When the Kansas City Chiefs trek north to River Falls, Wis., to start training camp this weekend, new quarterback Elvis Grbac will throw to new wide receivers Brett Perriman and Andre Rison. Grbac will hand off to the team's new starting running back, Greg Hill, and break in the rookie tight end, Tony Gonzalez. All told, Kansas City, tied for the NFL's third-best record since the start of unfettered free agency in 1993, could have 12 new starters in '97. "It seems like there's been a changing of the guard not only here, but everywhere," Grbac said last week. "And not just with the players."
The NFL has never had an off-season like the one just completed, which is a big reason that training camp)—all 30 teams will be in pads by the end of the weekend—is so critical to so many teams. Chemistry may be as important a subject for some teams as strategy. The first six months of 1997 were volcanic, with coaches and quarterbacks, the individuals most important to a team's success, moving in unprecedented numbers. Sixteen teams changed their coach, starting quarterback or both, and that's not counting the Cincinnati Bengals' promotion in December of Bruce Coslet from interim coach to coach. The 11 coaching changes are the most from one season to the next since '71. The eight quarterback changes are the most in this decade. Throw in the fact that half of the 56 men who hold the title of offensive or defensive coordinator are in their first year in their new roles, and you have the makings of some serious chaos.
Both champs and chumps enter camp with new leaders. The New England Patriots went to their second Super Bowl last season as the ultimate dysfunctional sports family, and then owner Bob Kraft completed a trade of sorts, allowing coach Bill Parcells to flee to the New York Jets in exchange for a handful of draft picks. The San Francisco 49ers won at least 10 games for the 14th straight year, but that wasn't enough for owner Eddie DeBartolo. His risky hire of 41-year-old Steve Mariucci (SI, Jan. 27), who has five years of experience as an NFL assistant and only one as a head coach—at Cal—was among the most intriguing coaching moves. The St. Louis Rams, tied with the Jets for the league's worst record in the 1990s, will try to break out of their doldrums under the guidance of 60-year-old Dick Vermeil, who is returning to the sidelines after a 14-year absence. His predecessor, Rich Brooks, was fired after winning 13 games in two seasons, five more than Bill Walsh and Jimmy Johnson won in their first two years with the 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys, respectively. "Patience is not something I saw much of in St. Louis," says Brooks, now an Atlanta Falcons assistant under new coach Dan Reeves.
You won't see much of it anywhere. Look at the coaching business in 1997 compared with, say, 1987. The current crop of head coaches has been on the job an average of 2.03 seasons. Ten years ago that number was 4.95. Only two coaches—Marty Schottenheimer in Kansas City and Marv Levy of the Buffalo Bills—have been in the same job more than live seasons. In '87 there were seven who enjoyed that kind of longevity.
Not much more stability exists at quarterback. The Seattle Seahawks picked Rick Mirer with the second overall choice in the '93 draft, signed him for $15.7 million and then, following his 51 inconsistent starts, shipped him to the Chicago Bears in February. Free-agent acquisition Steve Walsh got three starts in St. Louis last year before he was benched in favor of rookie Tony Banks, a second-round draft pick. Walsh has since moved on to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he will back up Trent Dilfer. But nowhere have the quarterback moves been more intriguing than in Pittsburgh. The Steelers gave Jim Miller one start last year before replacing him with Mike Tomczak, whose reward for leading the team to the AFC divisional playoffs was the No. 3 spot on the depth chart behind new starter Kordell Stewart and Miller.
"In just five years the game has changed tremendously, and not just because of the advent of free agency," says Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf. "The tenets of building a team have been put to rest. The new franchises [the Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars] have had as much to do with it as anything. Owners are looking at the two new teams and saying, "These guys got to conference-championship games in two years building from scratch. Why can't we do that?' "
The sudden success enjoyed by the Jaguars and the Panthers is partly to blame for the rash of changes, but there are other explanations. All but eight of the league's 30 franchises have either moved into a new stadium this decade, are planning a move or are pushing politicians for a state-of-the-art facility. There is undying pressure to till seats, which becomes more difficult for a team that is losing.
"Clearly, there is great competition for discretionary dollars," says Detroit Lions vice chairman Bill Ford Jr., whose club fired coach Wayne Fontes last December and replaced him with Bobby Ross. The Lions could move to a new downtown stadium as early as 2001. "Fans have more leisure-time options than they ever had before, whether it's 60 or 70 cable channels, Blockbuster videos or more golf courses," says Ford. "We have to be responsive to that."
But changing coaches isn't necessarily a panacea. Take the Falcons. A playoff participant as recently as '95, they look like one of the league's worst teams heading into camp, and owner Rankin Smith got none of the hoped-for bang for his buck when he signed native son Reeves as coach in January. At week's end the Falcons had sold only 33,000 season tickets in the five-year-old, 71,228-seat Georgia Dome.
The Falcons were joined by the New Orleans Saints and the Oakland Raiders as teams that changed their starting quarterback as well as their coach. Atlanta didn't engender much fan enthusiasm by acquiring journeyman quarterback Chris Chandler in a trade with the Houston Oilers, or by signing only one impact free agent (cornerback Ray Buchanan of the Indianapolis Colts), or by trading down from the third overall pick in the April draft, thereby avoiding having to pay a huge signing bonus.