Sophisticated defenses were supposed to take control of the National Football League last season, when the New York Giants (who won it all) and the Denver Broncos made it to Super Bowl XXI. And while the Giants, along with the Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, and Los Angeles Rams, generally contained their opponents, overall the quick, cheap touchdown (usually the result of a long pass) continued to show up fairly regularly. This season, with defenders restricted from taking more than one step toward the quarterback after he has released the ball, scores should keep climbing.
No doubt about it, going into this season the two best beams in the NFL are the Giants and the Bears. That is, assuming Chicago quarterback Jim McMahon gets back into action in time to make a difference.
But there is also room in the picture for the Broncos, the 49ers, the Rams, and maybe even the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks. Traditional NFL powers that seem to have lost their way include the Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, and Los Angeles Raiders.
Meanwhile, ever since the players' contract with NFL owners expired on Aug. 31, there has been increased talk about a strike. The main issue is free agency for veterans, but there are also such sticky areas as drug testing, retirement benefits, and guaranteed contracts.
Here are the scouting reports, with probable order of finish in each division:
NFC East: New York Giants, Washington, Philadelphia, Dallas, St. Louis.
The Giants simply have too much overall talent not to repeat. While this team has had more off-season distractions than usual, including tell-all books, backbiting, and belligerence, once the bell rings the Giants should react like old firehorses with young ideas. Phil Simms is one of the league's top quarterbacks, and he has plenty of good people to catch the ball. Balancing the attack is a powerful ground game sparked by 5 ft. 7 in. running back Joe Morris. And a fearsome defense led by linebacker Lawrence Taylor keeps that offense on the field for most of the game.
Last year Washington tried three times to beat the Giants and never came close. That could happen again. But look for a great season from QB Jay Shroeder.
Philadelphia should continue to improve now that coach Buddy Ryan has had a year in which to install his system.
Dallas, after its first losing season in 22 years, has tried to solidify its lines. But even if that happens, quarterback Danny White seems to have slipped, and the picture is further clouded by injuries to running backs Tony Dorsett and Herschel Walker.
St. Louis, which played on a ``long field'' last year when it often started deep in its own territory, hopes for better field position and more than a league-worst 218 points.
NFC Central: Chicago, Minnesota, Detroit, Green Bay, Tampa Bay.
If McMahon were available full-time, Chicago would be considered a lock. The Bears have triumphed in each of the last 23 games he has started. Even with Jim expected to miss at least six weeks with shoulder problems, they're still favored.
Last year's backups, Mike Tomczak and Doug Flutie, will probably see most of the early QB action.
Elsewhere, there is also some concern over running back Walter Payton, who no longer carries a big-yardage guarantee.
Second-year coach Jerry Burns is talking about Minnesota making the playoffs. Defensively, the Vikings are probably good enough to make it happen, but the offense still looks shaky.
Detroit went backwards last year, when coach Darryl Rogers stayed with some players longer than he should have. ``My expectation is that their replacements will be a lot better,'' he says.
Green Bay, coming off its worst season in 28 years, is excited about rookie running back Brent Fullwood of Auburn, a breakaway type who should provide a much-needed scoring lift.
``When I was in high school,'' said Tampa Bay coach Ray Perkins, ``I loved taking engines apart and then putting them back together, because if you did it right the machinery would always start. I believe that same philosophy can also be applied to football.'' Maybe so if No. 1 draft pick Vinny Testaverde can do in the pros what he did at Miami; where he completed 65.9 percent of his passes.
NFC West: San Francisco, Los Angeles Raiders, Atlanta, New Orleans.
The 49ers are a well-balanced team that, if everything went right, could make it to the Super Bowl. Bill Walsh is an inventive coach, Joe Montana a fine quarterback, and the team's situation-substitution on defense the best around.
During coach John Robinson's four years with the Rams, he has had the defense, depth, special teams, and running game to be a contender - but the passing game has always been a cut below L.A.'s toughest rivals. That is why he brought in San Diego's aerial specialist Ernie Zampese to redesign the offense.
