The Dallas Cowboys have missed the glory and the money for two consecutive years, losing each time to Green Bay by a few yards and a few seconds. The Packers won the NFL title in 1966 by stopping the Cowboys on the two-yard line as the game ended, and they won again in 1967 by scoring from approximately that same spot as time was running out. This year, however, the story may be different. This may be the year the Cowboys pick up those precious few yards and seconds.
"We're either going to be a lot better or we are really going to slip," says Tom Landry, the scholarly, quiet man who has done the best job ever done with an expansion team, bringing the Cowboys to two division titles in seven years. "The attitude of this training camp has indicated we're going to be better."
The effort and the attitude should be automatic. For two years now, the Cowboys have sniffed at the $25,000 plus that awaits the NFL champion and have come away with only a fraction of it—the $5,000 or so that goes to the runner-up. Mere tipping money. Looking forward to the big payoff this year, the Cowboy players came to camp in shape. "We had only two guys who couldn't make their time in the mile run," Landry said. "And they didn't miss enough to matter."
The Cowboys won their conference title last year with Don Meredith, their quarterback, suffering a variety of injuries during most of the season. He appeared healthy when he reported to the Thousand Oaks (Calif.) training camp, although it was rumored that he was one of the two Cowboys who failed to finish the mile under the six minutes required for backs.
Meredith, at his best, is one of the four or five championship quarterbacks in pro football. He has a strong arm and he is able to hit the square-out patterns which test accuracy, as well as the long shots which test timing. He is an intelligent signal caller and has, in full measure, the charisma which a quarterback needs to lead a team. He has been well battered in previous years and has shown he can take the punishment without letting it affect his poise. If he escapes injury and plays at the level he is capable of, which is high, the Cowboys could beat the Packers—or whoever—for the NFL title.
They should not have too much trouble reaching the championship game even if Meredith happens to get hurt. Craig Morton and Jerry Rhome constitute the deepest reserve of quality quarterbacks in football. As if this were not enough, the sensation of the early weeks in Thousand Oaks was Roger Staubach, the old Navy All-America who belongs to the Cowboys and will be available next year. Staubach was superb.
Meredith will be protected by a sound offensive line. Ralph Neely, the brilliant offensive tackle who was crippled by injury most of the 1967 season, is ready. Guard Leon Donohue is also back, helped by off-season surgery. Donohue and Neely played side by side in 1967 and had only two good legs between them. Dave Manders, who was on the Pro Bowl team at center after the 1966 season, missed all of 1967, Mike Connelly filling in for him. The Cowboy offensive line, if the stitches hold, should be one of the best in football this year.
The running backs will be the same, although the rapid development of Craig Baynham may push Dan Reeves at one spot. Don Perkins, who is a politician in New Mexico, remains, in the eyes of Dallas Texans, the best fullback around. He blocks like a demon and has learned to break tackles, too, although he is not big as fullbacks go. "Perk has great stability, and he's the best pass protector in the league," Landry says. The Cowboys have good young runners behind the first three, including Walt Garrison and Les Shy.
The retirement of veteran Frank Clarke has left the Cowboy receiving corps without depth, but the front-line catchers—Bob Hayes, Lance Rentzel and Pettis Norman—are all back. Pete Gent was moved over to tight end to help out there. Two top draft choices will be working for pass-catching jobs and should make it. They are Dennis Homan of Alabama, an All-America, and David McDaniels, a tall, second draft choice from Mississippi Valley. The Cowboys may be a bit thin in receivers, but if Homan lives up to his potential and there are no serious injuries, this will not bother them.
One big plus for the Cowboys in the receiving department is the acquisition of Raymond Berry, who retired after 11 years as an end with the Baltimore Colts to become a coach. Berry, who holds most career records for receiving in the NFL, is one of the most knowledgeable football men in the league in his specialty. "You can see the improvement in our receivers already," says Landry.
There is not much room for improvement in the Dallas defense. The front line of George Andrie, Willie Townes, Jethro Pugh and Bob Lilly is on a par with the front four of the Rams, the Green Bay four or the four on the Baltimore Colts. It was among the best units in the NFL at trapping the quarterback in 1967, and it should improve with the years.
