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It is indicative of the awesome strength of the Los Angeles Rams that those who root against them talk about John Hadl as though the physical condition of the 34-year-old quarterback was their one weak spot. "If Hadl gets hurt," says a wistful San Francisco 49er fan, "they might not be so tough. They lose him, they could be in trouble."

Maybe, but Hadl is tougher than a boiled combat boot; he last sat out a game with an injury when he was in the eighth grade. And he operates now behind an offensive line more protective than a housemothers' convention. Hadl aside, the Rams are glutted with enough talent to breeze to their division title with Sam Yorty playing quarterback. With Hadl on the job, the Rams are a leading contender for the NFL championship.

Chuck Knox, a businesslike technician, directed his team to a 12-2 regular-season record last year, his first as head coach, and could have been undefeated but for three points which added up to two losses. The Rams were first in the league offense and were first in defense, too. They led everybody in scoring and rushed for 2,925 yards, the third-highest total in NFL history.

Knox left himself with a tough act to follow but he says, "What we did a year ago is a thing of the past. You can't 21 dream about what you did in the past. The only things that count in this business are what you do today and what you will do tomorrow."

What the Rams did well in '73, they firmly expect to do again in '74. "I think we'll have as good or better a season than last year," says Hadl, "if we stay healthy and keep our heads. We're more mature now that we've been down the road together a little bit."

"We're a better football team at this point than a year ago," Knox says, "but our goals are still the same. We try to go out every day and have an excellent practice. We try to be a little better as a team and as individuals than we were yesterday. We constantly strive to upgrade the individual performance levels of our players. You do that and the winning takes care of itself."

The upgrading philosophy undoubtedly is sound but most Los Angeles fans would settle for mere repetition from Hadl, who was named NFC Player of the Year after he threw 22 touchdown passes and, in marked contrast to most of his seasons in San Diego, only 11 interceptions. His favorite target in 1973 was Harold Jackson, a 5'10" speedster whose receptions accounted for 874 yards and 13 touchdowns.

The Rams' basic strength is a running attack that in camp looked like something out of Patton. Lawrence McCutcheon set a club record in 1973 with 1,097 yards and Jim Bertelsen had 854. Backing up that fine pair were Tony Baker, a short-yardage zealot who scored seven of the team's 18 touchdowns rushing, and Rob Scribner, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry.

Most coaches would be ecstatic with that running talent, but Knox really had too much, what with Les Josephson, the Rams' third-leading rusher of all time, and Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti, their No. 1 draft choice. Cappelletti looked remarkably impressive in the exhibition season, causing one Ram official to say, "He's good enough to play this game for the next 10 years." Knox also added a bull elephant to his corral when the poetically named William Cullen Bryant, a 227-pound body-builder, was switched from defensive back and gained 117 yards on 11 carries in his first game at his new position. For whatever it's worth, Bryant wears No. 32 on his jersey, just like Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson.

Defensively, the Rams yielded but 178 points last season. Led by the front four of Jack Youngblood, Merlin Olsen, Larry Brooks and Fred Dryer, they dropped the quarterback 45 times. Los Angeles intercepted 20 passes and allowed but 10 touchdowns through the air. The secondary, led by Dave Elmendorf, should be even better after the year's experience, and Knox has almost an excess of linebackers.

"Basically," Knox says, "it's the same offense and same defense as last year, with refinements." The Knox refining methods earned the Rams a stunning 31-13 preseason conquest of Miami.

At Atlanta the outlook is for more fan frustration, even though Coach Norm Van Brocklin insists this will be the Falcons' year. "Our boys know they can win it," says the Dutchman. "What they have to learn now is how to. And how to is to keep their noses to the grindstone. Last year we lost our concentration."

For two seasons now the Falcons have blown a playoff shot by losing key games late in the year. There are those who think Van Brocklin's coaching methods are to blame, and that the Falcons will be hurt by lingering rancor over the players' strike. The well-publicized trade of Ken Reaves, the Falcon player representative, at the outset of the strike hardly served to smooth things between Van Brocklin and his players. Discounting other factors, the deal remains questionable. Reaves, a cornerback who played in all 112 Falcon games and Guard Andy Maurer, who publicly criticized Van Brocklin in the off-season, were sent to New Orleans for Guard Royce Smith and Linebacker Dick Palmer, neither of whom are expected to notably improve Atlanta's chances. "That was the dumbest trade since George Allen gave up John Zook and Harold Jackson for Izzy Lang," says one NFL scout.

Atlanta's offensive line has been seriously hampered by injuries. Left Tackle Bill Sandeman had surgery on his back and will be out for the season, while Guard Len Gotshalk, who started several games last year, suffered a preseason knee injury that could keep him out of the opener against Dallas.

Another question mark, an ironic one for the South, is General Lee—Quarterback Bob Lee, to be precise. A backup player at Minnesota most of his career, Lee completed 52.2% of his passes for 1,786 yards and 10 touchdowns. Whether he can do it again remains to be seen. "Who can predict something like that?" Lee says. "I do feel I'm capable of being a better quarterback than I was last year." If not, 1971 Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan may take over. The rushing chores will fall to Dave Hampton, who just missed 1,000 yards for the second straight season, and Eddie Ray or Art Malone. Sylvester (Molly) McGee, a 16th-round draft pick from Rhode Island, led the team's rushers in the exhibition season. Trackman Gerald Tinker, the club's top draftee, failed to impress as a punt returner or wide receiver, but his cockiness remained undiminished. "I may be only 5'9" and 170," the Olympic gold-medal relay runner says, "but on the field I'm 6'2" and 225. I'm here to stay." That prompted a veteran to reply, "He'd better do a little more stretching in practice."

There may not be enough practice time for San Francisco and New Orleans, who seem destined to wage another stirring struggle for the division cellar. The retirement of Charlie Krueger leaves the 49ers woefully weak at defensive tackle, and their success at running the ball depends on rookie Wilbur Jackson, the No. 1 draft choice from Alabama. Jackson hobbled around on a gimpy ankle through most of the exhibition season while veteran Larry Schreiber and other rookies played unimpressively. Coach Dick Nolan said Steve Spurrier would be his quarterback now that John Brodie has retired, but now Spurrier is out for two months with a shoulder separation and reserve Joe Reed has not yet shown poise. However, Nolan will be well served by his secondary and a corps of receivers led by Gene Washington.

The 49ers probably set an NFL record with 10 off-season knee operations, including Spurrier's, but the club ultimately may suffer more from various psychological troubles. The strike merely added to an unsettled preseason for Nolan, who compounded his own problems when he traded Vic Washington, who scored eight touchdowns and led the team in rushing last season. Washington was a problem himself, but he was a player Nolan could ill afford to lose. Yet he was sent to Houston after a training camp dispute that shook some of the players and renewed complaints that Nolan is a bad communicator.

Brodie's retirement necessitated the development of a new offensive system, and the upcoming WFL defections of Ted Kwalick, Jim Sniadecki, John Isenbarger and Dick Witcher required some trades. Nolan also was criticized for playing his veterans too long in their first exhibition game, in which eight players were injured. How quickly Nolan can bring cohesion to his team will determine the 49ers' fate.

Archie Manning should keep New Orleans competitive at least part of the time, though what the Saints can do about their kittenish pass rush remains to be seen. Coach John North helped his offensive picture by acquiring Wide Receiver Fair Hooker from the Browns and Tackle Dave Thompson from the Lions. The Saints' defense has gained a measure of consistency, and North expects a big year from Defensive End Billy Newsome and Middle Linebacker Joe Federspiel. Still, when you're against the Rams, any improvement is relative.