1. Will the Cowboys be the dynasty of the '90s?
If ever a team looked dynastic, it's these Cowboys. They have the youthful promise of the Pittsburgh Steelers of the '70s, the dynamic skill players of the San Francisco 49ers of the '80s, and the perfect coach and organization for the no-nonsense '90s. Dallas won the Super Bowl by five touchdowns, but coach Jimmy Johnson won't allow his team to get fat and happy. One spring day, cornerback and special-teams ace Issiac Holt, annoyed at Johnson's endless "voluntary" off-season workouts, dryly asked a member of the Dallas staff which workouts he could skip and which were mandatory. It took Johnson about five minutes to decide his next move, which was to call three cornerback-hungry teams and offer them Holt for a late-round draft choice. They all declined. The next morning, Johnson called Holt into his office and cut him.
"I like Ike," Johnson says, "but I had to do what was best for the Cowboys. When successful organizations fall, I think it's because of two things. One, people feel they're more important than they really are, when the reason they've won is because the team won. Two, they don't work as hard. On this team, if the players don't work as hard or harder than the year before, they know I'll cut them."
But there's a third reason for the fall of the powerful as the NFL enters its 74th season: the new collective bargaining agreement, which will introduce a potential team destroyer in 1994, the salary cap. The cap has east a dark cloud over the Super Bowl champs because it has deprived them of their franchise running back, Emmitt Smith, who spent all summer holding out for a salary befitting his status as the two-time defending NFL rushing champ. In the past, owner Jerry Jones might have given Smith the keys to the safe. Not anymore. "I will never make a decision in 1993 that will hurt me when the new day dawns in the NFL in 1994," Jones says. "What if I pay Emmitt $500,000 more than we can afford if we want to keep our salary structure intact? When you negotiate today, you're making roster decisions for tomorrow."
Jones is determined to build a long-haul team with a salary structure to fit stars, valuable players and significant middle-class players. And so he faces the ultimate Catch-22 with his number 22. He has a collective eight years left of very market-friendly deals with his three other big stars—Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Charles Haley—paying each of them less than $2 million a year. If he pays Smith, say, $3.8 million a year for three years, what's to prevent Irvin from holding out next year, demanding a substantial raise from his $1.25 million salary. And because he'll be near the salary cap, how will Jones sign his valuable 1994 free agents? On the other hand the Cowboys need Smith and the 23 carries and 102 yards per game he has averaged in the last two years. "Without him," Irvin says, "it'll be ugly for us. If we want to beat the Goliaths, we've got to have a great slingshot. Emmitt's the rock in our slingshot."
The solution, Jones believes, is to hold firm on Smith and hope that he can say to his vets next year: See? There's value in playing for the Cowboys. We win championships. We've paid Irvin, Smith and Haley below market, and they can make up the difference with playoff and off-the-field money.
Even if the Cowboys conquer the payroll dilemma, their luck has to hold if they are to maintain greatness. The Cowboys of '92 were the most injury-free championship team of recent NFL history, with their eight key offensive players—Aikman, Smith, Irvin, John Gesek, Erik Williams, Alvin Harper, Daryl Johnston and Jay Novacek—missing a total of zero games. There wasn't a significant injury on defense either, and if there had been, it might not have mattered: The defense shuttled 19 fresh bodies in and out of games regularly. So invincible did Dallas seem, in fact, that Philadelphia Eagle owner Norman Braman ordered his team torn down and reconstructed at season's end, despite five straight seasons of double-digit wins. "I was convinced we couldn't beat Dallas with the team we had," he said.
We love Dallas to repeat this year, but we don't love Dallas in the mid-'90s. We'll love the team that collects the most great transients between now and the year 2000.
2. Are the Buffalo Bills still breathing?
Over the last three off-seasons Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly has not watched a replay of a single down of any of the Bills' three straight Super Bowl losses. "I can't," he says. "When I see highlights, I have to turn away. I'll never watch them."
The Bills are 10-2 in the '90s against NFC teams in the regular season—the two losses being meaningless season enders in which Kelly was kept out of action—and 0-3 in Super Bowls. You have to wonder if the Bills lack something in the gut: Kelly's 49% passing and six interceptions have buried them in the last two Super Bowls. You wonder if the team is lacking in coaching savvy: The best all-purpose back in football, Thurman Thomas, has touched the ball an average of only 16 times a game in the three Super Bowls. You wonder if Buffalo lacks concentration: The night before last January's Super debacle, coach Marv Levy implored his charges to protect the football against the swarming Cowboys, and the Bills proceeded to turn it over nine times. You wonder if they lack something on defense: The Bills have four millionaire defenders, and yet they have surrendered 36.3 points per Super Bowl loss.
