The Dallas Cowboys are the best team in football. They scout well, pick wisely, have one of the most intellectual coaches and field the finest 40 physical specimens you'll ever lay eyes on.
Nonetheless, they may not win the most games. Sure, they'll take the Capitol Division, but so would four other teams in the NFL. They can shrug off the loss of a top quarterback (Don Meredith) and a fine fullback (Don Perkins). They will score freely and, on some Sundays, appear devastating. But they won't go all the way.
"They are a gentlemanly team," says one Eastern coach. "They don't beat you up when you play them, and they have the people who could do it. They aren't killers. If they ever develop a killer instinct, they'll spread-eagle the league and destroy any AFL team unlucky enough to play them in the Super Bowl."
The Cowboys' good manners may stem from those of Tom Landry, their head coach. Landry is a quiet, handsome man, unfailingly polite and considerate and thoughtful. He is big, balding and impressive, and he could easily be the minister for a well-heeled Methodist church, adept at getting large contributions from wealthy parishioners without wheedling, renowned for his reasoned, low-key sermons, which painlessly uplift. But he hasn't forged the intense, Lombardian desire which animates pro football dynasties. This year the Cowboys finally decided they hadn't been mean enough and told Landry to run a tough camp; but it's better if the tone is set by the tamer rather than the lions.
Unfortunately, the Capitol is essentially a one-team division. Washington and Philadelphia are starting anew under new coaches (Vince Lombardi and Jerry Williams), and New Orleans is an expansion team. Unfortunately, because by breezing to the division title the Cowboys may again become complacent, a vice which led to their interdivisional loss to Cleveland a year ago.
Despite Perkins' retirement, the Dallas running game looks even better. Dan Reeves, who sat out most of 1968 with a knee injury, is back; Walt Garrison and Les Shy should fill in ably for Perkins; and Yale's massive (6'3½", 227) Calvin Hill, the No. 1 draft choice, whose long strides belie his speed, was a stickout in the exhibition season. In Lance Rentzel and Bob Hayes (who will miss at least two games due to a shoulder separation), the Cowboys have two of the fastest wide receivers in the NFL, and Mike Ditka, obtained from Philadelphia, will reinforce the team at tight end. The offensive line, led by Tackle Ralph Neely, is agile and adept, equally capable of opening holes for the runners and protecting Quarterback Craig Morton.
If he can overcome a tendency to be erratic, Morton may actually be an improvement on Meredith. He is big, has a powerful arm capable of reaching Hayes and Rentzel on deep patterns, and he is more decisive than Dandy.
A Believable Arm
"He'll throw into the cracks of a zone," one Dallas assistant says. "He'll throw the tough passes—the sidelines. He'll take chances because he believes in his arm more than Don believed in his. He'll help us."
But Morton is an untried quarterback, still forming his personality. The quarterback and the coach make the personality of a team. If Morton can become the alter ego of Landry in the same manner that Starr was the embodiment of Lombardi on the field, the Cowboys could be phenomenal.
"I don't know what Morton's personality will be," Landry says. "He is still too busy learning the offenses and how to read defenses. A quarterback doesn't develop a personality until after he is secure in his job and in his mastery of it. When he is trying to remember plays and read defenses, he doesn't have time to express himself. I would like to see him gamble—up to a point. I don't like long-shot gambles. I like a quarterback like Starr, who takes a risk when the odds are in his favor. You don't win championships on long shots."
The Dallas defense is the same as it was a year ago—mostly devastating, but disastrous on occasion. It should be the former all the time. Bob Lilly and Jethro Pugh bulkwark a line which is quicker than the Rams'; the linebackers, with Chuck Howley on the right side, are the peers of Green Bay's, and the secondary is blooded, quick and knowledgeable. There are no obvious soft spots on the Cowboys. If they could board a streetcar named desire, the last stop would, appropriately enough, be in New Orleans at the Super Bowl.
In Washington the Redskins will have no trouble being, uh, motivated. No Lombardi-coached team has ever been less than that, but no Lombardi-coached team has ever had less defense, either.
New Guru in D.C.
Even before they reported for preseason training, the Redskins felt the presence of Lombardi. A number of veterans came in early, slim and enthusiastic. Sonny Jurgensen lost his Scotch belly and found a guru; he said he had learned more about quarterbacking in one cram session with Lombardi than he had learned in his 12 years in the league. Other Redskins, intoxicated on Lombardi's spiritual firewater, said they'll win the championship this year.