If there is any room for improvement, it may lie in depth at the line-backing post. Jerry Tubbs has retired and now coaches the Dallas linebackers, and Landry traded Harold Hays to the San Francisco 49ers. Lee Roy Jordan, Chuck Howley and Dave Edwards are a better than average threesome, but there is little to back them up. Rookie D.D. Lewis has demonstrated ability, but he is not ready to start. The Cowboys would trade for an experienced linebacker, if one were available.
In the secondary, most teams picked on Mike Johnson in 1967. This was partly because Mel Renfro was injured and unable to lend help. As a result, the Dallas pass defense did not control the game as well as Landry would have liked. Johnson was young—in only his second season—but he stood up to the beating well enough, and the experience should make him that much better in 1968. Cornell Green and Mike Gaechter were top quality, and they are back. With a recovered Renfro and a wise Johnson, the Cowboy secondary defense can match anyone.
The Cowboy kicking game was mediocre or worse in 1967, but the addition of Mike Clark, a placekicker from Pittsburgh, has made a big difference. Clark kicked a 54-yard field goal in a preseason game, and, according to Landry, he'll be a real help with kickoffs and field goals. "He may not kick many from between the 40-and 50-yard lines," say: Landry, "but he'll give you a thrill even if it misses."
The Cowboys will give you a thrill, in any case. This could be the year where they make the final yard ahead of the dying clock to go all the way.
NEW YORK GIANTS
When the four-division setup was made for the 16 NFL teams, a great clamor arose over where who was to play when. Finally, to assuage tempers and collect votes, it was decided that the New York Giants would play the first year (1967) in the Century Division with the Cleveland Browns, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The second year, they would trade with the New Orleans Saints and move into the Capitol Division, with the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins.
They should have stayed in the Century. Ironically, the Giants might conceivably have won in their old division. They are a better club than two of the teams in their new division—Washington and Philadelphia—but they do not have the remotest chance of beating out the other team, the Dallas Cowboys.
Incidentally, the Giants will play the Coastal Division in the West while the other teams in their division play the Central. Last year this might have made a difference, when the Coastal Division had three strong clubs (Los Angeles, Baltimore and San Francisco) to the Central's one (Green Bay). This year, with the improvement of Chicago and Detroit, there is little difference between divisions, except that the Giants may have a small edge in playing Atlanta instead of Minnesota.
New York improved dramatically in 1967 on the scrambling and throwing of Quarterback Fran Tarkenton and a defense which, while erratic and given to inexplicable lapses at times, was still much better than the year before. The improvement should carry on into 1968, and the Giants, for the first time in five years, should win more games than they lose.
Tarkenton had the best season he has ever had in 1967, and he should do even better than that in 1968, after a year in which to familiarize himself with his receivers and with the Sherman system. The Giant offensive line, something of a disaster until last year, has firmed up and shows signs of real strength. An off-season trade which brought Steve Wright from the Green Bay Packers has added strength, and the Giants, for the first time, are in a position where they can even trade an offensive lineman for help elsewhere. Tarkenton needs protection less than most quarterbacks, since he is capable of evading most tacklers, but he needs a quick, alert line to block during his scrambles and he has one. Rich Buzin, a second-round draft choice from Penn State, shows tremendous potential in the offensive line.
Ernie Koy gained 704 yards rushing last year, when he reached full maturity as an NFL running back, and he should benefit from the return of Tucker Frederickson this season, if Frederickson has recovered enough from his second bout of off-season knee surgery. Randy Minniear and Allen Jacobs give the club veteran backup help if Frederickson or Koy falters.
Tarkenton's receivers will probably be the same, and terrific. Homer Jones led the league in touchdown passes caught last year and should do as well or even better. Aaron Thomas, splitting time between tight end and flanker, caught 51 passes, nine of them for touchdowns. Joe Morrison, the old reliable of the Giant offense, has played everywhere and played well. He can play in the backfield or as a flanker and be effective either way. Bob Crespino played tight end adequately when called upon last season, but an injury this year puts his status in doubt.
The big Giant improvement should come on defense. The defensive line began to jell last year with the addition of Bob Lurtsema and Bruce Anderson, and this year Allie Sherman has added Sam Silas, the ex-Pro Bowler from St. Louis, to give needed depth and a stronger pass rush. Jim Katcavage, after 12 years, still applies pressure from his defensive-end position, and his experience stabilizes the whole line.
