Los Angeles should have little or no trouble winning its sixth straight NFC West title even if owner Carroll Rosenbloom decides to do the coaching himself or turn the job over to his new cheerleading squad, the Embraceable Ewes. Although Rosenbloom's maneuverings since the end of last season seem calculated to bring the Rams down to the level of the rest of the division, this team has too much talent to fall that far.
First, Rosenbloom, or "C.R.," as he is called, ousted Chuck Knox, the coach of the five previous title winners. Among his sins was the fact that his team was playing dull football. To put more pizzazz into the Ram offense, Rosenbloom imported George Allen, a curious choice since Allen is a noted defensive strategist. Allen got off to a shaky start at training camp when he angered Ram veterans by keeping them on the practice field 5½ hours a day. After two exhibition losses—and seven points worth of offense—C.R. fired Allen, replacing him with Ray Malavasi. Malavasi's credentials for jazzing up the Ram offense include five years as defensive coordinator under Knox.
Fortunately, the Rams play enough defense to make the offense almost inconsequential. The defensive line play slipped a little last year when Merlin Olsen retired, but Los Angeles is still near the top of the league in stopping the run, and Jack Youngblood and Fred Dryer may be the quickest pair of defensive ends in the game. Moreover, L.A. rates high at holding opponents to scanty passing yardage and in interceptions. And the defense has depth. Cornerback Monte Jackson, one of the league's best, became disgruntled and was traded to Oakland, but the Rams have capable men in Rod Perry and Pat Thomas. Perry intercepted eight passes two years ago. Last year when Perry broke his thumb, Thomas moved in and picked off five.
The strength of the Ram offense is a set of fine running backs that should again put L.A. near the lead in ground yardage. Lawrence McCutcheon's 1,238 yards in 1977 made him the alltime Ram rushing leader, and John Cappelletti is a workhorse and a good receiver. In 1977 Cappelletti and McCutcheon gathered in 53 passes between them.
The temptation in Los Angeles is to run the ball on every play. That sort of thinking got Knox fired. C.R. wants excitement, which means passing. With Pat Haden the Rams are capable of an effective short passing game; if he goes long a lot, L.A. could be exciting in ways C.R. might not relish. The key to pleasing Rosenbloom is getting the ball deep. A big lift could come from Receiver Ron Jessie, on his feet again after knee surgery. Two years ago he averaged a whopping 23 yards a catch. Last year the Rams got only four-fifths of their 1976 passing yardage.
Atlanta Coach Leeman Bennett richly deserved his NFC Coach of the Year awards in 1977. The previously hapless Falcons rose to .500 and showed improvement in almost every statistical department. Under the leadership of Bennett and General Manager Eddie LeBaron they should keep getting better.
Atlanta's biggest question mark is at quarterback. June Jones III, an unknown, is scheduled to start in the opener. Injury-prone Steve Bartkowski has never lived up to his potential. He missed half of last season, and the Falcons, under journeyman Scott Hunter, had a miserable passing attack. In the receiving corps only 152-pound Alfred Jenkins has the speed to run deep patterns.
Understandably, Atlanta stayed mostly on the ground last season, running almost twice for every pass. The line is young and a potential source of great strength. Tackle Warren Bryant and Guard R. C. Thielemann made the All-Rookie team in 1977, and this year Atlanta added another massive tackle. No. 1 draft choice Mike Kenn from Michigan. Unfortunately, the Falcon backs aren't of the same caliber, despite Haskel Stanback's 873 yards last year. Atlanta badly needs the speed that former No. 1 draft choice Bubba Bean could provide if he regains his pre-knee surgery fitness.
Atlanta's constant running last season, combined with a tight pass defense that did not surrender easy scores, enabled the team to set an NFL record for least points allowed—129. The defensive unit boasts few stars but plays particularly well as an ensemble, another tribute to Bennett's coaching. The line, led by All-Pro Claude Humphrey, is better than average against the run and applies strong pressure on opposing passers, averaging three sacks a game. That in turn helps a secondary that figures to get its share of interceptions. Cornerback Rolland Lawrence is the top thief. The Falcons gave up fewer than 100 passing yards a game and Atlanta's deep backs will be hard pressed to duplicate that performance.
Atlanta's style of play produces low-scoring games in which a field goal can be critical, but the Falcons are making do with a less than first-rate placekicker, Fred Steinfort.
San Francisco General Manager Joe Thomas, as usual, has made bold moves to upgrade his team. He has also—surprise!—brought in a new coach. The latter's name is Pete McCulley and he has generally received good reviews, as opposed to predecessor Ken Meyer, who was plagued by bad notices from the start of training camp last season. Things are looking up in the Bay Area, but the 49ers are at least one draft, if not two, away from being playoff caliber.
Thomas' biggest deal, of course, brought O. J. Simpson to town for a slew of draft choices. This may help more at the gate—season-ticket sales are up by more than $800,000—than on the playing field. Last year the 49ers had one of the league's best pairs of backs in Delvin Williams, whom Thomas traded to Miami, and Wilbur Jackson, who is injured and out for the season, but they were stymied by a poor line. To help open holes for Simpson, Thomas picked Tight End Ken MacAfee and Guard Ernie Hughes from Notre Dame and Guard Walt Downing from Michigan in the first three rounds of the draft.
If these three rookies prove out, they could take some pressure off Quarterback Jim Plunkett, who has been sacked frequently. Plunkett seems more confident after four months of private tutelage under McCulley, but he still must prove he has overcome a tentative, sometimes awkward manner. At least he should get better field position. San Francisco greatly improved its kick-return game by acquiring ex-Dolphin Freddie Solomon and ex-Redskin Larry Jones.
Thomas traded veteran Defensive End Tommy Hart to Chicago, but the 49ers are still strong in front with Cedrick Hardman, Jimmy Webb and Cleveland Elam (the last will move over from tackle to Hart's spot). Unfortunately, Hardman and Co. can't disguise the deficiencies of the secondary, which, among other things, must discover that intercepting the football isn't a sin. Second-year Free Safety Vern Roberson, acquired from Miami along with Solomon, might help a little, but opponents should still be able to beat the 49ers by passing.
New Orleans enters its 12th NFL season still seeking its first winning record. The Saints have come up with some jazzy players at the skill positions, but they are woefully weak in the trenches.
The biggest problem has been front-office bungling, which is why many say the Saints could improve themselves most by trading owner John Mecom Jr. Between 1969 and 1975 the Saints used three first-round draft picks and two high seconds for offensive linemen, yet they are still juggling personnel and trying to keep Quarterback Archie Manning from getting killed. Nevertheless, Chuck Muncie and Tony Galbreath, who weigh 220 and 230 respectively, are such punishing runners that the Saints have a reasonable ground attack. Unfortunately, they have had a tendency to run much less than the average team. New Coach Dick Nolan will use that running power more often. A big boost to the Saints' passing attack could come from first-round draft choice Wes Chandler, a speedy wide receiver from Florida who was the third draft choice in pro football last May and should be its most exciting newcomer.
But no amount of offense can compensate for New Orleans' defense, the most-scored-upon in the NFL in 1977. Nolan's first priority is to beef up the pass rush. Last year's first draft choice, Defensive End Joe Campbell, could be a large asset if he can learn to rely more on finesse and less on brute strength. Nolan plans to feed the Saints small doses of the flex defense, which he helped Tom Landry install at Dallas when he was an assistant coach there. But with all the Saints' defensive woes, the team went out this year and used its first two draft choices for offensive players. Oh, well....
THE JUICE, NOW A 49ER, WILL GET SQUEEZED BY L.A. DEFENSE