Best Moves: Colts' Polian Pushed All the Right Buttons
1. Colts president Bill Polian hit the trifecta. He made three highly questionable moves in the off-season: giving free-agent defensive end Chad Bratzke a six-year, $30 million deal (including a $9 million signing bonus); trading star running back Marshall Faulk to the Rams; and bypassing Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams in the draft to take running back Edgerrin James. Well, Bratzke finished tied for third in the AFC in sacks, James won the NFL rushing tide, and the Colts finished 13-3.
2. The Browns stuck with Tim Couch. The best thing 2-14 Cleveland did was give its franchise player 14 starts, during which Couch proved to teammates what a tough leader he is. One Browns player says he heard tackle Orlando Brown say on the sideline just before rumbling back onto the field and shoving referee Jeff Triplette on Dec. 19, "Gotta get back out there. My man Couch is out there. We've got a deal." The deal: Brown would never let Couch play without being there to protect his backside. That's bonding that money can't buy.
3. Dick Vermeil kept the faith. Decision after decision came up roses for Vermeil, and the Rams breezed to the NFC's best record (13-3). After newly acquired starting quarterback Trent Green was lost in the preseason with a knee injury, Vermeil didn't pursue Jeff Hostetler as a backup quarterback because he believed in a nobody, Kurt Warner. He acquired Faulk for a relatively cheap price (second-and fifth-round draft choices). He wisely turned over the offense to a brainy young coordinator, Mike Martz, who helped Faulk have the best all-around season an NFL rusher has ever had. For two years Vermeil had told anyone who would listen that he had good players. Now St. Louis is the NFC favorite to reach the Super Bowl.
4. The Chargers got tough with Ryan Leaf. The only way this numskull might succeed is if the organization takes him by the throat and persuades him to put in the time necessary to be an NFL quarterback. The team took the first step in November, when it suspended Leaf for four weeks for insubordination.
Worst Moves: Green Bay Made a Bad Read on Rhodes
1. The Packers hired the wrong guy in Ray Rhodes. After Mike Holmgren left for Seattle, the Packers thought they were getting a guy with the bite of Lombardi. Instead they got Guy Lombardo. Rhodes made the mistake of treating his players like responsible veterans. That style cost Rhodes and his coaching staff their jobs after only one season.
2. The Vikings' Dennis Green blew his power play. He's a good coach, as evidenced by his 83-53 career record, but Green dropped the ball after owner Red McCombs handed him full personnel authority last winter. Against the near-unanimous wishes of his staff, Green passed on the best pass rusher to enter the league in the '90s, Jevon Kearse, and instead used his two first-round draft picks on quarterback Daunte Culpepper and defensive end Dimitrius Underwood. Culpepper is a long-term project, while Underwood lasted all of one practice before quitting the team.
3. The Patriots wasted a golden opportunity. Remember those six high draft picks that New England received as compensation when Bill Parcells and Curtis Martin left for the Jets? None of the six players selected with those choices finished this season as a starter, and only three were still on the team.
4. Art Modell completed the Cleveland nightmare. When he moved the Browns to Baltimore in 1995, the debt-laden Modell thought he would strike it rich and be in a position to pass the team on to his sons. But Modell's financial morass—he was still $185 million in the red at the start of this season—was so severe that he had to sell a minority share of the team to a Maryland entrepreneur who can exercise a clause in the contract to buy out Modell in 2004. Four years ago Modell could have sold the Browns to someone who would have kept the team in Cleveland, made a mint and been a hero. Now he will probably lose the team anyway.