Sports Nut

Punt, Pass, and Predict, 2001

It’s August, and that means the media bulge with news of NFL training camps. Some of the same papers now running daily two- or four-page spreads about the local team will have throttled back to news-brief items by midseason, when bright promise has turned to 3-8 in the standings. August is Peter Pan time, when any fan may believe anything he or she wishes about a team’s prospects. By Halloween half the league’s faithful will know the Super Bowl is out for their favorites yet again, and by Thanksgiving, in many cities people will want to scream when they hear the name of their cellar-dwelling team. But August is the month of dreams. So dream away and enjoy it before the playing starts and spoils everything.

What follows is the Tuesday Morning Quarterback book of dreams for the upcoming season. In a shocking departure from tradition, this year’s predicted win-loss columns add up to 248, the total number of games; that is, TMQ predicts finishes that are mathematically possible. But for heaven’s sake, don’t let that make you think any of the predictions are right. While other football columns and tout sheets make vague promises, Tuesday Morning Quarterback absolutely guarantees his predictions will be wrong. In fact, this year’s column motto is:

All Predictions Wrong or Your Money Back.

Slate is free, get it? See, if by chance a prediction was actually right, then you would receive—oh, never mind.

Division Predictions: It’s a Darwinian world for division winners. From 1997 to 2000, only two division winners repeated from the previous season, of 18 possible chances. Thus of last season’s winners—Miami, Tennessee, Oakland, New Orleans, Minnesota, and Jersey/A—TMQ predicts only one will repeat. But I have no idea which one it will be.

Super Bowl Winner: In each of the last two seasons, the dance has gone to a team so lightly regarded by the league’s hype experts that it was not slated a Monday night game in the year of its triumph. The Rams in 1999 and the Ravens in 2000 were both MNF-free and both the last gentlemen standing.

Thus, TMQ predicts that the team goin’ to Disney World this winter will come from among those that did not make the Monday Night Football cut: Arizona, Atlanta, Buffalo, Carolina, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Kansas City, New England, San Diego, and Seattle. Yes, this is a sorry group, but if the league brain trust thinks these teams are losers, one of them must be good. Hype note: Despite bad seasons in 2000 and every reason to expect worse in 2001, Dallas and Jax did make it to MNF. Which assures they will be cover-your-eyes awful.

Actual Predicted Final Score: There will be a game with a final of 13-9, and you will wish you hadn’t watched it.

Team Predictions

Arizona(Caution: May Contain Football-Like Substance) Cardinals. The Cards have one playoff win in the last 53 years, draw the league’s smallest crowds, boast seven consecutive coaches with losing records, and last season stumbled in 3-13. What’s not to like? Consider this example of ongoing folly. Starting in the mid-1990s, the Cardinals invested high draft picks in DLs, hoping to assemble the league’s fiercest defensive line: Top-10 choices were spent on Eric Swann, Simeon Rice, and Andre Wadsworth. Now Swann is out of football, Rice is trying to resurrect his career in Tampa, Wadsworth is a perennially injured malcontent, and the AZ defensive line is so bad that if you threw some water on, it could qualify for federal disaster aid. Starting in the late 1990s, the Cardinals invested high draft picks in OLs, including the No. 2 pick overall in 2001, hoping to assemble the league’s fiercest offense line. TMQ bets that this year the Arizona offensive line will be a disaster, too. Finish 4-12.

Statistics Note: Over the span of its life, the Cardinals franchise has a losing record at home.

AtlantaFalcons. Atlanta ended up holding the ticket in the Michael Vick sweepstakes, and good luck, for this gentleman was the 36th-rated passer in Division 1 last year. Vick could be anything from a star to a total bust; all the talk of his speed rather than his arm brings to TMQ’s mind thoughts of speedy Gary Beban, 1967 Heisman Trophy QB who was a high pick to much fanfare and, in a remarkably short time, found himself desperately trying to make an NFL roster as a punt returner. And what’s the deal with Atlanta anyway? Three years ago the Birds made the Super Bowl; since then they’ve done nothing but waive veterans and decline. Player decisions have been unfathomable. While coach Dan Reeves has in the last two years invested a high No. 1 draft choice and a high No. 2 in tight ends, the NFL position most amenable to economizing, woe unto he who stands behind the Falcon’s cut-rate OL, which last year surrendered 61 sacks. Finish: 4-12.

Zocor Note: Atlanta is 11-24 since Reeves had his heart bypass operation. Everybody knows health problems mean he must slow down, but maybe he should step down.

