18 Excellent NFL Teams Fighting for First Place

Among the 18 or 20 NFL teams at or near the top of a 31-team league after the first half of the season, there is a balance of either mutual mediocrity or mutual excellence.

If you agree with me, it's a balance of excellence.

Pro football players all rank, to begin with, as the very best in a country that plays a lot of football in thousands of high schools and colleges, where 95% or more of the starters never see a pro camp.

Those who do move on are divided up by the various pro clubs about as equally as possible with all sorts of artificial devices, among them a draft, a salary cap, a free-agency system and, most important, a pooled-revenue plan that gives every franchise $70 million in TV income annually to invest in coaches, scouts and playing talent.

True, the athletes all make some mistakes--even those of us who don't play football make some mistakes--but who's surprised that in a six-division league, 18 or more good teams are still fighting for first place?

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A Balance of Differences

It's as groundless to say that pro clubs are all alike as it is to say they're all mediocre or worse.

For example, St. Louis, Washington and Indianapolis are good passing teams that don't win all the time, and Kansas City, Miami and Detroit are good defensive teams that don't win all the time.

And although Jacksonville's Super Bowl favorites are better balanced than most of their opponents, they went through a three-week stretch last month when they scored only 22, 17 and 19 points.

They romped Sunday, 30-7, but that was against a discouraged, depressed Atlanta team that is getting to be a soft touch.

Indeed, the Jaguars' comparatively soft schedule is a central reason why they're favored to get to the Super Bowl.

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Long Passes Test Defense, Not Passer

If this is a league in which parity has been deliberately induced, it was uniquely reflected for all 60 minutes in the Silverdome Sunday.

The Detroit Lions and St. Louis Rams summed up the whole closely played NFL season in the game's first half, when the Rams opened 2-0 before Detroit moved ahead, 7-2, after which the Rams regained the lead, 9-7, then lost it again, 10-9, before stretching out to 12-10 at halftime.

The back-and-forth first half was just a prelude to a second half in which Detroit recaptured the lead, 18-12, built it up with two field goals, 24-19, then lost it, 27-24, before scoring the last touchdown of the game, 31-27.

The Lions showed off their great defense but were a little lucky on offense, converting regularly on third and long, and converting the game-winner on fourth and 26.

A pass on third and six or more is a test of the defensive team, not the quarterback, and the major finding of the game was that the Ram pass defense can be had--even on fourth and 26.

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The NFL's Best Passing Team

In defeat, the Rams, 6-2 now after a 6-0 start, remained the NFC's most impressive team because of their pass offense.

Quarterback Kurt Warner, who, it seems, throws for three touchdowns every week, completed the hat trick again although the Rams' secret weapon--team speed--was largely neutralized by the fast and powerful Detroit defense.

One of Warner's targets was the best fourth receiver in the league, Ricky Proehl, who on passing downs often joined Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim in the Rams' extraordinary four-receiver attack.

Add in a fifth Ram with good hands and quick feet--Marshall Faulk, one of the league's most gifted halfback receivers--and St. Louis has a hard-to-stop pass offense for even a defensive team as brilliant as Detroit's.

This was shown again in the fourth quarter when, as the Lions busied themselves with four decoys, Akim shook free on a 75-yard pass play.

That would have been enough if, later, the Rams had stayed in their basic defense instead of a prevent defense on fourth and 26.

* * * Cleveland Fans Johnny-Come-Latelies

Longtime NFL watchers have trouble working up much sympathy for Cleveland fans whose anger at their former club owner, Art Modell, is so widespread and deep-seated that he was afraid to accompany his new bunch, the Baltimore Ravens, to the Browns-Ravens game Sunday.

Modell aroused their anger when he moved the old Browns to Baltimore several years ago and renamed the team.

It should be noted that football fans in the old Ohio city weren't always so fanatic.

In 1945, when their original NFL team, the Cleveland Rams, played the Washington Redskins for the world championship and won, 15-14, the turnout in Cleveland Stadium was less than half of capacity.

And when the owner of that Ram team, Dan Reeves, disappointed by fan apathy, moved the franchise from Cleveland to Los Angeles, there was hardly a murmur of protest.

Today they're raising hell in Cleveland, but their anger is misplaced.

It should be directed not at Modell but at their new club president and CEO, Carmen Policy, who has built another loser after beginning his NFL career several years ago by ruining the San Francisco 49ers.

