In the third area Johnson bit the bullet and re-signed left guard Keith Sims to a five-year, $9 million deal and then paid wideout Fred Barnett, a free agent from the Philadelphia Eagles, $8.5 million for five years, only to see Barnett go down in training camp with a torn knee ligament. He's probably out for the season.
Miami is still thin at wideout and tight end. Left defensive end Jeff Cross is out indefinitely with a bad back, and stopping people consistently will be a problem. I see a fast start for Miami, which opens with home games against the New England Patriots and the New York Jets sandwiched around a road contest against the Arizona Cardinals. I see a lot of September headlines predicting Super Bowl. Maybe someday but not this year.
The Indianapolis Colts got within sniffing distance of the big game in 1995. A field goal try that falls short, a pass that is slightly off target or a missed tackle is often all that separates an 8-8 team from contending for an NFL title. Let's go back to Dec. 23, Indianapolis versus New England. The 8-7 Colts were fighting for a playoff spot but trailed 7-0 after a miserable first half. Then Indy quarterback Jim Harbaugh, who had been sacked three times before intermission, completed 12 straight passes, and the Colts defense, which had given up 192 first-half yards, shut out the Patriots. In the fourth quarter Indianapolis held on for dear life as New England, with a first down at the Indianapolis 15, missed a field goal and then on subsequent possessions threw two interceptions. Indianapolis won 10-7 and sneaked into the AFC playoffs as the fifth seed. Whew.
You know the rest. There were the upsets of the San Diego Chargers and the Chiefs in the Cinderella ride through the playoffs, and any number of chances to spring the biggest stunner of all, against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. But what a year it was for a team that had been predicted to do nothing.
And what was coach Ted Marchibroda's reward for his masterful job? He got a one-year contract offer, at the same $600,000 salary he made in 1995. It was take it or leave it. Marchibroda left for the Baltimore Ravens.
Up steps Lindy Infante, the Colts' offensive coordinator in 1995. But he may not have an easy time of it, because there's a lot of headshaking in the Indianapolis locker room among players who think this isn't the way things are supposed to be done.
Give Bill Tobin, the Colts' director of football operations, credit for giving Harbaugh a chance after everyone said he was finished in Chicago after the 1993 season. Tobin knows his football, even if he did trade for Craig Erickson in an ill-fated attempt to unseat Harbaugh last year. But the handling of the Marchibroda situation was ugly, and it's hard to believe that a little bit of this team's spirit won't be missing.
Am I making too much of this? Are the Colts so talent-laden, so flushed with confidence that they can ride into the playoffs? I don't think so, but they do have some solid, if unrecognized, players. Harbaugh, the ultimate low-risk quarterback, threw an NFL-low five interceptions last year. But it's doubtful that running back Marshall Faulk, coming off knee surgery, has the zip he showed as a rookie. As for the defense, it seems to perform at its best when the stakes are highest. End Tony Bennett, linebacker Quentin Coryatt and tackle Tony Siragusa all could be reaching Pro Bowl status, and former Bears end Richard Dent seems to have found new legs.
But that Marchibroda thing still rankles. Sorry.
New England Patriots coach Bill Par-cells gets furious when people call him a lame duck, but late last season he did chop a year off his contract, meaning that he is in the final season of his deal. That says that new assistant head coach Bill Belichick, hired to coach the Patriots' defensive backs this year, will be the coach in 1997. Belichick is a good addition. New England was 28th in the NFL in total defense in '95, and Parcells wanted to address the defensive shortcomings with the seventh pick in the draft. Instead he got 5'10", 184-pound wideout Terry Glenn. No quick fixes for a coach in the last year of his contract, the brass was saying. We're building for the future, and this kid is special. "How's he doing?" someone asked Parcells after Glenn had missed another practice with a pulled hamstring. "She's making progress," Parcells replied.