BaltimoreRavens. Signs looked favorable for a second title run until Jamal Lewis was lost for the season. Still, the Ravens remain stacked. They closed the 2000 season with 11 consecutive wins, which is doubly impressive considering that earlier in the year they lost three straight and experienced woeful scoring difficulties. It’s amazing to think that a team that went the entire month of October without an offensive touchdown could end up winning the Super Bowl in a runaway. You could do a lot worse than to pick the Ravens to repeat. TMQ, however, notes these omens:

  • The Rams, the previous year’s out-of-nowhere Super Bowl winner, were sluggish and overconfident in their title-defense season. Given the team’s incessant boasting and preening, the Ravens seem a candidate for overconfidence.
  • Elvis Grbac will be the fourth Ravens starting QB in the last 33 regular season Ravens games. The track record of endless QB changes is not encouraging.
  • In 2000, Jeff Mitchell quietly had a superb season at center. No one noticed because no one notices centers. Baltimore blundered by letting him go in order to use the cap space to sign flashy-but-perpetually-injured tackle Leon Searcy.
  • Trent Dilfer may be the stiffest quarterback since Earl Morrall, but all he did for the Ravens last year was go 11-1 as a starter and win the Super Bowl. So get rid of the bum! The football gods will punish Baltimore for this hubris. Finish: 12-4.

BuffaloBills. There’s a theory that teams respond to new coaches who are polar opposites of the last coach, so replace a disciplinarian with a nice guy or vice versa. This theory will be put to the test in Buffalo, where the last two headmen have been Hall of Fame nice-guy Marv Levy (once, before a kickoff, he memorably said he wasn’t sure who would start at a key position because the assistant coaches had not told him the game plan) and Beanie-Baby-like Wade Phillips, the sole NFL coach who did not wear headphones. The new guy, the tastefully named Gregg Williams, is by contrast a hyper-organized control freak. He’ll need such skills to manage the Bills’ newcomers. Consecutive offseasons of salary cap crashes, brought on by mortgaging the future to hold the Jim Kelly-Bruce Smith-Thurman Thomas Super Bowl group together as long as possible, have blown both chaff and wheat from the Buffalo roster. Over the past two winters the Bills have for cap reasons waived goodbye to 13 starters, an incredible two-thirds of the team. On opening day, 21 ex-Bills cap-cut at Buffalo will start for other NFL teams while only one player cap-cut from another team will line up for the Bills. Buffalo fans will spend the season squinting at the names on jerseys and inquiring, “Who dat?” Finish: 8-8.

Fantasy Football Note: Coaches, nab bargain backup QB Alex van Pelt.  Considering that Rob Johnson has been knocked out of eight of his 18 pro starts, van Pelt is sure to see more time on the field than anyone other than members of his immediate family would prefer.

CarolinaPanthers. Last year the only two Panthers who really played well were QB Steve Beuerlein and Michael Bates. So what did Carolina do in the offseason? Cut both. The Panthers have the league’s most anonymous roster—honestly, how many Carolina starters can you name?—and are still reeling from the aftereffects of two ruinous decisions, drafting Tim Biakabatuka instead of Eddie George and the Sean Gilbert deal. Not only did Carolina give up two No. 1 picks for Sean Gilbert, even worse, they got Sean Gilbert, who radiates an incredibly scientifically advanced negative-energy field. Some athletes make the players around them better; Gilbert makes everyone around him worse. Finish: 3-13.

CincinnatiBengals. Over the last 10 seasons the Bungles are 47-113, cellar record not only in the NFL but in all professional sports—at .294, Cincinnati trails even the Los Angeles Clippers, .334 over the past decade. Could Cincinnati’s consistent mediocrity possibly have something to do with management? Owner Mike Brown employs just four scouts, the fewest in the league, and of the four, one is his brother and another his son. At the 1999 draft, Cincinnati management made the NFL’s worst-ever non-trade. Offered three No. 1 picks plus other choices by New Orleans for their selection, the Bengals stayed put and drafted Akili Smith, who’s very average and may wind up waived. Last year Cincinnati brass gave bad-news WR Carl Pickens a $3.5 million signing bonus, then waived him less than six months later. This offseason the Bengals brought in 24 free agents for recruiting visits and managed to sign just three; the prospective recruits got coach air fare and discovered their hotel reservations were of the type that required them to pay incidentals. How would Mike Brown woo Cindy Crawford, by taking her to a Holiday Inn and arguing at the desk about a room coupon? Management may place third behind players and coaches as determinants of victory, but never underestimate its ability to keep a bad situation bad. Finish: 3-13.

