There are various ways to approach the coaching of an expansion team. You can coddle the players, or con them, or you can work them to the point of mutiny and pick out the loyalists. The last was the method of Norb Hecker, recently of Green Bay, who took the new Atlanta Falcons up into the Black Mountains of North Carolina and frazzled their hides. "It was hell," said one survivor with simple accuracy. "Football," said Hecker, "requires perfection. We won't have that, but we will be the best-conditioned squad in the NFL, and this is going to win us a few ball games."
Inasmuch as Hecker, with a swing team, must play every club in the league, it is difficult to point to the opponents he will beat. The only certainty about the Falcons is that they will be last. "We've got a lot of kids with something to prove," says Hecker. "The veterans know that their old clubs gave up on them when they were put on the expansion list." That is the positive way of looking at it. The other way, the realistic one, is that the other clubs knew what they were doing and sent Atlanta their worst.
As a new team, Atlanta has been given first refusal of players put on waivers by all other teams. This made it possible for the Falcons to hire the ex-San Francisco defensive end, Dan LaRose, for example. Logically enough, Hecker has been working a very inclusive reject-sieve (as has Otto Graham in talent-thin Washington).
Hecker has no stars of any kind but he at least has a little something in the way of defense. Left Corner Back Ron Smith, for example, is not going to be run out of the league. The right corner back, Lee Calland, and Safeties Carl Silvestri and Bob Riggle, are sharp, eager tacklers, if a little new to their assignments. There is some cheer in the area of linebacking. Tommy Nobis of Texas, one of the best-publicized rookies of all time, is in the middle, while Marion Rushing, from St. Louis, and Bill Jobko, from Minnesota, play the outside positions.
The rush line is big enough, but slow—which means that Hecker will have it stunting to compensate. "I'm for pouring a guy in there when we can," he says. "You're going to get burned, but you have to do it." The old Detroit Lion, Sam Williams, may have a good enough year left in him at end to take some of the sting out of the burns.
Hecker would like to play a Packer-style offense—running straight at the defenses and controlling the ball. He will need lots of luck, for he has neither the strong, well-coordinated offensive line that the Green Bay game requires nor the well-seasoned quarterback. Dennis Claridge, the former Nebraska All-America and Orange Bowl hero, has spent the last two seasons playing behind Bart Starr and Zeke Bratkowski at Green Bay. He is still a kid quarterback. He can run well, but he is not yet a consistent passer. Claridge's biggest problem is an inability to hit deep receivers. This failing is critical, since the defenses stack against the running game and the short-range passes. The not-too-fast running backs already have enough trouble picking their way through the meager holes opened by Atlanta's not-too-effective line. Hecker may well decide not to wait for Claridge but to gamble with rookie Randy Johnson, the tall, rangy passing wizard from Texas A&I who was considered the best pro quarterback prospect in college last year. He came to the Falcons' camp with a scrapbook filled with superlatives and a collection of most-valuable-player plaques—from the East-West game, the Senior Bowl and the Coaches All-Star Game in Atlanta. Although he is brand new to the pro game he appears to be accurate at short and long range, and he releases the ball quickly. With Johnson operating from the pocket Atlanta scored a remarkable preseason victory over the 49ers. Claridge's Green Bay experience and Johnson's good early form leave rookie Steve Sloan of Alabama, the third Falcon quarterback, nothing but a place on the bench. In the line Dan Grimm, a 245-pound guard, is another Green Bay graduate and the best of a so-so unit. The Atlanta receivers are not distinguished. Angelo Coia, a former Chicago and Washington performer, is fast enough at split end, but he is injury-prone. The flanker is Alex Hawkins, a refugee from the Colt specialty teams. Emerging from the shadow of Chicago's Mike Ditka is Tight End Billy Martin. He did not threaten Mike at Chicago, but he weighs 240 pounds, has some experience and is a reasonably capable short receiver.
At the running positions Atlanta will not be embarrassed by Ernie Wheelwright, late of New York, or Charley Scales, an understudy of Jim Brown's at Cleveland, nor will the town be thrilled by them. The Atlanta place kicking is entrusted to Tight End Bob Jencks, whose foot, unfortunately, has never been very trustworthy.
Nevertheless Atlanta will not be humiliated this first season and if Johnson is as good as he looks the Falcons will be an entertaining team, even in last place.