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NFC Preview: Strength Is in the East

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Joe Gibbs has an explanation for why Super Bowl winners rarely repeat.

“Winning,” he says, “often makes average players think they’re great.”

Gibbs made that observation as he contemplated his thinned-out Washington Redsdkins in training camp, three holdouts short of the unit that beat Buffalo, 37-24, in Minneapolis last Jan. 26 for its third NFL title in a decade.

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The no-shows were stars--quarterback Mark Rypien, the Super Bowl MVP, and two All-Pros, cornerback Darrell Green and offensive tackle Jim Lachey. They could be the first sign of the recent trend of post-title letdown. The Redskins generally start with everyone present and happy.

Washington’s chances of becoming the fourth team ever to repeat as Super Bowl winner are made doubly difficult by their division--the NFC East, easily the NFL’s toughest. Moreover, the old order is changing--Detroit, Dallas and Atlanta all made surprise playoff appearances last year.

The East consists of Philadelphia, a consensus favorite this year despite the death of Jerome Brown; the New York Giants, Super Bowl winners two years ago and still dangerous, and up-and-coming Dallas, improved from 1-15 to 11-5 in three years of the Jimmy Johnson adminstration.

Detroit suprised everyone by going 12-4, winning the Central and getting to the NFC title game, where it was annihilated 41-10 by the Redskins. Some of its inspiration came from guard Mike Utley, paralyzed in a game with the Rams Nov. 17.

Since then, the tragedies have compounded.

Another guard, Eric Andolsek, was killed in a freak accident last June, six weeks after the death of Len Fontes, the defensive backfield coach and brother of coach Wayne Fontes.

That leaves consistent Chicago the favorite in a weak division. The other three teams are all rebuilding under new coaches--Dennis Green in Minnesota, Mike Holmgren in Green Bay and Sam Wyche in Tampa Bay.

San Francisco, without Joe Montana, finished with five wins in its last six games but was third in the West behind New Orleans and Atlanta. Montana’s elbow still hurts and so does Steve Young’s back, making the division a three-way race. The Rams, under new Coach Chuck Knox, will be last.

The East is brutal.

Philadelphia lost quarterback Randall Cunningham in last season’s first game. Yet behind the NFL’s best defense the Eagles went 10-6 and barely missed the playoffs.

With Cunningham back and the addition of Herschel Walker at running back, the Eagles have offense, although the line isn’t championship caliber. The defense won’t be the same without Brown, a rock in the middle, but it doesn’t have to be as good.

“The burden was on us to carry the team,” says Reggie White, the All-Pro defensive end. “This year, even if we let down, we know Randall can pick it up.”

The Redskins, Cowboys and (maybe) the Giants figure to challenge.

Dallas went 11-5 last year and beat Chicago in the playoffs before a 38-6 loss to Detroit exposed weaknesses in the secondary.

The 1989 Walker trade continues to keep young talent flowing in and the offense has three great weapons in quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin. But in this division, the team could improve and the record could get worse.

Washington (14-2) will lose more games. But the Redskins always find ways to replace worn parts with Desmond Howard, the Heisman winner, being groomed to replace Art Monk, who should break Steve Largent’s career receptions record this season.

The Giants fell to 8-8 last season under Ray Handley, who replaced Bill Parcells in May. Handley says it’s his team now, not Parcells’.

The strength, surprisingly, may be offense if Jeff Hostetler comes through at quarterback. The offensive line and running back Rodney Hampton figure to have good seasons and Lawrence Taylor remains an aging force at linebacker.

Alas, poor Phoenix.

In another division, the Cardinals (4-12) might be a contender if quarterback Timm Rosenbach continues what looks like a successful comeback from knee surgery. But there are too many holes around quality players like linebacker Ken Harvey, running backs Johnny Johnson and safety Tim McDonald to contend in the East.

Detroit is no fluke. Barry Sanders is one of the NFL’s three best running backs, and the defense should be improved with the return of linebacker Mike Cofer and nose tackle Jerry Ball from injuries.

But the loss of Utley and Andolsek leaves holes on the offensive line and quarterback Rodney Peete will have trouble staying healthy. The most impressive quarterback in camp this summer was one-time first-round pick Chuck Long, back for a second try.

Chicago always seems to be there.

