For most of Joe Gibbs' coaching career, the Washington Redskins have been either on the pace with the leaders or not far off.
Seldom dominant, they have usually been in position to get a nose in front if the favorites founder, as they did in 1983 and 1988 when the Redskins won Super Bowls XVII and XXII.
And 1991 has the look of another of those years.
Gibbs' 11th Redskin team seems less than overpowering, to be sure. And it has some weaknesses passing and playing defense.
But most of its rivals have more problems.
If not Rypien, it will be their third-year backup, Stan Humphries.
"You have to remember that (Rypien) hasn't done it yet," Gibbs said the other day. "Neither of them has--and until you do it, there's always a question if you can."
Sure, but there are other questions about prominent NFC teams. Are the San Francisco 49ers declining? Can the New York Giants win again with a new coach, a new defensive coordinator and their aging stars?
Although the 49ers and Giants are the co-favorites this season, the Redskins, on the whole, seem better off. And if they beat the AFC winner, as some expect, they will continue a long trend: NFC champions have won seven consecutive Super Bowl games and nine of the last 10.
Here are some more true stories:
--In the past 20 years, only the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Miami Dolphins and the Raiders have brought the Super Bowl championship to the AFC.
--In the past 11 winters, only the Raiders have won for the AFC.
Last season, however, as the AFC again held its own in interconference competition, the NFC had but five winning teams: Chicago, San Francisco and three in the NFC East: Washington, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Super Bowl champion Giants.
Clearly, as a conference, the NFC doesn't dominate. But in the end, one way or another, it usually wins.
As of the first weekend of the NFL's 72nd regular season, these could be the NFC's top 10 teams: 1. WASHINGTON REDSKINS Quarterback: Mark Rypien. Coach: Joe Gibbs (113-55). Last season: 10-6 (third, East).
At 6 feet 4 and 234 pounds, Rypien has the size of a proper NFL quarterback. And after three pro years of ups and downs--after two years of work with Gibbs on injured reserve--Rypien should be approaching maturity. In their one-back system, the Redskins hope to pound away with Earnest Byner, Gerald Riggs or John Settle, then pass to Art Monk or one of their other good veterans or rookie third-down back Ricky Ervins. Linebacker Matt Millen should help a sound defense. 2. NEW YORK GIANTS Quarterback: Jeff Hostetler. Coach: Ray Handley (0-0). Last season: 13-3 (first, East).
Although Handley is a promising coach, the champions have lost not only their two-time Super Bowl winner, Bill Parcells, but also their defensive coach, Bill Belichick. Moreover, linebacker Lawrence Taylor, quarterback Phil Simms and others are on the far side of 30. What's more, the NFL's most conservative team needs the edge in such categories as fumbles and missed kicks, which it got last year but can't count on. As the NFC's best-balanced team, the Giants run, they defend and they have those two quarterbacks. 3. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS Quarterback: Steve Young. Coach: George Seifert (32-5). Last season: 14-2 (first, West).
With Joe Montana at quarterback, the greatest passing team of all time has lost the ability to run. That puts too much of a load on the quarterback--physically and strategically. Now, Montana has developed elbow trouble and has been placed on the injured reserved list. He had gotten more predictable the more he threw. The 49ers still have their extraordinary defensive line--which is helping to break in a new secondary--and a coach they believe in, Seifert, who is batting a hard-to-believe .865. And their predictability may be jolted by Montana's replacement, their best runner, Steve Young. 4. GREEN BAY PACKERS Quarterback: Don Majkowski. Coach: Lindy Infante (20-28). Last season: 6-10 (fourth, Central).
In the 1989 heyday of the 49ers, Infante took Majkowski and a few other young Packers into Candlestick Park and won, 21-17. This year, although hobbled by too many journeymen, they could finish in the NFC's top four. On offense, they line up one of the NFL's great batteries--Majkowski to Sterling Sharpe. On defense, there are Pro Bowl strengths--linebacker Tim Harris and safety Mark Murphy. Two negatives: There's not much depth or experience. 5. CHICAGO BEARS Quarterback: Jim Harbaugh. Coach: Mike Ditka (96-51). Last season: 11-5 (first, Central).
If Jim Harbaugh proves out at quarterback, or his backup, Peter Tom Willis, can be effective, and if the defense holds up after the retirement of inspirational lineman Dan Hampton, the Bears will win again. Minus Hampton, and without linebacker Mike Singletary on passing downs, this isn't the defense it used to be, though safety Mark Carrier helps. Pluses: Ditka and halfback Neal Anderson. Negatives: ordinary receivers; an aging, battered offensive line. 6. MINNESOTA VIKINGS Quarterback: Wade Wilson. Coach: Jerry Burns (47-38). Last season: 6-10 (fifth, Central).
