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For those out of touch with football since January when the Dallas Cowboys won their second straight Super Bowl by beating Buffalo 30-13, tuning in to the first NFL game on Sept. 4 will be something of a shock:

- The game isn't on CBS like it should be. It's on Fox, putting it up there around Channel 73 someplace.- The chubby guy with the hairspray isn't coaching the Cowboys anymore. What's Barry Switzer doing there? And why is their owner whispering the plays in Troy Aikman's ear?

- Hold on. Now they're lining up after a touchdown and going for two points.

- What are Buddy Ryan, Seth Joyner and Clyde Simmons doing with the Arizona Cardinals?

- Where's Phil Simms? In a broadcast booth? And who is that guy named Dave Brown playing quarterback for the Giants?

Say this about the NFL: It certainly stirred things up for its 75th season. Not only will it be hard to tell the players without a scorecard, it'll be equally tough to know the rules and the TV channel.

Jimmy Johnson is gone after coaching Dallas to two straight Super Bowl victories after finding that he and old pal, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, couldn't fit both their egos into Texas Stadium, even with that big hole in the roof. Switzer, who hasn't coached since leaving Oklahoma five years ago, is the new guy, leaving things pretty much alone and allowing Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin to do their stuff.

CBS is gone after 40 years because Rupert Murdoch and Fox paid the NFL $1.58 billion, or about $400 million more than CBS offered. Fox took along John Madden and Pat Summerall, too, meaning it will look and sound a lot like CBS - except for a score and time box in the upper left-hand corner.

Then there's this two-point conversion stuff, part of an attempt to get more offense in the game after a season of 12-9 and 9-6 yawners.

So far it's been used a lot in exhibitions, but will be used a lot less in regular season, except perhaps by Tampa's Sam Wyche, who isn't called "Wacky" for nothing.

But more scoring is likely to come from more subtle changes involving the kicking game and pass defense. Besides, Denver has put together a team that seems made for 45-42 games.

There are five new coaches, including Switzer and Ryan, resurrected with the Cardinals, now finally identified by the state of Arizona instead of the city of Phoenix. The others: June Jones in Atlanta, Norv Turner in Washington and Pete Carroll with the New York Jets.

Don Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history, will mark another milestone on Oct. 2 when the Dolphins play Dave Shula's Cincinnati Bengals - the first time father-and-son head coaches have faced each other.

The biggest impact on the NFL this year comes from the new salary cap, which limits each team to spending $34.6 million on salaries. That has cost high-spending teams like the Giants and the Bills and is supposed to help the Bucs and Bengals by forcing them to spend at least $30 million.

"You never replace the players you lose," says coach Marv Levy of Buffalo, which will be trying to get the Bills back to a record fifth straight Super Bowl after losing the last four. "Even when you bring in a player of equal ability you lose because he has to learn your system before he's as effective as the guy who left."

Levy lost two key starters: offensive tackle Howard Ballard and cornerback Nate Odomes.

And a lot of other name players have moved or no longer have jobs.

Phil Simms, Karl Mecklenburg, Dennis Smith and Charles Mann, to name four veterans, are no longer playing, and the depth of even the best teams is suspect. Even on the Cowboys, at many positions, the player behind the stars is a marginal or inexperienced guy making the minimum $162,500.

"It could all go up in smoke very quickly," says Carmen Policy, president of the San Francisco 49ers, now a Super Bowl favorite because of the way they manipulated the salary cap.

The 49ers, perhaps $12 million over the cap after last season, want to win now. Owner Eddie DeBartolo doesn't consider success reaching the NFC title game three out of four years.

The Giants, $7 million over, have decided to start from about .500 or a little under, and move forward next year.

So San Francisco picked up linebackers Rickey Jackson and Gary Plummer, end Richard Dent, linebacker Ken Norton and cornerback Toi Cook to bolster the defense. On offense, they added 36-year-old center Bart Oates, one of the fixtures the Giants found dispensable.

The 36-year-old Jackson, one of the NFL's leading all-time sackers, got the minimum of $162,500 plus incentives - if he makes them, the 49ers might have to pay in the future by counting those incentives against caps in future years.

But the offensive line is thin and for the first time in a decade, there's no experienced backup quarterback - Steve Bono was too expensive and an injury to Steve Young leaves the 49ers with Elvis Grbac and Bill Musgrave.

The Giants, meanwhile, dispensed with Simms, who led them to two Super Bowls because of his age , a sore shoulder, and a $2.5 million salary.

To the NFL, the emphasis is on offense - particularly touchdowns - after a season in which games averaged only 37.4 points, three points less than in 1990, and in which field goal kickers made more than 70 percent of their attempts.

