American Football: Mid Term Report: Journeymen venturing into the unknown

At its half-way stage the 1996 NFL season has produced any number of unlikely heroes, writes Matt Tench

As he basked in the locker room bonhomie after another match-winning performance, it was put to the Pittsburgh quarterback that he was beginning to silence his critics. Mike Tomczak was having none of it. "There are probably about four billion out there," he said, "not counting Tokyo and China."

Tomczak can be forgiven his pique. During a peripatetic12-year NFL career he has accumulated detractors at a far greater rate than passing yards, and there have been times when even the description journeyman appeared to be giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Yet, at its half-way point, happily established as the starter for one of NFL's best teams, Mike Tomczak is typical of a confusing, compelling campaign. If '96 has - with one or two honourable exceptions - been characterised by a lack of outstanding quarterbacks, it has certainly not lacked for good quarterback stories.

Tomczak, after four years of sporadic starts, began this one battling for the No 1 role with the Steelers, a vacancy created by Neil O'Donnell's decision to accept $25m (pounds 15.7) to do the worst job in American football: standing behind the New York Jets' offensive line. To nobody's great surprise Tomczak lost out to a promising youngster, Jim Miller - with Kordell Stewart, an even more promising youngster, also passed over - but when the Steelers were mauled by Jacksonville in their opening game their head coach, Bill Cowher, opted to regroup behind Tomczak's tried and detested arm.

Five wins later, Pittsburgh, who reached last year's Super Bowl, were acclaiming a new hero, albeit one that has some of us wondering whether the quarterback position is so important after all. To be fair, Tomczak's poise allows the Steelers' game plan - founded on brutal defense and the straightforward but frequently unstoppable rushing of Jerome Bettis - to work. He may not win many games, but he does not lose many either.

At least as surprising as Tomczak's emergence has been that of Gus Frerotte with the Washington Redskins. When the team picked Heath Shuler with the third selection of the 1994 college draft, it hoped to have found its quarterback of the future. That draft may indeed proved a long-term play- caller, but it will probably be Frerotte, plucked six rounds later for a fraction of the money.

For a couple of years Frerotte clung to his roster position, but as Shuler continued to falter in a struggling side so a quarterback controversy developed. It appears to have been settled at the beginning of this term when Norv Turner, the Redskins head coach, chose the cool of Frerotte, the latest quarterback off the Pennsylvania production line, in preference to Shuler's costly strong arm.

The Redskins' position on top of the highly competitive NFC East vindicates the decision, despite its ludicrous financial connotations. (Frerotte's opposite number in New England, Drew Bledsoe, was paid as much for the recent game between the two sides as Frerotte will make all season. The Redskins won.) Frerotte's contract is up at the end of the season and he has already ensured the sort of increase normally reserved for British Gas executives.

It is tempting to describe Tomczak and Frerotte - and others like Houston's Chris Chandler and Philadelphia's Ty Detmer - as the Jim Harbaughs of 1996, were Harbaugh not doing such a good job of keeping the role for himself. Harbaugh was another unheralded back-up, who was given a chance a year ago when the Indianapolis Colts lost patience with Craig Erickson. After a career of burgeoning failure - including, like Tomczak, a grim spell in Chicago - Harbaugh stunned the league by guiding the Colts to the AFC Championship game, and within a ball's width of the Super Bowl itself.

There were those that predicted that Harbaugh and the Colts would prove one-season wonders, but despite an injury list that could fill a series of ER, the Colts remain in contention, with Harbaugh's gutsy leadership the inspiration. A fortnight ago a vicious Patriot defense broke his nose. "The first guy yanked my face mask, the second guy got me on a right cross," Harbaugh said. "I'll be back next week."

Which is more than can be said for Jeff George. The former Atlanta Falcon was hailed in one pre-season poll as having the strongest arm in the league. At 28 he should be in his prime. Instead he is unemployed, and may be unemployable.

