On average, NFL full of very average teams this year


November 25, 1990|By Vito Stellino

Where have all the good teams gone?

That's the refrain being heard in the National Football League this year.

This is becoming the season of mediocrity. On any given Sunday, virtually any team -- except for the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants, of course -- can lose.

There are very few teams saying, as Marlon Brando once did, "I cudda been a contender."

The majority of teams aren't even close to measuring up as contenders. They're vastly outnumbered by the pretenders.

Only 10 of the 28 teams have winning records. Twelve will make the playoffs, because the NFL decided to add two teams to the playoffs this year.

If the season ended today, two .500 teams -- the 5-5 Green Bay Packers in the National Football Conference and the 5-5 Houston Oilers in the American Football Conference -- would make it.

Three of the four teams that made it to the conference championship games last season -- the Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Rams and Denver Broncos -- have a combined record of 8-23. Another playoff team from last year, the Minnesota Vikings, is 4-6, and two others (Houston and the Pittsburgh Steelers) are each 5-5.

All this is affecting what were supposed to be great matchups down the stretch.

The 49ers and Rams, the two teams that met in the NFC title game last year, meet today is what was supposed to be a premier game. But the Rams are 3-7 and can only be spoilers.

The Giants play the Philadelphia Eagles in what was supposed to be another big division matchup. But the Giants are four games ahead of the Eagles, who seem likely to get a wild-card spot even if they lose. Only pride and the Giants' perfect record are on the line.

Next week's Monday night game of the year between the Giants and 49ers really only is for home-field advantage in the playoffs.

So, what happened? Why did so many teams collapse this year?

"I don't have the answer," said Jim Finks, New Orleans Saints general manager, who heads the competition committee.

"I can't put my finger on it," said Ernie Accorsi, Cleveland Browns executive vice president. "It's very, very strange and hard to figure."

There were no league-wide developments to change the balance of power.

There wasn't an influx of players from a new league, no expansion to dilute the product. Some teams were hurt by holdouts (Cleveland, for example), but the Giants had a lot of holdouts and overcame them. The loss of players to Plan B free agency could have hurt the depth on some teams and disturbed continuity, but it didn't have that effect last year.

A novel explanation comes from Mike Lynn, general manager of the Minnesota Vikings, who's moving on to the new World League of American Football.

He said the Broncos, Rams and Vikings never recovered from DTC the battering they got from the 49ers in the playoffs last year.

Saints coach Jim Mora had a different explanation.

"I think there are more teams that are pretty good. I think they're more equal now. That's why they're all jammed together at 6-5, 5-5, 5-6," he said.

It well may be that there is no common thread to what happened. Several of last year's top teams may have been hit by misfortune all in the same year.

Cleveland, for example, was hurt by retirements in the offensive line and by holdouts. The effectiveness of quarterback Bernie Kosar was limited by the lack of protection, and then he was benched by coach Bud Carson, who later was fired.

In Denver, quarterback John Elway has been been publicly squabbling with coach Dan Reeves. Reeves, who had a heart problem earlier in the year, has been so frustrated by the losses that he cried at a team meeting.

In Los Angeles, the Rams' defense and running game fell apart, and quarterback Jim Everett tried to put too much pressure on himself.

In Minnesota, injuries to quarterback Wade Wilson and defensive lineman Keith Millard and the ineffectiveness of Herschel Walker sapped the team.

The result has been a frustrating year for teams accustomed to winning.

Rams coach John Robinson finds himself being asked about his job security, even though he took a 71-50 record into this season.

"I think every coach's job is in jeopardy all the time," Robinson said. "Of course, when things go bad, it's in more jeopardy.

"I've never had a year like this. If you're going off a cliff, you better go off fighting. I don't see that kind of fight. We should be almost panicked in our fight for survival, but I don't see that."

With two of the team's final six games -- including today's game -- against the 49ers, things could be worse before they get better for the Rams.

Robinson illustrated the plight of many puzzled coaches this year when he said: "I've always felt my teams, when it came down to plays that win or lose, would perform well. It's the opposite with this team."

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