Almost overlooked in the media blitz over Tony Dorsett is the fact the Dallas Cowboys won the National Conference Eastern Division last year without him.
Coach Tom Landry keeps saying the "most positive" thing the Cowboys are carrying over is a defense that was more efficient than it had been in several years. Retiring Lee Roy Jordon must be replaced at middle line-backer, but there are so many good linebackers that Randy White has been moved to defensive tackle. The Cowboys and Redskins (44 each) trailed only Minnesota and Los Angeles in sacks (45).
That makes offense the chief concern, particularly since the Cowboys scored fewer points, 296, than in any season since 1964. Roger Staubach did not miss a game after his throwing had was broken in the seventh week, but point production dropped from 26 to 16 a game.
Landry says of Dorsett:
"In my years here we never have fielded a runner with his abilities; he's a threat from anywhere on the field and will open our attack."
But how much help will Dorsett get from an offensive line that lost guard Blaine Nye because of retirement and Rayfield Wright for several weeks because of a knee injury?
The Redskins are dealt with elsewhere in this section.
The St. Louis Cardinals have one of the best offensive lines and a strike force - led by quarterback Jim Hart, all-purpose back Terry Metcalf and wide receiver Mel Gray - that was second only to Los Angeles in the conference in scoring.
The Cardinal emphasis on offense is reflected in research that shows they have not had a defensive player selected for the last six Pro Bowls. Left linebacker Larry Stallings has retired, middle linebacker Greg Hartle was let go to the Redskins as a free agent and cornerback Norm Thompson, another option-playout, was dealt to Baltimore.
The New York Giants, who allowed 80 points more than tehy scored last season, are being reoriented under coach John McVay, who won three games after taking over when their record was 0-7.
In two of the three losses under McVay, the Giants lost by 9-3 to Dallas and 17-14 to St. Louois while standing off Denver, 14-14. The Cowboys and Redsjins were held wihtout a touch-down in consecutive games.
On offense, there is divided opinion again on whether fullback, Larry Csonka can come back from knee trouble.
The quest from a take-charge quarterback goes on. Craig Morton was traded to Denver for Steve Ramsey, but Jerry Golsteyn, who missed his rookie season with a knee injury, appears to be the best hope.
There is long-range encouragement from the draft of defensive tackle Gary Jeter of Southern California, but this year's schedule is intimidating once more.
The Philadephia Eagles scored fewer points than any other conference team except Tampa Bay, and their passers were sacked 43 times. The defense permitted 121 points more than the offense managed.
Safety Bill Bradley was dealt to Minnesota and tight end Charles Young went to Los Angeles. In the Young transaction, Philadephia got Ron Jaworski, a power-armed quarterback who can reach wide receivers Harold Carmichael, Charley Smith and Vince Papale, if the line holds.
Coach Dick Vermeil is toying with the 3-4 defense, anchored by former Redskin tackle Manny Sistruck, buit middle linebacker Bill Bergey is the only high-quality player in the whole unit. New England and Los Angeles are on the schedule along with the usual two intradivision games against Dallas, Washington and St. Louis. Western Division
Other than Dallas, with its Tony Dorsett, the other NFC team getting extensive media attention is the Rams, where Joe Namath is completing with Pat Helen and adding even more glamor to the Hollywood ambience. If Namath cuts it and leads the Rams to the playoffs, he will be the fourth quarterback to do so in four seasons, following John Hadl, James Harris, Jaworsji and Haden.
The Rams appear to have everything they need, even with the retirement of defensive tackle Merlin Olsen. They have improved themselves with the acquisition of tight end Charles Young. Yet, owner Carroll Rosenbloom is obviously an impatient man and coach Chuck Knox is as much under the gun as the quarterbacks.
At San Francisco, for a change, new general manager Joe Thomas has an established franchise with a relatively young team on the rise, a new coach, Ken Meyer, who replaced Monte Clark, and the top defense in the conference. But quarterback Jim Plunlett has to prove himself to a general manager once in doubt about his capability.
