Tom Landry was carefully paying respect to the Dallas Cowboys' poorer cousins in the National Football League yesterday, particularly those in the NFC East.
Yet, the circumspective ranch foreman of the Cowpokes indulged himself in some flattery that might make it a little tougher for Roger Staubach, Tomy Dorsett and Tony Hill to uphold their reputations in upcoming games.
To the question of "Is there a better quarterback in the league?" the coach answered, "I don't know where he is." Then, as if to make certain he was not referring only to Monday's four - touchdown - pass performance against the Baltimore Colts in a 38-D breeze, Landry said, "I thought he was the top quarterback the last two years.
"He not only throws the ball well, he has great command of the job," an allusion to Staubach's translation of Landry's signal-calling into on-field execution.
Fans of teams that do not seem to find highly professional wide receivers must have wondered after watching Monday night's telecast how Tony Hill was able to beat out such players as Butch Johnson and Golden Richards.
The answer is simple: Dallas defenders got to the point where they no longer could cover Hill in practice.
"Hill is very explosive, a very unusual runner. Once he sees a small spot of daylight, he gets through. He's a threat to go all the way. His running ability is the main thing that has made him a great receiver," said Landry.
Hill stretched a short pass from Staubach into a 49-yard play by putting stop-and-start and whirling moves on three defenders at the left sideline and then, in the open field, revving up the speed he had kept under control. He was knocked out of bounds by a defender with an angle on him, at the Baltimore one-yard line, but it set up a touchdown.
Hill was a No. 3 draft for the 1977 season out of Stanford where he rewrote the university's pass-receiving records despite missing some of his senior season with an ankle injury. Most of the records had been posted by Gene Washington, who became all-pro with the San Francisco 49ers.
"Confidence is a major part of my game," said Hill.
Receivers coach Mike Ditka, a motrifle, laconic type when he made all-pro as a Chicago Bear tight end, nevertheless likes Hill's attitude. "I would say there's no lack of confidence in Tony Hill," Ditka said, grinning."But i like a guy who can back it up with action . . . and he can."
Landry said of Hill last year. "I believe he has as much potential as any receiver I've seen with the Cowboys. Tony has a great knack for going for the ball, which you can't teach. He just has that feel. His speed is good and he's a very loose player, relaxed."
He was so relaxed as he convoyed Dorsett the last unchallenged yards on a touchdown scamper against Baltimore Monday, that he was seen slapping Dorsett's hands by way of congratulation at the 15-yard line.
That was so uncharacteristic of a Landry team that the coach was asked what he thought about it.
"Well," Landry said, pausing with an inscrutable grin. "I think that was spontaneous. I don't think they're the type people to discredit our organization (by embarrassing the opposing defenders)."
Landry had Hill returning punts for the first time in his career in 1977 and he averaged 12.4 yards on 10 runbacks.
He fumbled a punt at the Dallas one-yard line in the Super Bowl game against Denver, but recovered. "It was the only punt I muffed all year," he said. "I told reporters last year, if you like me as a punt returner, wait till you see me as a receiver."
"For so long," he said, "I was compared with gene Washington and now people are comparing me a bit with Drew Pearson (another excellent runner after catching the ball). I want other people compared with Tony Hill."
The warning to the Giants, whom the Cowboys play in New York Sunday, is that Landry sees the receivers "running freer down field," under the new rule banning a defender from "chucking them five yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
Landry was straight-faced when he said, "I think the Giants have an advantage over us. They played on Saturday night and we played on Monday night. We also will lose a day traveling. That means we will be tired and they will have three days on us. New York has a good defense and is probably the most-improved team in the league. They're doing a lot of shifting on offense, like Washington is now.
"We have to worry about our own division. The Eagles almost pulled one out against the Rams.I thought the Redskins' victory over New England was a real big win. That put them one up on us because they beat a Super Bowl contender.