Did you happen to have a chance to watch the Dallas Cowboys against the Denver Broncos in their Aug. 21 preseason game? Were you as impressed with the Cowboys as I was? Dallas won the game 34-10, going at it as if it were November and a lot was riding on the contest. There are no fat cats on this two-time Super Bowl-champion team. There's actually a hungry look, and it goes back to the old theory about controversy being one of the best cures for complacency.
Instead of a nice, peaceful off-season, with plenty of feature stories about the magnificence of the organization and its achievements, there was Team Turmoil to read about. Owner Jerry Jones versus coach Jimmy Johnson, then Barry Switzer dropping in to replace Johnson after spending five years out of the game. There was a lot of hand-wringing and plenty of long faces. Perfect. It kept the players edgy and their concentration level up. Jimmy loved me, was the feeling among the Cowboys, but now I have to prove myself to the new guy. There are two things that can crumble a dynasty: old age (that's what happened to the Packers after Lombardi) and a smug, we've-got-it-made philosophy.
No problem with either one in Big D. The Cowboys are still a young team, with their trifecta of quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin at just the right spot in their careers to bring the offense up to even higher levels. Norv Turner, the offensive coordinator for the past three seasons, is now running the Washington Redskins, but the offense won't skip a beat. Turner learned the old Sid Gillman-Don Coryell offense from Ernie Zampese when he and Zampese were with the L.A. Rams from 1987 to '90. Zampese is the new Cowboy coordinator.
Recently Zampese was comparing the Dallas attack with the old Dan Fouts-to-John Jefferson show that he and Coryell ran in San Diego, and though he is reluctant to get into "this guy is better than that guy," he did mention that those Charger teams never had a player like Cowboy fullback Daryl Johnston, a devastating blocker and valuable checkoff receiver. And as good as those old San Diego lines were, they didn't have the drive and thrust power of the current Dallas unit led by Nate Newton and Erik Williams.
The Cowboy defense, which has always been based on speed and relentless pursuit, suffered three hits when Pro Bowl linebacker Ken Norton, interior pass-rush specialist Jimmie Jones and tackle Tony Casillas left via free agency, but the unit is still young and on the rise. 'There are people here with things to prove, which should give the defense some zip. Tackle Leon Lett would like to go down in history as an All-Pro, not for his notorious gaffes. Free safety James Washington, who's been knocking down anything that moves, should have been the MVP of Super Bowl XXVIII, and he would like to remind people what a mistake it was to overlook him. Left cornerback Kevin Smith is ready to stake a Pro Bowl claim too.
Missing from the Cowboys will be Jimmy Johnson's flair and bold game-day decisions. Switzer is more of a percentage player. And in the week before the NFC Championship Game, he'll find himself trading quotes with 49er coach George Seifert as the Cowboys prepare to battle San Francisco for a trip to the Super Bowl.
Bear this in mind about the Arizona Cardinals: They played very tough, very emotional football in an effort to save coach Joe Bugel's job last year—but they never had a chance. The master plan of team president Bill Bidwill was to bring in a big-name coach who would sell tickets. Buddy Ryan was perfect, everybody's favorite 11-o'clock-news sound bite. Cardinal season-ticket sales have almost doubled. Now if Ryan can win some games, well, that would be nice too.
Ryan knows only one way to coach—bring in his type of people, make sure that everyone has a grasp of his 46 defense, and brutalize the enemy. If you want to hit people, you'll play for Buddy, provided your legs are fast enough and your brain is quick enough to get you close to the action. He has loaded his coaching staff with guys he's comfortable with, including five of his former assistants in Philadelphia and Houston and two of his own sons. And to the Cardinal roster he has added four former Eagle defensive players and Wilber Marshall, who played linebacker for the Bears and the Oilers when Ryan supervised those defenses.
Holdover Cardinals were frankly concerned about whether or not they were Ryan's type of player. "Does he really like me?" was a question heard more than once, even from such sturdy warriors as tailback Ron Moore, quarterback Steve Beuerlein and Larry Centers, a third-down utility back last year but now the starting fullback.
"Of course I like those guys," Ryan says. "I love 'em. [The coaching stall'] last year didn't even have the sense to play Centers every down. All he does is win games for you. And I think that Aeneas Williams kid might be the best cornerback I've ever had."
Everyone has been caught up in the Buddy Ryan magic and has assigned the Cardinals an automatic wild-card spot. That goes for me, too.
You're Phil Simms, now the former quarterback of the New York Giants. Last year you took the Giants to within one overtime period of gaining the home field edge for the entire playoffs, one OT loss to Dallas. You want another shot. You're coming off shoulder surgery, but by June you're starting to get the ball out there, lazy 40-yarders, and you know you'll be O.K. by the exhibition season. You know the rules of the salary cap, and you're willing to take a big hit in your paycheck. But suddenly you're out. You bite the bullet and don't criticize the Giants, but you don't hesitate to fire back at Paul Tagliabue when the commissioner says that the salary cap has nothing to do with your sudden unemployment.
