Professional football, as the cliché has it, is an emotional game. No less an authority than Vince Lombardi once said that the success of the Green Bay Packers was built on love. While much of that success could be realistically attributed to spirited blocking and tackling by a large group of very talented players, Vince could make a persuasive case for the value of team affection—and fear.
In the Coastal Division of the NFL, love, hate and talent abound, but mostly talent. Three of the teams—the Los Angeles Rams, Baltimore Colts and San Francisco 49ers—would probably be favored to win in either the Century or Capitol divisions. The fourth—the Atlanta Falcons—may be ready to give the Big Three a game now and then.
The success of all four teams will depend upon how they handle a variety of psychological problems. The defending-champion Colts are recovering from the trauma of losing to the New York Jets in the Super Bowl. The Rams saw their coach melodramatically fired and rehired during the off season. The 49ers are still adjusting to the tough regime of Dick Nolan, in his second season as head coach, and the Falcons are now under the driving—and often caustic—direction of Norm Van Brocklin, in his first full season.
The Colts probably will make the easiest adjustment Don Shula, after six years as coach, has established a firm rapport with his players, based on mutual admiration and respect. He is a young man (39) and he seems to have an instinctive appreciation of the attitudes and hang-ups of his club. He may even turn the loss to the Jets to good account in the season to come.
For example, half a dozen Colt veterans came to training camp with the rookies—a week before they had to. "A winning team has to worry about what you call complacency," Shula said then. "Winning becomes a habit. You take it for granted. That's why it is gratifying to me to see veterans like John Mackey [an All-Pro tight end], Willie Richardson and Bubba Smith show up early. It means we have a goal that is spurring them."
The return to action of a healthy John Unitas also helps spur the Colts. Earl Morrall did a fine job of replacing Johnny U. in 1968, but it is doubtful that he will be able to supplant a fit Unitas, who exercises the charismatic authority that all great quarterbacks have, and whose arm, through the preseason games, seemed better than ever.
Says Jimmy Orr, the veteran wide receiver, "If he threw any better—and I have been catching him for eight seasons—they would have to outlaw him. He can still do something most passers fail at. That is, throw while you're coming open, with two steps to go, so the ball gets to you in the clear."
With either Unitas or Morrall at quarterback, the Colts will have a versatile, high-scoring attack. They have a strong, fast corps of receivers, headed by Richardson, Mackey and Orr, and a veteran offensive line to protect the quarterbacks. The running backs—Tom Matte, Jerry Hill and Terry Cole—are tough if not fleet and give the Colts a solid ground game
An Iffy Defense
If Baltimore falters it could be because of a drop-off in defense Although the Colts allowed the fewest points in the NFL last season, they have had two crucial retirements Bobby Boyd, a fixture at cornerback on All-Pro teams, has become a Colt coach, and Defensive Captain Ordell Braase has retired at end. Charlie Stukes, a third-year man, will replace Boyd, and veteran Roy Hilton is taking over for Braase, but the Colts will need a strong pass rush—which finally materialized in an exhibition against Buffalo—and fine play from their linebackers to help out the corners.
Fortunately for Baltimore, the major soft spot of the principal contenders in the Coastal Division is at wide receiver, the attacking point against cornerbacks. The Rams have improved appreciably by judicious trading and the acquisition of three good first draft choices, but Coach George Allen is still thin at the flanks. Bernie Casey, a notably underrated wide receiver, has retired to paint and write poetry, and Jim Seymour, a No. 1 draft choice from Notre Dame, was called to active duty with the National Guard and may miss the entire season. Wendell Tucker, who backed up Casey in 1968, is fast and has good moves and hands, but he is 5'11", 185. Veterans Jack Snow and Pat Stud-still could be the answer, if Snow plays as he did in 1967 and Studstill can avoid injury.
The Rams' only other major problem is to put to good use the emotional binge brought on by the firing of Allen, the threat by a group of players led by All-Pros Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen to quit if Allen wasn't reinstated, and the grand rehiring. "I think the whole thing has brought us closer together," Allen said at training camp. He is a small, enthusiastic man with a strong empathy with his players, and he is probably as well liked and deeply respected by his players as any coach. "I know I now have a much warmer, deeper feeling for this team than any I have ever known," he went on. "And I think the players feel that way about me."
