The SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS came only a few penalty flags away from a trip to the Super Bowl, where they probably would have given the Raiders a better game than Washington did. If I could have awarded game balls to the 49ers in their losing effort against the Skins in the NFC championship, the first one would have gone to middle guard Pete Kugler, who did a terrific job against center Jeff Bostic and made nine unassisted tackles.
"Pete'll be one of the superstars of the future," a 49er coach told me afterward. "He's really come on. He could be the best in football next year."
Five weeks later the name of Pete Kugler surfaced again, on the bottom of a contract with the Philadelphia Stars of the USFL. The quotes from Kugler indicated very strange treatment for a budding superstar, e.g., "I didn't sign for more money than the 49ers offered.... It was a feeling of being wanted more.... The 49ers insulted me as if I were an ungrateful child."
So they lost him, and earlier they had lost two linebackers to the USFL, Willie Harper and Bobby Leopold. In March, Eddie DeBartolo Jr. called a meeting with Bill Walsh and G.M. John McVay and suggested that they be more aggressive in holding on to their players. Eddie had just been slapped on the wrist by the NFL because his daddy owns a USFL team—the 49ers had been pressured into dropping out of the scouting syndicate they belonged to and go it alone. Ever since the Super Bowl draft of '81, the 49ers hadn't done much on draft day, anyway. The dogs of war were snapping at Eddie's heels, so he told his generals to spend money and get players.
They did. Linebacker Todd Shell, the Niners' top draft pick, got a $1.9 million package for four years. Jim Fahnhorst, a linebacker from the USFL, got $1.5 million for four. The Vikings, who'd originally drafted Fahnhorst, held rights of first refusal but didn't exercise them. The price was too stiff. When the 49ers offered Minnesota a draft choice "as a good faith gesture," Viking general manager Mike Lynn said, "I wouldn't accept compensation from the 49ers any more than I would from a USFL team. The way the 49ers are escalating salaries, they're as much of an enemy to the NFL as anybody in the USFL."
The 49er veterans weren't stupid. They saw the way big bucks were flying around. Cornerbacks Ronnie Lott and Eric Wright signed for good money. Fred Dean, the Niners' sack artist, was a long, long holdout; he wanted a package that included such bizarre gimmicks as a 25-year supply of tickets.
O.K., enough money, money, money! How will all this translate to the playing field? Does stuff like this wreck a team, tear it apart, affect it not at all, what? Well, since this situation is being repeated on almost every NFL team these days, I'd almost have to call it a wash. Except that the loss of Kugler will hurt. The linebackers? Except for Keena Turner, who plays all the time, there's always a mob of them on the 49er roster, interchanging in who knows how many ways. Wendell Tyler and Roger Craig gave the Niners better running last year, but the backs as a group weren't deep enough. Rookie tight end John Frank should help spread the receivers' work load around, and Olympic shotputter Mike Carter might help out at middle guard. Renaldo Nehemiah is still getting the kind of preferential treatment that has the vets gnashing their teeth—this summer getting time off from camp so he could earn extra bread as an Olympic commentator for ABC. At least that's money the Niners don't have to pay.
The LOS ANGELES RAMS are operating under a different concept. Why bother negotiating with rookies and their can-you-top-this agents when you can deal with veterans who make foolish statements such as: "I'm playing out my option this year." Hey, fellas, I've got news for you. Nothing will bring smiles to the faces of NFL management types as fast as a player announcing, as Randy White did in Dallas, "That's it. I'm playing out my option." All it does is give the club a cushion of six months or so in which it can negotiate while holding the guy to 10% above his previous salary.
This strategy is not lost on the Rams' vice-president for finance, John Shaw, who has a kind of brinksmanship game going with men playing out options. Last month L.A. had nine such veterans. Why didn't they walk out of camp, raise hell, phone their congressmen? Well, give John Robinson credit for that. He's such a welcome change after Ray Malavasi that veterans like Jack Youngblood are probably telling the troops to cool it, not to screw things up for Robinson. All-Pro strong safety Nolan Cromwell, for instance, could have played hardball and shot for the big bucks after his fellow All-Pro free safety Johnnie Johnson went down, possibly for the whole season, with a broken ankle. But he didn't. He chose to play for 10% above a modest $225,000 salary.
Shaw won't have many rookie contracts to worry about. The Rams' draft looks a little laughable; they didn't start picking until Round 5, a big change from the days when ex-G.M. Don Klosterman had the choices stockpiled two and three deep at the high positions. But look at the '84 picks this way: No. 1, All-Pro left cornerback Gary Green (trade from K.C.; not such a bad first-round pick, eh?). No. 2, Olympic gold-medal relay man Ron Brown. L.A. got his rights from Cleveland for the pick, and he was a legitimate four-year football player at Arizona State. No. 3, to Detroit last year for tight end David Hill. With Mike Barber down with a knee injury, Hill is the starter. No. 4, part of the deal to trade up last year and get Eric Dickerson, and there's no way to knock that.
