There they sit, the San Francisco 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys, glaring at each other across half a continent, matching each other in arrogance and grandeur, playing their own private Super Bowl in the NFC Championship and then brushing off the AFC's Pigeon of the Year in what is officially called Super Bowl XXVIII, or XXIX, or whatever. It has been that way for three years, during which time each team has put together 37 regular-season victories, the most in football, and the battles between them have ultimately determined which would collect the jewelry. While the era of cap football is supposed to have brought competitive balance to the league, Dallas and San Francisco have been pulling away from the pack. No challengers are in sight for either the NFC or the Super Bowl titles. You just have to figure out which one will be standing over the other at the close of business on Jan. 14.
This year the Cowboys get San Francisco at home during the regular season (on Nov. 12), and for the last two years that home-team win has determined the site of the NFC title game, which in turn has produced victory for the home side. I'll say that the trend will continue: The Cowboys will regain the Super Bowl title from the 49ers. But if it doesn't happen, I won't be shocked.
Once again Dallas lost more than it gained via free agency. With Alvin Harper gone to Tampa Bay, the Cowboys need a second wideout. Center Ray Donaldson may be a four-time Pro Bowl veteran, but at 37 he's no substitute for 28-year-old Mark Stepnoski, who signed with Houston after making the Pro Bowl last year. The Dallas defensive line is thinner than it was a year ago. Regulars will have to go longer, and any injury could cause big problems. The special teams won't be as strong.
Nonetheless, the nucleus of the team remains intact and may even have gotten stronger. The stars—quarterback Troy Aikman, wide receiver Michael Irvin, tailback Emmitt Smith, guard Nate Newton, defensive end Charles Haley, fullback Daryl Johnston—are all terrific team guys and leaders. Dallas appears to have, for the first time, some honest-to-goodness relief behind Smith, who went down in a heap with a pair of bum hamstrings at the end of last season. The relief is the No. 2 draft pick Sherman Williams, from Alabama.
Call it Cowboys 24, Browns 17, in Super Bowl XXX. But I ain't betting it.
The Arizona Cardinals offense was the second-lowest scoring unit in football last year, and someone must have said to coach Buddy Ryan, "You know, Buddy, you ought to fold your hand and deal the cards over. Just get rid of all those guys." Buddy surely replied, "You know something, you're right," and that's what he did.
Gone are all three quarterbacks, the top three wideouts, the leading ballcarrier and the top tight end. Ryan would have cleared out the offensive linemen, too, except that he didn't have enough room left in the moving van. Besides, the line is young and could improve as it grows.
What's left is an offense that looks nice on paper but is thin. If 36-year-old Dave Krieg, a free-agent acquisition, has anything close to the dynamite year he had with the Lions in 1994, the quarterbacking will be in fine shape. Trouble is, there's no one behind him who knows how to work a game.
The receiving picture looked grim for a while, after the Cardinals went 0 for 3 on Carl Pickens, Andre Rison and Alvin Harper in the free-agency game. But then the skies opened, and the Jets miraculously dropped Rob Moore into Arizona's lap in a trade. He could be the best of the bunch, a graceful, long-striding leaper. Pair him with No. 2 draft pick Frank Sanders, a great-hands type from Auburn, and you've got a nice set of targets, particularly if the tight end, 295-pound Wendall Gaines, a second-year man whom Ryan is moving over from the defensive line, comes through.
Garrison Hearst, once derided by Ryan as all flash and no smash, has turned the coach into a believer, so he'll be the tailback. Here's my advice to Buddy, and I know he welcomes it: Make Larry Centers, the third-down guy, your every-down back. He's the best runner you've got. End of advice.