It's fashionable these days to downgrade Dallas. No more Roger Staubach, too many injuries in the secondary. That might be a mistake. It's also fashionable to be bullish on Philadelphia, which might be a mistake, too. The Eagles are spirited but thin. But how about WASHINGTON? It might be a big mistake to forget about the Redskins.
It was only Coach Jack Pardee's humanity toward his fellowman that kept the Redskins out of the playoffs last year. There were a couple of games in which Pardee could have run up the score at the end, but he didn't. And when the smoke had cleared from Washington's 35-34 defeat at Dallas. Pardee had also lost an NFC wild-card spot to the Bears on the point differential formula—by four points. Said Pardee, "Today we lost a doubleheader."
Would Pardee run it up if he had the chance to do it again? No, he says. Anyway, this year the Redskins could make the playoffs by the front door. Pardee traded away his leading pass-catcher, Danny Buggs, clearing the way for the Skins' first No. 1 pick in 12 years. Art Monk, a big, strong wide receiver from Syracuse. He could do what Charley Taylor did for 13 years in Washington: make the tough catches. John Riggins, the ninth-leading rusher in NFL history, staged a contract holdout from camp, and he was placed on the retired list earlier this week. Cynics had said, "Don't worry, he'll be back," but Pardee was smarter. Two weeks ago the Skins acquired Wilbur Jackson, a 780-yard rusher in 1977, from San Francisco. Joe Theismann, the NFL's second-ranked passer last year, operates behind a line that is O.K. Not great, O.K.
If the Redskin offense is competent, the defense remains a puzzle. Last season Washington was up with the NFC leaders in sacks, interceptions and lowest pass percentage, but had trouble stopping the big play. The Skins allowed 44 gains of 20 yards or more, and Staubach torpedoed them in the finale. Two new faces belong to Jeris White, a solid cornerback from Tampa Bay, and Mike Nelms, a quality safetyman who played three years in Canada.
Dallas opens against Washington in the season's first Monday night TV game, which may turn out to be a break for the Redskins, because the Cowboys' secondary is a damaged group. Three of the starting four—Benny Barnes, Aaron Kyle and Charlie Waters—are coming off operations; the fourth, Free Safety Randy Hughes, who hastened Cliff Harris' retirement, has a dislocated shoulder.
Solution: a dominating front line. Last year it was in a state of flux, not flex, and, for the first time since the early expansion years, was pushed around. So were the linebackers. Too Tall Jones was in the ring, and Hollywood Henderson was shipped out. The opposition loaded up on the strong side and the Cowboys were overrun.
Coach Tom Landry took a careful look at the stat sheets, and now is running the defense himself, leaving the offensive play-calling to Dan Reeves. Too Tall is back not a moment too soon. Landry says he is "not worried about our pass rush." That pronouncement from Mr. Conservative should send up distress flags around the league. No one can remember Landry ever being satisfied with a pass rush, even in the Bob Lilly days.
Let's pronounce the Dallas defense acceptable, even with a battered secondary, even with a strong side linebacker, Mike Hegman, who makes a lot of mistakes. But who will carry the offense now that Roger's gone? Danny White has always been a competent backup, but he's never had to play No. 1 in the NFL. The Cowboy line is of the finesse type, not a blowout unit, but the attack will be one of the swiftest in football if Ron Springs, a 4.6 sprinter, beats out Robert Newhouse at fullback. Tony Dorsett may well carry the ball 25 to 30 times a game, and White probably will throw to his backs more than Staubach did.
If the Cowboys are really beginning a minor slide, recent drafts may be the reason. Jones was the first player picked in the entire NFL in 1974; Dorsett and Randy White were the second picks in their years, 1977 and 1975, respectively. But for the past two seasons the draft has yielded virtually nothing for the Cowboys, and thus it is that dynasties become history.
In PHILADELPHIA, the Eagles have had eight months to think about the way Tampa Bay manhandled them in the playoffs. Let's try a "what if?" What if Bill Bergey had been healthy for that game, if he'd been in there at inside linebacker whipping and driving and throwing his body around? Would the Eagles have gone down so meekly? Probably not. And would they have come up so flat against Washington in RFK Stadium? Or against the Bears in the wild-card playoff, a game Chicago could easily have won? Not likely. Bergey was lost for the season in the third game, but he's back now after some heroic rehab work on his knee. He's also 35, but Dick Vermeil is one of those motivational-inspirational coaches who can see the value of having a driving force like Bergey on the field, even if he might be a step or two slower than a Jerry Robinson.
