1992 NFL PREVIEW

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NFC EAST

last season

The Redskins won the division crown and went on to win the Super Bowl while the Cowboys earned a wild-card spot and beat the Chicago Bears in a wild-card game before being blown out by the Detroit Lions, 38-6.

New coaches

This is the only division in football in which all five coaches are returning this year, although Joe Gibbs of the Redskins is easily the senior member of the group. He's starting his 12th season. The other four have a total of seven full seasons of experience.

Coach on the bubble

Ray Handley of the New York Giants is only in his second year and Joe Bugel of the Phoenix Cardinals is only in his third season, but both could be in trouble. Handley took a Super Bowl team and went 8-8 while Bugel is 9-23 in his first two years.

Best player

Before he was sidelined with a knee injury last year, quarterback Randall Cunningham was the most exciting player in the game. If he's made a complete recovery -- and he apparently has -- he should pick up where he left off.

Team on rise

The Dallas Cowboys have gone from 1-15 to 7-9 to 11-5. They think the next step is the NFC title game, if not the Super Bowl. Don't be surprised, though, if they take a step backward instead of a step forward. Their offense can play with anybody, but they have holes on defense. They'll find out what where they're going when they play the Redskins, Giants and Eagles in their first four games.

Team in decline

Lawrence Taylor is getting old, the offense is sputtering and Ray Handley has yet to fill the shoes of Bill Parcells. The New York Giants are no longer super.

Key question

How can the Redskins handle the burden of being the defending champions? The last time they tried it, they had the only losing season season (7-9 in 1988) under coach Joe Gibbs. The Redskins say things will be different this time around. We'll see.

Outlook

This is often touted as the best division in pro football. It has produced four of the last six Super Bowl champions. It may not be quite as tough this year, but it's likely to be a wide open race. Only the Phoenix Cardinals are given no shot.

The Redskins have the best team and will be the favored, but they're trying to repeat and they struggled as the defending champion in 1988.

The Eagles are the popular choice because they went 10-6 without Randall Cunningham. But they have a habit of going 10-6 with him. They've never won a playoff game with him and now they've lost Jerome Brown.

The Cowboys like to see themselves as the team of the future, but their defense is still is vulnerable.

The Giants are a team in transition and they're aging, but they still could be dangerous.

The Cardinals, of course, are rebuilding. They've been doing that for four decades. Last season

The Detroit Lions won the division title and beat the Dallas Cowboys, 38-6, in their first playoff game before losing the NFC title game to the Redskins, 41-10. The Chicago Bears qualified as a wild-card team, but lost to the Cowboys, 17-13, in their first playoff game.

New coaches

This is now the Bill Walsh protege division, with Dennis Green taking over in Minnesota, Sam Wyche moving to Tampa Bay and Mike Holmgren getting the job in Green Bay. This gives new incentive to Mike Ditka, who was never one of Walsh's fans.

Coach on the bubble

None. With three newcomers joining Mike Ditka in Chicago and Wayne Fontes in Detroit, it's safe to predict that all five of these coaches will be back next year. A new coach usually gets a grace period as long as he's not Richard Williamson.

Best player

Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions is not only the best player in the division, he's one of the best in the game. Thurman Thomas doesn't like to hear this, but he's the best pure runner in the game and they're already preparing the bust for him in Canton. He could be even more dangerous now that the Lions have gone away from the run-and-shoot and are giving him more blocking.

Team on rise

Exhibition games can be misleading, but Dennis Green took a major step in turning around the Vikings this year. He gave an attitude change to a club noted for its whining malcontents.

Team in decline

It may not be possible for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to decline because they're so forlorn, but they're still not going anywhere. Bill Parcells is lucky he didn't get this job. It's a team that'll drive Sam Wyche wackier than he already is.

Key question

Can Detroit survive the loss of its two starting guards, Mike Utley and Eric Andolsek? When Mike Utley was paralyzed last November, the Lions used his "thumbs up" sign as a rallying cry as they made an emotional run to the NFC title game. Then their other guard, Andolsek, was killed in the off-season. That may be to much for them to overcome.