Probably the most helpful trade Allen made on his return was the acquisition of Offensive Tackle Bob Brown from the Philadelphia Eagles. Brown, who will be playing at a svelte 278 (he once went over 300), may be the best there is; certainly he adds enormous blocking strength to what was already a good offensive line. Says Brown: "I figure there isn't anybody in this business I can't block. The way I look at it, there's $25,000 at stake for an afternoon's work in the Super Bowl. I'd block King Kong all afternoon for that." This blocking power could animate a running attack which has been hampered by injuries. Much of the long-run potential of the Rams depends on the health of Les Josephson, who sat out last season with a torn Achilles' tendon, on the development of young Willie Ellison and the indoctrination of Larry Smith, a big (6'3", 220 pounds) No. 1 draft choice from Florida. If Tommy Mason can rally his aching legs and Dick Bass regain his form, the run will be better than it has ever been for the Rams.
Defensively, the club has always been gung-ho and grudging. The Fearsome Foursome may miss injured Lamar Lundy at defensive end early in the season, but he has a strong replacement in Gregg Schumacher. The rest of the quartet is intact, although Diron Talbert is pressing Roger Brown at right tackle. The linebackers are good, experienced and deep, and Allen improved his secondary with Jimmy Nettles, an Eagle tradee, at corner and ex-Bear Richie Petitbon at safety. Ron Smith, who started at safety last year, has moved to right cornerback.
The defense should turn over the ball to Roman Gabriel, the big quarterback, often enough, and in the last two years Gabriel has markedly improved, too, although he isn't in Unitas' class.
John Brodie, the 49er quarterback, isn't, either, but he was the third-ranked passer in the NFL in 1968 and might move up with the help of two rookies—first draft choice Ted Kwalick at tight end and speedy Gene Washington at wide receiver—and the league's leading receiver in 1968, Clifton McNeil. With a ponderous running game headed by the NFL's No. 2 ballcarrier, Ken Willard, the 49ers could be the most explosive team in the division despite their dismal exhibition-season record.
Helping will be Brodie's familiarity with the complicated offense imported from Dallas last year by Coach Nolan. "We are way ahead of where we were this time last season," Nolan said not long ago. "I was new, and I spent an awful lot of time getting things organized the way I wanted them. We had to go slow putting in offense and defense. Now the players are more familiar with the system and they have more confidence in it. We would be much better if that were the only change, but I think our personnel will be better, too."
The 49er players do exhibit a new air of confidence and determination. In past years—the club has never won a division championship—the attitude seemed almost lackadaisical, but today it is grim and businesslike. "We've never had as well-run or as tough a camp," said one veteran. "You don't mind the work when you see the results."
Brodie and Steve Spurrier, who got the backup job when George Mira was traded to Philadelphia, work behind an offensive line, most of whom have been together a long time and all of whom are good; and Nolan, a defensive coach for Dallas before coming to San Francisco, produced the best defensive record since 1961 in his first year with the 49ers. Indeed, the defensive line is second only to the Rams', the linebackers are handicapped only by a lack of range in the middle and the secondary has matured. The one weakness is a lack of reserves in the secondary and at linebacker.
The 49ers have about adjusted to Nolan, but the Atlanta Falcons are just getting used to Van Brocklin. The Dutchman took over from Norb Hecker after the Falcons lost their first three games in 1968 and managed to win two of the next 11. Van Brocklin could make no sweeping changes in a system already established, but this season he brought in a new staff of assistants, and he has shuffled personnel via trade and draft and is installing a new offense and defense. "On offensive calls, we will use a verbal system rather than numbers," he says. "The quarterback spells out the whole play in the huddle, including the blocking assignments. If a guy can't remember from the huddle to the line of scrimmage, he can't play."
Van Brocklin's quarterback will be either Bob Berry, Randy Johnson or Bruce Lemmerman, who signed as a free agent last year out of San Fernando Valley State and made the highest score on the team's intelligence exams. Last year, Berry and Johnson were sacked a record 70 times, but the offensive line is improving; in an exhibition victory over Boston the Falcon quarterback wasn't sacked once.
The Falcons have running backs but need receivers; the defensive line will be better than 1968, but not good enough, and the secondary is young and porous, although Tommy Nobis, one of the three best middle backers in the league, shores up the linebackers.
If the Falcons survive Van Brocklin's rigid ways, they should win more than twice, but in a division with Baltimore, Los Angeles and San Francisco, you need more than love and hate. Atlanta will be fourth, with the talent-laden trio finishing in the above order.