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First things first. I think the New York Giants will repeat as NFL champions. They will beat the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl 24-17. The Giants should be better than they were in 1986 unless, of course, injuries remove some key people. Injuries are always the ultimate determinant, the stuff of catastrophe when you are operating in the stratosphere of the NFL.

The doom-criers wag their fingers. No team can repeat in this era, they say. Especially not this team. Too many evil temptations for the young and the wealthy, particularly in the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Hackensack Meadowlands. Too many books written—the biggest evil of them all, because writers do not make strong blockers or sure tacklers. Too many distractions. Why, even coach Bill Parcells distracted the club with a brief postseason flirtation with Atlanta. What kind of example was that for his players?

This is what the naysayers are saying. It is silly stuff. A player won't miss a block or drop a pass because the coach was wooed by the Falcons or the guy in the next locker wrote a book, even a book as publicized as Lawrence Taylor's. LT's off-season retreat into nastiness and flawed logic earned him some well-deserved rips in the press, and everyone waited to see how all that would affect him on the field. Well, not at all. In the first exhibition game he made tackles all over the field and pursued like a madman. What's interesting about Taylor is that at the end of last season he was more a speed linebacker than a power operator. That put him in coverage more. His body was beaten up. Down the stretch Carl Banks, who played opposite LT, became the best outside linebacker in football.

This will all be duly included in the Giants' game plan this year, because Parcells knows his linebackers. Coaching that position is his forte, and New York has a sensational collection. Noseguard Jim Burt didn't get his due last year, but he forced at least three teams—Washington, San Francisco and New England—to change their thinking about defense. The Patriots traded for Houston's center. Jim Romano, after Burt made five tackles against them in the first quarter of the opening exhibition game. Burt is as technically perfect a noseguard as any man in the game, and he's backed up by a big, active second-year pro, Erik Howard.

Phil Simms is coming off a 22-for-25 passing day in the Super Bowl, and he hasn't let off-season endorsements interfere with his workout schedule. The running corps is deeper with the return of George Adams. The draft produced two terrific wideouts, Mark Ingram and Stephen Baker. So much for Dallas's outdated contention that the top teams draft too late to improve themselves significantly. The secondary is fortified by the return of Terry Kinard, who went down with a knee injury on Dec. 7. The club is bursting with talent, and in my rather simplistic view of the NFL, that's why I like the Giants to repeat.

The Washington Redskins' season is keyed toward the Giants. Burt caused them to replace center Jeff Bostic with All-Pro left guard Russ Grimm, a 275-pounder. In three games against the Giants, the Skins could manage only 145 yards rushing, and to coach Joe Gibbs's way of thinking, a situation like that can't be overcome by any quarterback—not even an action guy like Pro-Bowler Jay Schroeder. Washington needs that big bump in the middle.

In their three games against the Giants last year, the Skins got steadily weaker. First game: 410 yards of offense, seven-point loss. Second game: 349 yards, 10-point loss. NFC title game: 190 yards, 17-point loss. Even worse was the claim in a few books by Giant players that they had finally caught on to Washington's one-back offense.

Not much will change in the Redskin offense. The Skins finished fifth in the league last season and worried everybody except the Giants. Rookie Ed Simmons, another big bumper at 310 pounds, might find a spot in the line. Schroeder will wear a knee brace and throw to a set of Pro Bowl receivers, Art Monk and Gary Clark. Once again George Rogers will be at tailback on first down, with Kelvin Bryant in on third if his knee holds up (he missed six games last season). Who plays on second down will depend on the yardage.

The defense suffered a jolt in camp when both right end Dexter Manley and middle linebaker Neal Olkewicz went down with knee injuries. Manley is coming off a career-best season. Charles Mann, the other end, had 10 sacks. The defensive backs are better and deeper than ever with the addition of rookie cornerback Brian Davis. The Redskins were good enough to come from behind to beat the Bears in the playoffs, but they couldn't put a dent in the Giants in three tries. That, obviously, is the problem.

With limited funds available, Philadelphia Eagles coach Buddy Ryan stood outside the bookshop window and pondered his decision. Should he buy groceries to feed the family, or would the money go for that rare first edition, in perfect condition with full morocco binding and gilt edges? It was no decision at all. Ryan is a collector, and a man like that doesn't blink at the idea of a few missed meals when a true rarity is waiting to be snapped up.

