One of this season's more surprising trends is that rushing numbers have increased significantly. In 1994 runners averaged 3.7 yards per carry. This year ballcarriers are averaging four yards per attempt, and 17 of the 30 teams are rushing at or above that pace. Last season after seven games only seven teams were gaining more than four yards per carry. One reason for the surge in rushing yardage may be that offensive lines are bigger than ever, and most teams' key offensive linemen are healthy. In addition some clubs have simply rediscovered the joys of having a good, ball-control ground game.
The Raiders, for instance, boast two of the league's most productive rushers in the league—Harvey Williams, with 524 yards, and Napoleon Kaufman, with 275 (through Sunday)—which is due, in large part, to the arrival in January of assistant head coach Joe Bugel. As the head coach of the Cardinals from 1990 to '93 and the assistant head coach of the Redskins for nine years before that, Bugel emphasized the run, and the Raiders are now on pace to rush for their most yards since '77. Bugel has switched from a man-blocking to a zone-blocking scheme, in which linemen fire out and scatter bodies, regardless of who lines up opposite them.
This season's most-improved rushing teams:
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
How absurd is it that the league fined two officials who miscounted the number of Steelers on the field in a Sept. 24 game, but no official has been punished for the dangerous error on Oct. 8 that put Jet quarterback Boomer Esiason out of action for at least a game and a half. Head linesman Tony Veteri Jr. threw a flag on Jet offensive tackle Everett McIver for a false start, but no official whistled the play dead in time to prevent Bill defensive end Bruce Smith from blind-siding Esiason. Esiason missed Sunday's game at Carolina, a 26-15 loss. Veteri should have missed his crew's game, too....
At SI's invitation, former Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson participated in an hour-long CompuServe chat. One cyber-caller asked Johnson where Eagle quarterback Randall Cunningham, a free agent in 1996, will find a locker next season. " Randall Cunningham will be lucky to have a locker in any stadium next year," he said.
The End Zone
In 1981 the battery at Hayward ( Calif.) High at times was pitcher Randy Johnson and catcher Jack Del Rio. Del Rio, now the Vikings' middle linebacker, says he once signaled for a curve and instead got a fastball from Johnson, now the Seattle Mariner strikeout artist. "Hit me square in the cup," says Del Rio, who somehow lived to tell about it.