The linebacking improved in 1967 with the addition of Vince Costello from Cleveland and the development of Ken Avery. The trades that brought Tommy Crutcher from Green Bay and Barry Brown from Baltimore have helped this department even more and give the Giants depth at the most vital of all defensive positions. Again, here is a position where the club has so much depth that Sherman can use some of his excess for trade bait for future draft choices if he likes. Costello is a bit long in the tooth, but his encyclopedic knowledge of offenses and his sure feeling for defense make him exceptionally valuable for a young team.
The development of youngsters Scott Eaton and Willie Williams and the acquisition of Bruce Maher from Detroit have given the Giants unaccustomed security in their secondary defense. Maher, Wendell Harris and Spider Lockhart have the experience to counterbalance the ebullience of youth, and all of the Giant pass defenders are blessed with good speed. The Giant defense could be a real surprise, if the pass rush picks up and if the linebacking lives up to promise.
The development of Ron Bly, a graduate of the Giants' Westchester farm club, as a running back could solve one of the club's more pressing problems. Heretofore, the Giant runners have been useful for limited yardage and as a moving wall to protect Tarkenton in his flights of fancy scrambling, but Bly could provide speed to the outside and a game-breaking threat to the running game.
In the past he has had the rookie tendency to use up his fakes behind the line, giving defenses time to adjust and mass to meet him. He has seemed, in the early games, to have developed better discipline; he now hits the hole quickly and with authority, and the moves wasted in the backfield are very useful once he has crossed the line.
Bly could provide the final string to an offensive bow which lacked nothing else. If Bly is as good as he has looked, Tarkenton can exploit as varied an armament as there is in the East.
Even with Bly, it is very doubtful that the Giants can squeeze by the talented Cowboys in the Capitol Division. But even without him, there is very little doubt that they can beat either Philadelphia or Washington. The Giants are a team on the make again.
The Washington Redskins put the ball in the air with more success and more abandon in 1967 than any other team in NFL history. Sonny Jurgensen, their portly and imperturbable quarterback, led the league in passing. Their three top receivers ranked first, second and fourth in pass receiving. And the team finished with a miserable 5-6-3 record, giving up 353 points, six more than they scored.
All the Redskins could do in 1967 was pass. While a pass offense is a sine qua non for pro football success, it is not a ne plus ultra. The Redskins' runners were feeble, their pass defenders myopic, their pass rush non-existent and their offensive line leaky. The kicking was worse than all the rest.
Now there is some doubt about the passing game. Jurgensen, who performed his passing feats with a gimpy elbow, had an operation in May and has not come back strong. By the fifth week of training, he was still not participating in regular drills for quarterbacks and said he was looking for a "sign of improvement." "I feel a twinge after every throw," he went on. "I cannot lift the prescribed 10-pound weight in the same motion I use to pass without it hurting."
Of course, this slow recovery was apparent earlier, when the Redskins felt it incumbent to give up a first draft choice to get Gary Beban from the Rams. They could have had Beban in the draft, before Jurgensen's operation, for less than a first, since the Rams picked him up on a second. If Jurgensen's elbow does not come around, the Redskins have only Harry Theofiledes, fresh off the taxi squad, and the untested Beban.
Jurgensen, a frank man on the order of the quarterback under whom he spent his salad years (Norman Van Brocklin), had his wrist slapped when he said publicly that the Redskins could not hope to be contenders in the Capitol Division without runners, but he was right. Even so, the Washington management drafted only one running back of any promise—Bob Brunet of Louisiana Tech. Still on hand are Steve Thurlow (disposed of by the New York Giants), A.D. Whitfield (ditto the Dallas Cowboys), Beban—if Graham decides he shows more promise running than throwing—and several other fellows called What's His Name?
Otto Graham may try to help the running game by moving Bobby Mitchell back to the backfield, and Mitchell, albeit a bit light to stand the gaff as a runner, should certainly help. Of course, in strengthening the running attack he would take at least that much from the passing game.
