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NFL wary of ownership link to USFL; Collins a rushing gem

The way legal issues keep popping up in the National Football League these days, the courtroom might soon become almost as much a battleground as the playing field. The next step will be to put numbers on the backs of all the lawyers.

Anyway the NFL's latest mini-war stems from the league's executive committee throwing conflict of interest charges at Edward DeBartolo Jr., owner of the San Francisco 49ers. It would like DeBartolo Jr. to sell the 49ers because his father recently purchased the Pittsburgh Maulers of the rival US Football League.

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Said DeBartolo Jr.: ''I think the owners are trying to make a decision based on fiction. The facts are that I own my team and my father owns his and what could be more simple than that.'' If the case should ever go to court, one of the attorneys for the 49ers says that his client would be on even stronger ground than Raiders' owner Al Davis when he challenged the NFL on anti-trust legislation and won. However, it has been leaked privately that DeBartolo Sr.'s interest in the USFL is not that great and that steps have already been taken to locate a buyer for the Maulers. Collins on the go

Though a little-known college player at East Carolina, third-year pro Tony Collins has become the chief ballcarrier for the New England Patriots and one of the league's best running backs. He set the club's rookie rushing record with 873 yards in 1981. This year he's clearly on his way to a 1,000-yard season, having already gained 658 yards with another eight games to go. His biggest day came against the New York Jets, when his 212 yards were the most by an AFC runner since O.J. Simpson piled up 273 in 1973.

Commenting on his unusual running style, Tony says: ''My legs go crooked when I run. They go side to side. I study other running backs in the NFL and my style is unique. It was something I did in high school that wasn't coached. It became so much of a habit that they haven't changed it in college or the pros.'' Coaches on hot seat

Although speculation keeps surfacing that head coach Monte Clark is done in Detroit and John McKay in Tampa Bay, there may be no truth to the rumors.

The pressure on Clark started when he traded former Pro Bowl players Al (Bubba) Baker and David Hill before the season started and failed to replace them with people as good. The pressure on McKay started when the Buccaneers let Doug Williams, who wanted a contract commensurate with that of other top quarterbacks, slip away to the USFL. McKay is so tight with Tampa Bay owner Hugh Culverhouse that he probably doesn't have to worry. And so far Detroit owner William Clay Ford has made no public disclosure that he doesn't want Clark back. NFL tidbits

* While the Houston Oilers are having a down year, they are nevertheless getting an up performance from wide receiver Tim Smith, who works as a bank loan officer during the off-season. Smith's 11 receptions against Buffalo recently represent the most catches in a game by an AFC player this year. Tim, who has only average speed, says he has overcome this by reading coverages, finding openings in the zone, and constantly working on new moves. Smith is beginning to see double coverage, though. Last Sunday Kansas City didn't allow him a catch, although seven other Oilers made receptions.

* There is probably a good chance that the New York Giants will trade injured quarterback Phil Simms to the Houston Oilers for some future high-round draft picks at the end of the current season. The Oilers would then use those picks to draft some tough, young linemen.

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* Talk that the Washington Redskins defense is easier to move against than it was last season has become a frequent topic of conversation among NFL opponents. There have been enough holes in Washington's coverage this season to suggest that a repeat Super Bowl appearance in January will be hard to come by.

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