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NFC east

Coach Joe Gibbs of the Washington redskins suffered the first losing season of his career last year. The defense was hit by injuries. so were the quarterbacks. The offensive line was in disarray. There was no big, pounding back in the John Riggins tradition. The heavy-duty running attack, which is the heart and soul of Gibbs's football philosophy, was a memory. The Skins wound up 25th in the league in rushing, averaging fewer than 100 yards a game.

Player acquisitions that were supposed to send Washington back to the Super Bowl turned sour. Linebacker Wilber Marshall was lost in the Redskins' scheme, which called on him to play closer to the combat zone than he had with the Bears. Tackle Jim Lachey, who had come from the Raiders, was nothing special. And after the season Bobby Beathard, the high-powered general manager, quit.

Gibbs has reshaped the '89 Skins in his own image. He has not one but two big, thumping backs—Gerald Riggs from Atlanta and Earnest Byner from Cleveland. The line—with Lachey back on the left side, tackle Joe Jacoby on the right, and Russ Grimm, who had been on injured reserve for two years, back at guard—appears to be set.

Washington has excellent receivers. Art Monk and Gary Clark are former Pro Bowlers, and the third wideout, Ricky Sanders, had a better year in '88 than either of them. But who's going to get them the ball? Doug Williams is out for at least two months after back surgery. Mark Rypien has six NFL starts; Stan Humphries has none.

Both cornerbacks, Darrell Green and Barry Wilburn, played hurt last year, and teams picked on them. Now they're healthy, and Wilburn will back up at free safety. Strong safety Alvin Walton is a super hitter who has led the team in tackles for the last two seasons.

Washington traded its first-and second-round picks, but the draft yielded a pair of 12th-round discoveries, tailback Joe Mickles and tight end Jimmie Johnson, who wowed 'em in the exhibitions. Beathard found them. Call them his going-away presents.

New York giants coach Bill Parcells would like to title his 1989 highlight film The Beast That Ate the NFL. For the second straight year he used his first two draft choices to land massive offensive linemen. Brian Williams, who's 6'5", 300 pounds, and Bob Kratch (6'3", 288) will join last year's first two picks, Eric Moore (6'5", 290) and Jumbo Elliott (6'7", 305).

Parcells picked up hitting types for the secondary: safety Greg Jackson, who was a third-rounder, and 223-pound safety Greg Cox, a Plan B acquisition from San Francisco. Parcells traded with Dallas to get 248-pound Steve DeOssie to man an inside linebacking post. In the sixth round Parcells drafted 6'5", 245-pound Howard Cross, a tight end who blocks much better than he catches, and in the fourth round he picked up a slashing, punishing runner named Lewis Tillman. No wonder quarterback Phil Simms spent the off-season in the weight room. The locker room is no place for skinny bodies.

Tailback Joe Morris has to erase the memories of the power sweep and concentrate on finding daylight behind a butt-to-butt offensive line. Three defensive leaders—linebacker Harry Carson, end George Martin and nosetackle Jim Burt—have to be replaced.

One defensive play in the final game last season cost the Giants the division title. The Jets, who trailed by a point, faced third-and-four on the Giants' five-yard line with 37 seconds remaining. For some reason the Giants went into a goal-line defense, leaving a backup safety to cover 6'4" wideout Al Toon. Toon caught a fade pass in the end zone, and the Giants' season was history.

What really lost the game, though, was the failure of the offensive line to keep Simms, who was sacked eight times, upright. The current group looks imposing, but can it pass-block? Elliott, for instance, had trouble with speed rushers from his right tackle spot in '88. He has been shifted to the left, the sacking side. Next to him is William Roberts, who has had five undistinguished NFL seasons. But at 280 pounds, he's big. That seems to matter these days.

Take away two players and the PHILADELPHIA EAGLES are a sub-.500 team. Despite a mediocre line, quarterback Randall Cunningham had a magical year, practically willing his team into the end zone. End Reggie White was the best defensive player in football. But White missed much of training camp in a contract holdout, and the Eagles were on their way to nowheresville.

When he returned in late August, White said that if Buddy Ryan were not coach, he would never have played for Philadelphia again. The players win for Buddy, not for the Eagles. Owners don't like that kind of thinking.

Philly has some noticeable holes. Ryan keeps talking about a heavy running game, but that's all it has been, talk. Even with White's NFL-leading 18 sacks last year, the Eagles ended up last in pass defense, giving up the most yards ever by an NFC team. Philadelphia plays on high emotion. Last year it could beat anybody, but it could go in the dumper against anyone too. It will be another nail-biting season in '89.

Coach Gene Stallings's job is said to be on the line this season, but the PHOENIX CARDINALS have never really given him a chance. He is kept out of the draft, and the team never signed quarterback Kelly Stouffer, its first-round pick in '87, who could have addressed the team's most pressing need.

Until Phoenix finds a quarterback—Neil Lomax is on injured reserve for the season with an arthritic hip, Gary Hogeboom is injury-prone, Tom Tupa is raw, and Timm Rosenbach isn't even defrosted yet—nothing will fall into place. Even with Lomax performing superbly in '88, the Cards floundered, losing their final five games. They have some promising players in top draft choices Eric Hill, a linebacker, and Joe Wolf, a guard; the running tandem of Stump Mitchell and Tony Jordan; a first-rate receiving corps; and third-year strong safety Tim McDonald. But it all starts with the man who takes the snaps.

Jimmy Johnson is an interesting and complex character. Much has been made of the go-go attitude he has brought to the DALLAS COWBOYS, but it doesn't mean much. The old cold-eyed style produced five trips to the Super Bowl. What intrigues me about Johnson, who had been exclusively a college coach, is his ability to think like a sophisticated NFL boss.

Take the way he stockpiled his quarterbacks, Troy Aikman and Steve Walsh. Never in history has a team had two quarterbacks who were drafted No. 1 in the same year. Why pick up Walsh in the supplemental draft when you already have Aikman? The answer, as Johnson explains it, is value. The quarterbacks who will be coming out of college in the next two years don't impress him. Walsh is a stock you keep. He can only go up in value—trade value.

Only one thing could mess up the plan. What if Walsh turns out to be better than Aikman? Aikman is big and poised with an outstanding arm. But Walsh has a kind of sneaky, inspirational quality; he makes you feel that somehow he'll get the team into the end zone. Down by six in the fourth quarter, bad weather, line can't hold—maybe he's the guy you want in there.

I like the way Johnson made it clear right away that he was in charge. Guys who were unhappy—defensive tackle Kevin Brooks, quarterback Steve Pelluer—were erased from his plans. You don't come back from 3-13 overnight, but Dallas bears careful scrutiny.