The St. Louis Cardinals have one of the most intelligent quarterbacks in pro football. They have an abundance of good running backs and an experienced offensive line almost as strong as the Green Bay Packers'. They have a goodly number of fleet, sure-handed and brave pass catchers. The defensive line is young, large and hungry, and there are plenty of big, violent linebackers. Add to all this a secondary that must benefit from acquiring the quick, strong Abe Woodson from the San Francisco 49ers, and it would seem unwise to pick any other team to win the championship of the Eastern Division or of the world, for that matter.
But this young, lively and deep football team probably will finish second or third. The primary deficiency is at quarterback, where Charley Johnson is a step away from being a championship quarterback and his replacements are seasons away. Johnson is a brilliant strategist and often a brilliant passer. But he also can be rattled fairly easily, and he has a deplorable tendency to force his passes. This means that he will, despite close coverage, try to throw to a primary receiver against the odds. When he learns to look for his first receiver, give up, look for his second, give up and then throw the ball over the sidelines or eat it, he will have realized the potential of his good arm and brain. But he has not learned this lesson yet; he has been a starter for only two and a half years. It took Cleveland's Frank Ryan, for example, more than five years to learn the same lesson. Behind Johnson the Cardinals have Buddy Humphrey, who has not been a starting quarterback in seven years, and Terry Nofsinger, who has been a bench jockey for five. It is possible that one or the other of them is ready for a leading role, but neither has shown signs of it.
If the Cardinals were going into this campaign with a Unitas or a Starr at quarterback, they would be odds-on for first place. With Joe Childress, Bill Triplett, Prentice Gautt, Willis Crenshaw and Thunder Thornton for backs, they have exceptional running strength. Sonny Randle, Billy Gambrell, Bobby Joe Conrad, Jack Smith and Taz Anderson are a fine group of receivers. The offensive line is deep and capable.
The defensive line is quick and tough, and Larry Stallings, All-Pro Dale Meinert and Bill Koman combine a total of 18 years' experience with size and youth at linebacker. Dave Meggyesy and Marion Rushing provide linebacking strength in depth.
With Pat Fischer, Jim Burson, Jerry Stovall, Larry Wilson, Abe Woodson, Monk Bailey and rookie Carl Silvestri, the Cardinals are well supplied with defensive backs, a pleasant situation enjoyed by few clubs in pro football. Woodson adds something the Cardinals lacked last season—a tremendous threat on punt and kickoff returns.
Jim Bakken is one of the handsomest place kickers in football; more important, he is extremely accurate at short or long range. He did not miss an extra point all of last season, his first in the league.
Add it all up and it would spell championship if Charley Johnson could take the final giant step to stardom—and if an adequate replacement could be developed for him.
Two ifs, both big.