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NFC West

They were calling the LOS ANGELES Rams' summer session in Fullerton Camp Tranquillity. The Good Ship Lollipop. Everything was so "hunky-dory"—Defensive End Jack Youngblood's term—that people were wondering if new management had slipped in overnight. So what if the front office had weakened the club at three positions by shipping out Quarterback Vince Ferragamo and linebackers Jack Reynolds and Bob Brudzinski. At least no one would be saying naughty things anymore, right? The euphoria officially ended on Monday, Aug. 24, when veteran backup Quarterback Bob Lee was cut three days after L.A. had used him as cannon fodder against the San Diego Chargers, playing him despite the fact that he had such a sore elbow he could barely throw. Lee was on the second year of a two-year, no-cut $150,000 contract.

The second rock fell on veteran Defensive End Fred Dryer, who was cut despite a $215,000 contract with a no-cut, no-waiver provision. Sorry, Freddy said, a contract's a contract. The Rams temporarily placed Dryer on the rather degrading "non-participant" list. All this didn't sit well with Dryer's defensive teammates, who felt he'd been battling mightily to hold his position against converted Defensive Tackle Cody Jones. "If they ever do to me what they're doing to Fred," one of them said, "I'll burn this place down. Torch it. I'm not kidding." Goodby Camp Tranquillity.

Why the Rams were willing to eat two major contracts when they wouldn't spend the extra money to keep Ferragamo from going to Canada is a mystery. No one can say that L.A.'s lacking dough. Madame Ram, Georgia Frontiere, charged the highest prices and had the highest ticket revenues in the NFL last year.

So why will the Rams do so well? Talent. They can't help it. Best secondary in football. Close to if not the best offensive line. Solid defensive line. The running game will be helped by the return of Wendell Tyler, a 1,000-yard man in 1979 who was injured most of last season. If Tyler gets hurt again, the Rams have the 5'10", 235-pound bowling ball, Jewerl Thomas. It took only 15 games for them to figure out he was their best runner last year. Pat Haden's a good enough QB to keep the act together. But in the playoffs, they'll probably lose to a team that wants it more than they do—such as Atlanta. It's their nature.

I sat down and figured the average weight for the ATLANTA Falcons' starting defensive eleven this exhibition season. It was 211 pounds. A normal defensive unit in the NFL goes around 225. You have to go back at least 30 years to find a team as little as Atlanta's. But maybe Coach Leeman Bennett has seen into the future, maybe defenses will be contoured this way in order to attack the wide-open offenses. Human flies. Speed and swarming ability. The 210-pound linebacker, the 240-pound defensive end. It certainly worked for the Falcons last season.

Bennett's plan was to build his defense one unit at a time. Last year was the linebackers' turn, but never in Bennett's wildest dreams did he think he'd get as lucky as he did. Three newcomers started; Buddy Curry led the Falcons in tackles, 206-pound Al Richardson led in interceptions with seven, and 215-pound Joel Williams led in sacks with 16. Remembering how his club blew a 14-point fourth-quarter advantage in the playoffs against Dallas last season, Bennett went for defensive backs this year, and he may have gotten hot again. Florida State's Bobby Butler (No. 1) has replaced the injured Rolland Lawrence at the left corner and been outstanding. The No. 3 choice, Georgia's Scott Woerner, should be a starting safety before long.

The interesting thing about the Falcons is that they've got two ways to travel—Lynn Cain and William Andrews slashing away behind a big league line that's been together for three years, or Quarterback Steve Bartkowski cutting loose. When Bartkowski gets hot, there are few passers as dangerous. If the rest of the defensive pieces come together, if they avoid injuries, as they did last year, the Falcons have got themselves a Super Bowl team.

