Stakes again high for Cardinals in finale

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The most significant game played in the NFL in the past decade matched -- believe it or not -- a 3-12 team against a 7-8 team in the 1988 season finale.

That's when the Green Bay Packers went to Sun Devil Stadium with a 3-12 record to play the Arizona Cardinals.

If the Packers had lost, they would have gotten the first pick in the draft and selected Troy Aikman in 1989.

Instead, they upset the Cardinals, 26-17, and got the second pick. They bypassed those Sanders guys -- Barry and Deion -- to take Tony Mandarich, one of the biggest busts of the decade.

While Dallas got the first pick and selected Aikman, who led the Cowboys to three Super Bowl victories, Green Bay coach Lindy Infante, now on thin ice in Indianapolis, was fired after the 1991 season.

That paved the way for general manager Ron Wolf to build a Super Bowl contender after trading for Brett Favre.

Now the Cardinals find themselves playing another season finale with the top pick at stake. If they lose to the Atlanta Falcons, who have won five straight, or if the Colts lose to Minnesota, the Cardinals get the first pick in the 1998 draft in April.

The first choice will be quarterback Peyton Manning, one of the biggest prizes in the draft since Aikman. But since the Cardinals are committed to Jake Plummer as their quarterback, they'll be willing to trade the pick.

That means there's likely to be a spirited war for Manning because so many teams need quarterbacks. "It'll be like a live auction," one Cardinals official said.

"I'm sure they'll have some takers," said Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' vice president for player personnel. The Ravens could be one of the bidders. "I wouldn't rule it out," Newsome said.

Back when the Ravens were the Cleveland Browns, they pulled off one of the biggest quarterback draft trades in the past two decades.

It was in 1984, when they had a Vinny Testaverde clone in Paul McDonald at quarterback. He passed for 3,472 yards but threw 23 interceptions and went 5-11, losing eight games by four points or fewer. Sound familiar?

The Browns solved the problem by making the trade with Buffalo for the first pick in the supplemental draft. The Bills had the rights to Jim Kelly (now there's a name we've been hearing recently) and didn't need a quarterback.

The Browns used that pick to take Bernie Kosar and went to the playoffs for the next five years.

Manning could not only have a big impact on the field, but he's also a high-profile player who could help sell permanent seat licenses. The fact he's the son of a former NFL star and stayed in school only adds to his appeal.

Bob Leffler, the Baltimore ad man who was the last marketing director of the Colts before they moved, remembers the plan he had for marketing John Elway before owner Bob Irsay traded him in 1983.

"Manning is a community relations director's dream," Leffler said. "A quarterback drafted with the first pick is the No. 1 marketable entity in all of sports. You can build a campaign around the aura of the No. 1 pick. He can become the cornerstone of it."

A player with Manning's credentials doesn't come around often. Washington State's Ryan Leaf, who is likely to be the second pick, may be as good as Manning on the field, but lacks his aura off it.

More is less

When the NFL added two wild-card teams to the playoff format in 1991, the idea was not only to get more TV money, but also to create more interest.

But there have been a lot of drawbacks. It has devalued the division champion with the third-best record because that team no longer has a first-round bye.

The teams that don't get a first-round bye have only a 3 percent chance of making the Super Bowl. Only three of 100 teams that didn't have a bye have made the Super Bowl since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.

Meanwhile, having 12 playoff teams opens the door to teams that don't deserve to be in the playoffs.

Look at the Washington Redskins, who are still alive at 7-7-1. There's not much playoff fever in Washington. Even if the Redskins make it, they'll probably go back to Giants Stadium, where they were routed eight days ago.

And then there are the Vikings, who not only are alive at 8-7, but could make it by losing their last six games. One Minneapolis columnist suggested if they get in, they should refuse the bid the way Notre Dame used to if it didn't get invited to a major bowl.

Nothing will change because more games mean more money, but the extra wild-card teams have cheapened the playoffs.

Troubled Panther

Kerry Collins, the Carolina Panthers quarterback, is having trouble adjusting to the ups and downs of the NFL.

With the team failing to make the playoffs after going to the NFC title game last season, he said: "Last year wasn't supposed to happen. Let's be honest. It wasn't supposed to happen to an expansion team. It wasn't supposed to happen to a young quarterback. Those things don't happen in the NFL, but they did. And it kind of threw everything out of whack."

He said the increased expectations "scared the you-know-what out of me. I knew what was coming and I wasn't ready for it."

When it was noted that Jacksonville returned to the playoffs this season, he said the difference is that Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell has more experience.

In a radio interview, he also said the reporters are "the root of all the problem," apparently for reporting on the controversy over his use of a racial epithet in training camp.

Kelly watch

As Jim Kelly ponders whether to come out of retirement, he's getting a lot of advice that he should stay in the broadcast booth.

A Buffalo columnist, Jerry Sullivan, wrote last week, "If he went with Baltimore, he would have one of the better offensive lines in front of him. But a slow quarterback can make the best offensive line seem ordinary. If he comes back now, it could diminish the things he's accomplished during his prime. He'll risk becoming a pathetic figure." By defeating Carolina yesterday, the St. Louis Rams (5-11) avoided the worst record in St. Louis football history. The worst is the 4-11-1 mark by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1986. Still, the Rams have sold out 24 straight games.

The Packers allowed three touchdowns in yesterday's win over Buffalo but none by the air, extending their streak to five games. They've yielded only one touchdown pass in their past 8 1/2 games.

If the Atlanta Falcons finish with six straight wins, they'll be only the second team to go 8-8 after a 1-7 start. Green Bay did it in 1984.

Eleven teams went on three-game trips this year. Only the Packers at 3-0 and the Ravens at 2-1 were better than 1-2.

The Raiders won their first four games at the Oakland Coliseum after returning to Oakland in 1995, but are 6-13 at home since.

Names in the news

Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh, the target of Mike Ditka's infamous sideline tirade in Minnesota in 1992, when the quarterback called an audible and threw an interception, returns to the Metrodome today. "Maybe I can get rid of some of those ghosts," he said.

Look for Ricky Watters to leave Philadelphia at the end of the year. He wasn't happy he carried four times in the second half in Atlanta last week after rushing for 74 yards in the first half.

Jeff George has passed for 3,673 yards, breaking Ken Stabler's Raiders record of 3,615, but concedes it's been a "terrible season."

Tony Boselli held Bruce Smith without a sack for the second straight game last week, but Smith says the Jaguars gave him help 75 to 80 percent of the time.

Kordell Stewart of the Steelers needs 67 yards passing and 44 yards rushing to become the third quarterback to pass for more than 3,000 yards and rush for more than 500. Randall Cunningham and Steve Young are the other two.

Quotable

Former Raven Dan Footman of the Colts on last Sunday's 41-0 victory over the Miami Dolphins: "We knew that once we got RTC to [Dan] Marino, he would get frustrated. If things aren't going right, he loses his composure."

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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