The three receivers of 1967—Mitchell, Charley Taylor and Jerry Smith—were, on the record, the best trio in the NFL. This statistic is a bit deceptive; since the Redskins had no other way to advance the ball except to throw it, Taylor, Smith and Mitchell had the most opportunities in the league to catch the ball. Jurgensen had really only two options when he knelt down in the huddle—punt or pass. Taylor caught 70 passes, Tight End Smith 67 and Mitchell 60. The Redskins have traded for another tight end—Marlin McKeever of the Minnesota Vikings. McKeever will be used primarily for his blocking ability, although he is a good receiver. With McKeever, Graham can move Smith out to flanker, put Mitchell at running back and retain most of the air threat, plus souping up the run.
The offensive line protected Jurgensen well enough for him to live through the 1967 season, and it is back intact. The Redskins may have helped themselves when they picked up John Wooten, the disaffected Cleveland guard who was dropped by the Browns after his involvement in a racial argument just before training. Wooten at the least lends the Skins much needed depth behind an adequate interior of Jim Snowden and Mitch Johnson at tackles, Ray Schoenke and Vince Promuto at guards and excellent Len Hauss at center.
Of course, the principal problem of the Redskin offense is obtaining possession of the football. Washington had the worst pass defense in the league in 1967 and next to the worst defense, overall. Sam Huff has retired, which certainly is no help. The defensive line of Carl Kammerer and Ron Snidow at ends and Joe Rutgens and Walt Barnes at tackle was good enough against runs but may have accounted in large measure for the Redskins' inability to knock down passes. The defensive back-field leaked grievously while opposing quarterbacks took their own sweet time to find receivers. Graham has tried to shore up the leaks by drafting a defensive back No. 1 (Jim Smith of Oregon) and trading for Pat Fischer of the St. Louis Cardinals. Veterans Dick Smith, Rickie Harris, Tommy Walters and Brig Owens are back again, plus an assortment of free agents, but the key to the Redskin pass defense still lies in the charge of the defensive line, which must improve radically to help out the backs.
The linebackers, sans Huff, are eager but young. Chris Hanburger, at one corner, is a potential all-league backer. Ed Breding, who replaced Huff for five games when Huff was injured last year, is bigger (236) and faster than Sam but far short of Huff on savvy. A battle is in progress for the other corner spot with Sid Williams and a rookie high-draft choice, Tom Roussel, in the running.
The Redskin kicking game was as ineffectual as any other segment last year. Charlie Gogolak, the soccer-style kicker, pulled a muscle early and sat out most of the year. He and five other kickers hit a paltry seven of 26 field-goal attempts, failed to reach the goal line on kickoffs often. Gogolak is back and, if he is healthy, he may win some of the close games the club lost in 1967.
On balance, however, the prospects for success this season are dreary. If New Orleans had stayed in the division, the Redskins might have been assured of finishing third. But the New York Giants look better than the Skins. So do the Cowboys and even the Eagles.
It may be possible for a club to be un-luckier than the Philadelphia Eagles, but it is hard to magine how. They begin the season with a bankrupt owner, a starting quarterback with a broken leg, no promising rookies, the worst defense in pro football and, lastly, an opening game against Green Bay. Their No. 2 quarterback (King Hill) came to camp overweight, and the No. 3 (John Huarte) is an AFL reject.
What all of this adds up to, of course, is disaster—a losing season. In 1967 the Eagles were 6-7-1, scoring 351 points and giving up 409. They may not do that well in 1968. Norm Snead, the starting signal caller, broke his leg on the first play of the first exhibition game and will be out until at least midseason. Replacement Hill, even at his svelte best, has never shown championship quality as a quarterback. He has championship confidence, though.
"I feel I can take over the club and move it," he says. "I was close to becoming No. 1 last year when I broke my hand in the second exhibition game. I feel I can make the Eagles a winner." Huarte, who was released by the Boston Patriots and the New York Jets of the AFL, was recruited for Notre Dame by Eagle Coach Joe Kuharich. He made the Irish No. 1, but it is doubtful that he can do the same for Philadelphia.
The quarterback, whoever he is, will have good receivers to throw to in Gary Ballman, Mike Ditka, Fred Hill and Ben Hawkins. Hawkins, a very fast and elusive flanker, caught 59 passes for a league high total of 1,265 yards in 1967; Ballman, who has been one of the league's premier receivers for several years, was slowed by pulled hamstring muscles and caught only 36. Ditka, the Bear tradee, may have been misused on deep patterns instead of the short turnouts thrown him in Chicago, but he caught 26 balls before being sidelined by a knee injury late in the year. They make up almost as good a trio of pass catchers as there is in the league.
