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O’Donnell Thrives on Leadership by Parcells

One thing still in doubt in pro football is whether Neil O’Donnell, the New York Jet quarterback, can someday match the five touchdown passes he threw last Sunday in Seattle.

One possibility is that, in the Jets’ home opener against fading Buffalo, he will do it as soon as this week.

For, as the Seattle game helped testify, O’Donnell is among the most underrated NFL athletes.

He’s the plus that Coach Bill Parcells didn’t know he had when he moved back to New York earlier this year and started talking about Peyton Manning, the college quarterback who later surprised the Jets by staying at Tennessee.

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Since Jan. 28, 1996, when O’Donnell faced the Dallas Cowboys as a Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback, he has been blamed for blowing Super Bowl XXX, 27-17, with three intercepted passes.

For that, actually, his coaches were largely responsible. In the league’s most predictable offense, O’Donnell’s interceptions were all thrown on passing downs that were so certainly going to be passes that the Cowboys blitzed recklessly each time, destroying his aim.

In New York last year, his new coach was even less helpful.

O’Donnell is a classic example of the truth that a good quarterback needs good leadership to thrive.

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Macho bunch: Pittsburgh Coach Bill Cowher has replaced the assistants on offense who helped carry him to Super Bowl XXX, where they miscarried. Nor could Cowher keep O’Donnell, though he tried. But his offensive philosophy is unchanged, and that may be Pittsburgh’s problem--Cowher’s one serious one as an NFL coach.

In a passing era, he fields the league’s most determined running team. Last Sunday, he sent the gang out running every time the Cowboys scored, which was often in a game they won, 37-7.

There is evidence that as a 1990s coach, Cowher undervalues quarterbacks. He tried to win last year with young Jim Miller, who is nothing if not untried. And his choice this year is untried young Kordell Stewart, best known not for his passing but his versatility.

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Most good teams lacking a good quarterback go out and get one. Not long ago, Green Bay went out and got Brett Favre. On the NFL level, the hard way is to convert a receiver and build one.

Although Stewart seems to have the qualifications, if not the experience, he was drafted by a macho team that doesn’t even have a quarterback coach.

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Emmitt’s different: In the Dallas offense, halfback Emmitt Smith looks as if he has degenerated from the world’s greatest multiple-purpose halfback to just another good back. The Cowboys kept trying to run him the other day with no luck whatever. On 26 carries, Smith gained most of his 69 yards late, after Dallas had scored its 37 points in Pittsburgh and wanted to avoid pouring it on.

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It’s likely that the Arizona Cardinals today week will still be worrying about Smith. But if the Cowboys continue as a one-dimensional team, they will, eventually, find the going tough--even if the dimension is as fearsome as Troy Aikman’s arm.

The good news for the Cowboys is that Denver, in the off-season, discarded a sure-handed veteran receiver, Anthony Miller, who in Dallas joins Michael Irvin to give Aikman two good ones.

It might not be enough if Smith can’t get it back.

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Balancing act: The problem for the Tennessee Oilers today is whether they can show up with enough defense if Miami quarterback Dan Marino wakes up. Offensively, there’s not much question about the Oilers, who seem to have an enviable balanced threat now with a new young sharpshooter at quarterback, Steve McNair, and a 6-foot-3, 232-pound ballcarrier who runs like the wind, Eddie George.

In a passing era, that’s the ideal way to proceed. Having a balanced threat means having a passer who can do it if his running back can intimidate the defense, slowing down the pass rush.

With their two-way offense, the Oilers overturned Oakland last Sunday, 24-21, combining a 48-yard scoring bomb by McNair with George’s subsequent two scores and 216 total yards.

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Two steps: The best and worst things about football were sighted on the same play last week when a Kansas City defensive back, Jerome Woods, stuck it to John Elway long after the Bronco quarterback had unloaded a pass that spiraled 53 yards through the air until it was caught--just what spectators love and defensive backs despise.

In defiance of the rules, Woods, rushing in as Elway stood there after the throw, took a couple of steps and plunged into a defenseless passer, smashing him in the ribs, which would have cracked, Elway said, if he hadn’t been wearing heavy rib pads.

The NFL question: How many good quarterbacks will make it through the carnage this season to the playoffs?


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