Last season the Dallas Cowboys came within one furious last-minute yard of tying the Green Bay Packers in the National Football League championship game in the Cotton Bowl. This year the margin may be even narrower.
After seven painful years in Dallas, Tex Schramm, the Cowboy general manager, and Tom Landry, the serious, thoughtful coach, finally have fashioned what may become a dynasty. The Cowboys arrived in 1966. For the next few years they should remain comfortably at the top of their conference. This is a young, fast and talented football club. Its only concern now is in achieving deep strength at a couple of positions.
One position where it has almost an embarrassment of depth is at quarterback. Behind the experienced and very competent Don Meredith are two young and promising third-year men, Craig Morton and Jerry Rhome. Neither has had much opportunity to play and, as Landry says, "They are only now reaching the point where they have learned their trade."
So far neither back has shown signs of resenting his second-class status. "They realize," Landry says, "that it takes at least three years for a good quarterback to mature in professional football. Both of them have looked good in training, Rhome particularly."
With a healthy Meredith on hand, the two youngsters can look forward to another year of working the phones to the spotters in the press box, with an occasional sortie onto the field when the Cowboys pile up a lead. Since the Dallas offense is one of the most explosive in the NFL, they may find themselves in action often.
Meredith, who took his football lightly in his formative pro years, has grown up and now ranks among the top quarterbacks in the league. He has learned to operate the imaginative and complex Landry offense, with its strong running and fast and sure receivers, with assurance and aplomb. A magnificent Dallas defense could mean that Meredith will be able to launch that offense from good field position.
The only thing that can stop the Cowboys this year is a siege of injuries. As promising as Morton and Rhome are, their lack of experience with the intricate Dallas offense could hurt the team's chances if one or the other had to replace Meredith for any length of time. The pair of them have thrown only 118 passes in two seasons, as compared with 649 for Meredith. Meredith stayed well in 1966, but he has had a history of injuries: a shoulder separation in 1961, a hand injury in 1962, knee and ankle injuries complicated by a stomach ailment in 1964 and a sore arm in 1965. This training session he broke a rib. It is to his credit that he has performed well even when playing in pain.
The Dallas defensive line gives the Cowboys a pass rush second only to the Rams', but behind the front four of Willie Townes, Jethro Pugh, Bob Lilly and George Andrie the quality drops off sharply. Dallas traded the very competent Jim Colvin away in the off season and none of the rookies who reported to camp this year have shown exceptional ability. Coy Bacon, a 6'4", 270-pound free agent from Jackson State, will be able to help if he learns quickly enough. But the club has a surplus of good players at other positions, and a trade might be the best solution.
If the Cowboys could pick up an extra linebacker in the same trade, it would strengthen them at another of their thin points. Their starting trio of Dave Edwards, Lee Roy Jordan and Chuck Howley is excellent and substitute Harold Hays is a strong five-year man with good speed, but the Cowboys could use one more proven player to spell Jordan in the middle.
The only other question mark on the team is, ironically, the kicking game. Although the Cowboys went on a much-publicized safari during the off season in search of kickers, they did not uncover much talent. Danny Villanueva, who had a bone spur removed from his left ankle at training camp, is still the best of a mediocre lot. If the operation returns him to his top efficiency of earlier years, he could give Dallas better than average—but not really first-rate—punting and place-kicking.
Everywhere else the Cowboys are both talented and deep. In Bob Hayes, Pete Gent, Frank Clarke, Lance Rentzel, Buddy Dial, Pettis Norman and an impressive rookie tight end named Rayfield Wright (he is 6'7" and weighs 245), they have as many first-class receivers as any club in the league. Dial has been out with a bad back during the training season but, should he be unable to return, his loss would not be felt deeply. Hayes, with his clever patterns and great speed, is about the most respected long receiver in the game. Even when he does not catch the ball, he distorts most defenses by siphoning at least two men from the secondary to cover him.
The powerful Dallas aerial game opens up the ground attack, animated principally by Don Perkins and the surprising Dan Reeves, who did so well in 1966 after Mel Renfro was hurt that he put Renfro back on the defensive unit. Perkins and Reeves add exceptional pass-catching ability to their deeply respected capabilities as runners.
