24 defeat on Nov. 1, the Bucs went on their three-game skid, losing at home to the Oilers and the Lions and on the road to the Jaguars. "I think that our biggest problem this year was fighting all the expectations," Dilfer said last Saturday night. "I sit in bed and think about it. When we lost and fell under .500 early in the season, you kept hearing guys say, 'We've got to run the table.' But the key was, 'We've got to win one game.' Forget the other stuff. We beat Chicago and Green Bay thinking that way, and that's how we are entering this game with Pittsburgh."
Dilfer was right. Tampa Bay ran 45 times for 144 yards, held the ball for 35:29 and forced five turnovers. "We know we can beat anyone in this league," says Bucs strong safety John Lynch, who had two interceptions against the Steelers. "I just hope we get a chance to do it."
After watching the Panthers lose to the mediocre Redskins on Sunday, the Carolina hierarchy must have grave doubts as to whether coach Dom Capers is the man to lead them into 1999, much less the 21st century.
The Panthers fell behind 21-3 en route to a 28-25 loss at Ericsson Stadium. On the sideline during the second quarter, linebacker Kevin Greene responded to a stern lecture from assistant coach Kevin Steele by grabbing him by the collar and shaking him. Capers should have sent Greene to the showers, but instead he put him back in the game. "Kevin regained his poise," Capers explained later. (On Monday the Panthers announced that Greene would be suspended without pay for this week's game against the Rams.)
Also, Sean Gilbert, the defensive tackle whom Capers pried from Washington and made the highest-paid defensive player in history last spring, had no sacks or even a tackle against his former team. "I don't remember seeing Gilbert all day," said Washington quarterback Trent Green, who dropped back to pass 43 times.
After the game Capers, who in the franchise's first three seasons had made discipline a Carolina hallmark, said his players were undisciplined. "Where does that start?" kick returner Michael Bates asked pointedly.
Since beating the Cowboys to reach the 1996 NFC Championship Game, the Panthers are 0-15 against teams with winning records. This season they are tied with the Bengals, at 2-12, for the league's worst record, and their first-round pick in next April's draft belongs to the Redskins as part of the compensation package Capers gave up to sign Gilbert. What's equally disturbing is that, while Capers and the front office have been given almost carte blanche to sign free agents, those personnel moves have not panned out.
What a turnaround in two years for the 48-year-old Capers, who had been regarded as one of the game's brightest new coaches.
Chargers president Dean Spanos and general manager Bobby Beathard had assured interim coach June Jones that he would get a two-year contract after this season, so Jones, 45, went into a meeting last week with University of Hawaii trustees and athletic officials thinking he'd surely say no if the Rainbows' coaching job were offered. But memories of his two years playing and another season spent as an assistant coach at the university came rushing back during the interview.
"Three minutes into it I felt passion about a job that I hadn't felt in a long time," says Jones, who replaced the fired Kevin Gilbride in San Diego on Oct. 13. Jones accepted Hawaii's reported six-year, $1.5 million offer. Now he is faced with rebuilding a team that has lost its last 18 games. "Big challenge," Jones mused. "But I don't feel like I'll miss the NFL."
As for the Chargers' coaching situation, Beathard would like to retain the defensive staff, whose unit has ranked among the top five in total defense all season. To replace Jones, look for San Diego to strongly consider offensive-minded college coaches, notably UCLA's Bob Toledo and Stanford's Tyrone Willingham.
Some league officials and owners are worried that the six-week lull between the end of the season and the annual league meetings in March will slow momentum and make the return of instant replay next season less likely. Now that the possibility of having replay for the upcoming postseason is all but dead, expect proponents of replay to push for a discussion and maybe even a vote the next time representatives from all 31 teams are together -- at the Super Bowl in Miami next month....
Assuming the league will lift its suspension, look for Eddie DeBartolo to trade his DeBartolo Corporation holdings to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, for sole ownership of the 49ers. DeBartolo had already stepped aside before pleading guilty in October to felony charges for failing to report a serious crime, and his sister took control of the team in his absence. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue is expected to consider lifting the suspension in February....
Bills quarterback Doug Flutie went Christmas shopping last week at a Buffalo mall, signed autographs for 20 minutes and never made it to a store. "I'm resigned to catalog shopping and the Internet," he says....
After running for 137 yards and a touchdown in his team's 20-17 win over the Cowboys, the Chiefs' Bam Morris, suspended twice in the past three years for violation of the league's substance-abuse policy, presented a game ball to owner Lamar Hunt to thank him "for bringing me here and giving me a chance."