The Bears will be tough again as Mike Ditka replaces veterans with good young players like Trace Armstrong and Mark Carrier and this year’s apparent prize, Alonzo Spellman. So with quarterback Jim Harbaugh adequate at best, they’ll make the playoffs as usual and lose to an eastern team.

Minnesota (8-8) is bearing the burden of the trade for Walker that stripped it of a generation of high draft picks.

Green is ridding the team of the players who never reached a Super Bowl, releasing Walker, safety Joey Browner and quarterback Wade Wilson and trading defensive tackle Keith Millard. Rich Gannon is listed as the starting quarterback, although former Trojan Sean Salisbury is pressing for the job. The once-dominant defense is depending on Green’s enthusiasm.

Green Bay went 4-12 last year and brought in Holmgren to replace Lindy Infante. Holmgren comes from tutoring the San Francisco offense to take over a cold-weather team with Don Majkowski, oft-injured and discontented, at quarterback rather than Montana.

In fact, the Packers’ best unit is defense. Linebacker Tony Bennett, a coming star, had 13 sacks last season.

Tampa Bay (3-13) has been spinning its wheels for a decade--its last winning record was in 1982.

At least it has Wyche, who kept things lively in Cincinnati and already is arousing fan interest. He also seems to have aroused quarterback Vinny Testaverde from a five-year slumber and the Bucs might approach .500.

New Orleans started 7-0, then finished 4-5, barely winning its first-ever NFC West title. The celebration lasted one week--the Saints were run out of the playoffs by Atlanta.

The Saints’ strength was defense--Pat Swilling was defensive player of the year and combined with Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills and Vaughn Johnson in the league’s best linebacking crew.

Bobby Hebert returned at quarterback after sitting out a year and performed well--four of the five losses came when he was out. No. 1 pick Vaughn Dunbar should help the running game but the offensive line, a key to coach Jim Mora’s conservative offense, remains a question mark.

Atlanta improved from 5-11 to 10-6 and edged San Francisco for a wild-card spot by beating the 49ers twice, once on a last-second “Hail Mary.”

Things haven’t gone as well in the off-season.

Strong safety Brian Jordan quit to play baseball and cornerback Deion Sanders is talking about commuting between the Braves and Falcons, a commute that could last into October if the Braves make it back to the World Series. Moreover, Andre Rison, one of the league’s best wide receivers, was a bitter holdout.

But the Falcons start their first season in the Georgia Dome with a lot of weapons. Quarterback Chris Miller can be a star if healthy and the receiving corps has added Drew Hill and Tony Jones from Houston, coach Jerry Glanville’s old hangout.

San Francisco missed the playoffs for the first time since 1982 despite its late season streak under . . . Steve Bono, the third-string quarterback. Montana’s elbow remained sore in training camp, Steve Young’s back hurt, yet the 49ers, perhaps out of habit, remained one of the favorites to go back to the Super Bowl.

They may have the running back they seek in Amp Lee, a second-round draft pick who has the multiple talents of Roger Craig, but lacks speed. Jerry Rice, a camp holdout, and John Taylor, are the NFL’s best receiving duo, the front seven is one of the NFL’s most underrated, and Don Griffin an unsung cornerback.

But San Francisco’s season still depends on Montana, who missed three weeks of camp with a right elbow still sore after surgery last year. Young has won in the past and Bono was amazing last year, but neither has carried a team for a full season.

The Rams, 3-13 two seasons after reaching the NFC title game, have Knox back as head coach in place of John Robinson.

His problem is simple--a lack of talent.

Marcus Dupree, out of football for five years, may end up as the principal runner.

Here is a team-by-team look at the NFC:

EAST Washington

LAST YEAR: Went 17-2 en route to third Super Bowl victory in a decade, beating Buffalo 37-24.

STRENGTHS: Offensive and defensive lines; wide receiving trio of Rickey Sanders, Gary Clark and Art Monk, now augmented by Heisman Trophy-winner Desmond Howard. Running backs Earnest Byner and Ricky Ervins. Coaching of Joe Gibbs and his staff, one of most stable in the NFL. Improving linebacker Andre Collins.

WEAKNESSES: Middle linebacker, a revolving door in the last few years; secondary, where Skins started three Plan B pickups. Post Super Bowl-lethargy -- Skins went 7-9 after winning in 1987.

NEWCOMERS: Howard, who was training camp holdout but will be explosive, productive pro.

