Expansion teams near reality check

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the last two expansion teams, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Carolina Panthers, open their third seasons today, both of their starting quarterbacks will be sidelined.

Mark Brunell of Jacksonville has a knee injury, and Kerry Collins of Carolina has a broken jaw.

That doesn't mean neither team will win. In fact, both are favored.

The Jaguars (Rob Johnson filling in) are a three-point choice against the Ravens at Memorial Stadium; the Panthers (Steve Beuerlein the replacement) are a four-point pick at home against the Washington Redskins in tonight's TNT game.

But the two injuries are an indication that the expansion teams' magical ride from ground zero to the conference title games in just two years may be over. Now they've got to deal with the problems that beset most franchises.

For example, when Johnson starts against the Jaguars today, this is the beginning of the end of his career in Jacksonville.

If he plays well, he's going to be in demand and the Jags will lose him in free agency at the end of the 1998 season or trade him at the end of this season. If he flops, the Jags will know they'll need a new backup. Either way, Johnson isn't going to be a Jaguar for long.

In Carolina, the Panthers don't have to worry about their backup. At 32, Beuerlein may be able to finish his career as Collins' backup.

But they've got other problems.

To start with, they lost Kevin Greene, who left in a fit of irrational behavior that is becoming common for today's athletes. When Greene signed a two-year deal with Carolina last year, he went on about how happy he was and how the Pittsburgh Steelers hadn't valued him.

He was an immediate hit in Carolina, played a big role in the team's playoff drive and then wanted to renegotiate the second year of his contract.

The Panthers took the logical position he should live up to the deal he signed a year ago. When he held out all of camp, they signed Renaldo Turnbull to replace him and then cut him. Greene has since signed what was announced as a six-year, $13 million deal in San Francisco.

It's really a one-year contract for a $750,000 signing bonus, a $200,000 base and up to $550,000 in incentives he may or may not earn. He didn't appear to gain much in that holdout, but the bottom line is Carolina will miss him.

Then there was the Collins situation in which he was involved in two incidents with teammates while celebrating the last night of training camp.

In the first one, he was hit by teammate Norberto Davidds-Garrido. There are conflicting reports how it happened. It was either an accident while they were wrestling or he said something to annoy Davidds-Garrido. Davidds-Garrido said it was an accident.

In the second, he apparently used a racial epithet that annoyed wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad and several other black players.

The team then issued a statement in which Collins said his remarks were "unintentional and not intended in a malicious manner" but added they were inappropriate and apologized.

Muhammad brushed it off by saying the information was false.

At any rate, all this puts more pressure on the Panthers to get off to a good start -- and for Collins to play well when he gets back -- to put the matter behind them.

All this is another example of how life is going to get tougher for the expansion teams.

Malaise

The NFL season is not exactly getting off to a resounding start since seven of the 15 openers will be blacked out at home. Baltimore avoided making it eight only when local companies bought up the last 2,500 tickets.

It's also the third year the league won't have a team in Los Angeles, the second year in Cleveland and the first year in Houston.

Then there are the Oilers, who decided to play two years in Memphis while their stadium is being built in Nashville even though Memphis fans are still irate that the city got bypassed in expansion and don't consider a Nashville team theirs. The result is that the Oilers have sold just 10,000 season tickets.

The league is going to be here a long time, but it has to wonder how many fans it loses when it yanks a franchise out of a town. Los Angeles hadn't been a hotbed of NFL football in recent years and now it's likely to go seven or eight years without a team. What will it be like when the NFL returns to the second-largest market?

In Baltimore, it's obvious the 12 seasons without a team took its toll. It's no longer the way it was when Barry Levinson captured the Colts mania in the movie "Diner." The Ravens are going to have to work at trying to make football a passion in Baltimore again.

Meanwhile, it's difficult to get the NFL to even recognize it has problems, though it likely will get a big increase in TV revenue at the end of this year.

It doesn't help that it doesn't do a good job of showcasing its product. Look at the opening weekend. It gives one of its best matchups -- Dallas at Pittsburgh -- to Fox on a Sunday in which NBC has the doubleheader game, so only 52 percent of the country can see it.

And the first Monday night game pits Green Bay at home as a 15-point favorite over Chicago. If that's the matchup they wanted, they should have put it in Chicago so the Bears could have had more of a chance.

On top of all this, Labor Day weekend isn't an ideal time to start the season, but the alternative was pushing the regular season past Christmas.

Wearing down?

In the 1990s, the best opening day rushing performance was Emmitt Smith's 171-yard effort at Pittsburgh in Barry Switzer's first game as a head coach in 1994. Three years later, the Cowboys are again opening at Pittsburgh, but this time Smith is questionable.

At 28, he has reached an age when running backs often start to decline and last year he averaged a career-worst 3.7 yards a carry.

Smith was hampered by injuries and the Cowboys' offensive line isn't what it once was.

"If we stay healthy on the offensive line, then I think it's fair to expect our offense to do what it has done in the past few years. It would probably be a little unfair to expect me to have a blowout season. But I expect to be much better than last year," he said.

Inside the numbers

Dallas is the best on opening day at 27-9-1, and Seattle is the worst at 5-16. Since the 1970 merger, Miami is best at home openers at 23-4. Buffalo has the best record in September in the 1990s (22-5) while Atlanta has the worst (7- 21) of the non-expansion teams. Jacksonville is 2-7. Ditka is 9-2 as an opening day coach and has won nine straight openers while Marty Schottenheimer is 8-4 and has won seven straight. Bill Parcells is only 6-6. Of the 254 teams that won their openers since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, 135 went to the playoffs. Of the 254 that lost, only 57 went to the playoffs . O. J. Simpson holds the opening day rushing record of 250 yards in 1973, and Norm VanBrocklin is tops in passing with 554 yards in 1951.

Happy birthday to you

Jim Fassel's first day as a head coach will be his 48th birthday. The last time a coach opened a season on his birthday was in 1929 for Alvin Jolley of the Buffalo Bisons.

The Giants' coach said, "I'm just having 77,000 of my closest friends over for a party."

Unfortunately for Fassel, Dave Brown will be at the party, too.

Pub Date: 8/31/97

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