Were they anything so mundane as the 1973 full-power, 900-horse, sorghum-drive, family vinyl top, Ralph Nader would have demanded their recall some time ago for erratic performance and defective parts. They have been the bane of boosters and bookies from Pismo Beach, Calif. to Buford, Ga. A graph of their disparate accomplishments challenges the fever chart of a malaria victim. They are sometimes superb, occasionally impossible, frequently inept and, despite it all, suspiciously still contending for the Super Bowl out of the NFC Western Division.
The subjects of this attention and concern are those bumbling, talented, mysterious, manic-depressive football brothers known as the San Francisco 49ers (6-4-1), the Atlanta Falcons (6-5) and the Los Angeles Rams (5-5-1)—three contenders in search of consistency. Playing the game the way a bachelor bathes the baby, they are sustaining what may be the most fascinating race of them all, as well as the most perverse.
It is the peculiar charm of pro football, for everyone but the Miami Dolphins, that the road toward a division title is potholed with defeat, and among legitimate contenders of relative strengths an interception wins for you one week, a fumble beats you the next. It's close, exciting and to be expected. Not so, however, in the NFC West, where a four-touchdown win indicates neither skill, strength or "finally getting it all together" quite as much as it might suggest a subsequent four-touchdown defeat. (Exhibit A: Los Angeles, a 31-3 loser to Atlanta on Oct. 1, routed San Francisco 31-7 on Oct. 8 before the 49ers crushed the Falcons 49-14 on Oct. 29.) Even more baffling is the dubious talent that each would-be champion has shown for losing to an underdog club it reasonably should have expected to beat by some number approaching the cubical displacement of Totie Fields. (Exhibit B: Denver stunned Los Angeles 16-10, Buffalo astonished San Francisco 27-20 and New England infuriated Atlanta 21-20.)
"We have a tendency to forget how erratic other years have been," Ram Coach Tommy Prothro says, "but this one has been a little more that way than...normal. I think one reason is that Los Angeles, San Francisco and Atlanta play each other so hard that it's tough for a week before and a week after. When teams are this evenly matched and one of them gets ahead the other team has to play their style of football. The probability is that this race will come down to the last week of the season."
Prothro may well be right, and league rules do, after all, quaintly require one team to win each and every division, but the struggling troika has several other hurdles before the final weekend. Typically, only the day after Prothro offered his thoughts, his prized defensive unit—second best in the whole conference—turned belly up in the second half of a game against the Vikings. The Rams gave up 35 points in that half and 45 in the game, which was the way they figured out how to lose, since the offense, behind Roman Gabriel, unaccountably came up with 41 points.
Gabriel, whose ailing passing arm momentarily regained its lethal quality, was as confused as the next fellow. "This was one of the strangest games I've ever been in," he said, "but it's appropriate, because it fits perfectly the kind of season we're having. We're experiencing all kinds of ways to win and lose."
Gabriel found a new way to lose himself this Sunday when he was called for grounding a pass late in the game against New Orleans, a pitty-pat outfit with the 25th best record in a 26-team league. That forced the Rams to punt from the end zone, which set up a Saints' field goal shortly after. New Orleans beats L.A. 19-16. (Mark that Exhibit C.)
"These things just happen," says John Brodie, the 49ers' injured veteran quarterback, who exhibits an insouciant attitude toward the fortunes of football. "People draw analogies from scores, but there just aren't any. It's just football. Three or four bounces of that thing can change the whole day. All that prediction stuff bores me. The game is in the playing, and this race is in the hat."
With that in mind, it will behoove the other members of the contenders' club to keep a wary eye on the 49ers, who in Brodie's successor may have discovered the implausible leader perfectly suited to snatch success from an implausible year. In case you were watching a heartburn commercial Thanksgiving and missed seeing the 49ers score a 31-10 victory over the Dallas Cowboys—the finest performance by any NFC West team this season—San Francisco's new leader is a gentle lad named Steve Spurrier (see cover). A Heisman Trophy winner at Florida, Spurrier, 27 now, has been with the 49ers for six seasons, but he only became a starter late this October when Brodie suffered an ankle injury in the last half-minute of a loss to the Giants.
A round-faced blond with delicate features, Spurrier did start some games in 1969 when Brodie was hurt, but he was promptly returned to the bench for 1970 and last year his entire season consisted of four passes and two punts. The fans, who in other cities are prone to madly implore the coach to send in the second-string quarterback as soon as the starter throws back to back incompletions, were of no help to Spurrier. For one thing, Spurrier's personality seemed de-pressingly devoid of spark, marked with a coolness that bordered on the lackadaisical. His arm was also suspect, for Spurrier's passes, both then and now, flutter as if filled with helium.
