The National Football League begins its 66th season today, rejuvenated by the arrival of quarterbacks named Dieter and Bernie as well as by an influx of players from the U.S. Football League.
Only the absence of record-breaking running back Eric Dickerson, who still is involved in a contract dispute with the Los Angeles Rams, keeps the NFL from starting with what appears to be a complete and relatively unmarked deck.
The masses foresee San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh and quarterback Joe Montana building castles to the sky in 1985 even though no team has repeated as Super Bowl champion since Pittsburgh in 1978-79. Walsh says, "It's harder now to repeat than it was for Green Bay (in the 1960s) or for Pittsburgh in the '70s. NFL football is much better now. Franchise to franchise, teams are much more well managed."
Meanwhile, the guy called "Sweetness" glides ever on. Chicago running back Walter Payton, who lapped Jim Brown's career rushing total last season and has rushed for a league-record 13,309 yards, is only 31 years old and runs toward a finish line that seems to await him near infinity.
Commissioner Pete Rozelle talks of a season of serenity, while dearly hoping for increased television ratings. The possibility of a players strike still is two years away, which is when the current collective bargaining agreement expires.
The USFL's $1.32 billion antitrust suit, enjoining the NFL from appearing on all three networks, is set for trial in February, after Super Bowl XX is held in New Orleans. NFL leaders privately say they want to have their day of reckoning in court with the USFL soon.
Rozelle figures TV ratings should rise because fewer commercial interruptions will make for faster-paced games, and because "all recent surveys describe pro football as America's favorite sport."
ABC's "Monday Night Football" enters its 16th season, making it the ninth longest-running prime-time series in TV history. The Monday night game trails Walt Disney (29 years), Ed Sullivan (24), Red Skelton and "Gunsmoke" (both 20 years), "Meet The Press" (19 years, from 1947-65), "60 Minutes," "What's My Line?" (both 18) and, of course, "Lassie," which made it through 17 years.
Surely, this NFL season is as packed with intrigue as any in recent years. Four teams have new coaches. Rod Dowhower in Indianapolis and Darryl Rogers in Detroit are the new kids on the block. Tampa Bay has selected former Atlanta Coach Leeman Bennett to replace John McKay, who was bumped upstairs, and Minnesota has brought back Bud Grant to recreate his steely success of the late '60s and early '70s.
And if victories aren't produced, might the unemployment line replace the sideline for Buffalo's Kay Stephenson, San Diego's Don Coryell and Atlanta's Dan Henning?
There are so many penetrating story lines in the NFL. How about Dieter Brock descending from Canada after passing for nearly 35,000 yards in the Canadian Football League to become the 34-year-old starting quarterback for the Rams? Or how about Art Schlichter, still just 25, being named the Colts' starting quarterback two years after being suspended for gambling?
Will Denver's John Elway finally tranform from Youthful to Unitas in his third season? Will the knees of Saints running back Earl Campbell, 30, give him the strength to carry his ever-loyal coach, Oail (Bum) Phillips, one last time? After 18 years, will New Orleans finally make the playoffs?
Sure, Gary Danielson will be the Browns' starting quarterback at St. Louis today. But how long can Marty Schottenheimer avoid the temptation to play rookie Bernie Kosar? Paying a rookie $5 million over five years makes a coach nervous, especially when his team finished 5-11 last season.
Sadly, an NFL season begins today without such stars as Detroit running back Billy Sims, San Diego tight end Kellen Winslow and Atlanta running back William Andrews, all victims of knee injuries. It's likely that neither Winslow nor Andrews will play this season. Sims hopes to be back by midseason. Team officials in Seattle, meanwhile, are using the term "miracle" to describe the recovery of running back Curt Warner, who was cut down by a freak knee injury last season.
Spotlight stars Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Ken Stabler, Jack Youngblood and Harold Carmichael retired. Gone, too, are capable veterans such as Bob Bruenig, Jim Hart, Greg Pruitt, Dexter Bussey, Doug Wilkerson, Sherman Smith, Louie Kelcher, Greg Landry, Jimmy Cefalo, George Starke and Doug Dieken.
Consider that among those 16 players, the accumulated gems were appearances in 50 Pro Bowls, 21 Super Bowls and even one USFL title game (Landry in the spring of 1984, before returning to the Bears).
The cut list claimed Seattle quarterback Jim Zorn, the Cowboys' Ron Springs, the Seahawks' Reggie McKenzie, the 49ers' Jack (Hacksaw) Reynolds, as well as two of the most formidable veteran unionists, the Redskins' Mark Murphy and the Chiefs' Tom Condon.
Although the Rams' Dickerson is the most esteemed player entangled in a contract holdout, he isn't the only one. Giants all-pro cornerback Mark Haynes and Miami defenders Bob Brudzinski and Glenn Blackwood are three of agent Howard Slusher's most recent holdouts. Also, two starting members of the Bears' defense, linebacker Al Harris and safety Todd Bell, are holdouts seeking more money. The Jets lack their starting offensive tackles, Reggie McElroy and Marvin Powell, as well as wide receiver Al Toon, the league's only remaining unsigned first-round draft pick.
Green Bay wide receiver John Jefferson is another Slusher-decreed holdout. A Packers' spokesman said that J.J. hasn't been heard from since mid-December and that when a reporter recently asked Coach Forrest Gregg what the latest update was on his star receiver, Gregg responded, "As far as we know, he's still living in Dallas."
True, Miami's mercurial Dan Marino reported after a 38-day holdout and Coach Don Shula says the record-setting passer will start today at Houston. Poor Earnest Gray, though. The Giants' veteran receiver is another holdout. He reportedly was offered a three-year, $900,000 deal by the Giants, but turned it down while hoping for a $500,000-a-year deal.
Giants General Manager George Young says, with typical candor, "He's priced himself out of the market. Actually, I would probably have trouble trading him for an office stapler."
If retirement and the waiver wire absorbed some of the NFL's blue bloods, the exodus of about 40 players from the USFL has provided new blood that is young and rich: running backs Mike Rozier (Oilers), Kevin Mack (Browns), Tim Spencer (Chargers) and Maurice Carthon (Giants); wide receivers Anthony Carter (Vikings) and Trumaine Johnson (Chargers); quarterback Bobby Hebert (Saints), and kicker Tony Zendejas (Oilers) are among the most noteworthy.
Kickers such as Minnesota's Jan Stenerud, 42, and the Redskins' Mark Moseley, 37, are back. The Chargers' Charlie Joiner, nearly 38, will try to add to his NFL-record 657 catches, and Chargers' 38-year-old guard Ed White -- who started in the league only a few years after another Ed White became the first American to walk in space -- readies, remarkably, for year No. 18. At RFK Stadium, 36-year-old fullback John Riggins plods on, just 561 yards shy of O.J. Simpson, who ranks fourth on the NFL's career rushing list.
In Philadelphia, there is disarray. Linebacker Jerry Robinson, defensive end Dennis Harrison and linebacker Joel Williams are contract holdouts as new owner Norman Braman makes his fiscal stand.
Trades have scattered many veterans. Vince Ferragamo and Anthony Dickerson are Bills, Joe Ferguson and Wilbert Montgomery are Lions, Earnest Jackson (who led the AFC in rushing in 1984 as a Charger) is an Eagle, Fulton Kuykendall is a 49er and Charlie Brown and Joe Washington are Falcons.
It's that time again for the NFL. Let the sniping, the secrecy and the slugging begin.