The old refrain was: there are only two teams in the NFC East, there are only two teams in the...Dallas and Washington, Washington and Dallas; the order doesn't make any difference. From 1971 to 1973 the East had but two representatives in the playoffs—the Cowboys and the Redskins. And the experts predicted that 1974 would be yet another chorus of the same old tune.
Well, it wasn't. The St. Louis Cinderellas not only made it into the playoffs but won the division with a 10-4 record. With the team coming off three straight 4-9-1 seasons, NFL Coach of the Year Don Coryell in his second year at St. Louis played Professor Higgins to the Cardinals' Eliza Doolittle, enabling St. Louis to make the playoffs for the first time since 1948.
Peering out from beneath his bushy red eyebrows, Coryell looks faintly satanic as he sizes up 1975: "From a pure talent standpoint, we cannot match up to many of the good NFL teams. We're going to have to fight for our lives in every game." Last year whether the Cardinals were letting big leads evaporate ("We lack the killer instinct," says Quarterback Jim Hart) or winning in the final minute, they were an unfailingly exciting team.
The biggest generator of Cardinal excitement is a 5'10", 185-pound soft-spoken running back named Terry Metcalf. Last year, which was only his second season, Metcalf racked up a club-record 2,058 yards of total offense. Whenever he got the ball—whether on the ground or in the air—he moved it. He is known to some teammates as the Franchise. But if he is the Cards' biggest asset, in one sense he is also their biggest liability. St. Louis was 10-0 with a 100% Metcalf and 0-4 with a subpar one. One of Coryell's biggest tasks is to find someone who can give Terry a rest, and it could be the 11th-round draft pick, Jerry Latin. Jim Otis (664 yards rushing last year) complements Metcalf at fullback.
Completing the backfield is the forever-boyish Hart. If he continues to get intercepted about as often as he shaves, St. Louis should do just fine. Hart threw the ball 388 times last season and led the conference in TD passes (20) and completions (200). But the Cards' backups are untested; so an injury to Hart could prove disastrous. Rounding out an offense that had a league-low 17 turnovers, All-Pro Mel Gray leads an excellent bunch of receivers, and 280-pound Tackle Dan Dierdorf anchors a line that allowed the fewest QB sacks (16) in the NFL.
Eleven starters are returning to a defense that improved in just about every category in 1974. For example, points allowed were down from 365 to 218. Defensive Ends Council Rudolph and Ron Yankowski head a rapidly improving line, and Roger Wehrli provides All-Pro cornerbacking. With a little luck, a lot of Metcalf and a dash of killer instinct the Cardinals just might repeat.
"Repeat" is one thing the Dallas Cowboys do not want to do. The Cowboys had their poorest record (8-6) since 1965 and missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years. Tom Landry, the only coach the Cowboys have ever had, no longer can call on the running game that led the NFL in total yards (2,454) and average gain (4.5) in 1974. This year Quarterback Roger Staubach may find himself handing off to a pair of ghosts. Wraith No. 1 is Calvin Hill, the Cowboys' leading rusher for the past three years, who defected to the WFL. The second specter is workhorse Walt Garrison, who tore up a knee while riding in a rodeo exhibition for his snuff sponsor. Compact (5'10") Robert Newhouse (501 yards last year) is the only proven runner left. If the running game falters, Landry may resort to the shotgun or spread formation that he experimented with during the preseason.
Staubach, the NFL passing leader in 1971 and 1973, is coming off a so-so season in which he was hampered by an injured ankle and bruised ribs. He is ably backed up by explosive Clint (Mad Bomber) Longley. All-Pro Drew Pearson, who grabbed 62 passes for a conference-leading 1,087 yards last year, will be their primary target.
Dallas' defensive line is led by two towering bookends, Ed (Too Tall) Jones and Harvey (Too Mean) Martin, 6'9" and 6'5", respectively. Landry hopes the Tall & Mean Duo, who played only on obvious passing downs last year, will help solidify a line that reached a five-year nadir in fumble recoveries.
Linebacking is essentially unchanged, but everybody's All-America and Dallas' first draft pick, Randy White (6'4", 245), might break into the lineup at this position. The defensive secondary, last in the conference in interceptions last year, must improve.