The Colts' Marshall Faulk is having one of the greatest seasons a running back has ever had -- yet it has gone virtually unnoticed. He is second in the league in receptions, with 78, and has a good shot at joining former 49er Roger Craig as only the second back to win a receiving title. Faulk also could match another feat accomplished by Craig -- the only player to surpass 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. Also, with 2,090 yards from scrimmage, Faulk could break the NFL record for combined rushing-receiving yards set last year by the Lions' Barry Sanders (2,358). Unfortunately for Faulk, the Colts are 3-11, the focus in Indianapolis is on Peyton Manning, and the Broncos' Terrell Davis is having a runaway season. The measure of an all-around back comes down to what percentage of his team's offense he accounts for, and here's how Faulk's season rates against the best ever. (Cliff Battles accounted for 43.4% of the 1932 Boston Braves' offense, but he did so with only 1,465 yards and is thus omitted from the following list.)
1. The Crying Game Midway through the third quarter Steelers coach Bill Cowher pulls quarterback Kordell Stewart, who looks neither athletic nor decisive during a 16-3 loss to the Buccaneers. After an angry exchange between the coach and his passer, Stewart weeps. This must really be going over well in shot-and-a-beer Pittsburgh.
2. The Return Game In their 23-year history the Bucs have never returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and the Broncos haven't done it since 1972. In Baltimore on Sunday, the Ravens (two) and the Vikings returned a total of three kickoffs for scores in a span of seven minutes. "The world has never seen that before," said Minnesota linebacker Dwayne Rudd. And probably never will again.
3. The Compromising Game After striking a tentative sweetheart deal with Connecticut state officials to move his team to Hartford, Patriots owner Bob Kraft got word that the move to the largely blue-collar state capital might encounter resistance. So he agreed to cut his annual guaranteed take on luxury and club seating from $17.5 million to $13 million, and he cut the price of the most expensive club seats from $5,000 to $4,000 a year. Kraft is still left with the richest NFL stadium deal ever.
Rams defensive linemen Ray Agnew and Mike D. Jones were also teammates at North Carolina State and with the Patriots. Each drives a white Mercedes-Benz and a blue Suburban, each is nursing a sore left knee, and each has a pregnant wife who is due the same month.
The future of a coach and his family can turn on one blown call
Shortly after head linesman Earnie Frantz's blown touchdown call had handed the Jets a last-second victory over the Seahawks on Dec. 6, all but sucking the last breath out of Seattle's playoff chances, Seahawks offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski was crestfallen. When a reporter mentioned how tough the loss must be on the coach's family -- wife Rebecca, son Shane, 15, and daughter Courtney, 12 -- Bratkowski was too choked up to answer and walked away. He knew what the mood was like in his suburban Seattle house.
"Coaches' families aren't watching these games for entertainment," a somber Bratkowski said last Thursday. "They're watching to see where they'll be living next year."
Ten assistants on the 17-man Seattle coaching staff are in the final year of their contracts. It has been widely reported -- and refuted by no one on owner Paul Allen's management team -- that Dennis Erickson and his assistants are coaching for their jobs. The Seahawks, one of the league's most aggressive teams in the pursuit of free agents over the past two off-seasons, are 30-32 in four years under Erickson and have never made the playoffs. So Bratkowski, 43, who before joining the Seahawks in 1992 had been an assistant with five college teams in 14 years and wants to coach somewhere else if the axe falls, will probably have to move his family again this winter.
Bratkowski grew up in a football family -- his father, Zeke, was a quarterback for the Bears, Rams and Packers, and he later became an assistant coach -- so he knows the toll that failure takes. "My wife was awake when I got home from New York," he says. "She just shook her head. I said, 'Tough day, honey.' Usually I sleep fine. Not that night. The next morning my son said, 'Dad, that sucks.' I told him talking like that's not going to do anybody any good. We've been fortunate. Football's been good to us. It's kind of unspoken between my wife and me: no sense in gloom and doom, especially around Christmas. We want to be positive and upbeat. We have to be."
Nevertheless, Bratkowski admits that the way his fate was apparently sealed "twists the dagger a little bit. I think the officials' job is very difficult. They need help in situations like that. The answer's probably instant replay. But officials have gotten themselves a little union. They're protected. Sometimes coaches are left to twist in the wind. I love coaching. I love game day. But when I see how it affects the family, I wonder, Don't they deserve better?"
Yet the coach doesn't hold a grudge against Frantz. "I have no animosity toward him," Bratkowski says, "just as I wouldn't have animosity toward a player who made a mistake in a game."
Issue date: December 21, 1998
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