Dallas could win this division playing its reserves, its only weakness being at placekicker. When All-Pro Efren Herrera demanded to renegotiate his contract, Dallas shipped him off to Seattle. But as scout Cornell Green says, "Maybe this team won't need to kick any field goals or extra points." Without the kicking scores the Cowboys still outscored opponents by 40 points last year.
On the way to the Super Bowl, Dallas led the NFL in both offense and defense. Two years ago it had a little trouble moving the ball on the ground, but that problem was solved by the rapid improvement of two young linemen, Tackle Pat Donovan and Guard Tom Rafferty, and by the addition of Tony Dorsett. Dorsett didn't start until the 10th game but nevertheless managed 1,007 yards, a total Coach Tom Landry termed "only average for him."
Dallas still throws more than most strong offensive teams, and why not? Wide Receiver Drew Pearson and Tight End Billy Joe DuPree are perennially in the Pro Bowl. Quarterback Roger Staubach, who says he is "36 going on 26," is accurate and rarely intercepted. Besides, most Cowboy passing plays start as if they are runs, and the threat of a Dorsett run freezes linebackers a long time.
Landry thinks his defense could be the Cowboys' best ever, coming off a season in which it ranked second in the league in sacks and, counting those as failed pass attempts, best in percentage of completions allowed: 36.4%. Harvey Martin, who unofficially led the NFL last year with 23 quarterback traps, is the game's best pass rusher. Martin believes his road to super stardom was paved by the arrival of Tackle Randy White as his next-door neighbor in the Cowboy line. And on the opposite flank, Ed (Too Tall) Jones has ambitions of outshining Martin. As if this front wall were not enough, the back wall is impregnable. Cliff Harris and Charlie Waters, both brutal tacklers and adept at stopping the pass and forcing the run, are the league's best tandem at safety.
Washington is no longer George Allen's team, but little has changed. The Redskins will still depend on defense for their wins. New Coach Jack Pardee, who learned some of his football from Allen as both player and assistant coach and whose Chicago Bears edged Allen's Redskins for a playoff berth last year, has upgraded the defensive unit. He traded a 1979 first draft choice—sound familiar?—to Cincinnati for Defensive End Coy Bacon and Cornerback Lemar Parrish. Parrish, a frequent All-Pro, takes over for Pat Fischer, who was injured last year and has now retired. With Parrish joining a fierce hitter, Ken Houston, in the secondary, Washington's pass defense will once more be among the league's best.
Bacon will be Washington's best pass rusher. The Redskins ranked fifth in sacks in 1977 but need more pressure from the front wall, particularly since Pardee plans to make extensive use of a 3-4 alignment. Adding the veteran Mike Curtis to Linebackers Harold McLinton, Chris Hanburger and the underrated Brad Dusek should help improve a defense that was just average in stopping the run.
The Redskins' chief weakness is on the offensive line, where Pardee has been juggling bodies almost everywhere. Last year the line allowed 52 sacks, second-poorest total in the league, and didn't open many holes, either. Pardee hopes to get more rushing yardage out of John Riggins, who missed more than half of last season after a knee injury, and Mike Thomas, who played hurt last year and this year is playing out his option. The Redskins need a running attack because they lack outstanding receivers. Joe Theismann may finally have beaten out Billy Kilmer, a winner in 50 of his 68 Redskin starts.
St. Louis Coach Bud Wilkinson, away from football for 15 years, is decidedly not being cautious in his first foray into the pro game: he has switched the Cardinals to a 3-4 defense and added some hokey-pokey to his offense.
The 3-4 is tough to run against and should help a Cardinal defense that allowed opponents 4.35 yards a carry, ranking 26th. The only problem is that the 3-4 requires four linebackers and St. Louis has just one quality player at the position, Mark Arneson.
If opponents have trouble running against the Cardinals, recent history says they can always gobble up yardage through the air, St. Louis being particularly generous with passing touchdowns. Opponents avoid Cornerback Roger Wehrli and pick on the rest of the secondary. To make trips to the St. Louis goal line longer, Wilkinson used a first-round draft choice to get Arkansas Punter Steve Little.
Even with the trade of Wide Receiver Ike Harris and Guard Conrad Dobler to New Orleans and the defection of Running Back Terry Metcalf to Canada, the Cardinal offense can score points. Its strength is a superb line, headed by Tackle Dan Dierdorf, probably the game's best blocker, and Center Tom Banks. That line gives Quarterback Jim Hart the best protection in the conference and springs Cardinal runners, led by Wayne Morris, for more than four yards a rush. To keep defenses guessing about which is the strong side of the Cardinal offense, Wilkinson is using a Y-formation in which the tight end lines up directly behind the quarterback and doesn't shift up to the line of scrimmage until just before the snap of the ball.
Although this year's version will probably run the ball more than past Cardinal teams, Wilkinson also has a superior passing attack; St. Louis was No. 1 in net yards per pass play last year. Hart throws bombs as well as anyone, but he may discover that his favorite target, Mel Gray, who has averaged more than 20 yards a catch in his seven seasons, will get more double coverage with Harris and Metcalf missing.
Philadelphia has been making progress. The Eagles showed improvement in almost every area last year, a tribute to third-year Coach Dick Vermeil, who has never had a first-or second-round draft choice.
Running back is the team's biggest weakness, just as it has been for almost a decade, but Vermeil is hoping that second-year man Wilbert Montgomery will pick up the team rushing total. If not, Philadelphia at least has a quality passer in Ron Jaworski. Jaworski has just one real target, however, 6'8" Harold Carmichael, who has caught passes in his last 80 games. Too often the Polish Rifle tries to throw balls through defenders, which may have something to do with his NFC-high 21 interceptions in 1977. On hand to help solve the problem is former Bronco Head Coach John Ralston, whom Vermeil recruited to rethink the team's offense.
Vermeil also switched to a 3-4 defense last year, enabling the Eagles to cut opponents' scoring by more than 25%. The linebacking corps, headed by one of the NFL's best, Bill Bergey, deserves most of the credit. It helped an anonymous defensive line play better than average against the rush and finish tied for third in sacks in the NFL with 47. Meanwhile, the secondary made 21 interceptions, 11 of them by Safeties John Sanders and Randy Logan.
New York shows few signs of progress as Andy Robustelli begins his fifth season as something called Director of Operations. Under Andy, the team has not finished higher than fourth, and the talk this year of making the playoffs is pure fantasy. But the Giants' defense is testimony to some sort of building program. There is youth and ability up front in George Martin, John Mendenhall, Troy Archer and Gary Jeter. Veteran Jack Gregory rounds out a unit that recorded 37 sacks. The linebackers, particularly Harry Carson in the middle, are not bad. But if opponents can't go through this defense, they can easily go over it; New York's secondary is pitiful.
On offense the Giants are trying to operate without benefit of the forward pass. The two quarterbacks are fragile Jerry Golsteyn and Joe Pisarcik, who is gutty but short on ability. Together they completed just 43% of their passes last year, the second-poorest mark in the NFL. Tackle Gordon King, the team's first-round pick from Stanford, should help cut down on the team's 46 sackings.
Although the Giants don't pass very well, they don't run very well, either, ranking 25th in the league in yards per rush at 3.46 a carry. And though Fullback Larry Csonka had a 100-yard effort against Chicago in the last game of the 1977 season, it was his only such burst in three years. He was used hardly at all in the '78 preseason.
The Giant defense had better be good.
COWBOY HARVEY MARTIN IS A COLLECTOR OF QUARTERBACKS