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PRO FOOTBALL ’94 / SEASON PREVIEWS : National Football Conference

Times Staff Writer

New faces, new systems, new hopes ... and still the same old question: How is anybody gong to keep the Cowboys or 49ers out of the Big One?

EASTERN DIVISION

DALLAS COWBOYS

Last Year: 12-4, Super Bowl champions.

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This Year: 12-4, lose to Green Bay Packers in conference semifinals.

Looking Good: The offense, like everything else on the team, has remained untouched by Barry Switzer. With the replacement of guard Kevin Gogan by Derek Kennard, the offensive line is even better. The first time the first-team offense was together this summer, they drove the ball for more than 10 minutes to score against the Denver Broncos. That was no fluke--Troy and Emmitt and Michael and Alvin will be household names once again.

Don’t Look: How about them linebackers? Dixon Edwards, Godfrey Myles and Darrin Smith, all young and fast, could be out of control during crunch time without the leadership of Ken Norton Jr. The defensive line will also miss the depth provided by Jimmie Jones and Tony Casillas.

It Figures: Emmitt Smith averaged 4.1 yards a carry in the first quarter last year . . . and 6.3 yards a carry in the fourth quarter.

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PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Last Year: 8-8.

This Year: 10-6, lose to Minnesota Vikings in wild-card playoff.

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Looking Good: Randall Cunningham promises to be as unpredictable as ever, which, if he stays sound, should make him better than ever. Few quarterbacks have an offensive line this big--four of the five are 295 pounds or more--and two receivers as accomplished as Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams. The Eagles tried to trade Cunningham in the off-season. He responded by showing up this summer wearing a T-shirt reading, “Dangerously Committed.’ Officials hope that for once, he practices what he preaches.

Don’t Look: Herschel Walker scored a career-low four touchdowns last season despite 1,356 total yards. Is it really possible he is 32?

It Figures: Last season, the defense recorded just 36 sacks, the Eagles’ lowest total in 14 years. What is 36 minus Seth Joyner and Clyde Simmons?

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ARIZONA CARDINALS

Last Year: 7-9.

This Year: 10-6, lose to Packers in wild-card playoff.

Looking Good: It may take them six games to hone Coach Buddy Ryan’s defense--a loss to the Rams in the opener should not surprise--but then watch out.

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Joyner, Simmons and Wilber Marshall--all Buddy disciples--will help make an All-Pro out of Eric Swann, and an all-rookie out of Jamir Miller.

Either way, Ryan will lead the league in all-mouth. Is there anybody in this league he hasn’t yet referred to as ‘stupid?’

Don’t Look: Quarterback Steve Beuerlein has survived the pressure of Dallas and the wrath of Al Davis. None of that can prepare him for the glare of Jim McMahon, the only backup quarterback in the league who holds his own weekly news conferences. Ryan likes McMahon, which means Beuerlein has about six weeks to become the league’s leading passer before he is benched.

It Figures: The Cardinals attempted to trade for Joe Montana before signing Beuerlein last year, but guess who ended up playing better in critical situations? Beuerlein threw for five fourth-quarter touchdowns and completed 60.2% of his fourth-quarter throws. Montana did not throw for a fourth-quarter score and completed 54.3% of his passes in that period.

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NEW YORK GIANTS

Last Year: 11-5, lost to San Francisco 49ers in conference semifinals.

This Year: 7-9.

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Looking Good: We like running back Rodney Hampton, the first player in franchise history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in three consecutive years despite playing a full season just once during that time.

We like receiver Mike Sherrard if he stays sound for 16 games.

And we like that Lawrence Taylor is no longer moping around, talking about his golf game.

Don’t Look: The first pass thrown by opening-day starter Dave Brown will be the eighth of his three-year career. His first touchdown pass will be the first of his career.

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So maybe Phil Simms would not have been strong enough to start the season. It sure would have been nice to have him standing over there while Brown learns on the job.

It Figures: On the strong back of Hampton, the Giants held the ball an average of 32:18 each game last season, best in the league.

