The 49 Steps
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The 49 Steps

Free Agency Files: Hidden Gems from the NFL’s Class of 1994

Free agency changed the makeup of the NFL in no time at all. The wild spending of the first market in 1993 prompted the introduction of a salary cap a year later. It would ultimately mean parity within the big league, but in 1994 the proliferation of cap casualties swelled an already star-studded free-agent class.

This market was dominated by the San Francisco 49ers. Tired of being bitch-slapped by the Dallas Cowboys during the previous two seasons, the Niners set about buying a fifth Lombardi Trophy. Linebackers Ken Norton Jr. and Gary Plummer bolted to the Bay Area, as did center Bart Oates and pass-rushers Rickey Jackson, Charles Mann, and Richard Dent.

The prized get though was cornerback Deion Sanders. ‘Prime Time’ swapped life with the Atlanta Falcons (poor sod) for a season of getting on Jerry Rice’s nerves. O’ and the small matter of finally winning a championship.

Sanders dominated the headlines, but there were other high-profile moves in ’94, and many of them involved the Houston Oilers. Everybody who was able left the AFC Central team, including a batch of star defensive players.

Wilber Marshall followed Buddy Ryan to the Arizona Cardinals. Sean Jones signed with the Green Bay Packers, while his fellow defensive end William Fuller became a member of the Philadelphia Eagles in one of the more underrated moves in free agency history.

Fuller was a marquee signing at the time, but some of the hidden gems from this class went on to be just as productive. The ’93 class hid riches at linebacker and along the offensive line. This group featured a Super Bowl-winning cornerback who helped the Cleveland Browns enjoy a rare trip to the playoffs. The Washington Redskins would only win three games in 1994, but it wasn’t for lack of trying from two of the year’s best bargain free agents.

Here are the hidden gems from Free Agency The Sequel, starting with the obligatory honourable mention:

Don Griffin, CB, San Francisco 49ers to Cleveland Browns

Any other cornerback on the move that year was naturally overshadowed by Sanders. It was worse for Griffin, who left Candlestick Park to make room for ‘Neon Deion.’

Griffin had won two Super Bowls with the 49ers following the 1988 and ’89 seasons. He wasn’t expected to be on the market long, and the Browns agreed to pay him a little more than a million annually over four years.

The move paid immediate dividends because Griffin joined an outstanding secondary already featuring safeties Stevon Moore and Eric Turner. Further talent was added when the Browns drafted corner Antonio Langham ninth-overall in the 1994 NFL draft.

This loaded group was part of an outstanding defense coached by Bill Belichick and coordinator Nick Saban. The secondary bookended a unit that began with a formidable front four, ends Anthony Pleasant and Rob Burnett, and tackles Michael Dean Perry and Bill Johnson. Belichick’s former lieutenants with the New York Giants, Carl Banks, and Pepper Johnson, patrolled the linebacker level.

Cleveland’s fortified D’ surrendered the fewest points in the league and keyed a win over defending champions the Cowboys in Dallas. Griffin more than did his bit during a memorable season. He intercepted a pair of passes and recovered three fumbles. Saban also used the cornerback as a key member of the Browns’ pressure schemes, leading to a career-best four sacks for Griffin.

The Browns finished 11–5 and thumped Drew Bledsoe, Bill Parcells, and the New England Patriots in the playoffs. There was only one thing this defense couldn’t do. Stop the power running game of the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose strength on the ground was aided by another hidden gem from this class.

John L. Williams, FB, Seattle Seahawks to Pittsburgh Steelers

Williams was the most underrated fullback of his generation. He began his career in 1986 as a dynamic runner, receiver, and blocker with the Seattle Seahawks. Williams quickly matured into a prolific player in the schemes of head coach Chuck Knox, one of the masters of the pro rushing attack.

Knox made full use of the range of Williams’ skills, especially during the 1988 season. Williams rushed for 877 yards and led the Seahawks in receptions with 58, no small feat in the days when Steve Largent was still running patterns in The Emerald City.

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Williams remained a productive receiver and developed his blocking skills under Knox then Tom Flores before the Steelers came calling in ’94. His first season with the team produced 51 catches and 68 carries, not too shabby in a backfield also featuring Barry Foster and ‘Bam’ Morris.

One of Williams’ better games came against the Browns in the Divisional Playoffs. Try as they might, Belichick and Saban just couldn’t figure out a way to stop the Steelers.

Ron Erhardt had served on the same Giants staffs as Belichick under Parcells, and his ground schemes gashed the Cleveland defense for 238 yards on 51 attempts. Foster led the way, but Williams made sure he got in on the act.

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Williams would have to wait another year to play in a Super Bowl, although he’d be on the losing side against the Cowboys. The Steelers would have reached the big game following the ’94 season had it not been for the San Diego Chargers and another of free agency’s hidden gems.

Reuben Davis, NT, Arizona Cardinals to San Diego Chargers

Ryan cleaned house when he became the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. He broke up what was already a pretty nifty defense. Two of the unit’s members made this list. The first is man-mountain nose tackle Reuben Davis.

The Chargers added 6'5″, 340-pound Davis alongside 6'2″, 300-pounder Shawn Lee. They protected Junior Seau, who had one of the great seasons by a linebacker in 1994. Seau was in on 155 tackles, logged 5.5 sacks, and recovered three fumbles.

