Unhappy with the multiyear offers he got during a cap-squeezed off-season, free-agent cornerback Ryan McNeil chose to gamble on himself in two ways: 1) He signed a one-year, $1.25 million contract with the Rams, turning down the Bengals' three-year, $6 million offer; and 2) He signed with a team that would ask him to play a lot of man-to-man defense. After four years of playing almost exclusively in zone coverages for the Lions, he had become stereotyped as strictly a zone corner, and the Rams planned to play man-to-man about 70% of the time.
Playing mostly man coverage seems to suit McNeil just fine. He leads the NFL with six interceptions and has outplayed his running mate at the other corner, Todd Lyght, who is in the second year of a four-year, $10.7 million deal. "It took guts," McNeil said last week. "But I bet on myself, and that's a bet I'll take any day. Here's what I faced: Did I want to tie myself into a long-term deal and be unhappy [in Cincinnati] when I outplay the contract I signed? Or did I want to prove how good I think I am and then reap the benefits? I knew that after this year the new TV deal was going to push the salary cap up, and teams would have money to spend in 1998 that they might not have this year. It's hard to delay gratification. But I just looked at this year as though I was on a six-month business trip."
Hold On a Minute
Some coaches think offensive holding has become an unchecked epidemic. Linemen are allowed to push defenders but not grab them to maneuver them out of the play. Said one coach last week, "Every Monday we look at tape and see our defensive linemen grabbed and thrown to the ground. Maybe we should teach holding like other teams obviously are." Maybe coaches should just speak out more. Director of officiating Jerry Seeman says there hasn't been an increase in the number of complaints about holding this year.
Philly's MVP, hut for How Long?
In a cold rain at Veterans Stadium on Sunday, down 9-3 to the Cowboys with less than 17 minutes left and with their season hanging on the edge of another cliff, the Eagles turned to the only player who could save them. Ricky Watters for 14. Watters for eight. Watters for seven. Watters for four. Three plays later, Chris Boniol kicked a 37-yard field goal. With his team trailing 12-6 at the two-minute warning, Watters broke off a 14-yard run to the Dallas 11, and two plays later Rodney Peete threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Chad Lewis. The Eagles escaped 13-12. At 4-4 they're tied with the Cowboys and the Redskins for second place in the NFC East, a game and a half behind the Giants.
As time wound down on Sunday, a half-dozen Eagles hugged Watters and screamed variations of You da Man in his ear. But for how long? Watters is eligible to be a free agent at the end of the season, and the Eagles will likely let him walk, in part because they would like to give promising fourth-year veteran Charlie Garner a chance to shine, in part because they don't want to pay Watters $4 million a year and in part because they fear he may be close to burning out. Except for Emmitt Smith, Watters, 28, has touched the ball more than any player in football over the past 2½ years.
The Eagles have put off negotiations until after the season. If they let the mouthy and occasionally disruptive Watters go, they'll be losing their only consistent big-play threat. "I put my future in God's hands," Watters said after Sunday's game. "Whatever happens, happens."
When linebacker Pepper Johnson returned to the Jets' locker room last week after undergoing season-ending surgery on a ruptured tendon near his left knee, coach Bill Parcells was waiting with his motivational needle. "Hey, Johnson," Parcells said. "You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to put two pictures on your locker. One's going to be of a beautiful sunset, with you in it. The other's going to be a picture of Evander Holyfield. You figure out which one fits you—the retirement or the comeback."
Johnson, 33, responded with something unprintable, but it approximated this: No way I'm retiring.