Behind them are second-year man Walt Garrison, who had an impressive rookie season in 1966; Les Shy, another second-year man; 12-year veteran J.D. Smith; and Craig Baynham, a rookie from Georgia Tech who is a 9.6 sprinter and was a flanker in college. Baynham has been unusually good in early games.
The 1966 Cowboys led the league in scoring and in total offense, and almost as much of the credit for this belonged to the offensive line, the best in the division, as to the backfield and receivers. The Cowboys lost Center Dave Manders for the season with a knee injury, but Mike Connelly, a guard and center last season, will take over his chores, with Malcolm Walker, a top draft choice who has been injured the last two seasons, backing him up. This may handicap the club briefly, until Connelly settles in as a center, but it is not a major disaster. The rest of the offensive line is young and strong and functions equally as well in opening holes or protecting the passer.
The Cowboys were second only to St. Louis in total defense last year and led the Eastern Conference in fewest points allowed opponents. The defensive unit is intact.
"The first championship is the toughest," Landry said last year after the Cowboys won the Eastern Conference title. "After that they come easier." This one may indeed be easier.
If it is not, the team most likely to make life difficult for Dallas is Washington. The Redskins beat the Cowboys once last year and lost once, 31-30, when Meredith and Villanueva managed to pull out the victory. In Sonny Jurgensen, Washington has the man who is considered by many to be the best quarterback in the East. And Receiver Charley Taylor is regarded almost as highly as Bob Hayes. More important, however, the Redskins have had a year to learn the philosophy and system of Coach Otto Graham. They enter the 1967 campaign a more sure-footed and knowledgeable contender.
Last year it took a good deal of the season for the offensive line to jell, since most of the players were strangers to one another. Seven new men appeared on the defensive lineup and All-Pro Tackle Joe Rutgens was hurt and out for most of the season. In view of the wholesale changes, it was a tribute to Graham's tenacity that the club wound up with a 7-7 record and was progressing rapidly at the end.
The Redskins' improvement has been reflected so far this season in an affirmative attitude that may give them considerable early momentum.
"We are far advanced over where we were a year ago," Graham says. "My big problem last year was to develop a winning attitude on a club that was used to losing. Now they think they have a chance to go all the way."
If indeed the Redskins go all the way, it will have to be on the arm of Jurgensen and the hands of his excellent receivers, since the Redskins' running does not appear strong enough to carry the load. The most spectacular and, as it turned out, the most useful move made by the experimenting Graham in 1966 was to shift Taylor from a running-back position to split end midway in the seventh game of the year. Taylor, who was not particularly charmed by the shift, had caught only 18 passes to that point: in the second half of the season he caught 54 more for a league-leading total of 72. His forte is catching a short, quick pass just over the line of scrimmage and using his fine speed and exceptional footwork to break free. He doubtless will be double-teamed all this year, as he was at the close of last season. The tactic did not work well, since the rest of the Redskin receivers are first-class, too. When the defenses paid too much attention to Taylor, Jurgensen found inviting targets in Tight End Jerry Smith and Flanker Bobby Mitchell. All three receivers finished in the top 10 in the NFL, and Jurgensen led the league's passers with a whopping total of 254 completions for 3,209 yards and 28 touchdowns, one behind Frank Ryan.
Graham has helped to insure his passing game by acquiring Jim Ninowski from Cleveland to back up Jurgensen. Ninowski, experienced and very capable, gives the Redskins the strongest set of quarterbacks in the East, comparable to Bart Starr and Zeke Bratkowski of Green Bay in the West.
The Redskin defensive unit should be much improved over 1966, when Graham reshuffled it completely. The return of a healed Rutgens to the front four strengthens a line that needed it. Now the line consists of Carl Kammerer and Ron Snidow at ends and Rutgens and Walter Barnes at tackles, and it should be a sound one.
The only change on defense this year is at left linebacker, where John Reger has retired. Sam Huff, now entering his 12th season in the NFL, and Chris Hanburger give the Skins a strong pair in the middle and on the right. A three-way battle among substitutes Jim Carroll and Steve Jackson and rookie Larry Hender-shot will decide the other position, and the defense should not be seriously weakened no matter who wins it.
In 1966 the only seasoned defensive back returning was Paul Krause, one of the best safety men in the conference. He was joined by Jim Shorter and Rickie Harris at corner back and Brig Owens at strong safety, and all four return with the advantage of having had a season together. Graham has good replacements available in his secondary, which he hopes will be stronger than last year's. The kicking is done by Charlie Gogolak, a soccer-style booter who made 105 points in 1966 to break the Washington scoring record by 17.
