SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Can a 9-7 record really win the division? Well, I've charted this thing, game by game, and that's the way it comes out. In any event the collective flop of the '82 season was the NFC West, where only one team showed a winning record, the Falcons' 5-4, which promptly got Coach Leeman Bennett fired. Down near the bottom of the heap were the 49ers, the Super Bowl darlings of '81. Bill Walsh had to think long and hard about coming back. There were veiled hints about drugs, although no names appeared on the police blotter. The defensive heroes of '81, Linebacker Jack Reynolds, End Fred Dean and Cornerback Ronnie Lott, all of whom were picked by the fans to the alltime 49er eleven in a wild rush of adulation, had off years.
Perhaps the most prophetic comment was offered by Reynolds in the locker room after the Super Bowl victory. All season long he'd been saying, "I'm really not convinced about this team." Then the Niners won the Super Bowl. "Well, are you convinced now?" a writer asked him. "Not really," he said. "I want to see what we do next year." Something bugged him about the operation. It didn't reflect the year-in, year-out defensive solidity of the old Ram teams he'd played on. And last year, when injuries raked the defensive unit like machine-gun fire, the whole thing collapsed.
Oddly, San Francisco's offense in '82 was more productive than that of the Super Bowl team: more points and yards per game and an overall ranking of No. 3, compared to No. 13 in 1981. Because of this the 49ers were competitive against the good teams; only one of their six losses was decided by more than six points. But the fiber of toughness was lacking on both sides of the ball—no running attack, no defense, particularly when things got tight in the fourth quarter. Dean, so effective as a sack specialist in '81, played too much last year, and his body couldn't take it. Now he's back where he belongs as more of a situation player. The secondary gave up more than it stopped. The defensive line was a mess after Left End Dwaine Board went down with a knee injury. There was a constant blur of situation substitutions among the linemen and linebackers, waves of numbers running in and out. You could never figure out what the units were.
Well, the 49ers now have a new defensive coordinator, a new offensive assistant to Walsh, and hopefully some new players who can set things straight again. Ex-Ram Wendell Tyler and second-round draft choice Roger Craig supposedly will handle the running game. Craig had an injury-plagued career at Nebraska, and he was banged up in training camp, but the coaches say not to worry, the kid will be all right. They found a big hitter in the draft, Inside Linebacker Blanchard Montgomery (third round), who has arrived just in time, since the club's most formidable hitter, Strong Safety Carlton Williamson, is on the shelf for a month with a hairline fracture of the fibula. Their if-bets in '82, Tight End Russ Francis, Wide Receiver Renaldo Nehemiah and Tackle Bubba Paris (the 295-pound rookie who was out all year with a knee injury), have yet to prove themselves. Board is back, but just how effective he'll be over 16 games remains to be seen. Keena Turner is an outside linebacker of Pro Bowl caliber, but last year he got swamped. You know for sure that the offense will again be nifty, with Quarterback Joe Montana making Walsh's X's and O's work, but a successful season will probably depend on how good the defense is at protecting a two-point lead with a minute to play.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Don't laugh, but the Saints emerged as the most stable organization in the division after the '82 season. Two of the other coaches were fired and the third almost quit, but in New Orleans Bum Phillips was going nowhere, not after almost making the playoff tourney with a 4-5 record. And now the magnolia-scented air is filled with playoff talk. Of course, the last time we heard it was after the Saints' 8-8 season of 1979, and the next year came el foldo, the paper bags, the "Aints" and 1-15.
But looking at the situation dispassionately there are some very heavy indications that the Saints could be on the verge of the first winning season in their 16-year history. Phillips is primarily a defensive coach, and under him New Orleans' defense, which ranked last in the league in '80, the year before he arrived, rose to 11th in 1981 and to fifth last season. In Houston the knock on Bum was that he had no offensive coordinator and that the I formation he designed for Earl Campbell was behind the times. But last year under Offensive Coordinator King Hill, the Saints showed they could do interesting things. They beat Chicago using two tight ends and one setback and they beat Atlanta going with two backs, three wide-outs and no tight ends. The latter was a "must" game for a chance at a playoff shot, and they won it 35-6, knocking off a team that had beaten them five straight, each time by a lopsided score. Only Detroit's upset over Green Bay kept New Orleans out of the tournament.
Playoff fever probably will mean that 37-year-old Ken Stabler will quarterback the club instead of 24-year-old Dave Wilson. If this were a rebuilding year, the Saints would most likely go with the young guy, to give him seasoning, but they feel they're on the verge of something now. Their leading receiver, Jeff Groth, ranked 36th in the NFL last year, but down from Canada comes Eugene Goodlow, who caught 100 passes in the CFL two seasons ago.
