In some ways, the 1998 NFL season has been about teams coming back from oblivion and veterans restoring their stock.
The Arizona Cardinals are in their first non-strike postseason since 1975.
Written off for years as too small to compete anywhere professionally on this continent but the Canadian Football League, Flutie has found all kinds of ways to win. The Bills reached the wild-card round. It was thought back in September they might still be rebuilding. And their 0-3 start under new coach Wade Phillips did little to change the impression.
But then, predictability and premonition had no place in 1998. Many of the preconceived notions about how the season would play out never came to fruition.
Just as the concept of Flutie, Randall Cunningham and Vinny Testaverde being three of the league's top quarterbacks was hard to imagine, there were substantial changes in the balance of power from team to team and between officials and players.
Officiating WoesBlown calls by officials cost playoff contenders important games. Enough acrimony surfaced over the performance by the men istripes, it became a foregone conclusion that during the upcoming annual league meetings in March, owners will restore some form of instant replay for next year. A special committee took an unusual vote in early December to adopt a form of replay for the playoffs, an in-season change ultimately defeated.
Still, missed calls served to make the final weekend of the regular season far less dramatic in terms of playoff possibilities than it might have been.
| Vinny Testaverde and Doug Flutie found new life with surprising seasons. (AP) |
When the officials awarded Testaverde a touchdown in a New York Jets defeat of Seattle, even though he never extended the ball over the goal line, the points cost the Seahawks playoff viability and, in some ways, the job of coach Dennis Erickson.
The Bills, too, lost a shot at the home field for the wild-card round with two blown calls against their secondary at New England, including a rarely called pass interference call on a "Hail Mary" with time expiring.
Divisional Change Of BalanceLate commissioner Pete Rozelle actively sought out the "parity" concept, allowing for a majority of teams to be on roughly equal footing and stoke as many playoff possibilities as possible -- as late in the year as possible.
The formula thrived in 1998. For the first time since 1992, not one of the six division champions from the preceding year won their divisions. Three division winners from '97 -- Pittsburgh, the New York Giants and Kansas City -- missed the playoffs altogether.
The Coaching CarouselAs of Wednesday morning, five coaches had been fired:
- Dm Capers in Carolina,
- Ted Marchibroda in Baltimore,
- Ray Rhodes in Philadelphia,
- Erickson in Seattle,
- Dave Wannstedt in Chicago.
More could be on the way. It was thought Norv Turner definitely was out in Washington after the Redskins started 0-7. But then, the Redskins won six of their last eight games. That probably will be enough to save Turner if John Kent Cooke can piece together the money to buy the team from his late father's estate.
Even if Cooke can't, the next owner might not be in place until some time in February, when it probably would be too late to replace Turner for next season without operating way behind schedule for the April draft.
Success elsewhere breeds men who are hot coaching commodities. The Vikings broke the NFL single-season scoring record this year under offensive coordinator Brian Billick. He thrived with a trio of terrific receivers, including Rookie of the Year candidate Randy Moss. Now, he might be the one to turn around the biggest rookie bust by far -- Chargers quarterback Ryan Leaf.
Billick is eager to be a head coach. The 44-year-old has interviewed with expansion Cleveland, whose braintrust, like Billick, was molded in the San Francisco organization.
Veteran offensive coordinator Chris Palmer is drawing credit for his work in his current position with Jacksonville and with Drew Bledsoe in New England. He will draw interest from a couple of teams looking for head coaches, including Bltimore.
Another top quarterbacking mind -- Denver offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak -- is in a similar position.
... But Some ThrivedThere were coaching exceptions. These were performances by men at the top of their profession. They were given the charge of turning around poor franchises. In the cases of Bill Parcells and Dan Reeves -- men who have, lest it be forgotten, tasted some degrees of failure -- the turnarounds happened sooner than anyone anticipated.
Could the most uplifting story of the year be the two teams that earned the No. 2 playoff seed for their respective conferences?
The New York Jets were 1-15 two years ago. Many players from that group remain. But with Parcells' firm hand and guidance, Testaverde shattered Joe Namath's franchise record for touchdowns by throwing 29, and the Jets ended the regular season as the hottest team in the league.
When he fired Marchibroda on Monday, Baltimore owner Art Modell called Parcells a special case. Parcells challenged the Jets to be their best. They responded. Running back Richie Anderson told the New York Times, "I had to show him I had the qualities he was looking for, especially coming from a team that was 1-15."
In Atlanta, Reeves kept the Falcons believing until they were host to San Francisco for a game that finally could shake the Niners' hold on the NFC West title. Some dissenters still think the Falcons might only be as good as quarterback Chris Chandler -- and vulnerable should Chandler get hurt in the playoffs.
Nonetheless, the Falcons are playing for Reeves with heart, in part because of Reeves' heart problems. It remains to be seen when and if Reeves could coach during the playoffs. His connection to the team, from afar or not, remains a bond as assistant head coach Rich Brooks takes over.
Tying It TogetherWith the playoffs upon us, the balance of power can shift some more, with a lot riding on the performances of last year's Super Bowl participants, Denver and Green Bay.
Kubiak's immediate mission is to help the Broncos regain the dominance they knew only two-plus weeks ago, before their loss to the Giants. Some observers think it might be too late, that the Jets are playing so well not even the Broncos could stop them inside Mile High Stadium.
Let's say that happened. Now, add to this picture the prospect that Minnesota could hold onto its top seed in the NFC. A Jets-Viings Super Bowl would offer a fitting and intriguing cap to the season -- the matchup of a reborn franchise under a Hall of Fame coach against the resurrected Cunningham.
A year about the changing of the guard and career revivals will take its final form in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the teams in search of head coaches will take the first step toward getting things right.
In some towns, the winning formula has been absent for years. In other places, such as Carolina, coaching changes came about as a function of impatience as much as anything (though linebacker Kevin Greene's sideline assault on assistant coach Kevin Steele was a lasting and troubling image). The four-year-old Panthers reached the NFC title game in their second season, but that wasn't enough to save Capers.
Tom Landry had 18 victories in his first five seasons, Chuck Noll 12 in his first three, but they were landmarks in Dallas and Pittsburgh. There is no such timeline in today's NFL, though that trend dates before 1998.
So the playoffs begin with an eye on the Jets and Falcons for the on-field drama, on the Packers for what changes they figure to produce. Green Bay could go far with running back Dorsey Levens present. Whenever the Packers' run ends, the coaching intrigue starts in earnest, for it stems from where Mike Holmgren decides to go and run an entire operation, in the mold of Parcells and Reeves.
Then, it will be up to some owners to take a bold step and increase the NFL's representation of African-American coaches. The league has produced for owners a video database, of sorts, with taped interviews of assistant coaches selected by teams as potential head-coaching candidates -- most of whom are African-Americans.
In the end, some coaches will end up being recycled, hoping their next stop will be among the turnarounds mentioned in 1999.
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