Here are two scenarios for the Dallas Cowboys, and you can take
your pick.

Scenario No. 1: This is the year they collapse. The passing game
has gone south, beginning with wide receiver Michael Irvin, who
has been suspended for the first five games for violating the
NFL's substance-abuse policy, and tight end Jay Novacek, who is
possibly out for the season with a degenerative condition of the
lower back. Just like that, the Cowboys will start the season
without two players who accounted for 15 of Dallas's 18
touchdowns through the air in 1995. Left tackle Mark Tuinei, who
protects quarterback Troy Aikman's back, has a sprained right
knee. Running back Emmitt Smith sprained his left knee, plus his
left ankle, in a preseason game. Who knows how effective either
will be when they return?

The defense has lost speed. Tackle Russell Maryland and
linebackers Dixon Edwards and Robert Jones were lost to free
agency and replaced by slower people. Super Bowl hero Larry
Brown, the right cornerback, also was not re-signed and left
corner Deion Sanders was expected to spend some time at wide
receiver, even before Irvin's suspension left Dallas woefully
thin at that position. Both ends are iffy, Charles Haley with a
bad back, Tony Tolbert with sore knees. Looks bad, huh?

"We're the thinnest team in the league," coach Barry Switzer
says. And how about Switzer? Sure, in his second season in
Dallas, the Cowboys won their third Super Bowl in four years,
but the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers had them
on the ropes in the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl,
respectively. On both occasions Dallas escaped, thanks to timely
interceptions. The question is: Can Switzer hold the Cowboys
together until his stars come back--and afterward?

Last season Switzer made a costly mistake. After defensive line
coach John Blake (a Switzer man who in January left Dallas to
become the coach at Oklahoma) expressed concern that Aikman was
singling out black players for criticism to Switzer, it was the
black players--not Switzer--who came to Aikman's defense. Aikman
and Switzer reportedly made up in the off-season, but only time
will tell. Sounds like a mess, doesn't it?

Scenario No. 2: Dallas gets off to a shaky start, perhaps 2-3
for the no-Irvin period, with losses at Chicago, Buffalo and
Philadelphia. Irvin comes back, Sanders returns full time to
defense (where he belongs), Smith starts running like his old
self, and the Cowboys are in business. People have made the
mistake of writing Dallas off early. Remember the 1993 season,
when Smith held out for the first two games, both losses, and
Haley knocked a hole in the locker room wall? The Cowboys won
the Super Bowl that year.

The thing people forget is that no team has the internal
leadership Dallas has: Aikman, Irvin, Smith, left guard Nate
Newton, plus Haley on the defense. These are exceptional people
who practically coach themselves. So what's the prediction? A
bumpy ride to the playoffs, a spirited challenge from
Philadelphia within the division and formidable opposition from
the Packers and the San Francisco 49ers for NFC supremacy.
Another Super Bowl appearance? Uh, no. Not this time.

In his driven, tortured and, at times, almost frenzied style
Philadelphia Eagles coach Ray Rhodes has drawn a bead on his
most hated rival...Dallas, naturally. Last season he did it with
emotions. With his team fighting for a playoff spot in December,
Rhodes's speech to the Eagles the night before their game
against the Cowboys at Veterans Stadium turned into an outburst.
"He challenged Barry Switzer, Jerry Jones, anybody," one
Philadelphia player recalls. "He said they didn't respect us. It
was intense, and it was all from the heart."

The Eagles won 20-17, stopping Smith twice on Switzer's
now-famous fourth-and-one calls late in the game. Rhodes led his
gang of cast-offs into the second round of the playoffs, picking
up NFL Coach of the Year honors for his efforts. Nevertheless,
Philadelphia's season ended at Texas Stadium: Cowboys 30, Eagles
11. Emotion could take Philadelphia only so far.

Dallas loomed over Philly's off-season. Rhodes needed a left
guard with the size to combat the Cowboys' roughneck defensive
tackle, Leon Lett, so in the first round of the draft he
selected 325-pound Jermane Mayberry of Texas A&M-Kingsville.
Rhodes was tired of watching Irvin outmuscle tiny cornerback
Mark McMillian, so in came free agent Troy Vincent from the
Miami Dolphins. Rhodes needed more passing to take the pressure
off tailback Ricky Watters, who had a fine year but clearly was
worn out down the stretch, so Rhodes brought in a new bunch of
wideouts, led by Irving Fryar, who also played for the Dolphins
in 1995.

Don't look for a fast start, though. Quarterback Rodney Peete
was slowed by a sprained left knee late in preseason. Mayberry
isn't ready to start yet. His spot will be filled by three-
year veteran Joe Panos, a sturdy drive-blocker. But the schedule
lightens up over the last six games, during which the Eagles
face only one opponent who reached the playoffs last season.

One team that could take advantage of an early date with Philly
is the Washington Redskins, who open the season against the
Eagles at RFK Stadium. In the preseason Gus Frerotte won the
great Washington quarterback shoot-out over Heath Shuler, who
cost the Redskins a $19.25 million contract when he was taken as
the third pick in the 1994 draft.

For a read on Frerotte, let's go back to a game last year
against the Giants. New York won 24-15, but Frerotte never
stopped coming, never stopped pushing the ball deep. Afterward,
an exhausted pair of Giants cornerbacks, Thomas Randolph and
Phillippi Sparks, slumped by their lockers, too tired to dress.
"Man, I never want to go through a night like that again,"
Randolph said. "That guy never let up. I thought it would never
end."

