NFL ran a reverse in '96 Powers took back seat to insurgents, new, old

December 24, 1996|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Between them, the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers have won six of the past eight Super Bowls.

But the NFL's two most dominant teams of the past decade found themselves trying to hold the line this season against insurgents both young and old.

For Dallas, there were the relentless Green Bay Packers, intent on bringing the Lombardi Trophy back to Titletown.

In a Week 12 clash in Irving, Texas, the Cowboys repelled the injury-depleted Packers, 21-6. But will they be able to do it in January, on the tundra of Lambeau Field, where other Dallas teams have failed?

For San Francisco, there were the upstart Carolina Panthers, built to beat the 49ers. They did, twice, to dethrone the 49ers in the NFC West, and earn a first-round bye in this year's tournament.

Indeed, with their seasoned defense and youthful offense, the Panthers are an expansion team in name only.

It was no accident that Carolina and the Jacksonville Jaguars, the two teams that started play in 1995, are in the playoffs. Free agency and extra draft picks helped put them there.

It was a great year for expansion teams, a struggle for reigning dynasties. Looking back, here are some of the highlights and lowlights from the 1996 regular season:

Offensive MVP

Although 1,500-yard rusher Terrell Davis helped turn the Denver Broncos into legitimate Super Bowl threats, he can't match what quarterback Brett Favre means to Green Bay. With a negligible running game, Favre has maneuvered the Packers into the driver's seat in the NFC. Last year, he threw 38 touchdown passes. This year, with receivers dropping weekly, he threw 39. Only the Miami Dolphins' Dan Marino, with seasons of 48 and 44 TD passes, has ever thrown more.

Defensive MVP

Once Dallas defensive tackle Leon Lett began serving NFL time for his drug of choice, he forfeited a Pro Bowl trip to Hawaii and all kinds of awards. This is one of them. It now goes to pass rusher supreme Bruce Smith of the Buffalo Bills, who can consistently beat the double team.

Meteoric rise

Brad Johnson started the year as an obscure backup with the Minnesota Vikings, but finished the regular season with a new four-year, $15.5 million contract. That was his payback for resuscitating the Vikings' season after replacing Warren Moon, 40. How far has Johnson come? At Florida State, he lost his starting job to Casey Weldon, who is now a backup to Trent Dilfer in Tampa Bay.

Crash landing

Washington's Heath Shuler was the third pick in the draft three years ago, signing a $19.25 million contract. This year, he lost his job to seventh-round pick Gus Frerotte and took one snap all season. The Redskins won't pick up the option on the last two years of the contract, so Shuler will be job hunting shortly.

Best free-agent buy

Bill Romanowski did not attract a lot of attention when the veteran linebacker moved from the Philadelphia Eagles to the Broncos in the off-season, but he's made a world of difference for the once-toothless Broncos defense. No longer soft against the run because of Romanowski, the Broncos dictate to offenses this year.

Worst free-agent buy

Imagine committing $25 million to Super Bowl quarterback Neil O'Donnell, then watching him go 0-6 and out for the season. That's what the New York Jets got for signing the former Maryland quarterback. When O'Donnell tried to return in Week 14, he suffered a calf injury in warm-ups and was finished for the year.

Executive privilege

Pro Bowl receiver Jerry Rice was so upset when he didn't get the ball on the 49ers' final offensive play in a 30-24 loss to the Panthers on Dec. 8 that he went to team president Carmen Policy for a talk immediately after the game. The result? The next week in Pittsburgh, Rice was the target of Steve Young's first three passes, and got the ball on eight of the 49ers' first 16 plays. Oh, by the way, the 49ers led 16-0 by then.

Offensive Rookie of Year

The Houston Oilers' Eddie George was drafted behind running backs Lawrence Phillips and Tim Biakabutuka, but he showed winning the Heisman doesn't have to be a jinx. He had only four 100-yard rushing games this season, but ran for more than 1,300 yards.

Defensive Rookie of Year

Middle linebacker Zack Thomas of the Dolphins had a nice season, even if he was taken to school by the Cowboys in their Week 9 mismatch. But the rookie who had the most impact was defensive end Simeon Rice of Arizona, who racked up 12.5 sacks.

Executive of Year

There was nothing happenstance about the Panthers' rise to prominence this season. General manager Bill Polian, the architect of Buffalo's AFC dynasty, built Carolina's budding juggernaut with one thing in mind: to beat the 49ers.

Best impersonation

Jerry Stiller of "Seinfeld" fame was magnificent as the ghost of Vince Lombardi in Nike's clever commercials.

Worst impersonation

Rich Kotite as an NFL coach. He went 4-28 as coach of the New York Jets the past two seasons. Counting his last seven games as coach of the Eagles in 1994, Kotite won four of his last 35 NFL games.

Coach of Year

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