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The top 10 stories of the season

THE BALTIMORE SUN

1 Jimmy Johnson rebuilds the Shula empire: When the most repeated rumor of the past two years finally came true last Jan. 11 and Jimmy Johnson found his personal utopia in South Florida, the Miami Dolphins braced for the aftershocks they knew were coming. After 26 years of doing it Don Shula's way, the Dolphins were going to do it Johnson's way, and there was no confusing the two ways. Unlike Shula, Johnson will not tolerate the team's underachieving reputation, soft defense or lame running game.

This is not quite the overhaul of the Cowboys in 1989, when Johnson rebuilt from the ground up. But there will be plenty of changes in Miami. Before training camp started, Johnson cut overpaid (and overweight) tight end Eric Green. When fullback Keith Byars wouldn't accept a pay cut of nearly $1 million, Johnson released him. (Byars later re-signed with the Dolphins for $200,000 less than the price Johnson previously offered.) When rookie middle linebacker Zach Thomas showed he could play, Johnson cut one of his favorite players, veteran Jack Del Rio, who had helped with the Dallas reconstruction.

One change Johnson won't make involves quarterback Dan Marino. Johnson knows better than to mess with a good thing.

2 Cowboys reel after another round of off-season setbacks: The Cowboys keep pushing the envelope, waiting to see if they finally self-destruct or rise to the challenge one more time. They have won three of the last four Super Bowls to become the Team of the '90s. But they are dangerously deep in a game of diminishing returns.

After beating the Steelers in last season's Super Bowl, the Cowboys lost defensive regulars Russell Maryland, Larry Brown, Dixon Edwards and Robert Jones to free agency. They lost Pro Bowl receiver Michael Irvin to a five-game suspension after he pleaded no contest to a felony charge of cocaine possession. They lost defensive lineman Shante Carver for six games for alcohol abuse. That makes five members off last year's Super Bowl roster who've been suspended by the NFL.

3 Brett Favre, who beat his addiction to Vicodin, still is looking for a way to beat the Cowboys: The road to the Super Bowl dead-ended in Dallas again last year for the Packers. They've been knocked out of the playoffs in Texas Stadium three years running, including last season's 38-27 loss in the NFC championship game. In four years as Packers coach, Mike Holmgren is 0-6 against Dallas.

Maybe this is the year the Packers finally beat the Cowboys and reach the Super Bowl. But Favre can't be expected to do any more than he did a year ago, when he threw for 4,413 yards and 38 touchdowns in the regular season and 805 yards and three touchdowns in the postseason.

4 Ted Marchibroda will apply his turnaround formula in a Baltimore encore: It was more than a reunion Art Modell had in mind when he brought the former Colts coach (1975-79) back to lead the Ravens. Marchibroda has worked his turnaround magic twice before. He inherited a 2-12 team in Baltimore in 1975 and immediately went 10-4, winning the AFC East title. As part of his Indianapolis reincarnation with the Colts in 1992, he transformed a 1-15 team into a 9-7 contender.

Three years later, all was forgotten. Under Marchibroda, the Colts came within one play ' a Hail Mary pass by Jim Harbaugh in the end zone ' of beating Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game and reaching the Super Bowl. In appreciation, the Colts showed Marchibroda the door.

5 Neil O'Donnell cashes in on his Super Bowl season: With the exception of two passes in his last game, O'Donnell had a strong season in 1995. He threw for 17 touchdowns, 2,970 yards and only seven interceptions, quarterbacking the Steelers to the Super Bowl. But it was those two terrible passes ' both intercepted by the Cowboys' Larry Brown ' that forever marred his Pittsburgh career and virtually sealed his departure as a free agent in the off-season.

Now, at a price tag of $25 million over five years, he's a Jet. O'Donnell was hired to wake up the NFL's most somnolent offense. Last season, the Jets offense was last in total yards and rushing yards, and third worst in passing yards.

With owner Leon Hess committing $58 million to free agents and $15 million to wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, the No. 1 pick in the draft, the burden of expectations will fall on the shoulders of O'Donnell.

6 Redskins wrestle with another quarterback controversy: After two years of force-feeding Heath Shuler on their offense, the Redskins finally acknowledged a 1994 draft- day mistake by naming Gus Frerotte their starting quarterback this summer. So seemingly ends the fragile two-year reign of the injury-hampered Shuler, who missed 12 games during that span. Or does it?