Great Moments in Management: Distressed by Smith’s performance, Cincinnati brought in Jon Kitna to challenge him. Smith had a bad year in 2000 partly because he fumbled 14 times, second in the league on this negative stat. First, with 17 fumbles, was Jon Kitna.

ChicagoBears. While all the attention goes to Arizona and Cincinnati, Chicago has quietly made itself one of the league’s worst teams. The Bears are 26-54 over the last five years, and the only representatives they’re sent to the Pro Bowl have been team executives who want to check out Hawaiian babes in halter tops. (LB Brian Urlacher, who went last February as an injury replacement for Stephen Boyd of Detroit, broke a long Bears drought.) High picks Curtis Enis and Cade McNown have been busts. Starting QBs change more often in Chicago than James Jeffords changes parties, and constant upheaval at the controls is the sort of thing that leads to 26-54 records. Finish: 5-11.

Girth Note: By signing enormous DT Ted Washington, who should wear a ZIP code rather than a number on his jersey, the Bears have nostalgically brought in the first NFL player since “Refrigerator” Perry to be both ridiculously overweight and yet such an athlete that he plays well. The obvious parallel nickname is “Walk-In Freezer” Washington. Let’s hope the Bears have enough sense of fun to put Washington in on offense at the goal line and throw him a TD pass.

ClevelandBrownsRelease 2.0. Yes, they’re an expansion team, but their 5-27 record doesn’t compare especially well to the two previous expansion clubs, the Jaguars and Panthers, both of which made the playoffs in their second seasons. In this age of free agency, an expansion team’s blank salary cap is a potent weapon. Cleveland has invested its space cap poorly, with only a few free-agent starters last year and those of the Jamir Miller, Keith McKenzie ilk—OK, but not great. And don’t write the Browns’ problems off to a second-year QB since the Panthers won their division in their second year though playing a sophomore quarterback. Proposed explanation for Cleveland’s woes: The team is really bad. Finish: 5-11.

DallasCowboys. “I think there are 500 [coaches] who could have coached this team to the Super Bowl,” pronounced Owner/Aspiring Vacuum Cleaner Salesman Jerry Jones when he fired Jimmy Johnson after two straight Super Bowl wins. (I don’t know about you, but Jones always reminds me of Dave Oreck, who at least is a respectable businessman; check out the incredible new Oreck XL Radio Vac 2800 vacuum cleaner with built-in FM radio here.) This assertion turned out to be true in the limited sense that anybody could coach the Cowboys stocked with talent by Johnson; Barry Switzer won another ring with that group. Now that J.J. has been gone seven years and the players he brought in have (except for the great Emmitt Smith) ridden off into the sunset, the Boys’ talent base has been reduced to gentlemen Jones chose, and it’s not pretty.

First there was the Joey Galloway trade. Jones gave up two No. 1 draft choices and a huge fraction of his salary cap to Galloway even though, in the previous season, the Seahawks had been 6-2 when Galloway didn’t play and 3-6 when he did. (So far the Cowboys are 0-1 when Galloway plays, which, fortunately, isn’t often.) Then Jones tried to imitate Johnson’s compulsive draft-day swapping by making multiple moves up and down. But while J.J. moved with a purpose, Jones seemed to barter picks at random, just to say he did it; for several years running, the players Jones landed through his machinations have been disappointments.

And there are Jones’ bumbling quarterback decisions. This year he signed and handed the starter’s job to Tony Banks, who has 101 turnovers in 61 career starts. Then Jones cut Banks in preseason and handed the job to erratic rookie Quincy Carter. This gentleman Jones picked with the Boys’ top selection, though draftniks expected Carter to go “on day two”—low. Carter looked lost in his senior year; NFL pressure will straighten him out? The mighty Texas franchise is now so depleted that it could be an ugly, ugly season; even women will want to watch the cheerleaders instead of the games. Jones’ redeeming virtue: Now it’s true again that “there are 500 who could have coached this team” because they would lose no matter who was in charge. Finish: 4-12.

Counterindication: Or the Cowboys will take the Super Bowl since the last two teams to ditch Tony Banks—the Rams and the Ravens—won the dance the year they depreciated this gentleman.

DenverBroncos. The Broncs are the deepest team in the league after an offseason spree in which they picked up more than a dozen free agents and yet stayed under the salary cap. What’s their secret? Most of the FAs they signed didn’t cost much because they aren’t particularly good: Chester McGlockton, Lee Woodall—these are guys teams wanted five years ago, not this year. Still, the Broncs have quite a bit going for them. Advantages include the Shanahan offensive system, which consistently finishes near the top for rushing despite undersized OLs and low-pick RBs, and the fact that the team plays half its schedule a mile in the air, where visiting-team oxygen depletion effectively confers on Denver an annual one-game bonus in the standings. Football gods, however, may punish this franchise for demolishing the storied Mile High Stadium and replacing it with a soulless corporate-named facility, which TMQ will call Don’t Buy From Invesco Field. Finish: 11-5.