Two years removed from USC, Robinson looks like the Trader Horn of the NFL. His secondary is half Kansas City, ex-cornerback Eric Harris moving to strong safety (Cromwell will slide over to free) and Green at corner. Washington bombed the secondary in the playoffs last year, but now it's much firmer. The Redskin defeat dimmed the luster of L.A.'s solid victory over Dallas in the wild card game and some inspired work by a mob of good young defensive players, i.e., linebackers Jim Collins, George Andrews and Mel Owens, middle guard Greg Meisner, end Reggie Doss. It's enough to build a program around.
The offense is presentable enough, with Dickerson gunning his motor for another heavy season (Irv Pankey returning to left tackle after missing last season with a torn Achilles tendon, will help), and it could be even prettier if Brown scares people into thinking long ball. Quarterback Vince Ferragamo should have all the time he needs; the Ram line allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL in '83. One of Robinson's declared priorities is to get Dickerson deeper downfield on pass patterns. Last year he caught 51 passes, almost triple his entire SMU output, but his yards-per-catch average of 7.9 was second-lowest among the NFL's top 50 receivers.
Off-season, uh, joke: Q—What defense will the ATLANTA FALCONS line up in this season? A—They'll line up in an Okie.
That's a joke, see, a har-har. Okie means Oklahoma defense, and their first three draft picks are defensive guys from Oklahoma, and ah, forget it. So it's not funny. Neither is the Falcons' defense, unless you're another team in the NFC West.
Last year, Dan Henning's first as coach, the Falcons drafted for defense; the first four picks were defensive players. So what happened? The offense got better, the defense worse. This year they went even heavier into defense, devoting their first five picks to that area. The snapper is that Oklahoma connection, but if you look hard enough, you can find a reason for that, too.
Quick now, what kind of a division is the NFC West? You're right if you said it's a running division. When you play the Rams, you've got to stop Dickerson. Against the Saints, you've got to stop George Rogers. Even the 49ers can run at you now, with Tyler and Craig. Last year the Falcons were 0-4 against the Rams and Saints, the heavy-running teams. They allowed an average of 193 yards on the ground in those four games. O.K., now answer this: What kind of a conference does Oklahoma play in? Right, the last of the great run, run conferences, the Big Eight. A defensive player in that conference better learn how to stop the run if he wants to hold on to his scholarship.
In the first round the Falcons picked the Sooners' Rick Bryan, everyone's All-America tackle. No messing around here. The Falcons popped him into the right-tackle position in their 4-3 defense and said, "Please be great, kid." He's been a little raw but certainly willing. "Relentless" is the way Henning describes him. Last year the Falcons tied for last in sacks. There hasn't been a straight-up, non-blitz pass rush on this team since the days of Claude Humphrey.
The second-round picks were Sooners Scott Case—a wild, turn-the-body-loose safetyman who could break in somewhere, or break something—and a burly 235-pound linebacker named Thomas Benson, who will probably be a backup man. Buddy Curry, moved in from the outside, is excellent in the middle. The offense is dotted with All-Pros: quarterback Steve Bartkowski, running back William Andrews, linemen Mike Kenn, R.C. Thielmann and Jeff Van Note. But the Falcons go to the playoffs only when their defense comes alive, when they're gritz-blitzing people into a stupor or doing other wild things.
Once again I see some preseason polls that have the NEW ORLEANS SAINTS first in the division. Well, I'd love to see it, because Bum Phillips is a nice guy and I wish him luck. But Bum, let me tell you this straight, and no hard feelings, right? You're a terrific defensive coach. You and your son, Wade, have worked miracles with the Saints defense, getting it up to No. 2 in the league last year, but man, you're never going to make the playoffs with Kenny Stabler as your quarterback, even as your backup quarterback. O.K., I know you traded for the Jets' Richard Todd, but the mere fact that the job wasn't given to him from Day 1 is a minus.
Yeah, I know all the arguments. The Snake had bad knees last year; he wasn't right; he could have signed with Memphis for a million bucks and he stayed loyal to the Saints; etc. I also remember a Monday night game you played against the Jets, when you were down by three and you got the ball back with plenty of time left, plus all three time-outs and the two-minute warning, and Kenny butchered the clock as badly as I've ever seen it done, and you finally missed a long field goal from just outside your kicker's range—with 19 seconds left. Hey, you could have called another play or two. That game could have gotten you into the playoffs. The Snake doesn't have it anymore. Give Todd or somebody a shot. Get an offensive coordinator who can work with him. Give your offense a chance to catch up to your defense.
And what about Dave Wilson, who looked like such a promising quarterback once upon a time? What's it going to do to him, getting shoved down to third string, running scout-team plays, running Georgia Tech and Missouri and Arkansas offenses against the varsity? Maybe you could redshirt him for a year.
Remember the way it ended up in Houston, Bum—good defense, one-dimensional offense behind the big back, a lack of quality quarterbacking. History has a way of repeating itself.
Craig (33) and Tyler gave a big boost to the 49ers' running game last season, but as a group San Francisco's backs aren't eye-opening.
It's all laughs now, Bum, but it won't be funny if Stabler (16) plays instead of Todd (11).