Thrown for loss, QBs hand off glory Running backs excel, cutting through holes left by injured passers

NFL season in review

December 24, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The 1997 NFL season was a great year for running backs, not so hot for quarterbacks, and an abysmal year for fallen franchises like the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders.

The two striking themes that ran concurrently through the regular season were in evidence on the same field just last Sunday. In the Year of the Running Back, Detroit's Barry Sanders became the third player to break the 2,000-yard barrier, and first since 1984.

But even as Sanders was running into history in a 13-10 win over the New York Jets, Lions linebacker Reggie Brown was fighting for his life after a devastating spinal injury that had players from both teams weeping on the field.

While Brown's recovery is monitored in a Detroit hospital this week, the NFL must confront the increased violent nature of the game. Whether Brown's injury was a freak accident or not, the league knows the war on quarterbacks is taking a heavy toll.

Stan Humphries' third concussion in 11 months almost certainly will send the San Diego Chargers quarterback into retirement this off-season. San Francisco's Steve Young had to reconsider his career after suffering a third concussion in a year. Atlanta's Chris Chandler endured two concussions this season and continued to play.

There were 20 starting quarterback changes this season as a result of injury, ranging from a broken jaw (Carolina's Kerry Collins) to a broken collarbone (Kansas City's Elvis Grbac) to a broken hip (Washington's Gus Frerotte).

Given all that turmoil, it wasn't surprising coaches leaned heavily on the running game. And the runners responded. There were 16 1,000-yard rushers this season, matching a league high achieved three times previously -- 1995, 1985 and 1983. Sanders showed the way with 14 consecutive 100-yard games and a 2,053-yard season.

On the team front, the Cowboys (6-10) plunged from dynasty to laughingstock, and the Raiders (4-12) waded deeper into the abyss that seemingly engulfs owner Al Davis. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, meanwhile, captured their first playoff berth in 15 years, and the New York Giants staged a worst-to-first revolution in the NFC East.

Here is a look back at 1997, with a quick peek ahead:

Offensive MVP

At 5 feet 8, Sanders became the most dominant player in the league this season. He averaged 6.1 yards a carry and 128 yards a game to record the second-best rushing season ever.

Defensive MVP

Defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield not only was the San Francisco 49ers' best run-stopper inside, but their best pass rusher as well. And that was for the league's best defense.

Coach of the Year

Tampa Bay's Tony Dungy gets the call over the Giants' Jim Fassel because Dungy had more to overcome -- namely 14 consecutive losing seasons by the Bucs. Youth and a tough schedule (10 games vs. teams that earned playoff berths) didn't prevent Tampa Bay from equaling the best record in franchise history (10-6).

Rookie of the Year

The Cincinnati Bengals didn't start to win until they gave the ball to running back Corey Dillon in Week 10. After eight starts -- and six wins -- Dillon finished with 1,129 rushing yards. That's 151 more than Tampa Bay's precocious rookie Warrick Dunn, who started all year.

Executive of the Year

Somebody keeps restocking the shelves for the Pittsburgh Steelers after all those free-agent defections. That somebody is director of football operations Tom Donahoe. People noticed this year, which is why Donahoe is rumored for a number of new jobs.

Worst trade

The Chicago Bears sent the 11th pick in the draft to Seattle for out-of-favor quarterback Rick Mirer. Way too high, as the Bears soon found out. Mirer couldn't beat out Erik Kramer and finished the year with no touchdown passes and six interceptions. But he's got a base salary of $2.3 million for 1998, which he doesn't figure to collect.

QBs who'll take a hike

In addition to Mirer, you can look for these guys at the free-agent market or your local trading center: Neil O'Donnell, Jim Harbaugh, Vinny Testaverde, Ty Detmer, Heath Shuler, Dave Brown, Todd Collins, and maybe even that gunslinger down in Miami, name of Marino.

Worst year by a QB

Can you top this? Punched out by a teammate in training camp. Suffered a broken jaw in the preseason. Called a racist after issuing a racial slur. Benched in October. Threw 21 interceptions. Now being questioned as the quarterback of the team's future. That's the season of Carolina's Kerry Collins. One more thing. He predicted a dynasty for the Panthers last January, and they went 7-9 this year.

Best year by a QB

Jim Kelly wasn't sacked once this season in the TV booth. Now, one year after no one wanted him -- even his own Buffalo Bills -- bidders are lining up to take a look. Step right up, Baltimore.

Best comeback by a QB

Boomer Esiason was prepared to play out the string when he returned to Cincinnati this season as Jeff Blake's backup. But he won four of five starts down the stretch and the Bengals say the starting job is his if he'll take it next year.

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