Football is a game played by 22 men on the field. But the blame game seems to be limited to just three men off it - the head coach, quarterback and running back.
They command the richest contracts and the highest profiles in today's NFL. The best quarterbacks earn $6 million per season, the best running backs $4 million and the best coaches $2 million.For that money, clubs demand accountability. So when a team doesn't win, it's the coach, quarterback or running back who pays.
Since the end of the 1996 season, 13 teams have changed coaches, including Dallas, Buffalo, San Francisco, New England, San Diego and the New York Giants. They have combined for 11 of the 16 Super Bowl appearances this decade. The four that changed coaches in 1998 are the Cowboys, Bills, Indianapolis and Oakland.
Since the start of the 1997 season, 15 teams have changed starting quarterbacks and 18 have changed running backs. Six of those quarterbacking changes and 11 of the running-back changes have occurred this off-season.
Teams that report to training camp later this month with new quarterbacks are Baltimore, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, San Diego and the New York Jets.
The Ravens and Bills acquired theirs in trade. Baltimore picked up Jim Harbaugh from Indianapolis and Buffalo got Rob Johnson from Jacksonville. The Bengals and Jets promoted quarterbacks from within. Cincinnati gave Jeff Blake the job after Boomer Esiason's retirement, and New York elevated Glenn Foley after cutting Neil O'Donnell.
Indianapolis and San Diego found their quarterbacks in the 1998 draft when the Colts selected Peyton Manning and the Chargers took Ryan Leaf at the top of the first round.
Three teams also drafted running backs whom they expect to feature this fall. All were first-rounders: Chicago took Curtis Enis, Jacksonville took Fred Taylor and New England took Robert Edwards. Two other teams traded for backs. Arizona acquired 1,000-yard rusher Adrian Murrell from the Jets and Baltimore got Errict Rhett from Tampa Bay.
Four teams signed their lead runners in free agency. New Orleans landed Lamar Smith, the Jets signed Curtis Martin, San Diego added Natrone Means and Seattle got Ricky Watters. Two other teams promoted runners from within. Kansas City plans to feature Donnell Bennett in 1998 and Philadelphia will use Charlie Garner.
Only 14 NFL teams have stood pat at the three spots since the end of the 1997 season. They include the two Super Bowl participants, three other division champions and four other playoff qualifiers.
The bottom line for coaches, passers and runners: If you win, you stay. You lose, you go.
AROUND THE NFL: As the Arizona Cardinals approach contender status, they realize the importance of winning close games. Which is why the Cardinals brought in Hall of Fame placekicker Jan Stenerud to work with Joe Nedney at the June minicamp. "If you can't learn something from a Hall of Famer, you're not listening," said Nedney, who made only 11 of his 17 field-goal tries last season. . . . The Miami Dolphins had one of the NFL's worst pass rushes in 1997 when they managed only 31 sacks. So the Dolphins signed Josh Taves, the World League's leading pass-rusher this spring. Taves collected nine sacks in 10 games for the Barcelona Dragons. He goes 6-7, 285 pounds and previously spent time on NFL practice rosters in Detroit, Jacksonville and New England. . . . The Indianapolis Colts will add a second name to their Ring of Honor this summer when they induct wide receiver Bill Brooks in ceremonies at the Aug. 22 exhibition game against San Diego. Brooks played seven seasons with the Colts (1986-92), catching 411 passes for 5,818 yards. He joins the late Robert Irsay in the Ring of Honor. Irsay was the club owner who moved the Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis. . . . How anxious are Clevelanders for the return of the NFL in 1999? Even though the Browns have no coach and no players, the club has sold almost 53,000 season tickets for the re-launch season.