The National Free-for-All League

The NFL tries to recover from a series of fumbles.

Kurt Warner may not know it, but Some Things Never Change. With six weeks left in the National Football League season, the perennially miserable Cincinnati Bengals are 1-10 and eager to clean out their lockers. The flightless Philadelphia Eagles are once more lolling in the NFC East basement with a 3-8 mark. Mike Ditka's punchless New Orleans Saints, 2-8, are looking forward to a nice dinner at Antoine's.

In north Florida, the Jacksonville Jaguars, one of the favorites to win the Lombardi Trophy, are on cruise control at 9-1.

But that's it. That's just about the only form to hold. In a year Walter Mitty and Steve Forbes gotta love, the entire NFL is standing on its head. The St. Louis Rams -- who haven't had a winning season since 1989 -- are the class of the NFC, and the Tennessee Titans, whose moniker didn't even exist last season, have emerged as conference-title contenders. On the other hand, last year's Super Bowl teams, the Atlanta Falcons and your bruised and battered Denver Broncos, have combined for a 5-15 record. At the rate they're going through running backs, head coaches Mike Shanahan and Dan Reeves may wind up arm wrestling for the right to bail Lawrence Phillips out of jail.

Patrick Merewether

Did we mention that the San Francisco 49ers, who have won three of the last ten Super Bowls, are 3-7 and have somebody named Jeff Garcia playing quarterback? Or that the Green Bay Packers find themselves in fourth place in the NFC Central, looking up at the mighty Detroit Lions? The Barry Sanders-less Detroit Lions.

Meanwhile, Sports Illustrated recently chose Kurt Warner as its mid-season league MVP. No, not Curt Warner. Not the Penn State-bred running back who retired from pro football a few seasons back. This is Kurt with a "K," a former NFL Europe and Arena League quarterback who, before this season started, had attempted exactly eleven NFL passes. As the Rams' surprise starter, he's earning about $5.65 an hour and hasn't begun to slap his name on a breakfast cereal. But going into Sunday's game at San Francisco, he had passed for 2,447 yards and a league-best 26 touchdowns while racking up a performance rating of 117.8 -- twelve points higher than leader Randall Cunningham's way, way back in 1998.

What the hell is going on here? NFL pundits say the league is going through a sea change, if not a major cataclysm, because half a dozen elements have suddenly collided on the eve of the new century.

For one, the anything-goes free agency that arrived in 1993 has destabilized some traditional powers in the game and juiced up some former also-rans. Case in point: Of the 49 players on the Pittsburgh Steelers team that played in the 1996 Super Bowl, 37 are now gone. If you can name all of the teams that temperamental quarterback Jeff George has played for in the last five years, you've got 50,000 free frequent-flier miles coming. By the way, Broncos fans. Have the departures of defensive captain Steve Atwater to the Jets and linebacker Keith Burns to the Bears taken a far greater toll than even their teammates imagined?

A tidal wave of injuries, retirements and coaching changes has also reshaped the power structure of the league. Time finally took its toll on Green Bay Packers bulwark Reggie White and some guy named Elway, and the Lions have had to do (quite nicely, it turns out) without running back Sanders, who abruptly retired just 1,400 yards short of the late Walter Payton's league rushing record. Some other high-profile ball carriers are riding the pine against their will: The Broncos' Terrell Davis (the MVP in 1998, with 2,088 yards!), the Falcons' Jamal Anderson and the 49ers' Garrison Hearst are all out for the year with gruesome injuries, and there's no guarantee the surgeons can put them back together. In Dallas, Emmitt Smith is ailing, and in Denver -- need we recount the Broncos' woes -- an injury to backup Derek Loville has thrust rookie Olandis Gary into the spotlight.

The slaughterhouse offensive of 1999 has also claimed the three top passers of 1998: Suddenly ineffective Randall Cunningham is now the second-stringer at Minnesota, the Jets' resurgent Vinny Testaverde was lost in the first game to a ruptured Achilles tendon, and the Niners' Steve Young can barely remember his name these days, so severe have been his concussions. Soon, all three of these aging stars could be joining Elway on the golf course. As for Miami's ageless and durable Dan Marino, don't talk to him about retirement just yet, but take note that he's hurt, too, replaced by Damon Huard. In Dallas, Troy Aikman is banged up, and in Tampa, Trent Dilfer has been asked to take a seat.

Anyone want to weigh the comparative big-league value of the two top quarterbacks selected in the 1998 draft? In Indianapolis, Peyton Manning wiped out every rookie passing record last year, and his team is one of the league's most formidable contenders of 1999. In San Diego, brooding and unruly Ryan Leaf is not only hurt, but he's ever willing to insult teammates, reporters, coaches and front-office suits. The Chargers, a Super Bowl team three years ago, are 4-6.

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