NFL opens season with eyes on field and courtroom

What in the name of Howard Cosell is Murphy Brown doing squabbling with the vice president?

How could so many people be watching a show going head-to-head with the Monday Night Football kickoff at 9 o'clock on Monday nights that it became the center of a national debate on family values?


In the heyday of Humble Howard and Dandy Don, the family was together watching Monday Night Football. It was a happening. No other TV show could compete with it. Even restaurant and theater business was down on Monday nights in the fall.

That's all changed.


"Monday Night Football used to be special," said coach Sam Wyche of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "Now it just means missing 'Murphy Brown' and 'Northern Exposure.' "

Monday Night Football still is a success and gets strong ratings. It was the eighth-ranked prime-time TV show during the football season last year and 11th for the entire season.

But it has lost some of its panache, which is a symbol for the malaise that has engulfed the league.

As the NFL kicks off its 73rd season today, it has never enjoyed greater prosperity and yet it has never experienced more strife.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue didn't even hold his traditional conference call with writers around the country last week previewing the new season and updating the state of the NFL.

That's because the opening of the NFL season has been overshadowed by the closing of the antitrust trial in Minneapolis. The case is expected to go to the jury this week.

Unfortunately, Tagliabue missed a chance to promote this season, which has the makings of an intriguing one on the field.

For one thing, there doesn't appear to be a super team out there. The Washington Redskins are the defending champions, but they won by playing well together. They didn't intimidate their opponents.


As a result, there's half a dozen teams that think they have a chance of beating the Redskins.

Here are some of the fascinating questions about this season:

* Are the Dallas Cowboys ready to take the next step after going from 7-9 to 11-5 last year?

* Can Randall Cunningham's return make the Philadelphia Eagles a super team even though they've lost Jerome Brown?

* Will the San Francisco 49ers, who won their final six last year even though they missed the playoffs, become super again without Joe Montana?

* How will the Detroit Lions cope with the double tragedy of Mike Utley being paralyzed and Eric Andolsek getting killed?


* Can the Atlanta Falcons stay in the race until Deion Sanders arrives at mid-season?

* Will the Bears rebound from last year's disappointing finish?

* Will the Buffalo Bills make it back to a third straight Super Bowl?

* Can either John Elway or Dan Marino help their teams derail the Bills?

* Will instant replay be missed?

What speaks volumes about the state of the league is that the players and owners are entering their sixth season without a collective bargaining agreement. They're even putting their fate in the hands of a jury and a judge in Minneapolis instead of working out their problems themselves. But regardless of the outcome of the trial, it's doubtful that it will end the strife.


"Unfortunately, I see nothing but dark clouds on the horizon," said Bill Polian, general manger of the Buffalo Bills.

Polian is particularly worried about how faceless the players have become.

He brought up the movie "Diner," which chronicled Baltimore's love affair with the Colts in the 1960s.

"We could name the starting lineups of every team in the NFL in that generation," Polian said. "Can you do that today? It's not just bigger rosters. People have become almost faceless. Would John Mackey play on every down now? He was the premier tight end, but would they take him out for a wide receiver on third down?"

"Everybody is focused on litigation," Polian said.

That's a theme that's echoed around the league.


George Young, general manager of the New York Giants, said there's enough money for both sides to prosper if they'd work together.

"We're not living in the 1930s. There's enough for all," he said. "We're not talking about Norma Rae unionism here. This is a truism. Since I've been in the league, when the owners make more money, the players make more money."

Among the many problems caused by the strife is a lack of action on the expansion front, a problem that affects the Baltimore fans.

The league hasn't expanded since 1976. Since then it has gone through four major antitrust trials, three franchise shifts and two strikes.

The enthusiasm at the preseason game at Memorial Stadium Aug. 27 showed that Baltimore -- and the other potential expansion cities -- are an untapped market for the NFL. Instead of being eager to tap those markets, the league is talking about expanding by only two teams.

If the league loses the trial, expansion will likely be delayed because the two sides are still so far apart.


The two sides don't even agree on what they're fighting about.

The players say they would be willing to give the owners a salary cap at 62 percent of designated gross revenues and exempt one "franchise player" from free agency. But the players say the owners want two more players per team subject to the right of first refusal and free agency after five or six years instead of after four years.

NFL injury report

Today's games

Cincinnati at Seattle -- Bengals: T Kirk Scrafford (knee) is out; WR Tim McGee (knee), TE Jim Riggs (thigh), CB Eric Thomas (hamstring), CB Leonard Wheeler (hamstring), G Mike Withycombe (shoulder) are probable. Seahawks: DE Jacob Green (knee-injured reserve) is out; T Bill Hitchcock (ankle), WR Tommy Kane (ankle) are questionable; T Ronnie Lee (toe), RB John L. Williams (foot) are probable.

