Top Performers

1.  Rams RB Marshall Faulk
2.  Raiders QB Rich Gannon
3.  Saints coach Jim Haslett
4.  Minnesota RB Robert Smith
5.  Bucs defensive tackles Warren Sapp and Booger McFarland

OTHER UPS AND DOWNS

• Peter King on the NFL
• Phil Taylor on the NBA
• Tom Verducci on Baseball
• Michael Farber on the NHL
• Ivan Maisel on College Football
• Seth Davis on College Basketball
• Alan Shipnuck on Golf
• Jon Wertheim on Tennis
• Grant Wahl on Soccer
• Richard Hoffer on Boxing
• Tim Layden on Track & Field
• Brian Cazeneuve on Olympic Sports
• Kelli Anderson on Women's Sports
• Mark Bechtel on Motor Sports

On to Taylor
 
  NOMINEE THE SKINNY
Overrated The Dallas Cowboys Maybe now the Cowboys will realize what they are: an over-the-hill franchise in need of a total makeover to get back to respectability. Year after year owner Jerry Jones scotch-tapes a team together and calls it a Super Bowl contender. What kills the 'Boys is cap problems. They can't ease Troy Aikman into retirement; that would cost the team $10 million of its 2001 cap. What Dallas must do is study Ron Wolf's plan up in Green Bay. Find a bunch of competent minimum- or near-minimum salary guys, through trades or low-cost free-agency, and coach the living heck out of them.
Underrated New Orleans GM Randy Mueller When Mueller took over for Bill Kuharich last winter, the Saints were a personnel mess. "In the NFL, you can't get drastically better overnight," Mueller said. "But you can improve yourself if you're a bad team through the middle class of free agency." In came quarterback Jeff Blake, defensive tackle Norman Hand, wideouts Joe Horn and Jake Reed, and tight end Andrew Glover, all without breaking the salary-cap bank. The Saints, taking advantage of a weak NFC West, catapulted from worst to first (tied with the Rams). Mueller was the brains behind it.
Annoying San Diego quarterback Ryan Leaf And this season, after three years, he actually matured! The capper was when he hurt his wrist this fall and said he couldn't play in the next game, but was seen out on the golf course that same week. At least his teammates treat him with the respect he deserves. After throwing a touchdown pass at Denver on Nov. 19, he came to the sideline, and the TV cameras showed no one congratulating him. Is that fitting or what?
Breakthrough Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher When the Bears' first-round pick was benched during the exhibition season for playing poorly and not knowing the defense, he looked like another in the long line of college players trying to adjust to a new position in the pros -- and failing. But Urlacher played at an all-pro level from October on, recording sacks in six consecutive games, intercepting a Shaun King pass to upset the Bucs in Week 12, and playing strong from sideline to sideline in every game. Not bad for a college safety/tight end/linebacker.
Uplifting Trent Green's comeback in St. Louis The background: Green, 28 for 32 in the '99 preseason, got kayoed in an exhibition game with a knee injury after he'd been brought in to be the Rams' quarterback of the future. Out for the year. Then the Kurt Warner thing happened, and Green, who'd never been handed a starting job in his entire unremarkable NFL career, was back to second-string again. His teammates love him, absolutely love him. This year, stuck behind Warner, he came into an October game against the Chargers to mop up and threw a touchdown pass to Marshall Faulk, who, as the whole team knows, keeps all his touchdown balls as mementoes. On the sideline, Faulk handed the ball to a stunned Green. "This belongs to you,'" Faulk told Green, who felt like crying. Green kept a great offense moving for a month when Warner was out with a broken pinkie. Class guy, too. Pure class.
MVP St. Louis running back Marshall Faulk Faulk gets the nod over Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon, Minnesota running back Robert Smith and Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb in the tightest race I can remember for an NFL MVP. New York Giants defensive coordinator John Fox said it all about Faulk when he told me, "He's probably the best running back around, and if he played wide receiver exclusively, he'd be one of the best handful at that position, too." If he hadn't missed eight quarters following arthroscopic knee surgery, he'd have broken his own record of combined rushing-receiving yards set last year. Now I reserve the right to change my mind when I make my AP MVP vote on Dec. 26.
Storyline to follow in 2001 The fate of the Redskins Owner Daniel Snyder's team was set up to win right now, but had mixed results in 2000 and faces an offseason of uncertainty with aging players and huge cap problems. Washington's top 15 players basically eat up all but $12 million of the 2001 cap, and Snyder will have to figure out how to nibble away at the core without compromising the competitive level of his team, particularly on defense. Since the cap was instituted in 1993, every owner who has had to do cap surgery on a veteran team has failed miserably. Your turn, Mr. Snyder.
 
Related Links
 •  React: What do you think will be the big story in 2001?
 •  Your Turn: Vote on the top players and performers
 

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