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Race factor real to Packer backers

With Packers offensive coordinator Sherm Lewis, a black man, among the contenders for the seven coaching vacancies in the NFL, the issue of black head coaches is a serious one in Green Bay.

With the firing of Ray Rhodes, the NFL has only two black coaches, the Bucs' Tony Dungy and Minnesota's Dennis Green. Lewis often is mentioned as a candidate but has not been hired.

The NFL intends to conduct interviews with black candidates and distribute the tapes to prospective employers, but safety LeRoy Butler doesn't believe that's the answer.

"They said they're going to help black coaches by letting them submit a tape," Butler said. "That's ridiculous. I think most owners think that any white guy you see with headphones on with a clipboard on the sidelines can coach. That's not true."

Does racism still factor into NFL coaching decisions?

"Absolutely," Butler said. "A lot of people don't think black people can run an organization. They look at me like an idiot because I am saying it.

"Being a head coach, you have to have a system all mapped out. Sherm has that."

Packers coach Mike Holmgren called Lewis "the most qualified assistant coach in this league right now _ bar none," and Green said Lewis' familiarity with the NFC and the Central makes him perfect for the Bears.

LT ON LT: If it takes great play to get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Lawrence Taylor is a shoo-in for the first ballot. If it takes humility . . .

"I know I belong there. I really never gave it a second thought whether I was going to make it or not," Taylor said. "I just figured it as a given. I don't want to sound cocky, but I expect it. From what I've done for the game of football, it shouldn't be a debate. What the hell did I slave 13 years for?"

No one questions Taylor's on-field accomplishments, but his off-field problems _ drug arrests, pleading guilty to filing a false income tax return _ since he retired after the 1993 season have put his chances in jeopardy.

He can only hope the voters follow the by-laws when they cast their ballots at the Super Bowl this month:

The only criteria for election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a nominee's achievements and contributions as a player, a coach or a contributor in professional football.

"I hate for people to hold me to higher standards than they hold themselves," Taylor said. "I would take my bad points and shortcomings and my good points and I would put them against anybody out there.

"Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying I'm a saint. If people would treat me the same way I treat them, then I wouldn't have a problem. I'm not given the benefit of the doubt anymore."

The vote will come one week before Taylor's 40th birthday.

EMMITT'S MEMENTOS: Emmitt Smith broke Marcus Allen's NFL record for rushing touchdowns with two in the finale against Washington, giving him 125. The Hall of Fame called Monday and asked for the record-setting football, but Smith turned it down.

His father advised him to keep all the balls he scored with in the NFL, and he has 121 stored in boxes. He has given four away: three to past and present teammates Kevin Smith, Bill Bates and Alfredo Roberts and one to a Vietnam veteran he met in Alaska.

"He gave me a Congressional medal of honor," Smith said. "He had one simple request _ the first touchdown I scored that year, he wanted me to dedicate it to the missing in Vietnam, all the veterans. I told him I'd do better than that. The first one I scored, I'd send him the football."

That was a 60-yard run in the 1995 opener against the New York Giants on Monday night.

Smith later softened his stance on Canton: "I might loan it to them as long as I can get it back."

JETS VS. BRONCOS?: If the Broncos and Jets, the top-seeded teams in the AFC playoffs, meet in the conference championship at Mile High Stadium, a number of league leaders look for Denver to pull it out.

"I'd be stunned if they (the Jets) won at Mile High Stadium," said Chiefs defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, who lost once to the Jets and twice to the Broncos this season. "I was impressed with the Jets _ they're a good-looking, complete ball team _ but I don't think they're on Denver's level in terms of talent. There's no doubt in my mind about that.

"Denver is a Super Bowl team, and they can attack you in so many different ways. They have good players at every position. The Jets may have arrived on the scene a year early. I don't think Bill Parcells, if he was being honest, would say he expected this kind of season so soon."

In an informal survey, Ravens personnel director James Harris, Colts president Bill Polian, Seahawks offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and Oilers GM Floyd Reese shared Cunningham's sentiments. Only Steelers GM Tom Donahoe thought the Jets could pull it out.

"I like the Jets' chances, I really do," Donahoe said. "Personally, I think they have a good chance (in Denver) because of Parcells and the staff, and the way the team has been playing. Watching them on film, I'm just so impressed with how smart and how well-prepared they are."

TIME CHANGE?: If Jaguars DT John Jurkovich had his way, Jacksonville would face New England at night Sunday. The largest and most raucous crowd of the season showed up Monday for the Jags' 21-3 victory against Pittsburgh.

"Hopefully, we can get a full house in there," Jurkovich said. "I wish it was a night game so they could get tanked up again and really get loud."

Vinny verisimilitude

When Vinny Testaverde appeared on Late Show with David Letterman this week, he was honored with a Top 10 list: Ways to mispronounce Vinny Testaverde:

10. Tinny Vestaroody

9. Voonie Testaviddy

8. Wind-Tested Furby

7. Danny Bonaduce

6. Vernon Testa-Jordan

5. Testy "The Body" Ventura

4. Doug Flutie

3. Penne with Testaverde sauce

2. I Know What You Did Last Verde

1. Leonardo Detestaverdio