So the NFL moved kickoffs back five yards to the 30-yard-line, and lowered tees, a move that in preseason has improved offensive field position by 10 to 15 yards.

It also ordered officials to enforce more stringently the rule against chucking by defensive backs five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. And it approved the use of radios that will allow coaches to whisper plays to quarterbacks rather than wig-wag them from the sideline.

But perhaps the biggest change is one that places the ball on failed field-goal attempts at the spot from which it's kicked, instead of the line of scrimmage - 7 or 8 yards further up the field. In exhibitions, many teams have passed up long field goals and gone for first downs on fourth down.

What the league can't do, of course, is improve the quarterbacking.

Of the NFL's top quarterbacks last season, only Troy Aikman of Dallas was under 30 and of the six quarterbacks voted to the Pro Bowl, three were 37 or older - Simms, Warren Moon and Joe Montana.

Moon and Montana are back, but Moon is in Minnesota instead of Houston, traded because the Oilers have Cody Carlson, their new starter. "I'd have liked to have stayed where I was," Moon says, "but that's what happens in the cap era."

Two of last season's casualties, Miami's Dan Marino and Philadelphia's Randall Cunningham are back from injuries. And for the first time since 1987, there were two rookie quarterbacks who lived up to their billing: Seattle's Rick Mirer and New England's Drew Bledsoe.

Brown, who threw just 10 passes in his first two seasons with the Giants, could be this year's star young QB.

Another could be Detroit's Scott Mitchell, who was impressive for five games replacing Marino in Miami last year until he separated a shoulder. Those five games were enough to earn him an $11 million, three-year deal with the Lions. The Dolphins could not afford both Mitchell and Marino.

With all that, the favorites for this year remain the teams that won last year, with a few additions - like Ryan's Arizona team.

For while Dallas is favored to walk off with the NFC East, the Cardinals, who haven't made the playoffs since 1975 (excluding the expanded strike year of 1982) seem to have a good shot. That's because of Ryan and his defense, which includes Joyner, Simmons, Wilber Marshall and Eric Swann.

The Giants are building, the Eagles have to replace a host of free agents who defected in the past two years, and the Redskins, 4-12 last year, are starting from scratch under Turner.

The NFC Central is the division of changing quarterbacks: only Green Bay's Brett Favre is where he was last year.

That and the addition of Sean Jones and Steve McMichael to help Reggie White on the defensive line make the Packers one of the favorites in the division. The co-favorite: Minnesota, where Moon adds stability at quarterback for the first time in a decade.

Detroit, the champion a year ago, figures to be in the picture if Mitchell augments the running of Barry Sanders. Chicago continues to rebuild behind Erik Kramer, who left the Lions.

That leaves Tampa Bay, going for a record 12th straight season of double-digit losses.

In the West, the 49ers are overwhelming favorites Atlanta and New Orleans fighting for second and a wild-card.

The Falcons are more stable with Jones replacing the fired Jerry Glanville as head coach while the Saints, who lost 8 of 11 after starting 5-0, hope to rebuild their offense with Jim Everett, trying to bounce back from his troubles in Anaheim.

The Rams have running back Jerome Bettis, the offensive rookie of the year last season, and a standout defensive lineman in Sean Gilbert. But they need Chris Miller, the quarterback signed from the Falcons, to remain healthy for the first time in an eight-year career.

The Raiders are the favorites in the AFC West, the league's most exciting division. Jeff Hostetler showed he is a capable quarterback last year and has the league's fastest receiving corps, featuring Tim Brown and James Jett, a free agent find last year.

Denver has finally given John Elway receivers - Anthony Miller and Mike Pritchard to go with Shannon Sharpe. But it hasn't given Wade Phillips much of a defense. Kansas City has that defense plus Montana, but needs help at running back; San Diego needs more punch and Seattle needs more players to go with Mirer, defensive lineman Cortez Kennedy and safety Eugene Robinson.

Pittsburgh, 9-7 a year ago, is probably the favorite in the Central if running back Barry Foster stays healthy. Houston, with a league-best playoff string of seven straight seasons, should challenge if Carlson stays healthy.

Cleveland thinks it's ready for the playoffs, but it needs a consistent season from Vinny Testaverde, or Mark Rypien if Testaverde fails. Cincinnati, 3-13 last year, brings up the rear.

Buffalo and Miami look like the class of the East, although New England closed last season with four straight wins.

The Jets have veterans like Boomer Esiason, Ronnie Lott and Art Monk and a decent defense, but look like a .500 team. Indianapolis has an exciting rookie in running back Marshall Faulk but a history of bad luck.

The NFL's luck looks like it may be good. Now, if people would just stop griping about the salary cap.


Super Bowl: San Francisco 27, Los Angeles Raiders 24.