First half produces rough ride for many Jets and Rams make all wrong moves; Cowboys back on Super track?; NFL at midseason


It was a rough first half of the NFL season for coaching icons in Miami, new million-dollar quarterbacks in New York, and rookie running backs from Nebraska.

Just ask Jimmy Johnson, Neil O'Donnell and Lawrence Phillips.

Johnson made serious waves when he replaced Dolphins coach Don Shula last winter, but he found out he couldn't walk on water once he lost quarterback Dan Marino. Nor could he beat his old nemesis, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, in their celebrated reunion.

O'Donnell was supposed to be the $25 million man who would finally get the New York Jets off the ground. Instead, the one-time Maryland quarterback took them deeper into the hole.

And Lawrence Phillips? Everybody who didn't draft the troubled Nebraska runner has been thanking their lucky stars since. It's only the St. Louis Rams who are crying over spilled milk.

These are some of the highlights and lowlights from the first half of the season:

Offensive MVP: Quarterback Brett Favre was sensational for the Green Bay Packers in the first half with 21 touchdown passes and only six interceptions. Now comes the tough part. They're going to make him play the second half without his best receivers, the injured Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman. If Favre can win at Kansas City and Dallas in back-to-back weeks, he deserves to go to the Super Bowl. Runner-up: Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis.

Defensive MVP: Dallas tackle Leon Lett is best known for two highly visible gaffes in his career -- getting stripped of a sure touchdown in Super Bowl XXVII and muffing a missed field goal that cost the Cowboys a victory against Miami in 1993. He deserves to be known for more than that. This year he will be. Runner-up: Buffalo Bills pass rusher Bruce Smith.

Best free-agent buy: Defensive tackle Sean Gilbert gave the Washington Redskins defense a force in the middle when he was traded by the Rams for a first-round draft pick. Without Gilbert, the Redskins wouldn't be 7-1.

Biggest free-agent bust: Can there be any doubt? The $25 million man. See Neil O'Donnell (above).

Best trade: Once the Pittsburgh Steelers decided to part company with Bam Morris, they swapped their second-round pick in 1996 and their fourth in '97 with the Rams for running back Jerome Bettis and a third-rounder in '96. Bettis has been a godsend with six 100-yard games (all wins) for the Steelers. The Rams used Pittsburgh's second pick in '96 on tight end Ernie Conwell. Think they regret the trade?

Biggest first-round bust: The Rams overlooked the criminal behavior of the recalcitrant Phillips last spring and talked of second chances when they made him the sixth pick in the draft. He hasn't been nearly as tough in the trenches for St. Louis as he was in the dorms of Nebraska. He's averaging a paltry 2.7 yards a carry. How many second chances does that warrant?

Executive of the half-year: Washington general manager Charley Casserly gets this, hands down. That's because the Redskins have the lowest payroll in the NFL and the best record (7-1).

Worst front-office moves: If you've been paying attention, you've probably already discerned the trend. The Rams traded Jerome Bettis, who's second in the NFL in rushing. They traded Gilbert, who's having a Pro Bowl season in Washington. They drafted Phillips, who's unproductive. And, oh yes, they signed free agent quarterback Steve Walsh, whom they demoted to the third team after three games. Is anyone minding the store in St. Louis?

Second place goes to the Ravens, who signed wide receiver Floyd Turner on July 10 and failed to turn in his contract to the league office by the July 15 deadline.

All-Bust backfield: What do Marshall Faulk, Ki-Jana Carter and Rashaan Salaam have in common? They're all supposed to be featured runners for their teams, but they can barely get out of their own way. Faulk is averaging only 3.0 yards a carry for the Indianapolis Colts and has gone 23 games without gaining 100. Carter, playing behind a bad offensive line in Cincinnati, is averaging 3.0 yards and has lost his job to Garrison Hearst. Salaam started the year hurt and is averaging only 2.8 per carry for the Chicago Bears.

Best coaching job: You could make a case for Norv Turner in Washington, Mike Shanahan in Denver, Jeff Fisher in Houston or Dom Capers in Carolina. But there's only one coach of the year so far, and it's Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh. Here's why: In the off-season, the Steelers lost their best tackle (Leon Searcy), their starting quarterback (O'Donnell) and a savvy linebacker (Kevin Greene) to free agency. They also dismissed their best running back (Morris) after he incurred a drug charge. Then, on opening day, they lost their best linebacker (Greg Lloyd) to a season-ending knee injury. Now they're starting Mike Tomczak at quarterback. And still the Steelers lead the AFC Central at 6-2.

Worst coaching job: It's a tough call with so many to choose from. There's Rich Kotite with the 1-8 Jets. There's Rich Brooks with the 2-6 Rams. There's June Jones with the 0-8 Atlanta Falcons. There's Dave Shula, who was fired by the 2-6 Bengals. But Wayne Fontes gets our vote because he couldn't do any better than 4-4 with the Detroit Lions. What's wrong with 4-4? It's how Fontes got there that counts. He has arguably the best offense in the NFL with weapons like Barry Sanders, Herman Moore, Brett Perriman and Johnnie Morton. Yet he made Sanders all but disappear this season. He has yanked starting quarterback Scott Mitchell in mid-series. And he lost to the toothless New York Giants by 28 points AT HOME. Get the guy out of there.

