If the acquisition of a seasoned and competent quarterback made a contender of New York, the lack of one has been the downfall of the Dallas Cowboys, a club ranked just a shade behind St. Louis and Cleveland when the season began. The Cowboys have one of the two or three best defensive units in football, as they proved recently in holding the Green Bay Packers to a skimpy 73 yards. But the Cowboys lost that game 13-3, because the offense could not move the ball. This was to be the year that Don Meredith came into his own; instead, for no discernible reason, Meredith has had the worst season of his career.
"I don't know what I'm doing wrong," he says. "I feel the same and I have confidence in my throwing and still the ball is short or long."
Whatever has happened to Meredith, Cowboy Coach Tom Landry has apparently decided to try to develop one or both of his rookie quarterbacks—Craig Morton and Jerry Rhome. He has used them one at a time and in relays on alternate plays. The Cowboys' quarterback shuffle will continue.
"Against a defense like the Cardinals use, with their blitzes and complications, I'll probably go with Meredith for his poise," he says. "Against more orthodox defenses, I'll probably shuttle Morton and Rhome."
While the development of a topflight quarterback would help solve Landry's problems, he still needs a good, big running back to complement Don Perkins. The Cowboys may be better than they have looked so far, but this is another year of frustration for them—and particularly for their defense, which plays so well and, unfortunately, so often. Landry will have to work wonders either with Meredith or with his shuttle if Dallas is to climb as high as third.
A more likely candidate for third place is Washington, a club whose ebullient championship hopes were quelled early when a leg injury kept Charlie Taylor, the Rookie of the Year in 1964, hobbled for five games. Taylor, one of the most productive running backs in football, was almost all of the Washington ground attack and a good deal of its passing attack. While he was limping, opponents concentrated on defending against the Washington passes. They succeeded. Taylor is healthy now, and he has gotten his legs under him again in the last two games.
One small warning signal makes Washington a bit doubtful. Not long ago Owner Edward Bennett Williams, who took over the direction of the club after the death of Leo DeOrsey, called a meeting with the players. He excluded the coaches. For some two hours he listened to complaints and suggestions. Ostensibly this was done with the full consent of Coach Bill McPeak, but in the past when players have felt free to go over the head of their coach to complain directly to an owner, morale has suffered. If the Redskins keep winning, morale should be no problem and McPeak will be in control. But they just as easily could go into a nose dive.
If that happens, the Philadelphia Eagles might move up. The Eagle defense is adequate, although it does not rank with that of Dallas, Cleveland or St. Louis. Like the Cowboys, the Eagles suffer from the lack of a consistent quarterback. Norman Snead played well until he was hurt; King Hill, his replacement, has been spotty, and Jack Concannon, the tall, gangling passer from Boston College who was the Eagles' second draft choice two years ago, is still learning his trade. He has shown signs of brilliance to come and he may be one of the best running quarterbacks around, but he is still green. He played briefly in four games in 1964 and Coach Joe Kuharich is understandably reluctant to saddle him with the responsibility of directing the club.
The Eagles are short of running backs behind Earl Gros, a massive fullback who is an exceptional blocker as well, and Timmy Brown, surely the most exciting runner in the Eastern Division. And Snead, Hill and Concannon have only limited targets for their passes. Pete Retzlaff is the best of the Eagle receivers and he is a good one, but there are not enough good receivers to insure a consistent air offense. The Eagles, on a good day, beat any of the bottom four teams. On a very good day they beat the St. Louis Cardinals. But there probably are not enough good days ahead.
Last, and least, are the Pittsburgh Steelers, a club hamstrung by two early and irreparable losses. Head Coach Buddy Parker, a brilliant but moody man, quit the team two weeks before the season began, and John Henry Johnson, the elderly but still immensely capable fullback, was injured, erasing the Pittsburgh running attack in one dire blow. Mike Nixon took over as head coach from Parker but there was no one around capable of replacing Johnson. The Steelers simply do not have the equipment to win many games. Nixon is looking to the future, using young Bill Nelsen at quarterback and breaking in promising rookies like Roy Jefferson at end. The traditionally strong Steeler defense is still effective, but it tires toward the end of games because the players are on the field so much. If there is one good bet in the mixed-up East it is for the Steelers to finish last.