A hard look at NFL '91 Washington is only team in 28 that can justify a grade of 'A'

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

This was the year of no Joe Montana and no Bo Jackson and only 15 minutes of Randall Cunningham. But it was also the Season of The Rebound, with Detroit winning its first division title since 1983, Dallas getting in the NFL playoffs for the first time since 1985 and Atlanta getting in for the first time since 1982.

And then there are the New York Jets. They have been away from the postseason since 1986, and although their 8-8 record doesn't put them up there with the other rebounders, their invitation gets them in the door. And that's all you need.

But how about this: With New Orleans winning the NFC West for the first time and Houston winning the AFC Central for the first time, the Jets are now the only team not to win a divisional championship since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. In two or three years, that should end.

Still, it has been a good season for the Jets. General manager Dick Steinberg and coach Bruce Coslet are carefully building a very solid team. Getting playoff experience this season is a bonus.

The New York Giants, on the other hand, have grown old all at once. General manager George Young has a lot of work to do. And with the Giants in the toughest division in the NFL, things could get worse before they get better. Washington won 14 games and has the sixth pick in the draft. The Eagles beat the Giants twice without Cunningham. And the Cowboys won 11 games and now have six picks in the first three rounds. Coach Ray Handley should be lots of fun next year.

Here's the report card on the 1991 season:

NFC EAST

Redskins (14-2): A

* The Skins provided the only relief in what otherwise has been a so-so year in Washington. Nobody scored more than their 485 points -- Indy, Tampa and Phoenix combined for only 538 -- and only New Orleans gave up fewer than their 224. Joe Gibbs deserves to be Coach of the Year.

Cowboys (11-5): B+

* It's OK to hate the Cowboys again if you like. It has been six years since they have been good enough to even care about and only two years since 1-15. Jimmy Johnson may be the shrewdest operator in the NFL. Even losing Troy Aikman didn't hurt because Emmitt Smith led the NFL in rushing, Michael Irvin led the NFC in receiving and Steve Beuerlein, who cost only a No. 4 draft choice, was 4-0 plus a save in Washington subbing for Aikman.

Eagles (10-6): B-

* Coach Rich Kotite did a great job squeezing out 10 victories after losing Randall Cunningham early in the first game. But Philadelphia blew it all by losing to Dallas when that great defense gave up an 80-yard drive against the wind in the fourth quarter. If Cunningham is OK next year, the Eagles are my early pick to win it all.

Giants (8-8): C-

* Ray Handley improved Bill Parcells' leverage with the Packers and the Bucs by the way he mishandled the Super Bowl champs this year. He made Parcells look like a genius. Certainly, the players take a great deal of the blame, too, but Handley better get it together in the offseason.

Cardinals (4-12): D

* How easy to forget that the Cardinals opened by beating the Rams and the Eagles and were the talk of the league. They won only two of their last 14. And they are without their No. 1 pick, given up in a not-so-hot trade for Randall Hill.

NFC CENTRAL

Lions (12-4): B+

* They lost their first two games after Rodney Peete went down, against the Bears and the Buccaneers. They broke the losing streak the next week against the Rams, but that's the game when Mike Utley was paralyzed. Still, this emotionally devastated team won its last six with Erik Kramer as quarterback and Barry Sanders running wild. This story will end soon, but it may be the most improbable one of the season.

Bears (11-5): B

* I haven't been sold on the Bears all season. They were lucky early against the Bucs, the Giants and the Jets, but skidded into the playoffs losing three of five, including the humiliating 52-14 loss to the 49ers Monday night. How did coach Mike Ditka get 11 victories out of this bunch?

Vikings (8-8): C

* C as in see you later. Coach Jerry Burns is gone, and many of his high-priced underachieving players soon will follow. Minnesota had the easy fifth-place schedule and could do better than .500. They need a coach who will come in and kick butt but have no shot at Parcells.

Packers (4-12): D

* This franchise fell apart when Don Majkowski turned into the first Don Majkowski rather than the next Joe Montana, as many foolishly thought he would. A bad shoulder means the Pack needs a new quarterback. First, they will make a big run at Parcells.

Buccaneers (3-13): D-

* It's the Bucs vs. the Packers vs. NBC for Parcells. Owner Hugh Culverhouse needs to outbid them all to win back the fans. Parcells to Tampa has been the rumor since the Super Bowl. We'll know if it's true in the next few days. If it is, two words for Parcells: Good luck. This team has lost at least 10 games for nine straight years and is minus its No. 1 draft pick, which is second overall.

NFC WEST

Saints (11-5): B

* Weird season. They won their first seven, nine of their first 10, then lost four in a row before winning their last two. New Orleans was 8-0 in games quarterback Bobby Hebert started. A combo of Hebert and a second wind caught by the defense (100 points in the first 10 games, 108 in four straight losses and only three in the last two) got the Saints their first division title.