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WASHINGTON REDSKINS

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Last Year: 4-12.

This Year: 5-11.

Looking Good: With Pro Bowl-tackle Jim Lachey returning after missing all of last season because of a knee injury, life is even better for Reggie Brooks, who stunned the league as a rookie with 1,063 yards and a 4.8-yard average. Linebacker Ken Harvey, formerly a Cardinal, makes an aging and average defense better.

Don’t Look: Rookie quarterback Heath Shuler, the third pick in this spring’s draft, is in for a royal beating. Not only will he have to face the furious pass rushes of NFC East teams in half of his games, but his choice of receivers is between Heisman flop Desmond Howard (26 catches in two years) and Ram refugee Henry Ellard (eight touchdown catches in the last three years).

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It Figures: The Redskins completed just five of 63 passes longer than 20 yards last season, a league-low 7.9%. The league average was 28.5%.

WESTERN DIVISION

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Last year: 10-6, lost to Cowboys in NFC championship game.

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This year: 14-2, defeat Vikings in conference semifinals, defeat Cowboys in conference championship game, defeat Raiders in Super Bowl.

Looking Good: Everything. Everybody. From Steve Young, whose has lead the league in quarterback rating for a record three consecutive seasons, to Doug Brien.

Doug Brien? He’s the kid kicker drafted in the third round from California, and the only guy we saw during the preseason--and this inludes all of those Morten Andersen clones--who could consistently kickoff into the end zone while remaining accurate on field goals. With two exceptions, the entire offense is back. The newcomers are one of the smartest centers in league history, lawyer Bart Oates, and the new Tom Rathman, a rookie fullback named William Floyd. You know about all the changes on defense, except for perhaps the most important one--defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes, who returns from the Packers after coaching with the 49ers during their glory decade of the 1980s.

Don’t Look: They have a distracting schedule and a potentially disruptive locker room.

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On that schedule is a season-opening Monday night game against the Raiders and a game the next week in Kansas City against Joe Montana. By the time they visit the Rams on Sept. 18, they could already be emotionally wiped out. The locker room is also strange. So many leaders, so many big mouths, from Ken Norton Jr. to Gary Plummer to Tim McDonald. What happens when they start yelling at each other? And that will happen.

It Figures: Opponents blitzed Young six or more times in four games last season. The 49ers lost three of those games.

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LOS ANGELES RAMS

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Last Year: 5-11.

This Year: 7-9.

Looking Good: St. Louis.

Don’t Look: Baltimore.

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It Figures: The last three franchises to change cities--the Raiders, the Cardinals and the Colts--each won seven games in the final season at its former home.

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ATLANTA FALCONS

Last Year: 6-10.

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This Year: 9-7.

Looking Good: Well, it’s nice to listen to a Falcon coach who doesn’t sound like a former cast member of Hee Haw. We wish June Jones well, and wonder how long it will take for Jerry Glanville to start ripping him on Fox. And even though new quarterback Jeff George loosely compared himself to Jesus during his first news conference as a Falcon, we think his selfishness is finally eroding in a new enviroment. Few in the league have a better arm and better vision. After just two weeks, he will have shown why the Indianapolis Colts tried so desparately to keep him happy. On the defensive line, Chris Doleman joins a more comfortable Pierce Holt and one of the league’s most underrated run-stoppers, Moe Gardner. In the secondary, Kevin Ross (formerly with the Kansas City Chiefs) and D.J. Johnson (formerly with the Pittsburgh Steelers) add to the rising star of safety Roger Harper.

Don’t Look: We don’t believe running back Erric Pegram, 5-feet-9 and 188 pounds, will be able to repeat last season’s 1,185-yard heroics. With no Michael Haynes, receiver Andre Rison will not be able to repeat his 15-touchdown heroics.

It Figures: Seventeen running backs scored more rushing touchdowns last season than the entire Falcon team, which scored four.

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NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Last Year: 8-8.

This Year: 4-12.