QUESTION MARKS: Can Mark Rypien repeat what may have been a career season last year, when he was second in the NFC in passing and was Super Bowl MVP? Can veterans like Don Warren, Joe Jacoby, Monte Coleman and Art Monk produce one more good year? Will Gibbs be able to motivate the team to win again in the NFL’s toughest division.

PROGNOSIS: Barring injury or collapse, the Skins will be there at the end of the year -- in the playoffs if not in the Super Bowl. A repeat? Only one team has done it in the last decade.

Dallas

LAST YEAR: Continued a remarkable rebirth by finishing 11-5 after 1-15 and 7-9 seasons under Jimmy Johnson. Beat Chicago in wild-card game but lost in Detroit, 38-6.

STRENGTHS: Troy Aikman, emerging at quarterback; second-year running back Emmitt Smith, the league’s leading rusher; Michael Irvin and Alvin Harper at wide receiver.

WEAKNESSES: Overall defense, especially middle linebacker and the secondary. Offensive line.

NEWCOMERS: CB Kevin Smith and LB Robert Jones, two No. 1 picks who may be instant starters. DE Chad Hennings, an 11th-round pick in 1988 who got out of Air Force in time for the season.

QUESTION MARKS: Are expectations too high for a young team that could still be building? Will Smith, Jones and Hennings shore up defense that made up in intensity what it lacked in talent? Can second-year man Erik Williams be the impact offensive tackle the Cowboys think he is and can slimmed down Nate Newton do the job at guard?

PROGNOSIS: A coming team, but whether this is the year is a question. Aikman has been hurt in each of his three seasons and while Steve Beuerlein is one of the league’s best backups, he’s not Aikman. A Super Bowl’s not out of the question but is more likely a couple of years from now.

Philadelphia

LAST YEAR: Finished 10-6 despite loss of Randall Cunningham in opening game and quarterback group that included Jim McMahon, Pat Ryan, Brad Goebel and Jeff Kemp.

STRENGTHS: Defense, headed by DE Reggie White, that led NFL in all categories and was one of the best of the modern era. Cunningham’s scrambling and passing ability, which seem unaffected by his injury. Third-receivers Calvin Williams and Fred Barnett as targets. Linebacker Seth Joyner and tight end Keith Jackson.

WEAKNESSES: Offensive line. Possible hole in middle of defensive line caused by death in an auto accident of All-Pro Jerome Brown.

NEWCOMERS: Herschel Walker, signed from Minnesota, may be impact running back that Eagles need, although he couldn’t carry Vikings to title.

QUESTION MARKS: Will Walker do enough to augment Cunningham, who until last season had led Eagles in rushing for four straight years. Will Mike Pitts and Mike Golic hold up playing full time in Brown’s place. Can second-year-man Antone Davis, inconsistent last year, fulfill his promise at left tackle? Will Cunningham’s knee hold up?

PROGNOSIS: Before Brown’s injury, the Eagles were probably a Super Bowl favorite. The could still get there although the defense is likely to regress without Brown. Cunningham and Walker can pick up that slack if the offensive line protects them.

New York Giants

LAST YEAR: With Ray Handley taking over in May when Bill Parcells resigned as coach, they fell from Super Bowl champs to 8-8. Blew fourth-quarter leads five times.

STRENGTHS: Offensive line and running backs -- Rodney Hampton, Lewis Tillman, Jarrod Bunch and Dave Meggett. Linebackers if Lawrence Taylor, Pepper Johnson and Carl Banks play back to old form.

WEAKNESSES: Pass rush, with only Leonard Marshall producing on the defensive line. Cornerback, where Mark Collins, the only quality player still in his prime, is coming off an off-year. No deep threat at wide receiver.

NEWCOMERS: Defensive coordinator Rod Rust, whom Handley hopes can re-energize what for a decade was one of the NFL’s best units. TE Derek Brown, the No. 1 pick; QB Dave Brown, future starter, taken in the supplemental draft.

QUESTION MARKS: Is Handley up to being a winning coach after a late start last year and troubles motivating winning veterans? Can he keep his job with another 8-8 season? Are second-year linebackers Kanavis McGhee and Corey Miller the eventual replacements for Taylor and Banks? Was QB Jeff Hostetler’s 1990 run to the Super Bowl a fluke and if it was, can Phil Simms produce at 36?

