Contenders usually open with a bang

On The NFL

September 12, 1999|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Opening day in the NFL lacks the colorful pageantry of a baseball opening day.

There's no rite of spring aspect and no bunting at the stadiums.

The games, though, are much more important. It's one of 16 instead of one of 162.

It's a barometer for good teams because they tend to win their openers.

Of the 284 teams that won their openers since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, 152 went to the playoffs and 76 won division titles.

Of the 284 teams that lost, only 64 went to the playoffs and just 33 won division titles.

The figures for opening day losers are probably inflated because the NFL deliberately schedules playoff teams against each other in the openers for TV matchups. That guarantees two or three playoff-bound teams will lose on opening day.

For example, this weekend, there's the Atlanta-Minnesota and Jacksonville-San Francisco games today and the Miami-Denver games tomorrow night.

Of last year's 12 playoff teams, eight won their openers.

Of the four playoff teams that lost their openers, three (Jets, Cardinals and Patriots) lost to other playoff teams.

There are exceptions to every rule and Buffalo lost in San Diego and went on to the playoffs while the Chargers finished 5-11.

It's also noteworthy that no playoff team lost its first game at home last year. The four losers all lost on the road.

"Playoff teams win their home openers," said Rams coach Dick Vermeil, whose team is host to the Ravens today. Vermeil seems to think the Rams can make the playoffs despite the loss of quarterback, Trent Green, in the preseason.

Vermeil's right, though, that openers -- notably home openers -- are important.

Costly mistake

Dan Reeves, the coach of the Atlanta Facons, declined to pay Tony Martin a $400,000 roster bonus in the off-season because he was facing a drug-money-laundering trial.

Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson quickly signed Martin to a four-year, $14.2 million deal with a $3.3 million signing bonus.

Johnson also showed up at the trial with several players, sending the jury a not-so-subtle message. He even had Dan Martino testify as a character witness.

Martin's attorney also used the ever popular stupid athlete defense, contending Martin was victimized by a friend.

His lawyer, Hy Shapiro, said, "The stereotype of athletes not being the smartest people in the world might well be true."

Martin was acquitted and Reeves' decision not to pay Martin the bonus could affect two high profile games this weekend.

Johnson will have Martin when the Dolphins play the Broncos to give Marino a deep threat and Reeves won't have him when he hosts Minnesota so the Vikings can jam the line to stop Jamal Anderson without fearing Martin as a deep threat.

This maneuver explains why Johnson's won two Super Bowls and Reeves has lost four. Both are good coaches, but Johnson is a slick operator who knows all the angles while Reeves isn't good at running a team. While he passed up gambling that bonus on Martin, he's paying a backup tackle named Bob Kuberski $2.2 million this year.

Reeves also passed up Shawn Springs two years ago to trade down for Michael Booker, who's a bust. Reeves is quite a coach to overcome his own personnel mistakes.

Inadvertent buzz

The NFL starts using its new $10 million instant replay system in the regular season today.

If the preseason is any indication, what the return of replay really means is that the NFL has too much money to spend. They'd be better off giving the money to charity.

There's no doubt the new digital technology is terrific. The setup designed for replay costs $117,000 -- in about a decade it'll probably be $999 at your local video outlet -- and stores each play so it can be called up by number instead of searching through a videotape.

It can review a play four times -- three in slow motion -- in eight seconds.

Alas, as in all technology, there were some glitches during the preseason. It failed on occasion. Even the coaches' buzzers went off inadvertently at times although the league insists they have that problem fixed.

The biggest glitch, though, was that human beings have to look at the replays and they make mistakes. It's part of the DNA of human beings.

There were 14 reverals in the preseason, but some of them shouldn't have been reversed and then some should have been that weren't. The New York Giants alone were involved in four such plays -- including two in the game against the Ravens.

It's only a matter of time before they reverse a play in the regular season that was right in the first place. The NFL will have spent $10 million to create new controversy.

Quick facts

Denver leads all teams older than five years with a 25-13-1 opening day record. Jacksonville is 3-1.

New Orleans at 8-24 and Carolina at 1-3 have the worst opening day records.

Debver's Mike Shanahan is 6-0 in openers and needs five more to tie George Allen's mark of winning his first 11 openers. George Seifert is 7-1 in openers.

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