Reproductive Health Note: Woody Paige of the Denver Post reported that executives at the evil Invesco dubbed the new stadium The Diaphragm, owing to its shape. This means we should be glad Invesco didn’t buy naming rights to the Washington Monument.

DetroitLions. Last year the Lions played more games against teams that made the playoffs than any other club and managed to finish 9-7 and just miss the postseason on an excruciating 54-yard field goal by Chicago on the final play of the final game. So Detroit had a good year, but how? The team has average talent and its star, Herman Moore, ought to buy an Ace bandage franchise, he’s hurt so often. Then there’s Ace-bandage-loving QB Charlie Batch, who’s settled down into a rhythm of having two games per year when he looks like Joe Montana, five games when he looks like David Woodley, and watching the rest from the sidelines in soft casts. Last summer, Detroit gave Batch an almost $11 million bonus to lock him up long-term; by winter, they were trying unsuccessfully to trade him. How long is the Lions’ dry spell? Between the old NFL championship and the Super Bowl, the last time Detroit played for a trophy was 1957. Finish: 9-7.

Civic Boosterism Note: When Jerry Rice was negotiating with Detroit, Bill Walsh derided it as “Devil’s Island somewhere in the Midwest.” Maybe signs at the city border should read:

Welcome to Detroit, Nationally Known as
“Devil’s Island Somewhere in the Midwest”

Green BayPackers. Three NFL teams won their final four straight games last year—the Giants and Ravens, who met in the Super Bowl, and the Packers, who went on to ride snowmobiles to their favorite ice-fishing spots in January. Will this positive momentum carry over to 2001? The Packers are light on talent, especially along the offensive line, and have recently showered draft picks on two problem positions, CB and TE, without producing a quality starter. So how can Green Bay hope to win? For one, its fans are the only audience in the league with the simple common sense to wear fake cheese on their heads. For another, there’s Brett Favre, the last remaining QB to play the position like it was meant to be played—on sheer bravado. Favre could be dropped blindfolded out of an airplane, land in the middle of a game and hit a touchdown pass before he’d cut off his chute cords. TMQ just loves to watch this guy. Finish: 10-6.

IndianapolisColts. Great offense, permeable defense. And in the offseason the Horsies did what? Brought in no significant defensive help, used their first draft pick on a receiver. The fabulous Bills offense of the early 1990s, assembled by Bill Polian, who now runs the Colts, never got its ring owing to lack of defensive strength. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat as wild cards. Finish: 10-6.

Jersey/A. Everybody’s injured, the players are squabbling and denouncing management—in other words, Giants coach Jim Fassel has ‘em right where he wants ‘em. Considering how well Jersey/A finished last season—seven straight Ws and the storied franchise’s best-ever game, the 41-0 championship win, before a Super Bowl flameout—it’s hard to bear in mind that in late November the Giants were staggering, losing, rife with dissention. Things were so bad that Fassel cut a player and announced he’d cut one more a week until his demands were met by hostage negotiators, er, until performance improved. When Fassel took to a Thanksgiving-week press conference podium to announce his guarantee that the Giants would make the postseason, everyone thought he’d gone flip city. Just goes to show you that in New York, public quarrelling is the normal, healthy condition. Finish: 11-5

Fashion Note: That stylized NY logo on Giants helmets would set a better example of honesty for today’s youth if changed to a stylized NJ.

Jersey/B. It’s 2001, do you know who the Jets coach is? The Jersey/B franchise fields its third head coach in as many seasons—four, if you count the nanosecond tenure of Bill Belichick. The Jets try to achieve with endless coaching upheaval the same kind of angst-driven creative tension Jersey/A seeks in endless public bickering. The Jets were among the most entertaining clubs to watch last year, putting up and surrendering points with the uninhibited abandon of a Scores dancer putting out. This year, in the hands of serious-minded coach Herman Edwards, look for the team to be dull but effective. Finish: 9-7.

Clarification for Those Who Don’t Take Business Trips to Manhattan: Scores was the high-end, high-aesthetic-standards strip club that Mayor Rudi Giuliani labored to close because he thought it gave the city a bad reputation. To TMQ, high-end naked babes give a city a good reputation! And what about our precious First Amendment freedoms, huh? Giuliani’s real complaint seemed to be that the dancers were earning empowering pay—$150,000-plus annually—strictly for aesthetic gyrating. To circumvent a hilarious Giuliani attempt to ban the word “topless,” New York clubs now advertise performers who empower themselves “stopless.”

