JOE MONTANA'S name is back on the marquee as he seeks to revive his Super Bowl touch in a new setting. Don Shula stands poised to become the ``winningest'' coach of all time. The arrival of free agency has created a whole new ballgame off the field. And this only scratches the surface of a fascinating 1993 National Football League season.
Games may be won in the trenches, but quarterbacks get the glory - and Montana is the quintessential example. The great years at Notre Dame, the four Super Bowl triumphs at San Francisco, the last-ditch comebacks - it all combines to make him a legend in his own time.
Now, after virtually two entire years of inactivity due to injuries, Montana is the man the Kansas City Chiefs are counting on to take them to the big show for the first time since 1970. His sharpness in a 27-3 opening-game rout of Tampa Bay (14-for-21, 246 yards, 3 touchdowns) augured well, but a sore wrist that forced him to miss Game 2 raises the injury specter already.
Several other big-name quarterbacks are wearing new uniforms in this year of wholesale player movement via trades and newly liberalized free-agency rules: Jim McMahon, who led Chicago to glory in the mid-'80s, is in Minnesota; ex-Cincinnati star Boomer Esiason moved to the New York Jets; and Jeff Hostetler went from the New York Giants to the Los Angeles Raiders. Other quarterbacks
The spotlight is also squarely on those who stayed put. Can Troy Aikman make it two straight Super Bowl titles? He and the Dallas Cowboys were preseason favorites to do just that, but they've put themselves squarely behind the eight ball with an 0-2 start.
Mark Rypien and Washington, champions a year earlier but a bust last season, looked sharp in an opening victory over Dallas, but then Rypien was injured and the Redskins lost in Week 2.
What about Montana's ex-backup Steve Young, who has evolved into the league's top-ranked quarterback? Will he throw off his predecessor's shadow by leading the 49ers to glory himself?
Can Jim Kelly take Buffalo to an unprecedented fourth straight Super Bowl - and perhaps finally win one? Kelly is one of many quarterbacks who, despite individual fame, are still seeking that elusive championship ring. Denver's John Elway and Miami's Dan Marino have both been to the Super Bowl, but they wound up on the wrong side. Warren Moon of Houston and Randall Cunningham of Philadelphia have never even gotten that far.
Finally, the two most heralded rookies are quarterbacks: top draft choice Drew Bledsoe of New England, and No. 2 pick Rick Mirer of Seattle.
Whoever is calling the signals, the first order of business is trying to make the playoffs - which is a lot more than a one-man effort. And the place to start when assessing the respective teams' chances is with the champions.
The way Dallas played last year - 13-3, a convincing victory over the 49ers in the NFC championship game, and that awesome 52-17 rout of Buffalo in Super Bowl XXVII - had people talking dynasty. They were the league's youngest team, probably the most talented, and arguably the best coached. Johnson's charges lost
They hardly lived up to their billing, however, in an opening 35-16 shellacking by Washington. Much was made of the holdout of league rushing leader Emmitt Smith, but as one wag put it, this didn't matter because the entire Dallas team failed to show up.
Things were no better in Week 2, as coach Jimmy Johnson's charges were upset at home by Buffalo in the much-heralded rematch of their Super Bowl confrontation. Now they have to fight history as well as their opponents: No team has ever recovered from an 0-2 start to even reach the Super Bowl, let alone win it.
Dallas and Washington still figure 1-2 in the NFC East, which has produced the last three Super Bowl champions, but it won't be any breeze. The Giants, two years removed from their own triumph, are playing for new coach Dan Reeves from Denver. Philadelphia has been hit by free-agent defections, but with Cunningham the Eagles are always dangerous.
Green Bay, which hasn't been close to the Super Bowl since the Vince Lombardi era, made the biggest free-agent splash, luring defensive end Reggie White from Philadelphia, and should battle defending champion Minnesota for NFC Central honors.
San Francisco had last season's best record (14-2) before losing to Dallas in the NFC championship game. With Young, receiver Jerry Rice, and the rest of that explosive offense, there's no reason the 49ers won't be up there again. The Dolphins' real goal
Sometime in midseason Miami surely will win its seventh game, giving Shula his 325th NFL victory and lifting him past the legendary George Halas as the league's all-time winningest coach. The real goal for the Dolphins, though, is to repeat as division champions and this time gain the Super Bowl shot they missed by losing to Buffalo in the AFC championship game.
Buddy Ryan, architect of those great Chicago defenses in the 1980s, is the new defensive coordinator at Houston. That's worth noting, since the Oilers' run-and-shoot offense is one of the most explosive scoring machines around. But stopping the other guys has been a problem (as in last year's 41-38 playoff loss to Buffalo). The defense did look improved Sunday, blanking Kansas City (albeit without Montana) 30-0.
Finally, the AFC West and the $64 question: Can Montana do his thing one more time? Joe's return to readiness at the end of last season put the 49ers in a quandary, since Young had evolved into a superstar in his own right. How do you choose between a legend and the current league MVP? The 49ers agonized but in the end they had to stick with Young, which could be Kansas City's great good fortune. The Chiefs were already a 10-6 playoff team; they're banking on Montana's skill, experience, and poise in big games to push them over the top.