The competition has improved considerably, but LOS ANGELES should prevail for the seventh year in succession. More speed and a retooled offense promise to make the Rams more exciting, but unless scholarly Pat Haden earns an A-plus at quarterback, the thrills will be gone before the Super Bowl.
Coach Ray Malavasi has revised the Rams' offensive playbook, adding flexibility, audibles, explosiveness and a wide-open look to an attack once dominated by the four-yard rush. Just how explosive the new offense proves to be will depend on Haden, who studied under Joe Restic, the innovative Harvard coach, during training camp, and the staying power of the Ram running backs, who could have worked as extras in M*A*S*H a year ago. Injuries to Wendell Tyler (knee), Elvis Peacock (knee), and Lawrence McCutcheon (thigh) robbed the Rams of their backfield speed. Then John Cappelletti, who is more of a plodder, joined the wounded with a shoulder separation in the NFC championship game loss to Dallas. Cappelletti will miss the '79 season, but the others are healthy.
One back Malavasi especially hopes will stay healthy is second-round draftee Eddie Hill from Memphis State. Hill has the best pair of hands among the Ram ballcarriers, and his 4.6 speed will add a new dimension to the attack—if Haden can isolate him one-on-one.
Critics claim the 5'11", 180-pound Haden is unable to throw the ball over 1) 60 yards or 2) Harvey Martin's head. Yet, in 34 starts for the Rams, Haden has walked off the field as the winning quarterback 25 times. Thirteen of those victories came last year, when his rushing support consisted almost solely of the burly warhorse Cullen Bryant. Haden is neither quick-footed in dropping back to pass nor especially nimble when escaping a blitz, but despite these and other handicaps he passed for 2,995 yards and 13 touchdowns. The index finger of his throwing hand, which was fractured in the Dallas playoff game, has healed, and he also should benefit from Restic's instruction.
Haden completed 50 passes to Willie Miller and 49 to Ron Jessie in 1978; he will have yet another outside target this season in Preston Dennard, a second-year speedster with good hands. The Rams also have not one but two dependable tight ends, Terry Nelson and Charle Young.
Guard Tom Mack is gone from the offensive line, where he played 13 seasons without missing a game, but Malavasi is confident that veteran John Williams will be a capable replacement. Kicker Frank Corral, who led the NFL in scoring and won three games with last-second field goals, is another Ram asset.
The team's most imposing strength, however, is a defensive unit that ranked first in the NFL a year ago. Los Angeles had 47 sacks and 28 interceptions while limiting the opposition to 15.3 points per game, second best in the NFC, and there is no reason to expect any fall-off. Nolan Cromwell has taken over for Bill Simpson at free safety, but the rest of the unit is intact.
With a little luck and an improved offensive line, NEW ORLEANS could be the surprise team of the division, with the first winning season in its 13-year history. In finishing 7-9 last season, the Saints were in every game but one until late in the fourth quarter. Five of the losses were by six or fewer points.
To improve a line that allowed 37 sacks and blocked so poorly that New Orleans had the third-worst rushing attack in the NFL, Coach Dick Nolan made an off-season trade with St. Louis for Tackle Roger Finnie. Nolan also is counting on the full recovery of Guard Conrad Dobler and Tackle Emanuel Zanders; early in '78 each suffered a knee injury that required surgery.
If the line approaches acceptable standards, and if Archie Manning has another banner year, New Orleans could make the playoffs as a wild-card entry. Outside the trenches, the Saints' talent is impressive. Manning passed for 3,416 yards and 17 touchdowns a year ago, when his 61.8% completion rate was tops in the NFC, and his effectiveness will be even greater if the Saints can open holes for bullish running backs Tony Galbreath and Chuck Muncie.
One of New Orleans' major strengths is its receiver corps—deep threats Wes Chandler, Ike Harris and Tinker Owens, who among them accounted for 115 receptions, and Henry Childs, who led the NFC's tight ends with 53 receptions. Manning's favorite target, though, is Galbreath, who caught 74 passes in '78.
On defense, the Saints improved from 27th in the NFL to 15th in their first season under Nolan, who installed the Flex. In the first six games of 1978, New Orleans gave up an average of 24 points; in the last 10, the Saints yielded only 15 a game.