The three work horses in the Washington backfield last season were Steve Thurlow, obtained from the New York Giants; Joe Don Looney, for whom Washington is the fourth NFL team in three seasons; and A. D. Whitfield, picked up from the Dallas Cowboys. None was sensational, although Whitfield proved to be the best. Their positions threatened by the arrival of Ray McDonald, the No. 1 draft choice, Thurlow and Looney have looked sharper this year. McDonald, at 6'4" and 248 pounds, has tremendous power but he got a late start with the club after spending the early weeks with the College All-Stars. If he lives up to expectations, the Redskins' running should be better than it was in 1966. Washington almost has the potential to supply a new ending to the old Cowboys and Indians plot.
The Philadelphia Eagles finished tied for second in the Eastern Conference in 1966 and appear to have strengthened themselves considerably since then. Joe Kuharich, who is certainly the biggest wheeler-dealer in coaching ranks, completed the 13th and 14th trades since he took over the Eagles three years ago, and both trades appear now to be good ones. His major lack during 1966 was receivers. For Earl Gros, a good fullback, and reserve Guard Bruce Van Dyke, he obtained an exceptionally good flanker from the Pittsburgh Steelers in Gary Ballman. He sent Quarterback Jack Con-cannon to the Chicago Bears for Mike Ditka, one of the strongest tight ends in football. Ditka was restive under George Halas. If he is happy and giving under Kuharich, the Eagles will wind up with one of the two or three best tight ends in the business.
King Hill, who plays behind Norman Snead at quarterback for the Eagles, broke the second metacarpal bone in his right hand in an exhibition game and will be out of action for the first third of the season. This leaves the Eagles woefully undermanned at quarterback. Even New Orleans in its first year is better prepared in this most important of all positions. Snead has never been better than a journeyman, and behind him now is only a castoff from the Steelers—who themselves did not have sufficient quarterbacking. Indicative of the Eagles' troubles with the position is the case of Bob Miller. Up from the taxi squad, he reinjured a knee and went straight out again. Maybe Kuharich can manage another of his inspired trades to remedy this deficiency, but the hardest of all players to deal for are good passers.
Fortunately the quarterbacks Kuharich does own have a fine set of catchers to throw to. Ray Poage, who missed last season after a knee operation, is back, and the addition of Ballman and Ditka is a vast plus. Last year the Eagles were 13th in passing in the NFL, because of poor throwing, poor protection and very ordinary receivers. This year they should move up to the first division.
The Eagles can always settle for keeping the ball on the ground. Despite the loss of Gros, Kuharich retains one of the most devastating running attacks in the game. Fullbacks Tom Woodeshick and Izzy Lang, with the strong Timmy Brown, give Philadelphia both short and long striking power. And this year's draft has brought more exceptional running. Arkansas' Harry Jones and Nebraska's Lighthorse Harry Wilson are quick, powerful and fast, and Dan Berry, a halfback who can throw the option pass, is in a class with them. All three are good receivers, too. With such wealth, Kuharich has the resources to trade for a quarterback if any are on the available list.
The offensive line, anchored by massive Bob Brown, 6'4" and 295 pounds, is second only to Dallas' in the division and will give Snead, who spent the early years of his NFL life running for cover, unaccustomed protection. The only possible soft spot is at left guard, where taxi squad graduate Dick Hart must replace five-year man Ed Blaine, who has retired to get his medical degree. The Eagles drafted Jon Brooks, a 262-pounder from Kent State, to help out the guards, but he has been lost to the team with a torn cartilage. Weakness in the middle line could be fatal against the quick defensive tackles of Washington and Dallas.
Defensively, the Eagles will be better than they were last year, although behind the Cowboys. The young secondary of Jim Nettles and Al Nelson at corner back and Joe Scarpati and Nate Ramsey at the safeties were coming up with big plays toward the end of 1966 and should be improved, although the injured Nelson will miss a few games. The defensive line could help by putting more pressure on the passer. Floyd Peters had an exceptional season in 1966. He is 31, however, and entering his 10th year as a tackle and may not be able to provide the strong inside rush needed. Tackle John Meyers does not get to the quarterback quickly from inside.
