At this time last year Cincinnati and San Francisco had 3-8 records, on their way to 6-10. Same for the New York Giants, only they were fated for 4-12. Miami, Kansas City and Denver were hovering around .500, on their way to 8-8s. These were the ho-hums of the NFL, the two-paragraph wire-service stories in the Monday paper. Now they're all alive and contending, and four of them—the Bengals, Broncos, 49ers and Dolphins—have command of their division races.
In these days of Rozellean parity, it doesn't take much to tip the balance from also-ran to frontrunner: a rookie with wings on his feet who can turn a five-yard gain into a 50-yarder; rookie defenders who can bring the crowd to its feet with big hits; rookies who have not yet learned fear or caution; and, in the case of the Broncos, a rookie named Dan Reeves who wears earphones. These, then, are the new faces that have made the difference for half a dozen NFL teams.
When you direct the fortunes of the NFL's most visible franchise (from a media and advertising standpoint), you have to make sure the first man you draft—the second man picked overall—is something special. So last November, New York Giants General Manager George Young caught a plane south to scout North Carolina's game with Clemson and to see firsthand whether Lawrence Taylor, the Tar Heels' outside linebacker, deserved the raves he'd been getting.
"With North Carolina's pale blue numbers, it's tough to pick out one guy from the other," Young says. "But I didn't need any numbers to locate Taylor. All you had to do was wait for a big defensive play to be made, and he'd be making it. It was hard for me to believe that a linebacker could so dominate a game."
New Orleans had the first pick in the draft, and Saints Coach Bum Phillips had said South Carolina Running Back George Rogers was his man. That was good. But Taylor had spent three days in New Orleans right before the draft. That was bad. On the day before the draft Young called the airlines to find out if an L. Taylor was booked on a flight from New Orleans to New York, where he'd be headed if the Saints intended to make him the No. 1 pick.
"There were three L. Taylors listed," Young says. "My heart sank. I called Chapel Hill to find out if he was still there. He was. I felt better. But I didn't know we were getting him until 10 o'clock the night before the draft."
Taylor, with his 6'3", 242-pound body and his 4.59 speed for 40 yards, has been the Giants' blitz specialist, swooping in from the right side. He's playing as well physically as any outside linebacker in the NFL, and the Giants' defense, 10th in the NFC last year, was second after 10 games this season. Mentally, Taylor says, he still has a way to go. "Play-action fakes give me trouble," he says, "but I sure enjoy that blitzing."
New York Coach Ray Perkins doesn't like to come on too strong about rich rookies—Taylor reportedly has a three-year, $750,000 deal with the Giants—but he says, "Lawrence will make the kind of plays you just don't normally see. We had one scrimmage in camp where he was supposed to give inside support against a wide receiver. He went 40 yards downfield on a go pattern and broke it up."
The Giant veterans, who had grumbled about Taylor's big contract, became believers in July's first intrasquad scrimmage. The coaches awarded points—one for a fumble recovery, two for a fumble-causing tackle, three for a sack, etc. In 10 minutes Taylor had four sacks. Score—Offense 0, Taylor 12. On the sidelines Gary Jeter turned to Harry Carson and said, "I've seen the movie Superman and I intend to see Superman II but today I'm seeing Superman III in person."
And whatever happened to George Rogers, the Saints' hope? He's having a terrific year—second in the league in rushing with 1,137 yards. But the Saints are only 3-8, better than last season's 0-11, yet not quite a turnaround. Let's say they've turned it sideways.