Gloom is something that isn't allowed in Dallas. It isn't in the computer. It isn't in the game plan. Yet it hung heavy after the 49ers' last-minute drive in the NFC championship game stopped the favored Cowboys short of the Super Bowl—the third straight year Dallas had suffered such an indignity.
The next day one of Cowboy General Manager Tex Schramm's friends walked into Schramm's office and noticed him smoking a cigarette for the first time in 12 years.
"As bad as that, huh?" the guy said.
"Yeah, as bad as that," Schramm said, "and if you've got anything stronger I'll take it."
On the flight home from San Francisco Tom Landry was asked about his defensive alignment when the 49ers had scored their winning touchdown, a six-yard, third-down pass play. Why had the Cowboys been in their regular defense instead of the nickel, the pass defense? "I don't know why Ernie had that defense in there," Landry said, reminding people that it was Defensive Coordinator Ernie Stautner who called the defenses.
But the truth remains that the 49ers traveled 89 yards to claw their way into the Super Bowl; that when the Cowboys had their run defense on the field, San Francisco passed on it; that when the nickel appeared, the 49ers ran against it—and this was a defense that contained six people who had played in the Pro Bowl at one time or another.
Something was basically wrong. The last two years, the Cowboy defense has finished in the bottom half of the NFL ratings; the last three, it has been carried by the offense. In the off-season one of Landry's veterans had some suggestions. He told the coach that perhaps the Cowboys' flex was outmoded; that it was a waste of God-given talent to put a Randy White in a frog stance half the time and have him play the run; that Landry ought to think about turning White and Ed Jones loose for a while; and that maybe he ought to think about getting out of the 4-3 while he was at it.
"All of a sudden I got a look at Tom's face and I stopped cold," the guy said. "He just froze me where I sat."
But Landry did some thinking in the off-season. He saw what his all-out pass rush did to Tampa Bay in the divisional playoff game, turning the Bucs upside down 38-0. He knows that stopping the run is no longer the name of the game in the NFL, and perhaps if he makes his flex more flexible and lets his magnificent front four go full bore some of the time it might offset some of the deficiencies in the back seven.
The company line is: So what if our defense gave up a lot of yards? It still didn't give up many points or touchdowns, and it led the NFL in interceptions. And the answer to that is that Dallas kept opponents from scoring by going into a nickel defense earlier than other teams would—and the opposition has been successful running against that nickel for three years. The Cowboys' flex always had been close to the top at stopping the run, but in the last three years their rushing defense finished 11th, 18th and 16th. Yep, there's something basically wrong there.
The draft produced five defenders in the first five picks, none of them a lineman. No starters are imminent, although the No. 1 selection, Cornerback Rod Hill, might be the return man. Two vets, Safety Charlie Waters and Linebacker D.D. Lewis, retired, but they will be replaced from within, by Benny Barnes and Guy Brown.
The offense is still pretty. Quarterback Danny White and Running Back Tony Dorsett are poised for their greatest years; the big league receiving corps—Drew Pearson, Tony Hill, Butch Johnson—will be aided by an emerging star at tight end, Doug Cosbie; and the offensive line remains intact. Vegas had the Cowboys as the winter-book Super Bowl favorite, at 4-1, and they're a logical choice to reach the playoff's for the 16th time in the last 17 years. After that, who knows?
Late November 1981: Weather turns chilly in Philadelphia. So does the Eagles' offense. Four straight games, four straight losses. Goodby, division title. Second halves were a problem. The Eagles scored three points—total—in those four second halves. The passing was a problem. Ron Jaworski threw nine interceptions in the four games, and in no contest in that stretch did he complete more than 50% of his passes.
There was a brief moment of glory in the final game against St. Louis, but then a quick exit against the Giants in the wild card game. Goodby, 1981.
"The only thing I can do is win the Super Bowl," a bitter Coach Dick Vermeil said after that last loss. "Anything less, then I'm an idiot. Either my program isn't good enough or my quarterback isn't good enough or I should change my receivers."
The program remains the same. Some observers thought they noticed a slight easing of the work load in summer camp, but not all the vets agreed, and one of them, three-time Pro Bowl Middle Guard Charlie Johnson, announced his departure—he ultimately moved to the Vikings—while he was still able to get more mileage out of his legs.
Vermeil did change his receivers, replacing Tight End Keith Krepfle and Wide Receiver Charlie Smith with his first three draft choices, Mike Quick, Lawrence Sampleton and Vyto Kab. And for his quarterback, Vermeil brought in a 70-year-old security blanket named Sid Gillman. According to 49er Coach Bill Walsh, Gillman has done more to revolutionize the passing game than any man alive.
Gillman, who returns after a one-year retirement, molded Jaworski into a Pro Bowl performer and the NFL's second-rated passer in 1980, the Eagles' Super Bowl year. Now the talk is of a different passing concept—shorter routes, quicker patterns—but insiders are wondering if Gillman will run the pass offense or if it'll be a group effort.
Philadelphia performs the basics very well. Owner Leonard Tose isn't afraid to spend money. The Eagles can bring in all the free agents they want. They spend freely on equipment, the latest rehabilitation gadgets, extra coaches, etc. There has been only one contract dispute in the Vermeil era. Their offensive line is sound, and so is their running game, with Fullback Hubert Oliver blocking for their fine little halfback, Wilbert Montgomery. The defense has been good ever since Philly became a playoff team four years ago. The new middle guard, Ken Clarke, isn't as sturdy as Johnson was, but he's quicker. An active Ohio State rookie named Anthony Griggs will give Al Chesley a run at inside linebacker.