The Eagle linebackers are not the best in the division either. Undistinguished in 1966, the group is back in its entirety. The Eagles, then, will depend again upon a high-scoring offense and will probably give up too many points on defense. In the stronger division in the East, they should finish no better than third.
A reflection of the strength of the Capitol Division is the New Orleans Saints. The Saints are easily the best expansion team ever to come into football. They have three good quarterbacks and a large supply of excellent linebackers, the sort of talent that many of the older established teams would love to have.
Naturally, they are missing a great deal at other positions. The offensive line will need a long seasoning before it can compete on even terms with the good defensive lines in the division, and the defensive backs will leak touchdowns until they become accustomed to one another.
The linebackers—three of them picked from the Baltimore Colts—will have a lot of work to do. The addition of Doug Atkins to the defensive line provides a much-needed leavening of experience, and the other defensive end, Jim Garcia, acquired from New York, has looked very good in training camp. But the considerable size and agility of the tackles—rookie David Rowe from Penn State and second-year man Mike Tilleman from Minnesota—cannot make up for their even more considerable lack of experience.
Coach Tom Fears worked the club hard in the initial training period in California and then took it back early to acclimate it to hot and humid New Orleans before the home opener against Los Angeles. This strenuous program has whipped the Saints into midseason form, an advantage that should give them enough of an edge to provide some early-season upsets. The Saints are not sound enough, however, to win later on, when the weather cools and the old hands get hot.
The passing should be exciting, with most of the throwing being done by Gary Cuozzo, long considered the best No. 2 quarterback in the league, and Bill Kilmer, who has gained a new lease on life after coming out from under the twin shadows of John Brodie and George Mira at San Francisco. Even Gary Wood, who led a frustrated life on the New York Giants, both on the field and on the bench, should be happier with the Saints.
Fears regards his quarterbacking happily. "Each has his own style," he says. "Cuozzo is the calculating type, Kilmer plays like a kamikaze pilot and Wood is a gambler who doesn't mind running."
He realizes that Wood may spend a good deal of his time running and that Cuozzo and Kilmer will have little time to rest in the pocket. "But usually," he says, "even with a veteran team, the offensive line is the last thing to come around. We may be able to pick up someone in a trade. Good offensive linemen are hard to come by, though. I'm not going to panic."
The lack of a good offensive line may also blunt the talents of Jim Taylor, the All-Pro fullback who came to the Saints after playing out his option with Green Bay. Taylor's strong point is his ability to run to daylight, but the daylight may be hard to find, especially since the Saints do not have another running back of nearly comparable ability to take the pressure off Taylor.
Les Kelley, the Saints' No. 1 draft choice from Alabama, is big and quick. Unfortunately, he plays behind Taylor at fullback. The halfbacks on hand are young and may develop, but not this year. The likely starter is Don McCall, who spent most of his time at USC substituting for Mike Garrett. John Gilliam, a rookie from South Carolina State, is the fastest back in camp, and Tom Barrington, picked from the Redskin roster in the expansion draft, has shown potential.
The Saints will have good receivers in Tom Hall, Walter Roberts, Steve Heckard and Kent Kramer, all picked up from other teams in the veteran selection. Kramer, a strong tight end, is backed up by a surprising 14th-round draft choice, Jim Hester from North Dakota.
"We wound up better off in the expansion draft in receivers, but Atlanta did better in running backs and offensive linemen," says Fears, reverting to a coach's normal pessimism.
The Saints, in fact, are better off as a team than the Falcons were. The defensive line will be manned by experienced hands when Fears puts the Bears' Earl Leggett in for Rowe. Fears has three seasoned linebackers starting in Steve Stonebreaker and Ted Davis from Baltimore and Dave Simmons from St. Louis, and behind them he has three more players with pro experience. He will use two rookies, John Douglas and Bruce Cortez, much of the time at corner back, but the safeties will be Jim Heidel and Obert Logan, who have seen previous service.
"Cortez has been a real surprise," Fears says. "He has great speed and great moves, and Douglas is just as fast."
The Saints got another plus in rookies Ron Widby and Tom McNeill, both of whom have been punting most impressively.
But Fears, with all he has to be optimistic about, must look forward to finishing last. He is in one of the NFL's two best divisions.
RATING THE CAPITOL