Despite their onfield successes, Pro-Football, Inc., the corporate title of the Washington Redskins, did not fatten stockholders' pockets in fiscal 1972. On both counts Coach George Allen can take a bow. There was standing room only and a Super Bowl box office, yet the flood of income turned into outgo in Allen's eager hands. Bad annual reports won't dent Allen's consciousness, however. In the off-season, Washington added to its collection of high-priced help. Duane Thomas from San Diego, Oiler Safety Ken Houston and Green Bay Linebacker Dave Robinson.
Allen gave up little in the way of talent, but lots of cash. It took very long green to lure Robinson out of retirement and to convince Thomas that deep down he wanted to give his all for Coach and the Skins. What the heck, George Allen never claimed to be an economist.
"Tom Landry brings in 90 rooks and announces a fight for survival," says Guard John Wilbur, who began his career at Dallas. "George Allen never says a word, but gets Duane Thomas, and we get the message." Very simply, the communication is get cracking or be gone. Allen dearly wants a Lombardi Trophy to go with a coaching record that is already the best in the NFC. Without the sterling silver football he is only the most successful disappointment in the game.
It is a well coordinated defense that Allen emphasizes: tight-knit, lots of gang tackling, and the Skins seldom give up the touchdown pass. Yet the team lacks the fine touch for interceptions. Enter Ken Houston, interceptor. The rush line does not command heroic titles, but it is persistent and effective. This is not so with the middle linebacking. Here Allen is hoping to make do with Harold McLinton, a young man often confused by pass coverage. But there are two heavy hitters to flank him—Robinson and Chris Hanburger, both of whom are also notable pass defenders.
At the moment, Duane Thomas' great talent is an embarrassment of riches. Where to play him? He will probably spell Larry Brown (1,216 yards gained rushing in 1972), the key to Allen's ball-control approach, for Fullback Charley Harraway is needed to block.
Although he is first in the hearts of D.C. fans, Sonny Jurgensen is only second in Allen's favor to start at quarterback. Over the winter, while his torn Achilles' was mending, gloomy Sonny consulted a psychiatrist. Now his injury is healed and his battered ego is patched up, or so he hopes. However, analysis did not alter his situation. Billy Kilmer, a quarterback of negligible form but undeniable credentials, will run the team. He does get the job done—19 touchdowns and but 11 interceptions last season. The pass blocking is excellent and the receiving is even better. Washington can throw deep to Charley Taylor and Roy Jefferson or short to Tight Ends Jerry Smith and Alvin Reed. But Allen is so defense-minded that he seems to view offense as a rest period for his precious defense. Of course, he can always go to Jurgensen if the defense is allowing too many points. With this kind of insurance, Washington will again make the playoffs, but little, if any, profit.
In Dallas, Tom Landry, the coach with the enigmatic smile, is smiling. Landry's apparent pleasure has to do with the shift in the Cowboys' outlook. "Now Washington is it," he says. "The Redskins are the automatic to win in the East and Dallas is just another contender."
The Cowboys are delighted by the change in status. "It got so we believed the preseason write-ups," says Defensive Tackle Bob Lilly, who claims complacency turned into lassitude last season. "Now we'll have to scrap all the way to make the playoffs." The introduction of the dogfight factor has created unusual cohesion in the Cowboy ranks. "We're no longer a collection of stars, but a meld of young and old players struggling to make it," says Lilly. Before they reached a state of togetherness, the Cowboys, Lilly included, blistered the Texas skies with curses and threats of retirement. The players claim it cleared the air.
For most of those automatic seasons, defense carried Dallas. No longer. Even Lilly is on the decline, and the word is out that the Cowboys' front four is vulnerable to the run. Meanwhile, the linebacking has slowed and the pass coverage has fallen off. Wisely, Landry has switched from man-to-man to zone coverage. This cooperative responsibility eases the labors of Linebackers Dave Edwards, Lee Roy Jordan—who's been pressed by rookie Rodrigo Barnes—and D. D. Lewis, who has taken over for retired Chuck Howley. It is also a relief for the corner-backs, who were beaten all too often.
This then is the season for the offense to shoulder the load. The blocking is blue-chip and Calvin Hill, Walt Garrison and Robert Newhouse can pound it out. From all evidence, the passing game should be exceptional. Roger Staubach is hale and reaching the top of a very impressive form, and Craig Morton had an exceptional preseason, completing 67.3% of his passes.
Meanwhile, Landry has perfected a nice piece of flimflam: a flanker in motion toward the ball. To make certain the crackback blocks are as lethal as the rules allow, he got Otto Stowe, a first-rate blocker, from Miami and converted Running Back Mike Montgomery to flanker. Landry is gearing up for the two Redskin games. He believes a split would give Dallas the division title.
Second-string Giant Quarterback Randy Johnson considers the past and the present with some hard words. "With our dinky passing offense, I could have led the league instead of Norm Snead," he says. "Oh, those three-foot completions!" But that's the Giant game plan: send a receiver deep but always have a safety valve handy. Inevitably, Snead chose the trailer, which is the reason the fine tight end, Bob Tucker, caught 55 passes, and Ron Johnson, the mighty running back, 45. Coach Alex Webster's theory is never be greedy but keep the offensive moving. Snead does just that.
And for the first time in his 13-year career he is the right man for the job: an unexpected virtuoso, a cautious hero. This is an era of conservatism and caution for the pro game. It pays off in the statistics. Giant quarterbacks were sacked only 10 times, a remarkable figure since the line is resolute but not strong and the outside receivers lack speed.
Credit Ron Johnson and his quick thrusts with a large assist. Relief is in sight for this overworked ballcarrier: the Giants have discovered a fullback, Vin Clements, to share the rushing. Until now it was an unequal battle for New York. The offense ranked fourth in the NFL, the defense was 18th. But the downtrodden are on the rise, may well have risen. Led by All-Pro Defensive End Jack Gregory and John Mendenhall, who plays over the center, the rush line is more potent. The linebacking, with Jim Files in the middle, is shaping up and only an aging secondary raises doubts. "The Giants have arrived," says Webster.
Neither Philadelphia nor St. Louis has, although both teams have hired sound, intelligent head coaches who have laid calm hands on their troubled squads. Philadelphia's Mike McCormack and the Cardinals' Don Coryell have given their clubs a new sense of direction.
In the scuffle to escape the bottom, McCormack has the advantage. The Eagles simply have more ability. Were it not for limp linebacking, Philadelphia, with a powerful front four and a seasoned deep secondary, would have a sound defense. Two good rookie linemen, Tackle Jerry Sisemore and Tight End Charles Young, beef up the offensive line, but the interior is extremely questionable. This makes the expensive trade for Quarterback Roman Gabriel difficult to understand. McCormack may have to turn the Eagles into a running team as an alternative to Gabriel's limited passing range.
Coryell has even less talent to work with. Hence, Jim Hart is going to throw the ball 30 times a game to, among others, Ahmad Rashad (formerly Bobby Moore). Coryell also has a dazzling runner in rookie Terry Metcalf, but he sometimes neglects to carry the football with him. Well, there's always Jim Bakken.