George's problems lies not with his arm, but with his mouth. More convinced than anyone about the value of his undoubted gifts, he followed a troubled college career by alienating almost all of Indianapolis, his home town. Somewhat fortuitously he was given a chance a redeem himself at Atlanta, a pass-orientated potentially talented franchise looking for a field general.

However, the Falcons with George have continued to struggle and a turbulent relationship reached its nadir a month into the season. With his team trailing against Philadelphia, June Jones, the Falcons head coach, benched his quarterback, a decision George accepted with the sort of good grace that makes Peter Schmeichel seem even tempered.

Raging up and down the sideline, George screamed abuse at his boss in such a flagrant manner that Jones, one of the milder of his breed, had little option but to suspend and eventually sack his best player.

In the aftermath there were those who felt Jones' initial reaction was a little hasty: George had completed 12 straight passes before throwing an interception. None questioned the second decision, though, and as George became available clubs up and down the country queued up to declare their lack of interest.

"How did I get to be so evil all of a sudden?" George asked in a stunning display of lack of self-knowledge. As revealing was the reaction of Tomczak's employers when it was put to them that they might sign George. "That," said Tom Donohoe, Pittsburgh's director of football operations, "would be like Madonna marrying Bob Dole."

If it is hard to feel sorry for George, sympathy is much easier to generate for another of the game's most talented play-callers, Steve Young. The league's Most Valuable Player in 1993 and 1994, he is encountering his most difficult time since ousting Joe Montana in San Francisco. Beaten up behind a porous line on a regular basis, Young has finally won the Bay Area fans over (well, most of them) only to find management less than wholehearted about his long-term future. In part, no doubt, because of his injuries, Young's sureness of touch has deserted him of late, with interceptions manifesting themselves as frequently as touchdowns.

And then there is the Elvis question. Young's absences have allowed his phonetically-challenged back-up, Elvis Grbac to stake a claim, and for the most part he has done so rather well. The problem is that Grbac's contract expires at the end of the season, and with good quarterbacks so hard to find the 49ers would like to keep a player who, at 26, is nine years Young's junior.

To do so they may have to call into question Young's long-term career. "In the mind's of our staff, Steve definitely is pencilled in as the starter for 1997," Carmen Policy, the 49ers president, said with the precision of a diplomat. "Beyond that, you just don't know."

Whatever happens, Young's status as the sport's best quarterback has passed to Green Bay's Brett Favre, where it seems likely to reside for some time. The MVP 12 months ago, Favre made headlines for the wrong reasons in the off-season when he admitted being addicted to painkillers, but returned rehabilitated and even better. "With Brett you expect wondrous things every week, every quarter, every throw, every play," Mike Holmgren, his head coach, said recently.

Behind Favre's pyrotechnics the Pack have established themselves as the Class of '96 at the half-term stage, though their one defeat, in Minnesota, suggested that if enough defensive artillery is used the flow of points can be staunched. They must also be worried about the current attrition rate among their wide receivers.

The two other NFC teams bracketed with the Packers, the 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys, have made less impressive starts. San Francisco, desperately trying to lay the foundations for a running game that can compensate for quarterback injuries and take them through the play-offs, have frequently relied upon an outstanding defense to bale them out.

Defense, too, has been integral to the mixed success the Cowboys have enjoyed, though there the real problem seems to be a backdrop of political intrigue worthy of the Kremlin. There is a growing feeling that the head coach, Barry Switzer, is on his way out, despite the owner Jerry Jones's insistence that Switzer will be in Dallas beyond the millennium.

For all that the Cowboys showed glimpses of their championship form as they crushed Miami a week ago, and it still possible to envisage a fully- fit, virtually uncoached Cowboys side winning in Green Bay en route to a fourth Super Bowl. And then they shunt Switzer aside.

Two of Dallas' NFC East rivals, the Redskins and the Eagles, have both returned impressive records without receiving a great deal of respect, though Washington's recent crushing of Indianapolis suggested that their success was not just the result of a soft schedule.

