New Kids on the Block

If they look hard enough, Green Bay fans will be able to find bratwurst in New Orleans. When it comes to fulfilling desire, you can find anything in New Orleans. Of course, the Wisconsin snowfolk might do better to sample the piquant local sausage called andouille, which Cajun/Creole chefs put in everything from jambalaya to gumbo to spaghetti sauce.

As for New Englanders in search of lobsters this week in the Big Easy, they'll find them right under their noses--in miniature, by the tens of thousands. As Cajun legend has it, the tiny crawfish was once a big guy. A lobster. When the bloody British threw the French out of northeastern Canada in the eighteenth century, the sorrowful crustacean made a harrowing, ocean-floor trek down the East Coast, hooked a right into the Gulf of Mexico and landed in Louisiana, diminished by the long haul but still delicious.

What are we getting at here?
Well, food for thought, actually. And the subject of gnawing hunger.
Bronco fans are still crying in their Denver omelettes over that playoff loss to the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars. If it means anything, they aren't the only ones. Since the Jags and the Carolina Panthers both reached their respective conference title games, raising the startling possibility of a catfight between two-year-olds in the Super Bowl, old-line powers around the National Football League have been whining about it.

How in the name of Papa Bear Halas could a couple of expansion teams, for God's sake, come within a missed tackle or two of winning the best table at the big feast, while all the world's Seahawks and Buccaneers and Oilers and Saints have never even gotten scraps at the back door of the kitchen?

The complainants--including many right here in Cowtown--charge that the deck was stacked from the beginning. When Jacksonville and Carolina came into the league, revamped rules gave them two picks in each of the seven rounds of the 1995 NFL draft and two choices from the last five rounds of the 1996 draft. Not only that, the new owners could go power-shopping in the free-agent market, because their clubs weren't saddled with expensive veteran stars whose salaries put them near the limit of the league salary cap. In the process, the Jags and Panthers also drove up the going price of free agents for the established teams.

The behind-the-scenes author of these relaxations, some say, was the NFL's former director of football development, Bill Polian, who helped design a player-acquisition system overly generous to the expansion clubs because he had an eye on his future. To no one's surprise, Polian is now general manager of the Carolina Panthers.

And there you have it, the critics bellow. Instead of starting J.C. Lame at running back, Billy Slow at wide receiver and John Ancient at quarterback, as expansion teams of yore always had to do, these new clubs--instead of paying their frigging dues in this league--were well-stocked by 1996 with actual football players, not crippled geezers looking into restaurant partnerships or the life-insurance business. As quick as you can say Mark Brunell, both litters of cats had leaped into the playoffs.

The late former commissioner of the league, Pete Rozelle, would have loved it. In his long career building the NFL into the strongest entity in professional sports, Rozelle's ideal was always parity--because parity kept lots of fans in the seats, ever hopeful, and parity kept the New York Yankee Effect out of pro football. Without dynasties, he wisely reasoned, the game would stay fresh and exciting. Without one team dominating, hotdog vendors everywhere would make a decent living and fan restlessness would be kept to a minimum.

But you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men. Between them, the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers have won six of the last eight Super Bowls, and no American Conference team has won the big one since--let's see here--just before the Visigoths sacked Rome. Blake Carrington himself could scarcely have envisioned mini-dynasties like these. Meanwhile, the manic-depression rates among football fans in towns like Atlanta and Kansas City continue to go off the charts.

But, hey. Set aside the Broncos' squandered glories for a second and take a look at what the startling rise of Jacksonville and Carolina could mean to the game. For one thing, it means that the new teams' owners, who gritted their teeth and agreed to a reduced share of national television revenues, actually got something--right away--for the staggering $200 million or so each city paid for its franchise.

So did their fans. Like it or not, the age of instant gratification demands some instant "W's" on the score sheet--fast food, so to speak. That Carolina and Jacksonville took advantage of their advantages--by drafting wisely, coaching well and playing with stout hearts--probably says less about shadowy conspiracy theories among the powers-that-be than about the ineptitude of some other teams that have been kicking around the league basement for decades.

Who dares say the awful words "New York Jets"? The Second Coming of Joe Namath, aka zillionaire hospital patient Neil O'Donnell, is just the latest ham-handed acquisition that has kept the Jets grounded since the Nixon administration. Care to discuss the Atlanta Falcons? Their former 1996 quarterback, Jeff George, is an impudent child schooled at the Dennis Rodman Academy of Charm and Beauty who screamed in the face of his coach and dragged a bad club to an even lower level. General Sherman did more for Atlanta then the Falcons' owners and management have over the years.

How about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? As an expansion team, this collection of interior decorators lost 26 straight games before winning the last two contests of their second season in the league. They've had precious little success since: Bucs haven't seen the playoffs since 1982.

Anyone want to talk about the long-term strategies of the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams? How about the St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals? One glimpse of football horror shows like these should be enough to silence the malcontents who say Jacksonville and Carolina got success handed to them on a silver platter.

Besides, isn't it rewarding to see the Dallas Cowboys playing golf and conferring with their parole officers in mid-January? Isn't it nice to find the 49ers haunting the saloons of Pacific Heights instead of the Louisiana Superdome? Dem dynasties, dey dead. Have a nice time on the golf course, George Siefert. And when your number's up, Barry Switzer, find yourself a nice little place in Tulsa and wait quietly for those Sooner games on the boob tube.

In the end of the 1996 season, then, plucky Jacksonville and aroused Carolina got everything that was coming to them--despite the sour-grapes howls of their detractors. The Jags got a nice view of Michael Dean Perry--the symbol of Bronco lassitude--strolling his butt toward the sideline on a crucial fourth-down play that eventually led to a Jax field goal and the win. The Panthers got a glimpse of beaten Cowboys hobbling off into the sunset, which should brace up the Carolinians for seasons to come.

More power to you guys. While others walked the dog, you fought like big mean cats over pro football's big prize.

And now, here's some advice for those thousands of disappointed Bronco fans stuck with non-refundable airline reservations, scandalously overpriced tickets to the Super Bowl and French Quarter hotel rates that would give pause to the emir of Kuwait. First thing, have two dozen drinks on Decatur Street. Then wander off to dinner. It doesn't matter where you go, really. Because almost any place in the Quarter serves an excellent version of Denver's favorite dish. Humble pie.

Spring training...
Before the whacked-out Colorado Avalanche gets well enough to win another Stanley Cup, before the Pack smacks the Pats (say, 38-10), before your Tuesday night bowling league de-convenes for the spring, before your non-hoops-loving spouse files for divorce amid March Madness--before all that happens, pause for a moment to contemplate two words:

Spring training...
No matter what else happens on the planet--murderous strife in Bosnia, twelve-year-olds in New York stealing homers from the Orioles, Kevin Costner thinking about buying the Dodgers--the words "spring" and "training" make one of the happiest marriages in the language. Even if your club has no pitching again this year. Even if Bud Selig's still the commish. Even if Albert Belle throws a tantrum, Ted Turner throws another 8 billion into the Braves and Bill Swift throws a nineteen-mile-an-hour fastball.

Spring training...
The first word signifies renewal, the second useful labor, and together they mean hope. They also mean February. Have you noticed? February starts next week, and that means we'll also soon be hearing two words even more beautiful:

Play ball.


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