The 19ers have excellent young running backs in Delvin Williams and Wilbur Jackson. They lost two players, through retirement, cornerback Jimmy Johnson and linebacker Frank Nunley.
Coach Hank Stram has begun to turn around the New Orleans Saints, and the rise. Running backs Chuck Munice and Tony Glabreath are the premium type. The Saints allowed 346 points, but there was a glimmer of hops with a club record 39 sacks.
The Saints went after defensive help in the draft and chose end Joe Campbell of Maryland as No. 1 Placekicker Rich Szaro can make the difference in close games. He made 18 of 23 field-goal sattempts. The schedule is the third easiest in the league, based on how many games their opponents won in 1976.
The Atlanta Falcons have a new coach, (Leeman Bennett), a new general manager (Eddie LeBaron) and the same concern about whether bright prospect Steve Bartkowski will be able to avoid the injuries that sidelined him the past two years. Linebacker Tommy Nobis is retired.
To be determined is whether the Falcons will look like the club that lost to Seattle and Tampa Bay (in an exhibition game) and 59-0 to Los Angeles, or the one that upset Dallas, Chicago and San Francisco. Central Division
Waste no pity or scorn on the Minnesota Vikings for having lost four Super Bowl games. They are not yet ready to concede anything.
Coach Bud Grant, the very model of a superman in adversity, says, "I think it is significant that this team has been able to stay on top as a contender while a lot of other Super Bowl teams have been our major accomplishments."
The Vikings start out in a Central Division race that no quarterback to match their Fran Tarkenton or a back to match all the talents of Chuck Foreman, supported by wide receivers of the class of Ahmad Rashad and Sammy White.
Jim Marshall is 39, Carl Eller 35, Alan Page 33, Paul Krause 35, Tarkenton 37, Mick Tinglehoff 37 and Fred Cox 38, yet Grant says, sounding somewhat like George Allen, "As long as they can perform up to the standards required of winners, I don't care if they are 54 or 44 or 34."
Jack Pardee's Chicago Bears are being boosted as ready to dethrone the Vikings. They have the newest NFC running champion in Walter payton, and much has been made of hiring former head coach Sid Gillman to coordinate the offense.
Yet, he did not concentrate just on improving the talents of quarterback Bob Avellini. Instead, he favored the acquisition of Mike Phipps from Cleveland and rookie Vince Evans from Southern California, an indication he was not sure an improved Avellini was the answer. The Bears were only ninth in the conference in total offense last year and 10th in total defense.
The Detroit Lions figure to hang in contention with a defense that was No. 2 in the conference. They had seven straight runner-up finishes before a slip to third last season. However, Tommy Hudspeth, who took over as interim coach from Rick Forzano after four games, knows he was the Lion's second choice. They favored Chuck Knox of the Rams.
Bart Starr knows he is on the spot in his third season as Green Bay coach after finishing 13th in offense and eighth in defense. He had a 4-10 record in 1975, 5-9 in 1976. Packer quarterbacks threw only nine touchdown passes, but the packers use two first-round draft picks for excellent defensive ends, Mike Butler of Kansas and Ezra Johnson of Morris Brown.
When John McKay was coaching at Southern California, there was tongue-in-check speculation that the Trojans might be able to beat some of the NFL teams.
Having gone 0-14 in his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. McKay seemed to be leaning toward experimenting along those lines when he took 11 former Trojans to camp, including Ricky Bell (his No. 1 draft choice), Anthony Davis (formerly of the Southern California Sun of the World Football League and Toronto of the Canadian Football League), Charlie Evans (a former Redskin), Tody Smith (an ex-Buffalo Bill), Richard Wood (formerly a New York Jet), the coach's son, J. K. McKay (formerly with the WFL Sun) and Dave Lewis (the No. 2 draft choice).
The Buccaneers now have been permanently assigned to the NFC Central Division, which offers not much hope of a sudden rise to on-the-field prosperity.