September 1, 2000
The National Football League will kick off a new century this weekend literally.
On Labor Day weekend, every football kicked off to start the 15 games of the schedule will contain the NFL's specially designed logo for this season that reads, "Kickoff 2000. A New Century."
And if the first season of the NFL's new century is anything like the last season of the 20th century fans should get ready for a wild 17 weeks and beyond.
Who will be this season's "turnaround" teams? Is there a new KURT WARNER ready to explode upon the NFL scene? Will the season feature classic, how-did-they-do-that plays?
The questions are there. The NFL - in its 81st season will start answering them this weekend.
"I'm tired of this offseason stuff," says St. Louis Rams quarterback Warner. "I want to get back to football."
The NFL's "back-to-football" schedule:
NFL KICKOFF 2000 WEEKEND
Sunday, September 3
Monday, September 4
Denver Broncos at St. Louis Rams 6:00 PM
Of course, Warner's movie-like saga of 1999 from stocking shelves at the Hy-Vee grocery store in Cedar Falls, Iowa to the NFL and Super Bowl XXXIV MVP for the champion Rams was a highlight of last season. For that matter, any NFL season.
Is the new Kurt Warner out there? Maybe it's Jeff Garcia, taking over for the retired Steve Young in San Francisco. Or Jay Fiedler, replacing the retired Dan Marino in Miami. Or Daunte Culpepper, stepping in as a starter in Minnesota after not throwing a pass in his rookie year of '99.
Culpepper is one of six quarterbacks taken in the 1999 NFL Draft who will start this fall first-rounders Tim Couch in Cleveland, Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia, Akili Smith in Cincinnati, Culpepper, Cade McNown in Chicago, and second-rounder Shaun King in Tampa Bay.
"All through history, there have been great quarterbacks who retire," says Super Bowl XXI MVP and present CBS-TV analyst Phil Simms. "For some reason, there's always great ones behind them. They keep coming."
Will "turnaround" teams keep coming, too? Last season, the Indianapolis Colts produced the biggest season-to-season improvement in NFL history, a 10-game swing from 3-13 in 1998 to a 13-3 record. The Colts went from last place in the AFC East to a division title in '99. The Rams showed a nine-game improvement (4-12 in '98 to 13-3 in '99). St. Louis also became the first team to go from last place in its division to Super Bowl champion in one year.
But, says Colts head coach Jim Mora, fans cannot expect an automatic repeat of a team's great season. "You can't say that because we did something the year before, it's going to happen again," he says. "It doesn't work that way. You can't assume anything in this business."
That is proven out by the fact that in the past two seasons, only one division winner (the 1998 Jacksonville Jaguars) has repeated. Elias Sports Bureau research shows that the "average" NFL team last season showed a 3 1/2-game plus-or-minus difference in the standings from 1998. That translates to an average 217-point difference between '98 and '99 in team winning percentage the highest such figure not only in the NFL over the past 30 years, but in any of the four major sports in North America.
That unpredictability gives all fans hope for their team and also translates into a "big-game" atmosphere every Sunday.
"In the NFL, you only have 16 games, so each one counts," says Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Joey Galloway.
The counting starts on Labor Day weekend, which concludes with ABC's NFL Monday Night Football (9:00 PM ET) in St. Louis with the beginning of the Rams' quest to defend their Super Bowl title. Their opponent? The winners of the previous two Super Bowl titles, the Denver Broncos.
"What prime-time games do is encourage the players to take a postseason-type of mentality," says Mike Martz, who will be directing his first game as the Rams' new head coach. "And good teams are supposed to do that."
St. Louis and the Trans World Dome should be rocking. The game marks the first Rams Monday-night appearance since 1991, and the city of St. Louis' first MNF game since the St. Louis Cardinals lost to the Dallas Cowboys 31-7 on September 29, 1986.
Inside the Dome? Bring ear plugs. At the team's final game there last season the NFC Championship Game the decibel level under the roof measured as high as 109 the equivalent of standing under a 727 landing.
The Rams have won 11 in a row at home, including the playoffs....outscored opponents at home in the '99 regular season by an average of 35-11 and will debut their sparkling new uniforms. The game even will be televised live in Japan by the NHK network. Does all this concern Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan?
"We'll show up," he says. "Let the games begin."
The 1999 AFC-champion Tennessee Titans also will kick off in front of a national TV audience. On Sunday night (ESPN, 5:35 pm), the Titans visit the Buffalo Bills, whose '99 season ended abruptly on January 8 in a Wild Card game thanks to the Titans' improbable "Music City Miracle" play that already is considered one of the most memorable in NFL history.
The "Miracle," called "Touch-down Throwback" in the Titans' playbook, was comprised of Kevin Dyson's shocking 75-yard touchdown return with 16 seconds left in the game that came off a lateral from Frank Wycheck who himself took a handoff of a kickoff from Lorenzo Neal for the winning points (22-16). The play is sure to be on the minds of every Bills fan Sunday night as they enter Ralph Wilson Stadium.
"They'll be jacked up, fired up and they should be," says Wycheck. "The play is definitely going to be on their minds. I guarantee you the Bills are not going to lose `contain' on special teams. There will be a little extra juice in the game because of the way it came out last time. It will be an interesting game to watch."