Whenever a football team hits the skids, the first target of the ``snipers'' in the press box and the stands is always the coach. It doesn't matter, either, how much success a man has had in the past - as can be seen in both Pittsburgh and Dallas this fall. Going into the eleventh week of the season, the Steelers and Cowboys are buried in the cellars of their respective divisions with 2-8 records. And not too surprisingly, coaches Chuck Noll and Tom Landry are coming under increasing fire from fans and the media.
This is the same Chuck Noll who was everybody's National Football League Coach of the '70s when he led the Steelers to four Super Bowl triumphs between 1974 and 1979. And the last time anyone looked, the Cowboys under Landry had put their brand on 13 division titles and appeared in five Super Bowls, winning two of them.
Coaching never has been and never will be an exact science. Footballs take funny bounces. Injuries hit a team harder one year than another. New players can be pleasant surprises or disappointments. And there are dozens of intangibles that go into where a team finishes.
But for fans and critics to question whether Landry and Noll have lost their ability to build winners is to accuse Rodgers and Hammerstein, after one Broadway flop, of no longer being able to handle a pitch pipe!
Eventually there comes a time in all sports organizations when winning teams lose the consistency that previously made them great, or at least good. Whether that change takes place on a physical or an emotional level is unimportant.
The point is something happens that shows unmistakably that changes have to be made. And such is obviously the case now in both Pittsburgh and Dallas.
This year did not catch either Noll or Landry by surprise. The latter is even on record in the Cowboys' 1988 media guide as saying the current ``very inexperienced'' team was clearly in a rebuilding phase, and that it would probably take three years to get things turned around. What happened in last Sunday's 29-21 loss to the New York Giants was typical of what has been happening to Dallas all season.
Trailing 26-0 at halftime, the Cowboys changed quarterbacks to start the third period, sending in Kevin Sweeney for Steve Pelleur. Sweeney threw for three touchdowns, while the defense tightened up and held the Giants to just one field goal in the second half. It was an encouraging performance, but in terms of the final score it was just one more loss in the most dismal season this team has experienced since the early '60s.
With six games to go, starting with another toughie against Minnesota Sunday, the Cowboys are headed for a third consecutive losing season after an incredible 20 straight winning ones. But considering the overall record, it would be a good idea not to give up on Mr. Landry just yet.
Last Sunday was no day at Disneyland for Noll, either, as the Steelers fell 42-7 to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Pittsburgh is the most scored against team in the NFL this season. But like so many sports statistics, that figure can be misleading if it is taken to mean that defense is the Steelers' only big problem. The fact that the offense, led by quarterback Bubby Brister, seldom keeps the football long enough to get more than a couple of sets of fingerprints on it has put tremendous pressure on the defense, which should get paid overtime.
Basically, what Noll needs to galvanize his team is a young quarterback with a cannon for an arm and the accuracy of a William Tell crossbow. And with a have-not team that will be picking high in this year's college draft, you can be sure he and his scouts already have books the size of dictionaries on such prospects as Rodney Peete of Southern California and Troy Aikman of UCLA.
Whatever happens, Noll, like Landry, is going to need at least another two years to climb back among the NFL's elite. But again, given his past record, don't count him out. Elsewhere in the NFL
The NFL's most interesting division this year continues to be the AFC West, where the Los Angeles Raiders, Denver Broncos, and Seattle Seahawks are all tied for first place with 5-5 records. There is a pretty good chance that all three of these teams (the Raiders at San Francisco, the Broncos home to Cleveland, and the Seahawks home to Houston) will lose this week.
The first-place Buffalo Bills (9-1 in the AFC East) have not allowed a touchdown in their last two games. After shutting out Green Bay 28-0 on Oct. 30, the Bills overpowered the Seahawks on Sunday, 13-3.
San Francisco has not been shut out in its last 171 regular-season games, the best such streak in the NFL. The Atlanta Falcons last blanked the 49ers, 7-0, in 1977. The Washington Redskins and the New York Giants have also gone more than 100 games without being shutout.
The Chicago Bears, who hadn't scored during the third period at any time this season, ended that drought Sunday while beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 28-10. The Bears' third-period score came on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Mike Tomczak to Dennis McKinnon.
NFL games are being televised twice weekly in Great Britain, and on prime time in Italy. And Japan's Nippon TV network airs three shows weekly that include game highlights and features.
Since Christmas falls on Sunday this year, the NFL has scheduled its AFC wild card playoff game on Saturday, Dec. 24, and its NFC wild card game on Monday, Dec. 26. Divisional playoff games will be on Saturday, Dec. 31, and Sunday, Jan. 1.
From Jack Kemp, New York congressman and former NFL quarterback: ``Pro football gave me a good sense of perspective when I entered the political arena. I had already been booed, cheered, cut, sold, traded, and hung in effigy!''