Surprises, strange twists galore as NFL reaches the halfway point
Though the standings don't necessarily reflect it, this ranks among the most illogical seasons the National Football League has ever produced. Consider the following:
* Dallas has trailed in every game, but owns a league leading 7-1 record.
* Running attacks are experiencing a sudden revival in The Golden Era of the forward pass.
* The New York Jets have pulled a Superman switch in reverse, emerging as Clark Kent types instead of the Super Bowl strong men they were supposed to be. (The Jets, incidentally, have announced plans to move from Shea Stadium to Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands next season. Maybe they're getting out of town just in time.)
* New England, playing with a young defense minus its two best players, shut out the Buffalo Bills and their red hot quarterback Joe Ferguson on Sunday, 31-0 .
* In a tale of two rookies, heralded quarterback John Elway has been benched at Denver, while a supposedly so-so Dan Marino has replaced Super Bowl starter David Woodley in Miami.
* The New Orleans Saints are winning, the San Diego Chargers losing, and the Green Bay Packers doing equal parts of both in a manner that few can grasp.
Green Bay is the master of the one-game winning streak, having followed every victory with a defeat, the highlight being a 48-47 win over the defending NFL champion Washington Redskins.
To some degree, the Packers symbolize the parity that is such a catchword in the NFL these days. The league has seemingly fostered a growing middle class through scheduling and rules that give every team with a good passing game a fighting chance.
With eight weeks down and eight to go in the current season, a raft of teams are still very much in the playoff picture. Eighteen of 28 clubs, in fact, are playing at a .500 or better clip, with Dallas, Minnesota, and San Francisco leading their respective NFC divisions, and Pittsburgh, the Los Angeles Raiders, and co-leaders Miami and Buffalo heading up the AFC races.
Only two clubs appear desperately out of the running. Tampa Bay and Houston are both 0-8. For the Buccaneers, a playoff team three of the last four seasons , the decline is especially disheartening and a sad reminder of their earlier futility (Tampa Bay once set a record with 26 losses before winning its first NFL game). The defection of quarterback Doug Williams to the United States Football League has obviously been a factor in the team's demise.
Houston's pathetic start has led to the only coaching change so far this season, with assistant Chuck Studley stepping in for ousted Ed Biles. The Oilers came close to breaking their slump Sunday, but lost to Kansas City in overtime.
In Texas, of course, losing does not generally beget losing when the state's other pro team happens to be the Dallas Cowboys. They are bred winners, a fact clearly evident in their ability to come from behind repeatedly this year. Though a trademark in other years, the pattern was dusted off in the season opener against Washington, when the Cowboys erased a 23-3 halftime deficit to beat the Redskins 31-30.
Dallas ran its record to 7-0, one victory shy of the club's best getaway, before meeting the Los Angeles Raiders Sunday night in a nationally televised game. The confrontation, won by Los Angeles on Chris Bahr's 26-yard field goal with 23 seconds left, not only pitted the NFL's two most successful teams since they entered pro football in 1960, but also philosophical opposites - the Cowboys known as Establishment types, the Raiders as league mavericks.
Quarterback Marc Wilson, one of several free agents eyed by the USFL, signed a million-dollar contract with Los Angeles last week, whereupon he took Jim Plunkett's spot in the lineup and threw three TD passes against Dallas.
Before the season, the Raiders were expected to be the only L.A. team of playoff caliber. The Rams, however, have changed that, putting internal turmoil behind them under new coach John Robinson. For Robinson, a successful college coach at Southern California, the transition to the pro game has been as smooth as that made by rookie running back Eric Dickerson, the league's leading rusher with 995 yards.
Against San Francisco Sunday, Dickerson rushed for 144 yards, yet the 49ers won 45-35 to take sole possession of first place in the NFC West.
Other runners are having good seasons too - New England's Tony Collins, Seattle's Curt Warner, Pittsburgh's Franco Harris, and Atlanta's William Andrews , to name just a few. As teams become more conscious of stopping the pass, to the point of putting in pass rushing specialists and extra defensive backs, the potential for springing quality runners for sizeable gains increases.