JacksonvilleJaguars. Jax was the upcoming team in the late ‘90s. Everything seemed right until the most disastrous event in franchise history, the team’s record-setting 62-7 win over Miami in the 1999 playoffs, after which Jacksonville players boasted, bragged, and preened about how they were the greatest in known world history. Since that moment Jax is 7-10; the football gods punished the team’s rodomontade with injuries, embarrassment, and a 2000 flameout. Now the bill has come due for the salary cap high jinks Jax used to accumulate the big-rep players who performed small in 2000, and next year’s cap situation will be worse. How has insult-spewing Jax coach Tom Coughlin, the league’s worst sport, responded? By insisting that he personally assign locker spaces to reward favorites. This reminds TMQ of when, with the Iran situation collapsing, Jimmy Carter insisted on using his time personally to supervise the White House tennis court. Things didn’t turn out so well for Carter, either. Finish: 8-8.

Sked Note: Only dwelling in the AFC Central will prevent this from becoming a total debacle season for Jax, which draws four games against the Bengals and Browns.

Kansas CityChiefs. Here was Dick Vermeil’s first decision as the new Chiefs coach: Did he want to keep Pro Bowl QB Elvis Grbac and the 12th overall pick in the draft, or let Grbac go and trade the pick for Trent Green, 8-11 lifetime as a starter? We all know what Vermeil chose, and TMQ is moved to say: Ye gods. The Chiefs are weak at almost every position, and the only thing that went well last year—the fourth-ranked passing attack—now lacks the battery of Grbac to Sylvester Morris, sidelined for the season “with a knee,” as they say. Finish: 5-11.

MiamiDolphins. In recent years the Marine Mammals have played excellent defense in the first half of the season, then folded down the stretch—in the ‘90s Miami had the league’s best September record coupled with one of the worst December marks—as the team’s undersized, speed-based defenders showed the cumulative effects of pounding. The counter to this is to “roll” the front seven, substituting freely from the initial series on. Last season Miami finally had enough bodies to roll, and the result was consistently good defense that compensated for a low-low-low voltage offense. But free agency losses and injuries may force starters to stay on the field this season, resulting in another stretch defensive fade-out that the battery-powered offense will not be able to overcome. Hmmm … this is a totally straight sports item. What’s it doing in TMQ? Finish: 11-5.

Ethnicity Note: Dolphin Jay Fiedler is the league’s only Jewish starting QB, overcoming years of bias and claims that Jews lacked the arm strength to handle the position.

MinnesotaVikings. The sadness of Korey Stringer’s death means fans should not be surprised—and should not complain—if this becomes a lost season for the franchise. But portents were bad even before the tragedy. Minnesota has experienced cap crashes for two straight offseasons, jettisoning numerous quality starters—four of five OLs from the team’s 1999 starting line are no longer present—and now add surprise retiree Robert Smith. Plus with Randy Moss’ new monster contract, more years of cap cuts are assured.

The team’s internal psyche is weak, too, as shown not only by its 41-0 championship body slam but, more important, by how both coaches and players quit on that game in the second quarter. Coaches quit by ordering a punt on fourth and inches, trailing 24-0—you could practically see Dennis Green checking his watch and wondering how soon he could leave for the team plane. Players quit, wandering around disinterestedly on the sidelines instead of firing each other up. And check the game tape; Moss started dogging it at about the 10-minute mark of the second quarter, not running out routes and making no attempt to block. Yet after dogging it and catching for just 18 yards, following the game Moss denounced his teammates and declared that only he, Cris Carter, and Daunte Culpepper were worthy of going to the Super Bowl. Any self-respecting coach would have taken even a top star to the woodshed for such conceit. Instead, when quality starter tackle Todd Steussie criticized Moss for his remarks, Green waived Steussie. This showed the underside of the Vikings: It’s a team designed to run up stats for Moss and his pals, not to win championships. Finish: 9-7.

New EnglandPatriots. Here’s the bottom line on the succession of Pats-Jersey/B transactions: The Jets got perennial Pro Bowl back Curtis Martin and coach Bill Parcells, who took them to an AFC championship game; the P-Men got Bill Belichick, lifetime 41-55 as a head coach, and several high picks that they blew. (Tebucky Jones? Rod Rutledge?) One needs know no more about the relative fates of these teams. Finish: 4-12.

