Work in Sports
Will Redskins' high-dollar chemistry experiment blow up?
The early results are in, and already a few trends are perceptible. After a Week 1 that went almost as expected, here are three burning questions about chemistry, quarterbacks and championship timber as we head into the NFL's second week of the regular season. Sports Illustrated's Don Banks will check in with this regular feature every Tuesday during the NFL season:
1. Question: With just one week of data to go on, what's the quickie temperature reading on the all-star chemistry experiment being conducted in Washington's locker room this season?
Answer: So far, so smooth on the superstar ego front. After their opening-week 20-17 nipping of Carolina, the Redskins were a humble, appreciative bunch Sunday.
Over in one corner, cornerback Deion Sanders held court, making no noise about his less-than-high-profile role in the victory. Over in another, defensive end Bruce Smith deflected all opportunities to beat his chest and boast about his two-sack performance, which included a game-turning forced fumble in the middle of the third quarter.
Smith was repeatedly given chances by reporters to proclaim himself the man in Washington's revamped defense, or at least throw a few pointed jibes in Buffalo's direction, but he demurred, saying it would be up to the media to judge his impact. "I'm not going to sit here and toot my own horn," he said. "It was a productive day overall by some individuals and by the defensive unit. But we have to play better."
Running back Stephen Davis was the picture of teamwork and tact as well. He refused to gloat about the perfect timing of his workhorse 133-yard rushing day, which came just hours after he agreed to a new, nine-year, $90.75 million contract, and in all things struck a just-doing-my-job tone.
Then there were big-money rookies Chris Samuels and LaVar Arrington. Samuels had a strong first showing, Arrington's was spotty. But you couldn't tell by their post-game observations that either one cared about anything but the victory. As for Jeff George, the Redskins' talented and supremely confident backup quarterback, he dressed in complete solitude, with no one even looking his way in light of starter Brad Johnson's strong opener.
There may be days and losses to come that will challenge the air of brotherhood that currently exists in the Redskins camp. But for one week at least, coach Norv Turner's bunch shoved their gaudy resumes in a back pocket and played like a team.
"People think we've added 15 guys who are all egomaniacs," Turner said. "We've added four or five guys who are real, real pros, and they want one thing. They want to win, and they'll do anything we want them to do to win. They know they'll get a chance to be the guy at some point through 16 weeks. We've got a lot of guys who have a chance to be the guy. But you don't have to be it every week."
2. Question: Has the quarterback situation around the NFL ever been so dire in so many places all at once?
Answer: Not likely. Maybe the Vikings' Cris Carter got it just right last week. Maybe due to the diluting effects of expansion in both sports, baseball and football are running a hell-bent race to see which one runs out of quality arms first. As ERA's soar, passing ratings plummet.
Sunday began with 15 teams starting different opening-day quarterbacks than they had in 1999. Then, the game's most pivotal position became an issue after Week 1, due to injuries or ineffectiveness, in no less than five NFL cities.
Seattle, Pittsburgh and Dallas are in a shambles at quarterback. Green Bay has the perplexing Brett Favre health question to grapple with, and Buffalo's Rob Johnson exited early against the Titans, leaving only the inexperienced Alex Van Pelt and the hobbled Doug Flutie behind him. Detroit's Stoney Case didn't exactly state his case, but he did just enough, with the help of Desmond Howard, to hold off New Orleans while Charlie Batch played the healing game.
The Seahawks' Jon Kitna has regressed in alarming fashion from last year's second half on, and with his confidence shot, it's only a matter of time until coach Mike Holmgren turns to backup Brock Huard, who he groomed all off-season. Huard finished Seattle's 23-0 loss at Miami, and did little. Ironically he was not the Huard who was expected to play. His older brother, Damon, was considered the favorite to win the Dolphins' opening-day job, but was beaten out by journeyman Jay Fiedler.
Only because the Steelers are off this week do they get a respite from the Kent Graham-Kordell Stewart debate. Think of it as a pop quiz with no right answers. Bet on Graham to be back under center at Cleveland in two weeks, with coach Bill Cowher resisting the early hook. But opening day again proved this much about Graham: He's the kind of quarterback who's only as good as the guys around him. He's not going to lift a bad team to new heights.
In Dallas, backup Randall Cunningham says his bruised throwing thumb won't keep him from playing Sunday night at Arizona. But with Troy Aikman moving up fast on Steve Young on the career concussion list, a change of offensive philosophy might be in order.
In coordinator Jack Reilly's system, every available receiver gets into the pattern, with very little priority being given to keeping a blocker or two in to protect the quarterback. That's a lousy fit right now with the Cowboys offensive line and Aikman's ringing head. While Cunningham is more mobile and capable of making plays on the run, he too in recent years has been far less effective when facing pressure.
Look for Dallas to fall back on Emmitt Smith and the running game this week in an attempt to plow through their quarterback dilemma. But until the Cowboys fix their protection problems, nothing else on offense is going to really matter.
3. Question: What were the most surprising and meaningful developments in St. Louis' 41-36 slugfest win against Denver on Monday night?
Answer: Depends on what conference you're in. In the NFC, it would have been great to have heart monitors hooked up to Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy and Washington's Turner as they watched the carnage wrought at the Trans World Dome.
New uniforms? New head coach? No matter. The high-octane Rams picked up where they left off in their record-breaking 1999 season, flooring the Broncos with three touchdowns of 72 yards or longer. Marshall Faulk and Az-Zahir Hakim were their usual devastating selves and quarterback Kurt Warner merely put up a career-best 441 yards passing.
So much for the post-Super Bowl hangover effect. The Bucs and Redskins both have plenty of cause for championship optimism this season, but until the Rams show a fatal flaw, perhaps we all should give them the benefit of the doubt. Here's what we were reminded of Monday night: St. Louis is the fastest football team ever assembled, and speed never, ever slumps.
But if you're an AFC type, watching Denver in its opener was like watching the monster come back to life long after you presumed him dead. Broncos quarterback Brian Griese moved the ball consistently throughout and looked like a coming force to be reckoned with. Denver's ground game proved effective even after Olandis Gary had to once again sub for the injured Terrell Davis. Defensively the Broncos had way too many breakdowns, but they flew to the ball and it was cornerback Terrell Buckley's fourth-quarter interception return for a touchdown that had Denver in position to win.
Indianapolis, Tennessee and Jacksonville beware. The Broncos are not dead. They were just sleeping through 1999.