In the Chinesecalendar and the Coastal Division of the National Football League, 1967 is theyear of the Ram. By all portents, the year of the Ram will be a more salubrioustime for the Los Angeles Rams than it will be for the Chinese.
Although the Ramsare in one of the two toughest divisions of the new NFL four-division setup,they stand a far better chance of finishing the fall of 1967 as big winnersthan they have in recent memory.
George Allen, theyoung coach who came to Los Angeles last year from the Chicago Bears, did amajor reshuffling job in 1966 and still managed to lead the club to the bestseason it has had since 1958. The shuffling is almost over now and the team isset and solid, especially on defense, where last week the Rams added huge RogerBrown from the Detroit Lions to replace injured Rosie Grier in the front four.On offense, given a reasonably productive year from injury-prone Tommy Mason(see cover), the Rams could be vastly improved.
The stumblingblock for Allen, if there is one, is the division itself. San Francisco andBaltimore are formidable foes. The 49ers, deep at quarterback and loaded withlarge, Packer-type running backs and a respectable complement of talenteverywhere else, would be favored in another division. The Baltimore Colts haveonly one major worry—what to do if John Unitas should be hurt. Atlanta, ofcourse, will not be a factor, but the Falcons are surprisingly sound for a teamin its second year of existence. No team in the league will be able to take theFalcons lightly.
When GeorgeAllen, a small man with bright blue eyes and a strikingly gung-ho attitude,took over the Rams in 1966, he listed six objectives for making Los Angeles awinner.
"First, Iwanted to bring in some players who knew how to win," he said the other dayat the plush Ram training camp in Fullerton, Calif. "The Rams had beenlosers for a long time, so I had to trade for players with a winning attitude.We got some and they helped.
"Second, wehad to get over the idea we were building for the future," he said."The Rams were always building. I said this is the year we win, not build.I kept veterans who could help immediately, not rookies who would be a help inthe years to come. Third, the Rams were not a tough club mentally and I wantedto instill a feeling of toughness in them. Fourth, the Rams were losers on theroad, and I wanted to change that, too. When we beat Baltimore in Baltimorelast year, I think we turned a corner. After that the club began to believe itcould win away from home."
Fresh from thehard-bitten Halas regime of the Chicago Bears, Allen also made a serious effortto destroy the Ram Hollywood image, something that had afflicted the team foryears. One Ram coach of past days had said that the trouble with the club wastoo many cars with the top down and too many girls. A rigid curfew and strictdiscipline got rid of both, thus accomplishing Allen's fifth objective.
"As for thesixth," Allen said, "I wanted to put in a basic, simple offense to tiein with an improved defense. We didn't want any errors on offense. If you canbring the defense up and make no mistakes on offense, you can win."
Allen improvedthe defense enormously. The Rams moved from last to third in the league in passinterceptions and from last to third in percentage of passes completed againstthem. They moved from ninth to second in total points scored against them,allowing only 212, the best record by a Ram team since 1945. Only the Green BayPackers were ahead of them.
But the Rams'simple offense, hampered by the lack of a good running back to supplement theall but heroic efforts of Dick Bass, managed very little. This year, bent onimproving the running, Allen traded with the Minnesota Vikings for two goodveterans—Mason, who is, when healthy, one of the two or three best runners inthe NFL, and Hal Bedsole, a big, tough tight end from USC, who last year couldhave given the Ram offensive line the extra blocking punch it needed. Bedsole,unfortunately, has not recovered from an operation and is out for at least halfthe year.
"Our twoprincipal objectives for 1967 have to do with offense," Allen said. "Wemust pick up short yardage on third down; that's one reason we went for Mason,to take the pressure off Bass. Last year, in 19 third-and-one situations, wemade the yardage only six times. We gave up the ball 13 times and you cannot dothat against good offensive teams. Second, we must protect the quarterbackbetter."
The Ramquarterbacks were caught attempting to pass 54 times in 1966. "Ourobjective in 1967," said Allen, who is a precise man, "is no more than31 times."
On defense, Allenhas told his charges that he wants them to limit opponents to fewer than 200points, or about two touchdowns per club per game. Once before in his coachingcareer, when he was the defensive coach for the Chicago Bears, Allen realizedthis objective. In 1963, when the offense-poor Bears won the NFL championship,the defense limited opponents to 144 points. After the Bears beat the Giants inthe championship game, the team gave the game ball to Allen.