Outlook

This is no longer the cakewalk it used to be for the Bears when they could count on two wins a year against the Bucs, Packers and Lions, go 7-5 against the rest of the teams and post an 11-5 record.

The Bucs are still doormats, but the Lions are now a playoff team and the Packers should improve under Mike Holmgren. Meanwhile, the Vikings have stopped going through the motions now that Dennis Green has replaced Jerry Burns.

The Bears have to be favored to end the Lions' one-year reign. The Lions are simply too much of a one-man team, even though that one man is one of the best runners ever. Another factor helping the Bears this year is that Mike Ditka was embarrassed the way his team collapsed at the end of last year. He won't want to let that happen again.

The Vikings and Packers should have a spirited battle for third place, as these two teams try to improve under new coaches. The Vikings appeared to be the better team in the exhibition season.

Then there's Tampa Bay. It will be more interesting with Sam Wyche at the helm, but not much better.

Vito Stellino Last season

The Saints won the division, but lost their first-round game to the Falcons, who were a wild-card team. The Falcons were then beaten by Washington, 24-7.

New coaches

Chuck Knox is a new coach in an old setting in Los Angeles. He started his second stint as the Rams coach this year. He took the Rams to five straight playoff seasons in the 1970s, but the late Carroll Rosenbloom was unhappy because he didn't make the Super Bowl. This time around, they'll be more satisfied with a playoff trip.

Coach on the bubble

Jerry Glanville of the Falcons isn't on the bubble yet, but he's already starting to wear out his welcome in Atlanta because he's always stirring up some controversy. If he doesn't win this year, he'll be on the bubble next year.

Best player

Wide receiver Jerry Rice doesn't have Joe Montana to throw to him, but he's still a threat to go all the way on every play. He got the best non-quarterback contract ever this year and now he gets a chance to earn it.

Team on rise

The Rams hit bottom last year, but Chuck Knox is a master at rebuilding teams even though he's never gone all the way. He should get the Rams back out of the sad-sack class even though they're probably a year away from being a contender.

Team in decline

The Falcons made a meteoric rise last year and they may fade just as quickly. Their secondary is in a state of flux because of the loss of Brian Jordan and Deion Sanders, which means they're even more vulnerable to the bomb when the Falcons blitzes are picked up. Teams are likely to throw deep against them.

Key question

Can the 49ers adjust to the post-Montana era? The 49ers got off to a 5-6 start last year before they won their last six games. But they still could have a quarterback controversy even with Montana on IR because they had more success with Steve Bono at quarterback than with Steve Young. Now it's up to Young to prove he can keep the job.

Outlook

The 49ers and Saints figure to duel it out for the division title. Last year, the teams split during the regular season, but the 11-5 Saints won the division title by a game over the Falcons, who got a wild card spot, and the 49ers.

The 49ers, even without Montana, have the better offense. They ranked third in the league in yardage gained last year while the Saints were 15th. But the Saints have the better defense. They were second in the league to the Philadelphia Eagles. The two clubs meet in the fourth week of the season and the winner of that game should have the edge.

The teams also went in opposite directions last year. The Saints started out 9-1 before losing four straight while the 49ers won their last six after a slow start.

The Falcons move into the new Georgia Dome, but their defense is too shaky for them to be a contender again.

The Rams will start to become respectable under Chuck Knox after last year's 3-13 record, but their lack of a running game will hurt.

Ken Murray Last season

The Broncos, Chiefs and Raiders made the playoffs. The Chiefs eliminated the Raiders in a first-round game, then lost to the Bills. The Broncos beat the Oilers, but lost to the Bills in the AFC title game.

New coaches

Seahawks president Tom Flores took over as coach when Chuck Knox left at the end of last season. Flores, who won two Super Bowl titles while coaching the Raiders, will wear both hats for now. Former Maryland coach Bobby Ross replaced Dan Henning with the Chargers.

Coach on the bubble

Flores left the relatively secure realm of the president's office to go back on the sidelines, where he will be under considerable scrutiny as a two-time Super Bowl winner.

Best player

Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas has surpassed Lawrence Taylor as the most feared pass rusher in the league, and is on his way to becoming the most dominating defensive player. He has compiled 43 1/2 sacks in his three pro seasons, high in the league during that period. He also set the single-game record when he sacked Dave Krieg -- now his teammate -- seven times in a game in 1990.

