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Leveling The Field
Peter King
December 29, 1997
Like it or not, the salary cap brought parity to the league in '97, Our annual awards, Two class acts bid farewell to the game
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December 29, 1997

Leveling The Field

Like it or not, the salary cap brought parity to the league in '97, Our annual awards, Two class acts bid farewell to the game

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Coaching Hot List

Don't expect the turnover there was last season, when 11 teams replaced coaches, but there should be a handful of changes in early '98. The Colts fired Lindy Infante on Monday, and the Cowboys, Seahawks, Vikings and Raiders are among the other teams most likely to make a move. Here's a short list of candidates.

1. George Seifert

unemployed

Hunting and fishing for a year were nice, but the Seahawks' Microsoft money beckons

2. Bill Belichick

Jets ass't. head coach

He's a brilliant tactician, but he's no Jay Leno

3. Nick Saban

Michigan State coach

A former NFL assistant and a safe pick for the '90s: loves defense, running game

4. Tyrone Willingham

Stanford coach

Executives around the league say he has emerged as the hottest black candidate

5. Jon Gruden

Eagles off. coordinator

The 34-year-old boy wonder could be among the top candidates in Dallas

The 78th NFL season got its identity on Nov. 16, in a domed stadium in the middle of Indiana, where the 0-10 Colts met the Super Bowl champion Packers, who had won five straight games. The final score: Indianapolis 41, Green Bay 38.

The Oilers were making a run for the playoffs when they traveled to Cincinnati to meet the going-nowhere Bengals on Dec. 4. Midway through the second quarter the Bengals led 28-0 en route to a 41-14 win. The Dolphins could have clinched a playoff spot with a victory at Indianapolis on Dec. 14. They lost 41-0. The Saints won six games, the Falcons seven, the Jets nine, the Bucs 10. Is the earth still on its axis?

"No longer will San Francisco's third string be better than most teams' first unit," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said in early December. "It's impossible. The [salary] cap has caught up to everybody." Shanahan said this just before his team went from dominant to defenseless, surrendering 69 points in consecutive losses at Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

Now we hear that owners have begun discussions on a bylaw that would create even greater parity by keeping teams from circumventing the cap. The proposal would limit the total a team could commit in salaries and signing bonuses in any one year to 115% of the cap. For cap purposes, the plan would allow for the continued spreading of a signing bonus over the life of a player's contract, but it would prevent an owner from doing what the Cowboys' Jerry Jones did in 1995, when, with a $37 million cap, he paid out $80 million in salaries and signing bonuses. If the '98 salary cap is, say, $47 million, an owner wouldn't be able to spend more than $54 million. The Cowboys and other freewheeling clubs would have to be more judicious with their spending.

Which leads us back to the Packers-Colts game. Green Bay defensive end Reggie White missed some of the game and defensive tackle Gilbert Brown missed most of it with injuries. They were replaced by Darius Holland and Bob Kuberski, respectively. "No matter what you say about your backups, it isn't the same," Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre says. "The quality of player drops off when you lose a Reggie or a Gilbert. [That's what the cap is doing] to all of us."

The Envelopes, Please

MVP: Carnell Lake, Steelers defensive back. He's a symbolic pick, for shuttling between strong safety and cornerback on a defense firestormed by free agency. In the eight games that Lake played at corner, opposing wideouts caught no touchdown passes.

Coach of the Year: Bill Par-cells, Jets. We bow to the Chiefs' Marty Schottenheimer for producing the AFC's best team, with 12 new starters in his lineup, the Bucs' Tony Dungy for remaking a sad-sack outfit, the Giants' Jim Fassel for being an Einstein and the Niners' Steve Mariucci for piloting an old team to 13-3. But Parcells blew away the black cloud that has been hanging over the franchise since the early '90s and made the Jets a playoff threat overnight.

Executive of the Year: Tom Donahoe, Steelers. Every season Pittsburgh serves as the NFL's Free Agency Superfund. Chad Brown, Rod Woodson, Willie Williams and Andre Hastings were among the players to leave for greener pastures after the '96 season, but the Steelers reached double digits in wins for the fifth time in six years because Donahoe and his staff are the best evaluators of college and pro talent in the business.

Inspiration of the Year: Darrell Green, Redskins. Faster at 37 than he was at 25, Green was selected for the Pro Bowl. His goal is to make it again at 40. Don't bet against him. New running mate Cris Dish-man says his biggest regret in football is not having had the chance to be teamed with Green sooner, so more of Green's love of the game could have rubbed off on him.

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