Many years ago I covered a high school championship football game in Brooklyn. Bad blood existed between the schools, and there was the threat of a riot. So officials decided that the game would be played in an empty stadium. It was weird. It was like watching a football game played on the ocean floor. Players' shouts from the field echoed through the deserted stands. Coaches' calls sounded like stage directions at a rehearsal.
I wonder if that's what it will be like this season for the lame-duck Houston Oilers, performing in an almost vacant Astrodome as they wait for Nashville to get its stadium built in time for the 1998 season. Average home attendance was at a 21-year low in 1995. The two home exhibition games this year drew fewer than 13,000 each, and the Oilers had sold only about 13,500 season tickets by the end of last week. Maybe Houston could get real creative in the promotions department and invite the fans onto the field to meet the players before each game.
Nevertheless, you've got to like the job coach Jeff Fisher has done as he begins his second full season in charge. In particular, you've got to like the rising offensive stars. Chris Sanders was the only NFL receiver to average more than 20 yards a catch last year; his number was a stunning 23.5 yards on 35 receptions. Quarterback Steve McNair made only two starts as a rookie in 1995, but it's apparent he has the goods. He's the franchise's quarterback of the future, and he has been handled just right, watching and learning until he can step in for Chris Chandler, which he may do sometime this season. Top draft pick Eddie George smacks into the line with ferocity, and no one catches him from behind. Defense is Fisher's baby, and last year it ranked fifth in the league.
How does a coach prepare his team to play in a near-empty stadium? How will this affect Houston's record? Well, the Oilers played before tiny crowds in the early AFL days, and they won it all in 1960 and '61.
Fans are not a problem for the second-year Jacksonville Jaguars. Keeping their offensive line well fed is another thing. In two preseason games the Jaguars fielded an offensive front five that averaged 6'6", 314 pounds. It's not clear that all this tonnage will translate into success on the field, but it's certain that the Jaguars will leave a trail of worn-out defenders around the league. These big guys are good, too, particularly the tackles—Leon Searcy, the former Steeler, and second-year player Tony Boselli. With 240-pound running back Natrone Means slamming in behind them, Jacksonville seems intent on turning the AFC Central into a black-and-blue division.
In an effort to improve on last year's 4-12 record, the Jaguars have been going after anybody they think can help them, including a couple of supposed problem children who were released in the off-season: Means, a former San Diego Charger, and former Cleveland Browns wideout Andre Rison.
Wideout Keenan McCardell, Rison's underrated running mate in Cleveland, is another welcome addition. So is former Oilers linebacker Eddie Robinson, who excels in coverage. Top draft pick Kevin Hardy has stepped in at strongside linebacker. Youth permeates the Jags, from freewheeling 25-year-old quarterback Mark Brunell on down. Jacksonville is a team that's building, and the offensive line is the concrete.
The Baltimore Ravens are building in more ways than one. Owner Art Modell, of course, has moved the former Cleveland Browns to Baltimore and renamed them the Ravens, and in two years they will play in a new $200 million stadium under a 30-year, rent-free lease.
The Ravens have a solid new coach in led Marchibroda. who in his first stint in Baltimore took a Colts team that was 2-12 the year before he arrived and steered it to three straight AFC East titles, in 1975, '76 and '77. The Ravens have an unfairly maligned quarterback in Vinny Testaverde, who got booed out of Tampa Bay, was alternately cheered and booed in Cleveland, but should hear only cheers from the nearly 60,000 season-ticket holders in Baltimore, who no doubt will cheer anything that's connected with the Ravens.
Top draft choice Jonathan Ogden, all 6'8", 318 pounds of him, was projected as the top tackle on the board, but—surprise—he's the starting left guard, making him probably the tallest man to play that position in NFL history. That's good for pass blocking, not so good for Testaverde's sight lines. Yet to be determined is how Ogden will do against a steady diet of bull rushers. Ray Lewis, the other first-round draft choice, is an active middle linebacker, but at 6'1", 235 pounds, he could wear down during the year. The strength of the Ravens is their defensive front four. Their weakness is a general lack of talent.