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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

All Eyes on 'Boys as Season Kicks-Off


NEW YORK -- The National Football League kicks off its 77th season this weekend with all eyes on the defending champion Dallas Cowboys -- and their former coach, Jimmy Johnson.

The Cowboys, aiming for an unprecedented fourth Super Bowl title in five seasons visit the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Monday after an opening-day slate of 14 NFL games Sunday.

The Cowboys will be without wide receiver Michael Irvin, who was slapped with a five-game suspension because he violated the NFL's drug policy when he pleaded no contest to possession charges and was placed on probation in Dallas.

Distraction No. 2, friction between quarterback Troy Aikman and coach Barry Switzer, has apparently been patched up -- for now, anyway.

Perennial distraction Deion Sanders will play a full NFL season for the first time -- but the flashy speedster wants to play both cornerback, at which some people think he could be the best of all time, and wide receiver, where he has a lot to learn.

"I will play both defense and offense and want to have an impact on both sides of the ball," said Sanders.

Dallas is the odds-on favorite to win the NFC East, with the Green Bay Packers rated tops in the Central Division and the San Francisco 49ers favored in the West.

Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre, the NFL's Most Valuable Player last season, has returned after spending six weeks in a clinic kicking an addiction to painkillers this summer.

"It was a long six weeks, but it was a good time for me to concentrate on what I had to do," said Favre.

The Arizona Cardinals will have a new look as Vince Tobin takes over for fired head coach Buddy Ryan and ex-Bengal and ex-Jet Boomer Esiason takes over as quarterback.

Tony Dungy begins his first head coach job, for the always-rebuilding Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The playoffs are their modest goal for this season.

In the AFC, the retirement of Don Shula of Miami, who heads the all-time list of NFL coaching victories, opened the way for Johnson, who won two Super Bowl titles for Dallas, to take over the Dolphins.

As a television commentator, Johnson predicted the Miami Dolphins would go to the Super Bowl.

As coach of the Dolphins, Johnson has a different perspective.

"We're going to have a few bumps in the road," Johnson said Wednesday.

Johnson's first regular season game as coach of the Dolphins will be Sunday against the Patriots in Miami.

It hasn't exactly been a smooth ride for Johnson, who won a national championship at the University of Miami in 1987 and two Super Bowls as coach of the Dallas Cowboys from 1989 to 93. Not long after, he was named successor to legendary Dolphins Coach Shula, Johnson ran into problems.

The first was the salary cap -- the Dolphins were about $5 million over the limit. They lost linebacker Bryan Cox, defensive end Marco Coleman, wide receiver Irving Fryar and cornerback Troy Vincent in free agency.

The next setback: Free agent wide receiver Fred Barnett sustained a major knee injury in a non-contact drill in training camp.

"We've lost some talent on this football team," Johnson said, "but we still have the talent to be a good team."

It took Johnson four years to transform the Cowboys from doormat to Super Bowl champions. The challenge is not as formidable in Miami.

"There's some talent -- a lot more talent and a lot more experience than when I first went to Dallas," Johnson said. "When I first went to Dallas they were last in the league and it was a complete overhaul. Not only all of the people on the team ... the entire organization was overhauled."

The Buffalo Bills have a good chance at again representing the AFC in the Super Bowl and trying to win their first championship.

The Bills are favored in the AFC East with the Central Division now up for grabs because of the Pittsburgh Steelers' loss of quarterback Neil O'Donnell to the New York Jets.

In the West, Oakland, Kansas City and San Diego all look to contend.

A number of individual bests could be achieved in the new season.

Miami's Dan Marino needs 1,159 yards passing to become the first player in NFL history to reach 50,000 yards.

Dallas running back Emmitt Smith needs just 15 rushing touchdowns to become the NFL's all-time leader, surpassing Walter Payton's 110 for the Chicago Bears.

Rice, the all-time total touchdowns leader, needs just 58 catches to push his record total to 1,000.

And as the teams battle for the title of "Team of the '90s," the 49ers have the best record of the half-completed decade, 72-24, with Dallas second at 67-29. Buffalo is third at 66-30.

Super Bowl XXI is set for Jan. 26 in New Orleans. ()