Last season 6'4", 245-pound Randy White was the Kamikaze-style leader of Dallas' Dirty Dozen, those 12 rookies who infected the staid old Cowboys with youthful enthusiasm and derring-do. White always seemed to be the first Cowboy downfield on punts and kickoffs, and was at the bottom of most pileups. A defensive end at Maryland. White now shares more and more time in the Dallas middle with 14-year veteran Lee Roy Jordan. White may commit youthful blunders, and canny quarterbacks may befuddle him, but he plays with a Butkus-like style and attitude. Jordan still is Cool Hand Luke, always in the right place at the right time.
Washington and St. Louis both are weak at this position. Harold McLinton of the Redskins has always performed inconsistently. The Cardinals moved last season's regular, Mark Arneson, to the outside and set up a training-camp dogfight between Rodrigo Barnes and Greg Hartle. In the end, Hartle won the job with his overall aggressiveness. New York's Brian Kelley may lose his job to rookie Harry Carson, who had 30 sacks last year at South Carolina State and made good on a preseason promise to sack Joe Namath in the Giants-Jets exhibition. Philadelphia's Bill Bergey looks like the thinner of the Smith brothers; he has dropped from 250 to 240 pounds, and grown a thick beard. Considering the Eagles' pathetic attack, he will probably lose another 10 or 15 pounds chasing down rival ballcarriers for 40 minutes each game.
The Cardinals have completely revamped last season's ragtag unit that had only 24 sacks, gave up 4.0 yards per rush and spent far too much time on the field. Don Coryell has brought in several new starters and two fresh assistant coaches. Kansas City's Marvin Upshaw, Atlanta's John Zook and top draft choice Mike Dawson will help holdover Ron Yankowski provide an instant pass rush. The 6'4", 270-pound Dawson likes to hunt javelinas, then cook his catch. "They smell like skunks," he says, "but are real good eating." Cincinnati's Al Beau-champ bolsters the linebacker corps, and Kansas City's Mike Sensibaugh adds experience at safety. St. Louis remains solid at both cornerback spots, where Norm Thompson (seven interceptions) and Roger Wehrli (six) are the best tandem in the NFC.
Washington's defense was worse than St. Louis', but Allen has made few changes. He traded—naturally—for Philadelphia Cornerback Joe Lavender, who replaces the retired Mike Bass; Miami Safety Jake Scott; and Kansas City Defensive End John Matuszak, a disappointment and a problem since he was the NFL's No. 1 draft pick in 1973. But age may finally have caught up with the Redskins. End Ron McDole, Cornerback Pat Fischer and Linebacker Chris Han-burger are 37, 36 and 35, respectively, and Allen does not have capable backups. Washington probably will start six players who are 31 or over.
Besides Randy White, Dallas will work three other fresh faces into its lineup. Second-year Linebacker Bob Breunig replaces the retired Dave Edwards; Thomas Henderson will play some outside linebacker; and rookie Aaron Kyle of Wyoming spells both aging Mel Renfro and Mark Washington—burned badly by Lynn Swann in the Super Bowl—at cornerback. Coach Tom Landry, a masterful defensive tactician, worries that his Cowboys will suffer from too much inexperience. While his system is not overly complicated, it is difficult for young players to grasp because it places a premium on controlling areas rather than searching out the ball. In a rare—for Landry—concession, though, he will let Ends Ed (Too Tall) Jones and Harvey (Too Mean) Martin free-lance more often. "We are about three years away from having a great defense," says Landry.
Both the Eagles and the Giants have to upgrade lines that neither stopped the run nor pressured quarterbacks. Tackle John Mendenhall of the Giants seems healthy after ankle problems, but Coach Bill Arnsparger cannot decide whether to play No. 1 draft choice Troy Archer inside at tackle or outside at end. Brad Van Pelt finally has found a permanent job at linebacker, though, after bouncing all over the lineup.
Tom Landry, once known as Plastic Man. has loosened up. He occasionally tells jokes, and he has even been seen cheering on the sidelines. New York's Arnsparger, who is in the final year of his contract, has the NFL's toughest schedule: Washington, Los Angeles, St. Louis. Dallas. Minnesota and Pittsburgh are among the Giants' first seven foes. Philadelphia's Vermeil must escape the basement without having a first-or second-round draft choice for the next three years. Fortunately, he has his five-year contract for a reported $850,000. He may not have Charles Young next season: the tight end was miffed when Vermeil ordered him to report to camp six pounds lighter than his regular 238, and now he wants a $250,000-per-year contract—or else he'll exercise his option. George Allen paid top dollar (an estimated $2.5 million) for his star free agents but angered veteran Redskins by trying to economize on their contracts. Allen is in the sixth year of a seven-year contract, and if the Redskins miss the playoffs again, management may get the itch to unload him.
On paper the Cowboys. On schedules the Redskins. But on the field the Cardinals, for the third straight season.