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The game is popular but losing its soul In the '90s, bland beats boisterous

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This is not your father's NFL.

When the National Football League opens its 72nd season today, it will have bulging wallets but seems in danger of losing some of the emotion that makes the game so popular.

"I'm not so sure we aren't heading for the day when this league of ours makes us all show up for the opening kickoff in gray, three-piece, pinstripe suits. The only way they'll tell the teams apart is by the color of the neckties," says Mike Ditka, the fiery coach of the Chicago Bears.

Ditka remembers the NFL before it became such a corporate game and so image-conscious.

He remembers the NFL back in the days before players were sent out of the game for not having their jerseys tucked in, the way Eric Williams of the Washington Redskins was during the preseason.

Ditka's coach, the late George Halas, one of the league's founding fathers, might have trouble understanding Paul Tagliabue's league, in which the Ickey (Woods) Shuffle has been banned and players must leave the field as soon as the game ends.

One league official said: "It's like the theater. As soon as the play is over, the performers leave the stage."

Theater? Tell that to Iron Mike Ditka.

"Football is snot, blood, tears, sweat, pain. If you want something else, go to a chess match. Football is not for the fragile, not for the faint of heart. It's men on men, and it's tough, and they've got to be careful about legislating emotion right the hell out of it. The thing is you've got a lot of people making rules who never put on a jockstrap," Ditka said.

The NFL found itself tagged the No Fun League after it outlined its new policies in March. There was so much backlash that the league had to modify the rules.

It now says, for example, that players will be allowed stay on the field for a prayer circle after the game.

Tagliabue, a former Washington lawyer who seems to enjoy reading legal briefs more than watching football games and is a symbol of the league's corporate image, said last week that there was a "misunderstanding" on the subject of the banning of celebrations and the league was mainly concerned about stopping taunting by the players.

"There was more misunderstanding on this subject than on most. The steps we took at our meeting in March merely reaffirmed policies that have been in effect in the NFL for at least a better part of a decade and in some cases longer than that. . . . In the preseason, we've had virtually no episodes that have raised any problems. We're still going to be looking for a hell of a lot of enthusiasm, and I think we'll get it from the players in terms of how they play the game, how hard they hit, the action in the game and on top of that, the enthusiasm that comes when they score or make a great play," he said.

Tagliabue ignored the fact that the Ickey Shuffle, which previously had been moved from the end zone to the sidelines, has been banished together along with all premeditated

celebrations.

Part of the controversy is simply part of a generation gap. The players are from the MTV generation and can't understand why the NFL doesn't want celebrations.

Part of it is that football has become more and more of a coach's game. Football doesn't have a Magic or a Michael or even a Joe Namath.

It's typical that bland Joe Montana, who never called his own plays, is the game's best player.

"We're uniforms," said Randall Cunningham, who may be the sport's exciting player, but hasn't won a playoff game, probably because he hasn't had the good fortune to play with the right coach or in the right system.

Cunningham said that when the league put replacement players in the uniforms during the 1987 strike games, the fans still watched and cheered.

A Mike Ditka may lament that the image makers want to drain the emotion out of the game, but there's no sign that the fans are concerned.

It's hard to argue with the results. Pro football is the nation's most popular sport in virtually every survey. It has set attendance records two years in a row.

It may not have the romance of baseball. Today isn't Opening Day. It's just the day the first regular-season games are played. There are no rites of spring. Yet when they tee it up today, the network TV ratings should top every other sport.

"Monday Night Football" is the fourth-longest-running prime show show in the history of television. It trails only "Walt Disney," "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "60 Minutes."

Baseball doesn't even have a game of the week anymore, and yet ABC-TV showed Monday night exhibition games in prime time.

Even Tagliabue has trouble explaining why the popularity of the game continues to mushroom despite the strikes, franchise moves and antitrust courtroom battles of the past decade.

"I think it's the game, the uncertainty of the outcome, the great athletes. . . . When you have players such as Joe Montana and Jerry Rice and a player like [Jeff] Hostetler coming in and performing the way he played, Steve DeBerg performing the way he performed last year, Dan Marino, Warren Moon, I think the excitement, the action, the drama of the game and the fact that the teams become civic institutions with a heck of a lot of civic emotion invested in the teams and the competition that they have within the league, it's pretty apparent to me that fan interest is not only at high levels, but continues to grow," he said.

Why has football pulled ahead of baseball in recent polls?