Falcons (10-6): B

* Maybe if coach Jerry Glanville wasn't always trying to be so cute, Atlanta would have won the West. With the division title on the line, two of the last three passes in Dallas last weekend went to Deion Sanders. Still, Glanville did a nice job after a 3-13 season in 1990, but don't look for a second Atlanta miracle in the past three months.

49ers (10-6): B-

* Don't cry for the Niners. Sure, they won their last six and finished up playing the best ball in the NFC and missed the playoffs, but they were 4-6 and lost to Atlanta twice. Sorry. Remember, they won the division in 1988 emerging from a 10-6 tie-breaker with the Rams and the Saints and went on to win the Super Bowl. Finally, after eight straight playoff years, it caught up with them. Still, they did better than most thought without Montana.

Rams (3-13): F

* They were so awful that coach John Robinson quit before he got fired. But they still beat the Giants. This team needs a major overhaul. It's Buddy Ryan vs. Chuck Knox for the job.

AFC EAST

Bills (13-3): B+

* OK, we expected them to get to this point. Their season starts now. The only thing the regular season showed is that Thurman Thomas may be the best all-around player in the league.

Jets (8-8): B

* What a ride. They lost crushers to the Bills twice, the Bears and the Oilers, lost at home to the Colts and the Pats and still made the playoffs. Quite a life. Anyway, the Jets are a year ahead of schedule: 8-8 is no big surprise, but their being good enough to get in is evidence that parity lives.

Dolphins (8-8): C

* You wouldn't call them a clutch team. They needed to beat either the Chargers or the Jets to get in, but they blew a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead in San Diego and then allowed the Jets to get a tying field goal on a drive in the final 44 seconds and then lost in OT. Let's face it: Miami isn't very good.

Patriots (6-10): C

* The NFL needs more like coach Dick MacPherson. In a league rampant with paranoia, he's open and honest and enthusiastic. He deserves better than the Pats, who improved by five victories in Mac's first year.

Colts (1-15): F

* They averaged 8.9 points a game. They gave up 23.8. This was one of the worst teams in NFL history. The Colts will consider Bills offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda, Michigan State's George Perles, 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren and, if he's fired, Seattle coach Chuck Knox. And they also will interview interim coach Rick Venturi. Question: Why would anybody want this job?

AFC CENTRAL

Oilers (11-5): B

* They were 7-1 at home and 4-4 on the road. A typical Oilers season, although this is their first division title. Houston has tons of talent but underachieves. How it came out flat against the Giants with a bye on the line is unbelievable.

Steelers (7-9): C

* Coach Chuck Noll is supposed to meet with Steelers president Dan Rooney today. If Noll agrees to fire some coaches, probably including Joe Walton, he stays. If not, he walks. The Steelers have missed the playoffs six of the past seven years.

Browns (6-10): C+

* Coach Bill Belichick did a nice job in his first season, but the Browns did lose their last three when they had a shot at the playoffs. Cleveland still needs lots of new players.

Bengals (3-13): D

* Ex-coach Sam Wyche got off on too many tangents in the past two years, taking on commissioner Paul Tagliabue last year and then deciding this year that too much emphasis was placed on winning. He decided that, of course, in the midst of an 0-8 start. Now he's gone, and the frugal Bengals need a major overhaul.

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AFC WEST

Broncos (12-4): B

* They went from 5-11 to 12-4 thanks, in part, to the fifth-place schedule. Coach Dan Reeves, however, won't get the credit he deserves until he wins the Super Bowl. And it won't be this year.

Chiefs (10-6): C+

* They did it with little production at quarterback; Steve DeBerg's four interceptions against Denver was as many as he had all last year. They play good D and can run the ball, but they need better than DeBerg/John Friesz at quarterback. Phil Simms would be a nice fit.

Raiders (9-7): C

* Al Davis' best quarterback, Steve Beuerlein, just got the Cowboys into the playoffs. If Davis wasn't so stubborn, Beuerlein would be the Raiders' quarterback and they would be serious Super Bowl contenders. Let's see if the Raiders have the guts to start Todd Marinovich in Saturday's playoff at Kansas City. Jay Schroeder is Jay Schroeder.

Seahawks (7-9): C-

* Still the most nondescript team in the NFL. Look for lots of changes, starting with Knox. The University of Miami's Dennis Erickson is the favorite to replace him.

Chargers (4-12): D

* Amazing how quickly general manager Bobby Beathard has lost his genius tag. They actually took two steps back in his second year. He's expected to start over by naming Georgia Tech's Bobby Ross to replace coach Dan Henning. But giving away his No. 1 pick to Washington, of all places, was bad news. That pick is No. 6 overall. And all Beathard received was the Skins' No. 2 in the last draft, which he turned into guard Eric Moten.

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