Cleveland at Indianapolis -- Browns: RB Kevin Mack (calf-injured reserve), CB Frank Minnifield (urinary ailment-injured reserve), G Rod Milstead (back-injured reserve), LB Gerald Dixon (ankle-injured reserve) are out; G Bob Dahl (neck), S Odie Harris (leg) are questionable; RB Leroy Hoard (knee), TE Pete Holohan (foot), DT Bill Johnson (ankle), DT Michael Dean Perry (knee), G John Rienstra (virus) are probable. Colts: QB Jeff George (thumb), CB Eugene Daniel (knee) are doubtful; WR Bill Brooks (ankle) is questionable; LB Duane Bickett (hamstring), T Kevin Call (thigh), G Randy Dixon (calf) are probable.


Kansas City at San Diego -- Chiefs: LB Erick Anderson (ankle), LB Dino Hackett (ear-injured reserve) are out; RB Bill Jones (knee), CB Jayice Pearson (Achilles) are questionable; TE Jonathan Hayes (thigh), WR Fred Jones (ankle), CB Albert Lewis (knee), LB Chris Martin (hand), RB Todd McNair (ankle) are probable. Chargers: WR Shawn Jefferson (thigh), G Mike Zandofsky (knee) are questionable; CB Gill Byrd (neck), CB Donald Frank (shoulder), C Courtney Hall (shin), G David Richards (back), LB Henry Rolling (ankle), LB Billy Ray Smith (thigh), DT George Thornton (shin) are probable.

Pittsburgh at Houston -- Steelers: LB Jerry Olsavsky (hand) is out; CB D.J. Johnson (shoulder) is doubtful; TE Eric Green (shoulder), DE Aaron Jones (quadricepss), LB Hardy Nickerson (bacK), CB Rod Woodson (calf) are questionable; LB Bryan Hinkle (back), T Justin Strzelczyk (foot) are probable. Oilers: LB Lamar Lathon (knee) is questionable.

Los Angeles Raiders at Denver -- Raiders: DT Chester McGlockton (foot) is out; RB Marcus Allen (foot) is questionable; S Eddie Anderson (quadriceps), TE Andrew Glover (hamstring) are probable. Broncos: S Steve Atwater (ankle), C Keith Kartz (calf) are doubtful; TE Reggie Johnson (shoulder) is questionable; TE Clarence Kay (knee), LB Tim Lucas (hamstring), WR Derek Russell (chest); HB Shannon Sharpe (shoulder) are probable.

Detroit at Chicago -- Lions: QB Chuck Long (shoulder-injured reserve) is out; T Larry Tharpe (back) is doubtful; WR Herman Moore (quadriceps), CB Ray Crockett (knee), LB Michael Cofer (ankle) are questionable; LB Tracy Hayworth (knee), LB Toby Caston (knee), LB Chris Spielman (back), WR Reggie Barnett (ankle) are probable. Bears: S Shaun Gayle (ankle-hip-injured reserve), TE James Thornton (heel-injured reserve) are out.

Minnesota at Green Bay -- Viking: WR Hassan Jones (groin), G Brian Habib (finger), S Venice Glenn (foot) are probable. Packers: RB Darrel Thompson (quadriceps-injured reserve), RB Marcus Wilson (foot) are out; NT Esera Tuaolo (knee) is questionable; RB Buford McGee (ankle), T Ken Ruettgers (back), DE Matt Brock (neck) are probable.

New Orleans at Philadelphia -- Saints: TE Frank Wainright (knee) is out. TE John Tice (shoulder) is doubtful. DE Frank Warren (shoulder), NT Robert Goff (shoulder) are questionable; WR Quinn Early (knee), LB James Williams (hamstring), WR Floyd Turner (hamstring) are probable. Eagles: DT Mike Pitts (back-injured reserve), TE Maurice Johnson (hamstring-injured reserve), WR Roy Green (elbow-arm-hamstring-injured reserve) are out; WR Fred Barnett (shoulder), RB James Joseph (knee), S Rich Miano (knee) are questionable; QB Randall Cunningham (groin), DT Andy Harmon (arm) are probable.


Phoenix at Tampa Bay -- Cardinals: G Joe Wolf (chest-injured reserve) is out; S Tim McDonald (thigh), P Rich Camarillo (leg), CB Aeneas Williams (ankle) are questionable. Buccaneers: QB Steve DeBerg (thumb) is probable.

