DEFENSE OF THE YEAR
Don't look now, but the team playing the best defense in the NFL is the 5-6-1 Chiefs. On Sunday, Kansas City limited the powerful Oilers to 215 yards while shutting them out 34-0. In its previous three games, K.C. held the Seahawks and two playoff-caliber teams, the Broncos and the Browns, to 129, 213 and 261 yards, respectively. And those 261 yards against Cleveland came over five quarters. The Chiefs' defense has allowed one touchdown in its last 17 quarters.
Now for the amazing part: Kansas City has had six defensive coordinators in the last six seasons. The incumbent is Bill Cowher, 32, who was in charge of the secondary under coach Marty Schottenheimer in Cleveland. Schottenheimer brought Cowher with him when he took over the Chiefs in January. Pro Bowl safety Deron Cherry says that the Chiefs have adapted well to Cowher's system for three reasons: the simplicity of his attacking scheme, an unselfish attitude Cherry says the defense didn't have in his eight previous years with Kansas City, and the fact that the Chiefs are accustomed to learning new defenses. "It's been incredible learning that many defenses in that many years," Cherry says. "Finally, I think we've got a system we'll stay with for a while."
Last year's defense, run by Rod Rust, involved lots of read-then-react responsibilities. Cowher's system basically assigns each defender to an offensive man at the beginning of a play. "It means players don't have to think as much," says Cherry. "When you have to think too much, you get indecisive."
Two other factors have helped K.C.'s defense: relatively few injuries and the arrival of rookie linebacker Derrick Thomas. He has given the Chiefs the big-time pass rusher they lacked for many years. With 9� sacks, Thomas needs 3� more to break the league's rookie record. "The best thing I've ever done in coaching is not say a word to Derrick about rushing the quarterback," says Cowher. "He's a natural."
TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL
Luis Zendejas, the Cowboy placekicker, still had a headache last Saturday, after receiving a concussion during Dallas's 27-0 loss to Philadelphia on Thanksgiving Day. Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson charged that Buddy Ryan, Philly's coach, had offered $200 to any player who knocked Zendejas, a former Eagle, out of the game. Johnson also charged that Ryan had offered $500 to anyone who sidelined Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman. The league is investigating the accusations.
The flap should make for an interesting Philadelphia- Dallas rematch on Dec. 10. Last weekend Zendejas's best friend on the Cowboys, punter Mike Saxon, said, "Luis doesn't care if it costs him his career. He's got a vendetta against Buddy Ryan, and he's going to try to get him."
The wrong guy was forced out in Phoenix. But coach Gene Stallings was too popular and received too little blame in the media for the Cards' failure to make the playoffs during his tenure of nearly four years. So Stallings, who did wonders with an injury-decimated team this season, took the fall. Owner Bill Bidwill now has a major selling job to do—the 5-7 Cardinals drew only 33,297 at home Sunday—and he's a lousy salesman. Phoenix will probably have a hard time attracting a big-name coach because of Bidwill's skinflint reputation. He wouldn't let Stallings do a local weekly coaches' TV show in 1988, a decision that reportedly cost Stallings $100,000. A postscript on Stallings: His supporters distributed about 5,000 black armbands for fans to wear on Sunday.... Football cards are hot. For example, Joe Namath's rookie card went for $200 last spring; it's now selling for $1,000. "What you have are card dealers who had to find a way to make money when baseball cards got out of reach," says Ron Gordon, a collector and dealer in Albuquerque. "They looked at football and hyped it up."