American Football: New script is required for the flagging NFL: Compelling final act belies the deficiencies of a season short of memorable moments. Matt Tench reports

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The Independent Online
AFTER a final act as compelling as any in recent memory the temptation is to judge the NFL regular season as a weekly drama requiring little alteration or improvement. With four games settled in overtime (including Philadelphia's victory in San Francisco, which came after the clock ran out at the end of the extra period), a number of other absorbing encounters, not to mention the antics of the Houston coaching staff, the league certainly abided by the old maxim about leaving the punters wanting more.

Unfortunately, it was all a glorious exception. With the play-offs upon us the hope is for some gripping games punctuated by great players making big plays. But don't bet on it. A month ago the highly influential American sports magazine, Sports Illustrated, ran a cover story under the headline 'Can The NFL Be Saved?'. Even allowing for a little journalistic licence, it had a point.

The truth about the 1993 regular season was that it was often boring, sometimes incompetent and rarely compelling; that too few new talents emerged and too many old ones were lost to injury; that too many teams won without their offenses scoring a touchdown and not enough lost without making a memorable play; and, finally, that if there was one striking image from the campaign it was of Dan Marino limping around the Miami sidelines, an impotent observer as his side, one of the few with genuine charisma, crashed to five successive defeats and out of the play-offs.

'Is it just me, or is this the worst football we've ever seen?' Matt Millen, a former linebacker, asked in the Sports Illustrated article. The conclusion was that it was not just him.

So what has gone wrong and can anything be done to put it right?

A major problem has been stuttering offenses and for this a number of things have been blamed, among them the loss of key personnel to injuries, a lack of capable young quarterbacks, the decision to take five seconds from the time available between plays and the increasing sophistication of defenses which make widespread use of mass substitution.

Some are simpler to solve than others. Giving back the five seconds, which allows quarterbacks that little extra time to adapt to the defensive formation, is easy. So is a rule limiting substitutions to one per side per play, though that is unlikely to curry much favour among the coaching community.

(A suggestion that teams be forced to play man-for-man rather than zonal defenses inside their own 20-yard line boggles this correspondent's mind, prompting images of animated debates between referee and coach as to exactly what defense was being run. Apparently it works in basketball.)

Less straightforward is the problem of injuries, which will always occur. They could, however, be reduced and the players are adamant that they would be if they played on grass. They should know, and there seems no reason why the four open- air, football-only stadiums cannot sport the natural stuff.

Quarterbacks already receive special protection, but after another battered season they may need more. No sport can afford to lose talents like Marino and Randall Cunningham and it may be the rules should be altered again.

The problem is exacerbated by the lack of emerging talent at the position, which is giving coaches, fans and the marketing men cause for concern. No young players able to pass the ball, now where have we heard that one before? The success in their first seasons of Rick Mirer in Seattle and Drew Bledsoe in New England suggests that the lack of talented quarterbacks is a cyclical problem which may be being solved, and it is certainly to be hoped that Florida State's brilliant Charlie Ward finds a stage next year.

These difficulties have to be put into perspective. Crowds are up, TV audiences down only marginally and more significantly - at least as far as the owners are concerned - the league has just signed TV contracts worth dollars 4.4bn ( pounds 3.05bn) over the next four years. American football remains the American sport. Still, it cannot afford too many seasons as dull as the one in 1993 and it would be a surprise if measures are not taken to spice things up in '94.

As for the season itself, two men new to their jobs led the contenders for Coach of the Year: Dan Reeves, who has given the Giants much of their former impact, and Bill Parcells, the man who gave it to them, and who is now working his magic in New England.

Reeves did exceptionally well in New York, but in truth one of the disappointments was the collapse of the NFC East. In recent times it was the most competitive in the league. This year, the poor form of Washington and Philadelphia made it just another division.

The Redskins' poor form has already brought about the dismissal of Richie Petitbon, who joined Atlanta's Jerry Glanville yesterday in becoming the season's first head- coaching casualties. Others who may not be coming back include Cincinnati's David Shula, Cleveland's Bill Belichick and Phoenix's Joe Bugel.

The Dallas Cowboys established themselves as comfortably the league's best team, once they had re- signed Emmitt Smith, and Smith was comfortably the most valuable player. If he can maintain his level of performance despite his shoulder injury, the Cowboys should retain the Super Bowl.

For most of us outside New York State, the hope must be that they do do it by beating the Buffalo Bills again. With home-field advantage throughout the play-offs, the Bills look disturbingly well placed and only Kansas City and the Oilers appear capable of displacing them.

The Bills' ability to bounce back and grind out another winning season after another big-game thrashing is no doubt admirable, but the prospect of seeing them in Atlanta in three weeks' time can only engender a sense of deja vu.

FINAL STANDINGS

AMERICAN CONFERENCE ------------------------------------------------------------------ Eastern Division ------------------------------------------------------------------ W L Pct. PF PA * Buffalo 12 4 .750 329 242 Miami 9 7 .563 349 351 NY Jets 8 8 .500 270 247 New England 5 11 .313 238 286 Indianapolis 4 12 250 189 378 ------------------------------------------------------------------ Central Division ------------------------------------------------------------------ W L Pct. PF PA * Houston 12 4 .750 368 238 Pittsburgh 9 7 .563 308 281 Cleveland 7 9 .438 304 307 Cincinnati 3 13 .188 187 319 ------------------------------------------------------------------ Western Division ------------------------------------------------------------------ * Kansas City 11 5 .688 328 291 LA Raiders 10 6 .625 306 326 Denver 9 7 .563 373 284 San Diego 8 8 .500 322 290 Seattle 6 10 .375 280 314 ------------------------------------------------------------------

NATIONAL CONFERENCE ------------------------------------------------------------------ Eastern Division ------------------------------------------------------------------ W L Pct. PF PA * Dallas 12 4 .750 376 229 NY Giants 11 5 .688 288 205 Philadelphia 8 8 .500 293 315 Phoenix 7 9 .438 326 269 Washington 4 12 .250 230 345 ------------------------------------------------------------------ Central Division ------------------------------------------------------------------ * Detroit 10 6 .625 298 292 Green Bay 9 7 .563 340 282 Minnesota 9 7 .563 277 290 Chicago 7 9 .438 234 216 Tampa Bay 5 11 .313 237 376 ------------------------------------------------------------------ Western Division ------------------------------------------------------------------ * San Francisco 10 6 .625 473 295 New Orleans 8 8 .500 317 343 Atlanta 6 10 .375 316 385 LA Rams 5 11 .313 221 367 * clinched division title; clinched play-off berth ------------------------------------------------------------------

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