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Washington has a team it deserves so does Irsay

In a year of a 17-week schedule with byes, there's really no definite halfway mark for the NFL season.

But now that each team has played half of its 16 games and one team (the Washington Redskins) has a chance to become the first team to go 16-0 in the regular season and two teams (Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals) have a chance to become the first to go 0-16, it's time to take a look at the highlights and low points of the first half of the season.

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* Best team: Washington. It's only fitting that the Redskins have the best team, because Washington is the only city in the country in which the fans would rather watch a football game than the seventh game of the World Series.

* Worst team: The you-know-who Irsay Colts. After he came close to losing the title to Victor Kiam last year, Bob Irsay is back on top as the worst owner in football, if not all sports.

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* Most disappointing team: Cincinnati. How can a team with Boomer Esiason at quarterback start off 0-8? Sam Wyche will try to figure it out as soon as he stops shaking hands with his players.

* Best player: Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions is poetry in motion and has led an otherwise undistinguished crew to a 6-2 start.

* Comeback player: Bernie Kosar of the Cleveland Browns, who was intercepted 15 times last year, has a string of 262 straight passes without an interception. He has a shot to break Bart Starr's record of 294.

* Most inspirational player: Because he's deaf, Kenny Walker of Nebraska lasted until the eighth round of the draft, even though he was Big Eight Defensive Player of the Year. But Walker showed he can play well despite the disability, and the coaches found that, in being more precise in explaining things to him, they were doing a better job of instructing the players who can hear.

* Best coach: Jim Mora tends to be conservative, but he has a New Orleans Saints team that was 8-8 last year off to a 7-1 start.

* Best GM: Charley Casserly of the Redskins has been on the job only two years, but has drafted Andre Collins and Ricky Ervins, traded for Eric Williams and Tim Johnson, signed Matt Millen, Brad Edwards and Danny Copeland off Plan B and has traded for the San Diego Chargers' first pick next year.

* Best prediction: Tim McKyer called the shot against his old San Francisco 49ers teammates, saying he'd give up a touchdown pass to Jerry Rice and then make a late interceptions. He made two late interceptions.

* Worst prediction: Paul Tagliabue, the Jimmy the Greek of sports commissioners, said it was likely the WLAF would suspend operations in 1992. The owners instead voted to continue.

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* Best decision: The Saints wouldn't give away Bobby Hebert, even after he sat out 1990 in a contract dispute, and now he's helped the team to a 7-1 start.

* Worst decision: Ray Handley, the New York Giants rookie coach, was so enamored of Jeff Hostetler's play in the playoffs last season that he benched Phil Simms, even though Simms is a better quarterback.

* Worst gamble: The NFL gambled the World Series wouldn't last seven games and matched the Redskins-Giants on Oct. 27, when it got buried in the television ratings (except in Washington) and caused ESPN's first-game ratings to drop 27 percent from last year. That was a night to schedule Indianapolis vs. the Buffalo Bills, which is ESPN's Dec. 15 game.

* Most surprising decision: Joe Gibbs of the Redskins for using Ervins so much. Gibbs is usually reluctant to go with rookie running backs, but the decision to spotlight Ervins has paid dividends.

* Worst blunder: Hugh Millen's decision to try to scramble on the final play of the New England-Denver Broncos game, letting time run out before the Patriots could try the tying field goal.

* Most stand-up guy: Millen for standing up and admitting he made a mistake after the game instead of hiding in the shower. It's a lot tougher to admit a mistake than make it in the first place.

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* Most unfortunate development: The injuries that cost Joe Montana and Randall Cunningham their seasons. It was a misfortune not only for them, but also for the fans who won't get a chance to watch them play this year.

One of the more bizarre controversies popped up in San Francisco last week, when Charles Haley complained that coach George Seifert showed his team films of the Philadelphia Eagles defense as a motivational tool.

Seifert's message was that the 49ers should be playing the way the Eagles are on defense, a message Haley said was insulting, even though it seemed to work, because Haley came up with three sacks against the Eagles. Haley also suggested he might want to move on.

Seifert, though, was quick to point out he's the boss.

"As the head coach, I'm going to control what the heck I do as far as what films I show or what learning tools I chose to use. This is my job, and I'll do it the way I see fit," he said.

This is the second time this year that Haley has been the focus of controversy.

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After the loss to the Los Angeles Raiders, he was so out of control screaming at quarterback Steve Young for having passes intercepted that the 49ers brought former teammate Ronnie Lott in from the Raiders locker room to calm him down. That incident just fueled speculation that the 49ers still miss Lott, who was left unprotected on Plan B.

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A surprising name has been added to the list of coaches who could be in trouble -- four-time Super Bowl winner Chuck Noll of the Pittsburgh Steelers. There's been speculation in Pittsburgh that team president Dan Rooney will insist that Noll fire offensive coordinator Joe Walton at the end of the season, and Noll might refuse and walk out.

Rooney, though, dismisses that talk. "It's not a question of Chuck," he said when talking about the team's problems.

Rooney, though, has found a familiar scapegoat -- the media. He said that media's insistence that the 3-5 team is mediocre has been a "downward motivation" for the team.

"The media has a big influence on the situation," he said.

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Noll, though, has what may be the best answer.

G; "The way to solve it is to play well and win," he said.

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In one of the most heartwarming scenes of the season, Mark Carrier of the Chicago Bears recovered a fumble in the end zone in New Orleans and handled the ball to a paralyzed fan in a wheelchair on the sidelines. The fan, Keith Patz, was thrilled, and Carrier said he had empathy for the fan, because his father was paralyzed in an auto accident.

Only in the NFL could all this become controversial. A debate started in Chicago about whether Carrier would be fined the way John Elway was for tossing a ball to a fan in the wheelchair.

The NFL had to issue a statement saying Carrier wouldn't be fined because the fan wasn't in the stands.

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Exhibition games used to be so unpopular in Baltimore that the Colts only played two home exhibition games in their last three years in town. But that's all changed if initial reaction to the announcement that the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints will play here in August is any indication. The fans seem to be sending a message to the NFL that they want football back.

Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority, hasn't started his ticket-selling campaign yet (he hasn't even gotten the signed letter of commitment back from the teams yet), but has been so deluged with requests that he's asking fans who want a priority on tickets to send in postcards with their name, address, telephone number and number of tickets requested. No money should be sent yet.

The address is: NFL Preseason Football Game, P.O. Box 1957, Baltimore, Md. 21203-1957.


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