Probably the most enthusiastic "Aye" vote cast for realignment was that of Owner Dan Reeves of the Los Angeles Rams. In the reshuffling the Baltimore Colts moved out of the West, correcting a geographical anomaly and leaving the Rams, to all appearances, easily the class of the division. Replacing the Colts will be the New Orleans Saints, who won five games last season in a weaker division than this one figures to be.
The Rams' traditional rival, the San Francisco 49ers, seem, as always, to have the material to mount a serious threat, but they have been in the same position many times in their long history and have yet to win a division championship. Norman Van Brocklin has whipped the Atlanta Falcons into a competitive frenzy and has bettered his club overall, but he still suffers from a lack of first-rate quarterbacks. Tom Fears, who has done a fine job of bringing the Saints along, has improved his record by a win a season since 1967, but he'll be lucky to get five wins in 1970. At least he should feel at home in his new division. It has a distinctly Ram flavor, with Van Brocklin a former Ram quarterback and Fears one of his All-Pro receivers.
It should have a distinctly Ram flavor at the end of the year, too. George Allen, the persuasive, intense and sometimes kooky L.A. coach, has his team almost intact and it was good enough to come within the breadth of a football lace of beating Minnesota for the Western Conference title last year. There is no sound reason for believing it will be any less good this season, and it will probably be stronger defensively and have more striking power.
Roman Gabriel is the Rams' principal offensive weapon. He has matured into a sound, sometimes ingenious signal-caller, with a fine arm, and he is well-nigh unrushable on a blitz because of his size and mobility. He is also a very strong and durable man, which makes the Rams' lack of a truly good backup quarterback relatively unimportant.
The Rams didn't get far on the ground last year, finishing 16th in the NFL, which was then made up of 16 teams. This wasn't the fault of the line, which was good enough to set a league record for pass protection, the quarterback being sacked only 17 times—a somewhat deceiving statistic, since Gabriel often saved his own hide. This year L.A. may be 26th out of 26. Larry Smith, the No. 1 rusher last year, has been hobbled by a pulled hamstring; Les Josephson, who sat out '68 with a torn Achilles' tendon, has a broken jaw. This leaves Tommy Mason, whose arthritic knees could go any minute, and Willie Ellison, who hasn't gone far to date. The receiving corps, of which the little game-breaker Wendell Tucker is the most prominent, is thin, except at tight end, where Allen has two good ones in Billy Truax and Bob Klein.
The defense, known for the ferocity of its rush, is virtually the same. Roger Brown, the massive tackle, came to camp too massive at 334 and retired when he couldn't get his weight down. But the line will be buttressed by Dick Evey, who was obtained from the Bears in the Jim Seymour trade. The return of Maxie Baughan and Eddie Meador, who were talked out of retirement by Coach Allen, keeps the deep defenders intact, and the development of rookie Middle Linebacker Jack Reynolds, a No. 1 draft choice from Tennessee, could help. Moreover, Allen traded for San Francisco's Kermit Alexander to aid the secondary.
Those Are the Breaks
Alexander came from the 49ers in exchange for Bruce Gossett, a proven placekicker. San Francisco was sadly in need of a good kicker and had an excess of defensive backs, but the trade won't do much to lift them over the Rams. Nonetheless, Dick Nolan is confident. "This is the best team I've had since I've been here," he says. "The club is used to my system and we'll be starting veterans at nearly every position. With a few breaks this could be our year." Actually, a few breaks are all that have separated this team from a title of one kind or another most of the time. Unfortunately, the breaks usually have come in the extremities of key players.
Last year, Quarterback John Brodie missed much of the season with arm injuries and Steve Spurrier, his replacement, was uncertain. Now Spurrier is unhappy and has asked Nolan to play him or trade him. The pass game was damaged further when All-Pro Wide Receiver Clifton McNeil reported late after a salary dispute, and the offensive line suffered when another dissident, Guard Howard Mudd, was traded. McNeil went the same route after the season.
Injuries to End Stan Hindman and Middle Linebacker Ed Beard hurt the 49er defense in 1969; both of them are healthy this season and have strong competition for their jobs. And San Francisco adds an exceptionally talented youngster to the secondary in Bruce Taylor, the jitterbug who gave fits to Kansas City with his kick returns in the All-Star Game and played an almost flawless defensive back as well.
The club should have powerful running, with a contingent of big, capable backs led by Ken Willard; good passing, with a hale Brodie throwing to Gene Washington, who could be superb—as could Ted Kwalick, a second-year man.
The defense, from the front line through a good and deep set of linebackers to an experienced, very fast secondary, is of top quality. With Gossett, the kicking should be an asset for a change—that is if the 49ers can come up with a center who can make the long snap.
That leaves morale, and one veteran 49er lineman may have analyzed the problem of the club when he said, "Maybe we don't have enough fear in us." Fear, that is, for their jobs. Nolan is a quiet man, like Tom Landry, but this year he has enough people vying for positions to instill some trepidation.
Fear is no problem for the Falcons. The hard-bitten, incisive and exceptionally blunt Van Brocklin once fired a linebacker at the half, telling him to get out of his uniform, into his suit and go up in the stands and sit with his mother, where he belonged. The rest of the team played a spirited second half, although it didn't win. It will probably win more this year than heretofore, but even the Dutchman can't make it into a better club than the Rams and shouldn't make it better than the 49ers.
Van Brocklin is a reticent man and not known for predicting, but he has said, "We'll have the best team the Atlanta Falcons have ever had this year. We have the best people we've ever had. You might say we have just scratched the surface of what we hope to do. Our next goal is...to be among the four or five leading teams in the league."
He is certainly making strong progress. The Falcons are probably superior to New Orleans and they have a hex on San Francisco, having beaten the 49ers twice in league play last year. With Baltimore out of the running, that leaves Los Angeles, a club high on Van Brocklin's hate list, and he is a past master at getting a team ready for a single game.
The defense should benefit from a healthy Tommy Nobis, who has apparently recovered from major knee surgery and who rates among the top three middle linebackers in the game. The Falcons have a better-than-adequate defensive line (End Claude Humphrey is the stickout) and a fair secondary, but in the past their linebackers have had to help shore up the deep defense. If the secondary improves, the defense could, too, dramatically.
The Sack of Atlanta
Van Brocklin's problem has been at quarterback, where neither Randy Johnson nor Bob Berry are top rung. Last year they were injured often, not surprising when you consider that they worked behind a line that allowed defenders to dump the quarterback 63 times, an average of almost five times per contest. The young offensive line should be better this year, if only for an added year's experience. If they can open any cracks the Falcons have plenty of running talent to exploit it.
The Saints could be improved over last season, but it depends upon the development of rookies into first-line players—a very chancy proposition. Larry Estes, a 6'6", 262-pound defensive end, has shown tremendous natural ability as a pass rusher and could move into the spot vacated by the retirement of Doug Atkins. The Saints' No. 1 draft choice, Ken Burrough, a wide receiver from Texas Southern who combines good size (6'4", 212) with real sprint speed (9.4), should give the Saints a deep threat on the pass, which they have lacked. "You put the ball in the air and Ken will run under it," says Billy Kilmer, the Saints' quarterback. Kilmer is underrated; he is no picture-book playmaker, but his sometimes wobbly passes are on target and he leads the team with the fire, of a Bobby Layne.
If all Fears' problems are solved the Saints might move up to second, ahead of the 49ers and Falcons. But even Saints can't perform the miracle of beating out the Rams.