Team on rise

The Chargers' fall to 4-12 last year cost Henning's job. Ross inherits a team with a ton of talent and one of the league's top running games. With Marion Butts and Rod Bernstine toting the ball, the Chargers averaged a league-high 4.8 yards a carry and a second-ranked 140.5 ground yards a game. The bad news, of course, is that Ross lost his starting quarterback, John Friesz, for the season with a knee injury.

Team in decline

The Jay Schroeder trade has never panned out for the Raiders, who have been looking for a top-notch quarterback since Jim Plunkett left. Todd Marinovich will be next in line to try to win with the Raiders' outdated, go-deep passing scheme. The defense is in serious decline.

Key question

Can the Chiefs overcome the turnover problems of Dave Krieg? Coach Marty Schottenheimer is a fanatic about ball control and turnovers. In Krieg, he gets a quarterback who has averaged 2.1 turnovers a game over his erratic 12-year career with the Seahawks.

Outlook

The Chiefs and Broncos should battle it out for division supremacy. Krieg replaces steady but unspectacular Steve DeBerg in Kansas City. He has a better arm than DeBerg and can scramble, but is terribly erratic. His primary job will be handing off to the deepest backfield in football -- Christian Okoye, Barry Word and Harvey Williams. The Chiefs play an NFC brand of defense, and they're counting on it to get them to the Super Bowl.

The Broncos capitalized on a soft, fifth-place schedule to make a seven-game improvement (to 12-4) last year. Their defense allowed the fewest points and registered the most sacks in the AFC, but how much of it was the schedule? On the positive side, quarterback John Elway is healthy again after lingering arm problems. His 77 regular-season victories over the last eight years are high in the league.

The Raiders are 1-4 in the playoffs since they walloped the Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII. They won't go back to the Super Bowl any time soon.

The Chargers were 2-5 in games decided by three points or less last year. It shouldn't take a lot to improve on that record if Ross pushes the right buttons.

The Seahawks will finally discover what life after Krieg is like. For now, Kelly Stouffer is the quarterback and Flores faces a lengthy overhaul.

Ken Murray Last season

The Oilers won their division, but were forced into a first-round game because their record was third-best among division champs. They beat the Jets, then lost to the Broncos.

New coaches

Bill Cowher replaces the legendary Chuck Noll with the Steelers and Dave Shula, son of a legend, replaces controversial Sam Wyche with the Bengals. As defensive coordinator with the Chiefs the last three years, Cowher, 35, produced a dominant defense. Shula, 33, was demoted twice by the Cowboys before landing with the Bengals a year ago as receivers coach.

Coach on the bubble

Shula may prove to be a chip off the old block, but the suspicion around the league is that he came cheaply for the frugal Bengals. He must show he's got the right stuff, or he could lose the veterans early.

Best player

The tight end has been a disappearing element in NFL offenses in recent years, but the Steelers' Eric Green figures to change that. He has speed to go with size (6 feet 5, 275 pounds) and good hands. He scored seven touchdowns in 13 games as a first-round draft pick in 1990. Last year, he scored six in 11 games before breaking his ankle in practice. He averaged 14.2 yards on 41 receptions.

Team on rise

The Steelers are still suffering from some poor draft decisions (excluding Green) in Noll's final years, but they have begun to put the right pieces in place. Cowher already has weeded out some of those past draft mistakes. New offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt will simplify and improve the offense. Erhardt's power scheme is not as complicated as Joe Walton's finesse system the last two years. Remember, Erhardt helped win two Super Bowls in the same capacity with the Giants.

Team in decline

The Browns made a strong move under new coach Bill Belichick last year, going from 3-13 to 6-10. Belichick cleaned house, bringing in 30 new players, and kept the team competitive through a spate of injuries. But the Browns don't appear ready to turn the playoff corner with a suspect offensive line, a questionable running game and a quarterback, Bernie Kosar, who has taken a beating the last few years.