Shuler, the third pick in the '94 draft, posted a 4-9 record as a starter for Washington. Frerotte, a seventh-round afterthought in the same draft, is an equally unimpressive 4-11. Shuler signed a contract ostensibly worth $19.25 million, while Frerotte signed for minimum salary. This summer, both quarterbacks were given a chance to win the job. When Frerotte showed he could stay away from turnovers and Shuler couldn't, coach Norv Turner went with the afterthought.

7 Persevering assistant Tony Dungy is finally a head coach: It was a large order that greeted Dungy as new coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this summer. His team hasn't had a winner in 14 years. His quarterback, Trent Dilfer, had the lowest rating in the NFL a year ago. His best running back, Errict Rhett, was locked in a salary dispute. And on top of all that, his owner, Malcolm Glazer, already was threatening to move the franchise out of Tampa.

Still, if anyone can deal with the Bucs' adversity, it should be Dungy, who perennially was passed over whenever NFL head coaching jobs opened in the past decade. He was interviewed for jobs in Philadelphia (1986 and 1995), Green Bay (1992) and Jacksonville (1994). In Tampa, he becomes the Bucs' fourth head coach in seven years.

A defensive coordiantor for nine of the last 15 seasons, Dungy becomes the NFL's third black head coach behind Minnesota's Dennis Green and Philadelphia's Ray Rhodes.

8 Versatile Kordell Stewart wants to be the Steelers' every-down quarterback: It didn't happen in training camp ' the man the Steelers call "Slash" finished third in the quarterback derby behind Jim Miller and Mike Tomczak. But that doesn't mean his quarterback dream is over. For now, Stewart returns to his multipurpose role of tormenting defenses from any number of positions. In a sometimes spectacular and always entertaining rookie season, Stewart produced touchdowns as a receiver, rusher and thrower.

9 Bill Walsh rejoins the 49ers, helps retool the West Coast offense: He was the architect of the 49ers' rise to prominence in the 1980s, the author of the West Coast offense. When Walsh stepped down as head coach after beating Cincinnati in Super Bowl XXIII ' the Niners' third Super Bowl victory of the 1980s ' his legacy was secure. What followed were brief stints in the broadcast booth and college coaching ranks (at Stanford). Last January, he was hired as a consultant to work with the Niners' quarterbacks and fine-tune the offense.

More than a few people are curious about the timing. The Niners have gone to the Super Bowl only once in the last six years, and the Team of the '80s has given way to the Cowboys, the Team of the '90s.

10 Bills eye their fifth Super Bowl appearance in seven years: While Jimmy Johnson performs his resuscitation act in Miami, the Bills figure they've got the talent and time for one more run at the elusive Lombardi Trophy. Free-agent additions middle linebacker Chris Spielman (Lions) and receiver Quinn Early (Saints) give them reason for optimism. Certainly, a defense led by premier pass rushers Bruce Smith and Bryce Paup (combined 28 sacks in '95) can dominate a game.

But time clearly is running out for aging heroes like Jim Kelly (36), Smith (33) and Thurman Thomas (30), who are 0-for-4 in the championship game.

Volume control

The best announcer teams:

1. Pat Summerall and John Madden, Fox: Still the best, though could be heading for slippage.

2. Verne Lundquist and Pat Haden, TNT: Two gifted guys who never turn in a bad performance, no matter how desultory the game is.

3. Dick Enberg, Paul Maguire and Phil Simms, NBC: Enberg's smoothness, Maguire's humor and Simms' knowledge prove that three men in the booth can work well.

4. Mike Patrick and Joe Theismann, ESPN: A lowered volume and word rate for Theismann would make them near perfect.

5. Charlie Jones and Randy Cross, NBC: Ranked way too far down on the network's depth chart.

The worst announcer teams:

1. Kevin Harlan and Jerry Glanville, Fox: Which network executive does Glanville have naughty pictures of?

2. Don Criqui and Beasley Reece, NBC: Big on cliches, short on information.

3. Dick Stockton and Matt Millen, Fox: Millen could be good, but not while he's saddled with Stockton, who has slipped considerably.

Ready to shine

Players on verge of breakthrough seasons:

QB Mark Brunell, Jaguars: A lefty similar to Steve Young, he threw for 2,168 yards, 15 TDs.

WR Michael Jackson, Ravens: Out of Andre Rison's shadow, he's poised to improve on his 44-catch, 9-TD season.

