American Football: Debutant coaches deliver as Bears lose their bite: In a season when few playing talents emerged the men in headphones were the ones to watch. Matt Tench reports

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The Independent Online
THE 1992 regular season in the National Football League was consigned to the record books at the weekend, leaving the clear impression of a sport, indeed an industry, in transition.

A campaign which promised much delivered rather less, with a distinction between those teams of genuine ability and those simply able to beat the dross emerging at an early stage. Unfortunately a few of the latter have slipped into the play-offs. New talents did emerge, but most of them were on the sidelines, holding a clipboard. With the arguable exceptions of Barry Foster, the Pittsburgh running back, and Brett Favre, Green Bay's quarterback, few new stars grabbed the limelight.

Among a number of old adages that needed updating was that the sport's bad place was at Soldier Field, Chicago on a bleak winter's afternoon facing Mike Ditka's belligerent Bears. The Bears had their worst season since 1973, tumbled down their division, and scared nobody except their own fans. It was a bad year for Ditka. A vociferous Republican, it was not only his political favourites that went out of fashion.

Another outdated adage is that there is no substitute for experience. Nine head coaches took over at the start of the season and it was the ones who were new to the job who shone. Bill Cowher at Pittsburgh, Bobby Ross at San Diego and Dennis Green at Minnesota took their teams to divisional championships while Mike Holmgren guided Green Bay to within a game of the play-offs. Of the first- time head coaches only David Shula (whose appointment always appeared an unnecessary gamble) will find reasons to be tearful as well as cheerful in his debut year.

The four new leaders with job experience did less well. Ted Marchibroda engineered something of a transformation in Indianapolis, but only from the awful to the ordinary. Sam Wyche in Tampa Bay made early progress but was unable to overcome the franchise's endemic under-achievement.

For Tom Flores at Seattle and Chuck Knox with the Los Angeles Rams, two men with a welter of winning experience, 1992 was a season of struggle and frustration. Flores in particular, who guided the Raiders to victory in the Super Bowl, did little to enhance his reputation. He may be assembling a formidable defense, behind the much-admired Cortez Kennedy, but unless the offense - which generated a record low of 140 points in a 16-game season - radically improves next year victories will be as hard to come by. 'I don't think it's possible for this team to go backwards,' Kennedy said, no doubt intending to sound positive, but inadvertently indicating just how bad his team are.

Given the success of the new boys, and the NFL's inclination to adopt winning formulas, a number of fresh faces can be expected in 1993. The first vacancy has already been created with Denver and Dan Reeves going their separate ways. The next seems certain to be in New York, where Ray Handley's tenure at the Giants has always appeared of the squatters' variety. Others who may soon be scanning the situations vacant columns include Phoenix's Joe Bugel, and New England's Dick MacPherson.

Ditka's status in Chicago remains uncertain. He has an option year on his contract to fulfil, but will meet the Bears president, Mike McCaskey, next week to discuss his future. 'It would be nice to know something as soon as possible,' Ditka said after his side's final game, a defeat in Dallas. 'I'm an optimist.'

The long-running battle between the players and the owners over the issue of free agency (the negotiations for which provided a backdrop to the season) appears close to a solution, with the players winning the right to go their own way after five years, but accepting a salary cap, a reduced draft and a team's right to protect franchise (their best) players.

Whether this will lead to something approaching an open transfer market remains to be seen, but when the small print is concluded there are likely to be some significant names changing employers, among them Reggie White, who is intent on leaving Philadelphia and Boomer Esiason, no longer wanted in Cincinnati.

More intriguing still is the quarterback situation in San Francisco. Steve Young has had a superb season but after two years plagued by injuries Joe Montana is back in uniform, and played the second half in Monday's victory over Detroit. Even the 49ers cannot afford to keep both. A huge deal for Young, with Montana moving on (possibly to the Raiders) seems the most likely solution.

Montana we may see in '93, but a number of the game's greats will not be back, among them Cincinnati's Anthony Munoz and Chicago's Mike Singletary. Lawrence Taylor, the greatest of them all, had said this was his last year until a season-ending injury in November. Should his former mentor, Bill Parcells, return to the Giants Taylor might be persuaded to have one last hurrah. If so it would be welcome. In a changing game we need some familiar names.

----------------------------------------------------------------- NFL FINAL STANDINGS ----------------------------------------------------------------- AMERICAN CONFERENCE Eastern Division W L T Pct F A * Miami 11 5 0 .688 340 281 ] Buffalo 11 5 0 .688 381 283 Indianapolis 9 7 0 .563 216 302 NY Jets 4 12 0 .250 220 315 New England 2 14 0 .125 205 363 Central Division * Pittsburgh 11 5 0 .688 299 225 ] Houston 10 6 0 .625 352 258 Cleveland 7 9 0 .438 272 275 Cincinnati 5 11 0 .313 274 364 Western Division * San Diego 11 5 0 .688 335 241 ] Kansas City 10 6 0 .625 348 282 Denver 8 8 0 .500 262 329 LA Raiders 7 9 0 .438 249 281 Seattle 2 14 0 .125 140 312 NATIONAL CONFERENCE Eastern Division W L T Pct F A * Dallas 13 3 0 .813 409 243 ] Philadelphia 11 5 0 .688 354 245 ] Washington 9 7 0 .563 300 255 NY Giants 6 10 0 .375 306 367 Phoenix 4 12 0 .250 243 332 Central Division *Minnesota 11 5 0 .688 374 249 Green Bay 9 7 0 .563 276 296 Tampa Bay 5 11 0 .313 267 365 Chicago 5 11 0 .313 295 361 Detroit 5 11 0 313 273 332 Western Division *San Francisco 14 2 0 .875 431 236 ] New Orleans 12 4 0 .750 330 202 Atlanta 6 10 0 .375 327 414 LA Rams 6 10 0 .375 313 383 * clinched division title ] clinched play-off berth ----------------------------------------------------------------- STATISTICAL TITLES ----------------------------------------------------------------- Leading rusher: Emmitt Smith (Dallas) 1,713 yards Leading receiver: Sterling Sharpe (Green Bay) 107 receptions Most yards from scrimmage: Thurman Thomas (Buffalo) 2,113 yards Best quarterback: Steve Young (San Fran) 107pts Most sacks: Clyde Simmons (Philadelphia) 19 -----------------------------------------------------------------

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