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Original Issue

nfc east

What can possibly stop the DALLAS COWBOYS from repeating as Super Bowl champs? Traditionally, there are many ways the lofty can tumble: A one-season frenzy abates, and some other team comes along that's even more frenzied. Complacency settles in. The superstars get old, and there's no one to take their places. You know the usual excuses, but I don't see any of that happening to the Jimmy Johnson Cowboys. But there is a new wrinkle, free agency, and its escort to the dance, the salary cap.

From a business standpoint the way to handle the cap is to have a bunch of rising young stars locked into long-term contracts and drawing less than they deserve. Which describes the Cowboys, and brings us to Emmitt Smith, premier runner, versus Jerry Jones, owner. Smith says that he deserves big bucks, and he's right. But Jones is thinking long-term: Keep the total payroll below the cap, and next year, when the spendthrifts start unloading talent, he'll be first on line at the fire sale.

If Smith's holdout carries into the season, we will find out one of two things: 1) It was Smith's relentless running that kept the whole thing in balance and set up Troy Aikman and his line cast of receivers and put the defense in good situations; or 2) the Cowboy machine is so well constructed that it can cover the big drop-off" in the running game, from Smith to rookie Derrick Lassie or whomever Dallas picks up as a fill-in. And the Cowboy defense is better than anyone realizes and is fully capable of carrying the team.

It probably won't matter. Smith will be back eventually. It might take a few losses to bring him in, but by January, Dallas will be ready for a Super Bowl repeat.

The WASHINGTON REDSKINS will have a terrific head coach in Richie Petitbon. He has been ready for years. So why did it take Joe Gibbs's retirement to give this defensive whiz his first shot? Well, an owner might look at Petitbon and see a 55-year-old career assistant coach, kind of sleepy-eyed, speaking a bit slowly, doesn't seem to have that burning desire.

Oh, he has that, all right. Plus outstanding field command and solid organizational ability. The Skins are just lucky that general manager Charley Casserly knew that all along.

The No. 1 project is reviving quarterback Mark Rypien, who went from Super Bowl MVP in '92 to being booed during the introductions at RFK Stadium last season. Granted, his performance was way off (offensive coordinator Rod Dowhower blames Rypien's camp holdout), but it wasn't entirely his fault. The offensive line was hit hard by injuries, and once those big boys started going down, the whole equation went out of whack. And that put too much pressure on a defense that was also banged up.

Rypien has looked sharp in the exhibition season. Losing tackle Jim Lachey to knee surgery has the O-line jittery, but it should hold up. Wideout Gary Clark is gone in a salary-cap move, and so is outside linebacker Wilber Marshall. Desmond Howard must now be the deep threat on offense. Ex-Giant Carl Banks, solid and steady, replaces the flashier Marshall, and two other 'backers, Kurt Gouveia and Andre Collins, are emerging stars. Cornerback Darrell Green has fully recovered from the broken forearm that kept him out half a season, and ex-Viking Al Noga adds zip to a good defensive line.

Solid coach, solid team; the NFC East's only challenge to Dallas.

I have a daydream about the NEW YORK GIANTS. It's midseason. The team is around .500. Dan Reeves's controlled passing and trap-block offense has put some points on the board and is better than last year's, but the defense has given up points too. The defensive line is in a state of flux, and ex-Bronco Michael Brooks is leading a linebacking corps that's O.K. but not the monster parade it used to be. Lawrence Taylor is generating some static electricity but not the full voltage anymore. Phil Simns, who has seen just about everything in his 15 years in the NFL, goes in to talk to the coach.

"Put me in a seven-step drop." Simms says. "Let me throw down-field, stretch it out. Those DBs are so used to seeing that quick-drop 49er offense, they're jumping on everything short. I can burn 'em."

"Can the line give you the extra time?" Reeves says.

"One second is all I need," Simms says. "One more second...."

And with nothing to lose, Simms gets the green light and starts firing deep. And Gotham is agog. And....

As I said, it's a daydream. Putting your quarterback in a seven-step drop, with all those charging maniacs bearing down, doesn't make sense when his backups are a pair of greenies. But a grind-it-out running game, Bill Parcells style, doesn't work if it isn't backed up by a solid defense. Two newcomers to the Giants, Mark Jackson and Mike Sherrard, might revive an anonymous wideout corps, but they're not superstars. It might be time for Reeves and Simms to pull something out of their bag of tricks.

In the locker room and the coaches' room, everyone was saying that these PHILADELPHIA EAGLES might be better than the last few teams. I waited for an elbow in the ribs. I tried to find a script from owner Norman Braman that the players had just memorized. Sorry, but I just can't see it.

Free agency took 11 vets from the Eagles, with more to go next year. The defensive line, which used to be every quarterback's dark nightmare, now lines up as follows: Tim Harris, a converted linebacker who has never had to play the power side; Andy Harmon, a holdover and a comer; possibly ex-Viking, ex-Seahawk Keith Millard; and Clyde Simmons, who will get more attention than Madonna.

The defensive line is where it has always started with this team—and-where the 1993 season will end unless a miracle occurs. A team that has been geared to a crush-'em defense for so many years will go into shock once it starts slipping. Just check the Giants of '90 and '91. Oh, there is still sonic super talent on defense, but linebackers Seth Joyner and Byron Evans and cornerback Eric Allen always had those big bombers to play behind.

Can the Randall Cunningham offense carry it? Quick, now, what's his psychological status? They love me, they hate me; I want to be me, I don't care who I am. Stay tuned. Until another receiver of Mike Quick's or Keith Jackson's caliber shows up, the Eagle offense will be most effective when it's pounding the ball—no, not with Herschel Walker, but with a 205-pound overachiever named Heath Sherman.

And remember this name: Vaughn Hebron, a lice agent running back from Virginia Tech—5'8", 196 pounds, and, boy, does he bring it.

Well, at least the PHOENIX CARDINALS made a run at Joe Montana, which shows they want to win. They just don't know how. The Cards are 13-35 in the Joe Bugel era, with a division record of 5-19. The NFC East is getting weaker, people say, but right now the only way the Cardinals will make the playoffs is through realignment. They spent big bucks for free-agent talent, including $7.5 million for three years worth of Steve Beuerlein at quarterback, and $3.3 million for journeyman defensive back John Booty, another three-year deal. They were willing to ante up for San Diego tackle Harry Swayne, but the Chargers matched the offer.

Phoenix's best stat last year was rushing defense, 10th best in the NFL, but when you're next to last in pass defense, who needs to run at you? Garrison Hearst will help the running game, Chris Chandler is challenging Beuerlein for the quarterback job, and other than that, there isn't much to report from this desert.




If Rypien is right, the Skins could challenge the Cowboys.