San Francisco at New York Giants -- QB Joe Montana (elbow-injured reserve), RB Dexter Carter (shoulder-injured reserve) are out; LB Mitch Donahue (knee) is doubtful; LB Darin Jordan (finger) is questionable; NT Michael Carter (knee), DE Keith DeLong (thumb), DB Don Griffin (collarbone), G Roy Foster (shoulder) are probable. Giants: S Myron Guyton (back), QB Jeff Hostetler (back) are questionable; RB Dave Meggett (ankle), CB Reyna Thompson (leg) are probable.

Los Angeles Rams at Buffalo -- Rams: T Darryl Ashmore (knee), T Shawn Harper (knee) are out; DE Bill Hawkins (calf) is doubtful; DE Robert Young (shoulder) is questionable; DE Gerald Robinson (knee) is probable. Bills: WR Al Edwards (ribs-injured reserve), CB Clifford Hicks (leg-injured reserve) are out; NT Jeff Wright (ankle) is questionable; RB Carwell Gardner (knee), CB James Williams (ankle) are probable.

New York Jets at Atlanta -- Jets: T Siupeli Malamala (shoulder-injured reserve) is out; CB Michael Brim (ankle), RB Freeman McNeil (ankle), WR Al Toon (hamstring) are probable. Falcons: C Mike Ruether (ankle) is questionable; RB Steve Broussard (shoulder), S Scott Case (thumb), DE Mike Gann (thumb), RB Keith Jones (knee), WR Jason Phillips (thumb), S Terry Ray (ankle), LB Michael Reid (neck), S Elbert Shelley (ankle), DE Chuck Smith (shoulder), RB Tony Smith (ankle) are probable.

Tomorrow's game

Washington at Dallas -- Redskins: TE John Brandes (knee) is probable. Cowboys: WR Jimmy Smith (leg), DE Tony Hill (hamstring) are out; G Melvin Evans (ankle), DT Tony Casillas (knee), RB Curvin Richards (kidney) are doubtful; DT Russell Maryland (foot) is questionable; S Darren Woodson (leg) is probable.


Vito Stellino's 1992 predictions

NFC East

Washington -- The Redskins are getting tired of the word "repeat."

Philadelphia -- Can Randall work his magic again?

Dallas -- The Cowboys aren't as good as they think they are.

N.Y. Giants -- Ray Handley seems intent on proving he's no Bill Parcells.


RF Phoenix -- Is 45 years without a playoff victory a slump, or what?

NFC Central

Chicago -- Who's Mike Ditka angry at this week?

Detroit -- OK, Detroit's a one-man team, but what a man Barry Sanders is.

Minnesota -- This team needed an attitude transfusion and Dennis Green provided it.

Green Bay -- Mike Holmgren will find out Green Bay isn't Baghdad by the Bay.


NB Tampa Bay -- At least Sam Wyche will be good for a few laughs.

NFC West

San Francisco -- Steve Young tries to prove he's more than an under- study.

New Orleans -- Pat Swilling has to prove he's worth all that money.

L Atlanta -- Jerry Glanville is wearing out his welcome again.

L.A. Rams -- The Rams will be happy if Chuck Knox makes the playoffs this time around.


I= Wild-card teams -- New Orleans, Detroit and Philadelphia.

AFC East

Buffalo -- The Bills win everything but the Super Bowl.

Miami -- Football doesn't seem to be that important in Miami right now.

N.Y. Jets -- Is Browning Nagle the new Joe Namath?

New England -- Doesn't anybody want to buy this franchise?


Indianapolis -- Just when you think the Colts can't get any worse, they get worse.

AFC Central

Houston -- Warren Moon has done everything but get to the Super Bowl.

Pittsburgh -- Neil O'Donnell wishes he could play Wake Forest again.

Cleveland -- Bill Belichick needs a Dale Carnegie course.

I= Cincinnati -- David Shula isn't a chip off the old block.


AFC West

Denver -- John Elway wants to keep Tommy Maddox on the bench.

Kansas City -- Does Dave Krieg have anything left?

L.A. Raiders -- Why did Al Davis bench Jay Schroeder in the playoff game and start him in the regular season?

San Diego -- Bobby Beathard is proving Thomas Wolfe right. You can't go home again.

L Seattle -- Tom Flores wishes he'd stayed in the GM's office.



Wild-card teams -- Miami, Kansas City and New York Jets.


NFC championship game -- San Francisco over Washington.

AFC championship game -- Buffalo over Houston.

Super Bowl -- San Francisco over Buffalo.