There was no doubt who was the star of the San Diego defense, but it was an interior mauler like Davis who stole the show against the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. While Belichick had no answers for the Pittsburgh running game, wily old Chargers DC Bill Arnsparger kept it simple.

Arnsparger altered the splits between his defensive linemen and stacked linebackers in the gaps. He also brought safeties into the box. The result was a Steelers ground attack limited to 66 yards on 26 attempts. Davis was outstanding, making four solo stops, including a tackle for loss on Foster.

San Diego’s Cinderella season was ended by Rice, Sanders, and the rest of the 49ers’ star power in Super Bowl XXIX. The Chargers were back in the playoffs a year later on the strength of a defense ranked sixth in points and 10th in yards.

Davis started all 16 games but his hopes of a return to the Super Bowl were quickly ruined by the Indianapolis Colts and another free-agent bargain.

Tony Bennett, DE/OLB, Green Bay Packers to Indianapolis Colts

There was no place for Bennett once the Green Bay Packers junked their 3–4 defense for a more traditional, two-gap 4–3 in ’94. The great Fritz Shurmur replaced Ray Rhodes as coordinator, while Jones arrived from the Oilers to bookend Reggie White.

Bennett needed a new team and he found an ideal home in Indianapolis. The Colts didn’t care about his background in the 3–4. Vince Tobin ran a hybrid defense that relied on guys like Bennett being able to play outside linebacker and defensive end.

Tobin was able to mix three-and-four-man lines, but Bennett usually stayed on the field as one of the Colts key ‘jokers.’ He registered nine sacks in 1994 and was even more effective a year later when the Colts rode a sophisticated defense and the never-say-die hustle of backup quarterback Jim Harbaugh all the way to the conference title game. Bennett’s 10.5 sacks were vital for the league’s fifth-stingiest scoring D’.

Indy beat the defending champs the 49ers in Week 7 when Bennett got one of the Colts’ six sacks of Steve Young. He also registered a safety by taking down Dan Marino during a crucial win over the Miami Dolphins six weeks later.

The Colts went on to upset the Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs on the road in the playoffs. Bennett and the team’s stunning journey ended after an epic game in Pittsburgh. He was back at the same venue a year later for the WildCard Round, but the Steelers ran out comfortable 42–14 winners.

Bennett was gone after the ’97 season, but he’d registered 28.5 sacks in four years. A good number, but modest compared to the next pass-rusher on this list.

Ken Harvey, OLB, Arizona Cardinals to Washington Redskins

Ryan felt he had no need for Ken Harvey when he installed his famed 46 defense in the desert. There was a certain irony about Ryan ditching a blitzing linebacker as skilled as Harvey when implementing a blitz-heavy scheme.

Harvey went to Washington where Norv Turner had replaced Richie Petitbon as head coach. Turner hired Ron Lynn as defensive coordinator. Like Ryan, Lynn called a defense based on the blitz. He made superb use of Harvey’s skills in ‘94.

Despite swapping a 3–4 scheme for a 4–3 defense, Harvey enjoyed his best season. He logged 13.5 sacks, just half a sack shy of league-leader Kevin Greene. Harvey got to the quarterback more often than White, Bruce Smith, and Charles Haley and set Redskins franchise marks that stood for over a decade.

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Lynn got the most out of Harvey by moving him around and letting him play rush end in obvious passing situations. The formula continued to yield success as Harvey recorded 16.5 sacks the next two seasons. Problem was those defenses were pretty dire.

Turner replaced Lynn with Mike Nolan in 1997, but Harvey continued to produce. He logged 9.5 sacks, four of them during a 7–7 tie with the Giants in Week 13.

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Washington’s defense allowed the eighth-fewest points in the league, but the 8–7–1 Redskins couldn’t get past the revived Giants in the NFC East. Harvey’s final season was a 6–10 disappointment in ’98. It was a shame he didn’t stick around for Washington’s 10–6, playoff-bound 1999 season.

He may have been on the losing end more often than not, but Harvey made four-straight Pro Bowls and registered 41.5 sacks in five seasons.

Henry Ellard, WR, Los Angeles Rams to Washington Redskins

Harvey wasn’t the only free agent who thrived on losing teams in Washington during the ’90s. Henry Ellard enjoyed a remarkable career swan song after reuniting with Turner in 1994. Turner had been on the coaching staff with the Los Angeles Rams in the ’80s and seen Ellard’s brilliance up close.

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It was still a gamble though to bet a 33-year-old wide receiver had enough left in the tank. Turner’s risk was rewarded in spectacular fashion when Ellard produced one of the great individual seasons during his first year with the Redskins.

He caught 74 passes for 1,397 yards on a 3–13 team. Those passes were thrown by a trio of dismal quarterbacks, journeyman backup John Friesz, draft flop Heath Shuler and seventh-rounder Gus Frerotte.

No matter who threw the passes, Ellard frequently turned them into big gains that kept the chains moving. Ellard went over 1,000 yards in each of his next two seasons as the focal point of Turner’s passing game.

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Like Harvey, Ellard was gone by the time Turner made the Redskins winners. Yet few who saw his performances for the Burgundy and Gold during the decade would dispute they witnessed an all-time great at the peak of his powers.

Put this man in the Hall of Fame.

Originally published at http://playactionpast.wordpress.com on March 20, 2021.

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Arsenal, NFL History and Film Analysis from James Dudko

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James Dudko

James Dudko

Films, Footie and Gridiron, with the emphasis on Arsenal, NFL history and analysis of cinema from years past.