LOS ANGELES RAMS
The Rams will look much the same as they did last year, which is bad news for the rest of the division. Coach George Allen, who views first-year men with a wary eye, brought only 10 rookies to camp, and, if three of them make the regular roster, it will represent a record. Few rookies have stuck with the Rams in the last two years.
"Mr. Reeves does not believe in drafting free agents, and I would prefer to work with the men who will play," Allen explains. For the first time since he took over the club two years ago, Allen is reasonably sure which men will play. In his first season as head coach he traded freely, trying to plug holes in the Rain offense and defense. When the 1967 season began, the holes were filled and the only questions remaining were whether Roman Gabriel had matured enough to carry the Rams to a championship and whether the club had discarded the defeatist attitude which had negated strong personnel in previous years. Gabriel, by the end of last season, had improved enormously, especially in the Rams' last two regular-season victories over Green Bay and Baltimore. In those games, this big, strong quarterback completed 65% of his passes, six of them for touchdowns, and he had the Rams playing with the élan of the Packers, if not quite with Green Bay's cold efficiency.
This season, however, the Rams will try to match the Packers across the board. The only buttressing Allen needed was in experienced depth, and he has that now, thanks to a trade with Detroit.
"We got an ideal backup quarterback for Gabriel in Milt Plum," Allen said. "And we picked up depth where we needed it in Pat Studstill and Tom Watkins." Studstill, an exceptional punter, turned out to add more strength to his hand than Allen had anticipated. When End Jack Snow held out during much of the training season, Allen was able to regard his absence with composure, secure in the knowledge that Studstill could replace him.
Indeed, the Ram offense, which led the league in scoring with 394 points in 1967, may be even more effective this year. The offensive line is in its second year as a unit, and it was strong last season. Gabriel has the air and the ability of a championship quarterback and, at 28, should be as good all year as he was in the second half of 1967.
Gabriel will have enough time to demonstrate what he has learned. Allen, who sets goals for his team in various categories before each season, set a blocking goal for the Ram offensive line in 1967. They were to allow opposing defenses to rack up Gabriel no more than 31 times (in 1966 the Ram quarterback had been dumped an ignominious 54 times). The Ram line not only achieved the goal but surpassed it. Gabriel was dropped only 25 times.
On defense, Allen told the Rams to hold the opposition to fewer than 200 points if they hoped to win a title. They held their opponents to 196. Other defensive goals, with the performance in parentheses: scores by Ram defense, 5 (4); opponent rushing average, 3.1 (3.1); interceptions, 30 (32); opponents' completion average, 46% (47.6); yards interceptions returned, 500 (476).
In Allen's first year as coach, the Rams made eight of the 10 goals he set for them, finishing first in the league in two categories. In 1967 they were first in four categories, and it is doubtful that they will be able to improve on that achievement in 1968. The goals obviously become self-defeating in the sense of human limitations. "The goals for 1968 are to better the performances in 1967," Allen says. If the Rams could do that, especially on defense, they would lead the league in everything.
Realistically, they should run better. Les Josephson led the Coastal Division in rushing with 800 yards in 1967 and should be stronger. Dick Bass had an off season but showed more quickness in camp. Both Bass and Josephson will get quality help from Willie Ellison, a young back who was the Ram Rookie of the Year in '67, and from Tommy Mason, whose rookie season was 1961. Mason hobbled on bad legs in 1967, but, if he can make a comeback, the Ram running attack should explode.
When he sets to pass, Gabriel will have no lack of targets. Studstill has been a topflight pass catcher at Detroit for the past few years and should continue to be so for the Rams. Bernie Casey, who has pulled in more than 50 passes in almost every one of his eight seasons in pro football, caught eight touchdown passes last season, as did Jack Snow at end. Massive Bill Truax is a better than adequate tight end and has good support from Dave Pivec, a third-year graduate of Notre Dame. One of the best looking of the sparse crop of Ram rookies is a speedster named Harold Jackson, who has run the 100 in 9.5 and has hands and heart to go with his speed.