This remains the NFC's most talented team on offense and defense, but the Vikings, strangely, seldom play well as a team. Can Burns show them the way this season? They will try with the kind of offense they should have used before: Herschel Walker as the one running back flanked by four exceptional receivers, including Anthony Carter and tight end Steve Jordan. A new defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin, inherits Joey Browner and Chris Doleman, among others. 7. RAMS Quarterback: Jim Everett. Coach: John Robinson (76-61). Last season: 5-11 (third, West).
Nobody expects much of the Rams this season because their player procurement department has been outperformed in recent years and because the 25-person Ram Advisory Board has inadequately advised management on the need to pay good players good money in a competitive league. But Robinson gives his employers the superior coaching that few rivals have. And Everett can win if he doesn't have to do it all himself. The reorganized defensive team needs help from the rookies. 8. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS Quarterback: Bobby Herbert. Coach: Jim Mora (46-35). Last season: 8-8 (second, West).
The Saints have descended in four years from 12-3 to 10-6 to 9-7 to 8-8. One problem is at quarterback, where Hebert seems bad-tempered, and his backup, Steve Walsh, as a passer, hasn't shown enough power or accuracy. Exhibition season performance indicates Walsh might have improved with his first Saint training camp. But this is primarily a team of journeymen, except for linebackers Sam Mills, Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling and Vaughan Johnson. All four have made the Pro Bowl at least twice. 9. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES Quarterback: Randall Cunningham. Coach: Rich Kotite (0-0). Last season: 10-6 (second, East).
The Eagles, like the Giants, are breaking in a new coach and a new defensive coordinator, Bud Carson, despite a winning record under Buddy Ryan, who remains popular with most players. That's a potentially explosive blend. Ryan built the team, promoting Cunningham, banding together the NFL's toughest defensive line and upgrading the receiving and other departments. This is the year that Ryan, a big winner, could have won it all if they had kept him. 10. ATLANTA FALCONS Quarterback: Chris Miller. Coach: Jerry Glanville (40-46). Last season: 5-11 (fourth, West).
Since the late 1980s, the Falcons have drafted and traded wisely, on the whole, without turning up a winner under any of four coaches. Receiver Andre Rison and underrated quarterback Miller are two of eight No. 1 draft choices on an offensive team that has everything but a productive ballcarrier. There are six No. 1s on defense plus new acquisition Tim McKyer. It would probably be a Falcon year if Glanville yields offensive control to new offensive coach June Jones.
BY THE DIVISIONS
West: The season starts with the 49ers once more ahead of the Rams, apparently, as well as the Saints and Falcons, in a division in which all four members are in the conference top 10. . . . Even though the 49ers will play at least four games without Joe Montana, they can win with the West's best defense and best backup quarterback, Young, who is also the NFL's best running quarterback. . . . Under a successful owner, Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., the 49ers have won the division's past five titles and seven of the past eight. . . . They have won by holding off the Rams when required and refusing to take Atlanta or New Orleans lightly.
Central: The champion could be either the Packers, the Bears or the Vikings, followed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Detroit Lions. . . . Neither Richard Williamson, Tampa Bay's new coach, nor Vinny Testaverde, his five-year veteran quarterback, has shown that he should be projected as an NFL winner. . . . New Buccaneer defensive coach Floyd Peters, who has moved Keith McCants to defensive end, will improve his half of the team. . . . In the Detroit Lions' befuddled organization, the front office refuses to listen to Coach Wayne Fontes. . . . Top-brass expectations that Barry Sanders will run more effectively in power formations than in the run-and-shoot are misplaced. . . . Lion quarterback Rodney Peete must demonstrate that he isn't brittle.
East: In the NFC's toughest division, the top two, the Redskins and the Giants, belong in the NFC's top three--as well as the NFL's top five. . . . After the Redskins and Giants in the NFC East, the Philadelphia Eagles have the resources to finish ahead of the Dallas Cowboys, with the Phoenix Cardinals last. . . . In Cowboy Coach Jimmy Johnson's second year, quarterback Troy Aikman will continue to improve under a new offensive coordinator Norval Turner. . . . Johnson has found that trading for draft choices isn't as easy or effective as some fans believe. The Cowboys missed the playoffs last season because they traded backup quarterback Steve Walsh for draft choices who couldn't play when Aikman got hurt. . . . The Cardinals have lost their quarterback Timm Rosenbach to injury. . . . Their strength now lies in two strong runners, Johnny Johnson and Anthony Thompson. . . . The class of the Phoenix defense is safety Tim McDonald.