The official NFL poster for the Washington Redskins shows George Washington crossing the Delaware wearing a Skins' helmet. Now George would be 243 years old this summer, which is how old most of the Over the Hill Gang seem to be. Washington, supposedly, has been too old for a long time. Is this finally the year? Maybe. For starters, Redskin fans will be looking in vain for the comforting sight of No. 9 this fall. After 18 years of throwing footballs in the NFL, Sonny Jurgensen is gone. A sprightly 40 last year, Sonny paced the conference with a 64.1 completion percentage. A passing attack that led the NFL with 2,978 yards was often spurred by Sonny coming off the bench. Bill Kilmer actually threw more passes but he lacks the charisma and inspiration of a Jurgensen. Kilmer does have excellent receivers, headed up by Charley Taylor, who needs only 52 receptions to be the alltime NFL leader.
Kilmer's crusade will not be aided by a running game that was 23rd in the league last season and is still in desperate straits. Larry Brown (only 430 yards) will probably not be at full strength this year. Injury-prone but valuable Larry Smith has retired. And Duane Thomas, who asked for a raise of more than $100,000, might be working on the Alaska pipeline, where they can afford him. Free agent Ralph Nelson and Mike Thomas, the Skins' first draft pick (in the fifth round), are two of the prospects George Allen is trying at running back.
Defense is a different story, with 10 of 11 starters returning. (Verlon Biggs is out for the season.) Second only to the Steelers last year, the Redskins gave up just 234.6 yards per game and led their conference with 25 interceptions. Everywhere there is experience—and age. Pat Fischer, Ron McDole and Chris Hanburger are only a few of the elders who will be working hard to prove they're not too ancient.
Veteran Redskin watchers say the spirit of '72—when Washington made the Super Bowl—is gone, and there is growing disenchantment with George Allen. Regardless, after four straight years in the playoffs, Allen has labeled this season as the "Drive for Five." With an assist from the schedule makers, the Redskins stand a chance.
"We are slowly building a good team," says Eagle Coach Mike McCormack. Philadelphia has improved from 2-11-1 to 7-7 in McCormack's two seasons. But its 1975 schedule includes only three teams that were under .500 last year, so McCormack may be right when he says, "We could be a much better football team and have a worse record."
The offensive burden rests largely on the shoulders of Quarterbacks Mike Boryla and Roman Gabriel, a sprinkling of gray in his preseason beard hinting at his 35 years. After a super season in 1973, Gabe ranked behind every other full-time quarterback in his division in 1974 and Boryla took over late in the year. Neither will have any trouble locating the receivers. The Fire High Gang (Harold Carmichael, Charles Young and Don Zimmerman), who average 6'5", hauled in 149 passes last year.
McCormack has made nine trades since August 1974, mostly in efforts to bolster the rushing game—the NFC's worst—and a weak offensive line that allowed as many as nine sacks in a single game. One of the trades brought in Horst Muhlmann from Cincinnati, who will kick field goals in place of Tom Dempsey, now in Los Angeles.
The reason for the Eagles' defensive resurgence, which saw them give up 176 fewer points than in 1973, can be put in two words: Bill Bergey. Bergey is probably the best middle linebacker in the game. Insiders say that McCormack must make the playoffs this year to keep his job. That is both unfair and unlikely.
There was a sign in the New York Giants' preseason locker room that read: BEFORE THE WHISTLE BLOWS...ALL ARE EQUAL. It's what happens after the whistle blows that counts, though. The Giants have won just four games in the past two seasons, and last year they developed a new trick: the Last Second Loss. But if the Giants can stay healthy and persuade their opponents to play 59-minute games, they could be "competitive"—one of Head Coach Bill Arnsparger's stated goals.
A hale Ron Johnson at running back is vital to New York's sputtering offense. If he has another 1,000-yard season and if he catches 40 Craig Morton tosses, the Giants have a chance. Morton is starting his first full season with the Giants, and he is optimistic. "This is not a 2-12 team and we're going to prove it," he says. New York has a fine front four, headed up by its only All-NFC selection last year, 255-pound John Mendenhall. But the rest of the defense has a long way to go.
The Giants had a strong preseason, including a 24-7 pasting of Pittsburgh, which might be a good sign. On the other hand, they had a 6-0 preseason two years ago and finished 2-11-1. So much for good signs.