If the Saints want to go conservative, they've got 235-pound Fullback Tim Wilson—his blocking out of the I in Houston gave Campbell some great seasons—to clear the way for George Rogers. Rogers played in pain for most of '82 because the muscles in his calves were too big for the sheaths surrounding them, but an off-season operation in which those sheaths were slit—the same type of operation Mary Decker had—has him running free and easy, so far.
Oh yes, just to make sure that Stabler came back to training camp in some kind of reasonable shape, the club shipped him a stationary bike, complete with fan, so he could stay cool. Veteran Stabler watchers say he looks better than ever, but they always say that until he throws his first interception.
New coach, Dan Henning. New assistants, notably Bob Fry (offensive line) and Dan Sekanovich (defensive line), who left the Jets to come south. Very productive draft, including the fellow Henning was praying he'd get, Alabama Defensive End Mike Pitts. Now the bad news. Three very important Falcons were contract holdouts—Pro Bowlers Mike Kenn at left tackle and R.C. Thielemann at right guard, plus Joel Williams, the sack specialist at linebacker. Williams was traded to Philly, but not before the three, collectively, had run up about $100,000 in fines at the new NFL scale of $1,000 a day. How did the Players Association ever let that one slip into the contract? With that trio in camp from the start, everything would have been neatly in place, but it's a tricky matter, keeping veterans happy while giving rookies million-dollar contracts to avoid an exodus to the USFL.
Henning's last post was offensive coordinator at Washington, where the attack worked smartly behind those big Hogs. His plans for '83—notably the one-back approach of Washington, with lots of motion and lots of sets (how many times have you heard that this year?)—make Kenn and Thielemann essential. William Andrews figures to be the setback. Gerald Riggs, who played in Andrews' shadow last year, will get a look as the "H back," or slot man. Henning says Quarterback Steve Bartkowski will roll out more and be a less stationary target—you won't mistake him for Joe Theismann, but he won't look like the Statue of Liberty, either. He'll still be throwing to the two Alfreds, Jackson and Jenkins.
In the past the majority of Atlanta's sacks have come from its 3-4, with small and active linebackers shooting in from odd angles. But Sekanovich has been a 4-3 coach, and the Falcons will go to a four-man rush more than they have in the past. Pitts could be a big man in that scheme. In the secondary, which always seems to receive its share of heat, second-round draft choice James Britt from LSU could start as a safetyman.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
How the Rams love to trade. You'd figure that coming from USC, John Robinson would low-key it for a while until he got the hang of it. I mean, all these years he didn't work deals with Penn State, a tailback for a linebacker.... But since Robinson took over in February, the Rams have been the tradingest team in the NFL. A trade put them in position to draft SMU Halfback Eric Dickerson high in the first round, and before the exhibition season was a week old they were telling people he's the greatest runner to wear a Ram uniform since Jon Arnett, forgetting Dick Bass and Lawrence McCutcheon. Then they unloaded running backs Wendell Tyler and Jewerl Thomas, figuring they're still well stocked. They switched cornerbacks, dealing Rod Perry to Detroit and picking up Eric Harris from Kansas City, and they got K.C. Quarterback Steve Fuller to serve as Vince Ferragamo's backup. Perry brought them Detroit Tight End David Hill, and they switched people in the defensive line, trading away Tackle Mike Fanning, who didn't project as a nose man in their new 3-4, and getting End Gary Jeter from the Giants. And they'll probably be picking up an offensive tackle to replace Irv Pankey, who's out for the year with a ruptured Achilles tendon, just about as you're reading this.
But the question still remains, while Ferragamo is throwing those pretty rainbows and Dickerson is dodging and darting for yards, how are the Rams going to stop the opposition? Jack Youngblood, whose forte was always splitting out wide and swooping down on enemy passers from the 4-3, will now learn about life in the meat grinder as a 3-4 end, and the left one at that, the run-stopping side. Behind him at left linebacker is Mel Owens, as yet unproved, and behind him at cornerback is Kirk Collins, another green tomato. Nolan Cromwell fell off his All-Pro pace last season, and a switch at safety, sending Cromwell to strong and Johnnie Johnson to free, might be the logical move. Something's got to be done to rescue a defense that's forgotten how to defend, by land or air, and that gave up the most points per game (27.78) in the club's 37-year history.
In 1983, Montana and the 49ers won't take a losing record sitting down, the way they did last season.
San Francisco 9-7
New Orleans 8-8
L.A. Rams 6-10