Smooth cruising at top; Pro football's '81 winner-loser image emerges
The pro football season is a long way from congealing, but after four weeks, the shape of things to come has emerged. As expected, Philadelphia and Dallas, both 4-0, are cruising along. So, too, is suprising Miami, the National Football League's only other undefeated team. Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Denver have people wondering where they came from with their 3-1 records. Atlanta, an overnight contender a year ago, has taken on the look of permanence, winless New England and Washington one of disaster. Everywhere else the picture is muddled, which, translated, means normal in NFL circles.
As recent league history indicates, four weeks do not a season make. As some may remember, Detroit and San Francisco sparkled in 1980's early going to fade from the picture.
On the other hand, dismissing the first quarter of any season is foolishness, a fitting description for all those gloomy forecasts made about Miami's 1981 chances.
No team coached by Don Shula, one of the game's noted masterminds, should ever be written off, no matter how hopeless things may look. And on paper, where nary a game's been won, the Dolphins clearly seemed headed for their first losing season since 1969, the year before the chisel-featured Shula arrived in Miami. Unheralded running backs, a so-so offensive line, and a second-year quarterback who just began to get his wet in 1980 appeared to spell trouble with a capital "T".
Of course, this was just the kind of challenge Shula relishes. And suddenly, like a desert in bloom, the franchise has flowered. Quarterback David Woodley, who completed 19 to 30 passes in Sunday's victory over Baltimore, has come along under the tutelage of retired quarterback Bob Griese. In effect, he is the hub of a No-Name Offense (remember the Dolphins famed No-Name Defense?), which finds the like of rookies Andra Franklin and Tommy vigorito carrying the ball.
This unit doesn't rate as spectacular, but it gets the job done, and that's all that Shula asks with an outstanding, sack-happy defense.
Defense has been a key for Philadelphia, too, as it was last year en route to the Super Bowl. The Eagles have been hindered offensively by losing Leroy Harris to injury, then Perry Harrington, his replacement at fullback. But Coach Dick Vermeil has built a much deeper organization than the one he inherited several years ago, and can plug holes, which is why Philadelphia is off to its fastest start in 15 years.
Unfortunately for Eagle lovers, Philadelphia and Dallas share the same turf, the National Football conference's eastern Division, which means these undefeated teams eventually meet twice. Their first head-to-head confrontation doesn't come until Nov. 1, with the rematch on Dec. 13 in the regular season's next-to-last weekend.
Dallas once again has fielded an explosive, complex offense, which quarterback Danny White operates every bit as effectively as his predecessor, Roger Staubach. Tony dorsett's presence in the Cowboy backfield, of course, makes White's job easier. The juking speedster, who's enjoying his best season, has gained 493 yards and threatens to end the three-year rushing reign of Houston's Earl Camphell.
At this point, casual fans must be wondering whatever happened to the Oakland Raiders. The reigning Super Bowl champions, not really an overpowering team even a year ago, have split their first four games, but find themselves behind San Diego, Kansas City, and Denver in the American Conference's intriguing Western Division. The future looks none too bright, either, judging from how an injury-riddled lineup suffered through Oakland's first shutout defeat in 16 years Sunday, losing to Detroit 16-0.
San Diego supposedly was the team to beat in the AFC West, yet everything's up in the air now that the Broncos and Chief's have come into their own. Denver would appear the stronger of the two, basically because any offense led by unknown Bill Kenney of Kansas City has to be suspect.
Some might say Denver's offense is just as questionable under Craig Morton, who, though well known, was'nt expected to do much in this, his 17th, year in the league.
New Coach Dan Reeves apparently has lit a fire under his former Dallas teammate, though, and Morton has been nothing less than outstanding in the last two weeks -- shades of the '77 season, when Denver made it to the Super Bowl.
Morton threw four touchdown passes in a victory over Baltimore, then repeated the performance in a starting 42-24 upset of San diego. Five of these scoring strikes were hauled in by wide receiver Steve Watson, a third-year player who had never caught a TD pass before last week.
Morton isn't the only quarterback on the rebound. Cincinnati's Ken Anderson, another passer sometimes saddled with an over-the-hill label, proved his worth in the Bengals' 27-24 overtime victory over a favored Buffalo Sunday. "I don't know how anyone can play a better football game than Anderson did," said Coach Forrest Gregg after directed scoring drives of 97, 91, 70, and 58 yards against the Bills. Perhaps it's only coincidential, but Cincinnati seems to have new Confidence now that the club has redesigned its uniforms, incorporating tiger stripe on the helmet and jersey.
The addition of slick rookie receiver Chris Collinsworth has been a plus, yet first-year players are contributing to other clubs as well. Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers helped the Saints upset Los Angeles, and linebacker Lawrence Taylor, the draft's second selection, has played well for the New York Giants.In a major trade, receiver John Jefferson was dealt to Green Bay for draft choices after the Chargers failed to sign him to a new contract.