The running backs are minus Timmy Brown, a potential Gale Sayers who was used only sparingly last year. Brown was traded to Baltimore for Defensive Back Alvin Haymond, one of the best punt returners in pro football, and he pinpointed the Eagles' big fault as he left. "That's fine," said Brown. "If the Eagles can ever get the other team to punt."
The Eagles' runners are big and tough, although they lack speed and breakaway power without Brown. Izzy Lang and Tom Woodeshick are bulling, battering ballcarriers without real outside speed. Harry Jones, a sprinter who presently is recovering from a shoulder separation, and rookie Cyril Pinder, a second-round draft pick who is a co-holder of the University of Illinois record for the 60-yard dash, could give Philadelphia an outside threat, if Kuharich uses them. Dan Berry, who looks like Paul Hornung even to his ability to throw the option pass, could be a help later in the season if his ankle heals.
The offensive line will regret the retirement of Jim Ringo, who has given up after setting a league record by playing 182 consecutive games at center. He will be replaced by either Gene Ceppetelli, a Canadian import who played out his option with Hamilton, or Dave Recher. The Eagles will be paper-thin at guard, where veteran starter Jim Skaggs is out with torn cartilage in his right knee, Jon Brooks, a No. 2 draft choice in 1967, reported overweight and was sent home and two more draft choices failed to report for one reason or another. A rookie fifth-round pick, Mark Nordquist from Pacific, who was drafted as an offensive tackle, is Skaggs's replacement. Bob Brown, who is one of the top blocking tackles in football, has a questionable knee. All in all, the Eagle offensive line must be rated very doubtful.
Most of the Philadelphia draft was designed to bolster a woefully weak defense. The first pick was Tim Rossovich, a 245-pound defensive end from Southern California, and the third choice was a teammate of his, Linebacker Adrian Young. Floyd Peters, who has played for nine years at defensive tackle in the NFL, says, "We've got to find the combination of guys who will play every play tough, not just one series then have a mental lapse. I don't believe in wholesale shake-ups. That's like saying last year you were all wrong. But I think you'll see a few new faces on defense."
Since only the Falcons gave up more points than the Eagles in 1967, Peters' prediction seems valid. The defenders gave up 4,972 yards, ranking 14th, and the defensive line got to opposing passers only 23 times, tying for 14th with New Orleans. The line has been reorganized and the addition of Rossovich may give it more mobility, but it is a slender reed and its reserves are of poor quality.
If the pass rush was slow, the line-backing was mediocre. Dave Lloyd has been around for 10 years in the middle spot but is out with a rib injury. He might well have lost his starting job to Ike Kelley. Kelley, who is short (5'11") and light (223) but who hits with abandon and has more speed than Lloyd, is also hurt but should return early in the season. Mike Morgan played on the left side most of 1967, but he will be pressed by Young, the rookie. Harold Wells was the best of a trio of aspirants for the right-side linebacker in 1967 and will likely continue to hold down the position this year.
Haymond, who came to the club from Baltimore, should help a secondary which, considering the slow pass rush, was more to be pitied than censured in 1967. Haymond will take over at right cornerback in place of Jim Nettles. Al Nelson at the other cornerback secures that position as long as he can stay whole. In 1967 he broke his right forearm twice, once in the preseason games and again in the ninth game of the season. Nate Ramsey and Joe Scarpati return at the safety posts.
Nelson was one of 15 players to undergo surgery last season, five of whom were regulars. The list breaks down, in a manner of speaking, to eight knees, three ankles, one wrist, one shoulder, one forearm (twice) and one finger. If the Eagles can avoid wholesale injury this year, which, considering early returns, seems doubtful, they could be a little better. But with their No. 1 quarterback already hors de combat, their chances are slim. With luck, they can beat Washington, but they haven't a prayer against Dallas, and the New York Giants should handle them easily.
The Cowboys' defense, though good, failed to rise to the occasion in final seconds against Packers last year, but 1968 may be different.
The wizardry of Fran Tarkenton gave the Giants an explosive offensive, third behind the Rams and Colts in points scored last year.
Tarkenton's favorite receiver is Homer Jones, whose blazing speed makes him a constant threat to go deep and break open a ball game.