First half produces rough ride for many Jets and Rams make all wrong moves

Cowboys back on Super track?

NFL at midseason

November 03, 1996|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

It was a rough first half of the NFL season for coaching icons in Miami, new million-dollar quarterbacks in New York, and rookie running backs from Nebraska.

Just ask Jimmy Johnson, Neil O'Donnell and Lawrence Phillips.

Johnson made serious waves when he replaced Dolphins coach Don Shula last winter, but he found out he couldn't walk on water once he lost quarterback Dan Marino. Nor could he beat his old nemesis, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, in their celebrated reunion.

O'Donnell was supposed to be the $25 million man who would finally get the New York Jets off the ground. Instead, the one-time Maryland quarterback took them deeper into the hole.

And Lawrence Phillips? Everybody who didn't draft the troubled Nebraska runner has been thanking their lucky stars since. It's only the St. Louis Rams who are crying over spilled milk.

These are some of the highlights and lowlights from the first half of the season:

Offensive MVP: Quarterback Brett Favre was sensational for the Green Bay Packers in the first half with 21 touchdown passes and only six interceptions. Now comes the tough part. They're going to make him play the second half without his best receivers, the injured Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman. If Favre can win at Kansas City and Dallas in back-to-back weeks, he deserves to go to the Super Bowl. Runner-up: Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis.

Defensive MVP: Dallas tackle Leon Lett is best known for two highly visible gaffes in his career -- getting stripped of a sure touchdown in Super Bowl XXVII and muffing a missed field goal that cost the Cowboys a victory against Miami in 1993. He deserves to be known for more than that. This year he will be. Runner-up: Buffalo Bills pass rusher Bruce Smith.

Best free-agent buy: Defensive tackle Sean Gilbert gave the Washington Redskins defense a force in the middle when he was traded by the Rams for a first-round draft pick. Without Gilbert, the Redskins wouldn't be 7-1.

Biggest free-agent bust: Can there be any doubt? The $25 million man. See Neil O'Donnell (above).

Best trade: Once the Pittsburgh Steelers decided to part company with Bam Morris, they swapped their second-round pick in 1996 and their fourth in '97 with the Rams for running back Jerome Bettis and a third-rounder in '96. Bettis has been a godsend with six 100-yard games (all wins) for the Steelers. The Rams used Pittsburgh's second pick in '96 on tight end Ernie Conwell. Think they regret the trade?

Biggest first-round bust: The Rams overlooked the criminal behavior of the recalcitrant Phillips last spring and talked of second chances when they made him the sixth pick in the draft. He hasn't been nearly as tough in the trenches for St. Louis as he was in the dorms of Nebraska. He's averaging a paltry 2.7 yards a carry. How many second chances does that warrant?

Executive of the half-year: Washington general manager Charley Casserly gets this, hands down. That's because the Redskins have the lowest payroll in the NFL and the best record (7-1).

Worst front-office moves: If you've been paying attention, you've probably already discerned the trend. The Rams traded Jerome Bettis, who's second in the NFL in rushing. They traded Gilbert, who's having a Pro Bowl season in Washington. They drafted Phillips, who's unproductive. And, oh yes, they signed free agent quarterback Steve Walsh, whom they demoted to the third team after three games. Is anyone minding the store in St. Louis?

Second place goes to the Ravens, who signed wide receiver Floyd Turner on July 10 and failed to turn in his contract to the league office by the July 15 deadline.

All-Bust backfield: What do Marshall Faulk, Ki-Jana Carter and Rashaan Salaam have in common? They're all supposed to be featured runners for their teams, but they can barely get out of their own way. Faulk is averaging only 3.0 yards a carry for the Indianapolis Colts and has gone 23 games without gaining 100. Carter, playing behind a bad offensive line in Cincinnati, is averaging 3.0 yards and has lost his job to Garrison Hearst. Salaam started the year hurt and is averaging only 2.8 per carry for the Chicago Bears.

Best coaching job: You could make a case for Norv Turner in Washington, Mike Shanahan in Denver, Jeff Fisher in Houston or Dom Capers in Carolina. But there's only one coach of the year so far, and it's Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh. Here's why: In the off-season, the Steelers lost their best tackle (Leon Searcy), their starting quarterback (O'Donnell) and a savvy linebacker (Kevin Greene) to free agency. They also dismissed their best running back (Morris) after he incurred a drug charge. Then, on opening day, they lost their best linebacker (Greg Lloyd) to a season-ending knee injury. Now they're starting Mike Tomczak at quarterback. And still the Steelers lead the AFC Central at 6-2.

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