Marion Campbell, who is beginning his second time around as head coach in Atlanta, is basically faced with the problem of sorting through a Salvation Army pickup bin. Sure he's going to find some good things, but maybe not until the season is nearly over.
New Orleans should have no trouble extending its record of never having a winning season. But running back Reuben Mayes, who shreds defenses the way Fawn Hall shreds paper, is fun to watch.
AFC East: New England, Miami, New York Jets, Buffalo, Indianapolis.
New England has transformed its image in the last couple of years from a perennial big-game loser to an aggressive outfit that knows how to win under pressure. Credit coach Raymond Berry, who picked up three championship rings while catching passes for the old Baltimore Colts, and who has instilled some of his own intensity into this team.
Even though Miami will be playing in a new stadium this season, most of the old problems remain. This is a club that doesn't run the ball that well, often struggled last year on defense, and probably needs to rehab its special teams.
With Pro Bowlers Joe Klecko and Lance Mehl out at least until October via injuries, the New York Jets are probably reduced from a first-place contender to a club hoping for a wild-card playoff berth.
Buffalo is a team that is still building and still learning. With QB Jim Kelly, though, at least the Bills can lose in style.
Indianapolis, 0-13 when Ron Meyer took over as coach late last year, won its last three games - but that streak shouldn't last long. Meyer must feel as though he's been given a button and told to weave a suit onto it.
AFC Central: Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Houston.
After winning two straight division titles, coach Marty Schottenheimer of Cleveland is now talking Super Bowl. Yet when the Browns had the chance to control their own destiny in last year's playoffs against Denver, they blew it in overtime. This is a club that has a lot of good things going for it, but one is reluctant to rate it with the Giants and Bears.
Cincinnati coach Sam Wyche has been building defensive units designed to contain the opposition in any situation. That goal was further strengthened this year when all four top draft picks were defensive players. What makes the Bengals worth watching, though, is a big-play offense featuring quarterback Boomer Esiason, receiver Cris Collinsworth, and running back James Brooks.
Pittsburgh played two distinct seasons in 1986. After losing six of their first seven games, the Steelers won five of their last nine. To coach Chuck Noll this is a clear indication that the Steelers have turned the corner and are a serious contender again. But this club doesn't have that great defense to fall back on anymore, and quarterback Mark Malone rated 25th in the NFL last season.
Houston coach Jerry Glanville notes that his team was the youngest in the NFL last season, when it won only five games. ``Last year we let a lot of teams we had beaten off the hook, and that's one of the worst things any pro team can do,'' he says, indicating that he doesn't expect this to happen so frequently this year.
AFC West: Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles Raiders, Kansas City, San Diego.
The Broncos have been called a small team on both sides of the ball, meaning that bigger and more physical clubs tend to wear them down. But John Elway always provides tremendous leadership at quarterback, and the team has enough overall balance to win this division title once again.
If improved Seattle makes it to the Super Bowl this year, every armchair quarterback in the country is going to say: ``I told you so.'' Last year's fast finish (five straight wins against tough opposition) has been duly noted from Albany to Anchorage. With rookie Brian Bosworth expected to play linebacker like the Giants' Lawrence Taylor, the TV people can't wait to cover the Seahawks.
The Raiders are a team with a lot of talented players and no real quarterback. One big attraction eventually will be running back Bo Jackson, the former Heisman Trophy winner who is expected to play maybe eight games (without the benefit of a training camp) after his baseball season with the Kansas City Royals ends.
``I think our players are winners right now,'' says new Kansas City coach Frank Gansz, who formerly handled the Chiefs' special teams. Maybe Frank will feel differently after he reviews Kansas City's running attack. In the past four years the Chiefs' offense has ranked 27th, 28th, 27th, and 28th, with one individual 100-yard game rushing since 1981.
San Diego coach Al Saunders, who replaced Don Coryell halfway through the 1986 season, is still selling the importance of defense, balance, and discipline, a winning philosophy that anyone can understand. But Saunders may not have the team chemistry to make it work; at least not for another year or two.