Opportunistic Pats; Hall of Fame dilemma

The New England Patriots might just be the most opportunistic, resourceful group ever to reach the Super Bowl. That may or may not be enough to beat the Chicago Bears Sunday, but you have to admire the way coach Raymond Berry has drilled his players, not only on how to cause fumbles, but on how to recover them as well.

Anyone who thought this sort of thing couldn't be taught must not have noticed the Patriots' ball-hawking feats in their three playoff victories. They caused and capitalized on opponent errors at a striking, more-than-coincidental rate. In all, they came up with 16 turnovers (including both fumble recoveries and intercepted passes) and converted them either directly or indirectly into a raft of points.

The Patriots claim there's nothing unique about how they strip the ball. They're just jolting tacklers with a heightened awareness of going for the ball, especially when the ballcarrier can't see them coming. It should be noted, however, that linebacker Andre Tippett has a black belt in karate, and it's probably not too far fetched to think his arm and hand quickness have inspired his fellow defenders.

As for recovering fumbles, Berry has elevated that to a science. So that every player, on both offense and defense, gets accustomed to the football in his hands, each member of the team is given a ball in practice. In addition, all players are drilled on the proper technique for smothering a loose football. Many players instinctively pounce on fumbles, only to bounce off. The proper method, the Patriots have shown, is to come in more from the side.

The takeaways don't mean much, of course, unless New England can minimize its own turnovers. And rest assured, Berry preaches that. As a college player, he felt he cost Southern Methodist a Cotton Bowl berth in his senior year with a late-game fumble. He consequently dedicated himself to being sure-fingered as a pro, losing the ball only once during a 13-year career, and that on a pass he argues should have been ruled incomplete. Hall of Fame field crowded with candidates

The newest members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame will be announced Saturday. The 29 selectors certainly have their work cut out for them in choosing a maximum of seven electees from a list of 15 finalists, including several former Super Bowl MVPs (Miami fullback Larry Csonka, Oakland wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff, and Kansas City quarterback Len Dawson).

Two players who have previously failed to receive the majority of votes needed for enshrinement, yet remain prominent candidates, are Fran Tarkenton and Paul Hornung. Tarkenton quarterbacked the Minnesota Vikings to three Super Bowls, but some feel his team's 0-3 record in the big game has been a hindrance. Hornung, the ``Golden Boy'' of the Green Bay Packers' backfield, led the league in scoring three straight years, yet a gambling suspension still dogs his reputation.

The most controversial candidate is easily Al Davis, the highly successful managing general partner of the Los Angeles Raiders and a former AFL commissioner, who has been been nominated as a contributor. Davis, of course, has been a thorn in the NFL establishment's side, and moved the Raiders to L.A. from Oakland in defiance of the league.

The remaining finalists are quarterback Bob Griese, defensive backs Ken Houston and Johnny Robinson, running backs John Henry Johnson and Doak Walker, linebacker Willie Lanier, guards Larry Little and Tom Mack, and wide receiver Don Maynard. Super Bowl-related tidbits

This year's Super Bowl halftime show will be as extravagant as ever. In an unusual logistical wrinkle, gigantic shades will be installed over the Superdome's existing lighting banks so that the regular illumination doesn't interfere with special theatrical lighting. The houselights could be turned off, but only at the risk of a potentially blacked-out second half.

The Chicago Bears are making their first Super Bowl appearance, but not their first in an indoor championship contest. That occurred in 1932, long before the Superdome or any similar stadium existed. The game with the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans was to be played in Chicago's Wrigley Field. Because of bitterly cold temperatures and heavy snow, it was moved to Chicago Stadium, where a makeshift field was outlined on a dirt floor left by the circus. The field, called a ``Tom Thumb gridiron'' by one newspaper, was only 80 yards long. The Bears won 9-0, with the game's lone touchdown scored on a 2-yard pass from Bronco Nagurski to Red Grange.

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