Finally, you wonder if Buffalo can win this conference for a fourth straight year. "Everybody wants to take our pulse," Kelly says. "Jeez, it never ends. Hey, the Super Bowls are games we'll never forget. But what are we supposed to do? Give up?"
By this time the Bills should be thoroughly demoralized and ready to throw in the towel. But towel throwers wouldn't have come back from a 35-3 deficit, as they did nine months ago against the Houston Oilers in the wild-card round. The Bills are good at forgetting, good at turning their heads when the Super Bowl highlights Bicker onto their big screens. Says Levy: "Here's what I told them at minicamp: 'You guys are the most resilient s.o.b.'s I've ever come across in my life."
3. Is this the year of the ancient quarterback?
Undoubtedly. Seventeen of the starting 28 quarterbacks in the league are over 30. In fact, at an average age of 30.8, the current class of starting quarterbacks is the oldest since the AFL and the NFL merged, in 1970. Steve DeBerg of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is 39, and the Kansas City Chiefs' Joe Montana is 37. In November the New York Giants' Phil Simms will celebrate his 38th birthday, and Warren Moon of the Houston Oilers, his 37th. "Playing quarterback is a learning process more than any position," says Simms. "it's taken me years to finally feel like there's nothing a defense can do to confuse me."
Of course, DeBerg is no lock to last the season in Tampa, where he will be pushed hard by Craig Erickson; Montana hasn't started a game in 32 months; and Simms hasn't played a 16-game season since 1986, his Super Bowl MVP season.
4. Will the Philadelphia Eagles erupt in civil war?
It seems inevitable. Let's recap: Quarterback Randall Cunningham has a huge Atlantic City wedding in the spring, and he invites everybody on the team. Plenty of offensive players show, but only two from the defense. Early in training camp coach Rich Kotite gives the players a half day off so the defensive players can run a benefit for the Jerome Brown Foundation, a tribute to their teammate who died in a 1992 auto wreck. Cunningham is invited, but he's a no-show. When free-agent defensive end Reggie White signs with the Packers, he calls Eagle owner Braman a liar on national TV and accuses Cunningham of not being a leader. With the exception of linebacker Seth Joyner, all of the acknowledged team leaders—quarterback Jim McMahon, running back Keith Byars and defensive linemen White and Mike Golic—leave as free agents. In all, the Eagles lose 11 free agents, with key defenders Joyner and end Clyde Simmons seemingly eager to follow in '94.
During the off-season Simmons says the Eagles are like "lost children" without White. Star wide receiver Fred Barnett, while holding out, tells his agent he's dying to leave Philly. Kotite issues a gag order, threatening to fine players [1/16] of their salary if they make public comments critical of the team. To which Joyner replies, "Nobody's going to take away my constitutional rights."
Two newly acquired defensive tackles that the Eagles thought would help, the gimpy Michael Carter and the fading Keith Millard, don't. The defensive line is shredded by the Jets in the preseason; Millard jumps offside five times in the game, and Carter retires two days later. The troubled right end, Tim Harris, waits to hear if he'll be suspended by the league for his second drunken-driving offense. In a book due out this fall, Cunningham pines for a better relationship with his coach.
Nobody has bought the movie rights to the Eagles, but it's only a matter of time.
5. What learn is in the best position to handle football's new era?
The New England Patriots—if the team is sold by February. Don't laugh. This storm-tossed franchise has finally been thrown two life preservers: coach Bill Parcells and the salary cap. "I'm not here to build a competitive team," Parcells said when he was hired last winter. "I'm here to build a championship team." And he is attacking his team's personnel shortcomings the way his good buddy Johnson did with the Cowboys in 1989. The Patriots had scouts at 56 of the 61 NFL exhibition games this summer, scoping out players who might be cut this month and free agents who might be available next spring.
