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Thrown for loss, QBs hand off glory Running backs excel, cutting through holes left by injured passers; NFL season in review

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The 1997 NFL season was a great year for running backs, not so hot for quarterbacks, and an abysmal year for fallen franchises like the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders.

The two striking themes that ran concurrently through the regular season were in evidence on the same field just last Sunday. In the Year of the Running Back, Detroit's Barry Sanders became the third player to break the 2,000-yard barrier, and first since 1984.

But even as Sanders was running into history in a 13-10 win over the New York Jets, Lions linebacker Reggie Brown was fighting for his life after a devastating spinal injury that had players from both teams weeping on the field.

While Brown's recovery is monitored in a Detroit hospital this week, the NFL must confront the increased violent nature of the game. Whether Brown's injury was a freak accident or not, the league knows the war on quarterbacks is taking a heavy toll.

Stan Humphries' third concussion in 11 months almost certainly will send the San Diego Chargers quarterback into retirement this off-season. San Francisco's Steve Young had to reconsider his career after suffering a third concussion in a year. Atlanta's Chris Chandler endured two concussions this season and continued to play.

There were 20 starting quarterback changes this season as a result of injury, ranging from a broken jaw (Carolina's Kerry Collins) to a broken collarbone (Kansas City's Elvis Grbac) to a broken hip (Washington's Gus Frerotte).

Given all that turmoil, it wasn't surprising coaches leaned heavily on the running game. And the runners responded. There were 16 1,000-yard rushers this season, matching a league high achieved three times previously -- 1995, 1985 and 1983. Sanders showed the way with 14 consecutive 100-yard games and a 2,053-yard season.

On the team front, the Cowboys (6-10) plunged from dynasty to laughingstock, and the Raiders (4-12) waded deeper into the abyss that seemingly engulfs owner Al Davis. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, meanwhile, captured their first playoff berth in 15 years, and the New York Giants staged a worst-to-first revolution in the NFC East.

Here is a look back at 1997, with a quick peek ahead:

Offensive MVP

At 5 feet 8, Sanders became the most dominant player in the league this season. He averaged 6.1 yards a carry and 128 yards a game to record the second-best rushing season ever.

Defensive MVP

Defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield not only was the San Francisco 49ers' best run-stopper inside, but their best pass rusher as well. And that was for the league's best defense.

Coach of the Year

Tampa Bay's Tony Dungy gets the call over the Giants' Jim Fassel because Dungy had more to overcome -- namely 14 consecutive losing seasons by the Bucs. Youth and a tough schedule (10 games vs. teams that earned playoff berths) didn't prevent Tampa Bay from equaling the best record in franchise history (10-6).

Rookie of the Year

The Cincinnati Bengals didn't start to win until they gave the ball to running back Corey Dillon in Week 10. After eight starts -- and six wins -- Dillon finished with 1,129 rushing yards. That's 151 more than Tampa Bay's precocious rookie Warrick Dunn, who started all year.

Executive of the Year

Somebody keeps restocking the shelves for the Pittsburgh Steelers after all those free-agent defections. That somebody is director of football operations Tom Donahoe. People noticed this year, which is why Donahoe is rumored for a number of new jobs.

Worst trade

The Chicago Bears sent the 11th pick in the draft to Seattle for out-of-favor quarterback Rick Mirer. Way too high, as the Bears soon found out. Mirer couldn't beat out Erik Kramer and finished the year with no touchdown passes and six interceptions. But he's got a base salary of $2.3 million for 1998, which he doesn't figure to collect.

QBs who'll take a hike

In addition to Mirer, you can look for these guys at the free-agent market or your local trading center: Neil O'Donnell, Jim Harbaugh, Vinny Testaverde, Ty Detmer, Heath Shuler, Dave Brown, Todd Collins, and maybe even that gunslinger down in Miami, name of Marino.

Worst year by a QB

Can you top this? Punched out by a teammate in training camp. Suffered a broken jaw in the preseason. Called a racist after issuing a racial slur. Benched in October. Threw 21 interceptions. Now being questioned as the quarterback of the team's future. That's the season of Carolina's Kerry Collins. One more thing. He predicted a dynasty for the Panthers last January, and they went 7-9 this year.

Best year by a QB

Jim Kelly wasn't sacked once this season in the TV booth. Now, one year after no one wanted him -- even his own Buffalo Bills -- bidders are lining up to take a look. Step right up, Baltimore.

Best comeback by a QB

Boomer Esiason was prepared to play out the string when he returned to Cincinnati this season as Jeff Blake's backup. But he won four of five starts down the stretch and the Bengals say the starting job is his if he'll take it next year.

Teams that should be in the playoffs (but aren't)

The Bengals, averaging 32 points on offense under Esiason, should be there as one of the hottest teams at the end of the regular season. So should the Atlanta Falcons after going 6-2 in the second half.

