It's very iffy, picking the Dallas Cowboys to go to the Super Bowl. Football people I talk to say, "Not yet, they're still a year away." But I would rather be a year early than a year late, and I can picture what the Cowboys will be like in January—younger, fresher, more juiced up than the teams they'll have to meet.
The start of the season could be trying indeed, with a lot of young, inexperienced players sorting things out against the likes of the Redskins and the Giants. But those are the teams the Cowboys like to play: big, physical clubs that test their manhood. It's the fly-boys who give them trouble, the run-and-shoot teams. Last year Dallas lost three of its four games against run-and-shoot teams, and this season the Cowboys meet two of them, the Lions and the Falcons, in the regular season.
The Cowboys are so dedicated to the concept of youth that they had their first five draft choices agreeing to contracts by the end of draft day. Owner Jerry Jones sees this as a logical way to do business: Pick guys you're sure you can sign. Other teams saw it as a bending of the rules, talking contract with players before they were selected. At any rate, all nine guys picked in the first five rounds were ready to go when camp opened.
The negatives on this team? All the stars seem to be on one side of the ball: quarterback Troy Aikman; Emmitt Smith, the NFL's leading rusher in 1991; wideout Michael Irvin, whose 93-catch, 1,523-yard season produced a dandy holdout that was still going on as of Monday. A defensive star still has to emerge, a guy the players can rally round. Maybe the Cowboys' newest pass rusher, Charles Haley, who arrived via a trade with San Francisco, will be the guy.
Holdouts follow Super Bowl championships like a dog on a leash, but on Aug. 25, when the Washington Redskins announced that they had signed their last three, first-round pick Desmond Howard and All-Pros Jim Lachey and Darrell Green, all the pieces were in place. Each area of the offense and defense has at least one Pro Bowl performer to lead it. There are no weak links.
Coach Joe Gibbs's offense is multidimensional. If you can't stop Washington's power running, you'll see it all day. If you do stop it, then the Skins will come at you with a burst, out of their three-wideout package. Mark Rypien is one of the few quarterbacks who can throw deep with touch. The attack will have even more explosion now, thanks to Howard, the Heisman Trophy-winning wideout, and a mature Ricky Ervins, last year's flashy rookie running back.
The defense ranked third in the league in '91, and linebacker Wilber Marshall lived up to the reputation he built when he was with Chicago. Charley Casserly is one of the league's best general managers, and owner Jack Kent Cooke isn't afraid to spend money. So why don't I pick them to repeat as Super Bowl champs? One reason: Eight of Washington's 11 offensive starters will be 30 or older in December, as will four starters on defense. There's a nagging feeling that this team has already peaked and is about to begin a slow decline.
Memories of the late Jerome Brown: The night before the Philadelphia Eagles met the Redskins in the 1990 playoffs, after the team doctor had already told Brown that his separated shoulder would definitely keep him out of the game, he was up in coach Buddy Ryan's room, begging Ryan to let him line up. Buddy gave in. Brown played with one arm at his side, and he still burst into the backfield to disrupt the action.
The Eagles have dedicated this season to Brown, who was killed in an auto accident this summer. Though the defense will play with great emotion, it probably won't be as good as it was last year—you just don't replace a tackle like Brown. Nonetheless, it should be plenty tough.
And now that quarterback Randall Cunningham is back from knee surgery, some people are predicting Super Bowl for the Eagles, but I don't see it. Even with everybody in place, they haven't won a playoff game. And a weakness they've had for years still plagues them: The offensive line isn't sound enough.