Don't mess with Dallas' Roger Staubach! Long thought to be a stick in the mud, Staubach turned Muhammad Ali at training camp and punched out a unanimous decision over Clint Longley. "Remember," Staubach says, "I've got five years of Navy combat training that I haven't used yet." On the field Staubach rattles defenses with his versatility: he threw 17 touchdown passes and also ran with the ball 55 times for an average gain of almost six yards. What makes Staubach doubly effective is the Cowboys' shotgun-style setup for certain plays; in fact, Staubach's only problem with the shotgun has been Cowboy Center John Fitzgerald's tendency to bounce the football back to him rather than airmail it.
With burners Terry Metcalf and Mel Gray at his disposal, Jim Hart specializes in the home-run ball for St. Louis: nine of his 19 touchdown passes in 1975 came on plays that covered more than 30 yards. But Hart also threw 19 interceptions. He blames only himself, claiming that too often he threw the ball prematurely because he was so conscious of his line's attempt to set a record for fewest sacks. In the end, Hart was sacked six times but the Cardinals only tied the record.
Washington's Bill Kilmer, in his 15th NFL season, threw a career-high 23 touchdown passes to help the 1975 Redskins camouflage their inept running attack. New York's Craig Morton was sacked a total of 49 times a year ago, but now New Jersey's Craig Morton works behind a more experienced and stronger line, featuring Guard John Hicks and Tackle Tom Mullen, and has Larry Csonka (see Newcomer) available for protection. New Philadelphia Coach Dick Vermeil has a five-year contract, so he plans to sink or swim with inexperienced Mike Boryla. This year, at least, it will be glub, glub, glub for the Eagles.
September 12, 1976
Desperate for running backs to work with Mike Thomas, last season's rookie find who gained 919 yards, the Redskins paid dearly for free agents John Riggins, who gained 1,000 yards for the Jets, and Calvin Hill, a 1,000-yard man with Dallas in 1972 and 1973. They also purchased former Cowboy Tight End Jean Fugett. What the Redskins need now is help—or health—up front. Injuries have crippled the line the last two seasons. Guard is particularly worrisome. Walt Sweeney (knee) is already lost for the season. Terry Hermeling moves over from tackle, but he missed all of 1974 and part of 1975 with a bad knee. George Allen obtained Ron Saul from Houston, but he has been injured in four of his six pro years. Finally, Paul Laaveg wrecked his knee during preseason. Still, Allen hopes to run Thomas, Riggins and Hill at least 60% of the time, partly because Charley Taylor, the NFL's alltime leading receiver, will be sidelined until November with a shoulder dislocation and fracture.
"For some reason, everyone thinks we throw the ball all the time," says St. Louis Coach Don Coryell. "We don't." In fact, working behind the best line in the NFC (Center Tom Banks, Right Guard Conrad Dobler and Right Tackle Dan Dierdorf started side by side in the Pro Bowl), Jim Otis rushed for an NFC-high 1,076 yards and Terry Metcalf (see Key Player) for 816 more as the Cardinals kept defenses alert by running the ball six plays out of 10. When the defenses moved up, Hart unloosed his bombs to Metcalf and Gray; 18 of Gray's 28 career touchdowns have been on plays of more than 40 yards.
"This year our offense will carry the team while our new defensive players learn to play together," says Dallas Tackle Ralph Neely, who anchors the Cowboys' experienced line. Dallas has a bevy of runners, including Robert Newhouse (930 yards), Charles Young, Preston Pearson and free agents Ron Johnson and Duane Thomas. As Minnesota to its enduring sorrow remembers, Drew Pearson is a clutch deep receiver, and a healthy Billy Joe DuPree takes over for the departed Fugett at tight end. Backup Quarterback Danny White will replace Mitch Hoopes as the punter; he averaged 45.1 yards per punt in the WFL in 1975.
In a stretch of five games last season, the Giants had first and goal 11 times but scored just three field goals. That's nine points out of a possible 77. Hello, Larry Csonka! Rookie Gordon Bell of Michigan provides the Giants with the outside running speed they have always lacked. Philadelphia's new playbook is five inches thick and weighs some 18 pounds. Still, Boryla's best plays will be passes to Tight End Charlie Young, who signs autographs: "Charlie Young, 86. All-Pro."
Last season 6'4", 245-pound Randy White was the Kamikaze-style leader of Dallas' Dirty Dozen, those 12 rookies who infected the staid old Cowboys with youthful enthusiasm and derring-do. White always seemed to be the first Cowboy downfield on punts and kickoffs, and was at the bottom of most pileups. A defensive end at Maryland. White now shares more and more time in the Dallas middle with 14-year veteran Lee Roy Jordan. White may commit youthful blunders, and canny quarterbacks may befuddle him, but he plays with a Butkus-like style and attitude. Jordan still is Cool Hand Luke, always in the right place at the right time.
Washington and St. Louis both are weak at this position. Harold McLinton of the Redskins has always performed inconsistently. The Cardinals moved last season's regular, Mark Arneson, to the outside and set up a training-camp dogfight between Rodrigo Barnes and Greg Hartle. In the end, Hartle won the job with his overall aggressiveness. New York's Brian Kelley may lose his job to rookie Harry Carson, who had 30 sacks last year at South Carolina State and made good on a preseason promise to sack Joe Namath in the Giants-Jets exhibition. Philadelphia's Bill Bergey looks like the thinner of the Smith brothers; he has dropped from 250 to 240 pounds, and grown a thick beard. Considering the Eagles' pathetic attack, he will probably lose another 10 or 15 pounds chasing down rival ballcarriers for 40 minutes each game.
