New acts show staying power

Football: It was a season of the changing of the guard in the NFL, with new stars and new teams taking their place at center stage.

NFL season in review

January 06, 2000|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

In 1998, the NFL's top four running backs were Terrell Davis, Jamal Anderson, Garrison Hearst and Barry Sanders. Collectively, they rushed for nearly 7,000 yards, and each was named to the Pro Bowl.

In 1999, none of them made it past Oct. 3. They played in six games combined, rushed for 270 yards total. The net result was a staggering loss of 6,645 ground yards for the NFL.

What happened? Hearst never made it back from a broken leg he suffered in the playoffs for the San Francisco 49ers last season. Sanders retired from the Detroit Lions two days before training camp. Anderson ripped up his knee in the Atlanta Falcons' Monday night game in Week 2. Davis tore two ligaments in his right knee when he was accidentally hit by one of his Denver Broncos teammates in Week 4.

Off that start, upheaval became a theme for the 1999 season. Injuries and retirement robbed the league of some of its biggest stars, sentencing several Super Bowl-hopefuls to life in the losing lane.

But for every star who fell from the NFL firmament this season, another quickly took his place:

When Davis went down, Indianapolis Colts rookie Edgerrin James claimed his rushing title with 1,553 yards.

After John Elway retired from the Broncos in May, unheralded St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner became the second quarterback in league history to throw for 40 touchdown passes or more.

The New York Jets lost quarterback Vinny Testaverde to a ruptured Achilles' tendon in September, but by December, found former special teamer Ray Lucas, who won six of nine starts to spark a last-season surge.

The Green Bay Packers' retiring Reggie White, the league's all-time leading sacker, departed just as the Tennessee Titans' pass-rushing phenom, Jevon Kearse, arrived. Kearse collected 15.5 sacks in his first season.

The passing of the 1900s was marked in the NFL by the passing of an era. The 1999 season was about new, different, younger. It was about change, turnover and turnaround. Up was down, and down was up.

The Colts set a record by going from 3-13 to 13-3, the best single-season turnaround in NFL history. The Rams went from being the NFL's losingest team in the '90s to posting the best record (13-3) in the NFC. The Washington Redskins went from 6-10 to 10-6.

Then there were the Super Bowl-champion Broncos, who slumped from 14-2 to 6-10. Their Super Bowl opponent, the Falcons, skidded from 14-2 to 5-11.

Dick Vermeil, almost fired by the Rams after the 1998 season, is suddenly a genius in the league. Denver's Mike Shanahan, last season's genius, issued a mea culpa at the end of the year for mishandling the benching of Bubby Brister at the beginning of the season.

Vermeil had it right last Sunday when he said, "The only way to get smart is to get better players."

With a few notable exceptions, it was a very good year in the NFL. This is a look back at 1999:


The loss of Davis, Anderson, Hearst and Sanders contributed to a downturn in the running game. A year ago, led by Davis' 2,008-yard effort, there were 20 running backs who rushed for 1,000 yards or more.

This season there were 14.

James proved the wisdom of the Colts' taking him ahead of Heisman Trophy-winner Ricky Williams in the draft. He played a major role in the Colts' revival with 10 100-yard rushing games.

He also is the first player other than Davis, Sanders or Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys to win the rushing title since Christian Okoye of the Kansas City Chiefs won it in 1989. But James' 1,553 yards would have ranked only fourth in the league a year ago.

Falcons in free fall

It would be easy to blame the Falcons' collapse on Anderson's injury, but it wouldn't be entirely accurate. After reaching the Super Bowl last season, the cost-conscious Falcons cut wide receiver Tony Martin, who also had legal problems, and linebacker Cornelius Bennett.

They never replaced Martin as a deep threat, a circumstance that seriously hurt quarterback Chris Chandler's passing game. Martin averaged 15.3 yards on 61 catches for the Miami Dolphins this season.

Meanwhile, Bennett became the mainstay of an improved Colts defense in their playoff run, although he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 17.

The Falcons' spiral may not be over. They have 10 starters who are eligible to become free agents this season, and about $15 million to spend in the salary cap.

Relocation rendezvous

It was a very good season for franchises that moved in the last two decades. Three transplants -- the Colts, Rams and Titans -- all went 13-3 and are headed to the playoffs.

The Ravens and Oakland Raiders both went 8-8 and were in the playoff hunt as late as Week 16. The Arizona Cardinals, on the other hand, slipped to 6-10. That's a combined record of 61-35.

It would not be surprising if two of those relocated teams wind up in Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta later this month, either.

Fighting through the fog

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