NFL opens season with eyes on field and courtroom

September 06, 1992|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Staff Writer

What in the name of Howard Cosell is Murphy Brown doing squabbling with the vice president?

How could so many people be watching a show going head-to-head with the Monday Night Football kickoff at 9 o'clock on Monday nights that it became the center of a national debate on family values?

In the heyday of Humble Howard and Dandy Don, the family was together watching Monday Night Football. It was a happening. No other TV show could compete with it. Even restaurant and theater business was down on Monday nights in the fall.

That's all changed.

"Monday Night Football used to be special," said coach Sam Wyche of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "Now it just means missing 'Murphy Brown' and 'Northern Exposure.' "

Monday Night Football still is a success and gets strong ratings. It was the eighth-ranked prime-time TV show during the football season last year and 11th for the entire season.

But it has lost some of its panache, which is a symbol for the malaise that has engulfed the league.

As the NFL kicks off its 73rd season today, it has never enjoyed greater prosperity and yet it has never experienced more strife.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue didn't even hold his traditional conference call with writers around the country last week previewing the new season and updating the state of the NFL.

That's because the opening of the NFL season has been overshadowed by the closing of the antitrust trial in Minneapolis. The case is expected to go to the jury this week.

Unfortunately, Tagliabue missed a chance to promote this season, which has the makings of an intriguing one on the field.

For one thing, there doesn't appear to be a super team out there. The Washington Redskins are the defending champions, but they won by playing well together. They didn't intimidate their opponents.

As a result, there's half a dozen teams that think they have a chance of beating the Redskins.

Here are some of the fascinating questions about this season:

* Are the Dallas Cowboys ready to take the next step after going from 7-9 to 11-5 last year?

* Can Randall Cunningham's return make the Philadelphia Eagles a super team even though they've lost Jerome Brown?

* Will the San Francisco 49ers, who won their final six last year even though they missed the playoffs, become super again without Joe Montana?

* How will the Detroit Lions cope with the double tragedy of Mike Utley being paralyzed and Eric Andolsek getting killed?

* Can the Atlanta Falcons stay in the race until Deion Sanders arrives at mid-season?

* Will the Bears rebound from last year's disappointing finish?

* Will the Buffalo Bills make it back to a third straight Super Bowl?

* Can either John Elway or Dan Marino help their teams derail the Bills?

* Will instant replay be missed?

What speaks volumes about the state of the league is that the players and owners are entering their sixth season without a collective bargaining agreement. They're even putting their fate in the hands of a jury and a judge in Minneapolis instead of working out their problems themselves. But regardless of the outcome of the trial, it's doubtful that it will end the strife.

"Unfortunately, I see nothing but dark clouds on the horizon," said Bill Polian, general manger of the Buffalo Bills.

Polian is particularly worried about how faceless the players have become.

He brought up the movie "Diner," which chronicled Baltimore's love affair with the Colts in the 1960s.

"We could name the starting lineups of every team in the NFL in that generation," Polian said. "Can you do that today? It's not just bigger rosters. People have become almost faceless. Would John Mackey play on every down now? He was the premier tight end, but would they take him out for a wide receiver on third down?"

"Everybody is focused on litigation," Polian said.

That's a theme that's echoed around the league.

George Young, general manager of the New York Giants, said there's enough money for both sides to prosper if they'd work together.

"We're not living in the 1930s. There's enough for all," he said. "We're not talking about Norma Rae unionism here. This is a truism. Since I've been in the league, when the owners make more money, the players make more money."

Among the many problems caused by the strife is a lack of action on the expansion front, a problem that affects the Baltimore fans.

The league hasn't expanded since 1976. Since then it has gone through four major antitrust trials, three franchise shifts and two strikes.

The enthusiasm at the preseason game at Memorial Stadium Aug. 27 showed that Baltimore -- and the other potential expansion cities -- are an untapped market for the NFL. Instead of being eager to tap those markets, the league is talking about expanding by only two teams.

If the league loses the trial, expansion will likely be delayed because the two sides are still so far apart.

The two sides don't even agree on what they're fighting about.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.