One player who should have a big impact on the Saints' record is Russell Erxleben, the No. 1 draft choice from Texas, who is probably the best all-round kicker to enter the NFL since Ray Guy. Erxleben's punts seem to hang forever, and his ability to kick the long field goal—in college he booted 11 of 50 yards or more—will give New Orleans a chance to win the kind of cliffhanger it usually lost last season.
The ATLANTA Falcons were the Cardiac Kids of 1978, gaining six of their nine wins in the last two minutes—and four in the final 10 seconds. For a team which had been a consistent loser since entering the league in 1966, the experience was heartening.
The same cannot be said of the Falcons' prospects for '79. Neither the draft choices nor the players obtained in trades have alleviated the shortcomings of last season, chief among them being the lack of a topflight running back. Coach Leeman Bennett hoped a draftee would fill that need, but all the can't-miss prospects were gone by the time that the Falcons picked.
To upgrade a rushing attack that was only one notch above the NFL's worst, Bennett is wistfully counting on improvement from a number of veterans, especially Bubba Bean. Bennett also needs a stronger and more consistent performance from his offensive line, which gave up a league-leading 56 sacks in '78. USC's Pat Howell, a rookie who once finished second in a screen test for the title role in the TV show The Incredible Hulk, has been impressive at guard and may start.
At quarterback, Steve Bartkowski can be as good as any in the division, but injuries, particularly to his right knee, have limited him to appearances in just 38 of a possible 58 games during his four-year career. "I look around now," he says, "and I see only one other guy on offense who has more years here than I do, so it's time for me to take a leadership role, to be the guy who makes things happen."
Another trouble spot for Atlanta's offense is wide receiver, where Alfred Jenkins is the only deep threat. Sidelined all of last season with a broken collarbone, Jenkins cracked it again in a May mini-camp and is still recovering. All in all, considering the Falcons' shortcomings on offense, their main scoring threat may continue to be Tim Mazzetti, the kicking bartender who joined the club as a free agent after six games and provided the margin of victory in six games.
Atlanta's long suit is its defense. Nicknamed "The Grits Blitz," the Front Seven, led by Linebacker Greg Brezina, had 47 sacks in 1978 and could be even better now with the addition of No. 1 draftee Don Smith, a 6'5", 248-pound defensive end from Miami. But a likely liability is an aging secondary, which must play man-to-man more often than any other NFL unit to compensate for the blitzing linebackers.
"We've got to be very careful," Bennett says. "For two years we've had some moderate success compared to what had been here in the past. The tendency is to slack off a little bit, or say, 'Well, we're good enough now to go ahead and win without working too hard,' and we're not there yet."
Neither are the SAN FRANCISCO 49ers, though a happier season than 1978's 2-14 is likely in the Bay Area now that Bill Walsh has replaced Joe Thomas—the NFL's answer to Captain Bligh—as master of the 49ers' fate. Along with his low-key manner and a disdain for such Thomas tactics as wholesale firings and passing the buck, Walsh brings impressive credentials to his jobs as head coach and general manager. During 10 years as an assistant coach for three teams and two seasons as head coach at Stanford, Walsh demonstrated that he has few peers in the art of developing throwing quarterbacks. Walsh's mastery will be tested as he tries to turn Steve DeBerg, who threw for only eight touchdowns a year ago, and rookie Joe Montana from Notre Dame into first-rate NFL passers.
O. J. Simpson, who has run through more airports than defenses the past two seasons, has announced that this one will be his last, and while Jim Brown's career rushing record is out of O.J.'s reach (he'd need to run for 1,537 yards), a superb finish is not—if his sore left knee comes around. However, Simpson did not play during the exhibition season. And the death of his 23-month-old daughter on Sunday further clouds his future.
Says Walsh, "I'm confident we'll double our number of victories this year, and not even the oil companies are doing that."
Erxleben: A leg up for the Saints.
Walsh: A passing fancy for the 49ers.
LOS ANGELES 12-4
NEW ORLEANS 9-7
SAN FRANCISCO 3-13