New OrleansSaints. Yow! First ever playoff win! How y’all gonna top that? The Saints had a wonderful season, but against a weak schedule and teams that were looking past them. This year they will be a circled matchup on other clubs’ schedules, and road will be a lot rockier. Plus controversy looms at both QB and RB, and teams can take a little controversy but not a lot. Finish: 11-5.

OaklandRaiders. The Raiders are denied an entry since they were guilty of the Single Worst Play of last season. Scoreless in the first half of the AFC championship at home, having the Ravens backed up to third and 18 on their 4, all Oakland had to do was play straight D, get a stop, and take the ball back at midfield. Instead it’s a blitz! Baltimore’s Shannon Sharpe runs a dinky little slant pattern 96 yards for six, and the Raiders never recover. What could Oakland coaches have been thinking? Finish: 11-5.

Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill Note: It’s great to see those Raider fans in the spikes and that Darth Vader get-ups are mainstreaming and functioning in society, but has anyone noticed that the more of them who attend games in costume, the worse Oakland plays?

PhiladelphiaEagles. They booed in Philly when the Eagles took Donovan McNabb, but last year were cheering when a fabulous season for McNabb and the Eagles defense got the team to the playoff second round. But in the offseason, the Eagles have been a cipher. They’ve done a good job of signing young starters to affordable long-term deals, meaning the team nucleus should be intact for several seasons; the Philadelphia brass work contract details better than anyone else in the league. But the Eagles’ biggest problem last year was no depth behind RB Duce Staley; when he went down hurt, the offense became McNabb 24/seven. Yet the Eagles acquired no RB help and go into 2001 once again gambling that Staley won’t get hurt. Philadelphia finished free agency with a near league-high of about $5 million in unspent salary cap space—which could have been used for the extra players that might put the team into the Super Bowl, but will instead be, what, donated to charity?

British Admiralty Internal Politics: Late in the 2000 draft, Philly exec Tom Modrak wanted to pick an unknown ex-Marine RB named Mike Anderson. Coaches insisted on RB Tom Hamner. Anderson went on to become Rookie of the Year at Denver, while Hamner was waived: Had the Eagles fielded Anderson when Staley got hurt, the team might have made the NFC championship. For being right on a key matter, Modrak was canned. Finish: 12-4.

Promotional Suggestion: Cheese heads have worked out so well in Green Bay, it’s astonishing that Eagles fans do not come to games dressed as cheese-steak heads.

PittsburghSteelers. It’s now year five in the Kordell Stewart experiment, and things get ever worse. Stewart has become the National Missile Defense of quarterbacks; he keeps failing, and officials just keep increasing the budget. Yes, an anti-missile rocket did record a hit this summer. And in that spirit, TMQ is sure that sometime during this season, Stewart will complete a pass.

Since taking the Steelers to the AFC championship in 1997, his first year at the controls, Stewart has steadily regressed: He now is 28th among active passers with a waiver-wire 68.4 rating, with his club recording three straight seasons out of the playoffs. True, it hurts that the Steelers blew consecutive lottery picks on the underachiever-receiver duo of Troy Edwards and Plaxico Burress, neither of whom caught a TD last year. (Since they’re now both assigned to the same position, split end, best case is that only one can play, making their back-to-back high selections one of draft history’s leading bust tandems.) But maybe every Steelers wideout wouldn’t look incompetent if the ball occasionally sailed through his general vicinity.

Pittsburgh made a huge commitment to Stewart at a time when black quarterbacks were rare and to support one was a positive symbol. But today with several black starters, two teams (Cowboys and Saints) having QB controversies between African-American signal callers and the No. 1 pick of the 2001 draft a black QB, the only symbolism remaining for the Steelers is refusal to admit error. To keep Stewart’s ego intact, in the last two seasons the club made a point of bringing in “challengers” who couldn’t win if Katherine Harris backed them: Last year it was Kent Graham, this year Tommy Maddox! It’s hard to see how keeping Stewart in the pocket looking bad helps even him at this point, since he might have been—perhaps still could be—a Pro Bowl flanker.

In other Pittsburgh news, the team will field a fabulous new linebacker. TMQ has no idea who it will be, but it will be somebody because the Steelers always have a fabulous new linebacker. Finish: 8-8.

San DiegoChargers. Considering Doug Flutie, new general manager John Butler, and numerous free-agent imports from the Bills, the Lightning Bolts now have so many Buffalo people on board that pregame meals will have to be chicken wings. How are all these frost-coated refugees going to react to the land of high-cut thong bikinis and endless summer? Let’s hope their skin doesn’t smoke in the sun, like vampires.

