John Brodie, by virtue of an aborted deal with the Houston Oilers (SI, Aug. 29) and the usual dire need of a proven first-quality quarterback by the San Francisco 49ers, has become a more costly player than John Unitas of the Baltimore Colts. Brodie signed with the 49ers for nearly a million dollars. If he is worth that much, Carroll Rosenbloom, the owner of the Colts, may need a piece of Fort Knox to pay Unitas his fit fee. Brodie is a fine quarterback, but he is no Unitas.
At least Brodie is a flaming optimist. Jack Christiansen, the coach, is pessimistic in public, as are all coaches, pro and college. Still, he looks at the 49er offense with a certain satisfaction.
"The same 11 men started all but two games last season," Chris says. "That means we are getting used to one another on offense, and that is a big part of the game. I hope we can start the same team every game this year."
The 49ers were a difficult team to contain last season, leading the league in total offense, and should be even more threatening now simply because the offensive unit has that additional year of experience. Only Green Bay has running backs in greater depth. Ken Willard, a superb rookie last season, should be measurably better this year, and John David Crow should continue to rank among the league's best ballcarriers. As a rookie, Willard was a nifty fourth in the league in rushing. Crow was 13th. Next behind Willard and Crow are Dave Kopay and Gary Lewis, both big and sturdy.
"I've got three or four backs who want to carry the ball maybe 30 times a game," Christiansen says. "John David and Ken would each like to gain a thousand yards a year and I'd like to see them do it. If they did, we'd be in the championship game. But you have to give everyone a chance."
The 49er attack is not subtle; with a surfeit of running power and a strong offensive line, the 49ers ram the ball down the throat of the defense.
As a team the 49ers led the NFL in passing. Dave Parks, in his second season, caught 80 passes—more than any other receiver in the league. Brodie led in several passing categories and was third-best overall. A share of the credit for his marked improvement goes to Y. A. Tittle, who returned to his old team as quarterback coach. "Y. A. helped me pay more attention to myself, not to get sloppy," Brodie says. "I used to get hit a lot because I held the ball too long. Y. A. got me out of that." Says Crow: "John is very definite in the huddle. He doesn't give you any go-go, rah-rah stuff like some quarterbacks. The game requires too much thinking on his part for him to waste his time."
Had the San Francisco defense been as tough as the offense, the 49ers might well have won in the West. The trouble with the defense was not just a gap or two that might be patched with a couple of astute trades. The 49ers leaked everywhere. San Francisco gave up more yards on passes than any other club, and only New York and Cleveland yielded more combined yardage to their opponents. San Francisco's foes scored a thumping total of 402 points in 1965; only Minnesota, which yielded 403, was more hospitable.
Unfortunately, the San Francisco defense has not been notably improved. In the rush line, Clark Miller, Charlie Krueger and Roland Lake are back at the same rickety stand, and if veteran Linebacker Matt Hazeltine fails to return to form the situation may be desperate. Hazeltine has a bad knee. He is in his 30s. at an age when knees do not heal quickly. The San Francisco pass rush is slow, permitting receivers time to maneuver into the open against the linebackers and defensive backs. The key to the success of this team may well lie in Hazeltine's health. If he can return to action with his old skills intact, then the front four and the defensive backs will look better than they are. If Hazeltine is crippled and the team must make do with ordinary linebacking, they will be terribly vulnerable.
The late signing of John Brodie and his huge contract have not had an adverse psychological effect. Veterans and rookies alike admire him for extracting as much as possible from management.
"John's a fine quarterback," one of the team's best receivers says. "I don't think about how much the club pays for every pass he throws. I'm just glad that he throws the hooks at my belly button and the flys high enough for me to run under them. If he wins us a championship, we ail get that money. And if we play the other league, we get it twice, baby. Could be maybe 15 real big ones."
Could be, but it is more likely that the 49ers will finish fifth.