So he selected Jerome Brown in the first round of the draft, 292 pounds of unbridled ferocity at defensive tackle. Brown tried to take on the whole offensive line in a minicamp drill. That Eagles O-line gave up an NFL-record 104 sacks last year, and a lot of people will be longing to take it on. Ryan could have had his pick of any offensive lineman on the board, but he chose Brown to go with another defensive house wrecker, All-Pro left end Reggie White. Somehow, somewhere, we'll scrape an offensive line together. Ryan was saying, but when you've got a chance to acquire a Jerome Brown, you don't pass it up.

Coaches reviewed the films and decided that 30 of those 104 sacks were the fault of the quarterback rather than the line's blocking failures. That still leaves 74, which would have broken the old record by four. To make things worse, Philadelphia has 10 games against opponents that finished in the top half of the league in sacks in '86.

Ryan's defense is keyed on the havoc that two linemen can create. It should be very good, especially if rookie linebacker Byron Evans, a serious hitter, develops. And with an extra year under his belt, the Eagles' savvy young quarterback, Randall Cunningham, should go down less often this year.

The Dallas Cowboys ran a tough camp, their toughest in years, and everybody got hurt. The two toughest injuries involved speed, which the Cowboys finally regained in '86. Wideout Mike Sherrard's broken leg puts him out for the season. Herschel Walker's sprained knee might cost him early-season playing time, and when he comes back, then what? Tony Dorsett dragged a bad leg around for most of '86.

If the Cowboys don't get out of the box quickly, they're dead. I say this for two reasons: 1) December features road games against the Redskins and Rams and 2) one of my charts says so. I call this one my "tired legs" chart. It traces Dallas's cumulative month-by-month record since 1983, the year after the Cowboys played in their last NFC title game. Four years' worth of September games shows a 14-3 mark. By October they were down to 12-5. Their legs were starting to tire in November, a 9-9 month, and by December they were worn out: Their record is 3-10. One January game was lost. Old teams die at the season's end. Dallas has gotten old and is without the traditional infusion of young talent to relieve the pressure.

If you look at the games in which the Cowboys were beaten badly, you'll find a recurrent pattern: They couldn't get people blocked. Quarterbacks Danny White and Steve Pelluer, who stepped in after White broke his right wrist in game No. 9, were simply overrun. So was Dorsett. Adjustments at halftime didn't work. The Cowboys have been weak at the tackles, the traditional pillars of the offensive line. They drafted a few 300-pounders, and they are talking about switching players to different positions. The new line coach, Jim Erkenbeck, believes in coming right off the ball and knocking people back, a switch from Dallas's old finesse-block philosophy.

There are just too many unknowns. Will White's wrist hold up? Will Erkenbeck find the tackles to make his ideas work? Will Walker's knee heal? Will new warriors be found to replace the worn-out old ones? The ship has sprung too many leaks.

This is basic, especially if you're a lowly team like the St. Louis Cardinals. When you have the sixth pick in the first round and you are planning to draft a quarterback whom you firmly believe no one else will take, you sit down with his agent before the draft and make sure a contract can be worked out. The one guy you have got to have in camp is the rookie quarterback you're planning to build an offense around—if that, indeed, is your plan.

Ever since offensive coordinator Rod Dowhower left, the Cardinals' quarterback, Neil Lomax, seems to have gone into a fog. Coaches have complained he was stubborn. Coach Gene Stallings ripped him after he refused to participate in off-season workouts. "Football's not the most important thing in my life, especially in the off-season," Lomax said.

So Lomax became trade bait. However, no one wanted any part of his $875,000 salary. Therefore, St. Louis decided to draft a quarterback, Kelly Stouffer, with that sixth pick in the first round. Stallings does not make the draft decisions. He might have preferred a solid defensive lineman, but we will never know. The draft is handled by player personnel director George Boone. So the Cardinals went for Stouffer, and then they couldn't manage to sign him. Now Lomax is facing a challenge from Cliff Stoudt, a well-known washout from Pittsburgh.

The franchise is going nowhere. Billy Bidwell, who once threatened to take the team to Phoenix (remember?), wants the city to build him a stadium. St. Louis is a baseball town, and people are wondering why Bidwell needs a 70,000-seat playground when he averaged barely half that many fans in '86.

The injury blow fell heavily when former noseguard and projected defensive end David Galloway broke his forearm. That gave third-round draft pick Colin Scotts, an Australian rugby player who sings Waltzing Matilda at the training table, a shot at breaking into the lineup. That's the Cards, all right—a bunch of Matildas who waltz.




Fortunately for Anthony Toney the Eagle line is better on runs than passes.



It's not Earl Ferrell's fault the Cards are a nowhere team.



Pelluer, who replaced the injured White, learned the hard way that the Cowboys get weaker as the season progresses.