Beating Dallas has been the Eagles' goal for the past few years, but now there's New York and an emerging nation in Washington to worry about. The NFL East has turned into the NFL's toughest division.
New York Giants
Back come the Giants, back from never-never land, from 16 years of despair. Gotham smiled last year. The Giants were a living, breathing playoff team. There was a new fiber of toughness. They won four of their last five games, including an overtime victory against Dallas in the finale. They beat Philadelphia in the playoffs by running the ball, something people said couldn't be done against the Eagles. The next week they pierced the 49er defense with long passes and had San Francisco teetering on the brink late in the third quarter, until their luck ran out.
An unseen hand gets an assist here—Pete Rozelle. It was Rozelle who dropped the name of George Young on the feuding Maras—Wellington and Tim—when they couldn't agree on a candidate for general manager three years ago. Young then brought in Ray Perkins to coach the team. Now, sanity has replaced the chaos of the past.
The No. 1 pick of the first three drafts under Young and Perkins produced two All-Pros, Linebacker Lawrence Taylor and Cornerback Mark Haynes, and a starting quarterback, Phil Simms. The Giants traded for a running game last season, sending a third-round choice to Houston for Rob Carpenter, the steal of the year. They picked an ex-49er guard named Ernie Hughes off the trash heap and turned him into a highly productive center. When Brad Van Pelt, their All-Pro linebacker, went down with a groin pull late in the season, they came up with a terrific replacement in rookie Byron Hunt. When Simms went down, they plugged in tall, gangly Scott Brunner and didn't miss a beat. The '81 draft gave them an impressive middle guard in Bill Neill.
Now the flip side. The offense was 28th in the NFL. An unrelenting defense bailed it out. The operation will still sputter in '82. One day good, one day not so good. Carpenter was an extended contract holdout in camp, and to prepare for his possible absence Perkins experimented with a running-back tandem of Butch Woolfolk and Joe Morris, the top two drafts, replacing muscle with flash. Hughes, who had an operation on his left knee in 1981, twisted his right knee in the exhibition season. Fingers are crossed.
Joe Gibbs came to Washington from San Diego last year with his head full of Don Coryell's playbook and his camp full of rookies, and after five games the Redskins were 0-5 and Gibbs was wondering why those little X's and O's didn't connect on the field the way they did on paper and in San Diego.
Injuries had forced the rookies into combat early. Four running backs went down, and two wound up on injured reserve. The line was a juggling act. A 295-pound free agent named Joe Jacoby beat out the No. 1 draft, Mark May, at left tackle. And then all of a sudden things started coming together. Gibbs switched to a four-receiver offense, and Joe Theismann's passes started to find open hands. Joe Washington, the brilliant little halfback who came over from Baltimore via a trade, went wild, finishing with 916 yards rushing and 558 more on 70 receptions. Thirty players went on injured reserve at some time during the season, but the team was 8-3 over the last 11 games. Now, with a healthy corps of second-year vets who have been to hell and back, there's great optimism along the Potomac.
An intensified weightlifting program has bulked up the offensive line to a 273-pound average, tackle to tackle. Theismann is coming off the most productive year of his career; he also signed a new four-year contract for a reported $1.5 million—"more money than he asked for," said owner Jack Kent Cooke. Only two problems remain: 1) the schedule, rated the toughest in the NFL; and 2) the defense, which was soft against the run.
Under George Allen the defense sort of took care of itself. The theory was simple—bring in old warhorses, pay them more money than they were used to, squeeze another year or two out of their aching legs. When they go down, bring in more of the same. Most of George's boys are memories now, but Defensive Tackle Dave Butz, who was picked up in one of Allen's blockbuster deals, has come into his own and is the Skins' best lineman.
The draft was thin, although the top pick, second-round Cornerback Vernon Dean, isn't afraid to hit people.
St. Louis Cardinals
Look at what St. Louis did to get ready for 1982. Gone from the front office is Joe Sullivan, owner Billy Bidwill's hatchet man, and replacing him is an amiable chap named Bing Devine. Players' salaries have been upgraded. A little red birdie has appeared on the sleeves of the team jerseys, and—catch this, girls—the cheerleading group now features eight gorgeous male gymnasts.
But we haven't mentioned the big one yet. The big one is Floyd Peters, the new coach of the defense, who has homed in on the defensive line. He's the pass rusher's best friend. "His philosophy." says Cedrick Hardman, the now-retired former 49er who was Peters' protégé, "is rush the passer first, and worry about the running game along the way." Where Peters goes, sacks follow. He built the famed Gold Rush at San Francisco and the Silver Rush at Detroit. Goodness knows the Cards could use a pass rush. Their defense gave up the most points in the NFC last year.
The offense? Well, it's rebuilding. A pair of rookies, No. 1 draft Luis Sharpe and Tootie Robbins, will man the tackles. Roy Green, a marvelously gifted two-way athlete who played both wide receiver and defensive back in '81, will only be catching passes, and second-year Quarterback Neil Lomax will be throwing them out of an occasional shotgun. The new center is former All-Pro Tackle Dan Dierdorf, who will try to get still another year out of his 33-year-old knees. Ottis Anderson has enough giddyaps to keep the running game sound.
In another division the Cards would have a chance, but in the murderous NFC East they'll take a few more lumps while they're growing.
New York Giants 10-6
St. Louis 6-10