PROGNOSIS: The playoffs are possible, somewhere between 9-7 and 7-9 is likely. The Giants may not be rebuilding, but they’re certainly retooling.

Phoenix

LAST YEAR: Went from 5-11 to 4-12 after losing QB Timm Rosenbach with knee injury in training camp.

STRENGTHS: Young backfield featuring Rosenbach and running backs Johnnie Johnson and Anthony Thompson. Linebackers Eric Hill and Ken Harvey; Safety Tim McDonald and young wide receivers Ernie Jones and Ricky Proehl.

WEAKNESSES: Cornerback, offensive and defensive lines, particularly pass rush. Deep speed at receiver, perhaps from second-year-man Randal Hill.

NEWCOMERS: DT Eric Swann, last year’s No. 1, who missed whole season with knee injury. QB Tony Sacca, the first draft pick (in second round.)

QUESTION MARKS: Will Rosenbach’s knee hold up for a season? Even if Swann is healthy, how long will his lack of college experience and his loss of time last year hurt him? Can Cards compete in what may be the league’s toughest division without home support--season tickets sales have declined each year they’ve been in Phoenix and many fans root for visitors?

PROGNOSIS: Joe Bugel has made progress in putting together a half-decent team. In another division, they might approach .500; in this one, six wins will be a lot.

CENTRAL Detroit

LAST YEAR: Went from 6-10 to a shocking 12-4 and the division title, then made it to the NFC title game, where they were routed 41-10 by Washington. Got inspiration from Nov. 17 injury that paralyzed guard Mike Utley, the first of series of tragedies to hit team.

STRENGTHS: Running back Barry Sanders; linebackers Chris Spielman and Mike Cofer; offensive tackle Lomas Brown; nose tackle Jerry Ball; developing young defensive line featuring Marc Spindler. Receivers Herman Moore and Willie Green.

WEAKNESSES: Offensive line, which lost not only Utley but guard Eric Andolsek, killed in a freak accident in June. Brown, T Eric Sanders and C Kevin Glover are the only proven players there. Consistency at quarterback, where Rodney Peete, Erik Kramer and Andre Ware are contending.

NEWCOMERS: DE Robert Porcher, who may help weak pass rush immediately. K Jason Hanson, second-round choice, who will replace veteran Eddie Murray. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning, the former Atlanta and San Diego head coach.

QUESTION MARKS: What’s the team psyche? Not only was Utley paralyzed and Andolsek killed but Wayne Fontes, coach of the year last season, is still stunned by death of his brother Len, the defensive backfield coach. Can Peete recover from Achilles tendon injury and if not, is Kramer as good as his 5-2 mark as a replacement last year? Will Fontes find parts for the offensive line? How will Henning’s tight end-oriented offense blend with the remnants of the run-and-shoot? Will Porcher and Cofer give the Lions a pass rush?

PROGNOSIS: The defense is probably better, but even Sanders can’t run without blockers. The division isn’t that tough so the playoffs are a good bet, but it’s hard to make the Lions the division favorite.

Chicago

LAST YEAR: Went their usual 11-5, losing division title in the last week of the regular season, then losing to the Cowboys at home in 17-13 in playoffs.

STRENGTHS: Running game, headed by Neal Anderson; solid corps of young players headed by defensive end Trace Armstrong and defensive backs Donnell Woolford and Mark Carrier.

WEAKNESSES: Age on offensive line; deep threat at receiver.

NEWCOMERS: No. 1 pick Alonzo Spellman, who may step right in at defensive tackle for congenitally overweight William Perry.

QUESTION MARKS: Is the offense of playoff caliber? Is quarterback Jim Harbaugh’s arm up to his leadership abilities and is there more speed than overachiever Tom Waddle among the receivers. Can Mike Singeltary, in his final season, continue to play to Pro Bowl standards? Is Richard Dent over the hill?

PROGNOSIS: Probably good enough win a division where three of the five teams have new coaches and are rebuilding and the fourth has been traumatized. But since 1985, they tend to run into trouble in the playoffs against the East.

Minnesota

LAST YEAR: Improved from 6-10 to 8-8, and coach Jerry Burns retired with Dennis Green taking over as his replacement.

STRENGTHS: Green’s enthusiasm. Offensive line; Wide receivers Anthony and Cris Carter and tight end Steve Jordan.