Key question

Can the Oilers get home-field advantage for the playoffs? In the Astrodome, the Oilers are world-beaters. On the road and

outdoors -- especially in the north -- they are considerably less. They could have a golden opportunity for home-field advantage in the final regular-season game when they play host to the Bills

in the Dome.

Outlook

The Oilers should continue to dominate the division. Their defense improved to ninth in the league a year ago, complementing quarterback Warren Moon's run-and-shoot wizardry. But time and age are beginning to weigh on the Oilers. Moon will be 36 in November. If the Oilers are going to reach the Super Bowl, they must do it soon, while Moon is still capable of taking them there.

No other team in the division figures to challenge seriously for the division title, although young Shula has said the Bengals could make that kind of turnaround. But quarterback Boomer Esiason, from Maryland, has had two off-years, and it wasn't terribly surprising that the Bengals drafted David Klingler in the first round last spring.

The Steelers have turned the quarterback job over to third-year man Neil O'Donnell, another Maryland product, but he was only 2-6 as a fill-in starter a year ago.

The Browns made moves to improve their running game, drafting Tommy Vardell in the first round and signing former Bengal

James Brooks in Plan B free agency.

Ken Murray Last season

The Bills and Jets made the playoffs. The Bills hammered the Chiefs and squeaked past the Broncos to reach the Super Bowl for the second straight year.

New coach

Ted Marchibroda is back for a second term with the Colts. He was head coach from 1975-79, when he directed the club to three consecutive division titles. He turned a 2-12 team into an instant winner and went 41-36 before wearing out his welcome. The offense he inherits set a 16-game, NFL record for fewest points. Marchibroda spent the last five seasons designing the Bills' no-huddle attack.

Coach on the bubble

After missing the playoffs in five of the last six seasons, questions are starting to surface about Don Shula's coaching in Miami. He is only 20 victories away from becoming the NFL's all-time winningest coach, but bad drafts and porous defense have rendered the Dolphins also-rans.

Best player

Bills running back Thurman Thomas was the MVP in the NFL a year ago when he led the league with 2,038 all-purpose yards. He averaged 4.9 yards per rush in the Bills' big-play offense and was a threat to score as a receiver. But he will be remembered more for misplacing his helmet and missing the first two plays of Super Bowl XXVI.

Team on rise

Every team, with the possible exception of the Bills, figures to be improved over last year. But the team that could make the biggest jump is the Jets, who reached the playoffs in the second year under coach Bruce Coslet. They will rise or fall on the arm of second-year quarterback Browning Nagle.

Team in decline

The Bills achieved the improbable when they returned to the Super Bowl last January. But their discouraging loss may have repercussions in 1992. Gone are no-huddle architect Ted Marchibroda, two other assistants, and place-kicker Scott Norwood, the goat of Super Bowl XXV. Defensive end Bruce Smith endured a crippling knee injury and racial slurs in Buffalo last year.Key question Can the Jets -- with an unproven starting quarterback -- challenge the talent-laden Bills for division supremacy? Nagle has never started an NFL game and threw only two passes in his rookie season. Yet he led the team to a 5-0 preseason amid heightened expectations.

Outlook

The Bills still control their own fate. If they play to their potential, they could wind up in the Super Bowl for a third straight season. Quarterback Jim Kelly and Thomas are a breathtaking combination on offense. But Kelly has to live down his wretched Super Bowl performance of a year ago and Thomas must shake his reputation as a problem child. Without the injured Smith, the Bills' defense ranked 27th in the league. They need a comeback season from him and another big year from linebacker Cornelius Bennett, who was a training camp holdout.

The Jets and Dolphins appear the most likely teams to challenge for a playoff spot in the East. The Jets have been steadily improving the last two years. The Dolphins have only so much time left to capitalize on the arm and savvy of quarterback Dan Marino, now in his 10th year.

The Patriots under Dick MacPherson made vast strides to improve from 1-15 to 6-10, but the franchise still has many problems.

The Colts went five straight games without a touchdown last season and Marchibroda is expected to correct that offensive deficiency. He'll start the year without quarterback Jeff George, who will miss the first month with a thumb injury. Unlike 1975, there will be no worst-to-first season for the Colts in 1992.

Ken Murray

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