When you consider the defense—and the Rams' defense is considerable—you begin with All-NFL End Deacon Jones, the key man in the celebrated Fearsome Foursome. "He makes the whole defensive line better," a rival coach points out. "You are so much aware of him. You have to double on him a lot of the time." The other three members of the line—Merlin Olsen, Lamar Lundy and Roger Brown—are back, although Brown was battling an overweight problem in camp. In the event of injuries, the Rams have three very good young hopefuls. They are Diron Talbert, a second-year man from Texas, Dave Cahill in his third season and Gregg Schumacher, an ex-Bear who has been a taxi-squad and special-team man for the Rams. Elsewhere, the Ram defense is solid, with strong linebacking and a secondary which was better than average last year and may be improved by the addition of Ron Smith, a fast, tough defensive back acquired from Atlanta.
Jones, who was signed to a five-year pact beginning at $35,000 in 1966, during the NFL-AFL hot-and-cold war, held out this summer to renegotiate the remainder of the contract. The Ram management did not budge, and Jones—who makes around $40,000 now and gets bonuses for dumping the opposing quarterback, finally capitulated. With 29 long-term contracts on file, the Rams were not about to set a precedent.
"If Jones wants more money, it's there for the taking," one veteran said. "You can get an extra $25,000 if you win the Super Bowl. And we can win it."
The Colts set several records during the 1967 season, the most notable being a team record for frustration. Never before in the modern history of pro football has a team won 11 games, lost only one and tied two and not finished the year sprinkling champagne on the coach and various other celebrants in the champion's dressing room. Not only did the Colts miss a championship, they didn't even win their division title. All their heroics gained them was the bitter knowledge that they were probably the best losers in NFL history. It was small consolation for the Colts, as they watched the championship game between Dallas and Green Bay, to know that they had beaten the Packers 13-10 and the Cowboys 23-17 during the regular season.
Their chances for a happier ending this year are good, but much depends on the 35-year-old arm and body of John Unitas. Unitas, who may own every passing record in pro football by the time he retires, has said that he will play until he is 40, and in training camp he looked sharper than ever. But injury is a constant menace, although the Colts do have an experienced backup man in Earl Morrall. Because the Baltimore running game is weak, Unitas may be subjected to more punishment by enemy defenders than the good Colt offensive line might normally allow. One of the most overworked phrases in pro football is the one most coaches use for justifying their lack of an aerial offense. "I was trying to establish a running game," the loser says. And, oddly enough, that was just what he was trying to do. As a secondary effect of establishing the running game, he was trying to save his quarterback's life.
Upton Bell, the son of Bert Bell, is the chief talent scout for the Colts, and he has done well. The rookies who came up in Baltimore last year have covered the loss of three great veterans—End Raymond Berry, Tackle Jim Parker and Halfback Lenny Moore. The veterans were sliding last season and Bell had replacements waiting. Willie Richardson, after four years on the bench, performed almost miraculously as a wide receiver and, combined with John Mackey, the rampaging tight end, and Jimmy Orr, the flanker, gives Unitas three top-notch pass catchers. Sam Ball was no vintage Jim Parker at offensive tackle, but he was close enough. Only at halfback, where Lenny Moore once performed his magic, did Bell come up short. Tom Matte, a hard-bitten, driving back who does everything a back should do, is the focal point of the Colt ground game, but Matte, though solid and dependable, is not a game breaker. He can run hard, pass on the option play, block like a demon and catch passes, but he will not make a defense twist out of shape to defend against him. Don Shula, the bright, imaginative and determined coach of the Colts, dealt a defensive back to Philadelphia for Timmy Brown. If Brown, at 31, can still fly, the Colts will be helped tremendously. If not, Baltimore will be short of running. Jerry Hill and Tony Lorick are competent, but none of the Colt runners can make a defensive line take a second thought before teeing off in pursuit of the passer. And that split-second second thought is often the difference between an upright quarterback with the ball in the air and a supine one with a loss. Thus, Johnny U., despite his superlative skills, will be throwing under stress.