WEAKNESSES: Quarterback, where Rich Gannon and Sean Salisbury are the incumbents with the release of Wade Wilson. Running back, where third-year man Terry Allen will carry the load with the release of Herschel Walker. Overall lack of young talent caused by loss of draft choices in the deal that brought Walker from Dallas.

NEWCOMERS: Robert Harris, top pick in second round, may be pass rusher Vikes need to supplement Chris Doleman.

QUESTION MARKS: Can either Gannon or Salisbury be a solid NFL quarterback? Ditto for Allen, who has a history of injuries, at running back. Can young players like LB Carlos Jenkins; DE John Randle, TE Mike Jones and S Todd Scott produce?

PROGNOSIS: Scott got rid of Wilson, Walker, Joey Browner, Keith Millard in an effort to remake the Vikings in his own image. But that doesn’t make up for Mike Lynn’s trade of a generation of high draft picks for Walker, who was supposed to get Vikes to the Super Bowl and never came close. They won’t get close this year, either.

Green Bay

LAST YEAR: Slipped to 4-12 as quarterback Don Majkowski played hurt, Tim Harris got traded and general manager Tom Braatz and coach Lindy Infante got fired.

STRENGTHS: Overall defense, featuring underrated linebacker Tony Bennett. Wide reciever Sterling Sharpe. Young secondary.

WEAKNESSES: Lack of consistent running game. Packers haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Terdell Middleton in 1978. Donnell Thompson was leading rusher last year with 471 yards. Offensive line, where Tony Mandarich has yet to produce like the highly touted draft choice he was.

NEWCOMERS: Coach Mike Holmgren, Joe Montana’s tutor in San Francisco; general manager Ron Wolf; CB Terrell Buckley, No. 1 pick. QB Ty Detmer, the former Heisman Trophy winner, has looked much better in camp than a ninth-rounder.

QUESTION MARKS: Can Holmgren jump start the offense under Majkowski, who had one Majik year (1989) and has been otherwise less than average? Can he find a runner with speed to turn the corner like Roger Craig used to?

PROGNOSIS: Holmgren’s a warm-weather offensive guy on a cold-weather defensive team. That doesn’t mean he was a bad choice to coach, but he needs talent to win and there’s not enough there for this year.

Tampa Bay

LAST YEAR: Went 3-13, ninth straight losing season as coach Richard Williamson got fired and Sam Wyche got hired after owner Hugh Culverhouse flirted with Bill Parcells, was rejected, then rejected Parcells on the second round.

STRENGTHS: Potential of passing game featuring Vinny Testaverde, the unsung Mark Carrier, Lawrence Dawsey and tight end Ron Hall. Potential of second-year running back Reggie Cobb. Talent on defense like Keith McCants and Broderick Thomas that finally got some direction last year from new coordinator Floyd Peters.

WEAKNESSES: Secondary, defensive and offensive lines, where only tackle Paul Gruber and last year’s No. 1 Charles McRae are building blocks. Front office, which traded what would have been second overall pick this year for quarterback Chris Chandler, later released. When a team loses as much as this one does, look to the top.

NEWCOMERS: Wyche, WR Courtney Hawkins, the second-round pick, 29th overall. WR Ricky Nattiel, obtained in trade with Denver.

QUESTION MARKS: Can Testaverde, the No. 1 overall pick in 1987, finally put together under quarterback guru Wyche a season befitting his potential? Can the talent on offense and defense mesh to produce a few more wins? Will anyone show up in a city that has been totally turned off?

PROGNOSIS: There’s some talent here, conceivably enough to finish third in a week division and maybe reach .500. Wyche does odd things, but he’s managed to bring a little excitement to Tampa Bay already. If he doesn’t turn off owner Hugh Culverhouse, he might bring enough stability to produce an interesting team.

WEST New Orleans

LAST YEAR: Started 7-0, finished 11-5, enduring four-game losing streak when quarterback Bobby Hebert went out with shoulder injury. Lost opening playoff game 27-20 to Atlanta.

STRENGTHS: Running game and a solid defense highlighted by outside linebackers Pat Swilling and Rickey Jackson that dominated in first half of year before wearing down toward the end. Kicking of Morten Andersen; coaching of Jim Mora.

WEAKNESSES: Lack of deep threat at receiver. Questions at quarterback, where Hebert is coming off shoulder operation. Questionable offensive line that’s been injury-hit almost every year.

