"What we got here is one big fat cat surrounded by four scrawny alley cats," says a player on one of the have nots in the National East. "Each week we'll have to scratch and scrap to stay alive, to keep Dallas in sight, because if any of us can do that the Cowboys can be had. I don't think they can stand the heat."
What a division! St. Louis Coach Charley Winner is on a one-year pass after yet another disastrous season. In Washington, Bill Austin has taken over for the late Vince Lombardi, and how does anyone replace that worthy man? Alex Webster is finishing the last year of a caretaker reign with New York, a town that demands a winner. Philadelphia's Jerry Williams finished last in 1969 (4-9-1) and it was only a few years back that the fans cried for Joe Kuharich's scalp after he took the Eagles to the Runner-Up Bowl.
Even Tom Landry of Dallas, who has won four straight division titles—but no championships—is on the hot seat. It won't be enough for the Cowboys to win the division; they'll have to go on from there. If they do, it will probably be up to Roger Staubach. Craig Morton just hasn't developed into a leader and, although he has a strong arm and a quick delivery, he is slow setting up, as well as being a plodding runner. Staubach likes to scramble and is the better ball handler. As it turns out, Morton may be a victim of the trend. The Cowboys will use the I and Landry has added his own innovation, a "Flying Flankerback," which places Flanker Lance Rentzel in the empty backfield spot of any formation. The changes support the preference of the more mobile Staubach.
With an unequaled wealth of talent, the Cowboys were able to shift All-Pro Tackle Ralph Neely to guard and replace him with Rayfield Wright and return Dave Manders to center—the job he lost three seasons ago—without affecting the precision of the offensive unit. The running is in the capable feet (if weak right big toe) of Calvin Hill. Wide Receivers Rentzel and Bob Hayes are able to outstride most secondaries, and so the long pass remains the Cowboys' best—if overused—threat.
The team would have been better served had Landry concentrated on defense. This has been Dallas' failing in crucial games. The fault isn't in the personnel except for a possible weakness in the secondary, which is bolstered by the addition of Herb Adderley, who was obtained from Green Bay. The trouble comes from an overly sophisticated system that seems to get in the way of the talent.
The Cowboys use man-to-man on one side and zone on the other, plus variations. The effect is confusion, particularly when they face clever quarterbacks. The signs of disorder can be seen in the breakdown in coverage on circle patterns. Dallas' gap defense has been all but impenetrable against the run, particularly traps, but the few teams that forget about fancy stuff and have the strength and the heart to go to man-to-man blocking against the Cowboys can move the ball on the ground.
Until his sudden death, Vince Lombardi seemed destined to lead the Redskins onward and upward. "I can't be Vince Lombardi but I can holler just as loud," says Bill Austin, who is getting an unexpected second chance at head coaching. Yelling won't turn the Redskins on, but Austin doesn't have to worry about motivating his team. Washington would obviously like to win one for Mr. Lombardi, the one being a division title—and it may do just that. It already beat Baltimore after 18 straight defeats. Austin took over a team that has yet to develop the discouraging toughness associated with Lombardi's 4-3 defenses. The fault lies in an effete rush line, and this in turn complicates the dominant man-to-man coverage. Although the linebacking is improved, it still isn't up to carrying on the constant reddogging it takes to compensate for the failure of the front four.
"Our offense is something else," says a Redskin cryptically but proudly. What he really means is that Sonny Jurgensen gets better with age and the worse his arm feels. Jurgensen, obviously, was never older and, if his complaints can be believed, his arm never hurt more. Ergo: he is at the top of his game. Furthermore, he has the receivers. Jerry Smith, Charley Taylor and Bob Long are fast enough to catch up with the ball on the fly patterns and tough enough to hold it on square-ins. What more could a quarterback want? For years Jurgensen wanted a competent ballcarrier. Then Lombardi developed Larry Brown and Charley Harraway, and between them they rushed for 1,316 yards.
The issue in New York is whether Alex Webster can revive the Giants. Webster was hired to heal the wounds that festered in the last frantic years of Allie Sherman. This he has done. "The Giants are no longer a travel terminal, a stopover for every waived player," says one player. "Now the guys are together and they want to play and win for New York." Fortunately, Webster has shown more than a knack for harmonizing. With no pretensions to being a genius, he listens to his first-class assistants and runs the team as the chairman of a voting board of directors.