National Football League '83

The National Football League's season of discontent is history now. The 57 -day strike of 1982 has been straight-armed out of the way, and a new era of peace and prosperity ushered in.

Ironically, the only sign of labor discontent this year has emerged at union headquarters, where about half the clerical and secretarial staff of the NFL Players Association walked out.

In the association's dealings with the league, though, it's been clear sailing. Gene Upshaw, the new leader of the NFLPA, even supported Commissioner Pete Rozelle when he disciplined four players for violations of league drug policies. Suspended through the fourth game of season are Ross Browner and Pete Johnson of Cincinnati, E.J. Junior of St. Louis, and Greg Stemrick of New Orleans.

Drug-related problems are an increasing concern league-wide, and have prompted at least one team, the Dallas Cowboys, to hire an ex-FBI agent to watch over its players.

But despite a storm cloud here or there, enthusiasm is running high in anticipation of a full season. Memories of last January's exciting Super Bowl, in which Washington defeated Miami 27-17, still linger.

One wonders, however, if the Redskins can be as good over 16 weeks as they were during an abbreviated nine-week regular season, when everything fell into place. Quarterback Joe Theismann guided the offense masterfully; John Riggins ran wild behind a line known as the ''Hogs''; and Coach Joe Gibbs was heralded as a gridiron genius much as San Francisco's Bill Walsh had been the previous season.

But if the Redskins don't have the exceptional talent or depth for the long haul, who does?

The question isn't easy to answer, since anyone looking for a clear-cut juggernaut in today's egalitarian NFL society won't find it. Parity runs rampant. One could do worse, however, than to choose the New York Jets as a team with championship potential.

The Jets may not be at full strength entering Sunday's opener against San Diego, but they have the resources to eventually bring home the bacon.

The front office has gradually assembled a club with far more strengths than weaknesses. Offensively, New York is led by quarterback Richard Todd, running back Freeman McNeil, and an offensive line that resembles a stand of oaks. Todd , a Wall Street stockbroker when he isn't calling football signals, has achieved a greater measure of on-the-job maturity. McNeil was simply the best runner in the NFL last year in only his second season.

Injuries have prevented the defensive unit's ''New York Sack Exchange'' from conducting those once frequent team meetings on crumpled quarterbacks, but excitable Mark Gastineau is still there to lead the charge.

Other teams that receive regular mention as contenders in the American Conference are San Diego, Miami, and Cincinnati. It's harder to decipher which are the better National Conference squads, but surely Dallas belongs among them.

Those who would question the Cowboys' hunger and dedication point to three straight losses in the NFC championship game. But the fact they made it that far says something about the club's engrained sense of excellence. As everyone knows, Coach Tom Landry doesn't condone mediocrity.

Landry, however, faces a tough decision in picking his starting quarterback. The choice, not unlike the one he had to make between Roger Staubach and Craig Morton in the early '70s, is now between Danny White, Staubach's successor, and young Gary Hogeboom. White has done a better-than-adequate job, but Hogeboom appears to be the players' choice.

Landry's dilemma is shared by many coaches around the league. In Cleveland, Coach Sam Rutigliano must choose between Brian Sipe and Paul McDonald. In Detroit, Monte Clark weighs the merits of Eric Hipple and Gary Danielson, as other coaches sort out similarly tough options. The trickiest assignment of all may belong to Bill Parcells, rookie coach of the New York Giants, who spent the exhibition season alternately impressed by Phil Simms, Scott Bruner, and Jeff Rutledge.

What's a coach to do? Well, if you're Miami's Don Shula, you go with whoever has the hot hand. In the past, that has meant starting Dave Woodley, then using Don Strock in relief, thus the name ''Woodstrock'' for the Dolphins' two-headed quarterback. The system has worked reasonably well and may be the wave of the future. For it to continue, however, rookie Dan Marino would have to replace Strock, a contract hold-out, and somehow ''Woodmarino'' just doesn't sound right.

At places like San Diego and Cincinnati, of course, one and only one quarterback gets the call. In San Diego that's Dan Fouts, in Cincinnati Ken Anderson.

Fouts became a free agent and upped the ante on his new contract, but the Chargers knew they had to sign him or else ground the game's most prolific passing attack. The Bengals count as heavily on Anderson, who set a league passing record with a 70.55 completion percentage last season.

Their preeminence in this age of the spiral makes them invaluable, which is what John Elway may eventually become in Denver. Last April the coveted Stanford star was the first quarterback selected No. 1 in the NFL draft since 1975. (As the league's sorriest franchise, Baltimore had first choice, but traded it to Denver when Elway said he would turn to a baseball career if selected by the Colts.)

Broncomaniacs, of which there are many, cast their vocal ballots for the rookie to replace veteran Steve DeBerg in the pre-season. Despite a spectacular first outing, however, Elway can't be expected to learn the ropes overnight. That should have been clear in the team's final exhibition game, when in his debut as a starter John threw three interceptions and fumbled with equal frequency in a 34-3 loss to Minnesota.

Elway was the biggest catch of a rich draft, but some excellent talent got away to the United States Football League, which completed its first season in July. Kelvin Bryant, Anthony Carter, and Trumaine Johnson were among those who opted for the USFL, which jumped the gun and signed Herschel Walker, too.

Though the rival leagues have enjoyed a degree of peaceful coexistence, there have been some disturbing instances of open warfare. USFL clubs, for example, have signed Bengal receivers Dan Ross and Chris Collinsworth to future contracts. That irritates NFL owners far more than the USFL's recent signing of Tampa Bay's starting quarterback, Doug Williams, who had played out his option year and was a free agent.

The NFL is keeping a wary eye on the competition, and has expanded its rosters in order to ensure that adequate backup players are available. The older league's monopoly of players, fans, and TV dollars is obviously over, but the NFL is still in the driver's seat and aims to keep it that way.

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