The measure of the Dallas Cowboys' organizational superiority is that they seem to get better when they should get worse. This year Dallas must do without Lee Roy Jordan, who retired after 14 years at middle linebacker, and the right side of last season's offensive line. Guard Blaine Nye has decided to stay near Stanford and pursue a Ph.D., while Tackle Rayfield Wright had knee surgery and won't be ready until at least midseason. Nye and Wright were All-Pro. So how crippled does this leave the Cowboys? Well, Dallas should win the NFC East more easily than ever.
They will win because of their 1975 draft and because Tony Dorsett arrives as an instant TD threat. Burton Lawless and Herbert Scott, 1975 selections, acted as messenger guards last year, splitting time on the left side. Lawless now moves over to Nye's slot while Scott becomes the regular left guard. Scott is the better pass blocker, Lawless—as Dorsett will discover—the better blocker on running plays. The Cowboys' fourth-round pick in 1975, Pat Donovan, is their fastest lineman and inherits Wright's job. Bob Breunig, No. 3 in 1975, started at strongside linebacker last year and now fills Jordan's position. Two other linebackers from the 1975 draft, Thomas Henderson and Mike Hegman, work the strong side, while Randy White, the No. 1 pick overall in 1975, has shifted from linebacker to defensive tackle, and will start alongside veteran Jethro Pugh.
Most of the excitement in Dallas surrounds Dorsett (page 38). "He's the first player we've had since Bob Hayes who can open a defense up," says Coach Tom Landry. "Hayes dictated what a defense did." The Cowboys have not had an outside running threat in the '70s, and rivals have taken advantage of this shortcoming. "Teams defense you according to your strengths," says Quarterback Roger Staubach. "Last year no one was concerned with our running."
Actually, the Cowboys won't have to score a whole lot of points to win games because their defense seems impenetrable. Aside from the crew obtained in the 1975 draft, Defensive End Ed (Too Tall) Jones is finally becoming a real live terror, Harvey Martin has developed into the NFC's fiercest quarterback attacker, and Dallas has the best pair of safeties in the league in Charlie Waters and Cliff Harris.
Out of charity, the Cowboys generally lose a couple, usually to an Atlanta and a San Diego, but in December they will be in the playoffs for the 11th time in 12 years.
Inexplicably, the St. Louis Cardinals have done nothing to improve their lackluster defense. Instead, they seem to have made a bad situation even worse. Not only did the Cardinals permit two starters who had played out their options—Middle Linebacker Greg Hartle and Cornerback Norm Thompson—to get away, but they also used their first two draft picks to select offensive players. And the last thing St. Louis needs is more offensive players.
Maybe the Cardinals can justify the losses of Hartle, who had knee surgery, and Thompson, who had a case of the blahs on running plays, but the decisions to draft Quarterback Steve Pisarkiewicz and Running Back George Franklin defy logic. True, St. Louis will someday have to replace Jim Hart at quarterback, and Franklin, a 225-pound, 9.4 sprinter who tore up his knee in the last exhibition game, has potential, but what St. Louis really needed was some players to relieve the pressure the Cardinals' point-a-minute defense has always placed on Hart's offense. Again, the defensive line is a big question mark. One end, Ron Yankowski, missed most of 1976 with a fractured arm, and the other, John Zook, played with a badly bruised thigh. Tackle Mike Dawson had an exceptional rookie year but needs help. Roger Wehrli and Ken Reaves are solid deep men, but there are all kinds of problems at linebacker now that Hartle has departed and 14-year mainstay Larry Stallings has retired.
It's really too bad for Hart that he can't play against the St. Louis defense. The Cardinal offensive line—particularly Pro Bowl-ers Tom Banks at center, Conrad Dobler at right guard and Dan Dierdorf at right tackle—gives Hart the finest protection in the league. Hart also has one of the NFL's best deep threats in Mel Gray, not to mention triple-threat Halfback Terry Metcalf, although Metcalf had an off year in 1976, which he blames on contract worries. The Cardinals have torn up Metcalf's old contract and given him a new one-year deal that will make him a free agent at the end of the season. "I think this thing will benefit me a lot," Metcalf says. "Now I can play with a free mind."
