THE OTHER SHULA
The nicest thing you can say about the first two years of Dave Shula's career as a head coach is that this mess is not all his fault. Shula's Bengals lost 17-12 to the Jets to fall to 0-10, and the 34-year-old son of Miami coach Don Shula is now 5-21 over two seasons.
There is no doubt that young Shula's pedigree—on Nov. 14 his father became the winningest coach in NFL history—had much to do with his getting the Cincinnati job. After all, he had never been a head coach at any level before team vice-president and general manager Mike Brown picked him to succeed Sam Wyche after the 1991 season. But it would be unfair to conclude that the choice Brown made was a poor one simply on the evidence of the Bengals' sorry record. It is unlikely whether Vince Lombardi or, yes, Don Shula could have won many more games with this bunch.
Whether a coach is a teacher, a disciplinarian, a play-caller or some combination of all three, no one wins without talent, and Cincinnati has precious little of it. The offensive line, the pride of the league as recently as four seasons ago, has become a sieve manned by a fuzzy-cheeked rookie and a bunch of hold-down-the-fort veterans. For far too long Brown has depended on offensive-line guru Jim McNally to mold topflight players out of massive but unwanted bodies. Bengal running backs can't pick up blitzes. There are no defensive playmakers.
Shula is not a micromanager; he oversees all aspects of the team but leaves the play-calling to Mike Pope and Ken Anderson on offense and to Ron Lynn on defense. Still, he knows where the buck stops. "I talk with my dad at least once a week," said Shula the night before the Jet game, "and the one thing he has stressed is, 'You are the guy everybody points to. When you walk into that meeting room, those players want to know what you're going to do to get them out of it [their losing streak].' "
After the Bengals lost a 38-3 stinker to Houston on Nov. 14, Shula tried to challenge his players. He recited the Lord's Prayer with them and followed it by saying in a clipped voice, "I hope you pray for strength. We are, at this time, the worst team in Bengal history." That assessment moved running back Harold Green shortly after to wonder whether Shula might be "the worst coach in history."
Green and Shula had a long chat the day after that game, which led to an uneasy truce. Amazingly, even though Cincinnati is in contention to finish with the first 0-16 record in league history, Shula's job is not in jeopardy, and with a few exceptions, he hasn't lost his players. "The players will still play for him," one club insider said on Sunday. "I don't think he's lost his grip on the team."
He'd better not have, because this team is nowhere near a turn for the better.
The belief persists that Cleveland coach Bill Belichick and his erstwhile quarterback, Bernie Kosar, had an explosive relationship that led to Kosar's release (SI, Nov. 22). Not true. The two did not get along, but their differences never boiled over. Truth is, Belichick sincerely believed that Kosar was too slow and his arm too gimpy to flourish in any NFL offense.