The Eagles are an emotional team, one of peaks and valleys; you never know when they will come up flat. That was one of Vermeil's concerns during the off-season. Another was the Eagles' lack of depth.
Philadelphia is well fixed at linebacker and on the defensive line, where Middle Guard Charlie Johnson is one of the NFL's best—and most underrated. But there are far too many do-it-all people on the club. If Wilbert Montgomery gets hurt, there goes the running attack. If it's Harold Carmichael, the passing game is in big trouble. Ditto Ron Jaworski at quarterback, although ex-Giant Joe Pisarcik gives Vermeil a better backup than he's ever had.
Vermeil had to replace ancient Bobby Howard at left cornerback, and has found a winner there in No. 1 draft pick Roynell Young. Perry Harrington, drafted to take over from Leroy Harris at fullback, has been inactive because of a bruised thigh. Right Guard Woody Peoples is 37, but no one's been able to replace him. And Philadelphia will open the season with Tight End Keith Krepfle out for two or three games with a separated shoulder.
The Bud Wilkinson experiment didn't work, so now ST. LOUIS has gone the other way, the time-tested way, by choosing a high-level assistant coach to take over. Jim Hanifan's credentials are impressive, particularly on offense. As the architect of Don Coryell's offensive line at St. Louis, he created a unit that tied an alltime record for keeping the quarterback vertical, allowing only eight sacks in 1975. As Coryell's first lieutenant on offense last year, Hanifan helped coordinate a San Diego passing attack that generated the NFL's second-highest total yardage ever.
Clearly, the Cards under Hanifan will be a fun team to watch, with O.J. Anderson running to daylight behind Dan Dierdorf's blocks, O.J. catching those little Terry Metcalf-type swing passes from Jim Hart (Hanifan promises plenty of those this year), Mel Gray streaking downfield for a long one, Steve Little keeping the fans guessing on every place-kick. But even in their good years the Cards followed a pattern of flashy offense and desperate defense, and that's the way they look now. Here and there are some interesting new faces. Top draft choice Curtis Greer could be an early-season starter at defensive end. Also, the strong play of young linebackers Calvin Favron, Charles Baker and John Barefield has turned a former trouble spot into a strength. Certainly Roger Wehrli is one of the greatest cornerbacks the game has seen. The Cards are coming off two good drafts. One more, particularly on defense, and they should be there.
Ray Perkins walks the halls of Giants Stadium with an expression in his deep-set eyes that his NEW YORK players have come to call The Look. It isn't a happy look. On the Monday after a loss to Pittsburgh in the first exhibition game, Perkins put his troops through a wicked 45-play full-contact scrimmage. That night they called a players-only meeting, the tone of which was serious.
Perkins is subject to moods, to depressions. "The loneliness of command," says General Manager George Young. Under Perkins, the Giants did some unusual things last year. They beat the Rams in L.A. They beat Tampa Bay exactly the way you're not supposed to—by outmuscling the Bucs on the ground. When they played the Cowboys in Dallas, the Giant players followed the captains out for the coin toss and hurled taunts at America's Team. You wondered whether they'd be introducing the seniors next. But the Giants pulled an el foldo at the end, and the Colts ran it up on them in the last game.
Certainly there is no timidity in Perkins. Starters he felt didn't pull their weight have been cut loose; hustling rookies have been given the long look.
In 1979 Perkins drafted a quarterback no one had ever heard of, and now Phil Simms looks like the first good one the Giants have developed all by themselves since Charlie Conerly. Perkins cut Doug Van Horn and a sore-kneed Ron Mikolajczyk from a very green and inexperienced offensive line this summer, and he dropped last year's fullback, Ken Johnson, to make room for a San Diego question mark, Bo Matthews.
The heart of the team is still the fine linebacking trio of Brad Van Pelt, Harry Carson and Brian Kelley, and a defense that can, on occasion, rise up and play inspired football—but only on occasion. And that's why Ray Perkins walks the halls.
ST. LOUIS 7-9
NEW YORK GIANTS 5-11