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NFC West

Report from super bowl country: Bill Walsh is in the TV booth, George Seifert is manning the San Francisco 49ers' headphones, eight vets staged holdouts, Joe Montana is sharp, Roger Craig says that he is in the best shape of his life, and Jerry Rice is 12 pounds lighter.

Players have been heard mumbling about the pressure being off now that Walsh is gone. "Darth Vader...always watching you," one player said of Walsh. Some on the club mentioned that having Walsh around as executive vice-president of football operations—a job he briefly held after resigning as coach and before joining NBC—wouldn't have been so hot, either. He would have been looking over everyone's shoulder and all. Fellas, the man won three Super Bowls in 10 years, and he'll be in the Hall of Fame while you're still buying tickets, so cool it.

Seifert, the former defensive coordinator, is cerebral, low-key and modest, but he has mentioned that he will take a role in the offensive operation. He believes that all those years of studying offenses in an effort to design defenses to stop them has given him a feel for the other side of the ball. With offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren, he plans to write out the first 15 plays of each game beforehand. Walsh would have had 25.

Seifert's defense has been one of the best of the 1980s, both in concept and in its use of personnel. That part of the Niner package will not change, and it will make the team formidable again. Montana, who has had an excellent preseason, will not be under the pressure of a quick hook—as he was at the beginning of last season, when Walsh talked about bringing in Steve Young to relieve him—though Montana says, "You never know; it could happen again."

It seems the only thing that can hold back the 49ers is the traditional post-superbowlitis, because, on paper at least, they have the look of a dynasty. They're young. New talent keeps surfacing—for example, third-year running backs Terrence Flagler and Harry Sydney, who both looked terrific in the preseason, and second-year defensive tackle Pierce Holt. Look for tight end Wesley Walls, a second-round draft pick from Mississippi, to start in place of John Frank, who retired in the off-season. The 49ers haven't seen what their No. 1 choice, cornerback Keith Delong, can do, because he has been hobbled by an injured hamstring.

Some of the holdouts were low-priced guys who resented the bonus money paid to Plan B pickups. The club has a policy of no signing bonuses for veterans already with the team, but that can change. Owner Eddie DeBartolo has never been stingy with a buck. Look for a San Francisco-Chicago NFC Championship Game, just like last year.

I'll give you the name of a key player on the LOS ANGELES RAMS, and I'll bet it's someone you've never heard of: Fred Strickland. His position is another head-scratcher: nosebacker. A nosebacker is a guy who lines up over the center, either in the down position, as a noseguard, or standing up, a yard or so back, as a linebacker. The nosebacker is the key to defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmer's two-lineman, five-linebacker alignment called the Eagle, which was so effective in situational use last year that Shurmer plans to employ it almost exclusively this season.

In the 6'2", 250-pound Strickland, a second-rounder out of Purdue in 1988, Shurmer thinks he has the ideal nosebacker. "He never sits in one position," says fellow linebacker Mel Owens of Strickland. "He's always taking a side or a gap, always moving, sometimes dropping into coverage, and he's great at it."

He also has been injured. Cartilage was removed from Strickland's right knee on Aug. 9, but he should miss only one regular-season game. His recovery is vital. The Rams use no defensive ends in the Eagle formation. The two down linemen are tackles, and they're not pass rushers. That job goes to outside linebackers Mike Wilcher and Kevin Greene, a sack maniac who had 4½ in one game against the Niners last year.

As in the old days, when the defense set the tone, this defense could dictate the outcome of games. Owens, who was hurt most of last year, has returned, and he's one of the best in the game at jamming tight ends.

Jim Everett, who is ever willing to learn, is a coach's dream. He led all NEC quarterbacks in passing yardage last year, and now he has more weapons to work with. In '88, L.A. had a fine receiving corps, led by Henry Ellard, who had the best season of any receiver in the NFL (1,414 yards and 10 touchdowns). This year there's a mob at tailback—Greg bell; Robert Delpino, who also plays fullback; last year's top draft pick, Gaston Green; and this year's No. 1, Cleveland Gary, a prolonged holdout. Said coach John Robinson during the preseason. "Sometimes it's better to split up the work and do it by committee rather than rely on one guy, like we did with Eric Dickerson."

"Yeah." someone told him, "and if you still had Dickerson, you'd be saying, 'It's better to do it with one guy than by committee.' "

"Damn right I would," Robinson said.

For the Rams to make a serious run at the Super Bowl, Strickland must make a full recovery, Gary must join the team in time to be functional, and the passing game must move up a notch—to the 49ers' level.

You might have read recently about NEW ORLEANS SAINTS coach Jim Mora's blast at sportswriters who "don't know...will never know" anything when they think they know something. It was prompted by a local reporter's reference to a falloff in team sacks, from 47 in '87, when the Saints went to the playoffs, to 31 last year. The reporter also mentioned that linemen accounted for only 10 of those 1988 sacks. That's what got Mora ticked. O.K., sacks are sacks, no matter who gets them, and we're not going to get the guy mad at us for making too much of the Saints' sacks—except to say that they've got to find more of them.

Mora's anger had been piqued earlier in the preseason when someone mentioned his fullback, Craig (Ironhead) Heyward, who despite slimming down from 298 pounds to 265, reported to camp in less than terrific condition. This is what is known as misplaced anger. Heyward is the one Mora should have been mad at. The point is that the mood is testy in New Orleans.

The Saints got everyone in a Who Dat? frenzy by going 12-3 in '87, but after they went 10-6 and missed the playoffs last year, everyone calmed down. True, New Orleans lost four games by a total of only seven points, but the Saints also got blown out a couple of times in December, which is what really kept them out of postseason play. Tired legs, according to Mora. So this year he lightened up on his boot-camp approach to training.

What I like about Mora is that in his three years with the Saints he has made only one change among his assistant coaches. What I like about the organization is that the general manager, Jim Finks, is good enough to be considered for NFL commissioner. A little more zip from the defense, which slumped from fourth in '87 to 12th last year, and the Saints will contend again.

There's no hope for the ATLANTA FALCONS this year. The division is too tough. That doesn't mean that the future is entirely grim. Ken Herock is a fine player personnel director; 11 of his 12 draft choices made the team last year, which is what usually happens with weak clubs. O.K., the team's top draft choice this year, cornerback Deion Sanders, was playing minor league baseball when the rest of the Falcons were bloodying their noses in camp. But Sanders was too good a prospect to pass up. Their next six picks were offensive players, and at least three of them, wide receiver Shawn Collins, tackle Ralph Norwood and tailback Keith Jones, should be in a position to help soon.

My favorite Falcon is John Settle, the 24-year-old free-agent tailback who was a backup in camp a year ago, and then rushed for 1,024 yards and went to the Pro Bowl. Trouble is, he plays too tough for his 5'9", 210-pound body. Herock had better get him some help. Without Settle, Atlanta might not win a game. It has been six years since the Falcons finished in the top half of the league in total offense.

Chris Miller, the young third-year quarterback, has talent. At 6'2", 207 pounds, Collins is a bigger and stronger target than Atlanta's shrimpy wideouts of the past. Someday, maybe....