You're George Young. You're 63, and life as an NFL general manager certainly isn't getting any easier. You've seen dynasties erode because older players were retained too long—the Tom Landry Cowboys, the Chuck Noll Steelers, the post-Lombardi Packers. You've got a young quarterback named Dave Brown. Do you push his development back another year? Is this good for the organization in the long run? Releasing Simms is painful, but....
You're a Giant fan. The inelegance with which the Simms thing is handled shocks you. And how about Lawrence Taylor? Just slipped off into oblivion. Is that the way the great ones have to be treated? No day to honor them, no retirement of numbers? You see an ad on TV: "Watch Dave Brown lead the Giants to...."It makes you a bit sick. And what's left adds up to a rebuilding year. There's not much here to excite you.
Brown has thrown a total of 17 passes, regular season and playoffs, in two years. He's big and smart and makes the right reads. He does not throw the ball with great velocity. How will he cope with those terrible late-season winds in the Meadowlands? Number two man Kent Graham, who's got a cannon arm, might be a consideration then. Or Rodney Hampton and the running game, which led the NFL in '93.
Sturdy defense has always been a trademark of the Giants, but now three quarters of the secondary is gone, including the fine left corner, Mark Collins. A 4-3 alignment will replace the old 3-4, and Michael Brooks certainly is one of the league's best middle backers. It would be nice if a serious pass rusher emerged, and right end Michael Strahan might be it.
Here's the way this free-agency deal works: If you lose guys who are better than the guys you get, then the team usually isn't as good. "We got all these new guys last year," says middle linebacker Byron Evans of the Philadelphia Eagles. "I'd still rather have the old guys. We brought in Tim Harris, Erik McMillan, Michael Carter, Keith Millard, and we let Reggie White go. Now none of those guys are here anymore."
And none of the new guys they brought in this year can match the quality of Seth Joyner and Clyde Simmons, who followed Buddy Ryan to Arizona. And the defensive line, which once was the most feared in football, now reads, from left to right: William Fuller, Andy Harmon, William Perry and Mike Flores. Fuller, the ex-Houston Oiler, has been on cruise control in the preseason, though he's got credentials, and Harmon is a relentless inside man. So much for the defensive line—in fact, for the defense in general.
The offense is more flash than smash. The Eagles were 4-0 last season until quarterback Randall Cunningham went down with a broken ankle; then they lost their next six. It was the second major injury in three years for the 31-year-old Cunningham. Two darting runners, Vaughn Hebron and rookie Charlie Garner, should help ease the pressure on Cunningham to take off and leg it.
The biggest plus is new owner Jeff Lurie, who stepped in and made sure that everyone was signed on time. It's the first time since 1984 that that has happened in Philadelphia, where it's being said that Lurie has brought a new, aggressive attitude to the team. Now if he could only step in at defensive end.
With memories of Joe Gibbs and John Riggins dancing along his mental byways, owner Jack Kent Cooke of the Washington Redskins publicly predicted that his team would go 9-7 or, "with a break," 10-6 this season. This could mean that either Cooke has only a vague grasp of the term rebuilding, or he's pushing hard to sell 300 luxury boxes—that's right. 300—in the new stadium he's trying to build.
Only one other Super Bowl victor—the New York Jets—has ever fallen as far as Washington has in two years, from champion after the '91 season to 4-12 last year. Seems that everyone either got old or got hurt. Mark Rypien was the lowest-rated NFL quarterback, running an offense that had the second-worst yards-per-completion average in league history (9.63), edging only the 1934 Cincinnati Reds. And now the top five receivers from last season have departed.
Enter Norv Turner, for three years the coordinator of the Cowboy offense, which included, ahem, slightly better personnel. Enter the draft's top quarterback, Heath Shuler, who was picked third overall. Starting him ahead of former San Diego Charger John Friesz would be a reach because Shuler held out for 13 days of training camp, and when he finally saw preseason action he showed that he had thoroughly mastered only the dink passing game, with 18 completions for only 146 yards in his first three outings. Against the Kansas City Chiefs he completed just one pass, to a wide receiver.
But who's he going to throw to? Desmond Howard is still a project and might always be. Rookie Tydus Winans seems to have good hands. And former Ram Henry Ellard is 33. The running game might be O.K. if Reggie Brooks recovers from a hamstring pull and if left tackle Jim Lachey has recovered from knee surgery. Without a pass rush, the defense finished third from the bottom in the NFL last year, but former Cardinal Ken Harvey might help in that department.
This is a team loaded with uncertainties and future hopes. Even kicker Chip Lohmiller is having problems, which started when he lost his holder, Jeff Rutledge, after the 1992 season.
Those luxury boxes will sell out because there are a lot of Redskin fans with a lot of disposable income in town. But Cooke's projection of a 9-7, possibly 10-6, season? Forget it.