Though the Bolts were last year’s worst club at 1-15, they lost six games by a field goal or less, managing to stay close despite coaching chaos, the Ryan Leaf fiasco and no running attack. (San Diego’s leading rusher in 2000 amassed a LOL 384 yards, a figure surpassed by the No. 2 runner on nine teams.) At last Leaf is gone, and Butler’s first move was to rectify the Bolts’ draft-choice depletion from the fiasco by in effect trading Michael Vick for LaDainian Tomlinson, Drew Brees, and miscellaneous players. Odds are this was a savvy move, since Tomlinson should be good for at least 385 yards, while the rest is fruit topping. Tuesday Morning Quarterback cautions Bolts believers not to hold inflated expectations for Flutie, however. He’s a fabulous story and pound for pound football’s best athlete. But Flutie is about to turn 39, and his emotional baggage exceeds his body weight. When last Flutie was a full-time starter, in 1999, he visibly struggled with arm strength in the second half of the season, having difficulty delivering anything other than his CFL-style short-range side-arm specials. Finish: 6-10.

San Francisco49ers. All those total unknowns the Niners started last year? By December they were starting to look not half-bad. If its young defenders keep improving, San Francisco may rebound to power status in 2002. But this year might as well be phoned in, for the football gods will punish the Niners for waiving Jerry Rice. Bear in mind, this was not a cap cut; the team offered Rice a retirement bonus roughly equal to its cap saving from releasing him. This means the Niners waived Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver in NFL history and the greatest player in franchise history (the nod over Montana based on longevity), because they wanted to get rid of him. Niners management thought Rice’s presence was inhibiting the development of the infantile Terrell Owens. TMQ thought Rice’s presence was allowing the infantile Terrell Owens to get open. San Francisco will be punished by the football gods this season in the same way Buffalo was punished last season for waiving Bruce Smith. In funky coffeehouses, Internet salons, and those famous stopless clubs around the Bay, there will be rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. (OK, rending of garments is a good thing in stopless clubs.) Finish: 7-9.

SeattleSeahawks. Mike Holmgren, quarterback guru, spent two years developing the low-rated Jon Kitna into … the low-rated Jon Kitna, since waived. Now he’s supposedly committed to developing Matt Hasselbeck, who has a career total of 29 pass attempts. From this TMQ concludes: It’s a lot easier to be a QB guru if you are guruing somebody named Favre. Hawks fans will be chanting for late addition Trent Dilfer, who is awkward, stiff, and 18-4 in his last 22 starts. And cut twice during that span! Is that a postmodern experience or what? Finish: 5-11.

Cost Overrun Note: Husky Stadium, the 72,500-seat venue with a magnificent view of Mount Rainier in which the Hawks will play this season, was built in the 1920s for $600,000—$5.8 million in today’s money according to the handy Inflation Calculator. Next year the club will switch to a new field that seats fewer, has a view of office buildings, and will cost at least $425 million, 73 times the real-dollar price of Husky Stadium. Does the corporate elite need heated sky boxes and waitress service that badly? (Watch paint dry in Seattle from anywhere in the world! Check the new stadium’s live construction cam, surely part of the price run-up.)

St. LouisRams. The Rams’$2 2000 season was encapsulated by a play in the Tampa Bay game. Bucs RB Warrick Dunn was hemmed at the sideline with Rams safety Keith Lyle homing in. Lyle didn’t need to lay Dunn down with a big hit, just push him out of bounds. Instead Lyle pulled up and looked at Dunn as if he’d just grabbed the runner’s flag. Dunn gave a stunned look back and then zinged down the sidelines for a long TD that became the winning margin, depriving the defending champs of a home playoff appearance. It was like that all year for the Rams, their other-worldly offense undercut by a phlegmatic defense that surrendered 471 points, the most ever for a playoff team. Now the Rams have a new defensive staff and eight new defensive starters. Assuming the defense can rebound to merely average, St. Louis should be among the league’s teams to beat. Finish: 12-4.

Extraterrestrial Menace Note: NASA continues to search for space alien Kurt Warner’s homeworld. Check out this image of ESO 510-G13, a “warped” galaxy with brown dust clouds. Kinda looks like a deflated football. Seems like an important clue.

City ofTampaBuccaneers. (Cartographic note: The Green Bay Packers are named after the city of Green Bay, but Tampa is the Bucs’ hometown, while Tampa Bay is a water body.) Will this team ever settle on a quarterback? It used the No. 1 pick in the draft on Vinny Testaverde, only to ditch him and then watch him succeed elsewhere. It traded away Steve Young, who became NFL history’s highest-rated passer. One year it tossed the No. 2 pick in the draft out the window to obtain Chris Chandler, only to waive him and see him start in the Super Bowl for someone else; another year it used the sixth overall pick on Trent Dilfer, only to let him go and see him win the Super Bowl for someone else. Now, after investing considerable time in Shaun King, the Bucs have switched to Brad Johnson. How long before they’re discontent with him, too?