George Allen's Washington Redskins also failed to get needed defensive help in the off-season. Allen did pick up free agent Hartle, but then lost him to a recurrent knee injury in training camp. He doesn't have another draft pick until the Tricentennial.
Most important, the Redskins lack a pass rush. What sacks they get these days result mostly from blitzes, a hocus-pocus tactic that purist Allen knows makes him far too vulnerable in the secondary. With Chris Hanburger, 36, recovering from an appendectomy, the linebacking is a weakness, but the defensive backs, headed by Ken Houston, are as good as the Cowboys'. Despite little help from the troops up front last year, the Redskin secondary permitted opponents to complete only 41% of their passes, an NFL low.
On offense, Washington should be vastly improved because of one man, Wide Receiver Charley Taylor. Taylor, the leading receiver in NFL history with 635 catches, missed all of 1976 with a shoulder injury. He should take some of the double coverage off Frank Grant, and also give Billy Kilmer a dependable target for his favored sideline patterns. More important, Taylor should give a boost to the Redskin ground game with his ferocious blocking. Last season Mike Thomas somehow rushed for 1,101 yards, but John Rig-gins, a 1,044-yard man for the Jets the year before, had a long gain of just 15 yards and ran for only 572 overall.
A lot of the old Redskins are talking about a last push, but they aren't likely to catch St. Louis for a wild-card spot.
Philadelphia Eagle Placekicker Horst Muhlmann reported to camp in the greatest shape of his life. That takes care of the Eagles' offense. In the City of Brotherly Love, there is precious little else to be thankful for.
The Eagles don't have a first-round draft pick until 1979. And as if it weren't bad enough that they have no way to get a decent young player, they are now also inventing ways to throw away the ones they have. Quarterback Mike Boryla wanted out of Philadelphia, and the team, which assumed that he might be good trade bait, was willing to oblige him. But then the Eagles forgot to send Boryla his mandatory option letter by the stipulated date of May 1, 1977. So he became a free agent, made a deal for himself with Tampa Bay—and the Eagles got only an undisclosed draft choice in return.
Philadelphia did acquire Los Angeles Quarterback Ron Jaworski, the Polish Rifle, in a trade for the rights to Tight End Charle Young, but Jaworski has always been erratic. Luckily for Jaworski, Eagle passers can afford to be slightly erratic when passing to premier Receiver Harold Carmichael because at 6'8" Carmichael is able to haul down a lot of overthrows.
On defense, Coach Dick Vermeil will try a 3-4, relying heavily on veterans Manny Sistrunk and Art Thorns, the former Raider. The Eagles' strength is at linebacker, where middle man Bill Bergey plays several positions at once. Bergey spent a rigorous off-season, including two weeks deep in the Ozarks, "where I ran and growled and acted mean." Bergey also dropped 15 pounds, slimming to 237, and relinquished his role as the team's No. 1 beer drinker by swearing off the suds. "He is playing the best football of his life," marvels Vermeil.
John McVay took over the New York-New Jersey Giants when they were 0-7 at midseason and narrowly won himself a two-year contract by leading them to three wins in their last seven games. If McVay doesn't win this year—and he can't—he probably won't get to coach the second year of that contract. He will be fired by Andy Robustelli, who has been director of operations for the Giants for three seasons now and has never had a winner. In the Robustelli regime, the Giants are 10-32-0.
McVay has brought a cheerleader approach to his job, a welcome change from the businesslike atmosphere of Bill Arnsparger. In McVay's seven games his defense gave up an average of just 12 points. That defense, led by Linebacker Brad Van Pelt, is young and has added USC Defensive Tackle Gary Jeter from the draft. It should improve. Whether it can hold opponents below the meager point production of the Giant offense is another matter. Larry Csonka, recovered from knee surgery, doesn't plow up middles the way he used to, and the main quarterback hopes are Jerry Golsteyn, who has never played a game in the NFL—or in any other pro league—and Joe Pisarcik, a refugee from Canada. Csonka and the Giants will get zonked a lot.
AS CARDINALS BANKS AND DIERDORF WELL KNOW, COWBOYS HARRIS AND WATERS CAN GET INTO THE OPPOSITION'S HAIR