NT Gilbert Brown, Packers: At 6-2, 344, is a big run-stopper who benefits from the presence of Reggie White.

TE Kyle Brady, Jets: With Neil O'Donnell throwing and Ron Erhardt scheming, he'll do much better than 26 catches as a rookie.

FS Patrick Bates, Falcons: This unhappy Raider sat out the '95 season and was reborn with a trade to Atlanta.

WR Michael Westbrook, Redskins: Assuming the Redskins get decent QB play, he should warrant his No. 4 draft position in 1995.

WR Tamarick Vanover, Chiefs: A proven kick returner, the CFL refugee will blossom as a starting wide receiver.

WR J.J. Stokes, 49ers: A year after great expectations, he has a starting job (John Taylor retired) and a revamped work ethic.

Money matters

Ten free agents who'll earn their pay:

Bears LB Bryan Cox (Dolphins): Bears' best leader since Mike Singletary.

Cards OT Lomas Brown (Lions): Already an anchor at LT in Arizona.

Bills LB Chris Spielman (Lions): Bills won't miss Cornelius Bennett.

Eagles CB Troy Vincent (Dolphins): Dolphins desperately wanted to keep him.

Ravens WR Calvin Williams (Eagles): Not afraid to run patterns across the middle.

Rams DE Leslie O'Neal (Chargers): Demon off the corner.

Jaguars OT Leon Searcy (Steelers) : Was a key cog in Steelers' running game.

Packers S Eugene Robinson (Seahawks): Gives Packer secondary a shot of savvy.

Redskins DE Sean Gilbert (Rams): Finally, a rusher Redskins can count on.

Panthers CB Eric Davis (49ers): Improves a promising defense on the corner.

Rushing game

Best linemen/linebackers rushing the passer:

DE Bruce Smith, Bills

LB Bryce Paup, Bills

DT John Randle, Vikings

DE Reggie White, Packers

DE Neil Smith, Chiefs

DE Wayne Martin, Saints

Toughest linemen to beat with the pass rush:

William Roaf, Saints

Andy Heck, Bears

Tony Jones, Ravens

Bruce Armstrong, Patriots

Bob Whitfield, Falcons

Handling the pressure

QBs who stay in pocket when the pass rush is on:

Brent Favre, Packers: Dominated league with 38 TD passes, 4,413 yards.

Dan Marino, Dolphins: Immobile now, he's still the soul of the Dolphins.

Troy Aikman, Cowboys: Has a lot of weapons and knows how to use them.

John Elway, Broncos: Probably the best two-minute QB in the game.

Stan Humphries, Chargers: He's 38-17 in San Diego.

Jeff George, Falcons: Threw for 4,143 yards, 24 TDs.

QBs who get happy feet when pass rush is on:

Mike Tomczak, Steelers: Quick to unload, threw for 1 TD and 9 interceptions last year.

Heath Shuler, Redskins: Major disappointment as 3rd pick in '94 draft.

Trent Dilfer, Bucs: NFL's lowest-rated starter with 4 TDs and 18 picks.

Tune in

Ten games you shouldn't miss:

Raiders at Ravens, Sept. 1: Raiders' last appearance here was a 37-31, double-overtime win over the Colts in the 1977 playoffs.

Cowboys at Bills, Sept. 22: It's deja vu; these one-time Super Bowl combatants are preseason favorites to do it again.

Ravens at Colts, Oct. 13: The game that should stir every Baltimorean's heart.

49ers at Packers, Oct. 14: The Niners have a point to make after losing to Packers in playoffs.

Cowboys at Dolphins, Oct. 27: Jimmy Johnson has old boss Jerry Jones lined up in his sights.

Cowboys at 49ers, Nov. 10: The traditional battle for NFC supremacy.

Packers at Cowboys, Nov. 18: The new battle for NFC supremacy?

Chiefs at Raiders, Dec. 9: One of the AFL's most enduring rivalries plays out on "Monday Night Football."

Bills at Dolphins, Dec. 16: This game could usher in a new era in the AFC.

Patriots at Giants, Dec. 21: Lame-duck Pats coach Bill Parcells could close out his career in familiar ' and friendly ' surroundings.

Hot commodities

Three assistants who might be head coaches soon:

Joe Bugel, Raiders: May even replace his boss, Mike White.

Tony Wise, Bears: He's coached under Jimmy Johnson and Dave Wannstedt.

Bill Walsh, 49ers: You don't think he'll be happy standing in the background, do you?

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