The best division in football will be on trial this year. The charge: The NFC East is losing its edge. "No way it's the dominant division it once was," says one of its inhabitants, Cowboy wide receiver Michael Irvin. "We lost a lot of guys who made the NFC East rough on both sides of the ball."
Who can remember a division undergoing more changes in one off-season? Washington lost a Hall of Fame coach, Joe Gibbs. Three teams lost their best defensive player—the Eagles (Reggie White), the Cardinals (Tim McDonald) and the Redskins (Wilber Marshall). The Giants hired a coach, Dan Reeves, who couldn't beat the NFC in the Super Bowl in three tries with the Broncos, and they lost the guts of a coaching staff that had won two Super Bowls. Dallas lost an offensive coordinator, Dave Wannstedt, who took over the Bears and will be sorely missed. The Eagles lost 11 free agents and a ton of spirit, and they face losing two more great defenders, linebacker Seth Joyner and defensive end Clyde Simmons, to free agency in '94. Phoenix committed $28 million to five free agents, trying to buy respect.
The upshot of all these changes is that Dallas will once again win the division, even if tailback Emmitt Smith continues to hold out into September, and the Giants will emerge as the prime challenger. The Giants' fortunes hinge on the 37-year-old arm of quarterback Phil Simms, but after all of the turmoil of the last two, post-Bill Parcells seasons, Simms, who missed 12 games to injury in '92, is fit and excited.
With a fortified defense and good receivers, Simms should help push the Giants back into double digits in the win column and into the wild-card round come January. "It's amazing how quick this division turned," says Simms. "A couple of years ago everyone was drafting to match up with us, and now everybody's in a race to try to be like Dallas. I know I've got to stay healthy and play smart and not try to hang on to the ball that extra second every time to try to make a play, because that's how I've gotten hurt."
Among the new faces on the Giants is that of Mike Sherrard, the free-agent receiver from the 49ers who is having a terrific camp. In an afternoon scrimmage last week he consistently broke free from young cornerbacks downfield. "He's going to give us something we just haven't had here," Simms says.
If the Giants do falter—either because the aging Simms can't hold up over 16 games, or running back Rodney Hampton misses significant time—Washington will be the best team east of Dallas. But the Redskins must have a superb play-calling year from offensive coordinator Rod Dowhower, who is finally out from under Gibbs's shadow, and a solid year from Jekyll and Hyde quarterback Mark Rypien. Less than a month after he was named to replace Gibbs, coach Richie Petitbon called Rypien into his office and told him, "You've got to step up this year and play better. That's all there is to it." No question about it. Gibbs may have squeezed everything he could out of Rypien in 1991, when Rypien passed for 28 touchdowns, had only 11 interceptions and was the Super Bowl MVP. Did 1992 (13 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and lots of boos) reflect the real Rypien?
"Even with all the injuries we had on the line, I didn't play anywhere near how I could," says Rypien. "It's time I earned my keep around here."
The fortunes of Rypien and Simms should tell all about this division.
Last week, shortly before defensive end Bruce Smith signed a four-year, $13.6 million contract with the Bills, he learned that the league had quietly passed a new rule designed to extend the longevity of quarterbacks. Beginning this season, quarterbacks who are out of the pocket and "facing an imminent loss of yardage" can throw the ball away anywhere beyond the line of scrimmage, including out of bounds, at any time during the game. Smith, for one, was enraged that the NFL was taking some of the teeth out of his game, if not the bread out of his mouth. At the same time, he was relieved that he had taken care of his financial future. "This could have been a big factor in negotiations next year," he says.
No fooling. In the past a great year for a pass rusher has been 15 to 20 sacks (which have only been kept as a separate statistic since '82). Now it might be 12 to 15 sacks. Or even fewer. "I can't see anyone ever getting 20 sacks again," Smith says.
The league had been wringing its hands for years over the high casualty rate among its most glamorous players, but the new collective bargaining agreement, officially ratified by the players in June, provided the impetus for the new legislation. Why? Once the salary cap kicks in next season, a team could be irreversibly damaged by the loss of a starting quarterback. Say a team is at the cap (which will probably be $30 million per club) and the team's $4 million-a-year quarterback goes down for the season. That salary would still count against the cap, and without cutting some players, the team wouldn't be able to acquire an additional quarterback. Now it seems only a matter of time before the league adopts the policy that has been in force at the Pro Bowl, where intentional grounding is permitted for any reason, as long as the ball is thrown past the line of scrimmage.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue on free agency: "In the long run, good organizations will win and weak organizations will lose. You'll have to hustle for players and sell your program, with old college coaches like Jimmy Johnson [Dallas], Bobby Ross [San Diego] and Dennis Green [Minnesota] doing well." Tagliabue will begin negotiating the league's new TV contract with the networks the week after Labor Day....
Troy Aikman will start the opener for Dallas in Washington on Sept. 6 and says he could play today, seven weeks after lower-back disk surgery, if he had to. "I would have been practicing this whole camp had it not been for Jimmy and Norv holding me back," Aikman says, speaking of Johnson and offensive coordinator Norv Turner....
This bodes well for 49er chemistry: At the Pro Bowl in February wideout Jerry Rice and running back Ricky Watters grated on each other so much that they argued in a huddle, each accusing the other of being the NFL's most selfish player....
As if the Eagles didn't have enough discord, they have been scolded by the American Civil Liberties Union for a ban on comments critical of the team that coach Rich Kotite placed on his players. Kotite told the players that anyone ripping the team—a nearly everyday occurrence among the Eagles during this off-season—would be fined one game's pay. Players have been especially critical of owner Norman Braman for not ponying up the requisite dollars to keep talent in Philadelphia. "The ACLU is criticizing Kotite because his players can't," says Deborah Leavy of the organization's Pennsylvania chapter. "By threatening to fine his players hundreds of thousands of dollars, the coach will have a chilling effect on his players' free speech." By the way, the most outspoken Eagle, Joyner, is eager to leave after the season. "Change can relieve a lot of pressure," he says.
THE END ZONE
Kicker Matt Bahr of the Giants won a bidding war with a woman in Fayetteville, Ark., at an off-season charity auction. At stake: a football signed by the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins. The woman in question failed to match Bahr's bid of $2,600. Only in America can a kicker out-spend the country's richest woman, Helen Walton, the widow of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.