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Inside the NFL
Posted: Tuesday December 22, 1998 05:06 PM
Wilson Gets His Due | Dispatches
The End Zone | The Buzz
Lining Up to Cash In | Dr. Z's Forecast
This season will be remembered for its lack of a dominating defense
By Peter King
One thing that '98 won't be remembered for is dominating defense. Quick: Name the three teams that lead the NFL in total defense entering the last week of the regular season. The 5-10 Chargers are on top, followed by the 10-5 Dolphins and the 7-8 Bucs. San Diego is first in the league against the run, but the Chargers are eighth against the pass, 20th in points allowed and 18th in sacks. You call that great defense?
Putting a quality unit on the field requires not only Pro Bowl-caliber players but also depth to offset injuries and specialists to counter the multiple sets that have become the norm for offenses today. However, teams can afford to pay top dollar to only so many players, and even backups opt to go where the money is instead of sticking with a proven winner. "You can't stockpile players anymore," says Bills offensive coordinator Joe Pendry. "The ['85] Bears had great players at every position on defense, and they had a bench. Now, even if you get all those great starters, nobody's got a bench, and you're going to need one before the season's over."
Lacking depth, good defenses, by necessity, have become increasingly complex. The Jets are 11-4 in large part because of their ability to mix up their looks: They've played a 3-4, a 4-3 and even a 4-4 with only three defensive backs on regular downs, which is virtually unheard of in today's game. "They make you think more than you want to think, trying to figure out who's playing what position," says Panthers quarterback Steve Beuerlein. "They have so many personnel packages."
Here are four other trends that emerged this year:
Kicking entered the golden age. No aspect of the game has improved as meteorically in recent years as field goal accuracy. In 1986 kickers made 68.6% of their field goal attempts; heading into the final week of this season, the conversion rate is 79.9%, and only five kickers are below 70%.
The 1994 rule change that returned the ball to the spot of a missed field goal instead of to the line of scrimmage discouraged many coaches from attempting long field goals. Nevertheless, kickers are now better coached and less flaky. There are stronger legs doing the work, too. In '94, when the league moved the kickoff from the 35- to the 30-yard line, 7% of the kickoffs went for touchbacks; this year that number is up to 17%.
The zone blitz all but disappeared. Teams still employ the scheme that drops linemen into short pass-coverage zones while linebackers and/or defensive backs blitz, but they aren't running it as much as they did a couple of years ago. Why? It takes too long for young players to master the zone blitz, quarterbacks are more mobile, and offensive coordinators are countering with four-wideout sets that give the passer more quick options. The Panthers ran the scheme 45% of the time in '96 using smart, experienced linebackers and linemen. Not so with a new cast this year: On 56 plays against the Bills on Oct. 25, Carolina called two zone blitzes. "Offenses are spreading the field more, and defenses will have to find a way to match that," says Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe.
Mobile quarterbacks hit it big. The Vikings' Randall Cunningham has the league's top quarterback rating. Doug Flutie unexpectedly guided the Bills into the playoffs. Even Manning, who was supposed to have feet of concrete, moves and rolls like a Steve Young wannabe; against the Ravens on Nov. 29, Manning completed 13 of 16 passes when flushed out of the pocket or throwing on the run. More than ever, scouts are looking at college passers who can improvise -- Kansas State's Michael Bishop, UCLA's Cade McNown and Syracuse's Donovan McNabb, to name three -- as high-round draft prospects.
Quality cornerbacks became scarce. In the fourth quarter of the Giants-Broncos game on Dec. 13, Denver was fighting to keep its perfect season intact. New York saw dimeback Tito Paul -- released in the off-season by a Bengals team that ranked 29th in pass defense in '97 -- in single coverage on wideout Amani Toomer. Bingo. Toomer burned Paul for the winning 37-yard touchdown. "Week after week," says Packers general manager Ron Wolf, "it becomes more glaring how the lack of defensive backs is hurting teams in this league. Just look at Dallas."
In their first nine games, before cornerback Deion Sanders sprained his left big toe, the Cowboys surrendered 13 points a game; in the next five games, mostly without Sanders, Dallas gave up an average of 28 points. On Nov. 15 the Raiders lost cornerback Eric Allen from a defense that was ranked first in the league. During a recent four-game stretch, Oakland gave up 40, 29, 27 and 44 points. "We're turning it over more now," says Raiders coach Jon Gruden, "but we miss Eric Allen. A lot."
In the wake of their 24-21 loss to the Patriots on Sunday, the 49ers limped out of their locker room at Foxboro Stadium a battered and confused team. Strong safety Tim McDonald, 33, an ice pack taped to his ribs, winced as he walked. Steve Young, 37 and gimping along like Walter Brennan, didn't know the extent of the damage to his left knee, which was screwed into the turf on San Francisco's last play from scrimmage. With a league-high 13 players over 30 and ticketed for a wild-card game against a Packers team that has knocked them out of the playoffs the past three years, the Niners hardly look as if they have the vigor to make a playoff run.
They certainly won't if the offense plays as it did against New England. San Francisco still has potent offensive weapons, including the most efficient quarterback and the most enduring passing attack in NFL history. But after racking up 400 yards en route to a 21-14 lead over the Patriots after three quarters, the 49ers had only 10 yards and one first down in the fourth. On three straight possessions the Niners were as predictable as a Republican impeachment vote: They ran Garrison Hearst on first and second downs and tried to throw on third. Young's first pass was intercepted. He was sacked the two other times he dropped back.
"On both sides of the ball," McDonald said, "we feel our way too much rather than just attacking. I definitely think we have a run in us, and I think it's good we've got the Packers right off. It'll get us focused. We've got to get over that hurdle if we're going to do anything in the playoffs."
