Lee Roy Jordan, middle linebacker of the Dallas Cowboys, finished his glass of iced tea, sucked the lemon, and mused on the coming season. "The thing about our conference..." he said, his voice trailing off, "the thing, really, is that you don't know what the heck anyone's going to do." Which, up to a point, is true. Consider: the St. Louis Cardinals, with a new coach, Bob Hollway, working on a new attitude and hoping to recover from what even the players admit was a mammoth choke; the Washington Ramskins/Redrams, with George Allen bringing half of his old Los Angeles team ("I like to surround myself with bald heads," quoth he), plus a secretary and a security guard, to the capital; the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles wondering who will finish last. That's it save one, Jordan's Cowboys, about whom Jordan has no doubts. "We have a chance to be the best team Dallas ever had," he says. "There's no sense of urgency. Just a sense that we don't want to let the opportunity pass. It's all there for us." Or, as Guard John Niland explains: "We'd be silly not thinking about the Super Bowl."
Indeed, the Cowboys are strong favorites to repeat in a division where there appears to be no one capable of upsetting them. All but two of the starters (Pettis Norman and Duane Thomas) from last year's Mystery Cowboys have returned, all of them having experienced what psychologists call "the rock-bottom level"—the 38-0 midseason humiliation at the hands of St. Louis. And there are no hangovers from the Super Bowl loss, either. "We weren't at all discouraged," explains Niland. "Instead we were encouraged. What's carried over is the attitude that got us there, not any bitterness about what happened. We're all chewing at the bit. I'm overexcited, sweating at the armpits. To understand how we feel about it, to understand why we're all ready to go, well, you just have to be a player."
Players are something the Cowboys have. The superlative defense is intact with all those Lillys, Pughs, Jordans, Howleys and Renfros; and the well-equipped, if at times inconsistent, offense is strengthened by the addition of Wide Receiver Lance Alworth and Tight End Billy Truax. Still, Dallas has two questions, one old and one new. The old poser is who will play quarterback, Craig Morton or Roger Staubach, and will he again perform so inconsistently that even defense won't save Dallas? Morton is throwing freely for the first time in three years, his shoulder sound and his mind made up. "After this season," he says, "there won't be any more of that 'Who's the Cowboy quarterback?' stuff. I'll settle it once and for all." If Morton is true to his word, the Cowboys can't lose, but it may well be a moot point. "They both can do the job, and I can block for either of them," says Niland, reflecting the prevalent attitude. "I have confidence in our whole offense. I don't feel we have to rely on our passing to win."
Which was proven in last year's stretch run when Duane Thomas, now much troubled, helped take the Cowboys to the Super Bowl. It seems likely he will sit out the coming year, so Dallas has turned again to Calvin Hill, a sensation in 1969, a bit player last season. "There'll be no change in the offense," says Player-Coach Dan Reeves. "They both run the same things in different ways. Duane is fluid, smooth, with a good sense of daylight; all of a sudden he's gone. Calvin is big, explosive, he uses a lot of power. There's an awesomeness about him when he starts moving. And they're both so great, I'd hate to say which I'd rather have. But since Calvin's here, I'd have to say I'd rather have him."
The stiffest challenge for Dallas will come from St. Louis, which has the people to match the Cowboys. With the exception of Linebacker Don Parish and Center Wayne Mulligan, both out with injuries, the Cardinals will start the same 22 that beat Dallas twice last year—but they also have a complex and last year's nightmare. "I spent a lot of time in the off season thinking about what happened," says Offensive Tackle Ernie McMillan, referring to the loss of three straight games and the championship at the end of the season. "Definitely, I think we were waiting for something like that to happen. You press to prevent it, then you're pressing too much, and that's it."
Coach Hollway has made no secret of his team's hangup. An assistant under Bud Grant at Minnesota for four years before signing with St. Louis, he speaks openly of the deficiency, the necessity for change. "This team knows it has the ability to be the best in the middle," he says. "Now they have to prove to themselves that they can get to the top. You get labeled as a team, and as coaches we have to recognize it, whether we believe it or not. Sure, we talk about it. We're not afraid of it. It puts more pressure on us. But that's because we have people who can play. And it's always better to have horses in the barn who can run rather than donkeys who can't get out the door."
The analogy is apropos, for St. Louis' strength lies in the powerful running of Mac Lane, Cid Edwards and Johnny Roland, who work behind an aging but efficient offensive line. The passing of Jim Hart has been in and out—and mostly long and too often incomplete—but Hollway hopes to remedy this by stressing short and intermediate routes. Defensively, he has introduced much of the Vikings' philosophy (he was their defensive coordinator) to a unit that last year was ranked fifth in the NFC.