On defense the Colts are superb. Rick Volk moved into the secondary at free safety last season and did well. Bubba Smith, the man-mountain rookie at defensive end last year, will take over full-time in 1968 and, teamed with 36-year-old Ordell Braase, they give the Colts a pair of defensive ends bigger than Defensive Tackles Fred Miller and Billy Ray Smith. Veterans back up the front four with knowledge and ability.
The linebackers could be very, very good or something less than that. Dennis Gaubatz, in the middle, is better than a journeyman, less than a Butkus, Nobis or Nitschke. Don Shinnick has intercepted more passes as a corner linebacker than any linebacker who ever played in the NFL, and that tells you how long he has been around. Mike Curtis is young, excellent and frangible; Ron Porter has enormous potential, and a black-belt karate man, Bob Grant, a No. 2 draft choice from Wake Forest, is promising.
The secondary is sound, headed by bald Bobby Boyd, who may know more about pass defense than some coaches. Boyd stabilizes the deep defenders and has exemplary help in Volk, tough Lenny Lyles and Jerry Logan. This is an accomplished four, and young assistants are on hand if needed.
It would be poetic justice if the Colts, after their magnificent effort of last year, went all the way in 1968. If they won the National Football League title, it is likely that they would be able to demolish the AFL champions even more decisively than the Packers have in the last two years. AFL secondaries have never seen the likes of Johnny U.; Starr is imperturbable, impeccable and impossible to beat, but Johnny U., on a good afternoon against an AFL secondary, would be devastating.
If he survives the season, he'll very likely be in the Super Bowl. If he doesn't, the Colts will be second—or worse—in the Coastal Division. For Johnny U., and the Colts, it's a case of Run for Your Life.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ers
The player strike which kept some NFL veterans out of camp for periods ranging from two days to a week probably did more damage to the San Francisco 49ers than to any other club. The 49ers have come up with a new coach in Dick Nolan, Tom Landry's No. 1 helper at Dallas for six years. Nolan, installing the complex but efficient Dallas offenses and defenses, needed all the time he could get to indoctrinate his players.
"We lost nine days, or 18 practice sessions," Nolan said in the Santa Barbara training camp of the 49ers. "That doesn't hurt too much on a club that is set and has been using the same system for years, like, say, Green Bay or Dallas. But it will take us a long time to catch up."
Nolan and the 49ers, of course, lost Dave Parks, an All-NFL receiver who played out his option and then signed with the New Orleans Saints. The loss was assuaged to a degree when Commissioner Pete Rozelle assigned the 49ers Kevin Hardy, the giant Notre Dame lineman, and the Saints' first draft choice, plus next year's New Orleans' first draft choice, in payment for Parks. Since the Saints may finish near the bottom of the league, the 1969 first draft choice could be a valuable one.
Aside from the loss of Parks, Nolan had two major problems when he came to the 49ers. The 49er players, over the years, have gone their own merry way under the tutelage of permissive (Buck Shaw), persuasive (Frank Albert), abusive (Red Hickey) coaches. The club has had good personnel but no sense of direction or dedication. Nolan, hoping to correct this attitude, hired all new assistants, with the exception of Y.A. Tittle, the advisory quarterback coach, and Jim Shofner, the defensive secondary coach.
The new assistants are young and eager, and they share Nolan's attitude. "I have been associated with winning teams," Dick says soberly. "I think this club has the personnel to become a title contender."
Such optimism may be condoned in a new coach, but Nolan may be overestimating his material a trifle. At the key position he has three quarterbacks trying out for the job, and he has made no differentiation between John Brodie, the incumbent, and George Mira or Steve Spurrier, who would like to unseat Brodie. "It'll be there in black and white for them to read by the time the season starts," Nolan says. "We're keeping statistics on them in games and practice, and the one who does the best job is the starting quarterback." Brodie is a good, classic drop-back quarterback who has had seasons of brilliance. Mira is an inspirational type, a scrambler and a competitor. He's short (5'10¾") and has trouble seeing over the rush from a pocket. Spurrier is almost entirely untested. He was a first draft choice in 1967 but played little. He has the size and the ability, but no experience.
