It's very iffy, picking the Dallas Cowboys to go to the Super Bowl. Football people I talk to say, "Not yet, they're still a year away." But I would rather be a year early than a year late, and I can picture what the Cowboys will be like in January—younger, fresher, more juiced up than the teams they'll have to meet.
The start of the season could be trying indeed, with a lot of young, inexperienced players sorting things out against the likes of the Redskins and the Giants. But those are the teams the Cowboys like to play: big, physical clubs that test their manhood. It's the fly-boys who give them trouble, the run-and-shoot teams. Last year Dallas lost three of its four games against run-and-shoot teams, and this season the Cowboys meet two of them, the Lions and the Falcons, in the regular season.
The Cowboys are so dedicated to the concept of youth that they had their first five draft choices agreeing to contracts by the end of draft day. Owner Jerry Jones sees this as a logical way to do business: Pick guys you're sure you can sign. Other teams saw it as a bending of the rules, talking contract with players before they were selected. At any rate, all nine guys picked in the first five rounds were ready to go when camp opened.
The negatives on this team? All the stars seem to be on one side of the ball: quarterback Troy Aikman; Emmitt Smith, the NFL's leading rusher in 1991; wideout Michael Irvin, whose 93-catch, 1,523-yard season produced a dandy holdout that was still going on as of Monday. A defensive star still has to emerge, a guy the players can rally round. Maybe the Cowboys' newest pass rusher, Charles Haley, who arrived via a trade with San Francisco, will be the guy.
Holdouts follow Super Bowl championships like a dog on a leash, but on Aug. 25, when the Washington Redskins announced that they had signed their last three, first-round pick Desmond Howard and All-Pros Jim Lachey and Darrell Green, all the pieces were in place. Each area of the offense and defense has at least one Pro Bowl performer to lead it. There are no weak links.
Coach Joe Gibbs's offense is multidimensional. If you can't stop Washington's power running, you'll see it all day. If you do stop it, then the Skins will come at you with a burst, out of their three-wideout package. Mark Rypien is one of the few quarterbacks who can throw deep with touch. The attack will have even more explosion now, thanks to Howard, the Heisman Trophy-winning wideout, and a mature Ricky Ervins, last year's flashy rookie running back.
The defense ranked third in the league in '91, and linebacker Wilber Marshall lived up to the reputation he built when he was with Chicago. Charley Casserly is one of the league's best general managers, and owner Jack Kent Cooke isn't afraid to spend money. So why don't I pick them to repeat as Super Bowl champs? One reason: Eight of Washington's 11 offensive starters will be 30 or older in December, as will four starters on defense. There's a nagging feeling that this team has already peaked and is about to begin a slow decline.
Memories of the late Jerome Brown: The night before the Philadelphia Eagles met the Redskins in the 1990 playoffs, after the team doctor had already told Brown that his separated shoulder would definitely keep him out of the game, he was up in coach Buddy Ryan's room, begging Ryan to let him line up. Buddy gave in. Brown played with one arm at his side, and he still burst into the backfield to disrupt the action.
The Eagles have dedicated this season to Brown, who was killed in an auto accident this summer. Though the defense will play with great emotion, it probably won't be as good as it was last year—you just don't replace a tackle like Brown. Nonetheless, it should be plenty tough.
And now that quarterback Randall Cunningham is back from knee surgery, some people are predicting Super Bowl for the Eagles, but I don't see it. Even with everybody in place, they haven't won a playoff game. And a weakness they've had for years still plagues them: The offensive line isn't sound enough.
O.K., the line might be better now, and Herschel Walker might—repeat, might—give Philly the burst out of the backfield it has lacked for so long. But the team remains lopsided in the defense-offense equation. One area that should improve is punt and kick returns, which will be handled by Vai Sikahema, a Plan B pickup from Green Bay.
That New York Giants quarterback thing just won't go away, will it? It appeared to be settled last year, when new coach Ray Handley selected Jeff Hostetler to be the starter over Phil Simms, but in the third preseason game this summer, against the Jets, Hostetler went down with a bruised back and pelvis.
In came Simms, who put two quick touchdowns on the board against the Jets' second string. It was quickly noted that in the 12 possessions Hostetler had worked before he was injured, the Giants' point production was zero and that last year Hostetler threw only five TD passes, three fewer than Simms did with half as many throws. And people are telling Handley to face facts: He made a mistake in benching Simms for Hostetler.
But explaining last season's 8-8 finish is not that simple, folks. New York's fall from grace was more of a defensive collapse—poor tackling, an aging Lawrence Taylor, the early-season loss of noseguard Erik Howard to a back injury. That last one was bad. When Howard wasn't in there driving people back into the quarterback's face, quarterbacks could step up in the pocket and throw downfield against the Giants.
In 1990, New York's Super Bowl season, the Giants allowed the fewest yards per completion in the league. Last year they ranked 21st. Long passes killed them. But so did the fourth quarter, when the defense was tiring and the offense couldn't get anything going. No other team gave up as many points in the final period. Only two scored fewer.
Handley was strapped in '91. When Bill Parcells left in May, it was too late to change much of anything. This year it will be Handley's system and his people, including new offensive and defensive coordinators. But who's the quarterback?
The Phoenix Cardinals are bound to improve, now that quarterback Timm Rosenbach has returned from knee surgery, which forced him to miss last season. How much better will they be? When the Cards had Rosenbach in '90, they finished 5-11; without him, they were 4-12.
Clearly Phoenix is hurting in other areas, and you don't have to look much further than the running game to find two. Last year Phoenix ranked 26th in the league in rushing and 26th in stopping the rush, and in the infantry warfare of the NFC East, that's curtains. So even if the Cards are a better team with Rosenbach in the lineup, they must figure a way to compete with their division rivals, who have gone 13-3 against Phoenix since coach Joe Bugel's arrival two years ago.
Fortunes rise and fall in the East. Dallas recedes, the Giants and Eagles surge. Then those two slip, and Washington takes over. Now all four of them are playoff-caliber teams, while the Cardinals remain constant—doormats. They haven't had a winning team since '84, and unless you count the strike year of '82, when they were 5-4, they haven't had a playoff team since the Don Coryell era of the 1970s.
All of which says something about the personnel who've been coming through the door all these years, not to mention the personnel director, George Boone, who was fired after last season. The new man is Bob Ackles, who came from Dallas, and that's a beginning.
It must be galling to Bugel, who coached the Hogs in Washington for so many years, that his primary need is help on the offensive line. Then there's the defense, which spends a lot of time getting hammered. It's a long road back.
Rypien gets plenty of time to throw, and in Howard he has another top target.