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Up for Grabs
Peter King
November 08, 1999
Eight weeks into a season dominated by defenses, only this much is certain: It's anybody's ball game
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November 08, 1999

Up For Grabs

Eight weeks into a season dominated by defenses, only this much is certain: It's anybody's ball game

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OFFENSE

WR

Marvin Harrison, Colts

22½

WR

Isaac Bruce, Rams

20

TE

Tony Gonzalez, Chiefs

11½

T

Tony Boselli, Jaguars

17

T

Orlando Pace, Raws

13

G

Larry Allen, Cowboys

24

G

Adam Timmcrman, Rams

8

C

Dermontti Dawson, Steelers

10

QB

Kurt Warner, Rams

18½

RB

Marshall Faulk, Rams

10½

FB

Charles Way, Giants

2

DEFENSE

DE

Tony Brackens, Jaguars

14

DE

Michael Strahan, Giants

12

DT

Warren Sapp, Bucs

24

DT

Darrell Russell, Raiders

6

LB

Junior Seau, Chargers

21

LB

Ray Lewis, Ravens

14½

LB

Derrick Brooks, Bucs

9

CB

Tylaw, Patriots

10

CB

Charles Woodson, Raiders

7

FS

Keith Lyle, Rams

7

SS

Lawyer Milloy, Patriots

SPECIAL TEMS

K

Olindo Mare, Dolphins

19

P

Mitch Berger, Vikings

12

KR

Tony Home, Rams

11

PR

Charlie Rogers, Seahawks

9

HONORS

MVP: Warner

14

Coach: Dick Vermeil, Rams

15½

Executive: Casserly

8

Offensive rookie: Edgerrin James, RB, Colts

20

Defensive rookie: Champ Bailey, CB, Redskins

19

Standing together on the field at the St. Louis Rams' practice facility last Friday were two men whose sudden prominence is emblematic of a year in which things have grown exceedingly strange in the NFL: Dick Vermeil, at 63 the second-oldest coach in the game, and his quarterback, Kurt Warner, the instant superstar. They are perhaps the last two men you would have ever expected to be making headlines this year, but they are on top of the world in this upside-down season. "You know," Vermeil, flashing a quick grin, told Warner, "in seven weeks, you've turned me from a jerk to a genius."

Even a genius couldn't have predicted that the marquee game of the first eight weeks would turn out to be the unbeaten Rams, who haven't had a winning season since 1989, on the road in Nashville against the once-beaten Tennessee Titans, a franchise that last made the playoffs as the Houston Oilers, in 1993. The biggest attractions from '98—the Atlanta Falcons, the Denver Broncos, the Minnesota Vikings and the New York Jets—are 9-22. John Elway, Reggie White and Barry Sanders have retired; Steve Young, Michael Irvin and Dan Marino are injured and might have to join them. Bad things happen in threes? The top three rushers from last year—Terrell Davis, Jamal Anderson and Garrison Hearst—are out for the season with injuries. The three leading passers in '98—Randall Cunningham, Vinny Testaverde and Young—have been benched, knocked out for the year by a ruptured Achilles tendon and sidelined by a concussion, respectively.

More remarkable still, the fans don't seem to miss them. The NFL appears on its way to an attendance record. Last year 75% of the games played to full houses; this year 94 of the first 114 games (82%) were sold out. Through seven weeks three of the four NFL TV partners reported ratings increases (ABC was down a point), thanks in part to a schedule that opened a week later than last year in order to avoid the ratings-poor Labor Day weekend. CBS's ratings, up 15%, are particularly stunning because the network's biggest draws, the Broncos and the Jets, are in last place in their divisions.

Denver fans might be mourning the departure of Elway, but local TV ratings for Broncos games in the first seven weeks were up 11% over the same period last year. Detroit Lions fans may never see Sanders run in silver and blue again, but ratings in that city were up 16%. Folks in Wisconsin have apparently gotten over the Green Bay Packers' loss of White and coach Mike Holmgren, who left to coach the Seattle Seahawks; in Milwaukee, Green Bay's first seven games garnered a record 44.6 rating and 71 share, meaning that 71% of all TVs turned on while the team is playing are tuned in to the Pack.

There is some justifiable hand-wringing going on in NFL front offices about the quality of play. "How much more can this league withstand?" says San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci, presiding over the decline of a once proud franchise. "The injuries and retirements have had a drastic effect on teams' production, records, confidence and swagger."

Pittsburgh Steelers president Dan Rooney is so concerned about the degree of player movement since the 1993 advent of unfettered free agency that he has persuaded NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw to convene a meeting with leading players and owners after the season to discuss revising free-agency rules. The Steelers have lost 37 players from the 49-man roster that played in the Super Bowl in January 1996. Could free agency be revamped? "You never know," Upshaw says. "At least we'll talk it through."

Some of the unimaginative strategy this season—the Baltimore Ravens, the New Orleans Saints, the New York Giants and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have set offensive football back to the Nagurski era—is due in part to the lack of cohesiveness caused by free agency and the need for un-proven or unskilled backups to step in for star quarterbacks. "We're at the crossroads we all knew was coming," says first-year Ravens coach Brian Billick. "We're in a transition time for quarterbacks in a quarterback-driven league. Three quarters of the teams are in quarterback flux."

But what's so bad about unpredictability? Fans like to watch close games. They like exciting finishes. Sure, star players are still a big attraction, but even more important to fans is that their team has a chance to win every week. "In 20 years, when you're gone and I'm gone," Bill Par-cells told his precocious quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, after Bledsoe found fame and lucrative endorsements in just his second season with the New England Patriots, "none of these fans around here will care about you. They'll care about the next guy wearing the blue jersey. Fans love the uniforms, not the players." Parcells's words still ring true.

In the first two weeks this fall, 17 of the 30 games ended with the trailing team in possession of the ball and having a chance to win or tie in the last two minutes. Green Bay's first three wins came on last-minute touchdown passes by Brett Favre. Five of New England's first seven games were decided by one or two points. All told, 41 of the season's first 114 games (36%) have been decided by a field goal or less; at the same point last year 18% of the games were that close. Somewhere, Pete Rozelle is smiling. One New Jersey country club has been holding an NFL knock-off pool for years. The rules: Put $100 into the kitty. Each contestant picks one team each week that he thinks will win. He can't pick a team more than once, and as soon as he picks a team that loses, he's out. Last man standing wins the pot. Before the '99 season no winner had ever been crowned before Thanksgiving. On Oct. 10 the last 29 players (of the original 69 who entered) were knocked out, all victimized by either the Philadelphia Eagles' upset of the Dallas Cowboys or the Chicago Bears' win over the Vikings. (A rule change allowed those final 29 players to start anew the following week.) "Paul Tagliabue has exactly what he wants, and it isn't parity," one pool player says. "It's creeping communism."

"You've got to bring your best to the stadium to win every Sunday," says Patriots tackle Bruce Armstrong, a 13-year veteran. "In the early 1990s we'd go to Buffalo, and the Bills were just a better team. We had to play much better than them, and they still had to turn the ball over for us to win. It's not that way this season, and the players who've been around sense it. It's why I keep telling our younger players, 'Just hang in there and we'll have a chance at the end of the day to win.' You have to accept that no matter what your team did last year or how good anybody thinks you are, most games will go down to the last minute."

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