A Coach-in-Waiting


Coach Jim Fassel of the New York Giants, saying he felt drained after attending his mother’s funeral in California, turned over the play-calling duties to assistant Sean Payton on Sunday--with spectacular results for the Giants and Payton.

In a 41-28 victory over the New York Jets, the usually inept Giant offense produced 490 yards, most by the team since 1985, and converted 13 of 19 third-down chances.

The Giants had a 300-yard passer, Kerry Collins; two 100-yard receivers, Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard, and a 100-yard rusher, rookie Joe Montgomery, in the same game for the first time.


And in one game Payton, 35, was transformed from an obscure quarterback coach into a whiz kid.

“He’ll be a head coach in this league in a short period of time,” defensive line coach Denny Marcin said. “He’s got the goods.”

In Dallas, where the Cowboy offense has produced only two touchdowns in the last 12 quarters and only three in the last 17, Coach Chan Gailey may finally use Deion Sanders at wide receiver.

Fear of injury is the main reason Gailey has been reluctant to use Sanders on offense, where last season he caught seven passes for 100 yards, one for 55 yards. In 1996, as the NFL’s first two-way starter since 1962, Sanders had 36 receptions for 475 yards and a touchdown.

“I want to play offense,” said the league’s premier cornerback, who sat out the first two games recovering from toe surgery and has since had problems with groin and hamstring injuries. “I’ve dropped subtle hints to the coach, but now I’m ready to go out there and do whatever it takes. It’s time to throw everything out there.”

CENTRAL / King Full of Confidence

Rookie quarterback Shaun King of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers passed for only 93 yards in his first NFL start, Monday night’s 24-17 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, but still drew praise from his coaches after the Buccaneers extended their winning streak to five games.


“He controlled the game, which is what you have to do when you’re playing that position,” Coach Tony Dungy said. “And that’s not easy to do as a rookie.”

The Buccaneers have posted four of the five lowest passing days in the NFL this season, yet are 4-0 in the those games.

“We have the kind of defense that it’s not going to take a whole lot, week in and week out, to win games,” said King, who passed for two touchdowns. “So if we go out and execute, and I don’t make a crucial mistake, I think I can take us real far.”

King, who completed 11 of 19 passes with one interception, is no shrinking violet.

“I don’t know, I just had a poise about me,” he said. “I just knew that if we just continued to go out and throw punches that, eventually, we’d throw a punch and we’d hurt them.”

WEST / Rams Pushing for More

They’re probably still celebrating in St. Louis, where the Rams have clinched their first division title since 1985, but the Rams still have much work ahead of them: They want to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

“It’s back to work, but it’s back to work with a little more of a smile, a little more pep to our step,” tight end Roland Williams said. “Obviously we achieved one of our goals and that feels great, but our team is so strong and we have so much going for us to just settle for going to the playoffs.”


St. Louis has never had a home playoff game. In 28 seasons before moving to Phoenix in 1988, the Cardinals played in only three playoff games--all losses and all on the road. So there are still plenty of targets, including the ultimate goal.

“We want to take Georgia to Georgia,” Coach Dick Vermeil said, referring to team owner Georgia Frontiere and the Super Bowl site in Atlanta.

Before the season, the Rams were 200-1 to make the Super Bowl.

Now, they’re the NFC favorites.

Winless in the division last year, they can wrap up an 8-0 sweep this year with a win Sunday at New Orleans.

In New Orleans, quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver was incredulous about a recent published quote from an anonymous Saint player who said 60% of the team wants to see Coach Mike Ditka fired.

“I hadn’t heard anybody talk about it,” he said. “And on top of that, hell, I don’t know if we’ve got anybody smart enough to figure out what 60% of 53 is. I sure don’t know. How many is that?”