The running backs are big and battle-tested, although the starters have not been effective on wide plays in the past. Ken Willard is a tremendously powerful runner with agility, and John David Crow, who seems to grow more durable with age, has great balance and running sense. Behind them is Gary Lewis, who weighs 230 pounds and has moves and speed but who has never been as good as his promise. Doug Cunningham showed flashes of power last year, and rookie Dwight Lee looks promising. The 49er running, then, could be excellent and is sure to be good.
Even with Parks gone, the 49ers will have good receivers. Dick Witcher, who led the team in receiving last year, could develop into a superstar, and Sonny Randle, from the St. Louis Cardinals, has better than average speed, beautiful moves and the wisdom of 10 years in the league. Behind them are Kay McFarland, who has been hampered by injuries, and was out all last year, Clinton McNeil and rookie Tommie Gray, a real speedster. The receiving corps is rounded out by Bob Windsor at tight end, who replaces veteran Monty Stickles, traded to New Orleans for Defensive Back George Rose.
The offensive line is a question mark. Walter Rock, a key tackle, has said he wants to be traded into the Washington area to take care of a family business. John Thomas, an All-NFL guard in 1966, was lost in a freak injury in 1967, severing tendons in both knees in a fall. Two veterans who played in the Pro Bowl are back—Bruce Bosley at center and Howard Mudd at guard. Len Rohde is a superb tackle, and Elmer Collett, who replaced Thomas in 1967, looks strong. Thomas has done well enough in practice but has not been tested in game stress. The 49ers' first draft choice, Forrest Blue of Auburn, possibly could replace Rock. If all the ifs are answered positively, this could be the best offensive line in football.
Unless you are a real insider, you may be surprised to learn which defensive line in pro football led the league in racking the quarterback. It wasn't the Rams' Fearsome Foursome, the Cowboys', the redoubtable Packers' or the Colts'. It was San Francisco's, with Stan Hindman and Clark Miller at the ends and Roland Lakes and Charles Krueger at tackles. Krueger is 31, just in the prime of life for a tackle. The others are back and, lurking on the sidelines, there is the massive figure of Hardy, who at Notre Dame last year was considered to be the best lineman in college football. Nolan can fit him in wherever he is needed most, on either the offensive or defensive lines.
The linebackers rate high. Dave Wilcox played in the Pro Bowl in 1967; Matt Hazeltine, in the league for 13 years, should have been All-NFL many of them but, because of the 49ers' lowly estate, he has been severely underrated. Nolan gave up a draft choice to Dallas to get Harold Hays, who could be his middle backer. Ed Beard played the middle last year and is good, and second-year man Frank Nunley gives the club some depth.
The secondary may be weak at free safety, but there is talent and experience at the other three spots. Jim Johnson and Kermit Alexander on the corners almost match Green Bay's Herb Adderley and Bob Jeter. At strong safety, Alvin Randolph is in his third season and has improved each year. As for the free-safety problem, Johnny Fuller will get first crack at the job, although Nolan has the recently acquired Rose on hand to lend added protection. Rookie John Woitt will be around to back them both up.
The 49er kicking was miserable in 1967 but may be better this year if Tommy Davis, once the best combination field-goal kicker and punter in the business, has fully recovered from the knee operation which ruined him last year. Spurrier punted for a 37-plus yard average, not up to NFL standards.
"I need depth," Nolan said recently. "Depth and time. I'm changing the guys around, looking at them and evaluating them. But the big thing is time."
Given time, the 49ers could win their first championship of any kind, ever. But 1968 is not that time.
The time for the Atlanta Falcons, the fourth member of the Coastal Division, lies in the distant future. If you were given an Atlanta roster you might recognize a few names—Middle Linebacker Tommy Nobis, for instance. If you were from Minnesota you would remember Ron VanderKelen, who scrambled behind Fran Tarkenton for so long. Some of the other names would ring a distant, faint bell, so that you would say to yourself, "What does he do?"
