THE `NFL DREAM SEASON' SERIES STARTS SEPT. 3 ON ESPN

Published: Sunday, Sept. 3 1989 12:00 a.m. MDT

Imagine Lawrence Taylor matched against the great Jim Brown, or the 1960s colliding with the 1980s when Vince Lombardi's legendary Green Bay Packers meet Bill Walsh's 49ers.

And what might happen if the 1985 version of Jim McMahon and the Bears played Joe Namath's 1968 New York Jets?Such inflammatory questions are impossible to answer, of course. It's the kind of thing that makes for heated arguments between sports fans who think they know and other sports fans who think they know better.

It's also the focus of one of the most imaginative and original ideas in TV sports that I've heard in years, the "NFL Dream Season" series from ESPN and NFL Films starting Sept. 3.

The concept is simple; getting it done is the hard part.

Every bit of available information on the 20 most outstanding pro football teams of the modern era - from Norm Van Brocklin's 1951 Rams to the 1986 New York Giants - is run through a computer, plus subjective assessments from active and retired coaches to help gauge intangibles and add them to the equation.

The computer produces a play-by-play description of every team meeting every other team and NFL Films picks a featured game of the week by using the vast resources of its film library to duplicate the computerized game.

For instance, footage might be edited to make it seem like linebacker Ray Nitschke of the 1966 Packers sacks the 49ers' scrambling Joe Montana.

The teams are divided into four divisions of five teams each, with matchups each week consisting of one featured game and highlights from nine other games. The four division winners play each other and the winners play in ESPN's "Dream Bowl" Oct. 29.

I saw highlights from the first game - the Bears of McMahon and Mike Ditka meeting the Cowboys of Roger Staubach and Tom Landry - and it worked brilliantly.

Announcing the series here, Steve Sabol, NFL Films President, admitted that he fudged a little in picking the featured game of the week, largely dictated by the quality and quantity of the footage and how successfully it could be edited together.

"It just took a whole lot of patience, like doing the biggest jigsaw puzzle in the world," said Sabol, who takes up to 10 weeks to create just one game, a process he described as akin to what moviegoers saw in Steve Martin's "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," Woody Allen's "Zelig" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."

Each game comes with full-fledged production. In the pre-game show, coaches and players explain their "strategy," review the matchups and assess their chances.

Play-by-play and analysis comes from Sabol and Merrill Reese, the radio voice of the Philadelphia Eagles. At halftime, Chris Berman will have "updates" of other Dream Season games "in progress." Finally, each show concludes with a post-game report featuring highlights and scores of the other games, plus a look at current standings.

Sabol cautioned that the games aren't complete games; usually about 40 plays or so. Even then, neither ESPN nor NFL Films got everything they wanted.

Everybody wanted a Lawrence Taylor-Jim Brown matchup, but three days of editing only came up with three usable plays, so it'll appear as one of the highlights.

According to Sabol, only four people know the results of the series and they're sworn to secrecy. He did say that the big favorite among the coaches was the Steelers, followed, in no particular order, by the Packers, the Dolphins, the Bears and the 49ers.

The series will be seen on Sundays, following ESPN's "NFL PrimeTime" show. Week by week, the matchups are: (1) 1985 Bears vs. 1977 Cowboys; (2) 1984 49ers vs. 1966 Packers; (3) 1976 Raiders vs. 1969 Chiefs; (4) 1986 Giants vs. 1982 Redskins; (5) 1972 Dolphins vs. 1968 Jets; (6) 1986 Bears vs. 1976 Raiders.

The following week comes the playoffs and the week after that the Dream Bowl.

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