The Cardinals have completely revamped last season's ragtag unit that had only 24 sacks, gave up 4.0 yards per rush and spent far too much time on the field. Don Coryell has brought in several new starters and two fresh assistant coaches. Kansas City's Marvin Upshaw, Atlanta's John Zook and top draft choice Mike Dawson will help holdover Ron Yankowski provide an instant pass rush. The 6'4", 270-pound Dawson likes to hunt javelinas, then cook his catch. "They smell like skunks," he says, "but are real good eating." Cincinnati's Al Beau-champ bolsters the linebacker corps, and Kansas City's Mike Sensibaugh adds experience at safety. St. Louis remains solid at both cornerback spots, where Norm Thompson (seven interceptions) and Roger Wehrli (six) are the best tandem in the NFC.
Washington's defense was worse than St. Louis', but Allen has made few changes. He traded—naturally—for Philadelphia Cornerback Joe Lavender, who replaces the retired Mike Bass; Miami Safety Jake Scott; and Kansas City Defensive End John Matuszak, a disappointment and a problem since he was the NFL's No. 1 draft pick in 1973. But age may finally have caught up with the Redskins. End Ron McDole, Cornerback Pat Fischer and Linebacker Chris Han-burger are 37, 36 and 35, respectively, and Allen does not have capable backups. Washington probably will start six players who are 31 or over.
Besides Randy White, Dallas will work three other fresh faces into its lineup. Second-year Linebacker Bob Breunig replaces the retired Dave Edwards; Thomas Henderson will play some outside linebacker; and rookie Aaron Kyle of Wyoming spells both aging Mel Renfro and Mark Washington—burned badly by Lynn Swann in the Super Bowl—at cornerback. Coach Tom Landry, a masterful defensive tactician, worries that his Cowboys will suffer from too much inexperience. While his system is not overly complicated, it is difficult for young players to grasp because it places a premium on controlling areas rather than searching out the ball. In a rare—for Landry—concession, though, he will let Ends Ed (Too Tall) Jones and Harvey (Too Mean) Martin free-lance more often. "We are about three years away from having a great defense," says Landry.
Both the Eagles and the Giants have to upgrade lines that neither stopped the run nor pressured quarterbacks. Tackle John Mendenhall of the Giants seems healthy after ankle problems, but Coach Bill Arnsparger cannot decide whether to play No. 1 draft choice Troy Archer inside at tackle or outside at end. Brad Van Pelt finally has found a permanent job at linebacker, though, after bouncing all over the lineup.
Tom Landry, once known as Plastic Man. has loosened up. He occasionally tells jokes, and he has even been seen cheering on the sidelines. New York's Arnsparger, who is in the final year of his contract, has the NFL's toughest schedule: Washington, Los Angeles, St. Louis. Dallas. Minnesota and Pittsburgh are among the Giants' first seven foes. Philadelphia's Vermeil must escape the basement without having a first-or second-round draft choice for the next three years. Fortunately, he has his five-year contract for a reported $850,000. He may not have Charles Young next season: the tight end was miffed when Vermeil ordered him to report to camp six pounds lighter than his regular 238, and now he wants a $250,000-per-year contract—or else he'll exercise his option. George Allen paid top dollar (an estimated $2.5 million) for his star free agents but angered veteran Redskins by trying to economize on their contracts. Allen is in the sixth year of a seven-year contract, and if the Redskins miss the playoffs again, management may get the itch to unload him.
On paper the Cowboys. On schedules the Redskins. But on the field the Cardinals, for the third straight season.
The Cardinals call Terry Metcalf "The Franchise," showing sound logic. Despite sitting out one game last season, Metcalf set an NFL record by producing 2,462 net yards. He scored nine touchdowns running, two as a receiver, one on a punt return and one on a kickoff return, and he threw for another score. Metcalf is such a threat that the Cardinals often decoy him to open up the rest of their attack. They frequently swing Metcalf wide, knowing that he'll occupy the outside linebacker, thus preventing that linebacker from providing double coverage on a receiver downfield. "Our whole passing theory is to move linebackers out of zones," says Quarterback Hart. "Once we've removed a linebacker, we have a wide receiver one-on-one against a defensive back and should be able to complete every pass."
"The run was a little out of balance here last year," observes Larry Csonka in a tactful bit of understatement. "And that's where I figure in." The figure that lured Csonka to the Giants was $1.5 million, and he already has helped the team get a return on its investment: the new 76,500-seat Giants Stadium in the New Jersey meadowlands has been sold out for the schedule. All the Giants want from the 240-pound Csonka is what he consistently gave the Miami Dolphins: hard, inside, 1,000-yards-a-year running, solid blocking and a contagious winning attitude. "On third and three now, the linebackers will have to freeze for a moment," says Quarterback Craig Morton. "Last year they dropped to their pass coverage right away because they knew we couldn't run and had to throw."