Top 10 stories of the season

September 04, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

1. John Elway returns for his 16th and final season: Who can forget Elway's reckless, headfirst lunge into a crowd of Green Bay Packers just before Denver scored a go-ahead touchdown in Super Bowl XXXII? That set the tone for the Broncos' 31-24 upset. It also served as the exclamation point to how badly

Elway wanted to win that night and shake his streak of three straight Super Bowl defeats.

Now Elway, 38, is back to pursue a second ring. His place in the Hall of Fame long since secure, Elway needs 22 touchdown passes to reach 300 for his career, 87 completions for a total of 4,000, and 1,331 passing yards to join Dan Marino as the only quarterbacks in history with 50,000 yards. One question remains: Would he have won a Super Bowl in Baltimore?

2. Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf arrive: Just as Elway is leaving, a pair of hotshot quarterbacks arrive this season. Manning went to the Indianapolis Colts with the first pick in the 1998 draft, and Leaf to the San Diego Chargers with the second choice. Both will be expected to play right away.

Who is better? The consensus says that Manning is more polished, more ready to play in the NFL as a rookie, although the strong-armed Leaf could turn out to be the better long-range quarterback. While Elway and Marino meet one last time in Week 16, Manning and Leaf could face each other for the first time in the regular season in Week 5. Unlike Elway and Marino in their early years, these two youngsters are being asked to revive two down-and-out franchises.

3. Packers coach Mike Holmgren restless for power: Bill Parcells has it. So does Jimmy Johnson. And so do Dan Reeves and Dick Vermeil, for some reason. Ultimate power, dual titles, the chance to make personnel decisions and third-down calls. Holmgren admitted last year he also lusted for total control of a team. If it can't be in Green Bay, where Ron Wolf runs the club, then somewhere else.

Last April, the Packers gave Holmgren the opening he needs to bolt for a power position. They gave him a contractual clause that will permit him to talk after the season with other teams about the dual role of general manager/coach. But they also insisted on draft choices in return. Holmgren, a native of San Francisco and a former 49ers assistant, could be headed home if the stars align right.

4. 49ers dynasty shudders in transition: They survived the departures of Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, but can the San Francisco 49ers overcome the loss of chief executive Carmen Policy? The organization has been in a state of management flux since owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. relinquished control to his sister late in 1997. Just as DeBartolo was taking steps to regain the 49ers, the highly respected Policy resigned to join Cleveland's expansion effort. Policy was the mastermind behind many of the club's innovative salary-cap moves.

These are transitional times for the 49ers. Quarterback Steve Young is almost 37, wide receiver Jerry Rice is coming off two knee surgeries, and second-year coach Steve Mariucci must replace six starters from a team that lost the NFC championship game at home to the Packers last season. One thing remains the same: The 49ers play in perhaps the worst division in football.

5. Cowboys reload with Chan Gailey: The Evil Empire, once known as America's Team, collapsed under the weight of bad drafts, an uninterested coach and the aging process last season. As if Barry Switzer wasn't hard enough to take when the Dallas Cowboys were winning, the situation became intolerable when they sleepwalked through a 6-10 season.

Enter Gailey, former offensive coordinator with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The new coach will give the Cowboys discipline, direction and offense, all of which they lacked under Switzer. At least, that's the plan. It doesn't help that quarterback Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith have been in a two-year funk, or that defenses suddenly can take wide receiver Michael Irvin out of the game.

6. Ravens unveil their new roost: The stadium that Bob Irsay wanted and Bill Bidwill could have had is finally finished, and it belongs to Art Modell. After two losing seasons in dilapidated Memorial Stadium, the Ravens will try to cultivate their own identity and create home-field advantage in their new digs.

Sitting in tandem with Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the football stadium has 69,426 seats, 108 luxury suites, two state-of-the-art scoreboards and 66 restrooms. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers also will open a new stadium this season.

7. Barry Sanders chases Payton, history: Sanders became the third running back in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards last season when he inspired the Detroit Lions' playoff run. After nine Pro Bowl seasons and four rushing titles, he is within distance of a much greater accomplishment - the all-time rushing record.

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