With the bestdefensive line in football, a strong set of linebackers and a good secondarywhich is made better by the pressure of that defensive line, the Rams couldhave the best all-round defense in the league.
As far as thechampionship goes, a good deal depends on how much polish Allen has added tolast year's lackluster offense. Roman Gabriel, the No. 1 quarterback, has inthe past been slow in delivering the ball and has been trapped for losses. Thisyear his delivery is quicker.
ComplementingBass and Mason is rookie Willie Ellison from Texas Southern. Mason and Ellisoncould create a vast improvement and open paths for Bass by providing an outsiderunning attack. In dire need of a deep, fast receiver, Allen acquired BernieCasey, who caught 50 passes for San Francisco last season, and Casey has lookedvery good. The Rams have a better than competent corps of receivers. Theyinclude Tommy McDonald (possible trade bait), Bucky Pope and Jack Snow.
Allen, always aninnovator, has kept both Bass and Mason out of preseason games. "We knowwhat they can do," he says. "There is no sense in risking them inpreseason games. I kept Dick out of the preseason games last year and got a bigseason out of him. I think I can do the same with him and Mason thisyear."
The other dayMason came from a Ram practice back to the dressing room sweating profusely butrelaxed and happy. He stripped off his pants, revealing legs taped from ankleto mid-thigh, and smiled. "I feel good," he said. "My knees swell,but I'm not afraid of them. I feel better than I have in a long time. This is adifferent camp from the Vikings'. George is a low-key guy and Norm Van Brocklinwasn't, but I think we're better able to win a championship than the Vikingswere. This is a mature team. The year people were picking Minnesota to win it,we weren't mentally ready. This club is. I'm looking for a big year."
He should haveit. A fast Mason, a quick Gabriel and a Casey who can go deep, aided by acompetent and quite well-seasoned offensive line, will put points on thescoreboard. And that is about all the Rams need. No one will score much againstthem.
Not long ago oneof the San Francisco sportswriters, in a moment of ungoverned optimism,suggested that Bay Area football fans attending the preseason game between theOakland Raiders and the San Francisco 49ers might be getting a preview of thisseason's Super Bowl matching the champions of two leagues. This note came afterthe 49ers had walloped the Cleveland Browns in a preseason game. It ignored theparlous state of the Browns for that game: Cleveland played with three rookiedefensive backs and without the service of its brilliant flanker, PaulWarfield.
Still, the writerhad a point. Were the 49ers not in the Coastal Division, they would be favoredto win in one of the other three divisions and would certainly be considered astrong contender in another, thus enhancing their chances of getting at leastinto a division playoff. As it is, they will probably finish second to the Ramsin the Coastal, but even that will not be easy.
Coach JackChristiansen has the best set of running backs in his division, a quarterbackwho could be the best if John Unitas should falter, and probably the bestoffensive line. His team will be changed less from last year than any of theother three, and continuity of units is in itself a major plus in profootball.
Fortunately forChristiansen, the 49ers seem better able to survive injuries than most otherteams. Only one starter from the offensive team and one from the defense aregone, and Christiansen has adequate replacements for both men.
The offensiveline, which protected John Brodie marvelously well in 1966 and should do evenbetter by him now, was among the most efficient in the league last year. It isback intact, and not hurting it in the least is the addition of a trio of youngmen—Dave Bettema, Don Parker and Elmer Collett—who eventually should be as goodas any linemen. The 49ers are one of the few teams with a plethora of offensivelinemen.
The backs includeexcellent starters in Ken Willard and John David Crow and especially capablereplacements in Gary Lewis and Dave Kopay. A trio of youngsters—Bill Tucker,Doug Cunningham and Bob Daugherty—fit the pattern of the first four: big, fastand good blockers.
Christiansen'strades of Casey, Defensive End Jim Norton and Guard Jim Wilson to Atlanta forthe third draft choice (which brought him Steve Spurrier, the top collegequarterback of 1966) are not crippling. Casey was to be replaced by KayMcFarland, who had been on the 49er bench for five years.
"Every timewe put Kay in a game, he produced," Christiansen said. "We used him allthe way a couple of times in preseason games and he caught seven balls eachtime." But he also caught an elbow injury that possibly could keep him outfor the season. Dick Witcher will fill the position until McFarlandreturns.