The firing line: Now that Dave Shula has been fired and Jim Mora resigned in New Orleans, any number of coaches can expect to get the pink slip. Kotite, Brooks and Jones are the front-runners, but Fontes, Seattle's Dennis Erickson, the New York Giants' Dan Reeves and Oakland's Mike White are not far behind in what could be a brutal off-season purge. Interims Rick Venturi in New Orleans and Bruce Coslet in Cincinnati shouldn't make any long-term plans, either.

The hiring line: With all those expected vacancies, these coaches are the ones who'll be called first: Joe Bugel, assistant head coach, Raiders; Fritz Shurmur, defensive coordinator, Packers; and Pete Carroll, defensive coordinator, San Francisco 49ers. And if somebody really wants to win, they'll hire Iron Mike ++ Ditka, who is getting edgy in that TV studio job of his.

Is that the fat lady or the ex-quarterback singing?: Rick Mirer has been benched in Seattle. Ditto Chris Chandler in Houston. Steve Bono is fighting off the wolves in Kansas City. But the quarterback who appears most vulnerable is that old Super Bowl patsy, Jim Kelly, who has lost his fastball and his way in Buffalo. After throwing for four touchdowns and 12 interceptions, he hangs on by a thread. "They ought to sit Jim down," said former QB Joe Theismann. "The toughest decision Marv Levy will have to make is the one Jim Kelly won't make for him."

Be like Jim: Then there's the much-maligned Vinny Testaverde, who has experienced a quarterbacking rebirth with the Ravens under Ted Marchibroda and Don Strock. Turns out Testaverde's turnaround started in a plane after a three-interception loss in Houston, when Marchibroda urged him to be more like Jim Harbaugh of the Colts. "He was talking about Jim Harbaugh, and I see him and he gets real excited," Testaverde said. "It made me think a lot about it. I am starting to come out of that shell and getting more excited when things happen." A few more wins would do wonders for his excitement level.

Dissing the man: In the wake of the Cowboys' 29-10 victory over former coach Jimmy Johnson's Dolphins last week, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith both talked about how they missed Johnson. Defensive end Charles Haley had no such sentiment. He came off the injured list to play against his former boss, then said this: "I was really excited to play them. I wanted to score as many points as we could because he deserves it. He thinks he's the only coach who can coach football. He's going to flop [in Miami] because guys aren't going to listen to his bull. To me, he's a coward."

Don't let the door hit you on the way out: Even Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams could take this hint. Adams, who has agreed to move the Oilers to Nashville, Tenn., in 1998, drew 50,337 to the Astrodome for a Week 8 showdown with the Steelers. This was remarkable because the Dome's owners had scheduled for the same time, same location, same parking lots, the following events: a Low Riders convention, a kick boxing tournament, and a gem and jewelry show.

Toto's around here somewhere, I think: Bears linebacker Bryan Cox ripped his teammates after a 37-6 loss to the Packers, saying, "We need to look at ourselves in the mirror because some of us need to go see the wizard. We don't have a lot of heart."

Asked what he meant, he screamed, "Get some damn heart, like the lion in the Wizard of Oz. Heart, heart. See the wizard, get some heart."

Nice try, Bryan, but it was the tin man who wanted to have a heart, and the lion who needed courage.

Hear no evil, see no evil: Dallas had no problems welcoming back Michael Irvin from a five-game drug suspension last month. "The Cowboys believe in forgiveness," said guard Nate Newton. "Loyalty. Outside of murder, you can't do too much wrong on our team."

That's good to know, but one thinks Irvin's warm welcome has more to do with his on-field exploits. In five games without Irvin, quarterback Troy Aikman completed 58.5 percent of his passes and averaged 183.4 yards per game. He threw five touchdown passes and five interceptions. In three games with Irvin (all wins), Aikman completed 71.6 percent for 275.7 yards a game, five touchdowns and one interception.

Despite their early struggle, don't be surprised if the Cowboys return to the Super Bowl this season -- where they'll probably beat the Steelers again. At least it won't be Neil O'Donnell's fault.

NFL watch

B6 Seven games you shouldn't miss in the second half:

Date ..Teams .... Skinny

Nov. 4 Broncos at Raiders Raiders are 12-0 at home on Mondays

Nov. 10 Cowboys at 49ers Road to title still runs through S.F.

Nov. 18 Packers at Cowboys Favre will try to hurdle the dynasty

Nov. 24 49ers at Redskins This used to be old hat in D.C.

Nov. 28 Redskins at Cowboys This used to be the big matchup

Dec. 8 Broncos at Packers Could it be a preview of Super Bowl?

Dec. 22 Cowboys at Redskins There will be no Yuletide spirit here

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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