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Dallas could win this division playing its reserves, its only weakness being at placekicker. When All-Pro Efren Herrera demanded to renegotiate his contract, Dallas shipped him off to Seattle. But as scout Cornell Green says, "Maybe this team won't need to kick any field goals or extra points." Without the kicking scores the Cowboys still outscored opponents by 40 points last year.
On the way to the Super Bowl, Dallas led the NFL in both offense and defense. Two years ago it had a little trouble moving the ball on the ground, but that problem was solved by the rapid improvement of two young linemen, Tackle Pat Donovan and Guard Tom Rafferty, and by the addition of Tony Dorsett. Dorsett didn't start until the 10th game but nevertheless managed 1,007 yards, a total Coach Tom Landry termed "only average for him."
Dallas still throws more than most strong offensive teams, and why not? Wide Receiver Drew Pearson and Tight End Billy Joe DuPree are perennially in the Pro Bowl. Quarterback Roger Staubach, who says he is "36 going on 26," is accurate and rarely intercepted. Besides, most Cowboy passing plays start as if they are runs, and the threat of a Dorsett run freezes linebackers a long time.
Landry thinks his defense could be the Cowboys' best ever, coming off a season in which it ranked second in the league in sacks and, counting those as failed pass attempts, best in percentage of completions allowed: 36.4%. Harvey Martin, who unofficially led the NFL last year with 23 quarterback traps, is the game's best pass rusher. Martin believes his road to super stardom was paved by the arrival of Tackle Randy White as his next-door neighbor in the Cowboy line. And on the opposite flank, Ed (Too Tall) Jones has ambitions of outshining Martin. As if this front wall were not enough, the back wall is impregnable. Cliff Harris and Charlie Waters, both brutal tacklers and adept at stopping the pass and forcing the run, are the league's best tandem at safety.
Washington is no longer George Allen's team, but little has changed. The Redskins will still depend on defense for their wins. New Coach Jack Pardee, who learned some of his football from Allen as both player and assistant coach and whose Chicago Bears edged Allen's Redskins for a playoff berth last year, has upgraded the defensive unit. He traded a 1979 first draft choice—sound familiar?—to Cincinnati for Defensive End Coy Bacon and Cornerback Lemar Parrish. Parrish, a frequent All-Pro, takes over for Pat Fischer, who was injured last year and has now retired. With Parrish joining a fierce hitter, Ken Houston, in the secondary, Washington's pass defense will once more be among the league's best.
Bacon will be Washington's best pass rusher. The Redskins ranked fifth in sacks in 1977 but need more pressure from the front wall, particularly since Pardee plans to make extensive use of a 3-4 alignment. Adding the veteran Mike Curtis to Linebackers Harold McLinton, Chris Hanburger and the underrated Brad Dusek should help improve a defense that was just average in stopping the run.
The Redskins' chief weakness is on the offensive line, where Pardee has been juggling bodies almost everywhere. Last year the line allowed 52 sacks, second-poorest total in the league, and didn't open many holes, either. Pardee hopes to get more rushing yardage out of John Riggins, who missed more than half of last season after a knee injury, and Mike Thomas, who played hurt last year and this year is playing out his option. The Redskins need a running attack because they lack outstanding receivers. Joe Theismann may finally have beaten out Billy Kilmer, a winner in 50 of his 68 Redskin starts.
St. Louis Coach Bud Wilkinson, away from football for 15 years, is decidedly not being cautious in his first foray into the pro game: he has switched the Cardinals to a 3-4 defense and added some hokey-pokey to his offense.
The 3-4 is tough to run against and should help a Cardinal defense that allowed opponents 4.35 yards a carry, ranking 26th. The only problem is that the 3-4 requires four linebackers and St. Louis has just one quality player at the position, Mark Arneson.
If opponents have trouble running against the Cardinals, recent history says they can always gobble up yardage through the air, St. Louis being particularly generous with passing touchdowns. Opponents avoid Cornerback Roger Wehrli and pick on the rest of the secondary. To make trips to the St. Louis goal line longer, Wilkinson used a first-round draft choice to get Arkansas Punter Steve Little.