Volume 2, Number 1 -- January, 1997
The BackPage
Ding, Dong, the Witch is dead. Or, more appropriately, the "Witches".
For all those legions of NFL fans out there who, like myself, have long since tired of seeing the same old teams in the Superbowl year after year, this past weekend was one for the ages. To see perennial Superbowl Champs Dallas and San Francisco escorted from the playoff party along with perennial Superbowl Doormat Denver (preceded by fellow doormat Buffalo the previous week) was, well, if not truly spiritually moving then at the very least enough to restore my faith in humanity.
For the past decade a select group of teams have had a stranglehold on the biggest of big dances. With the exception of brief cameos by Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Cincinnati, the above mentioned teams along with the Giants and the Redskins have been hogging the Superbowl Spotlight for the past ten years.
In fact, to find the last Superbowl that did not involve either Dallas, Denver, Buffalo, or San Francisco you have to go back eleven years to Superbowl XX. The combatants on that day were Superbowl virgins New England and Chicago, neither of which have returned for a second go-round.
This then, is what the glorious weekend of January 4-5, 1997 meant to many long-suffering football fans, starved as they were for a fresh selection on the Superbowl menu. At last, you can hear them cry, at long last we have a new pair of teams to root for or against as our tastes dictate. And for the first time since that Chicago-New England Superbowl eleven years ago there is a chance (though slim) that we could see two first time Superbowl teams facing off.
As you may be able to tell, I am excited at the very prospect of Superbowl XXXI.
But what of the NFL that we have grown accustomed to? Is it truly, as so many pundits have observed, the end of an era? Have we seen the decline of these perennial playoff franchises?
The answer is Yes, No, maybe and Probably not. Let's start with the Yes.

QUESTION: Who are the Buffalo Bills?
Yes, I'm afraid the Buffalo Bills have finally squeezed all that they could possibly squeeze out of their veteran squad. Jim Kelly is almost certainly gone, quite possibly to be joined by Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed. Only Bruce Smith seems a good bet to return for another year as Marv Levy must decide whether, at 71, he really wants to undertake the massive rebuilding that this team desperately needs.

QUESTION: Who are the San Francisco Forty-Niners?
As always, the Niners are the most solid of the "declining" dynasties. They still have enough to make the playoffs (and then some) but it seems to be getting tougher and tougher for the organization to plug the holes.
It has long been the forty-niner way for past Niner stars to give way to future Niner stars. Joe Montana had Steve Young waiting in the wings, Dwight Clark was replaced by Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott gave way to Eric Davis, Randy Cross was nudged into retirement by Jessie Sapolu, and Roger Craig gave way to Ricky Watters.
And who do the current crop of Niners have waiting in the wings. Steve Young has Elvis Grbac, at least for now. Jerry Rice has Terrell Owens, or maybe J.J. Stokes. Brent Jones has, uh, Ed Popson. Merton Hanks has ... well, that Buckley fellah. See what I mean. And all of this is in addition to the holes that already exist at running back, cornerback, pass rusher, and all along the undersized and aging offensive line.
On the plus side, the forty-niner organization is still deserving of all the respect that is lavished upon them. They have the money and the know-how to land the necessary free agents to bring them back up to the level of a legitimate contender, though the days of absolute dominance are probably behind them.

ANSWER: Maybe.
QUESTION: Who are the Dallas Cowboys.
Credit Barry Switzer with staving off the complete meltdown of a once great team for quite a bit longer than anyone could have predicted. While I count myself among the myriad of critics who insist (and still insist) the man is in over his head, Switzer did manage to guide Jimmy Johnson's team to three playoff appearances in his three years in Dallas and even hauled off a Lombardi Trophy to boot.
Thank you for playing, Barry, collect your prizes on the way out. The player attrition that the Cowboys have been suffering for the past three years looks to continue this season and they're fast running out of familiar faces in Irving. Jay Novacek was lost at the beginning of the season and his absence was never felt more than when Troy Aikman found himself without Michael Irvin and in desperate need of a target against Carolina. Emmit Smith showed both that he is not washed up and that he cannot carry the team alone anymore. God save the poor man if Darryl Johnston leaves via free agency. And on the Defensive front, Leon Lett will miss the first 14 games of 1997 due to his drug suspension, and by that time it could be all over for Dallas.

ANSWER: Probably Not.
QUESTION: Who are the Denver Broncos.
Denver finally put it all together in 1996, or so it seemed until the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars exposed them at Mile High. What happened? Were they really that overrated? Actually, the Broncos are a legitimate Superbowl contender next season if they can do two things:
1) Add some beef to a dangerously small defensive line that simply got pushed around in the second half against Jacksonville, and
2) Get a big-play receiver. Despite all the money and the promises that went to and came from Anthony Miller, he is not the real deal. Whether they do it through the draft, trade, or free agency, the Broncos need to give John Elway something he has never had in Denver, a legitimate marquee receiver.
Well, that's that. Enjoy your Superbowl.
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