As the 1987 Super Bowl-champion New York Giants prepare to take on the 1986 Super Bowl-champion Chicago Bears in the opening Monday night game of the NFL season, the Giants look even stronger than last year, if that's possible. Veterans who were injured in '86 are returning. The rookie crop is better than any team that drafts 28th could expect. New York is still a fairly young club, with lots of reserves and a quarterback, Phil Simms, who made it a point not to get carried away with post-Super Bowl endorsements and hype. Tight end Mark Bavaro is All-Pro, and his backup, Zeke Mowatt, would start for most other teams. Defenses have been geared to stopping the Giants' ground game, especially All-Pro Joe Morris. Good luck.
The Bears are praying Jim McMahon recovers from the shoulder injury that sidelined him most of last season. The Vikings loom as the NFL's most intriguing dark horse, a distinction Seattle would enjoy except that everyone is jumping on the Seahawk bandwagon. The traditional powers—the Cowboys. Dolphins and Raiders—don't figure to challenge for the Super Bowl. The Redskins and 49ers seem good enough to beat anyone—except the Giants.
Strategically the biggest change this season should be a gradual return to the 4-3 defense—not the old 4-3 in which the tackles line up on the offensive guards and the middle linebacker eyeballs the center, but an overshifted version that puts one of those defensive tackles on the nose. Dallas, which had played the old Tom Landry read-and-react flex defense, will do a lot of over-shifting. St. Louis and Kansas City have substituted the 4-3 for the 3-4 as their base defense.
Teams will rely more on a fourth lineman and less on an outside linebacker to pressure the quarterback—unless they have a Lawrence Taylor. But how many LT's are there? The NFL's Competition Committee, reacting to the prospect of bigger people bearing down on the signal callers, put in the one-step rule to protect the quarterbacks. Once the quarterback has delivered the ball, a rusher can take only one step before making contact (he had been allowed two). "I'm proposing a one-step rule to protect noseguards," says Cleveland noseguard Bob Golic. "You can't take more than one step to hit us. Then you have to pull up."
Off the field, clouds hang heavy over the NFL. Bo Schembechler of Michigan spoke for many college coaches when he ripped commissioner Pete Rozelle after the NFL decided to hold an Aug. 28 supplemental draft for Ohio State's Cris Carter and Pitt's Charles Gladman. Both had a year of college eligibility remaining, but they lost it following charges (admitted in Carter's case) that they had accepted money from an agent. Bernie Kosar and Brian Bosworth were in supplemental drafts, but they had earned their degrees. Herschel Walker was an underclassman when the USFL grabbed him. But the growing problem with agents has made the college coaches furious.
At least three major college coaches, Bobby Ross of Georgia Tech, Mike Gottfried of Pitt and Bill Curry of Alabama, are placing severe restrictions on NFL scouts, and others are sure to follow. Curry has even accused pro scouts of selling information on freshmen and sophomores to agents so the flesh merchants could start their illicit payoffs well in advance. College assistant coaches tip off agents, too, but how do you ban your own staff?
Some 1,400 agents are registered with the NFL Players Association, almost one for every NFL player, counting the guys on injured reserve. They all hope to land the one big fish, the Vinny Testaverde ($8.2 million for six years) or Bosworth ($11 million for 10) who will put them in luxury forever. But they can be controlled, which leads us to the ongoing labor negotiations between the owners and the Players Association.
The league's Management Council has proposed a strict bonus and salary scale for rookies. The council calls it an "entry-level scale." Salaries would be determined by where the player is selected in the draft and by the length of his contract. Money saved would be channeled to the veterans. That would please the owners, because they wouldn't have to offer inflated packages to unproved talent. Further, rookies would no longer need agents. Hence no more undergrads would be paid off during their college careers, and most wouldn't be eligible to play in the NFL until their class graduated.
"We still have a long way to go on this," said Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the Players Association. "We didn't propose it. Our acceptance depends on how they deal with the rest of the package. After a player's first year, he's not a rookie anymore, so this can turn into a veteran wage scale."
Allen said that Aug. 31, the expiration date of the players' contract with the owners, was not a strike deadline, just a time to sit down and decide if a strike seemed likely. Free agency for veterans remained the major issue, but there were others, including guaranteed contracts, drug testing and pension improvements. Allen said that management hadn't even addressed those issues. Jack Donlan, the owners' chief negotiator, said, "Nothing really gets done at the large formal meetings. They're just a lot of rhetoric. But at the one-on-one or two-on-two executive sessions, we've had some discussions."