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Looking Good: Jim Everett in something other than blue and gold. Rookie running back Mario Bates in an NFL backfield. Michael Haynes going deep.

Don’t Look: The news conference will take place at the Saints’ office sometime in late December. Owner Tom Benson will openly weep, saying he feels like he is losing a son. But he will fire Jim Mora anyway. Previously a victim of teams that quit during crunch time, Mora’s nine-year tenure will finally end under a rush of players running out the door before the season starts. Free agency and the salary cap have stripped him of a solid defensive nucleus.

It Figures: Mora will unfortunately not be remembered for leading the Saints into the playoffs in four of eight years . . . but for never winning a playoff game.

CENTRAL DIVISION

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GREEN BAY PACKERS.

Last Year: 9-7, lost to Cowboys in conference semifinals.

This Year: 12-4, defeat Cardinals in wild-card playoff, defeat Cowboys in conference semifinals, lose to 49ers in conference championship game.

Looking Good: Most of the team’s best players are in their prime. Quarterback Brett Favre, despite his mistakes, has thrown for more touchdowns and yardage in each of the last two years. Receiver Sterling Sharpe has caught more than 100 passes for a league-record two consecutive years--and 24 touchdown passes in the last two seasons after catching 24 in his first four seasons. Reggie White and newcomers Steve McMichael and Sean Jones form one of the league’s best defensive lines.

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Don’t Look: Where have you gone, Terdell Middleton? The Packers have not had a 1,000-yard rusher in 16 years. They signed Reggie Cobb from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this spring, hoping he would end that drought, but leg injuries last year have apparently cost him a step. They drafted Notre Dame guard Aaron Taylor in hopes that he could open the holes, but Taylor has already suffered a season-ending knee injury.

It Figures: In the last two years, when Brett Favre has committed fewer than two turnovers a game, the Packers are 12-3. In his mistake-filled games, they are 5-9.

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MINNESOTA VIKINGS

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Last Year:: 9-7, lost to Giants in wild-card playoff.

This Year: 9-7, defeat Eagles in wild-card playoff, lose to 49ers in conference semifinals.

Looking Good: After missing a year because of his second major knee surgery, Terry Allen has stormed back, rushing for 68 yards in 11 carries against the Miami Dolphins in the final exhibition game. With an improved offensive line led by a Chris Hinton, a Pro Bowler with the Atlanta Falcons, and steady Randall McDaniel, the holes should be bigger than ever.

Don’t Look: How well can aging Warren Moon adjust to a new offense and new conference distinctly lacking any team that resembles the Cincinnati Bengals? Pro Bowl receiver Cris Carter will need to be even more spectacular. And the brutal rushing defense that allowed the fewest passing touchdowns in the NFL last season suddenly looks beatable. There was the trade of Pro Bowl lineman Chris Doleman to the Falcons, which will hurt no matter what fans of John Randle and Henry Thomas say.

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It Figures: A Viking booster club kickoff luncheon was held this summer amid falling ticket sales and growing skepticism. As either a tribute to Warren Moon, or an omen for everyone else, the affair was sponsored by Advil.

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CHICAGO BEARS

Last Year: 7-9.

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This Year: 9-7.

Looking Good: Yes, we know that 26 quarterbacks threw more passes last season than quarterback Erik Kramer has thrown in the last two seasons combined. No, that doesn’t sound like a proper resume for a guy who was paid millions to make the Bears care about January again. But Kramer has proven, by leading two late-season charges in the last three seasons for the Detroit Lions, that he knows how to win when it counts. And yes, we know that Richard Dent and Steve McMichael have skipped town. But any defense of Coach Dave Wannstedt’s is good enough for us, especially with two of the game’s unknown stars, defensive end Trace Armstrong and cornerback Donnell Woolford.

Don’t Look: How bad are the receivers, who contributed to a passing game that was ranked last in the league last season? The Bears attempted to upgrade it with acquisitions from the Pittsburgh Steelers (Merril Hoge and Jeff Graham), New England Patriots (Marv Cook) and Rams (Nate Lewis and Greg McMurtry). Last year, none of those teams ranked higher than 12th in passing.