Maybe. At Green Bay, with better ore, Lombardi didn't mine a championship for two years. But, the Redskins aren't as bad as their reputation. They beat the points almost every time out last year, if not the opposition.
The Redskins will score a lot. They have Jurgensen, a superb offensive line and two of the NFL's best receivers in Charley Taylor and Jerry Smith, and one of the most publicized in Gary Beban, who has been switched to split end. But they'll miss Bobby Mitchell, who abruptly retired two weeks ago, and they have no running. Moreover, not even Lombardi can seal up the holes in the defense, and a porous defense not only gives away points, it denies the offense time and opportunity to score since the opposition has the ball most of the game. The return of 35-year-old Sam Huff could help the line-backing, but not enough, and the secondary is second-rate.
The Philadelphia Eagles will go with their new coach, Jerry Williams, who comes from the Canadian League, where he won two regular-season championships with Calgary. In 1960 he coached the defense for the Eagles, and they won the NFL title. Williams has cleaned house, both in players and assistant coaches, and he will doubtless be more efficient and successful than luckless Joe Kuharich, but he doesn't have the troops.
"I would rank Williams on a par with George Allen of the Rams or Landry for imaginative defenses," says Pete Retzlaff, the general manager of the Eagles. What Retzlaff didn't add was that reality wins ball games.
Williams has a journeyman quarterback in Norm Snead, who could be better with good coaching. Says Snead: "I learned as much about football under Mr. Kuharich as an offensive tackle." The Eagles recently acquired George Mira from the 49ers to back up Snead and they have first-rate receivers—Tight End Fred Hill (who has torn knee ligaments and will miss two games), Gary Ballman, Ben Hawkins and Harold Jackson, a 177-pound juking flier who was on the Rams' taxi squad most of last year. And they have the NFL's No. 3 rusher in bruising Tom Woodeshick, and an outside threat in Leroy Keyes.
The defensive line is strong and deep, the linebackers improved by the addition of young Tony Guillory (obtained from the Rams) and Jim Carroll (gotten from the Redskins in another trade). The secondary has little speed and only one quality player (Joe Scarpati at free safety). All told, the Eagles will be formidable only when Snead is hot and hitting his good receivers. That is not enough.
The status quo, up to a point, prevails at New Orleans, where Tom Fears is still the head coach. Fears, an intense, dark-browed, glowering man, who at one time was the best offensive end in football, came to New Orleans via Atlanta and Green Bay, and he is, in a sense, a Lombardi. Fears has the same ability to drive a team, set it afire, and he commands the same loyalty. This may pay off. He has a collection of salty veterans, promising youngsters and undeveloped rookies—and a quarterback with the indomitable spirit of a Bobby Layne.
"This is the best team we have had," Fears says. "I'm not going to say we can win it all, because I'm not a dreamer. But with a few breaks, it wouldn't be impossible."
No Harm Dreaming
At least two of his veterans are dreaming: Dave Whitsell and Billy Kilmer. Whitsell, a free safety now after a term set cornerback, played with the Bears in 1963 when they won the NFL title. "We can go all the way," he says. "We are as good or better than Philadelphia or Washington, and you know the Cowboys got to miss Meredith and Perkins. We're ready. We have more good players on this club than we had in Chicago in 1963. I feel good about us."
Quarterback Kilmer, who gives the Saints an inestimable lift, feels the same way. "We can win," says Kilmer, who is playing at 200, down 15 pounds from last year. "We got the line, the runners, the catchers, the defense. This is a hell of a club."
He could be right. The Saints, who have the killer instinct the Cowboys seem to lack, have always been tough. They have adequate runners, may get some zip from erratic Joe Don Looney, and Dan Abramowicz heads up a fine set of receivers. Their defense depends, in some measure, on how well 39-year-old Doug Atkins can accelerate from end and whether the defensive backs hold up.
Kilmer's relief may well be Edd Hargett, a sixteenth-round draft choice from Texas A&M, who seems to have edged veteran Jim Ninowski by performing some last-minute heroics in exhibitions against Atlanta and Houston. Another surprise is 268-pound Placekicker Tom Dempsey, who was born without a right hand and with only half a right foot—the one he kicks with. Dempsey really gives the ball a ride; he kicked a 54-yard field goal against Denver in an exhibition. No surprise, but welcome nonetheless, is the fact that the Saints open at home, playing their first two games against the Redskins and the Cowboys with an assured—and maniacal—crowd of 84,000 roaring them on.
"If we get off fast, we can go," says Fears. "All we need is a little luck."
With that, they can beat Philly and Washington. They will need something else against Dallas.