Meanwhile lurking on the bench is Ryan Leaf, who is the electrified handshake buzzer of quarterbacks—everyone who comes into contact him goes Yaaaaaaaaaaaa! And don’t get TMQ started on Me-Shawn Johnson, who, when he wasn’t calling press conferences to praise himself, displayed the incredibly scientifically advanced ability to become invisible in big games. Tony Dungy seems to hold this team together by force of will, which can’t work forever. Finish: 12-4.

TennesseeFlaming Thumbtacks. TMQ loves this team, and you’d assume the football gods would, too, since the club spent years wandering in search of a home, and the gods are supposed to reward that sort of thing. It looked like divine forces would favor the Titans two years ago, when the Music City Miracle saved the team’s first Nashville playoff game. Then the gods tested Tennessee again, depriving it of the Super Bowl by a yard on the final play. Last season the football gods were really hard on the T’s, handing the Ravens victory in their playoff matchup by virtue of improbable touchdown returns, one off a blocked field goal bounce and another off a fluke interception. Remember, except for those two plays, the Titans thoroughly outperformed the Super Bowl winners—holding Baltimore to 30 yards of second-half offense, for instance. Had the football gods not intervened, that whole Ravens thugs-win-rings thing never would have happened. The gods must be testing the Titans in preparation for something greater.

Last season Tennessee played the best year of “46” defense since the 1985 Chicago Bears, leading the league; losses of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and his assistant Jerry Gray, who has the aura of a future star coach, may haunt the team. Since beginning its playoff run, the weakness on the Thumbtacks roster has been WR. Last summer the team inexplicably tried to address this by signing the negative-energy-projecting Carl Pickens, who is now finally where he belongs—out of football. This year no action was taken on WR, meaning more Eddie George off tackle and more predictable game plans. To think that a few years ago, the Titans used their No. 1 choice on journeyman WR Kevin Dyson, passing on Randy Moss, who went a couple picks later. Moss may be insufferable, but add him to this franchise, and you’ve got a multiyear Super Bowl dynasty. Finish: 12-4.

WashingtonRedskins. Throughout 2000, as Owner/Rich Twit Dan Snyder of what TMQ calls the Chesapeake Watershed Region Indigenous Persons was furiously throwing money, he assured everyone he knew what he was doing and was not squandering the team’s salary cap. In winter 2001 the Persons’ cap crashed, and it became official that Snyder does not know what he is doing. Seven starters had to be let go for cap reasons, with another crash due next winter owing to carry-over penalties from the current mess. Roster folly is everywhere. Some $10.5 million in bonuses was thrown in 2000 at two players no longer with the team, Mark Carrier and Deion Sanders. Pro Bowl QB Brad Johnson is gone, replaced by All-Head-Case Jeff George. Could be an awful year for the Persons, and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy—Snyder. This rich twit not only fired coach Norv Turner in midseason last year, he fired him while the team was in playoff contention. How relieved Jerry Jones must be that there’s someone to take the spotlight off him as worst owner.

And can anyone explicate why new Persons boss Marty Schottenheimer preferred George, 46-76 lifetime as a starter and ridden out of town on a rail by four straight previous teams, to Johnson, 32-18 and fourth among active passers? George is the squirting lapel flower of QBs: Everyone who tries to embrace him jumps back going, What the hey! Snyder loves George, and his noisome influence is behind this inexplicable choice. Wait, it’s not inexplicable. The explanation is that Snyder has no idea what he is doing. Finish: 6-10.

Those Who Fail To Learn From History Are Doomed To Coach in Washington Note: “It won’t happen to me; I just don’t see him doing it again,” Schottenheimer told an interviewer when asked about Snyder’s making decisions without consulting former coach Turner. Marshall Petain, you’ll recall, once told Le Monde, “Get out! There’s no way the Germans will attack!”

TMQ Warm-Up. Next week Tuesday Morning Quarterback will sprint through his preseason in a single day with a warm-up column consisting of offseason highlights in the forever-entwined realms of pro football, space aliens, and half-clad mega-babes. Then on Tuesday, Sept. 11, the column’s regular season resumes. Don’t miss the fantastic new features! (Note to self: You have until Sept. 11 to devise fantastic new features.)