Even withoutMcFarland, the 49ers field a set of receivers second only to Baltimore's inAll-Pro Dave Parks and Tight End Monty Stickles. With the best runners, thebest offensive line, potentially the best quarterback, plus an excellentreplacement in George Mira, who would like to be traded if he can't play moreoften, the 49ers could score enough to win often.
Christiansen'smajor concern, however, is to cut down the points scored against his team. Onlyfive teams in the NFL gave up more points than the 325 San Francisco allowed in1966. The 49ers were sticky against the run but leaked against passes,reflecting a somewhat less than adequate pass rush.
There are nostartling changes on the defensive unit. Elbert Kimbrough, one of the startingdefensive backs, was picked up by New Orleans in the draft of veterans, but heis replaced by a good young player in Al Randolph. The defensive line is intactand should be better this season with improved play by Defensive End StanHindman. The linebackers, if 12-year veteran Matt Hazeltine holds up for thefull season, are sound, and Christiansen has potentially good reserves at thisposition.
His starting fourin the secondary—Jim Johnson, the most underrated corner back in the league,Kermit Alexander, Randolph and George Donnelly—are excellent and he hasadequate replacements for them.
If the 49erdefense progresses normally and the offense continues its prolific pointproduction, the 49ers might edge out the Rams, but they cannot match the Ramdefense, and most championships, as the cliché goes, are won on defense.
Should JohnnyUnitas have one of his good years, the Baltimore Colts could win. Their onlyproblem, other than Unitas' chronically sore right elbow, is an offensive linethat does not match San Francisco's. Although the Colts are high on Johnny U'sreplacement, Jim Ward, they probably could not win with him consistently. Wardwas drafted 14th in 1966 from Gettysburg, and he has not yet played a down ofNFL football, having spent last season on the taxi squad. Yet Coach Don Shulais optimistic.
"We have nodoubts about Ward," Shula said recently. "He's a tremendous boy. Lastyear he never even played in a preseason game but he sure looks goodnow."
Ward lookedpoised in completing five of six passes for 96 yards in a preseason gameagainst the Boston Patriots, but he is still a rookie and the only otherbackstop the Colts have for Unitas is another rookie, Terry Southall of Baylor.So the Colts are walking along the narrow edge of disaster at quarterback, andit is too much to hope that Unitas, at 34, will go an entire season unscathed.He threw on a reduced schedule during training camp, resting his arm. He won'tbe able to afford that kind of luxury during the season.
Elsewhere, theColts are more improved than any other team in the division. Massive BubbaSmith, the No. 1 draft choice, for whom they traded Gary Cuozzo to the NewOrleans Saints, should eventually be another Big Daddy Lipscomb or GinoMarchetti in the defensive line, which is already strong. Their linebackers,despite a wholesale raid by the Saints in the veteran draft, are still good, ifnot as deep as before. The team will, however, miss Alvin Haymond's defensiveplay. He will be lost for half the season with an injury.
The runningbacks—Tony Lorick, Jerry Hill, Tom Matte and Lenny Moore—are all experienced,but they lack the size and speed of the 49ers and the shiftiness of Mason andBass of the Rams. John Mackey, the excellent Colt tight end, may move into thebackfield for some plays this fall in a new I formation Shula has developed.Mackey was a running back in college and has remarkable moves for so big aman.
The Colts havescrimmaged much more often in training camp than in years gone by. "We hadan awful lot of work to do when we came to camp and we're getting it done,"Shula explained. "This has been a good camp."
Said Lorick,"Physically we should be ready for anything. This extra contact work hasgot all of us wanting to do some damage to somebody besides our own teammates.I'm tired of hitting our guys. I want some fresh meat."
The Colt rookiecrop, headed by Smith, is a good one; even Raymond Berry, the perennial All-Proreceiver, may feel the pressure from a youngster named Ray Perkins, who is fastenough to be a deep threat. Up from Alabama, Perkins can catch the ball intraffic and runs crisp patterns, but the odds are that he will be used onlyfrom time to time to rest Berry whenever Berry begins to feel like the oldveteran that he is.
By the end of the1966 season Norb Hecker, the young coach of the Atlanta Falcons, had done aremarkable job of welding the disparate elements he had drafted from NFL clubsand the colleges into a reasonably cohesive machine. The Falcons, for anexpansion team, were very good. In winning three games and upsetting thecontending St. Louis Cardinals late in the year, they gave promise of betterdays.
Unluckily forHecker and the Falcons, Atlanta was included in the Coastal Division in therealignment of the league. The move is not likely to make his nights duringthis season very restful.