* * * The Noise Denigrates the NFL

In a spirit of fairness and justice to all, the NFL should give offseason priority attention to the problem created by the league's thousands of hometown fans, who in most cities are still making as much noise as they can when the visiting team has the ball.

A league that wanted to do something about that could do so--even though it won't come in time to help the 1999 Kansas City Chiefs, who failed in Indianapolis Sunday, 25-17, in large part because their offensive players couldn't hear quarterback Elvis Grbac.

The Rams, too, for the second week in a row, were disrupted on the road, as were most of the NFL's traveling teams.

Hometown fans who cheer when the other team has the ball are displaying arrant poor sportsmanship.

Why does the NFL want to encourage that?

* * * Manning Looks and Plays Like Unitas

It might seem unlikely that a second-year quarterback, Peyton Manning, and a first-year running back, Edgerrin James, can get the Indianapolis Colts into the Super Bowl, but this is precisely the kind of duet that could trouble Miami's good defense.

The Colts beat Kansas City's good defense Sunday by running James when the Chiefs anticipated Manning's passes and with pass plays when ground plays were expected.

That is the only way to play offense well enough to beat great, modern defensive players.

Significantly, on James' rare third-and-one runs, he was stuffed like any other third-and-one NFL runner.

And on third and long, Manning misfired more often than he connected.

Manning demonstrated again, however, that he is the most promising of the new quarterbacks.

Strangely, in the familiar old Colt headgear, he bears an uncanny resemblance to the old Colt Hall of Famer, Johnny Unitas.

His passes also seem to be as disturbingly accurate as those of Unitas.

But this isn't a reincarnation. At 6-feet-5, Manning is much taller.

* * * Passing is Just Wanting to Pass

The oher day, in the eighth week of the regular season, the San Francisco 49ers auditioned the players who wished to try out for their defensive team at right cornerback.

That tells you all you need to know about the 49er pass defense, which was penetrated repeatedly again Sunday, this time by Pittsburgh quarterback Kordell Stewart, whose team won easily, 27-6.

To be sure, Stewart, who completed 16 of 26 passes to set up most of the Steeler scoring, could have done something like that to the other defenses he's faced this season if allowed to throw more often. But though he has a sound position coach in the team's play-caller, Kevin Gilbride, the Steelers under Bill Cowher are one of the league's many conservative teams.

When you have the personnel, passing these days is largely wanting to pass, but that attitude is also all but nonexistent in such places as Miami and Kansas City, where conservative coaches Jimmy Johnson and Gunther Cunningham want something else.

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Fault Kicking Teams for Blown Kicks

Green Bay is the one team in the league that isn't as bad as its 4-4 record. But you know there's something wrong when the Packers lose to the Chicago Bears, 14-13, on a last-second, blocked, 28-yard field goal try.

Good teams don't yield a certain three points on a blocked kick. If their coaches and players are up to speed, there's no way, mathematically, for pro clubs to give up blocked field goals.

There simply isn't enough time for any player representing the other team to get in front of a kick.

Unless the kicking team errs.

The Packers, to be sure, are now only two games behind Detroit, with half the season remaining.

They aren't out of the race yet.

But in Green Bay these days, there's nothing whatever to remind you that the Packers, with many of the same players, won the Super Bowl three years ago and until this fall have been contending ever since.

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Selected Short Subjects:

• Turnovers-are-overrated department: Indianapolis is 6-2 with a team that ranks near the bottom in AFC takeaways and giveaways after giving up another big interception and another big fumble Sunday, when the Colts won only one turnover.

• Aside from Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper, who jumped from Central Florida College to the bigs, Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb of Syracuse is the only rookie quarterback who hasn't started this season. And after playing a half Sunday, he might start this week against Washington.

• In the next century, Paul Tagliabue's current 10-year reign as NFL commissioner will be remembered for, among other things, the 19 stadiums built, renovated or under construction in 18 of the league's 31 cities. The world hasn't seen that much concentrated building activity since Rome.

• Continuous labor peace since 1993, one of Tagliabue's other achievements, is to a large extent due also to the contributions and philosophy of NFL labor leader Gene Upshaw. Unlike some labor bosses, Upshaw has focused on big money for two groups of people: the men in his union and the men who pay the salaries--the league's club owners.