The top 10 stories of the season

August 31, 1996|By SUN STAFF WRITERS KEN MURRAY AND MILTON KENT

1 Jimmy Johnson rebuilds the Shula empire: When the most repeated rumor of the past two years finally came true last Jan. 11 and Jimmy Johnson found his personal utopia in South Florida, the Miami Dolphins braced for the aftershocks they knew were coming. After 26 years of doing it Don Shula's way, the Dolphins were going to do it Johnson's way, and there was no confusing the two ways. Unlike Shula, Johnson will not tolerate the team's underachieving reputation, soft defense or lame running game.

This is not quite the overhaul of the Cowboys in 1989, when Johnson rebuilt from the ground up. But there will be plenty of changes in Miami. Before training camp started, Johnson cut overpaid (and overweight) tight end Eric Green. When fullback Keith Byars wouldn't accept a pay cut of nearly $1 million, Johnson released him. (Byars later re-signed with the Dolphins for $200,000 less than the price Johnson previously offered.) When rookie middle linebacker Zach Thomas showed he could play, Johnson cut one of his favorite players, veteran Jack Del Rio, who had helped with the Dallas reconstruction.

One change Johnson won't make involves quarterback Dan Marino. Johnson knows better than to mess with a good thing.

2 Cowboys reel after another round of off-season setbacks: The Cowboys keep pushing the envelope, waiting to see if they finally self-destruct or rise to the challenge one more time. They have won three of the last four Super Bowls to become the Team of the '90s. But they are dangerously deep in a game of diminishing returns.

After beating the Steelers in last season's Super Bowl, the Cowboys lost defensive regulars Russell Maryland, Larry Brown, Dixon Edwards and Robert Jones to free agency. They lost Pro Bowl receiver Michael Irvin to a five-game suspension after he pleaded no contest to a felony charge of cocaine possession. They lost defensive lineman Shante Carver for six games for alcohol abuse. That makes five members off last year's Super Bowl roster who've been suspended by the NFL.

3 Brett Favre, who beat his addiction to Vicodin, still is looking for a way to beat the Cowboys: The road to the Super Bowl dead-ended in Dallas again last year for the Packers. They've been knocked out of the playoffs in Texas Stadium three years running, including last season's 38-27 loss in the NFC championship game. In four years as Packers coach, Mike Holmgren is 0-6 against Dallas.

Maybe this is the year the Packers finally beat the Cowboys and reach the Super Bowl. But Favre can't be expected to do any more than he did a year ago, when he threw for 4,413 yards and 38 touchdowns in the regular season and 805 yards and three touchdowns in the postseason.

4 Ted Marchibroda will apply his turnaround formula in a Baltimore encore: It was more than a reunion Art Modell had in mind when he brought the former Colts coach (1975-79) back to lead the Ravens. Marchibroda has worked his turnaround magic twice before. He inherited a 2-12 team in Baltimore in 1975 and immediately went 10-4, winning the AFC East title. As part of his Indianapolis reincarnation with the Colts in 1992, he transformed a 1-15 team into a 9-7 contender.

Three years later, all was forgotten. Under Marchibroda, the Colts came within one play ` a Hail Mary pass by Jim Harbaugh in the end zone ` of beating Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game and reaching the Super Bowl. In appreciation, the Colts showed Marchibroda the door.

5 Neil O'Donnell cashes in on his Super Bowl season: With the exception of two passes in his last game, O'Donnell had a strong season in 1995. He threw for 17 touchdowns, 2,970 yards and only seven interceptions, quarterbacking the Steelers to the Super Bowl. But it was those two terrible passes ` both intercepted by the Cowboys' Larry Brown ` that forever marred his Pittsburgh career and virtually sealed his departure as a free agent in the off-season.

Now, at a price tag of $25 million over five years, he's a Jet. O'Donnell was hired to wake up the NFL's most somnolent offense. Last season, the Jets offense was last in total yards and rushing yards, and third worst in passing yards.

With owner Leon Hess committing $58 million to free agents and $15 million to wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, the No. 1 pick in the draft, the burden of expectations will fall on the shoulders of O'Donnell.

6 Redskins wrestle with another quarterback controversy: After two years of force-feeding Heath Shuler on their offense, the Redskins finally acknowledged a 1994 draft- day mistake by naming Gus Frerotte their starting quarterback this summer. So seemingly ends the fragile two-year reign of the injury-hampered Shuler, who missed 12 games during that span. Or does it?

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