As the National Football League enters the second half of this bizarre season, fewer and fewer things make sense. The San Diego Chargers have the best record in the American Football Conference, the Raiders are in the midst of the franchise's longest losing streak in 23 years, the Chicago Bears can't stop anybody in the first three quarters and there doesn't appear to be a Super Bowl favorite for the first time in four seasons.
There may even be a resumption of negotiations between the NFL Players Assn. and the Management Council. The players union filed an anti-trust suit last month against the league, ending a 24-day strike without a new collective bargaining agreement. But Commissioner Pete Rozelle has urged the two sides to resume negotiations, and next week's pension board meeting could give rise to new talks.
The Management Council and players association both will have representatives in Key Biscayne, Fla., this week for the Bert Bell NFL Players' Retirement Board meetings, at which time Jack Donlan, the owners' chief negotiator, and union chief Gene Upshaw could approach each other about reopening negotiations. "Jack's ready to go back to the table, I do know that," John Jones, a spokesman for the Management Council, said.
Donlan and Upshaw could not be reached for comment, but Rozelle has said both sides might find a better atmosphere for negotiating if they can do it in relative peace, while on-field doings receive most of the media scrutiny.
In most the NFL cities, interest remains high because 22 of the 28 teams are solidly in contention for playoff berths. And a 23rd team--the defending champion New York Giants (2-6)--is capable of winning its remaining games and making it as a wild-card entry.
The Giants entered the season as the favorite to win a second straight league championship, but eight weeks of play--three of them with replacement teams--have left the NFL without a favorite, or so it would seem. In the past, the Redskins (1982), Raiders (1983), 49ers (1984), Bears (1985) and Giants (1986) had established themselves as the team to beat by the midpoint of the season.
Who then, with seven games remaining in the regular season, is the best team? When the strike ended, it seemed to be the Bears. A victory over Tampa Bay the first week back from the strike supported that theory. But since then, the Bears have had to come from behind in the closing minutes to beat Kansas City (1-7) and Green Bay (3-4-1), and now look as vulnerable as anyone with linebacker Otis Wilson and defensive lineman Dan Hampton each out for several weeks with knee injuries.
"We probably have used up our allotment of miracles," Coach Mike Ditka said after Kevin Butler's 52-yard field goal beat Green Bay.
Some around the league wonder if the Bears have just been playing to the level of the opposition. We'll find out for sure beginning Monday night when Chicago pays a visit to Denver, and in the coming weeks when the Bears face the 49ers, Vikings, Seahawks and Raiders, with only one game at home. Although there has been talk about how bad the Bears have become, Chicago has the only undefeated group of union players, at 5-0, and is 34-3 in the regular season since 1985.
Are the 49ers now the team to beat? Perhaps, but San Francisco did lose its season opener, at Pittsburgh, and needed a last-second gift from Bengals Coach Sam Wyche before the strike to prevent an 0-2 start. An officiating gaffe Sunday might have helped the 49ers beat Houston.
Denver? Not likely after being tied by Green Bay and beaten by Buffalo. San Diego? The Chargers would be in first place of the AFC West, with or without a 3-0 record by the replacements. But the Chargers face a tough schedule, meeting probable playoff teams in six of the remaining seven weeks. The Redskins? They're only 3-2 in games with union players and have lost to Atlanta, the worst team in the league.
The Redskins, counting only games with union players, would be a game behind Philadelphia in the NFC East. "I think we beat the best team in the National Football League and that shows we can play with the big boys," Buddy Ryan said after Sunday's victory. Likewise, the Vikings (4-1 with regulars) would trail the Bears by only a game in the NFC Central. With all games counting, however, the Eagles, Saints and Vikings look like the strongest wild-card contenders, although the Cowboys, Cardinals, Giants and Buccaneers are very much alive.
The Saints, who visit NFC West-leading San Francisco this weekend, might be looking at something better than a wild-card spot.
Only two AFC teams--the Bengals and Chiefs--are virtually eliminated, leaving too many playoff possibilities to consider.