Coach's Corner

Often, my most intractable but wrong notions occur when "I'm sure." Being perfect, I'm not likely to re-examine these convictions. An example: My view of the NFC Central, derived from being a Bear fan, as unworthy of serious consideration. I've viewed a long history of abject mediocrity; normally possessing one decent team (Minnesota Vikings), occasionally two (Chicago Bears). Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Pro-football is pond scum. Dreadful teams in dreadful divisions.

Thus blinded, I've missed the obvious. With each team featuring a top-rate quarterback, the Central, long the domain of the 9-6 contest, is the most competitive, wide-open division in the league. QB? What about Tampa Bay's Trent Dilfer? As a rookie, Dilfer put up some awful numbers -- 18 INT's juxtaposed against four TD passes. Bad as this is, it's a pretty average rookie season, comparable to Aikman, Fouts, Bradshaw, and Plunkett as wee ones. They did okay. The Bucs must sign underrated HB Errict Rhett. If Dilfer improves, as he should, look for TB to be a .500 team -- maybe better -- for the first time since Bevo was a... whatever. The rest of the division is a toss-up, bad defense cum super-premium offense being the norm. With massive media hype surrounding Brett Favre, the Packers are the designer choice. Favre did have a great '95. Of particular note -- a 49 % completion rate on third down, when teams know you're gonna throw. The NFL's toughest schedule, and no running game, keeps pressure on Favre to keep throwing. No such problem with the Lions. The league's top-ranked offense has Barry Sanders to shred teams who, choosing to slow Detroit's devastating passing game, forget about No. 20. Scott Mitchell's receiving trio of Moore, Perriman, and Sanders is unparalleled. No more warnings about Warren Moon's age. If Marcus Allen can still run, the ageless Moon can still be a star. Thirty-three TD passes, second only to Favre, says he is. The Vikes always seem on the verge of a chemistry meltdown. Come on, guys -- let's be pals. And then there's the Bears. Dave Wannstedt went to Chicago hailed as a defensive genius. The '95 Bears couldn't stop a Pop Warner attack, but this is the new-look Central, so who cares? Chicago's secondary may have been the worst to ever play the game. If you fancy the smell of burnt toast, you liked Bear games in 1995. More disturbing are four straight, lopsided defeats to the Packers and two to the Lions. Ditka's formula for success: control the division. I don't imagine he'd be pleased with those six defeats. If Dallas falters, next year's Super Bowl winner will come from the Central.

A thought: For the past decade, roughly the period of San Francisco dominance, the West is exactly what I thought the Central was: One good/great team and the bad/worse ones. Starting each season with seven or eight sure wins is helpful. This divisional ineptness certainly helped the SF 49ers compile gaudy records and the reward -- home field advantages. By the end of '95, SF looked like a frat-league team, passing on every down, their running game nonexistent, Steve Young taking a fearsome wrench-whipping in the process. Uncannily able to gas-up-on-the-go, the Niners' tank is almost dry. Gaping wounds, caused by uncharacteristically horrid personnel decisions, fester. Charles Haley, Ricky Watters, Deion Sanders, and Eric Davis equal four gone, not replaced, All-Pros. No bueno. Kicking game's embarrassing. Jeff Ward -- the NFL calls! Still, they'll win 10-12 games, because the rest of the division sucks. The Atlanta Falcons are in the wrong division, a Central offensive team with, even by Central standards, an appalling defense. With Jeff George finally developing into the player he was supposed to be, Atlanta features a blistering offense. A trio of faceless receivers, plus UT-ex Eric Metcalf -- finally given a chance to move in the open field -- give the Falcons a passing attack few secondaries, none really, are able to cope with. Fullback Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, who all but taco'd himself out of the league, has transformed into a most effective runner and receiver. The Falcons score points and score points and score points. Their opponents will score more. A poem: 15-32-41... Hut! The New Orleans Saints are in a rut. Everett, Dombrosky, Mora.... Remember the kicker that they cut? Bourbon Street, Hurricanes, puking red wine. The Saints again are 7-9. Political correctness aside, Ram #1 pick Lawrence Phillips, if half as good as advertised, will be the impact player of '96. TheL.A. Rams plucked weak-armed but safe Steve Walsh to hand off to Phillips and toss a few 15-yard slants, about Walsh's maximum range. The Rams' D is probably the best in the West, which, with Phillips running the ball, will keep them in most games. Not enough to threaten SF or Atlanta, though. With expansion teams costing double the net worth of England, new owners get something other than a colorful turd on a popsicle stick. Carolina, more competitive than anyone imagined, is a prime example. The Panthers had the third-best (though ancient) defense in the league. The offense, rated dead last (a need addressed in the draft with seven picks) has a potentially excellent QB in Kerry Collins. Just-signed #1 pick Tim Biakabutuka won't be a factor in '96. No one will underrate Carolina this year. They won't match last year's seven wins.

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