As the NFL season begins, it is heartening to know that everyone is keeping it in calm perspective. Judge Lester Hayes, lamentably placed on injured reserve by the Raiders, attributes his sore toes to a manifest destiny. The Giants and Bears are talking about their Monday night showdown as perhaps the greatest opening game in the history of civilization as we know it. Or at least the best game of the fortnight, in case there is a strike after week two and we are left with the owners' new board game, Stars and Scabs.
But the most intriguing preseason statement came from Patriots Coach Raymond Berry. When challenged to name any higher authorities who had influenced him to trade union leader Brian Holloway, Berry gave a long list of people from whom he didn't take orders. His last line: "I don't take orders from Gorbachev."
This brings up a good suggestion for what NFL folks can do to kill time during a strike. They could span the globe, telling foreign leaders that they refuse to take orders from them. This strategy could make Ollie North obsolete.
When the great powers sit down to lunch at the SALT talks, I suspect that Refrigerator Perry would get their attention. As indicated in his own scholarly book, Lawrence Taylor might transform all of Colombia from cocaine factories into golf courses. Not everyone can be enlisted for such international duty, of course: The Denver Broncos' coaching staff would accept a negotiated settlement on first down and goal from the Cambodian 1-yard line. But I'd like my chances sending Al Davis into Moammar Gadhafi's tent. Just win, baby.
That brings us to the challenge of the moment. Opening week takes on at least hemispheric significance when there's a chance it will represent half the season's schedule. So here are some key opening angles.
I still haven't figured out why the Atlanta Falcons fired last year's coach, Dan Henning. He spurred them to a 4-0 start and kept them driving to the wire even after they were injured and eliminated. But even without the competent Henning, the Falcons retain a quick-starting tradition. They have covered the point spread in nine of their last 10 opening games. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will improve as new coach Ray Perkins eases Vinny Testaverde into the mix. But for now, it's still Steve DeBerg and a losing streak of five straight openers. The best proposition on the board: Falcons minus one over the Buccaneers.
There are quiet rest homes available for people who bet on the Colts. I am prepared to check in. The Colts are poor early-season bets, but the Cincinnati Bengals are atrocious. The last eight times that the Bengals have been favored during the first month of a season, they failed to cover. With courage, Colts plus five over the Bengals.
After their fast finish last season, the Seattle Seahawks are perhaps the nation's most popular preseason pick. But remember that their closing streak was accomplished against several teams in disarray and one, Denver, that had clinched the division and didn't care. On the other hand, the Seahawks got hot after they were out of contention and could play fast and loose. They also thrived on artificial carpets. They may not look as strong with the pressure back on, especially on the natural dirt of Mile High Stadium. The Broncos wonder if they will see last winter's Seahawks. So do I. Until Seattle proves more, I'll take the Broncos minus three.
Ever since I began handicapping in public, I invoked a rule on games involving my favorite team, the Miami Dolphins. I would either pick them to win or pass up the game. Whenever I broke that rule and ventured against them, the Dolphins would burn me. But that was before last year. Then the defense declined so much that even the old "sure thing" of Shula-as-an-underdog suddenly wasn't sure. In fact, the Dolphins in New England haven't been very reliable for years. The Patriots just look too strong. I'll take New England minus six and hope that Dan Marino doesn't burn me again with a late, spread-covering touchdown pass.
Speaking of my favorite teams, the Redskins, my early choice to make the Super Bowl, will have to win without me this week. The Eagles have looked sad recently and no bold predictions have been forthcoming from Buddy Ryan. But they have not lulled me into laying 9 1/2 points against them. The Eagles were 5-2 as dangerous road underdogs in 1986. Since 1983, they are 9-2 as road underdogs during the first month of the season. Armed with a trend that obscure, I'll sit this one out.
Does anybody remember that the mighty New York Giants lost their 1986 opener in Dallas before going 17-1 the rest of the way? For that matter, the Giants have lost five of their last six openers to the point spread. And the Chicago Bears have won three straight openers, covering in two of them. These are tempting trends.
But sometimes even we trend charters allow reality to overrule us. The Giants have only one discernible weakness, at the cornerback positions. Without quarterback Jim McMahon, the Bears cannot exploit that area. The Bears also cannot be contenders without McMahon; they were 0-3 without him against winning teams last year. In the kind of pick 'em battle that Gorbachev and the whole Politburo could enjoy, I like the Giants. Pete Axthelm, Newsweek writer and ESPN commentator, will write a column on professional football that will appear each Friday in The Washington Post during the season.