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The National Free-for-All League

Patrick Merewether

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.

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.

Meanwhile, Seattle has claimed Green Bay's former coach, Mike Holmgren. Marty Schottenheimer is out, Gunther Cunningham in at Kansas City, and Jim Mora, once the head man of the Saints, is in his second year at surging Indianapolis. Four of the five teams in Denver's AFC West division are working under new coaches, and not even the New York tabloids can keep up with the restlessness of Bill Parcells -- who has already coached the Giants, the Patriots and the Jets. If the Mets now name the Tuna as their new manager, no one would be surprised.

Broncos fans should not feel unique as a worst-case scenario unfolds in 1999 -- the whole damn league is upside-down -- but Denver's woes are a virtual textbook on change in the NFL. When John Elway retired last April, Shanahan had big shoes to fill, but he just couldn't figure out who Cinderella was; the quarterback controversy involving veteran backup Bubby Brister, second-year man Brian Griese and concussion survivor Chris Miller continues. But not even Shanahan could have predicted serious injuries to Davis, Brister, Griese, tight end Shannon Sharpe, safety Eric Brown, linebacker John Mobley, defensive end Alfred Williams and, for all we know, two water boys and the head of ticket sales.

Let us not forget wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, although Ed McCaffrey has likely been doing it. He's the lanky figure with the "87" on his shirt whom you see lying prostrate and bleary-eyed on the turf most Sunday afternoons, knocked cold as a halibut by some careening free safety but always willing to get back up. The sight of McCaffrey's bravery may be what Broncos fans remember most vividly about a season in which the two-time Super Bowl champs are threatening to equal the awful 1990 team's franchise-worst 5-11 mark.

Of course, Pete Rozelle would love it. All of it. The late NFL commissioner was always shooting for "parity" in the league -- and he's certainly got it now. In the first two weeks of this crazily inverted year, more than half of the games ended with the leading team under threat from the loser, and almost no game this season has been decided before halftime. Just ask your hapless Broncos about that: They've lost 13-10 to Tampa Bay, 21-13 to the Jets, 24-23 to New England, 23-20 to Minnesota and 20-17 to Seattle. Five losses by a total of eighteen points.

Compared to the dreary plutocracy of Major League Baseball -- all eight playoff teams this October scored among the top ten in player payroll -- the NFL's new democracy and unpredictability can be exciting stuff, especially if you paint your face Detroit silver or Seattle blue. The astonishing Rams have compelled St. Louis sports fans to leave Mark McGwire in the weightroom for awhile, because they have a stunning four-game lead in a division that includes fading San Francisco and Atlanta. Preseason, they were 500-1 Vegas long shots to win the Super Bowl. The Washington Redskins were 150-1; now they're a 6-4 team and trail only St. Louis in points scored. Picked by most "experts" to finish fourth or fifth in the NFC East, they boast the league's best running back, Stephen Davis (five yards per carry, fifteen touchdowns) and its third-ranked quarterback, Brad Johnson (2,564 passing yards, eighteen touchdowns).

In Detroit, quarterback Charlie Batch has helped Lions fans forget Barry Sanders, and Miamians are now convinced that Marino and company can get back to the Super Bowl for the first time in sixteen years. Even the woofers and bayers tied up in Cleveland's newly reconstituted Dawg Pound have some reason to exult: In rookie Tim Couch, late of the University of Kentucky, the expansion club has a quarterback for the future, and the frustrations of their initial season momentarily evaporated with a 21-16 win over New Orleans and -- miracle of miracles -- a November 14 thriller in which they upset their hated old rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, 16-15. On the road, no less.

Given this climate of charged surprise, who do you like in the upcoming St. Louis Rams-Indianapolis Colts Super Bowl? The very prospect is enough to make you stand on your head -- and maybe see Kurt Warner in an entirely new light.


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