THE NFL : It's No Picnic for Johnson

BALTIMORE SUN

Leon Lett dove headlong into trouble in final seconds against the Miami Dolphins, possibly costing the Dallas Cowboys home-field advantage in playoffs.

It took five years, but Jimmy Johnson finally found out Thursday what NFL life is like.

For the first four years, the Dallas Cowboys coach had a Midas touch. Everything he touched turned to victory. He went from 1-15 to Super Bowl champion in four seasons. Each season was better than the previous.

Johnson acted as if he thought he were the king of the mountain and would stay there.

Nobody ever savored being on top more than Johnson did. Earlier this year, he talked as if the Dallas way was the perfect way to do things. He noted he dealt directly with owner Jerry Jones. He didn't have to deal with a general manager the way the Washington Redskins and New York Giants coaches did.

Johnson gave the impression he thought he'd go 12-0 or 11-1 every year the way he did at the University of Miami.

He overlooked the fact that former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll once said that being on top in the NFL isn't like climbing a mountain. It's more like walking a tightrope. The Cowboys fell off last week when they lost two games in five days.

For the first time, Johnson can't do better than he did last year. He was 13-3 last year. The best he can do is 12-4. He's also a half-game behind the Giants and San Francisco 49ers, both 7-3, in the battle for home-field advantage in the playoffs. The road to the Super Bowl got a lot tougher for Johnson's team, especially since his two best players -- Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith -- are playing hurt.

It all happened because of an incredible stroke of misfortune at the end of the 16-14 loss to the Miami Dolphins -- Lett's gaffe in touching a blocked field goal to give the Dolphins another chance.

It was as bizarre an ending as the NFL would ever see. But it's not unprecedented. Strange things can happen to teams on the top.

Baltimore fans with long memories know that well. For example, in 1960, the Colts were 6-3 and shooting for a third consecutive title when Johnny Unitas threw a touchdown pass to Lenny Moore with 14 seconds left to take a 15-13 lead over the Detroit Lions.

Remember what happened next? On the Lions' final play, Earl Morrall threw one over the middle to Jim Gibbons and he went 65 yards for a 20-15 Detroit win. NFL Films included it in its video of the five best finishes ever. The Colts then lost their final two on the West Coast, ending their quest for a third consecutive title.

Sixteen years later, Pittsburgh came to Memorial Stadium in search of its third consecutive Super Bowl title and blew out the Colts, 40-14, in their first playoff game.

The only problem was that Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier both got hurt in that game and the Steelers lost the next week in Oakland. The Steelers still say it was the best of their teams in the 1970s when they won four Super Bowls. But that team fell short.

Those are the kinds of things that happen in the NFL. There's never a sure thing -- even for a team on top.

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Lett wasn't the only guy to commit a gaffe at Texas Stadium Thursday. The NBC-TV director shared in the infamy.

The TV types are so addicted to reaction shots that they switched to a shot of Jones, the Cowboys owner, celebrating as soon as the Cowboys blocked the field goal.

By the time they switched back to the field, the Dolphins already had the ball. NBC needed a replay to show Lett touching the ball and the Dolphins recovering it.

Maybe the TV types will learn that they should show the action on the field until the play is over.

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The NFL insists it will definitely select a second expansion team when it meets at a Chicago airport hotel Tuesday.

If you believe in omens, the site isn't the best one for Baltimore. It's the same hotel where Colts owner Bob Irsay trashed Baltimore at an owners meeting in March 1984 shortly before he moved and is the same one where the owners bypassed Baltimore Oct. 26.

Baltimore goes in as the underdog not only to St. Louis, but to Jacksonville, Fla. If Baltimore can get enough support to block St. Louis, the ABB (Anybody But Baltimore) forces in the league office led by commissioner Paul Tagliabue will try to sell Jacksonville as an alternative. The Jacksonville scenario was being touted last week in Sports Illustrated and on HBO's "Inside the NFL."

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Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown made progress last week in his talks with city officials on a new deal to keep him from moving.

"We don't have a done deal and we're still talking about many things, but there's no question in my mind the city is making a good-faith effort to work this out," Brown said.

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In the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Denver Broncos last Sunday, Reggie Rivers of the Broncos taunted Rod Woodson for not running a kickoff out of the end zone.

"Run the ball out. We didn't run all the way down here to watch you kneel on it," Rivers said.

Woodson replied: "Oh, you think you're somebody?"

Rivers said: "I'll never find out unless you run it out."

In the third quarter, Woodson fumbled a kickoff and Rivers recovered.

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A year ago, former Maryland coach Bobby Ross was the toast of San Diego for taking the team to the playoffs.

Now with the team struggling, he's getting booed at home.

"I had a number of fans who cussed me when I came off the field," he said. "And I understand their frustrations. But you have to understand I'm frustrated, too. I'm putting in 18 hours a day."

Ross, incidentally, is strongly denying rumors that he's unhappy in the NFL and is thinking about returning to the college ranks.

Ross said: "I very much expect to be here next year unless they fire me."

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When Bernie Kosar was released by Cleveland, he left a farewell message in the locker room: "Good luck, guys, 19."

The message disappeared last week. It was washed off or painted over.

Cornerback Terry Taylor said: "I don't know who erased it, but they should have left it there for the whole year. I'm still saddened about it. If Bernie was here, I really do believe that we would have beaten Seattle, for one. I still wish he was here. But that's not my decision."

The Browns are 0-2 since Kosar was shipped out.

Taylor is one many Cleveland veterans expected to try to leave in the off-season because they're unhappy with Coach Bill Belichick.

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When Coach Chuck Knox of the Rams benched veteran Jim Everett for T.J. Rubley last week, there was speculation he would cut Everett. After all, Everett wasn't a fan favorite the way Kosar was in Cleveland. There would have been no backlash.

But Knox decided to keep Everett and release Mike Pagel.

"Jim Everett, in my opinion, can still play in the league," Knox said.

Belichick could have saved himself a lot of grief if he had followed the Knox model. Everett is expected to leave at the end of the year, but it's easier to do these things in the off-season.

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Joe Bugel's job is on the line when the Phoenix Cardinals meet the New York Giants Sunday. Owner Bill Bidwill told him he'd have to go 9-7 to save his job and he's now 3-7. The unanswered question is whether Bugel will be fired once he loses the eighth game or whether Bidwill will wait until the end of the season.

Bugel, meanwhile, remains upbeat. "That stuff doesn't really bother me or this football team. We're going to give it our dead-level best in the final six games," he said.

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