Although Heckerhas made no really significant additions to his roster, the Falcons, familiarnow with his offensive and defensive systems, will be at least 20% strongerthan they were a year ago. Probably the strongest segment of the Falcon lineupis the offensive line, where Frank Marchlewski is a potential All-Pro at centerand Dan Grimm, acquired from the Green Bay Packers, ranks as a top guard. InBilly Martin, the tight end, Hecker has a very good blocker.
Surprisingly, thestrong point of the Falcon attack in 1966 was the running game, powered byex-Packer Junior Coffey and ex-Giant Ernie Wheelwright. Coffey and Wheelwright,whose position is threatened on and off by Perry Lee Dunn, are back again, andTom Moore, obtained by trade from the Los Angeles Rams, will lend experienceddepth when he gets over an injury. Rookies Tom Bryan and Jim Jordan offerHecker reasonably good untested talent, and Preston Ridlehuber, who maturedtoward the end of the 1966 season, seems stronger in his second year.
Randy Johnson,the rookie quarterback from Texas A&I, played remarkably well in his firstyear. Possessed of a strong and accurate arm and a good tactical sense, heshould be much more effective this season, with a year of rugged experiencebehind him. Steve Sloan, from Alabama, looked good during the training seasonand will be the backup man for Johnson if a bad shoulder holds up.
The weakness ofthe Falcons, understandably, is in pass defense. Since it takes a minimum ofthree years to develop a coordinated defensive unit, Hecker is still buildinghis. He has a solid foundation in Tommy Nobis, the middle linebacker fromTexas, who was the Falcons' first draft choice and a superb performer in hisrookie season. Nobis is probably on his way to All-Pro honors in the next fewyears and he has stronghelp from Linebackers Ralph Heck and Marion Rushing. Ifthe Falcons lack depth in linebacking, at least their first three rate with theothers in the division.
The defensiveline was vulnerable to power sweeps in 1966 because of a lack of really strongends, and it was not consistent in rushing the passer, which placed aninsupportable burden on the young and uncoordinated Falcon secondary. JimNorton, a good end acquired from San Francisco, should help solve this problem.The Falcons' first draft choice, Leo Carroll from San Diego State, was beingcounted on heavily, but he is out for the year with knee trouble. Thesecondary, which leaked grievously last year, should leak again, although notquite so badly. Nick Rassas, who started strongly before injury stopped him in1966, is well and adds strength where before there was mostly weakness. But theunit as a whole still lacks the confidence that comes with time.
The Falcons, too,do not have an adequate place-kicker, which shuts off the automatic threepoints available to most teams once they penetrate their opponents' 30-yardline. This lack also hurts on kickoffs by allowing the opposition a runback onevery play. With a defense as vulnerable as the Falcons', long kickoff returnsare fatal, setting up the other team in good field position and increasing theburden on the Falcon secondary.
The Falcons,then, will be better—but not nearly good enough to finish anywhere but last inthis division.
First should goto the team with the division's strongest defense plus improved running andpassing. That, of course, is Los Angeles. Much depends upon the health of Masonand the development of Ellison, the running backs who must come through torelieve the pressure on Bass. If Mason can perform up to his good seasons, theadded running strength will open up the passing routes for Gabriel and the finearray of Ram receivers. In Bruce Gossett, the Rams have the most accurateplace-kicker in the division, a big factor in a race as close as this one islikely to be.
But a fewreservations must be made: The San Francisco 49ers, with the best-balancedattack in the division and an improved and deeper defense, are capable ofupsetting the Rams. The Colts themselves could get lucky and return to theirwinning ways. They have all that it takes except a proven quarterback toreplace John Unitas should he falter. Until Jim Ward proves his worth,Baltimore is living precariously.
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
CHARTS TO COMPARE TEAMS
In the chart below and those on succeeding pages, eachteam has been rated in the most important phases of pro ball. To assure arealistic appraisal of strengths, the ratings have been weighted. Thus,quarterback, linebackers and the defensive line, the most vital positions, areaccorded four points; the offensive line, next most vital, is given three; thesecondary and receivers two and running backs and kicking game one. A team'spoints for a position are figured by multiplying the weighted value against itsranking (4, 3, 2 or 1). The charts were prepared by Tex Maule and Edwin Shrake,who wrote the NFL and AFL scouting reports.
RATING THE COASTAL