"The first day he was in camp," says McMillan, "he said that we don't play with enthusiasm. I'd have to agree with him. As a veteran [11 years] I always looked at the Cardinals as an unemotional team. I don't think we joked or turned each other on. Almost everybody just did his job and that was it. You win your share of games that way, but never the big one, never the one that would push you over the top."
"You just can't go ahead and say, 'Well, we're going to win this week,' " concludes Hollway. "Winning comes from within the man."
No one has ever had to sell that philosophy to the Redskins' George Allen. ("George's idea of fun," says someone who has watched him a long time, "is to look at movies of football plays. Then have a glass of unsweetened grapefruit juice. Then look at more plays.") He brought his hand-clapping enthusiasm-through-example with him from L.A. and, just in case anyone missed the point, nine players as well. Defensive Tackle Diron Talbert is one of these transplants. "This team is really in the same position the Rams were in in 1965," he says. "It's used to losing its butt off. Now the attitude will be no problem. After winning so much in L.A., I don't even think about losing. George brought us here for that reason, to provide the key. We have to do our part."
Along with Talbert, the most important new keys from the Rams will be Linebackers Jack Pardee and Myron Pottios and Defensive Back Richie Petitbon; other trades (19 in all) added Defensive Ends Ron McDole (Bills) and Verlon Biggs (Jets) and Return Specialist Speedy Duncan (Chargers). Allen overhauled the weak defense, repaired the specialty teams and tuned up the offense, getting Wide Receiver Roy Jefferson from the Colts. Then Sonny Jurgensen, whom Wide Receiver Charley Taylor appropriately calls "the sparkplug who makes all us valves move," broke his shoulder making a tackle and will be out six weeks. Bill Kilmer will fill in but no one can really replace Sonny, the consummate quarterback despite the handicap of it being his 15th season under his eighth coach. "You just make the little adjustments," he says with a wry smile. "They all have different ways. But it's no problem."
No problem at all, if Taylor knows what he is talking about. "All these guys George brought in, man, they are some ballplayers," he says. "They're the backbone, the motivation. They're loud, not afraid to speak out and let you know where it's at. It's like when Green Bay was winning. They had guys who didn't mind walking up and Thud!' busting you in the chest."
The New York Giants, on the other hand, spent the preseason wondering whether they would have enough men of any sort. They led the league in walkouts (six) and freak injuries (Tackle Charlie Harper suffered a hairline fracture of his ankle when he jumped out a first-story window during a fire in the Giants' dining hall). Head Coach Alex Webster somehow managed to maintain a sense of humor through it all. When ex-Yankee Pitcher Whitey Ford asked him to sneak off for a game of golf, Webster declined. "They walk out when I'm here," he said. "I don't dare leave them alone."
The most important of all the walkouts, Quarterback Fran Tarkenton, was the only one to return (with a reported $125,000 contract); fortunately for the Giants, for as goes Tarkenton so goes the ball club. Last year Fran and a weak schedule put the Giants into contention, with only a final-game loss to the Rams keeping them out of the playoffs. But Tarkenton spent the exhibition season working with new receivers, while the other half of the offense, Running Back Ron Johnson, spent it recovering from a minor operation. So there was testing on offense, where many of the weapons were missing, and even more testing on defense, where nothing is certain except that Spider Lockhart will be at free safety, Fred Dryer at left end and Jim Files at middle linebacker.
And, of course, nothing comes easy to Philadelphia, where the Eagles, who finally find themselves competitive, also find themselves opening the season playing five of last year's division winners (they miss only Baltimore). But Eagle fans, who no longer have Norman Snead to boo, should be very discriminating about their next victim. Especially if they intend it to be Pete Liske, who moved in from Denver to take over for Snead. "Pete's style of play appeals even to the defense," says Linebacker Adrian Young. "He's willing to put his shoulder into people, get his butt squashed. It's appealing. That's a defensive style."
The Eagle defense, centered around Middle Linebacker Tim Rossovich (page 90), developed style both on and off the field last year, and if Liske can bring some consistency to the offense, Philadelphia may survive the first five Sundays and win some. Last year, despite a 3-10-1 record, the Eagles finished right in the middle of all statistical departments. "We feel we're respectable now," says Young. "Some people would disagree. We'll just have to convince them."