When players do become available, the Patriots will be free to bid aggressively for them. If the 1994 salary cap turns out to be in the neighborhood of $31 million dollars, as many anticipate, then about two thirds of the teams in the league are either near or already over that amount. The Pats' payroll is presently at a bargain-basement $20 million, and that leaves Parcells lots of dollars to wave in front of free-agent talent.
Still, Parcells's talents will be wasted if the team is not sold, because owner James Orthwein is just biding his time in the hopes of being awarded an expansion franchise in St. Louis. The Pats have a proven winner in Parcells. Now they need an owner who is committed to winning football in New England.
6. Which stars will emerge this year?
We like three: New England linebacker Vincent Brown, a five-year veteran who will become Parcells's new Harry Carson; Miami Dolphin wideout Irving Fryar, who will lead the AFC in touchdown receptions and receiving yards; and Phoenix Cardinal defensive tackle Eric Swann, the 310-pound man-child who is finally ready to throw his weight around.
Brown is 6'2" and 245 pounds. Carson, the former Giant inside linebacker, played at 6'3", 245. Both have granite upper bodies. Both are bright and thoughtful. "There are a lot of parallels," says Parcells, who wants to mold Brown into the classic run-stuffer and inside force that a Parcells defense requires.
Parcells spent the summer teaching Brown the fundamentals of inner defense, and one day Carson, now a New York City TV commentator, showed up on an assignment and wound up tutoring Brown. "I used to love watching Harry play because he'd read and react so quickly," says Brown. "I thought, That's the kind of linebacker I want to be." Brown has been a terrific player on some awful Patriot teams, and finally, at 28, he should get some of the spotlight he deserves.
Fryar, too, knows the Curse of the Patriot. The No. 1 pick overall in the 1984 draft, he averaged 40 catches a year in his nine seasons in New England, but scouts say that he has always possessed 75-catch ability. Now, at 30, he has maturity to match his potential. Fryar was dealt to Miami in April, and the Dolphins expect him to be Dan Marino's big-play guy, a more athletic version of Mark Clayton. "Marino to Fryar sounds good," says Fryar. "I hope it's said about 90 times this year."
Swann never played college football, because he scored so poorly on the SATs four years ago. His first two pro seasons were something of a failure as well. "But you should see him now," coach Joe Bugel said recently. "He's ready to be one of the best defensive linemen in football." Swann spent the preseason throwing guards around like pillows. He has learned how to weight-train, how to study his opponent and, not insignificantly, how to bypass fast-food drive-throughs. "What I ate used to be my enemy," he says. "But now I'm eating the right foods, and I want to be a player who is feared, a guy who can disrupt every play."
7. Can Joe Montana and Lawrence Taylor still play?
During a spring minicamp the Kansas City Chiefs were carefully monitoring every pass thrown by their new quarterback. The Chiefs were taking no chances with Montana's surgically repaired right elbow: He was allowed to make 50 throws, including warmups, during each session. Last year, in San Francisco, Montana adhered to a similarly stringent pitch count each practice, but he still had pain in his elbow and numbness in his right hand. This year?
"You really don't have to be so careful," Montana's physical therapist, Stan Conte, told Chief coaches while they watched one of the minicamp workouts. "Joe could throw 100 easy."
In 1991 doctors reattached a tendon in Montana's elbow by sewing the tendon with sutures, drilling three holes in the knobby elbow bone, pulling the sutures through the holes and tying the tendon back down to the bone. He missed the entire '91 season and all of '92 except for one half in the final 49er regular-season game. But this year he says he's fit to play a full season. And the Chiefs are absolutely gaga over him. "I'd be shocked if, physically, Joe couldn't make it through the year," says offensive coordinator Paul Hackett.
Montana's rehabilitation, before and after his half of football against the Detroit Lions last December, has been all-consuming—he even had a mountain climber working with him on fingertip exercises to strengthen his grip. "I'm somewhere between 15 and 20 percent stronger than I was in the Detroit game," he says. And the early returns are promising: Montana completed more than 60% of his preseason passes and said he felt no elbow pain.
The Chiefs will coddle him a bit by having him throw normally on Wednesday and Thursday in practice, giving him Friday off, and having him throw lightly on Saturday just to loosen up. The Kansas City game plan, though, makes no concession to Montana's arm. "We've worked our butts off on the deep balls with Joe," Hackett says. "We will not baby him."
