In our special football issue of a year ago, senior writer Paul Zimmerman picked the Giants, Bears and 49ers to win their respective divisions in the NFC. He chose the Broncos, Patriots and Cleveland to win theirs in the AFC. And then he selected the Giants to beat the Broncos in Super Bowl XXI. "Yeah, we know," wrote the lyrical Zimmerman in his scouting report on Denver last year, "it's a reach, picking the Broncos to make the Super Bowl."
But, as Pete Rozelle is our witness, five months and 233 games later, it all turned out exactly as the redoubtable Dr. Z said it would.
It was a remarkable feat of forecasting, but it's the kind of heavy-hitting expertise we've come to expect from Zimmerman, who covers the NFL with an intensity and a fascination for detail that extends to his own ever-fattening private files of meticulous statistics.
In 1972, for example, in the course of his annual comparison of the NFL's official end-of-season stats with his own, Zimmerman found an error and volunteered the correct information to the league office. It was no flyspeck statistic that he dug up: Zimmerman's correction stripped Fran Tarkenton of the passing title and awarded it to Norm Snead. "They had failed to record an entire quarter of Tarkenton's stats in the Vikings- 49ers game," recalls the Doctor. " Snead promised me a dinner for that, but I never got it."
Zimmerman covered his first pro football game for the now-defunct New York World-Telegram & Sun in 1960, and since then he has seen dramatic changes in the sport. "The one-to-one matchups—guard against tackle, receiver against cornerback—have dissipated," he says. "It's all situation stuff now, in and out with all the substitutions. But winning and losing are still based on the same elements."
No matter how well-versed Zimmerman may be in the intricacies of the game, it is still supernatural for any sports seer to get all of his major picks right. How does he do it? "I play out the whole season on paper," explains Zimmerman. "I try to figure out when teams are peaking and when they're flattening. Last year, I thought the Giants were a team on the rise, and John Elway's maturity gave the Broncos the final ingredient to take them to the top. But the law of averages was on my side. I've screwed up so many times, I have to predict right once in a while."
Dr. Z's predictions for '87 start on page 46. If the season ends in San Diego on Jan. 31, 1988 with a Giants victory over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XXII, that would make him an undefeated prognosticator two seasons in a row. But that's too much to expect, even from Dr. Z. Or is it?