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ANALYSIS : At NFL Half, Leaders Are Kelly, MacPherson, Ervins

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the NFL, this is halftime. In its 17-week schedule, with all those byes, the pros don’t have a halfway point anymore. They have a halfway season, which, again this year, coincides roughly with the end of the baseball season.

And conceivably, if the NFL distributed prizes at halftime, it would agree with some of us that they should be awarded to the following:

--To quarterback Jim Kelly of the Buffalo Bills, most valuable player of the half-year; to Dick MacPherson of the New England Patriots, coach of the half-year; and to running back Ricky Ervins of the Washington Redskins, rookie of the half-year.

--To the Houston Oilers, who are pioneering a new way to play football under the direction of Coach Jack Pardee and quarterback Warren Moon, NFL team of the half-year.

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In the first half, those who coach and play for 24 of the NFL’s 28 franchises have been chasing four of the better pro clubs of recent times--the Redskins (8-0), the Bills (7-1), the New Orleans Saints (7-1) and the Oilers (7-1).

And three of these--Washington, Buffalo and Houston--have seemed invincible on their home fields, where NFL crowd noise rules handicap visiting teams.

Thus, the Redskins will be favored over the Oilers in Washington Sunday, although the Oilers are No. 1 in the AFC on defense and No. 2 on offense.

It would be different in a neutral setting, because Houston’s defense is more substantial than Washington’s--particularly up front--and the Oilers’ run-and-shoot offense is more explosive.

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If they meet again in a neutral, Super Bowl Sunday stadium, all that will be more evident.

Of the other 1991 contenders, Buffalo has the league’s best offense and New Orleans the league’s best defense. But as numerous former contenders have found, it’s harder to win championships with one mighty arm than with two good arms.

Halftime winners and trends:

PLAYER OF THE HALF-YEAR

In the race between the two leaders, Kelly and Moon, the difference is that Moon’s defensive teammates at Houston have helped help him more than Kelly’s at Buffalo.

Basically, Kelly has been running a one-man show on a team with no more than an average defense, and that is an MVP accomplishment.

COACH OF THE HALF-YEAR

It’s MacPherson, but it could be Mike Ditka, Wayne Fontes or Joe Gibbs.

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Neither Ditka’s Chicago Bears (6-2) nor Fontes’ Detroit Lions (6-2) seem that talent-heavy. Nonetheless, they will meet Sunday in one of the decisive games of the NFC season.

In Washington, Gibbs is having still another coach-of-the-year season.

The surprise is MacPherson’s start in New England, where the Patriots might be 4-4 if his quarterback had remembered last Sunday that he’s a passer, not a runner. Patriot opponents never expected MacPherson to win three games with that team.

MOST IMPRESSIVE FRESHMAN

In an off-year for rookies, Ervins, in every appearance with the Redskins, has more nearly resembled a Pro Bowl selection than a rookie. It’s more of a mystery now than ever that Ervins failed to follow Marcus Allen and the others as a Heisman Trophy winner at USC. Because of his years with the Trojans, Ervins was passed over by every team in the first two rounds of the draft last April.

TOUGHEST DIVISION

If the playoffs began today, the AFC West would be represented by four of its five teams: the Denver Broncos (6-2), the Kansas City Chiefs (6-3), the Raiders (5-4) and the Seattle Seahawks (5-4). Only two others in the AFC are over .500--Buffalo and Houston.

TOUGHER CONFERENCE

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The NFC, which has won the last seven Super Bowls and nine of the last 10, leads the AFC in interconference results, 17-9. Although the AFC is the more innovative conference--now that Bill Walsh is out of coaching--the NFC has been playing better defense.

In the race to the playoffs, the NFC’s division leaders are Washington, New Orleans and Detroit. The wild-card leaders are Chicago, the Dallas Cowboys (5-3) and the San Francisco 49ers (4-4).

WORST TREND

There has been less scoring this season. It isn’t as bad as it seems--scoring is down only three points a week for each team, on the average--but it should be going in the opposite direction.

The principal reason for the decline is the 45-second clock. When 45 seconds are permitted between plays, the NFL’s many conservative coaches can control the ball without running it. In the best of all worlds for them, they simply keep their teams standing around until just before time expires.

Although a 37-second clock would make the games faster and more interesting, with more plays and more scoring, the coaches don’t want that, and most club owners don’t know enough about football to insist on it.

MORE KEY INJURIES

The loss of Philadelphia’s Randall Cunningham and other quarterbacks has been a factor in the scoring decline. Starting quarterbacks who missed much or all of the half-year included Joe Montana of San Francisco, Timm Rosenbach of the Phoenix Cardinals, Dave Krieg of Seattle, Don Majkowski of the Green Bay Packers, Bubby Brister of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Rodney Peete of Detroit and others.

More quarterbacks named Tom Tupa, John Friesz and Brad Goebel have been starting for NFL teams than anyone thought possible.

The loss of end Bruce Smith has all but knocked out Buffalo’s defense.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE HALF-YEAR

It’s New Orleans’ inside linebacker Sam Mills, 5 feet 9.

On the NFL’s most effective defense, the most prominent Saints are outside linebackers Pat Swilling and Rickey Jackson.

But the most effective is Mills, a good six inches shorter than most linebackers, who is one of the smallest seen at his position in the NFL’s last 50 years.

In a second-place tie for this honor are Kansas City linebacker Derrick Thomas and Raider defensive end Howie Long--who in their duel at Arrowhead Stadium Monday night played to a standoff--and Washington cornerback Darrell Green.

En route toward No. 1: Seattle’s second-year defensive tackle, 293-pound Cortez Kennedy.

BIGGEST BUSTS

The Cincinnati Bengals (0-8), the Indianapolis Colts (0-8) and, again, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-8). They are so far out of it that their coaches and owners have been making public apologies. The San Diego Chargers (1-8), stuck in the league’s most competitive division, aren’t as bad as some say.

MOST OUTSPOKEN COACH

Sam Wyche of Cincinnati has had more to say all year than even Ditka, and, contrary to popular perceptions, has been more often right than otherwise.

ASSISTANT COACH OF THE HALF-YEAR

Richie Petitbon, defensive coordinator of the Redskins, has done more with less than any peer.

BEST COMMENTARY

CBS continues to lead with John Madden outside and Terry Bradshaw inside.

RISE AND FALL OF NEW YORK

The Jets (4-4), changing direction after 4-12 and 6-10 seasons, seem to be moving toward the playoffs with Coach Bruce Coslet.

The Giants (4-4), changing direction after last year’s 13-3, are typical of the Super Bowl’s defending champions of the last 12 years. In that time, only the 1989 49ers, with Montana, have repeated. The others, including the 1987 Giants, have typically misfired badly.

So it’s becoming clearer why Super Bowl coach Bill Parcells jumped ship. Having experienced the rise and fall once before, he decided to watch this one from a television booth.

BETTER OFFICIATING

There hasn’t been a major instant-replay fiasco yet. And among the coaches, there has been less carping at the officials. Although officiating remains an inexact science in which blunders are part of the every-week norm, most of the officials are doing about as well as any human beings could.

So far, that is.

It’s only halftime.


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