Title games feature old hands, stadiums

ON THE NFL

January 11, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

As the final four teams prepare to battle for the two Super Bowl slots today, there are no surprise teams the way Carolina and Jacksonville were last year.

Green Bay, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Denver all have Super pedigrees. They've been in 13 of the last 24 Super Bowls and have combined to make 17 Super Bowl appearances.

The four teams have one other thing in common: All play in old stadiums and only one, San Francisco, has a new one approved.

The NFL keeps saying its teams need new stadiums to compete, but the evidence has yet to prove that. Low-revenue teams have managed to thrive with good drafting and coaching.

It's not like baseball where the teams with the highest payrolls tend to be the most successful.

No low-revenue team has done it better than Pittsburgh, where voters turned down a stadium proposal last year. The Steelers will start only 10 of the 22 players today who started in the Super Bowl two years ago.

But the team's director of football operations, Tom Donahoe, says it's unrealistic to expect the Steelers to do it indefinitely in an old stadium.

"It hasn't caught up to us yet and it's a credit to the organizations of the four teams in the final four that they're finding ways to get it done, but I'd say over the next 10 or 15 years it probably would [catch up to them]," he said.

Donahoe concedes, though, that new stadiums don't necessarily improve teams.

"It's still comes down to organization and ownership. Putting a bad organization in a new stadium doesn't automatically get a team to the playoffs," he said.

Even in the era of free agency, he said the draft still makes or breaks teams.

"We've always felt the draft is critical and it's become more critical in free agency," he said.

Donahoe said one of the reasons the draft is critical is that winning teams tend to lose players because other teams overrate players on winning teams.

"What's happening in this system is that they not only overrate them, they overpay them," he said.

For the Steelers, a new stadium might not be as critical as keeping Donahoe in charge. There's much speculation the Seattle Seahawks will make a run at him after the season, but he ducks all those questions by saying, "Nobody's even talked to me."

Meanwhile, the stadium issue continues to be hot. The Cincinnati Bengals' stadium plan is in danger of falling apart and owner Mike Brown says he wants a resolution by the end of the month. In Denver, owner Pat Bowlen says he'll sell the team if he doesn't get a new stadium and suggests the new owner may move the team.

"The way things are going, we won't be able to play a [big] playoff game [again]. We're going to be the Cincinnati of the National Football League," Bowlen said.

The only certain thing this year is that the Super Bowl winner will take the trophy back to an old stadium.

Oddsmakers

Considering the advantage the home field usually is during the playoffs, it's noteworthy that both home teams, San Francisco and Pittsburgh, are slight underdogs today.

It's easy to understand why Green Bay is favored at San Francisco. The Packers are the defending champions and the better team, and the wine-and-cheese crowd in San Francisco isn't noted for intimidating the opposition.

The only edge for San Francisco is that the 49ers may make it a game at home. If the Packers were at home, they might as well engrave their Super Bowl invitations.

The fact Pittsburgh's a slight underdog is more of a surprise. Pittsburgh is one of the toughest places to play and the Steelers beat the Broncos a month ago.

On top of that, Denver had to travel the wild-card route and the Broncos gave the Steelers a motivating tool when they got caught unveiling their Super Bowl T-shirts last week.

It didn't help that coach Mike Shanahan said the reason the Broncos lost last month is that they dropped too many passes. Even if it's true, the Steelers treated that as a lack of respect.

But the real reason the Steelers are underdogs is that they have question marks at the two critical positions -- coach and quarterback.

Coach Bill Cowher is a protege of Marty Schottenheimer and they both have problems in the playoffs. Cowher is 5-5 and Schottenheimer is 5-11. Schottenheimer lost twice at home in the last three years after being the top seed. Cowher did the same thing in 1992 and 1994.

Cowher is not another Bill Walsh when it comes to strategy, either. He apologized for his decision not to kick the field goal in the fourth quarter last week. But he also ran the Bus, Jerome Bettis, on two consecutive plays only once in the first half.

The Broncos have the edge at quarterback, too, with veteran John Elway over Kordell Stewart, who may have a great future, but is only in his first year as a starter.

Staying in school

Texas running back Ricky Williams is this year's Peyton Manning. He probably would have been a top 10 selection in the draft, but decided to stay in school.

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