A number of shrewd judges have predicted that this will finally be the year the AFC ends the domination of the NFC. Then again, a number of shrewd judges usually do. Certainly the conference appears to be more evenly matched with each division braced for a season-long battle for supremacy. In the West, the Kansas City Chiefs, a popular pick to win it all, began impressively but have been supplanted by the season's surprise package, the Denver Broncos. In Terrell Davis they appear to have uncovered the league's next great running back, and with Mike Shanahan installing some resistance into what has often been a limp-wristed defense, not to mention John Elway's ageing but still potentially lethal arm, the Broncos may venture deep into the play-offs.

There they will surely meet the Steelers, who have recovered from that devastating early defeat, which included losing their best player, the linebacker Greg Lloyd, for the season. The Steelers' only threat in the weak Central Division comes from the increasingly impressive Houston Oilers, who will surely be a force, next year if not this.

The East by contrast boasts four teams with realistic post-season aspirations. So far Indianapolis have beaten Miami, Miami have beaten Buffalo, Buffalo have beaten New England and New England have beaten Indianapolis. The only given is that everybody has beaten the Jets. Just about the only safe prediction ahead of an intriguing second half of the regular season in this division is that it is only a matter of time before Rich Kotite, the Jets head coach, becomes the third casualty of the season.

Nick Lowery, the Jets kicker, recently rebuffed suggestions that there was a black cloud hanging over the franchise. "It's an entire black eco- system," he said. Perhaps they should appoint Michael Fish.

NFL STANDINGS

American Conference

Eastern Division

W L PF PA

N England 5 3 202 165

Buffalo 5 3 129 145

Indianapolis 5 3 140 145

Miami 4 4 178 150

NY Jets 1 8 145 233

Central Division

W L PF PA

Pittsburgh 6 2 164 120

Houston 5 3 183 153

Baltimore 3 5 196 232

Jacksonville 3 6 172 181

Cincinnati 2 6 156 181

Western Division

W L PF PA

Denver 7 1 223 134

Kansas City 5 3 158 142

Oakland 4 4 179 148

San Diego 4 4 172 199

Seattle 3 5 141 200

National Conference

Eastern Division

W L PF PA

Washington 7 1 192 115

Philadelphia 6 2 180 158

Dallas 5 3 165 117

Arizona 3 5 119 188

NY Giants 3 5 124 154

Central Division

W L PF PA

Green Bay 7 1 240 99

Minnesota 5 3 140 131

Detroit 4 4 169 159

Chicago 3 5 119 165

Tampa Bay 1 7 85 165

Western Division

W L PF PA

S Francisco 6 2 193 115

Carolina 5 3 173 111

New Orleans 2 6 121 180

St Louis 2 6 136 222

Atlanta 0 8 140 227

n Not including last night's results

DREAM TEAM: THE BEST IN THE LEAGUE AT THE HALF-WAY STAGE

OFFENSE

Brett Favre (Green Bay) Quarterback

Terrell Davis (Denver) Running back

Ricky Watters (Phil) Running back

Jerry Rice (San Fran) Wide receiver

Herman Moore (Detroit) Wide receiver

Shannon Sharpe (Denver) Tight end

Dermontti Dawson (Pittsburgh) Centre

Larry Allen (Dallas) Guard

Steve Wisniewski (Oakland) Guard

Willie Roaf (New Orleans) Tackle

Erik Williams (Dallas) Tackle

KICKING THE BALL

Darren Bennett (San Diego) Punter

John Kasay (Carolina) Kicker

DEFENSE

Bruce Smith (Buffalo) Defensive end

Reggie White (Phil) Defensive end

Leon Lett (Dallas) Defensive tackle

Bryant Young (SF) Defensive tackle

Derrick Thomas (Kansas C) Linebacker

Junior Seau (San Diego) Linebacker

Bryce Paup (Buffalo) Linebacker

Dale Carter (Kansas C) Cornerback

Deion Sanders (Dallas) Cornerback

Merton Hanks (San F) Free safety

Darren Woodson (Dallas) Strong safety

Best Coach: Norv Turner (Washington)

Best rookie: Eddie George (Houston)

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