Ironically, those very facets of Spurrier's character and performance are at the heart of his contribution to the team's resurgence. Compared to Spurrier, Tom Landry (the Sphinx of Dallas) comes off as a raving madman, but where he was once cursed for quiescence, Spurrier now is earning praise for being cool. As for his passing, he will still throw a "swan" or two early in the game, but his accuracy improves as the day rolls on. In support of these claims, there is no better evidence than the overall 4-1-1 record the 49ers have achieved since Spurrier became a starter, and the Dallas game specifically, wherein Stevie Wonder completed 16 of 24 passes (11 of 13 in the second half) for 177 yards and a touchdown.
Spurrier's finest work came in the third quarter when the 49ers controlled the ball for 12 minutes and 10 seconds—seven minutes of which were consumed in a 94-yard textbook drive that began after the opening kickoff and ended with a 12-yard scoring toss to Ted Kwalick. Spurrier, floating soft passes and lazy-looking lobs that would not have taxed the grasp of Diana Ross, connected on six of seven passes during the march, three of which converted third-and-long situations into first downs. Moreover, Spurrier's passing enabled the team to run against a respectable defense for one of the few times this season.
Coach Dick Nolan's defensive team also contributed a strong performance and the game's leading scorer, no less, in Linebacker Skip Vanderbundt, who came up with two touchdowns. Blitzing more than usual, the 49ers caught Dallas quarterbacks nine times and limited the champions to 28 plays and 56 yards gained in the second half.
Yet it was a benign mistake that accounted for the 49ers' biggest play. Behind 7-0, San Francisco Linebacker Dave Wilcox got mixed up and blitzed when he was not supposed to. The move surprised everybody, particularly Dallas Quarterback Craig Morton, who almost had his head separated from the rest of his person by Wilcox.
"He didn't see me coming," Wilcox said, "and when a guy gets hit like that something happens to the ball." In this case, what happened was that Morton fumbled it and Vanderbundt picked it up and ran 73 yards into the end zone. In the fourth quarter Vanderbundt went another 21 yards with an awry Morton pass for his second touchdown.
"I broke my shoulder pads in the first quarter," Vanderbundt explained afterward, "and they fixed me up with some wide-receiver pads. I figured if I'm dressed like one, I'm going to score like one. I don't know, but for some reason we play good against good teams, bad against bad teams."
If that continues to be the case, the 49ers should have it made if Los Angeles decides to play like a good team Monday night (Dec. 4) at San Francisco. In many ways, the Rams' season has been more enigmatic than either that of the 49ers or the Falcons, for Los Angeles has struggled heroically with Gabriel at subpar health. Gabriel's problem is tendinitis in his throwing elbow, a condition that caused him excruciating pain earlier in the year before acupuncture and other medical treatment allowed him to grip the football the way he used to.
Against Cincinnati, a team that Los Angeles was singularly fortunate to beat 15-12, the Rams' game plan was predicated on the thought that no play would require Gabriel to throw the ball more than 20 yards. "That was our plan for most of the year," Prothro admits, "but he has thrown deep some. I don't think his arm is bothering him now as much as it was."
Indeed, if he showed little against New Orleans this week, there seemed nothing wrong with Gabriel the Sunday before when he completed 25 of 33 passes for 240 yards and a touchdown against the much better Viking defense. His longest throw, officially, against Minnesota was 29 yards, but many of the Rams' quick-out sideline patterns called for longer diagonal throws, and he delivered them with no difficulty.
Prothro, who almost surely brings more knowledge of the laws of probability to his art than any other coach in the league, does not rely on emotional appeal. Nolan, the boss of the 49ers, is a disciple of the unflappable Landry. He sends in plays for Spurrier, just as his old mentor does for Craig Morton. By contrast, the performance of the young, aggressive Atlanta Falcons often appears—for better or worse—to reflect their coach's personality more than his strategy. Some maintain, in fact, that the team is terrified of The Dutchman, Norm Van Brocklin.
"No, we don't have any of that here," Van Brocklin replies to any charge of intimidation. "We have good morale."
He does volunteer the information that the Falcons have missed good chances to take charge in the West, and perhaps the team is a year away. Atlanta's two biggest wins came over Los Angeles, when Gabriel was injured, and against Green Bay in a quagmire.
The Falcons may have the best pair of defensive ends in the business in Claude Humphrey and John Zook—who, along with Linebacker Tommy Nobis, keyed this week's come-from-be-hind 23-20 victory over Denver—and when the running game with Dave Hampton and Art Malone works, Quarterback Bob Berry can manage some devastating tricks with his play-action passes. Still, Berry earns better marks for his courage than his talent. "That guy ought to be the highest-paid quarterback in football," said Defensive Tackle Diron Talbert of the Redskins after Atlanta blew a lead to Washington last week. "We hit the hell out of him, and he kept getting up."
If Berry should fail to take Atlanta to the title, it will reassure a lot of smug, self-appointed authorities who have decreed that he is too short (5'11") for a quarterback—just as Spurrier is too unemotional for the position. Of course, Spurrier will have another problem if he should win. He has been such an anonymous bench warmer for so long that he is still listed in the phone book as well as the roster. "I must be the only 49er who doesn't have an unlisted number," he says.
After six years of waiting for the call, his phone might soon be ringing off the hook.