"I think you have to compare the styles of the games and the level of action in the game and maybe the lifestyle of America of today in terms of pace of life and the types of entertainment and the type of sports that turn people on. I think our sport does that. It's a reflection in part of the American lifestyle today," he said.

Also, football is the perfect TV game. The once-a-week pace also may appeal to busy Americans.

Whatever it is, the NFL is coming off a high note after the New York Giants ended the San Francisco 49ers' dream of a three-peat by edging them, 15-13, on Matt Bahr's late field goal in the NFC title game and then won the Super Bowl, 20-19, over the Buffalo Bills when Scott Norwood was wide right on a 47-yard attempt.

It doesn't get much more exciting than that, and it sets the stage for some the many questions that will be answered this season.

Will the Bills make it back and win it this time?

Will the Giants repeat?

Can the 49ers win with Steve Young at quarterback?

Is Joe Montana's career over?

Will the Giants miss Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick?

Did Ray Handley make a mistake benching Phil Simms?

The answers will start coming today.

There just won't be any premeditated celebrations to go along with them.

1991 predictions

NFC East 1. Washington -- Don't tell Joe Gibbs about this pick.

Philadelphia -- Don't expect Buddy Ryan to be the next Howard Cosell.

3. New York Giants -- Has a quarterback of Phil Simms' caliber ever been benched?

4. Dallas Cowboys -- Troy Aikman can't do it alone.

5. Phoenix -- This will be the 45th straight year the Cardinals haven't won a playoff game. Is that a trend or what?

NFC Central 1. Chicago -- Will Mike Ditka control his temper this year?

Minnesota -- The Vikings have a cream-puff schedule.

3. Green Bay -- Is the Majik back?

Tampa Bay -- Is Bill Parcells warming up in the broadcast booth?

5. Detroit -- Just think what Barry Sanders might do in an offense designed for him.

NFC West 1. San Francisco -- We finally find out if Steve Young can play.

Los Angeles Rams -- Jeff Fisher tries to bring Buddy Ball to

Los Angeles.

3. New Orleans -- Remember when Bobby Hebert said he'd never play for the Saints again? Never say never.

4. Atlanta -- How many penalties for celebrating is Deion Sanders going to get?

Wild-card teams: Eagles, Vikings and Rams

AFC East 1. Buffalo -- Scott Norwood will try to put wide right behind him.

Miami -- Dan Marino should throw footballs with dollar signs on them.

3. New York Jets -- Is Pat Leahy still going to be kicking at 50?

4. Indianapolis -- Eric Dickerson may start showing his age.

5. New England -- It's appropriate the Patriots have a former college coach. They resemble a college team.

AFC Central 1. Houston -- It's time for the Oilers to stop being a wild-card team.

2. Pittsburgh -- The Steelers have gone 11 years without a Super Bowl trip.

3. Cincinnati -- Paul Brown was in a league of his own.

4. Cleveland -- The Browns are at least a year away.

AFC West 1. Los Angeles Raiders -- Jay Schroeder has mastered the knack losing conference title games.

2. Kansas City -- Steve DeBerg gets better with age.

3. Denver -- The Super Bowl got better as soon as Denver stopped showing up.

4. Seattle -- Chuck Knox can do only so much.

5. San Diego -- Bobby Beathard might be wondering just why he left Washington.

Wild-card teams: Dolphins, Chiefs and Steelers

NFC title game: 49ers over Redskins

AFC title game: Bills over Oilers

Super Bowl: 49ers over Bills

1991 rule changes

1. A quarterback will now be considered in the grasp when he's in the grasp and control of a tackler and his safety is in jeopardy. That means if another player has a shot at him while he's in another player's grasp.

2. To provide more safety for the quarterbacks, officials are to whistle a play dead whenever a defensive lineman clearly penetrates beyond the neutral zone before the ball is snapped and continues unabated toward the quarterback.

3. All 5-yard line markings and hash marks will stop 8 inches from the sidelines so officials can better determine when a player has gone out of bounds.

4. It is illegal for an offensive player to deliberately bat a backward pass in flight toward the opponent's goal line.

5. The game clock will now run on all declined penalties.

6. The game clock will not start until the snap is made following any change of possession even if a player went out of bounds.

7. If a foul committed by the opposing team causes an injury, the team with the injured player will not be required to use a timeout in the last 2 minutes of each half.

8. If any offensive player simulates the start of a play, a false-start penalty will be called regardless of whether the defense reacts.

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