San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh is a polite man. When fans come over to him and say, "Gee, you sure had an entertaining team last year," he smiles, nods and says thank you. What makes a team entertaining? You score a lot, the other guys score a lot, everyone goes away happy except the bettors, who have a heart attack. Walsh can't stand it. It's eating him up, all this "entertainment" stuff, the feeling that he's so gifted offensively, yet has the gray thumb when it comes to defense. There was an influx of new defensive talent last year, high drafts for the most part—Defensive End Jim Stuckey, Safety Ricky Churchman and linebackers Keena Turner, Bobby Leopold and Craig Puki. They all played. They had the fire of youth. And the defense stunk. They gave up one point fewer than the 2-14 team did in '79, but a lot more yards. The opposition completed 66% of its passes against them, and never in the history of the NFL was a pass defense so generous.

Walsh has added a quality veteran at right inside linebacker in ex-Ram Jack Reynolds, but on the whole he's taking a devil-may-care approach this year; he's thrown caution to the winds of Candlestick Park, and it'll be a season of shock therapy. Three rookies will start in the secondary: USC's Ronnie Lott (No. 1 draft) at left corner, Missouri's Eric Wright (No. 2B) at right corner, and Pittsburgh's Carlton Williamson (No. 3) at strong safety. A fourth rookie, Lynn Thomas (No. 5, also from Pitt) will come in when the 49ers go to their nickel defense. Against Seattle in the first exhibition the youngsters were a little tentative; they were laying off the receivers too much. So they decided to go at it a bit more aggressively against San Diego, and the Chargers completed 27 of 34 passes for 347 yards. They got a confidence builder in a rematch with Seattle in the third exhibition, though, when Wright intercepted a Jim Zorn pass with 15 seconds to play and returned it 48 yards for a score to give the 49ers a 24-17 win over the Seahawks.

The offense, as usual, is pretty, as most Walsh offenses are. It will be even nicer if Running Back Paul Hofer can come back from a severe knee injury, suffered last year, to team with Earl Cooper and Quarterback Joe Montana in the backfield. But it will be sweeter yet if the young defense shows signs of developing. If not, if it's another soft year for enemy passers, then the entire 49er concept must be questioned, not the people who carry it out.

The fans aren't wearing paper bags over their heads in NEW ORLEANS anymore. These days their cars carry bumper stickers that read FAITH, HOPE AND BUM. The magical name of Bum Phillips, the Saints' eighth head coach in their 15 years, has generated a new wave of optimism that manifested itself in the 67,562 fans who showed up in the second week of the preseason to watch the blood match against Houston, the bad guys who fired Bum. It was the largest exhibition-game crowd in New Orleans in six years.

So what else is new? There are always new waves of optimism in this town. Quarterback Archie Manning was a new wave in '71. So was Hank Stram in '76. So was the great wealth of talent that finally made the Saints a playoff contender going into last season. Now the hope is Bum, who has complete control of the football side of things, and by now a firsthand knowledge of the Looney Tunes management of this franchise. His first minor conflict was on the draft. His man was South Carolina Tailback George Rogers, the Heisman Trophy winner. Dick Steinberg, the player personnel director, liked North Carolina Linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Steinberg moved up north to New England, and the Saints took Rogers. So far Rogers has been only so-so behind a line that's the same. Second-guessers said that Taylor could have filled a big need on a defense that in 1980 allowed 14 points fewer than the alltime NFL record. But wait till you've seen the rest of the hand, the Saints say, and they open up a spread that reveals nothing but face cards. Four defensive starters could come out of this draft, the most prominent being Linebacker Rickey Jackson, Hugh Green's mate at Pitt. They're calling it the best draft in the club's history, which isn't saying much.

Bum's one great talent has always been the ability to keep his troops relatively happy, and restoring damaged psyches is expected to be a major contribution he'll make in New Orleans. But Phillips was too late for Running Back Chuck Muncie. He was already gone. And the formula didn't quite work for Tight End Henry Childs. Bum shipped him off to L.A., via Washington. He also traded away Running Back Tony Galbreath, to Minnesota. But Manning is staying put in New Orleans. Rumors that he was trade bait were quickly squashed by the new coach.

It's tough to see how a 1-15 team could end up with one of the NFL's toughest schedules, but the Saints have eight games against 1980 playoff teams, five of them on the road. Not even Bum can overcome that.


Tyler makes the Los Angeles ground game soar.


Bartkowski's bombs keep the Falcons winging.