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Except for the Big Three, NFL Is Pretty Much a Dogfight

National Football League Top 10, 1991:

1. Buffalo.

2. Washington.

3. Houston.

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4. (Are you kidding?)

5. (New Orleans? New Orleans? )

6 through 10. (Does Florida State count?)

This is what parity has come down to in the NFL: Three good teams. Three teams that can run and pass and play defense. Three teams that consider these objectives part of the weekly game plan--and 25 teams that think this is a multiple-choice question.

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The San Francisco 49ers are 1-2 and starting their second-best quarterback. The New York Giants are 1-2 and starting their second-best quarterback. The 49ers can pass, but they can’t run, the Giants can run, but they can’t pass, and both have already lost games to the NFC Central, to quarterbacks named Harbaugh and Wilson.

Harbaugh and Wilson play for Chicago and Minnesota, two teams that are a combined 5-1. The Bears are 3-0, but what do they have? They used to have the league’s premier running back in Neal Anderson, but now Anderson is a 50-yard-a-game grunt. Jim Harbaugh is a 65% passer because Mike Ditka confines him mainly to screens and quick dumps to the tight end. So it must be defense, right? Right now, the Bears’ defense is yielding an average of 308 yards--more than Cleveland, Indianapolis, Atlanta, New England and the Rams.

Minnesota is 2-1 because it is finally getting production out of Herschel (I Am Not A Dog) Walker, but that could change any minute. Wade Wilson is no Fran Tarkenton--and, for that matter, might not be Gary Cuozzo. Keith Millard is out, and the Viking defense is already down, ranking above only San Diego, Cincinnati and Miami.

New Orleans is 3-0, but one-third of those victories came against the Rams. Dalton Hilliard left his knees in 1989. Bobby Hebert left his fan club in 1989. Today, the Saints play the Vikings, who have not lost to New Orleans during the Jim Mora era. The scores: 33-17, 44-10, 45-3, 32-3.

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Philadelphia? No Randall Cunningham.

The Raiders? No Kenny Stabler.

Miami? No defense.

Cincinnati? No clue.

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The NFL keeps talking of expansion, but all we’re seeing is compression. Barring injury to Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, James Lofton, Warren Moon, Allen Pinkett, Haywood Jeffires, Ernest Givins and a coaching change in Washington, the rest of this season will be devoted to Buffalo and Houston playing for the right to play the Redskins in Super Bowl XXVI.

No one else is within a Chip Lohmiller field goal.

The Raiders supposedly were girding for a run, but the past two runs at Buffalo and Houston resulted in 3-51 and 17-47. The past two weeks, Jay Schroeder and Jeff Jaeger rang up 16 points on Denver and Indianapolis. “Tilt offense?” Are we going by the Art Shell usage or the pinball usage?

Kansas City could have been a contender, but Steve DeBerg’s holdout lasted until he was 37. Three weeks into the season, and the Chiefs still haven’t scored DeBerg’s age. With 31 points to their name, the Chiefs today are 1-2--and saying thanks that God created the Atlanta Falcons.

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Parity was going to breed mediocrity--that was the great fear--but this year, many NFL clubs have skipped mediocrity altogether and have gone straight to hell.

Have there ever been so many thoroughly, unequivocally rotten teams in the league at one time?

The San Diego Chargers used to be a broken record: 6-10, 6-10, 6-10. So they fired their quarterback, Billy Joe Tolliver, after the preseason and they fired their offensive coordinator, Ted Tollner, after the season opener, and now they have an excellent chance at firing off an 0-16. They also have another record: “Losing, Losing,” cut by a pair of San Diego deejays and sung to the tune of “Louie, Louie.” Sample verse: “Anthony Miller, Butts and Friesz/Can you win just one game please?”

Tampa Bay changed head coaches but stayed with Vinny Testaverde at quarterback. Tampa Bay is 0-3. Indianapolis has an old Ram problem (Eric Dickerson) and a new Ram problem (no offensive line). Indianapolis is 0-3. Cincinnati, protesting the NFL’s prohibition of the Ickey Shuffle, has sworn all Bengal running backs to stay out of the end zone. Cincinnati is 0-3.

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Things are going so badly in these cities that things are starting to look good in New England and Cleveland by comparison. The Patriots were 1-15 last year, but they’ve already beaten the Colts and play them once more Dec. 8. Two-and-14 is progress. The Browns were 3-13 last year, but now they’ve won back-to-back games, having played New England and Cincinnati back-to-back games.

Seattle? The Seahawks will go as far as Jeff Kemp takes them. Atlanta? Goodby Chargers, hello Raiders, Saints and 49ers. Green Bay? Don Majkowski has thrown one more touchdown pass than Jim Everett.

Sign of the times: Bengal Coach Sam Wyche told Cincinnati reporters last week that winning was overrated. “There’s golf to be played and tennis to be played and other things to be done out there beyond worrying about a frigging football game,” Wyche said. “That doesn’t mean we’re not going to try to win, but we’re not going to live that way anymore in Cincinnati. We’re going to have fun.”

And they were beginning to call this the No-Fun League.

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