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Established Coaches Feel Heat In ‘Upsetting’ Football Season

A neat parlay: Jacksonville, Carolina and the Jets. All winning on the same weekend over Cleveland, New Orleans and Miami.

Well, Carolina might have figured to win over a team that could be called “the expansion Saints.”

But if anything demonstrates what free agency and the salary cap have done, that’s it. Throw in Cincinnati winning big in Pittsburgh on Thursday night and you have …

Parity? Parody? Mediocrity?

The easiest way to define it is by looking at the AFC, where Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are tied for the lead at 3-4, just a half-game ahead of Jacksonville.

At least some things remain normal, like the 49ers’ 44-10 win over the Rams in St. Louis with Elvis Grbac instead of Steve Young at quarterback.

But there are teams that are far more troubled than the Rams and senior coaching jobs that are in jeopardy - Jim Mora’s in New Orleans and, seriously, Don Shula’s in Miami.

Troubled teams? In no particular order, try:

1, Miami. It was 4-0, leading Indianapolis 24-3 in the second half three weeks ago, and already counting Super Bowl shekels. Suddenly Jim Harbaugh struck and the Dolphins lost 27-24 in overtime and Dan Marino got hurt.

Then they handed New Orleans its only win and hit bottom on Sunday by losing to the Jets, who had hit bottom the week before in Carolina.

Worse, they’re bickering. Defensive linemen Monte Coleman and Jeff Cross got into a fight on the sidelines Sunday and the safeties are feuding among themselves. Last week, when it was suggested that strong safety Michael Stewart might be benched, free safety Gene Atkins suggested he might walk out if that happened.

If this continues, Wayne Huizenga, the toy store owner, is likely to suggest Shula trade places after the season with Jimmy Johnson, who’s been waiting for a phone call on his boat off the Florida Keys.

2, Cleveland. Soft in the middle on defense since losing Michael Dean Perry and James Jones to Denver. Aging and too slow on defense to catch Mark Brunell, the Jacksonville quarterback who scrambled 11 times for 58 yards as the Jaguars tied a record for a first-year team with their third win.

3, New Orleans. It wasn’t so much that the Saints (1-6) lost in Carolina, it’s who helped inflict it: Sam Mills and Brett Maxie, to name two. Both are former Saints and Dom Capers, the Panthers’ coach, is a Mora protege - he was on his staff in both the USFL and in New Orleans.

End zone

Cleveland coach Bill Belichick announced Vinny Testaverde has been benched in favor of rookie Eric Zeier… . Drew Bledsoe completed a seven-year, $42 million contract with the New England Patriots, a deal described by the team as the most lucrative in NFL history… . Minnesota middle linebacker Jack Del Rio, the leading tackler each of his three seasons with the Vikings, signed a two-year contract extension worth $3.2 million.… . Pittsburgh nose tackle Joel Steed was suspended for four games after testing positive for steroids… . Philadelphia offensive tackle Bernard Williams, suspended for the first six games for testing positive for marijuana, will miss the rest of the season for a second violation of the NFL’s drug policy.

Bubby Brister will make his third straight start at quarterback for the New York Jets Sunday… . The 49ers have been fined $60,000 by the California Fair Political Practices Commission for making illegal campaign contributions to Art Agnos in the 1991 San Francisco mayoral elections… . In Los Angeles, former NFL executive Brian Hughes pleaded guilty to participating in a scheme to defraud the league of $350,000… . Dallas owner Jerry Jones asked a federal judge to throw out a lawsuit filed against him by the NFL over deals he struck with corporate sponsors.