It Figures: Last year’s Bear defense scored 24 points, two more than the franchise’s record-setting defense scored during the Super Bowl championship season of 1985.

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TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Last Year: 5-11.

This Year: 7-9.

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Looking Good: Fantasy league players would have a late-round steal in Jackie Harris, the former Packer tight end who used free agency to join a coach who likes tight ends like no other. Harris could catch 70 passes this season. It would nicely complement one of the game’s top young wide receivers, Horace Copeland, who averaged 21.1 yards a catch last season.

Both could be an even nicer complement to rookie running back Errict Rhett, who might run hard enough to make those hot September afternoons at Tampa Stadium bearable.

Don’t Look: Forget even those 3,054 yards and 18 touchdown passes. The Buccaneers cannot win with Craig Erickson at quarterback. He was the league’s lowest-rated veteran quarterback (66.4 last year) to keep his starting job. If only rookie quarterback Trent Dilfer had bothered to show up at training camp on time.

It Figures: The Buccaneers have thrown more interceptions than any other team in four of the last six seasons.

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DETROIT LIONS

Last year: 10-6, lost to Packers in wild-card playoff.

This year: 6-10.

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Looking Good: The last time we saw Barry Sanders, he was rushing for 169 yards in a 28-24 loss to the Packers in the wild-card game on Jan. 8. Not bad, considering it was his first game since Thanksgiving. Knee injuries, like tacklers, can only slow Sanders.

Don’t Look: Facing the league’s second-toughest schedule, this is the year the Lions are finally exposed for what they are: Nice guys who can finish last. We like Coach Wayne Fontes, but he may not last until December. We like the idea of quarterback Scott Mitchell taking advantage of free agency to emerge from Miami, but we don’t like him under pressure.

It Figures: The best middle linebacker in football? Playing the middle in a 4-3 defense last season, Chris Spielman recorded more than half of his 149 tackles away from the center of the field. This includes 39 tackles on passing plays in other defenders’ zones.

Source: Stats, Inc.

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1993 Leaders

Running Backs Att Yds Td Emmitt Smith, Dallas 283 1,486 10 Jerome Bettis, Rams 294 1,429 7 Erric Pegram, Atl. 292 1,185 3 Barry Sanders, Det. 243 1,115 Rodney Hampton, N.Y. 292 1,077 5 Reggie Brooks, Wash. 223 1,063 3 Ron Moore, Ariz. 263 1,018 9 Ricky Watters, S.F. 208 950 11 Herschel Walker, Phil. 174 746 4 Derek Brown, N.O. 180 705 3

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Wide Receivers No. Yds Td Sterling Sharpe, G.B. 112 1,274 11 Jerry Rice, S.F. 98 1,503 15 Michael Irvin, Dallas 88 1,330 7 Andre Rison, Atl. 86 1,242 15 Cris Carter, Min. 86 1,071 9 Michael Haynes, N.O. 72 778 4 Brent Jones, S.F. 68 735 3 Ricky Proehl, Ariz. 65 877 7 Gary Clark, Ariz. 63 818 4

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Quarterbacks Att Comp Yds Td Int Rating Steve Young, S.F. 462 314 4,023 29 16 101.5 Troy Alkman, Dallas 392 271 3,100 15 6 99.0 Eric Kramer, Chi. 138 87 1,002 8 3 95.1 Randall Cunningham, Phil. 110 76 850 5 5 88.1 Scott Mitchell, Det. 233 133 1,773 12 8 84.2 Steve Beueriein, Ariz. 418 258 3,164 18 17 82.5 Jeff George, Atl. 407 234 2,526 8 6 76.3 Warren Moon, Minn. 520 303 3,485 21 21 75.2 Brett Favre, G.B. 522 318 3,303 19 24 72.2 Craig Erickson, T.B. 457 233 3,054 18 21 66.4


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