"What we got here is one big fat cat surrounded by four scrawny alley cats," says a player on one of the have nots in the National East. "Each week we'll have to scratch and scrap to stay alive, to keep Dallas in sight, because if any of us can do that the Cowboys can be had. I don't think they can stand the heat."
What a division! St. Louis Coach Charley Winner is on a one-year pass after yet another disastrous season. In Washington, Bill Austin has taken over for the late Vince Lombardi, and how does anyone replace that worthy man? Alex Webster is finishing the last year of a caretaker reign with New York, a town that demands a winner. Philadelphia's Jerry Williams finished last in 1969 (4-9-1) and it was only a few years back that the fans cried for Joe Kuharich's scalp after he took the Eagles to the Runner-Up Bowl.
Even Tom Landry of Dallas, who has won four straight division titles—but no championships—is on the hot seat. It won't be enough for the Cowboys to win the division; they'll have to go on from there. If they do, it will probably be up to Roger Staubach. Craig Morton just hasn't developed into a leader and, although he has a strong arm and a quick delivery, he is slow setting up, as well as being a plodding runner. Staubach likes to scramble and is the better ball handler. As it turns out, Morton may be a victim of the trend. The Cowboys will use the I and Landry has added his own innovation, a "Flying Flankerback," which places Flanker Lance Rentzel in the empty backfield spot of any formation. The changes support the preference of the more mobile Staubach.
With an unequaled wealth of talent, the Cowboys were able to shift All-Pro Tackle Ralph Neely to guard and replace him with Rayfield Wright and return Dave Manders to center—the job he lost three seasons ago—without affecting the precision of the offensive unit. The running is in the capable feet (if weak right big toe) of Calvin Hill. Wide Receivers Rentzel and Bob Hayes are able to outstride most secondaries, and so the long pass remains the Cowboys' best—if overused—threat.
The team would have been better served had Landry concentrated on defense. This has been Dallas' failing in crucial games. The fault isn't in the personnel except for a possible weakness in the secondary, which is bolstered by the addition of Herb Adderley, who was obtained from Green Bay. The trouble comes from an overly sophisticated system that seems to get in the way of the talent.
The Cowboys use man-to-man on one side and zone on the other, plus variations. The effect is confusion, particularly when they face clever quarterbacks. The signs of disorder can be seen in the breakdown in coverage on circle patterns. Dallas' gap defense has been all but impenetrable against the run, particularly traps, but the few teams that forget about fancy stuff and have the strength and the heart to go to man-to-man blocking against the Cowboys can move the ball on the ground.
Until his sudden death, Vince Lombardi seemed destined to lead the Redskins onward and upward. "I can't be Vince Lombardi but I can holler just as loud," says Bill Austin, who is getting an unexpected second chance at head coaching. Yelling won't turn the Redskins on, but Austin doesn't have to worry about motivating his team. Washington would obviously like to win one for Mr. Lombardi, the one being a division title—and it may do just that. It already beat Baltimore after 18 straight defeats. Austin took over a team that has yet to develop the discouraging toughness associated with Lombardi's 4-3 defenses. The fault lies in an effete rush line, and this in turn complicates the dominant man-to-man coverage. Although the linebacking is improved, it still isn't up to carrying on the constant reddogging it takes to compensate for the failure of the front four.
"Our offense is something else," says a Redskin cryptically but proudly. What he really means is that Sonny Jurgensen gets better with age and the worse his arm feels. Jurgensen, obviously, was never older and, if his complaints can be believed, his arm never hurt more. Ergo: he is at the top of his game. Furthermore, he has the receivers. Jerry Smith, Charley Taylor and Bob Long are fast enough to catch up with the ball on the fly patterns and tough enough to hold it on square-ins. What more could a quarterback want? For years Jurgensen wanted a competent ballcarrier. Then Lombardi developed Larry Brown and Charley Harraway, and between them they rushed for 1,316 yards.
The issue in New York is whether Alex Webster can revive the Giants. Webster was hired to heal the wounds that festered in the last frantic years of Allie Sherman. This he has done. "The Giants are no longer a travel terminal, a stopover for every waived player," says one player. "Now the guys are together and they want to play and win for New York." Fortunately, Webster has shown more than a knack for harmonizing. With no pretensions to being a genius, he listens to his first-class assistants and runs the team as the chairman of a voting board of directors.
