As the National Football League opens its regular season, a big sigh of relief goes up all around the league. Finally, the focus will be shifted from drugs, league-jumping and litigation to good old-fashioned quarterback controversies and the much-heralded debut of John Elway, the Denver Broncos' millionaire rookie.
"The game itself will make up for all of our problems," said Eddie LeBaron, executive vice president of the Atlanta Falcons. "My personal opinion is that all the people want is for us to put on a good show, and if we do that, all the bad stuff will be forgotten."
Elway and the other five quarterbacks drafted in the first round could play a big part in that. Elway, starting his first game today at Pittsburgh, is already being called one of the greatest quarterbacks.
"All I'm going to do is go out and do the best I can," said Elway.
The Steelers' top quarterback, veteran Terry Bradshaw, is on the injured list after an offseason elbow operation. Cliff Stoudt will start in his place.
"Thank God for Elway," said Stoudt. "All of the focus is going to be on him and that'll take a lot of pressure off me."
In Los Angeles, Coach Tom Flores has named Jim Plunkett to start at Cincinnati against the Bengals, but many of the Raiders say they would prefer Marc Wilson.
Cleveland Coach Sam Rutigliano replaced Brian Sipe with Paul McDonald late last season, but Sipe regained the starting spot in training camp. That didn't make McDonald happy and he has threatened to jump to the U.S. Football League.
In the Meadowlands, it was assumed that with Phil Simms healthy after last season's knee surgery, he would regain his starting quarterback spot from Scott Brunner. But new Coach Bill Parcells thinks Brunner is better, so he will start against Miami.
The Dolphins, as usual, are torn between two quarterbacks. Don Strock (an unsigned free agent who never came to camp) is gone, so the choice is between Super Bowl starter David Woodley and rookie Dan Marino. Coach Don Shula said his decision for the opener was easier than most thought; Woodley kept his job.
Gary Danielson and Eric Hipple have been shuttled back and forth in Detroit by Coach Monte Clark. He apparently has settled on Danielson, at least for the opener at Tampa Bay, where the Buccaneers are having troubles of their own at the position.
They could never work out a new contract with Doug Williams, so Williams signed with the USFL Outlaws. While negotiations were still on, Coach John McKay acquired Jack Thompson from Cincinnati as insurance.
Thompson will be on the bench today, however, beaten out by Jerry Golsteyn for the starting spot.
Even the Cowboys are unsettled at quarterback. Don Meredith, Roger Staubach and Craig Morton all went through it and, now, Danny White is facing pressure, this time from Gary Hogeboom. Coach Tom Landry said he will go with White to start the season Monday night at RFK Stadium against the defending Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins. But Landry has also said he won't hesitate to make a switch.
In Baltimore, Mike Pagel won the starting job essentially by default; Art Schlichter has been suspended by Commissioner Pete Rozelle for gambling and newly acquired Mark Herrmann is out for at least six weeks with a broken collarbone.
It doesn't stop there. As much as the NFL might like the onfield action to get all the attention, the other issues are still around.
The USFL won't resume play until spring, but when it does, it will have some of the NFL's stars. Williams was the biggest name--and first starting quarterback--to jump leagues, but Cincinnati tight end Dan Ross will play in the new league in 1984 and teammate Cris Collinsworth, one of the NFL's premier wide receivers, will go in 1985. Buffalo running back Joe Cribbs will join the new league next spring.
The USFL already attracted some of the best young players in the country in Herschel Walker, Trumaine Johnson, Kelvin Bryant, Craig James and David Greenwood.
"There's no question the USFL has had an effect on us," said General Manager Ernie Accorsi of the Colts. "Just about every team in the league can feel it. It will really be felt later in the season when we have injuries and have to replace those people with free agents. The other league will have already signed them."
The USFL, which just completed its first season, is now the one sitting back and scrutinizing.
"It's nice to be put in the same breath with the NFL," said Peter Hadhazy, director of operations for the USFL. "I hope they fill their stadiums and have one heck of a season. That would be good for football, and whatever is good for football is also good for the USFL.
"This is a tough time for them over there, though. Because it's a post-strike year and because of all of the negative publicity about drugs and the Oakland (Raiders move) situation they are under some pressure, but I think they can handle it."
One thing the NFL has had a difficult time handling is the public outcry over the number of its players involved with cocaine. Ross Browner and Pete Johnson of Cincinnati, E.J. Junior of St. Louis and Greg Stemrick of New Orleans were suspended for the first four games by Rozelle for their admitted involvement with cocaine.
The Redskins' Tony Peters pleaded guilty Friday to charges that he conspired to sell cocaine, and will be sentenced next month. Former teammate Clarence Harmon has been charged with possession of cocaine, as has Vernon Perry of the Saints.
There are other issues that deserve attention. For example, there are eight new head coaches: Kay Stephenson in Buffalo, John Mackovic in Kansas City, Joe Walton in New York with the Jets, Chuck Knox in Seattle, Dan Henning in Atlanta, John Robinson in Los Angeles with the Rams, Parcells and Marion Campbell in Philadelphia.
And, in the draft, the NFL went 1-1 against the Olympics. Hurdler-sprinter Willie Gault passed on the Games and signed with the Chicago Bears, but sprinter Ron Brown, the Browns' No. 1 draft choice, said he won't sign until after the Olympics.
Rozelle has remained calm through all the happenings.
"I think we're starting the season in good shape," he said. "It's important to have public confidence and to maintain our integrity, and we do strive to have a good image. We'll continue this year to try and do what we've always done, which is provide an attractive form of entertainment to the public."