Sorry, Thomas: In one-back offense, Sanders may be one-and-only

PRO FOOTBALL

January 26, 1992|By VITO STELLINO

MINNEAPOLIS -- This has not been a week to remember for Thurman Thomas.

It was bad enough that the Buffalo Bills running back -- still unhappy that he wasn't named the MVP in last year's Super Bowl -- complained Tuesday that he doesn't get enough attention and then skipped the media session Wednesday.

If Thomas was unhappy this week, wait until he sees what problems are on the horizon.

One of his gripes is that he's "only" considered the best all-around back in the league and that Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions is considered the best pure running back.

Sanders has edged him for two straight years in rushing totals -- 1,304 to 1,297 last year and 1,548 to 1,407 this year, and Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys beat them both this year with a 1,563-yard total.

Sanders has accomplished this in a run-and-shoot offense, running draws with no tight ends blocking for him.

Football people have wondered what Sanders might do in a more conventional offense, with regular running plays and tight ends to block for him.

They're likely to find out in 1992.

Virtually unnoticed in all the Super Bowl hoopla was the announcement that Wayne Fontes, the coach of the Detroit Lions, had hired Dan Henning, former San Diego Chargers coach, to run his offense. Fontes also announced the Lions will stop using the four wide receiver, run-and-shoot set exclusively, will get some tight ends and run more conventional plays.

Henning wasn't successful as a head coach in Atlanta and San Diego, but he's considered one of the sport's best offensive coordinators. He was an assistant coach on the Washington Redskins' two previous Super Bowl championship teams and believes in the one-back offense.

With Sanders running from that type of offense, it's not difficult to imagine his getting 2,000 yards.

Only two players in the history of the league, Eric Dickerson, who got 2,105 yards in 1984 with the Los Angeles Rams, and O. J. Simpson, who picked up 2,003 yards for the Bills in 1973, have passed the 2,000-yard mark .

Sanders has a chance to be the third, and that means he'll get more acclaim as the best runner in pro football.

Which means Thomas will be even more unhappy to be in the shadow of his former Oklahoma State teammate.

* Let me say this about that: The NFL is becoming more and more vague on the question of whether it's going to expand in October.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was more confusing than ever Friday when he said the question of whether labor-management problems are an "impediment" depends "on an overall assessment."

What does that mean?

When he was asked if the league will expand if it loses the antitrust trial, he said he didn't want to speculate.

The best guess is that if the league wins the trial, expected to take place this spring, the owners would be in a good mood and would expand. If they lose it, Tagliabue could have a tough time persuading the owners to go ahead.

*

Let's hear that again: Tagliabue tends to talk around subjects, so difficult to read him, but his comments on instant replay Friday raised a few eyebrows.

He gave it less than a ringing endorsement. Although he said it adds a "valuable dimension" to the game, he said it "imposes a price" and has "some disadvantages."

If Tagliabue becomes an even-handed observer of the debate, instead of fighting for instant replay, the opponents could have a better shot at eliminating it.

New Orleans Saints general manager Jim Finks, chairman of the competition committee, remains a strong supporter, but Tagliabue sounded as if he might remain above the debate.

*

The coaching derby: The Colts are expected to become the ninth team to change coaches. They're expected to hire Buffalo offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda this week to replace interim coach Rick Venturi, who'll remain as defensive coordinator.

It would be Marchibroda's second stint as a head coach under owner Bob Irsay. What did he do to deserve that?

*

Will we see this on "Divorce Court"?: The television networks used to be considered "partners" of the various sports leagues, but now the relationship is more than a little strained.

First, baseball commissioner Fay Vincent said that if ESPN didn't have baseball, it would be left with tractor pulls.

Now Tagliabue has all but accused NBC president Robert C. Wright of bluffing when he suggested the network might not bid on NFL football if the rights fees price doesn't come down.

Tagliabue dismissed that by saying, "Mr. Wright is negotiating in an articulate way in the newspapers."

Perhaps Tagliabue is right.

If Wright is serious, though, it could send shock waves through the NFL. If the NFL had to take a drop in TV money, it would have to change the way it operates. The NFL, though, is hoping that the Fox Network will join the bidding next time to keep the prices up.

That network will counterprogram the Super Bowl halftime show. It will have its own halftime party, which will include the awarding of a million-dollar grand prize. CBS can't be thrilled about that.

*

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