NEWCOMERS: RB Vaughn Dunbar, a steal as the 21st pick in the first round.

QUESTION MARKS: Can Dunbar, Dalton Hilliard and overweight Craig Heyward carry the offense? Can Hebert bounce back from surgery to lead the team again. Will the defense hold up?

PROGNOSIS: Mora has carried the team to respectablity the last five years, making the playoffs three times during that span. But they haven’t won a playoff game yet and the question is if the talent is there. The last few drafts have been average at best.

Atlanta

LAST YEAR: The Falcons turned it around ... for one year at least, finishing 10-6, beating New Orleans in playoffs before losing 24-7 at Washington.

STRENGTHS: Explosive receivers in Andre Rison, Michael Haynes and Mike Pritchard, augmented by Plan B pickup Drew Hill. Quarterback Chris Miller

WEAKNESSES: Gambling defense which exposes weakness in secondary. Defensive and offensive lines, both aging. Running back, where Steve Broussard or running back Vinson Smith, the No. 1 pick, must come through. Maybe the secondary, after Brian Jordan decided to play baseball full time and Sanders decided to commute between the two sports.

NEWCOMERS: Smith and offensive tackle Bob Whitfield, the other No. 1 pick; Hill and Tony Smith from Jerry Glanville’s old Houston team.

QUESTION MARKS: Is Glanville’s slam-bang style enough to win in NFL or does it simply get teams up for the Falcons? Can Miller stay healthy? Like Mora, Glanville has never done much in the playoffs.

PROGNOSIS: Who knows with a Glanville team. They begin play in the new Georgia Dome, which may help them for a game or two. A playoff contender, but they don’t match up with the teams in the East.

San Francisco

LAST YEAR: Without Joe Montana, missed the playoffs at 10-6, although they were one of league’s hottest team at year’s end, winning five of last six under third-string quarterback Steve Bono.

STRENGTHS: Quarterback depth? Montana’s elbow is still troubling him. So is Steve Young’s back. But Bono completed 60 percent of his passes with 11 TDs and four interceptions, so don’t dismiss him. Wide receivers Jerry Rice (a training camp holdout) and John Taylor. Defensive front.

WEAKNESSES: Lack of a franchise running back -- the 49ers hope second-rounder Amp Lee is the answer to void that’s existed since Roger Craig went downhill three years go. Offensive line depth.

NEWCOMERS: Lee; safety Dana Hall, the first-round coach, and a group of new assistant coaches to replace the ones who went with Mike Holmgren to Green Bay; Dennis Green to Minnesota and Bill Walsh to Stanford. That’s the first time in a decade the staff has been shaken up so intensively.

QUESTION MARKS: Who’s the quarterback? Do the new coaches mean a change in the NFL’s most successful system, one which has plugged in players and kept winning? Can Lee be another Craig?

PROGNOSIS: This team has twice turned itself over and won more Super Bowls. This is another of those transition years, but the 49ers are still good enough to win the division and, with luck, contend for their fifth NFL title in 12 years.

Rams

LAST YEAR: Continued a decline from the NFC title game in 1989 to 5-11 in 1990 and finished 3-13. John Robinson was replaced by Chuck Knox, down from Seattle, for his second sting with the team

STRENGTHS: Receivers--Henry Ellard, Flipper Anderson, Aaron Cox. Pass-rusher Kevin Greene; all-purpose running back Robert Delpino.

WEAKNESSES: Aging offensive line; Defensive line, especially pass rush; Running back, where Cleveland Gary runs well but doesn’t hold the ball. Pass coverage in secondary.

NEWCOMERS: Knox; DE Sean Gilbert, the No. 1 pick, who could be the first legitimate defensive lineman the Rams have had since . . . Jack Youngblood, Fred Dryer, Merlin Olsen et. al?

QUESTION MARKS: Can Knox do what he’s done before--bring the Rams to respectability? Can Gary ever learn to hold the ball? Can QB Jim Everett return to the form he showed in 1989, when he looked good for another decade, or will he continue to wilt under heavy pass rushes? Can Gilbert and second-year CB Todd Lyght rejuvenate the defense.

PROGNOSIS: The bottom fell out quickly on this team, which failed to capitlize on the high draft picks it got in the 1987 Eric Dickerson deal. Knox has gotten full authority from the front office, something Robinson didn’t have, and has a way of building respectable teams, thought not necessarily dominating ones.


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