Next year's roster won't have even the faintly familiar names anymore, because Head Coach Norb Hecker must make the painful switch from elderly veteran to hopeful rookie this season. It is a switch incumbent upon all expansion teams. They must hire a nucleus of veterans from the other clubs in the league in their first year, nurse them along for the second and, because of age or good drafting, dispense with most of them in the third season. This is the third season for the Falcons, and the veterans dealt out parsimoniously to them in the first season are leaving. Sam Williams, a defensive end with 10 years behind him and a militant union man, recognized the necessity facing Hecker when he was cut. "Atlanta plans to go with the young kids," Williams said.
Starting now with the kids, Hecker can look forward to several years of frustration. Augmenting his problem is the fact that the Falcons are in what is clearly the toughest of the four NFL divisions. The only relief in sight is in the reshuffling due for the 1970 season, when the AFL and the NFL merge. Then the Falcons can look forward to sharing a division with Miami and New Orleans.
Meantime, Hecker is experimenting with VanderKelen at quarterback. VanderKelen is ideal for the job of throwing behind Atlanta's porous line. He is a scrambler and may make enough time with his feet to gain a slim margin of safety in which to throw the ball. Randy Johnson, battered through two seasons as the drop-back quarterback for the Falcons, will have it easier, if only because VanderKelen should play more than substitutes of previous years.
Fullback Junior Coffey has been almost the entire Atlanta running attack for the past two years, but last month he suffered a knee injury which will keep him out for most, if not all, of the season. Coffey's job goes to Perry Lee Dunn, who was to have been the starting halfback. That leaves a problem at halfback. The Falcons recently traded for veteran Amos Marsh, who may help. If not, the job will probably go to one of two rookies, Bill Harris, the Falcons' 13th draft choice, or Harmon Wages, a converted quarterback. No matter how it turns out, Atlanta's running attack will be mini.
The rookie receivers, according to Coach Hecker, are the best he has ever seen. They have veteran Tommy McDonald to beat out, and Tommy is one of football's most tenacious competitors. But he may be forced to the sideline by any one of a group of good rookies: John Wright of Illinois, Rick Eber of Tulsa, Ed Larios of San Francisco State or David Ray of Alabama. Then there's Jerry Simmons, in his fourth season, and veteran Gary Barnes. Ray Ogden is a good tight end after four years, but support for him is slim. In short, the Falcon quarterbacks will have a plethora of receivers but a minimum of time in which to find them.
The offensive line, which leaked grievously in 1967, is back intact, so to speak. Youngsters are pressing at most positions, but it is not likely that the Falcon linemen, no matter who is playing, will give Johnson much time or save VanderKelen the need to scramble.
The defensive line, unhappily, will have rookies at two positions. Claude Humphrey, 255 pounds, of Tennessee A&I, was the Falcons' No. 1 draft choice and should play at left end. Carlton Dabney, the second-round draft choice from Morgan State, is definitely set to start at tackle. A third-year tradee from Minnesota who played in only one game for the Vikings last year, Jerry Shay, will be the other end, and four-year veteran Jim Norton will start at left tackle, rounding out a rather shaky front four.
Last year the club's defense was made up in large part of the Awesome One-some—Middle Linebacker Tommy Nobis. There is no reason to think it will be much different in 1968. Nobis has Marion Rushing and Ralph Heck on his flanks and rookies behind them.
The secondary is competent but beset by receivers who take what seems like hours wandering around in search of a free path. Lee Calland and Ken Reaves are good but harried corner-backs. Jerry Richardson, probably the best of the Falcon deep defenders, has quit, but Nick Rassas and Bob Riggle can do well enough, if they don't have to do it too long.
If the Falcons' state sounds a parlous one, that is only because it is. For the Coastal Division, the march through Georgia should be a Cakewalk.