Booing Colts even in victory, fans in Indianapolis have 10-year itch

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the Indianapolis Colts, leading the New England Patriots 9-6, intercepted a pass last Sunday with 1:55 left, they did the logical thing.

They had Jeff George kneel down to ice the victory because the Patriots were out of timeouts.

It wasn't logical to Colts fans. A cascade of boos rained down from the Hoosier Dome. Fans often boo when teams kneel down at the end of the half, but at the end of the game? Booing a victory?

"It [ticked] me off," said Sam Clancy of the Colts. "I know we didn't score 10 touchdowns, but we got a W and we needed it."

It was a sad commentary on what the Colts are billing as their "10th Celebration" season. They were supposed to be celebrating their 10th season in Indianapolis since moving from Baltimore. Instead, they should call it their "Fed Up" season.

The fans are fed up with 10 years of football produced by owner Bob Irsay. Even when they win, it's boring. Two of their three wins have come by 9-6 margins. Three field goals to two.

The Colts drew only 46,522 fans for the game. Their two home sellouts this year came when the visiting teams, the Dallas Cowboys and Cleveland Browns, brought a large contingent of fans.

The only surprising thing about all this is that one Indianapolis columnist, Robin Miller, blamed the fans.

"I'm starting to wonder if we even want the Colts," he wrote last Monday. "It's downright embarrassing to have Cowboys and Dawg Pound followers drown out the Indianapolis faithful. Maybe we do belong in the Continental Football League instead of the NFL. Maybe we should lose the Colts and keep the Dome for monster trucks. Maybe we're not such a great sports town."

Lighten up. It's not your fault.

For once, Baltimore fans can sympathize with Indianapolis fans.

In the expansion derby, Baltimore is still being bashed for not supporting the Colts in the years before Irsay moved.

It's one thing for fans to stick with a team through the down cycles. But they have to be given some hope there's going to be an up cycle. The Indianapolis fans have figured out the same thing the Baltimore fans figured out: As long as Bob Irsay owns the team, it's never going to get much better.

Miller wrote: "Fans aren't fervent here like in Cleveland or Denver or Seattle, where they create so much racket it's impossible for visiting teams to conduct business. There's more passion in a Madonna video than at Colts games. They're social events, where people leave before overtime starts or during the middle of a fourth-quarter tie."

The problem, though, is not the Indianapolis fans. It's the team.

In the NFL offices, though, they'll never blame the team. They'll blame the town. They already have a lot of practice blaming Baltimore.

The fix

Just in case anybody had any doubt that the NFL made a back-room deal to deliver an expansion team to Charlotte, N.C., Hugh McColl, the chairman of NationsBank Corp., outlined how it was done in a profile on Page One in the Washington Post last Sunday.

The story started out, "The banking king is on the phone, cutting a deal to bring a professional football team to Charlotte."

It happened on a "Wednesday in September" when Jerry Richardson, head of the Charlotte effort, called McColl.

"Richardson reports his effort to bring an NFL team to Charlotte has hit a snag. Sales of 'permanent seat licenses' are $30 million under target. An NFL official has let the Richardson group know that if all the seat licenses were covered, Charlotte would blow away the competition, the other cities seeking an expansion team -- Baltimore, St. Louis, Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla.

"McColl is a leading banker in several of those places and he has said he supports their efforts as well. But Charlotte is home, after all.

"He tells Richardson and a consultant who is the other voice on the line that NationsBank will guarantee $15 million of the total. Now they should go, McColl says, to the heads of the other two North Carolina bank giants, NationsBank rivals First Union Corp. and Wachovia Corp., and use this as a prod?

" 'Ask them if they might scrape the other $15 million up,' he says."

The story said he committed the money without consulting with anyone else in his company.

That's how it was done. The only missing piece of the puzzle is the name of the "NFL official" who gave Richardson the word.

That probably will come out in one of the antitrust trials that is likely to come out of all this.

Another charade

As if the whole expansion derby weren't a charade to start with, the NFL started another charade with the date of the meeting at which the second team is to be named.

After J. Wayne Weaver, head of the Jacksonville group, complained about having to wait until Nov. 30 for the meeting, the NFL said it was considering a change.

It spent all last week saying it was considering moving the meeting up two weeks to Nov. 16-18.

