For DALLAS, the bad news started coming in on July 28 when Tony Dorsett dropped a mirror on his right foot, breaking the big toe. The next week the Cowboys were running through a light signal drill, in shorts and T shirts, and two rookie linemen ran into each other. Kaboom! One didn't get up. Fractured cheekbone. "I got a feeling right then," says the team's P.R. man, Doug Todd, "that it was going to be one of those strange kinds of years."
The strangest part of it all may be all the unfamiliar faces Coach Tom Landry could be obliged to put into his lineup. The left side of the defensive line, Jethro Pugh and 6'9" Too Tall Jones, has retired, Jones to pursue a ring career. And Danny White, the punter and backup to Quarterback Roger Staubach, fractured his right thumb. And Scott Laidlaw, the backup fullback, pulled the same hamstring that bothered him throughout the '77 season. And Flanker Drew Pearson developed a knot in his left leg and fluid on his right knee. And Hollywood Henderson, the strongside linebacker, came up with a hiatal hernia of the esophagus.
After that, the man with the bandages turned his attention to the secondary, Landry's prime area of concern after the Steeler receivers ripped it apart in Super Bowl XIII. Left Cornerback Benny Barnes: bone spurs in his right foot. Right Corner Aaron Kyle: spurs in his knee. And then the big one—Strong Safety Charlie Waters, a three-time Pro Bowl selection: torn ligaments in his right knee in an exhibition game. He is lost until next season.
In any other division Dallas could by now have kissed off its chances of repeating as champs, but the NFC East is not, say, the AFC East, where two or three hungry wolves are waiting to pounce. There is, in fact, not one serious challenger to the Cowboys, whose long suit—depth—will be tested this year. It won't hurt that the schedule makers have been kind. Dallas won't face a tough opponent until October, when Dorsett should be running at full speed and White and Laidlaw may be O.K. And by then some rookies—notably second-round draftee Aaron Mitchell, a cornerback, and Bruce Thornton, a swing defensive lineman selected in the eighth round—may have cracked the lineup.
The PHILADELPHIA Eagles slipped into the playoffs last year on the winged feet of Wilbert Montgomery, only to make a quick exit when they blew a 13-0 fourth-quarter lead to Atlanta. Montgomery's 1,220 yards rushing erased Steve Van Buren from the Eagle record book, but the guy who knocked down the linebackers for Montgomery last year, 215-pound Fullback Mike Hogan, won't be around. Hogan and reserve Halfback Boomer Betterson were arrested on cocaine charges. Hogan was waived to San Francisco, and Betterson has been placed on injured reserve. Hogan's heir apparent is Leroy Harris, a two-year starter for Miami whom the Eagles acquired in a Monday trade.
A substandard running game could keep the Eagles' defense on the field longer this season, which will give opponents even more opportunities to throw long passes, which were Philadelphia's undoing in the playoff game against the Falcons. Philadelphia hasn't drafted a top defensive back since Randy Logan in 1973, and he's still solid at strong safety. Part of the problem last year was a pass rush that dropped from 47 sacks in '77 to 29. To shore up that area the Eagles picked up Claude Humphrey, the 35-year-old defensive end who "retired" from Atlanta last September.
Philadelphia's strength, especially against the run, is the defensive front seven, led by greatly underrated Right End Carl Hairston, Inside Linebacker Bill Bergey and a comer at outside linebacker, Reggie Wilkes. The Eagles' first pick in the draft, Jerry Robinson from UCLA, has impressed everyone with his speed (4.6 for 40 yards) and could be a starter at outside linebacker. Another draft pick, Tony Franklin of Texas A&M, seems ready to end the Eagles' long search for a quality placekicker.
The Eagles did it on guts last year, but now they've reached a higher plateau—the playoff level—where a team's hopes of going far are pretty much dependent on talent. And that is not Philadelphia's long suit.
The paychecks are pretty chintzy in ST. LOUIS, where 10 Cardinal veterans say they are playing out their options. Center Tom Banks, a four-time Pro Bowl choice, didn't report to camp until after the first exhibition, and operations vice-president Joe Sullivan's response was that the Cardinals could live without Banks, because he wasn't so hot at handling big middle guards. And Cardinal Coach Bud Wilkinson had said he was leaving unless the players were paid better.