Teams that shouldn't be in the playoffs (but are)

The Minnesota Vikings ended a five-game skid, and earned a playoff berth, on the strength of five turnovers by Indianapolis quarterback Kelly Holcomb on Sunday. As usual, the undersized Vikings have run out of gas at the end. Then there are the Miami Dolphins, who've been in an offensive funk all season and have hardly distinguished themselves as a playoff team. They're in by default.

Dumbest holdout

Defensive tackle Sean Gilbert wanted $4 million to come back to the Washington Redskins this season, and the Redskins offered $3.5 million. Since the Redskins have all the leverage -- they still retain Gilbert's rights -- he made a huge mistake not ending the holdout. Even if the Redskins release him now, how much is he worth on the open market?

Worst decisions

There was no singular worst decision in the NFL this season, just a series of dumb ones, starting with Gilbert's. There was the Tennessee Oilers' decision to play home games in Memphis instead of Nashville, grossly miscalculating the interest level of a city spurned twice by the league's expansion process.

Redskins quarterback Gus Frerotte should have been smarter than to bang his head into the Jack Kent Cooke Stadium wall in Week 13, too, but he wasn't.

Finally, there was Jerry Rice's decision to return to the field for the 49ers' Monday night game against Denver in Week 16, just 3 1/2 months after major knee surgery. Rice fractured his kneecap (same knee) making a catch in the end zone. Pity, but the 49ers could've used Rice for the one game that counts -- the NFC championship game against Green Bay. They didn't need him to get home-field advantage.

Chutzpah award

Oakland quarterback Jeff George celebrated a 36-31 win over his old team, the Atlanta Falcons, in Week 3 with a personal victory lap around the Georgia Dome, mocking the fans who booed him. After the Raiders' worst season in 35 years, guess who'll be back in the playoffs before Boy George?

Coaches on the way out

Soon to be joining deposed Indianapolis Colts coach Lindy Infante are Seattle's Dennis Erickson, Oakland's Joe Bugel and Dallas' Barry Switzer. Up for debate is Dennis Green's job in Minneapolis, where he sure would help his cause with his first playoff win in five tries.

Coaches who'll stay, but shouldn't

Dave Wannstedt went through five quarterbacks and three personnel men in Chicago with the Bears, and drove them to a four-win season. But he won't be fired. Neither will Dick Vermeil ,, with the St. Louis Rams, even though he took them to their second-worst season ever. And San Diego's Kevin Gilbride barely got to know his players before the Chargers went on an eight-game losing streak to finish the season, so he'll be back.

Coach who deserves a shot

Former Baltimore Stallions coach Don Matthews, the winningest coach in CFL history and four-time Grey Cup winner, must know something about bringing a team together. If Bud Grant and Marv Levy could make the jump from the CFL, why not Matthews?

Best free-agent acquisition

Chased out of Baltimore, Jacksonville and Green Bay in a nine-month span, wide receiver Andre Rison showed up in Kansas City with a new persona. As "Spiderman," he had 72 receptions for 1,092 yards and seven touchdowns. Now he's going back to the Pro Bowl, and perhaps the Super Bowl.

Biggest free-agent washout

Desmond Howard looked so good returning that Super Bowl kickoff for a 99-yard touchdown last January. But that's the last time he found the end zone. He hasn't come close with the Raiders.

Biggest upset

The 0-10 Colts' 41-38 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Packers in Week 12.

Biggest upset waiting to happen

It's playoff time, so that means Kansas City's Marty Schottenheimer is in trouble again. Schottenheimer is one of the game's best regular-season coaches, but one of the worst (5-10) in the postseason. His potential downfall this season deals with the return of injured Elvis Grbac to the starting lineup last week. By one account, he already is waffling over his decision to start Grbac over backup Rich Gannon. Rich Gannon?

Biggest Everclear fan

That would be New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who took his infamous mosh-pit dive during a Boston concert a few days before losing to the Bucs, 27-7. Since that loss, though, Bledsoe and the Patriots are 4-1.

Best start on 1998

Like them or not, the Colts got a proven winner in Bill Polian to run the club this week. Polian was the architect of Buffalo's four-time Super Bowl run, and he helped send the Panthers to the NFC championship game in only their second season.

Best quarterback throwing from his knees

The Packers' Brett Favre, even if his pass was intercepted and returned 45 yards for a touchdown by Detroit's Reggie Brown back in Week 5. Baltimore's Vinny Testaverde tried it later in the year, but it didn't look as good.

NFL playoffs

Wild-card games

Saturday

Minn. at N.Y. Giants,

12: 30 p.m., chs. 2, 7

Jacksonville at Denver,

4 p.m., chs. 2, 7

Sunday

Miami at New England,

12: 30 p.m., chs. 11, 4

Detroit at Tampa Bay,

4 p.m., chs. 45, 5

Pub Date: 12/24/97

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