Jones played two undistinguished seasons in St. Louis, finishing with one sack and one interception before being waived by the club in June. His termination notice said: "Did not meet performance standards." Jones was crushed. "I was ashamed to show it to my wife," he recalls. "I used it to motivate me." Jimmy Johnson says Jones, with 48 tackles and a bargain-basement $376,000 salary, is playing as well as anyone on Miami's defense.
Perhaps the disappointing multimillionaires will play at a level more commensurate with their contracts in the second half of the season, though for Washington and Carolina it's too late. Other big spenders have been on a seesaw. While the Jaguars should easily make it to the playoffs, their imported linebacker, Bryce Paup, hasn't cured what ails their pass rush (11 sacks), and ineffective pass rushing teams don't advance deep into January. The Cardinals, with Swann and rookie defensive end Andre Wadsworth gobbling up $17.9 million in bonus money alone, look like the Steelers of the '70s one week and the Redskins of today the next. Nine of the 11 defensive starters on the Seattle Sea-hawks are earning more than a million a year, including linebackers Chad Brown and Darrin Smith, who signed as free agents after the '96 and '97 seasons, respectively. But the Seahawks aren't having the breakthrough season that was expected of them, and road dates with contenders Oakland, Dallas and Denver await.
As the season's second half dawns, it's hard to see any team beating Denver. Despite the absence of Pro Bowl left tackle Gary Zimmerman (retired) and Elway's being sidelined by injuries for 2½ games, the Broncos still look better than they did when they stunned Green Bay in the Super Bowl last January. Shanahan sits atop the football world, but as an interview in a Cincinnati hotel suite wound down last Saturday night, he had a question of his own, "What do you think of Flutie?"
How apt in this season of mega-millionaire free-agent flops that it's the ultimate blue-light special who has electrified a team, a city and a league. At 5'10", Flutie couldn't cut it in his first NFL go-round a decade ago, so he went to the wide fields of the Canadian Football League and won six league MVP awards. Last winter the Buffalo Bills signed him to be a backup for $285,000, including a $50,000 signing bonus, and then a rib injury to starting quarterback Rob Johnson thrust Flutie into the lineup a month ago. Including Sunday's 30-24 come-from-behind victory over the Dolphins, all he has done is turn an aging 0-3 team into a 5-3 contender. He scored on a fourth-down bootleg with 13 seconds left to beat Jacksonville 17-16. He burned high-priced corner Evans with two scoring strikes in a 30-14 win over Carolina. He threw three touchdown passes against Miami. His Flutie Flakes cereal, a sugar-coated type of corn flake that hit the shelves last month, is so popular in Buffalo that grocery stores had to begin rationing the product.
Recently a Bills front-office employee parked in a loading zone at the Buffalo airport while meeting a plane, and when he returned to the car, a policeman was writing him a ticket. The anguished employee tried to talk his way out of it. No dice, the cop said. Then the officer saw a Bills parking pass on the dashboard, hesitated and said, "Tell you what. Get me a couple of boxes of Flutie Flakes, and we'll forget the whole thing."
That's a short commentary on the NFL in 1998: For all the money spent in the off-season, the 39th-highest-paid player on the Bills has paid off in more ways than four of the league's most expensive free agents combined.