But sometimes such disgruntlement yields unexpected benefits, and in presenting a united front against management, Wilkinson and his troops just might have an extra emotional drive on the field. After all, they did rally to go 6-2 after starting the 1978 season at 0-8. And they do have a sprinkling of blue-chippers—Banks, Right Tackle Dan Dierdorf, Quarterback Jim Hart, Flanker Mel Gray and Right Cornerback Roger Wehrli.
The mysterious death during preseason workouts of Tight End J. V. Cain sent shock waves through the Cardinals, and once again left St. Louis with a hole it failed to fill when Cain was benched by a snapped Achilles tendon last year. The good news in camp was the play of first-round draft choice Ottis Anderson, who may be the Cards' new Terry Metcalf.
The offensive line is a high-class unit that kept Hart upright all but 22 times last year, tops in the NFC, but the defense was very soft against inside runs. The Cardinals thought Calvin Favron, their second pick in Round 2, might be the answer at linebacker, but he's not ready to start yet.
It must have been tough for WASHINGTON Coach Jack Pardee, one of George Allen's original Ramskins, to break up the old Allen gang, but when you start a season at 6-0, as the Redskins did in '78, only to see it go down the drain with a 2-8 finish, the hard facts must be faced. So away went Billy Kilmer, Ron McDole and Bill Brundige, Jake Scott, Mike Curtis, Chris Hanburger and Mike Thomas. But now there are a lot of questions—too many, in fact—at a lot of positions.
Quarterback: Joe Theismann is finally all alone, having neither Kilmer to compete with for playing time nor any quality wide receivers to throw to. In drills, 230-pound Tight End Jean Fugett was lining up on the outside, a shift that might be seen in games if the highest draft, fourth-rounder Don Warren, shows anything at tight end.
Offensive line: Not great, but at least it's experienced. Starters must stay healthy.
Fullback: John Riggins can run, if he gets any blocking.
Halfback: The oft-injured Benny Malone, and that's it.
Defensive line: The only surviving Ramskin, Diron Talbert, is making an inspirational recovery from knee surgery. Should get better pass rush now that former Brown Turkey Jones is around to gobble up quarterbacks.
Linebacking: Brad Dusek on the left side, and after four years of wedge-busting on the special teams, Pete Wysocki is the new Hanburger. "I want to be a dancer, dazzling them with my footwork," he says.
Secondary: Three out of the four have made the trip before. No problems here.
Kick-punt: Mark Moseley and Mike Bragg. Has it ever been otherwise?
Rookie help: Hey, get serious.
In NEW YORK, Mara vs. Mara has been settled out of court, and now Giant co-owners Wellington and nephew Tim nod to each other. They might even smile at each other if the Giants somehow make the playoffs. Don't bet on either. But out of the Maras' bitter struggle last winter for front-office supremacy came an honest-to-good-ness, living and breathing general manager, George Young, who's greatly respected around the league, and Young's own choice for coach, young Ray Perkins, who helped put the razzle in San Diego's dazzling offense last year.
Young and Perkins showed tremendous courage in the draft, where the Giants' record has been abysmal, by choosing Phil Simms, a no-name quarterback from Morehead State, as their first choice. The starter is still Joe Pisarcik, who will have a very sharp rookie to throw to in second-round pick Earnest Gray. The starting offensive line, with last year's top draftee, Gordon King, moving in for departed Left Tackle Gordon Gravelle, must stay healthy, because there are virtually no substitutes.
After years of carrying the offense, the Giant defense finally cracked in '78, when it was worst in the NFC in sacks and fourth worst in the NFL in stopping the rush. The secondary was never blue-chip, but it got by, and an exciting rookie named Terry Jackson gave the Giants some quality work at cornerback last season. The linebackers—Brad Van Pelt, Harry Carson and Brian Kelley—were never a problem. But the line didn't hang together after Troy Archer was lost for seven games with a broken foot. And this summer the team received a severe emotional blow when Archer was killed in a truck accident.
The answer to the defensive line problems could lie with rookie Phil Tabor, a nasty one from Oklahoma who was drafted in the fourth round, and veteran tackle Mike McCoy, acquired last week from Oakland.
Robinson: A ballhawk for the Eagles.
Anderson: A flier for the Cardinals.
ST. LOUIS 8-8
N.Y. GIANTS 6-10