Frerotte is an attack quarterback, a guy with a mean streak.
Shuler remains a prospect, a fellow who tries to execute the
game plan as ordered. He's as nice a young man as you would want
to meet, but he doesn't quicken the pulses. End of debate--at
least for now--and so much for all that off-season talk about
Frerotte's being trade bait. Give Redskins coach Norv Turner a
little credit for knowing something about NFL quarterbacking.

So will Washington ride Frerotte's strong right arm to glory?
The offense certainly has some weapons: wideouts Henry Ellard,
Michael Westbrook and Billy Brooks; 1,000-yard rusher Terry
Allen; and Jamie Asher, who looks like an honest-to-goodness
pass-catching tight end. The problem has been the Redskins'
defense, particularly against the run, and that can mean
curtains in the NFC East.

Enter former St. Louis Rams tackle Sean Gilbert, 6'5", 310
pounds of...well, of what? He cost Washington the sixth pick
in last spring's draft, but if he's anywhere near his 1993 Pro
Bowl form, he will be worth it. The Rams moved him to end last
year and then gave up on him. Some observers thought Gilbert
lost his intensity after he became a Christian in '94. Three
arthroscopic knee operations didn't help. If Gilbert finds his
old fire and if his former Rams buddy, tackle Marc Boutte, also
helps to slow the opposition, who knows?

The New York Giants' camp, on the other hand, has turned
paranoid. Take this episode: Coach Dan Reeves starts Tommy
Maddox at quarterback instead of Dave Brown in exhibition game
number 2. Maddox has a rough night, the fans boo, the press
rips. The fans read about it, and when Maddox relieves Brown the
following week, he hears it before he takes his first snap. Two
days later Maddox is cut. Reeves, in effect, is saying, O.K.,
you got what you wanted. He offers this shocking quote: "Maybe
they're trying to get rid of both of us. They're 50 percent of
the way there. They ought to be happy because they're getting
closer to 100 percent."

Lost in this furor was the fact that Brown and Maddox were
working behind a line that was getting shoved back in their
faces; they had no pocket to step into. The young line, with
four new starters, is built for run-blocking--for power backs
Rodney Hampton and Tyrone Wheatley, who is questionable with a
stress fracture of his right fibula. Brown, in his first outing
after his benching, was spraying the ball. He seemed to have
regressed on an offense that ranked next to last in the league
last year.

The Giants' talent erosion has been insidious. Their No. 1 draft
choices since 1991 have been fullback Jarrod Bunch (gone), tight
end Derek Brown (gone), Dave Brown (functional but shaky),
wideout Thomas Lewis (a starter but just barely), Wheatley
(injured most of the time) and defensive end Cedric Jones (not
ready to start).

On the plus side there's Sparks, the best young cornerback in
the NFL, but he's working on a defense that finished fourth from
the bottom in stopping the run last year. Maybe Reeves has seen
the future, which is why he has declared himself, in effect, a
lame-duck coach for 1996.

Speaking of starting over, here we go again with the Arizona
Cardinals. New coach, new staff, new ideas, even a new old
quarterback. Vince Tobin steps in to try to undo the damage done
by departed coach Buddy Ryan last year. Tobin's first major move
was to bring in 35-year-old Boomer Esiason, who quarterbacked
the New York Jets to the worst record in the NFL last season, to
replace Dave Krieg, who turns 38 in October. "We saved three
years," said Tobin, who has to rebuild an offense that was 24th
in the league in total offense last season.

Everyone knows the book on Esiason: can throw down the middle,
long or short; can dump the ball to his backs with occasional
accuracy; can't hit receivers on sideline routes--a necessary
part of any passer's repertoire. Pinch off the middle on him and
he's a dead duck. "When you've got receivers who can't go deep
and the corners are playing right on top of them, you can't
throw any 10-yard outs," Esiason says, defending himself by
describing the situation with the Jets last season.

"He'd drift and roll and lose power on his throws," says Jim
Fassel, the Cardinals' new offensive coordinator and quarterback
coach. "It's not a matter of arm strength. It's a matter of
fundamentals, and they can be cured."

The philosophy of Ryan, and Joe Bugel before him, was to run the
ball and win with defense, but last year that strategy
backfired. Arizona was 29th in rushing and 30th in stopping the
run, and that's a tougher fix than the pass-catch part of it.
Esiason has capable wideouts in Frank Sanders and Rob Moore, his
go-to guy in New York two years ago. The projected tight end,
third-round draft pick Johnny McWilliams, was a holdout through
camp.

It has been left up to second-round choice Leeland McElroy to
carry the running game, after 1993 first-round selection
Garrison Hearst was cut to free up money to sign this year's
first-round pick, defensive end Simeon Rice, who held out for
most of camp. It looks like another struggle in Arizona this year.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Darrin Smith and Dallas may not level Philadelphia as easily in this year's playoffs. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Frerotte's aggressive style helped him win the Redskins' starting quarterback job. [Gus Frerotte] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Moore can be the Cardinals' go-to guy--if Esiason can get the ball to him. [Rob Moore]

Prediction

Cowboys
10-6

Eagles
10-6

Redskins
8-8

Giants
6-10

Cardinals
5-11

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)