The trivial stuff can be dismissed in a breath or two: in the National Football League this season, the Redskins win the NFC East, the Bears charge atop the Central and the Rams flog the West; the Patriots romp in the AFC East, the Bengals sneak past the Steelers in the Central and the Raiders run wild in the West. New Orleans proves parity by making the playoffs, Walter Payton proves very little by breaking Jim Brown's rushing record and the league proves it can survive without Howard Cosell.

Now let's tackle the cosmic issue: America at the crossroads! Can the country cope with a change at quarterback? The wise have known for some time that this has nothing to do with Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. All one of them will do is lead the free world for four years, which is a trifling matter compared to . . .

Who calls signals for America's team.

The nation has been uneasy for months now. Thankfully, the economy has not collapsed. Some insist we've even stood tall during the uncertainty. Finally, the decision was made this week: it'll be Gary Hogeboom at the Cowboys' helm, after all. And some of you thought the Republicans were selecting the critical candidate in Dallas.

For a team scarcely into NFL manhood, the Cowboys manage to turn the world aflutter each time the quarterback torch gets passed. Green Bay quarterbacks come and go in silence. Nobody much cares who barks huts in Houston. But most everybody from Maine to Malibu knows that Meredith begat Morton and that Morton begat Staubach, that Staubach begat White and that White begat Hogeboom.


The Cowboys just turned 25 this year. Which means that if they were human, instead of robots, they could not even run for the Senate, let alone qualify for the presidency. Twenty-five still is an upstart age, and here a team 22 years younger than the Redskins considers itself the font of football.

Tom Landry is referred to as The Only Coach The Cowboys Have Ever Known, in the same reverential way George Washington is called The Father of His Country. History may judge him as the smartest, most innovative man to stalk a sideline, but he's known vulnerable moments.

Such as now.

Landry is benching a man who has won 75 percent of his games as the Cowboys' quarterback, who ended last season with eight team records and as the No. 2-ranked passer in NFL history. How did Landry come to the conclusion that such a fellow ought to be benched in favor of a pup whose next regular-season start will be his first?

The players told him.

Like others in power, Landry is influenced by polls. And one in a Dallas paper showed a vast majority of the team wanted Hogeboom. It generally is assumed that if football players had any sense they'd be hitting golf balls instead of each other. Landry listened, anyway.


What his naming Hogeboom as the starter for the season opener does, Landry hopes, is kick the complacency out of the Computer Cowboys. No more cruise control until the playoffs. You wanted this kid, the coach is saying; now play your butts off to help him.

White may well have lost his position on one play against the Redskins late in the regular season last year, when he tried to audible to a real play when he was told simply to try to draw an offside penalty on fourth down and then call time for a punt.

His mind went fuzzy; Landry went bananas; Cowboy haters went to fan heaven, from whence they have been gleeful and quick to judge the team dead. Prematurely. There may well be a decline in Dallas but (it says here) no fall. Or at least no fall from the playoffs.

Once the haughty Cowboys went into a season figuring they need get excited about two games: the NFC championship and the Super Bowl. Everything else was preseason at full pay. Down by 12 at halftime? No sweat. Hitch up the pants and run for the post.

No longer.

With White, the Cowboys are one of about a half-dozen very good teams in the NFL. But, based on results, not as good as the Redskins in critical games. With Hogeboom, they might be better; they also might slide a bit at the start. Still, the end of the season is all that matters in the NFL, and especially in Dallas.

Cowboy management prefers to see this season as the flex in flux rather than in full-throttle flop. With understandable pride, it points to 1975 as the hopeful precedent. That was the last time the nation agonized over its pro treasure, when disaster seemed imminent. The Cowboys had missed the playoffs the previous season.

But as every schoolchild knows, the cavalry, in the person of Randy White and 11 other exceptional rookies, rode to the rescue. The Cowboys not only gained the playoffs, they also gave the Steelers fits in the Super Bowl. Mankind had dodged the bullet once more.

This crisis might be less manageable so soon. For instance, the Cowboys' division seems stronger. The Redskins surely are superior to anything George Allen was patching back then. The Cardinals won the division in '75 and are picked by some to finish ahead of Dallas this season. In losing, the Giants always make it tough to play next week.

Thin as they were in many positions nine years ago, the Cowboys were well fortified in one vital area: quarterback. Roger Staubach was in his third season of having done to Craig Morton what Hogeboom has done to White. This latest gamble is one of Landry's riskiest. He is unaccustomed to losing.