THE NFL / BILL PLASCHKE : Cowboys, 49ers, Dolphins at Head of Class

Ever notice that all the vital things in life come in threes?

Bacon, lettuce and tomato.

Faith, hope and charity.

Wynken, Blynken and Nod.

Baseball, hot dogs and . . . well, OK, not every vital thing.

But after three weeks of watching what has become our national pastime, we consider it only proper to arrange this NFL season in the same fashion.

THE THREE BEST TEAMS

1. Dallas Cowboys. . . . Still more talent and heart than any other team. Think of what they will do when Barry Switzer starts paying attention.

2. San Francisco 49ers. . . . Can Deion Sanders ensure an NFC championship victory over the Cowboys? Not with the 49ers' entire offensive line in bandages, he can't.

3. Miami Dolphins. . . . Some wise guy told Dan Marino he was finished, and now the rest of the league is paying for it.

THE THREE BIGGEST FRAUDS

1. Kansas City Chiefs. . . . Steve Bono will be the starting quarterback by Thanksgiving.

2. New York Giants. . . . Even Dan Reeves, football's best coach, can't help them survive a second-half stretch of five road games in eight weeks.

3. Cleveland Browns. . . . What, are you color blind? Vinny Testaverde has thrown more interceptions, seven, than his team has scored offensive touchdowns, five.

FIRST THREE THINGS SCOTT DAVIS SAID TO RAIDER TEAMMATES UPON HIS RETURN

1. "But the headlines said, 'Season Canceled.' Oh, so now you tell me."

2. "Next time, I'm going to tell Al Davis to hunt down his own darn Brylcreem."

3. "Sorry guys, couldn't find any running backs. You?"

THREE THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT BEN COATES, NEW ENGLAND TIGHT END WHO HAS CAUGHT MORE PASSES THAN JERRY RICE FOR MORE YARDS THAN ANDRE RISON

1. His first name

2. He was the first player ever drafted into the NFL from Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C.

3. He played one season of high school football.

THREE REASONS THE RENEWED ENFORCEMENT OF THE NO-CHUCKING RULE HAS BEEN THE LEAGUE'S MOST IMPORTANT OFF-SEASON MOVE

1. After three weeks, there have been 19 passing performances of 300-plus yards or more. Last season after three weeks, there were five.

2. There have been 132 touchdown passes, compared to 91 after three weeks last season.

3. There have been 34 individual receiving performances of 100 yards or more, compared to 18 last year.

Because of byes, there were four fewer games played after three weeks last season. But the numbers still startle.

THE THREE BEST PLAYERS

1. Stan Humphries, quarterback, San Diego Chargers. . . . Not only is he the highest-rated quarterback in the league, he had the best play of the early season last week--passing 45 yards from the back of the end zone in the face of an all-out Seattle blitz. Tony Martin caught it tied a record by going the rest of the way for a touchdown, the play covering 99 yards.

2. Dan Marino, Miami Dolphins. . . . Do any other doubters want to see his repaired Achilles' tendon on artificial turf? This weekend, we will get the chance.

3. Derrick Thomas, Kansas City Chiefs. . . . His return to linebacker has helped lead the unbeaten Chiefs to a plus-10 turnover ratio, twice as high as all but one other team in the league. His safety sack of Steve Young in Week 2 will be shown on highlight films for years.

THREE LEADING CANDIDATES TO BECOME HEAD COACHES WHOSE LAST NAMES ARE NOT JOHNSON

1. Dennis Erickson, University of Miami. . . . Carolina has him on its mind.

2. Tony Dungy, defensive coordinator, Minnesota Vikings. . . . With the league's toughest defense on his resume, somebody will finally give him a chance. Detroit sounds nice if Wayne Fontes fails to win a playoff game.

3. Rusty Tillman, defensive coordinator, Seattle Seahawks. . . . A younger version of Chuck Knox, but louder.

THREE REASONS THE RAMS ARE GOING TO STAY

1. The league will make life miserable for them if they go to Baltimore.

2. Empty seats will make their life miserable if they go to St. Louis.

3. That "Save The Rams" group--which should be heeded if its millions of dollars are real--is going to hound them to the ends of the earth.

THREE REASONS THE BRONCO DEFENSE REALLY STINKS

1. Denver brought two veterans out of retirement--Karl Mecklenburg and Dennis Smith--and put them in the starting lineup without the benefit of training camp.

"I thought it was going to be a P.R. move until I found out I was starting," Smith said. 2. It has the only free safety in the league, Rondell Jones, who nearly fainted from exhaustion while chasing a receiver.

Remember last week when it appeared that Jones had given up on Tim Brown's 43-yard touchdown catch for the Raiders? Jones didn't quit. He was so out of shape after off-season surgery that he couldn't breathe.

3. Wade Phillips isn't the least bit funny anymore.

THREE THINGS THAT LION LINEBACKER BRODERICK THOMAS HAS BEEN CALLED

1. Fontes calls him "Robert" Thomas.

2. A club official called him, "Derrick" Thomas.

3. After he stripped the ball from Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys to set up the winning field goal Monday night, the press box announcer called him "Pat Swilling."