The other first-ballot Hall of Famer making a comeback, Lawrence Taylor, says he may take a series or two off in games this year so he'll be fresher in the fourth quarter, where he has tended to fade in recent years. But his right Achilles tendon, torn in November 1992, is not even sore, he says. Taylor, 34, had three sacks in his first 40 preseason plays, and he's still the best pass rusher the Giants have. A larger question has to do with Taylor's get-up-and-go if the Giants head south. "Lawrence will be his old self as long as the Giants are contenders," one former teammate said this summer. "If they're not, he'll lose interest, and he won't be effective anymore."
8. Who will he the Rookies of the Year?
Offense: New Orleans Saint tackle William Roaf. Defense: Green Bay defensive back George Teague. O.K., Roaf doesn't have much of a chance, because there are no statistics for offensive linemen and because Garrison Hearst could rush for 1,200 yards in Phoenix. But the Saints, who cut veteran Tootie Robbins (after paying him a $500,000 reporting bonus) to hand the starting right tackle job to Roaf, have been wowed by the young man's ability to drive-block and pass-block equally well in camp. He had better be good: The Saints dealt one of the game's best pass rushers, outside linebacker Pat Swilling, to Detroit to get Roaf with the eighth pick in the April draft.
Teague, a free safety and cornerback, doesn't even have a starting job yet. Says the rookie from Alabama, who was overshadowed by several All-Americas on last season's Tide defense, "I've always been kind of a sleeper." Teague should be the bookend corner to Terrell Buckley by early in the season, and the Packers feel confident that he would be superb at safety, as well. Coach Mike Holmgren thinks Teague will become a Pro Bowl regular, whatever the position.
9. Will the Bears become monsters again?
Not this year. They're too far down. But they've got the right new organizational architect in coach Dave Wannstedt, who will figure out how to win. Part of knowing how to win is cutting your losses quickly, and Wannstedt quickly shed two recent Bear draft embarrassments, linebacker John Roper and tackle Stan Thomas, in one August day. Roper was dealt to Dallas in a five-player trade, and Thomas was sent packing to Atlanta for a conditional draft pick from the Falcons. Wannstedt was so down on Thomas that he would have thrown him into the deal with Dallas, gratis, if the Falcons hadn't called.
The Bears became a disaster toward the end of Mike Ditka's reign. Ditka was distracted by his off-the-field pursuits, and he berated players ceaselessly and needlessly. He and two assistants, offensive coordinator Greg Landry and tight end coach Steve Razor, took turns running the Chicago offense. There was such chaos that in the Bears' playoff loss to Dallas in January 1992, on a crucial fourth-down call in Dallas territory, the play sent in to quarterback Jim Harbaugh from the sideline wasn't in that week's game plan. In fact, it hadn't been called in more than a year. "The best thing about the new staff," Harbaugh says, "is that the plays we're putting in through training camp are the same plays we'll run in December. There won't be brand-new plays on Thursdays to run on Sunday."
Club president Mike McCaskey has given Wannstedt everything he has wanted so far, including ridding the organization of longtime personnel man Bill Tobin. Wannstedt and Tobin would not have gotten along, because Wannstedt believes that coaches should scout as well as coach—as they do in Dallas, where he was the defensive coordinator for four years—and Tobin believes that coaches should simply coach.
As large a figure as Ditka was in Chicago, Wannstedt can become a beloved big-shoulders guy too. He found that out driving to a Bull game in February when, stopped in the middle of a traffic jam outside Chicago Stadium, he rolled down his window to ask a policeman where he could park. "Leave it right there, Coach," said the cop, who opened the door, then parked the car for him. When Wannstedt got to the gate, he realized he'd left his tickets in the car. "Don't worry, Coach," the security guard at the gate said. "Follow me." He took Wannstedt to courtside. The new coach should be able to keep it all in perspective, because while he has Jimmy Johnson's eye for talent, he has Chuck Noll's penchant for anonymity. He'll get it done. But it may take awhile.
10. Off the field, what kind of year will it he?
Busy. Charlotte and St. Louis will get the two expansion teams, and Baltimore will be unfairly spurned. The World League will be revived with a six-team, all-Europe league. The NFL will consider playing regular-season games in Europe and Japan, a precursor to 21st-century overseas expansion. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, battling with the major networks over a new TV contract, will prepare owners to settle for an average of $34 million a year, down from the $39 million they're getting in '93. Now for the big one: Al Davis won't threaten to move.