Webster concentrated on defensive players in the college draft and picked Jim Files, a very promising middle linebacker, and Wes Grant, a defensive end who will team with Fred Dryer, until now the only consistent rusher. Grant, however, will miss at least five games due to fractured vertebrae. The secondary is excellent but is often run to exhaustion covering receivers close and deep—particularly in the second half when the rush falters. The solution lies midway between better conditioning, which was hurt by the strike, and easing the pressure. Here the Giants got lucky. They picked up Bill Johnson, a booming punter out of the wilds of the Continental League. The Giants figure they lost five games last season because of shaky play by the special teams. Johnson's strong foot and better-disciplined performances from the specials will cut back on the errors.
Out of Pocket
But Webster's future, as well as the team's, rides on the quick arm and pitter-pattering feet of Fran Tarkenton. In this respect the Giants' coach has shown more perception—or is it courage?—than either Sherman or Norm Van Brocklin, both of whom merely tolerated Tarkenton's style instead of exploiting it. Webster has geared the entire offense to the scrambling quarterback. The Giants will run from the I and use more play-action passes. "The idea is to take Tarkenton out of the pocket more often so that he can keep the defenses guessing—shake up their rush." says Webster, who recognizes Tarkenton's mastery of the blitz, a result of exceptional peripheral vision and quick release. At times it was hard to see, since Fran appeared to be playing singles, but that was out of necessity. Now he has playmates: Wide Receivers Rich Houston and Clifton McNeil (from San Francisco) and Running Back Ron Johnson (from Cleveland), whose reputed speed may force the linebackers to keep their distance.
Philadelphia and St. Louis will be a threat only to their coaches. Charley Winner has more problems than Mayor Lindsay and one-quarter of the time to find solutions. Once again the Cardinals are riven by cliques, dissension and unrest—or worse. The worse was the antifootball guru, Linebacker Dave Meggyesy, and his disciple, Guard Rick Sortun. With only a one-year contract, Winner cleaned house. Ten Cards left. Some were cut, others were traded and Meggyesy and Sortun decided football was no longer relevant and quit.
Unrest boiled over because the team had split loyalties toward Quarterbacks Charley Johnson and Jim Hart. Johnson was traded to Houston and most of his older partisans arc gone. Now it is claimed peace and harmony prevail. No way. It's a lull.
Winner's surgery left things a mess. The rush line is a complete hash, with Chuck Walker, its best man, playing out of position on the outside. Don Parish, Meggyesy's replacement, is a rookie from Stanford, while Middle Linebacker Jamie Rivers is injury-prone and has yet to complete a season. The Cards hoped to have a new middle linebacker but their No. 2 draft pick, Jim Corrigall from Kent State, was disturbed by the nation's violence and signed to play in Canada for $25,000 less. The secondary, once tough man-to-man sharpshooters, is now playing mostly zone or combinations. The Johnson trade brought Cornerback Miller Farr to the Cardinals and he teams with second-year man Roger Wehrli, who began brilliantly, was burned a few times, then tended to lay back.
The one positive factor is the establishment of Hart as the Cards' leader. "You could feel Hart's insecurity in the huddle last year," says a lineman. "He'd look to the older players to make decisions. Now he's head honcho." Hart agrees. "Until now I've been playing scared, looking to the bench whenever a play was stopped," he says. "Now I know what I must do to succeed, to move the team."
He certainly has brilliant receivers and strong running backs to call upon, but the offensive line, which had been the team's great strength, is playing two new men in the middle and the coordination so far is not good. It's just not in the Cards this year.
The Eagles' Jerry Williams, smart and low-key, has a sense of humor. He'll need it. His offensive line has been described as being as effective as bears on skates. Norm Snead has had the bruises to prove the point. Even when he had a better line Snead wasn't agile enough to avoid the rush. But then he insists on the longer, more time-consuming calls. This weakness has to be in his head, not his arm, which is strong and accurate. He never learned, despite frequent interceptions, not to force the long plays, but to go to the underzones.
Aye, Aye for the I
Exit Snead and enter George Mira, the aggressive Miami scrambler. "I'm full of hope," says Mira. It also helps that Williams, along with the rest of the league, is moving to Mira's style, to the I formation, to the bootleg and the play-action pass—tactics that stall the rush and keep the defenses in front of the quarterback, where he wants them.
"By nature I am an optimist, and so I feel we will definitely be improved," says Williams. Last year the Eagles won four games on toughness and spirit alone. It's the same formula for 1970.