WHAT THE JETS DID TO MAKE ROOM UNDER THE SALARY CAP FOR TONY CASILLAS

1. Cut defensive end Coleman Rudolph ($350,000).

2. Cut receiver Rob Carpenter ($298,000).

3. Cut linebacker Tuineau Alipate ($180,000).

THREE THINGS OILER DEFENDERS HAVE SAID ABOUT THEIR OFFENSE

1. Safety Marcus Robertson: "Our offense is a joke."

2. Cornerback Cris Dishman: "We need somebody over there who knows what the hell he's doing. What's happening on offense is a bunch of bull."

3. Cornerback Darryll Lewis: "I think it's time to point fingers and name names. The defensive players feel like we have to score to win the game."

THE THREE-GAME RUSHING TOTALS FOR THE PACKERS

1. 94 yards.

2. 38.

3. 37.

THREE THINGS THAT BENGAL FANS ARE CALLING DEFENSIVE LINEMAN DAN (BIG DADDY) WILKINSON, THE NO. 1 DRAFT PICK WHO HAS FIVE TACKLES AND NO SACKS IN THREE GAMES

1. Big Duddy.

2. Big Cruddy.

3. Big Bust.

THREE THINGS BUDDY RYAN DID TO HIS QUARTERBACK POSITION LAST WEEK

1. Brought in Rich Gannon for a tryout.

2. Implied that Steve Beuerlein was a cancer that needed to be cut out.

3. Said he was impressed with the quarterback play of Jeff Feagles, the Cardinals' punter.

QUICK HITTERS

* COMING SOON TO A DIVISION NEAR YOU: Although the league is not expected to announce realignment plans until early November, they will be discussed at the owners meetings next week in Dallas.

Sources say one plan has become a clear favorite among league officials and many owners. It includes:

1. Moving Seattle and Arizona into the NFC West with the Rams, San Francisco and New Orleans.

2. Moving Houston into the AFC West with the Raiders, Kansas City, Denver and San Diego.

3. Dropping Carolina into the NFC Central and moving Tampa Bay into the NFC East.

4. Dropping Jacksonville into the AFC East along with Atlanta and moving Buffalo to the AFC Central with Indianapolis.

A breakdown of divisions under this favored plan:

NFC West: San Francisco, Rams, Seattle, Arizona, New Orleans.

NFC Central: Detroit, Green Bay, Chicago, Minnesota, Carolina.

NFC East: Dallas, New York Giants, Philadelphia, Washington, Tampa Bay.

AFC West: Kansas City, Raiders, Denver, San Diego, Houston.

AFC Central: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Buffalo.

AFC East: Miami, New York Jets, New England, Atlanta, Jacksonville.

Under this plan, the NFC West and East would clearly be football's toughest divisions, and the AFC East could become the Dolphins' domain for the rest of this century.

The only major rivalry that would be lost would be the Dolphins and Buffalo Bills, but that would be replaced by an even more intense regional squabble among the Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns.

And how about that Jacksonville-Atlanta rivalry?

* GOOD TO SEE SOME THINGS HAVEN'T CHANGED: Goose Gonsoulin, a safety with the original Denver Broncos of 1960, recalls a locker room scene after a game against the Los Angeles Chargers that year.

Gonsoulin, who had intercepted six passes in his first two games, was approached by a man carrying a board and a box of chalk.

"Goose, what's the hardest play for you to cover?" the man asked.

Gonsoulin, thinking the man was a sportswriter, drew up one such play, and was still drawing when he heard his general manager shout, "Al, get the hell out of our locker room!"

That man was then-Charger receiver coach Al Davis.

* NAME THAT TUNE: Johnnie Morton, former USC wide receiver and first-round draft pick of the Detroit Lions, recently became engaged to Shanice, a noted rhythm and blues singer.

Then he suffered the blues of an NFL rookie. After seeing his name in the starting lineup against the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night, he excitedly ran a reverse while returning the opening kickoff.

He was promptly benched.

Although he was expected to replace injured Anthony Carter, and although bosses say they now love him after a slow training camp start, he has yet to even have a pass thrown in his direction.

* WE CAN'T GET ENOUGH OF THIS STUFF: When we last left Barry Switzer, he was leaving the Cowboys less than 24 hours before a Sunday game, flying off to watch his son play college football.

He has since proved that even when he is there, he isn't there.

In the second half of the Monday night game with the Detroit Lions, Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman could not get Switzer's attention while trying to decide whether to accept a penalty.

After futilely screaming at Switzer from the field, Aikman called a timeout to confer with him on the sidelines. That timeout could have been better used later during the overtime loss.

* LET THE FRANK REICH SWEEPSTAKES BEGIN: At league meetings next week in Dallas, officials are expected to announce the personnel plans for the expansion Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars.

Sources say each of the 28 existing franchises will lose no more than three players in an expansion draft, with each team forced to expose only eight players. The expansion teams also are expected to be rewarded with about a dozen extra college draft picks in each of the next two years.

One key to the plan is a ruling that will allow Carolina and Jacksonville to begin signing free agents by early November. Look for their first acquisitions to be veterans who were released too late to sign with existing teams.

Carolina won a coin toss last spring for the first pick in the 1995 college draft. Jacksonville will pick second, and each team will get three more picks before the end of the second round.

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