Coach's Corner

Will the real genius please stand up?

You've already seen the barrage of NFL-at-midseason screeds published in every magazine and newspaper in America. An identical analysis is repeated, electronically, on ESPN and CNN. It's been an "upside-down year" in the NFL. "How about those Rams?" "Who could ever have imagined Kurt Warner ... " Eight out of 10 randomly picked shoppers at Highland Mall could have come up with an identical midseason football report, membership in Mensa not being a prerequisite for sports writing. Finding untilled soil in the heavily cultivated ground of sports journalism isn't easy, but here's a previously undiscovered midseason football rutabaga. To start digging we must ask this question: Will the real genius please step up to the podium? It might be dangerous to pose this question to the entire assembly of 31 NFL head coaches. A guy could get trampled in the ensuing melee.

The genius pickings are slim in the once-powerful NFC. What, you say, about the Rams' Dick Vermeil? Indeed, most media types have him as NFC midseason coach of the year. Nonsense. In no place is revisionist history as common as in sports. Does anyone recall that St. Louis was considered finished when they lost Trent Green to a knee injury before the season began? Vermeil didn't know anything about Kurt Warner. For all he knew, Warner was an Austrian ski jumper until he was forced to locate his third-string quarterback and start another 3-13 season. No, Vermeil is the much-discussed (though seldom seen) blind pig finding an acorn.

Sorry Dick, the football Einsteins live in the AFC. Of the cutthroat mob rushing the stage, only two really stand out. The Jets' Bill Parcells and Miami's Jimmy Johnson. Media types seem friendlier toward Bill than Jimmy, so the Jets were everybody's pet pick to go the Super Bowl. Within seconds of the first snap on opening day, the Jets' Super Bowl hopes were flushed -- whoosh and it's gone -- down the old toilet when they lost Vinny Testaverde. They've won only twice in '99, and lie, mixing sporting argot, five in the East.

At the other end of the spectrum, in first place, sit the Dolphins. Troubles, troubles, everyone's got troubles. Miami lost Dan Marino four games back, yet they didn't follow the Jets down the sewer. They keep winning. (Oh, it's not pretty; as they say in Minnesota, "Ey, dat's for shore.") Miami loses their great quarterback, yet Miami doesn't implode. They win.

Last season Miami and New York were 1-2, separated by one whole point, in allowing the fewest points in the AFC. Neither team won with its quarterback; they won -- as is traditional -- by not allowing the other guy to score. Both teams returned defenses in '99 basically intact from '98. Yet the Jet defense has imploded, like a cockroach squished by a rhino, while Miami is winning hard-to-watch games by baseball scores, with a quarterback named Huard.

So will the real genius please stand up? To place the blame of an entire team collapse entirely on the back of an injured journeyman quarterback is ridiculous. Yet this is the accepted version of the ravaged Jet season. And Parcells has allowed his team to believe it. They had an excuse to fail, and they took it. If any team ought to flounder, it would be Miami. To say Big Dan's been the heart and soul of this team forever is the essence of understatement. Vinny can go see Marino in the Hall of Fame when he pays his admission at the door. Yet Johnson refused to let his team believe it was acceptable to lose. If the opponent scored 6, Miami would score 7. This became the mantra in South Florida. He forced his team to quickly accept the loss of Marino and overcome the challenge. Johnson didn't let his team feel sorry for themselves, Parcells did. Mid-season genius award to Jimmy. Give the man a half-year supply of styling gel.

Parting Shots: Timing and good fortune are everything. Jeff George -- I defy you to find a more maligned modern athlete -- had the misfortune of having too much obvious talent, making him the No. 1 pick in the 1990 draft by a dreadful team, Indianapolis, an organization with no idea whatsoever of how to win. George took his beating and the blame and the Colts stayed bad. He was traded to an even worse team, the Falcons, beaten and blamed again, and then on to another loser, Oakland. Because he couldn't do the impossible -- win with awful teams -- and because he wasn't an amiable loser, the media labeled him with the dreaded "whining loser" tag. George's career QB rating is about the same as Troy Aikman's, but his reputation is severely tarnished. In retrospect, maybe the worst mistake Ricky Williams made wasn't the lousy contract he signed, but that he signed with a dog-ass organization like New Orleans at all. He could have forced a self-preservation trade -- risking, in the process, his good-guy image, surely starting his career with the selfish label. John Elway did it. Flashier backs like Payton, Barry Sanders, or Gale Sayers can flourish with bad teams. A more workmanlike runner like Williams, in the wrong place at the wrong time, may languish forever in the equatorial muck that is the Big Easy.

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