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NFC West


For the fifth straight year the Los Angeles Rams are a sure bet to win the division—but, once more, not so sure a bet to be in the Super Bowl. Indeed, judging from their 1-5 exhibition campaign, it seems that none of the shortcomings that left them one step short of the Super Bowl last season—vacillation as to who should be quarterback, three blocked punts in the playoffs, one blocked field-goal attempt—have been remedied. The receiver corps, headed by Harold Jackson and Ron Jessie, has been bolstered with the addition of Charle Young (no typo: that's the way the ex-Philadelphia Eagle tight end now prefers his first name to be spelled), and the defensive backfield—featuring ball hawks Rod Perry and Monte Jackson, who combined for 18 interceptions in 1976—is airtight. Though the defensive platoon lost Tackle Merlin Olsen to retirement and Middle Linebacker Jack (Hacksaw) Reynolds after a contract hassle, the replacements—Cody Jones for Olsen, Jim Youngblood for Reynolds—are accomplished.

But Coach Chuck Knox and owner Carroll Rosenbloom did not settle the James Harris-Ron Jaworski-Pat Haden quarterback mess last season until it was much too late, and now they can't seem to decide between Haden and Joe Na-math as their starter. "Bad Knees" Joe was no miracle worker during the exhibitions. The 49ers poured through the Rams' offensive line—a unit, incidentally, that tends to crumble under stress—and sacked Namath five times in one game, and Joe occasionally turned the wrong way—"the Jets' way," he lamely explained—on routine hand-offs to Lawrence McCutcheon and John Cappelletti, the best of the Rams' army of runners. In another game, a 21-0 loss to Oakland, Namath was so ineffective that he was booed repeatedly by the Coliseum crowd in L.A.

Knox' teams always have suffered from kicking lapses at the most inopportune times. In last season's 24-13 loss to the Vikings in the NFC title game, the Rams fell behind 10-0 when the Vikings (1) blocked Tom Dempsey's chip-shot field-goal attempt and returned it 90 yards for a touchdown and (2) blocked Rusty Jackson's punt to set up a field goal for Fred Cox. When the Rams rallied, Dempsey missed the extra-point conversion that would have brought them to within a field goal of the Vikings.

In an attempt to correct these deficiencies, Knox imported old Bootin' Ben Agajanian to training camp and had him shake down the L.A. kicking game. Agajanian examined everything, and when he was finished, both Dempsey and Jackson had lost their jobs, with rookie Glen Walker of USC a likely replacement for both. One minor adjustment Agajanian ordered for the Rams' placekicking shows his attention to detail: during the last three decades the average height of defensive linemen has jumped from 6' to 6'5", so Agajanian lengthened the Rams' standard snap distance on field-goal and extra-point attempts from seven yards to seven yards and a foot. "You'd be surprised what a difference a foot makes," he says.

For the Rams, that foot—along with some consistent quarterbacking—could mark the distance between the NFC title game and the Super Bowl.

"Not a good team" is the best one can say for the San Francisco 49ers. In a weak division, though, the 49ers should be good enough for second place. The sack-happy defensive front four of Cedrick Hardman, Tommy Hart, Cleveland Elam and Jimmy Webb is the best in NFC. Running Backs Delvin Williams and Wilbur Jackson, though scarcely household words, are among the best in the league, having combined for 1,995 yards in 1976. But the 49ers are old and soft in the secondary, have a questionable passing game and are miserable at field-goal kicking. On top of that, San Francisco has a crusher of a schedule—starting with Pittsburgh and including Miami, Minnesota and Dallas, along with the usual double whammy of L.A. Also, two of the 49ers' last three games will be played in the Upper Midwestern cold, which San Francisco teams always hate.

The major imponderable on offense is Quarterback Jim Plunkett. Starting last year with verve after his trade from New England, Plunkett waned to inconsistency and then downright erraticism as the season stretched on. He was inconsistent throughout the exhibition games, too.

The 49ers have new leadership at the top, from owner Ed DeBartolo Jr. (son of a construction and shopping-mall magnate), Head Coach Ken Meyer (the man who helped build Chuck Knox' offense at L.A.) and, perhaps most important, General Manager Joe Thomas, who created expansion successes at Minnesota and Miami, then turned the Baltimore Colts around the past two years. Thomas believes in building through the draft but is also a master at picking up worthwhile culls from the preseason debris. He has his work cut out for him in San Francisco.

The one team in the division that could provide a surprise is the New Orleans Saints. With Archie Manning back and a schedule as kind as San Francisco's is brutal, Hank Stram's Saints actually have visions, probably unrealistic, of a second-place finish. In their 10 NFL years the Saints have yet to play .500 ball, and last year—Stram's first at the helm—wound up 4-10. No other team has equaled the New Orleans ineptitude during the past decade, and the Saints are the only club (except for expansion babies Tampa Bay and Seattle) never to break even. Maybe this year.

First off, Manning—thanks to two shoulder operations for bicep tendinitis in his throwing arm—seems sound. He is zipping the ball again, and despite seven years in the league, he is still unafraid to run when there's an opening.

The Saints have a powerful running game (second-year men Chuck Muncie and Tony Galbreath) but only adequate receivers, and the offensive line is weak. The Saints' defense is spotty. If there is a key man here, it's Defensive End Bob Pollard, now in his eighth season. If Pollard and Tackle Derland Moore can generate a consistent pass rush, they may inspire their teammates. And with Dick Nolan—the ex-Giant player, ex-Cowboy assistant coach, ex-head coach of the 49ers—handling the linebackers, another Stram miracle could materialize in short order. But it will be a long while before the Saints upgrade their woeful secondary. That takes good drafts, perceptive trades and time, time, time.

If Manning stays healthy, and if the defense comes through, then the softest schedule in the West could help New Orleans to a good season, maybe 8-6. Otherwise the Saints will be back to 4-10 or, brighter, 5-9.

The Atlanta Falcons, like a few of their avian namesakes, should be classed as an endangered species. Never winners, this year they play eight games against teams strong enough to win divisional titles—if not reach the Super Bowl. The Falcons once again will finish dead last in their division.

During the off-season, Atlanta completely redid its front office, from head coach to flack. Like Ken Meyer of San Francisco, Leeman Bennett is a former assistant to the Rams' Chuck Knox (he coached the L.A. receivers). Bennett, who at 39 is the NFL's youngest coach, has plugged in the L.A. look, concentrating on ball control and a strong running game (although without the Rams' talent), and, like Knox, he believes in patience and power. That bodes well for the future, but not for this year.

If the Falcons have any strengths worth recounting, they are on offense, particularly at running back where Woody Thompson and Bubba Bean are ably supported by three reliable backups. Quarterback became a problem area, though, when Steve Bartkowski had a knee operation this week.

The offensive line, although firmed up at right tackle by top draft choice Warren Bryant, is at best inconsistent, at worst porous on pass blocking. The Falcons' offensive problems surfaced early as they failed to score a touchdown in their first three exhibitions.

But that's the bright side. Atlanta's chief weakness is at linebacker. Last year, the Falcons were 25th in the 28-team league on defense against the run. Then Tommy Nobis, their one competent linebacker, retired. He couldn't do it all. And besides, he was hurting. Ralph Ortega, a third-year pro, replaces Nobis, and he won't suffer from a lack of work. Led by Claude Humphrey, the Falcons have had an effective pass rush and the addition of rookie Tackle Wilson Faumuina will help.

Oh, yes. Atlanta has good legs in Nick Mike-Mayer and Punter John James. But it seems likely that James will see a lot more action than Mike-Mayer this year and for quite a while to come.