It didn't get big headlines outside of Buffalo, but Bills owner Ralph Wilson pulled off one of the biggest feats this season: finding a way to sell $11 million in luxury seating, thereby guaranteeing that the club would receive state funding for a major refurbishing of Rich Stadium. Wilson lives in Detroit and has only emotional ties to Buffalo. Other teams have pulled up stakes and struck sweetheart deals in Baltimore, Nashville and Hartford, but Wilson hired a marketing and sales force of 23 for his campaign.
"People laugh at us owners if we say we're not in it for the money," Wilson says. "Let them laugh. I'm not in it for the money. I love the game. I never asked for a $350 million stadium, just to try to be somewhat competitive with everybody else. Plus, I love this community. Plants are closing. Businesses are being shuttered. Taxes are high. Buffalo needs the Bills."
Buffalo knows it needs Wilson too. Last Saturday, one day after Wilson signed a 15-year lease that will keep his team in Buffalo through 2013, the Bills played their first game in newly named Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The Cowboys, who staggered to their sixth division title in seven years by virtue of a 13-9 win over the Eagles, need a victory over the Redskins on Sunday to become the first NFC East team to go through division play undefeated -- a dubious achievement given the state of the division and the fact that Dallas hasn't looked anything like a playoff team in the past month. The Cowboys have won two games out of the division, against the 3-12 Panthers and the 8-7 Seahawks....
Talks the 49ers have had with coach Steve Mariucci about extending his contract through 2005 have stalled. "It's not me," a grim-faced Mariucci, who has three years left on his current deal, said on Sunday. Could minions of suspended owner Eddie DeBartolo, who could return to power in February, be hoping to lure Packers coach Mike Holmgren back after the season? ...
Some treasure could be found this off-season among the ranks of the restricted free agents, the three-year veterans whose contracts have expired but whose teams have the opportunity to match another club's offer. The Jets got running back Curtis Martin last March for first- and third-round picks after the Pats declined to match a six-year, $36 million contract. Martin has had seven 100-yard games and has rushed for eight touchdowns this season. This year's restricted free-agent gems: Oilers tackle Jon Runyan, Patriots outside linebacker Tedy Bruschi, Chiefs defensive tackle Tom Barndt and 49ers wideout Terrell Owens.
Referee Bob McElwee's officiating crew visited Children's Hospital in Boston last Saturday. Stephen Harling, a 21-year-old cancer patient, buttonholed McElwee and said, "You've got to have replay."
Here's how several NFL issues and personnel decisions could play out in the off-season ... and beyond.
1. White on White The league has put together an embarrassing streak of not hiring a minority to fill any of its last 18 head coaching vacancies. Expect seven of the teams that will be shopping for new coaches -- the Ravens, Panthers, Browns, Packers, Eagles, Chargers and Seahawks -- to make lily-white appointments.
2. Instant Success At the NFL's annual meeting in March, replay is voted back in after an eight-year absence. An eye-in-the-sky official will have 45 seconds to review a questionable call and render a decision. Coaches will not have to issue challenges or have anything else to do with replay.
3. He Doesn't Know the Meaning of the Word "Quit" After a 40-33 Super Bowl loss to the Vikings, followed by 27 rounds of golf on three continents, John Elway decides to play the 1999 season. "I can't bear the thought of working in TV," he says.
4. From the Ground Up The Browns get a lot of nothing out of the Feb. 9 expansion draft but select Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch in the April 17 college draft, deal for a couple of linebackers -- disgruntled Derrick Thomas of the Chiefs and hometown hero Chris Spielman of the Bills -- and spend like crazy in the free-agent market. Cleveland goes 6-10 in its first season back in the league.
5. It's Only Money The '99 salary cap will be about $59 million per team. San Francisco enters the off-season having to shed about $21 million of its cap load and facing the prospect of (gulp) having to match another team's multimillion-dollar offer to restricted free-agent wideout Terrell Owens.
6. Seeing Red Laser pointers become a leaguewide nuisance. Players at the Metrodome in Minneapolis and Lambeau Field in Green Bay have already been pestered by these needlessly mass-produced toys. Wait until truly obnoxious fans get hold of them.
7. The Purple's Choice The Vikings go with Randall Cunningham as their starting quarterback over Brad Johnson, signing the free-agent Cunningham to a $6 million-a-year deal and trading Johnson to St. Louis for the Rams' first- and third-round picks in the '99 draft.
8. Speaking of Quarterbacks... The Raiders stick with Jeff George. Dumb idea, giving George a contract-mandated $5 million bonus? Not as dumb as going to camp with an unproven free agent.
9. They Love L.A. Owners address the absurdity of life without Los Angeles and Boston by awarding the league's 32nd franchise to former Hollywood superagent Michael Ovitz and his ownership stable of stars. Ovitz's first big decision: whether to hire Ron Wolf or Harrison Ford as the general manager of the Los Angeles Megastars.
10. Coach of the Century Super Bowl XXXIV, Jan. 30, 2000, at the Georgia Dome: Jets 30, Packers 20. New York coach Bill Parcells demands not to be on the cover of SI, retires, hands the job to defensive mastermind Bill Belichick, buys a minor league baseball team and immediately signs Pepper Johnson to play centerfield.
Here are the potential free agents who are expected to hit the biggest jackpots in the off-season. Even if some of them re-sign with their teams before they can test the market beginning on Feb. 12, or if they are declared franchise players by their clubs, these guys can expect a hefty jump in their paychecks.
1. Randall Cunningham, QB, Vikings
2. Marshall Faulk, RB,
3. Korey Stringer, T,
4. Carnell Lake, CB-S,
5. Antonio Freeman, WR,
6. Dale Carter, CB,
7. Orlando Brown, T,
9. Carl Pickens, WR,
Issue date: December 28, 1998
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