Should the Los Angeles Rams win the championship of this difficult division, as seems likely, they will owe their good fortune, at least in part, to the winning chess played by Coach Tommy Prothro. A large, quiet Southerner who is possessed of formidable and varied skills, Prothro is not above using any of them if he thinks he can help his cause. Thus it was that he trotted out his chessboard not long after Lance Rentzel, the accomplished wide receiver, arrived from Dallas. Prothro was concerned with Rentzel's lack of concern about diagrammed pass patterns. Instead of following those so carefully drawn on the blackboard in pregame meetings, Rentzel would run zigzags that occurred to him in the few seconds after the snap of the ball. Prothro played some dozen chess games with Rentzel and won them all.
"Next time I'm going to beat you, coach," Rentzel said.
"No, you're not, Lance," Prothro said. "I know a great deal more about chess than you do."
Rentzel turned to go, but Prothro stopped him.
"I also know a great deal more about pass patterns than you do," he said.
Since then, Rentzel has run his patterns meticulously. When Prothro, newly arrived from UCLA last year, instituted different ideas on offense (flopping his offensive line, new blocking postures), many of the Ram veterans were as reluctant as Rentzel to accept the changes. Now all of them are believers in the Prothro moves.
The personnel does not differ radically from last season. Roman Gabriel, recovered from a collapsed lung, still quarterbacks the club and throws fewer interceptions than any other quarterback around. The receivers and blocking line are unchanged from last season and solid, while the runners are Willie Ellison, who set a single-game rushing record of 247 yards last season, and Larry Smith, the strong, versatile back who gets the call for tough yardage. Jim Bertelsen, the Texas rookie, may augment the two with his slashing style.
Defensively, the Rams figure to be stronger even though Deacon Jones is now playing for San Diego. Jones will be replaced by Fred Dryer, acquired from the Giants. Coy Bacon, who graded out better than Jones in 1971, will hold down the other defensive end spot while Jack Youngblood (second year) will fill in for both. The Olsen brothers, Merlin and Phil, effectively seal the middle, and the Rams have a strong coterie of linebackers and better prospects at defensive back.
Their only serious competition in the division is San Francisco, and in the last 12 games between the two teams the Rams have won eight and tied one. "We're maybe 20% better going into this season," Prothro said in training camp. "Not because I know the other clubs in the league better—they know me, too—but because the club knows me and I know the people I have and they believe in and are familiar with the system. They react by instinct, not by thinking."
A 20% improvement should be more than enough, since the Rams finished second to San Francisco by half a game last year. And the 49ers have not changed at all, really.
They are as sound as 37-year-old John Brodie, who has been remarkably free of injury for most of his 15-year career. Behind Brodie is Steve Spurrier, who apparently has improved while watching Brodie for most of the last five years. The offensive line ranks among the best, and the running backs—Ken Willard, pure power, and Vic Washington, speed and power—each gained more than 800 yards last season and caught 63 passes between them. Add to the attack exceptional wide receivers in Dick Witcher and Gene Washington and a superb tight end in Ted Kwalick, and the 49ers are a powerful scoring machine, or should be. Unfortunately, last year they coughed up the ball 18 times on fumbles and 24 times on interceptions. That sort of thing can take the sting out of any attack.
To support their formidable—if unglued—attack is a tough, blooded defense, led on the line by Cedrick Hardman. Hardman has made an amazingly fast recovery from knee surgery, occasioned by an off-season basketball mishap, but since the 49ers open with San Diego and Buffalo, he can still ease into the season gently. The rest of the defense features an extraordinarily competent set of linebackers, headed by Frank (Fudge Hammer) Nunley, the cherubic middle man, and three seasoned defensive backs, with only free safety open for replacement after Roosevelt Taylor was traded.
The 49ers, in short, have all the right ingredients to repeat last season's success—they won the division title but lost to Dallas in the NFC championship—and maybe even go to the Super Bowl. But two of their five losses were to Los Angeles, which is quite a stumbling block. Perhaps Dick Nolan, the 49er coach, should take up chess.
Behind the division's obvious leaders are two teams that have at last improved. Norman Van Brocklin, the coach of the Atlanta Falcons, finally has enough quality players to allow him the luxury of longer looks at rookies during the preseason games. In 1971 four rookies started for his team; one or possibly two will start this season.
Van Brocklin sees a parallel between the Falcons and the Dallas Cowboys at the same stage of development. "Dallas didn't reach .500 until its sixth season, when they went 7-7," Dutch points out. "We were 7-6-1 last year in our sixth season, and I think we have a better team now than Dallas had at the same time."
If the Falcons manage to threaten the two front-runners, they will probably do so on the strength of their offense. Bob Berry, the 5'11" Oregon graduate, has such a lock on quarterback that no one anymore thinks to question his relatively small stature. "He's the right size for our offense," Van Brocklin says. Berry had the highest completion average in the NFC last year (60.2), although he threw too many interceptions. But that may well have been due to inexperienced receivers; they are a year older now and presumably smarter at running pass routes. Berry has an exceptional target in Tight End Jim Mitchell, plus fine speed in Wide Receivers Wes Chesson and Ken Burrow.
The offensive line is deep and versatile, because Van Brocklin believes that interior linemen should be able to play either guard or tackle. They protect Berry well and they open daylight for a good, quick set of running backs, Joe Profit and Art Malone.
While there is no doubt that the Falcons will put points on the scoreboard, there is some question how many points they will have to put there to win. Defensive ends are set with All-Pro Claude Humphrey and John Zook, but the line gave up more than 2,100 yards rushing last year, most of the gains going over tackle. If the pass defense seemed better than the line, that possibly was because no one bothered to throw against it. The return of a healthy Tommy Nobis to middle linebacker could firm up the inside, but Van Brocklin still will need more help from his secondary against the run. Clarence Ellis, the No. 1 draft choice from Notre Dame whom the Falcons had been counting on to fill that need, hurt a knee in the All-Star camp and won't be available until a few weeks into the season.
Given luck and a paucity of injuries, the Falcons have an outside chance, which is more than they have ever had before and a good deal more than what the New Orleans Saints have, despite real improvement under Coach J.D. Roberts.
Archie Manning, who was handicapped much of his rookie year by injuries, is a Roger Staubach-type quarterback, with a better arm and probably more speed, but he is gradually learning to stay in the pocket, which should help him and the team considerably. If he applies his learning, he could survive longer and give the Saints a consistent, full-time No. 1 quarterback.
The addition of fast Wide Receiver Margene Adkins, traded from the Dallas Cowboys, could open up an attack that has lacked outside speed and the threat of the long pass. Adkins' presence will make life easier for Danny Abramowicz, the Raymond Berry-like flanker, and for Dave Parks, at tight end.
An improved passing game will, in turn, open paths for the good New Orleans running backs. Here, too, the Saints got help from the Cowboys in Joe Williams, who can spell starters Bob Gresham and Jim Strong. The offensive line has matured, and the Saints should be able to move on nearly any defense.
But, alas, that perforable defense and a poor pass rush allow opposing quarterbacks to pick apart the secondary. And alas, the kicking. For some arcane reason the Saints last year sent Tom Dempsey to Philadelphia, where he has specialized in long, long field goals. No one on the Saints specializes in even chip-shot field goals.
So look for the Rams to edge out San Francisco, with Atlanta a long shot and the Saints still marching in fourth.