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Original Issue

NFC west

Let's set up two scenarios for the San Francisco 49ers. In the first one Joe Montana returns early in the season with the most famous elbow since the one Charles Barkley gave the Angolan at the Olympics. Still recovering from surgery to have a tendon reattached to his right elbow, Montana once again has his practice throws carefully monitored. He can't afford a relapse similar to the one he suffered in July when he overworked the arm and it came up sore. With Montana running things, the Niners establish themselves as the class of the NFL. Think Super Bowl. But the back of everyone's mind is that nagging fear: Montana scrambles out of the pocket, corkscrews his body, throws from an awkward position and, oh no, there it goes again.

In the second scenario Montana's arm just refuses to come around, and Steve Young, who will start the season, stays the quarterback. Young had the highest quarterback rating in the league last year, but the Niners lost four of their first six games under him. If they start as badly this year, maybe Steve Bono gets the job. This would make for the liveliest quarterback controversy in football.

Everyone thinks of Bono as a youngster who has just arrived on the scene, but he's 30 and in his eighth NFL season. The Vikings cut him twice. So did the Steelers. But when he arrived in San Francisco three years ago and plugged into the Niners' system, something seemed to click. And when he finally got his chance after Young injured a knee last November, he went 5-1 as a starter. People were waiting for him to collapse, but he never did. He gave way to Young only after spraining his knee at the end of the season.

With six straight wins, the Niners closed out 1991 as the NFL's hottest team. A Hail Mary in Atlanta cost them a spot in the playoffs, in which they surely would have raised some hell. Now there's hardly an area in which they're not better than they were last year.

First-round pick Dana Hall gives them more speed at free safety. Tim Harris, the pass-rush specialist they got from Green Bay last September, is down 20 pounds from last year and says he's ready to make things happen. The defense has always been good under George Seifert, who was the coordinator for six years before taking the head job. A healthy Ricky Watters and second-round pick Amp Lee upgrade the running game. The new offensive coordinator, Mike Shanahan, knows not to tinker with an attack that has been so successful for so long, and if Montana is back, then it will be his offense anyway.

I'll be shocked if the 49ers aren't in the thick of the Super Bowl hunt.

In the off-season all you heard was that the Atlanta Falcons were building a speed machine specifically for their new home in the Georgia Dome. Yeah, maybe, but the artificial turf makes the other team faster, too, doesn't it? It's all relative. The thing nobody has talked about is what the carpet will do for the Falcons' defense.

That defense is small. When the Falcons opened against Kansas City last year, Chief fullback Christian Okoye outweighed 10 of the 11 Atlanta defensive starters. But hustling, undersized defenses perform better on artificial turf because they can get to the ball quicker than the heavy plodders.

Still you ask, What happens if the other team goes deep on them and the fastest defensive guy they've got, cornerback Deion Sanders, is off playing centerfield for the Braves? It could be a problem. The worst thing from the Falcons' standpoint is that Sanders is a .300 hitter now, and the Braves could be in the World Series, and the Falcons open with four straight '91 playoff teams. Baseball already cost the Falcons their fine young strong safety, Brian Jordan, who signed a baseball-exclusive contract with the St. Louis Cardinals this summer. Atlanta vice-president of player personnel Ken Herock was shopping holdout wide receiver Andre Rison last week, trying to land a first-rate corner.

Look for a lot of 42-35 shoot-outs in the Georgia Dome this year. Quarterback Chris Miller loves to go long. Plan B pickup Drew Hill, Michael Haynes and Mike Pritchard are quality wideouts who like to go long, too. Last year the Falcons won four games on their final possession; they lived on the edge, to use a favorite Glanville expression. One more loss and they would have been out of the playoffs. It's a risky way to travel.

The New Orleans Saints were the monsters of the South for the first 10 games of last season, a 9-1 team with a defense that was running away with the NFL sack title and that trailed mighty Philadelphia in total yards allowed by only 31 yards. Then bad things started happening. Four straight losses, four leads blown in the fourth quarter. New Orleans gave up a total of 21 fourth-quarter points in its first 10 games and then yielded 51 in the fourth quarter of the next four.

The sack machine was sputtering. The offense, with Steve Walsh replacing injured quarterback Bobby Hebert (bruised shoulder, concussion), couldn't get the ball in the end zone when it had to. The team looked tired.

The Saints pulled themselves together and beat the Raiders and the Cardinals to win the division. But in the playoffs they lost to Atlanta after blowing another fourth-quarter lead. When you end up in first place, you inherit a first-place schedule, and the Saints are facing the schedule from hell. In their first five games they play teams that won 10 or more games last season; they go to Philadelphia, Atlanta and Detroit, play Chicago and San Francisco at home. In November, New Orleans returns from a trip to San Francisco to play three games in 11 days, against the Redskins, the Dolphins and the Falcons. The Saints finish up with Buffalo and then the Jets on the road six days later.

The Saints' big news in the off-season was the three-year, $5,475,000 contract that they gave NFL sack leader Pat Swilling, matching an offer sheet Detroit tendered him. Swilling and fellow linebacker Rickey Jackson form the heart of the team. It's up to the defense to force fumbles and interceptions, setting up an offense that can grind people but loses the shoot-outs.

"Every coach would like to go into someplace where he's playing a pat hand," says Chuck Knox, the Los Angeles Rams' new coach, "but those aren't the jobs that open up. I've been through this before." Three times, in fact—with the Rams in the early '70s, then with the Bills and the Seahawks. Franchise broken? Call Chuck. Now, at 60, he has to fix a team that has been steadily declining. It's hard to believe that three seasons ago L.A. played San Francisco for the NFC title.

The first thing Knox noticed was that the Rams tried to play a pressure-type defense last year, but the only pressure they generated was on their own defensive backs because their 17 sacks were a league low. So in the first round he drafted the biggest hunk of pass rusher he could, 315-pound Sean Gilbert, who didn't disappoint anybody in the preseason. Then Knox moved Kevin Greene back outside to his familiar rush-linebacker spot. As an end last season Greene dropped from 13 sacks in '90 to three.

Jim Everett, "the most talented quarterback I've ever coached," Knox says, has been in a two-year slump, so Knox brought in veteran offensive coach Ted Tollner to work with him. The Rams will be fixed, but it'll take a while.




Young's passing stats were impressive last season, but the Niners still had to scramble to win when he was at quarterback.



The Saints need this kind of defensive effort to last all four quarters.