And then the announcement came Friday and -- surprise -- the meeting will still be held in Chicago on Nov. 30. The NFL just teased the cities and let them think it might be moved up.

The NFL also said it's supposed to be a one-day meeting, which means it thinks it has the votes to ram St. Louis home.

The NFL even manages to turn Baltimore's strengths against it. Remember when the city boasted it had higher Super Bowl TV ratings than any of the other contenders?

According to one owner, commissioner Paul Tagliabue said that since Baltimore had respectable TV ratings without a team, they might as well go to St. Louis, where a new team might make a bigger impact on the ratings.

The one thing the delay hasn't solved is the St. Louis ownership problem. Fran Murray, who now heads the original St. Louis group, says he's in it to stay.

What happens if the league goes ahead and awards the team to the Stanley Kroenke group even though Murray's name is on the lease?

"I focus on the positive," said Murray, who talks as if he thinks he'll get the team.

Getting the message

Mike Brown, vice president of the Cincinnati Bengals, has sent the city of Cincinnati a message.

When Brown said that staying at Riverfront Stadium "risks our very existence as a business," he's serious. He's a straightforward guy who is not noted for bluffing or making idle threats to get leverage.

Although he's not eager to move, he clearly thinks he has to if he doesn't get a new stadium in Cincinnati.

If Cincinnati doesn't take him seriously, it could join the ranks of Oakland, Calif., Baltimore and St. Louis in finding out how hard it is to get a team back after losing one.

The record

As Don Shula, coach of the Miami Dolphins, goes for his 325th victory today to break George Halas' NFL record, his son David, coach of the Bengals, is going for his sixth. David is 5-18 as a head coach and 0-7 this year.

David knows he has to live with the comparisons.

"That's part of the deal that goes with being a celebrity's son. But, yeah, I never expected it to happen just like this," he said.

Incidentally, in 24 seasons in Miami, Don Shula has had seven starting quarterbacks. David has had four in less than two years in Cincinnati.

There's also some controversy about the Shula record. The Elias Sports Bureau, which compiles the records, says only regular-season games should count, and Halas leads Shula in that category, 318-306. The NFL, which usually puts playoff records in a separate category, is including them for this record.

Shula, meanwhile, says the Baltimore Colts' Playoff Bowl victories after the 1965 and '66 seasons between the second-place teams should count.

"Those were important games for us," Shula said. The NFL, though, doesn't count them in any category. They treat them like exhibition games.

Ailing

Now that quarterback Joe Montana has gone out for the third time with injuries this year, the Kansas City Chiefs have to wonder how much he'll be able to play the rest of the year.

He has failed to finish three of the five games he has started and has played only 14 of 28 quarters this year.

They had hoped if they could nurse him through the season, he could carry them through three playoff games, including the Super Bowl. But there's no indication he can now play three straight games and stay healthy.

Running it up

Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, who used to be accused by Notre Dame partisans of running up the score when he was at the University of Miami (he always denied it), is being accused of running up the score by the New York Giants last year.

In his 30-3 victory last year against hapless coach Ray Handley, Johnson, leading 23-3, went for it at fourth-and-two at the Giants' 30 with nine minutes left to set up one more touchdown. They also said he blitzed rookie quarterback Kent Graham when he came into the game with 6:04 left.

Johnson denied the blitzes and added: "If I had players who complained about people running it up, I would consider moving them to another team. I don't want whiners on my football team."

But Johnson was annoyed that Corey Miller of the Giants said, "Jimmy Johnson is a coach who, when you're down, he'll kick you."

Johnson then showed the writers a videotape of the game that shows Miller hitting kicker Lin Elliott in the back on a kickoff return more than a few yards away from the play.

Johnson didn't verbally criticize Miller. He let the tape speak for itself. But why did Johnson care so much to show the tape in the first place?

Ticket prices

The San Francisco 49ers plan to raise their ticket prices from $35.75 to $39.75 -- the highest in the league -- next year. By contrast, the revenues of Baltimore's proposed deal were figured on an average ticket price of $33.63.

Goodbye

Steve DeBerg had no regrets when he was cut by Tampa Bay at age 39, the oldest player in the NFL.

"Actually, I lasted 17 years in the NFL with very little talent. It's the truth," he said.

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