If you had to select one word to characterize this division, it would be "change." The best and the worst teams in the West—San Francisco and New Orleans—probably have not changed enough, and the two in between—Atlanta and Los Angeles—have probably changed too much.
The 49ers are as solid, and about as immutable, as Coit Tower. San Francisco made only one significant trade, sending Defensive Tackle Earl Edwards to Buffalo for Randy Jackson, a little-used running back who once did the 100 in 9.7. The offensive line, known as The Protectors and led by All-Pro Center Forrest Blue, is entering its fourth season as a unit. The defensive line topped the NFL with 46 sacks last season, End Tommy Hart making 17 all by his lonesome. More than anything else, these two units have been responsible for the club's recent success. The 49ers have won three division championships in a row, albeit with diminishing luster (10-3-1, 9-5 and 8-5-1) and despite a curious inability to beat their archrival, the Los Angeles Rams. They have lost five in a row to L.A. in the last three years.
The 49ers may be suffering in the sideline secondary; after two brilliant years Bruce Taylor tailed off in 1972 and Jimmy Johnson, who has been around a long time, has slowed accordingly. In spite of the trade for Jackson, San Francisco may still be hurting for offensive backfield speed, too, one of the reasons why it has been seeking to unload Fullback Ken Willard. The lack of long-strike capability on the ground forced the 49ers to substitute dink passes to the backs and Tight End Ted Kwalick for a running game last season. That tactic was just good enough for a division title, and will probably suffice again.
The Rams have a new coach, a new quarterback, a new discipline and not enough time or talent to take full advantage of them this season. They also have snazzy new uniforms and a new light song. The Rams Are Rollin', by Henry Mancini.
Owner Carroll Rosenbloom and Don Klosterman, his general manager, lay in the weeds last season, allowing Coach Tommy Prothro and Quarterback Roman Gabriel a year of grace. Once the 6-7-1 season ended, Rosenbloom and Klosterman went to work. Whether what they did was wise as well as wholesale remains to be seen.
Gabriel, sore arm and all, was peddled to the Philadelphia Eagles for Wide Receiver Harold Jackson, Running Back Tony Baker and first draft choices in 1974 and 1975 plus a third in 1975. Considering the probable finishes of the Eagles in the years to come, the trade was good for the Rams' future; Jackson, the league's top-ranked receiver last year, made it good for 1973. The Rams also sent Defensive End Coy Bacon and a fine young running back, Bob Thomas, to the San Diego Chargers for Quarterback John Hadl. This trade may help, too—if Hadl can control his penchant for throwing long passes into hostile crowds.
Probably the key change Rosenbloom and Klosterman made was at head coach. Prothro, a mild man with a conviction that pro football players are grown men who do not need childish things such as discipline and curfews, is gone. Replacing him is Chuck Knox, who was an assistant for the Lions and the Jets and who is an exponent of the Vince Lombardi school of coaching.
"The feeling of the camp is different," said All-Pro Defensive Tackle Merlin Olsen recently. "We have curfews and we work a lot harder than we did last year. But the players don't mind. They know that's what you have to do to win. There were veterans last year who didn't sleep in camp a single night."
"I believe these are intelligent men," said Knox. "The curfew is my way of reminding them that they have a hard day's work ahead of them and that they will need rest. I believe success in coaching stems from your ability to teach and communicate and create a desire to learn. I explained why I have reinstated curfews and I believe they understand the value of this rule. It gives them a sense of fellowship, too. If some of the veterans can disregard the curfew, that must create a feeling of dissatisfaction among the younger players. We treat all players alike."
Behind Hadl, the L.A. quarterbacks are James Harris, the strong-armed former Buffalo Bill, and Ron Jaworski, a rookie from Youngstown State known as The Polish Rifle, which may or may not be a joke. Although Jim Bertelsen performed brilliantly in the preseason, the Rams traded away much of their speed and ground-gaining potential in the backfield, and the defensive line has been reshuffled. The linebackers are spotty and the secondary is porous. All told, it seems doubtful that the graduates of the Rams' school of hard Knox will distinguish themselves.
The Atlanta Falcons seemed ready to fly high this season. Then Coach Norman Van Brock tin decided that he could not win with Quarterback Bob Berry, who finished second in the conference to the Giants' Norm Snead in passing efficiency in 1972. Van Brocklin dispatched Berry back to whence he came—Minnesota—and is relying on second-year man Pat Sullivan, who threw 19 passes and completed three in 1972; Bob Lee (the ex-Viking), who threw six and completed three; and the veteran Dick Shiner, who did not complete a pass, but then he did not throw any, either.
If Van Brocklin is right, the Falcons could win their first division championship, since they have the other tools in ample supply. The team added punch to a weak inside rush by picking up Defensive Tackle Mike Tilleman from Houston. Tilleman has a soft heart for animals (he owns a Labrador retriever, a rabbit named Peter Punkin and a turtle called Simple Simon), but he is a mean man on the trail of a quarterback if his left knee holds up. Defensive Ends John Zook and Claude Humphrey will be able to apply more pressure now that they needn't worry about the middle. The Falcons also added speed where they needed it—at wide receiver—getting Al Dodd from New Orleans.
Running Backs Dave Hampton and Art Malone are good both running and receiving. Last season Hampton gained his 1,000th yard in Atlanta's final game. An official stopped the action and Hampton was presented with the football. On his next carry he lost six yards. "It was such a fantastic thrill for such a short time," he says. "Somewhere inside of me the emotion is all jamming up and I'll use that as a weapon this year."
Helping him is a line that blocks well on running plays. With a year's experience it may provide more protection for the quarterbacks, who will need it.
The Falcons have another plus: the easiest schedule in the NFL, with only two adversaries who won more games than they lost last year. The total won-lost record of their opponents is worse (72-112-12) than the record of any other team's adversaries.
A minus may be Van Brocklin, an abrasive, demanding man. His parting with Berry was not amicable and he castigates first and thinks later when he differs with his players on matters of execution or ability. This works with a winner, but the Dutchman has not had a big winner and time may be running out, both with his owner and, more importantly, with his players.
Having failed to unload his team to a group of Chicagoans, New Orleans Saints Owner John Mecom Jr. had another bright idea: unload Coach J. D. Roberts. This masterstroke was accomplished late last month, Offensive Coordinator John North taking the reins. For all the good it is going to do, Mecom might as well have given the job to the team's executive vice-president, ex-Astronaut Richard F. Gordon Jr.
New Orleans' biggest asset, aside from the prospect of moving into a $161-million domed stadium in 1975 (would you believe 1976?) is Quarterback Archie Manning. He is, by choice and necessity, a scrambling quarterback, but more in the mold of Roger Staubach than Fran Tarkenton in that he is a true runner, not a man dodging midtown traffic. Manning rushed 63 times for 351 yards last year. He also completed 230 of 448 passes, a remarkable achievement when you consider that he was throwing in imminent peril of his life almost all the time. Too, he finally has a dependable wide receiver to complement Danny Abramowicz. Bob Newland caught 47 passes last season to become the only other man ever to lead the Saints in receiving.
An indication of the lack of running backs on the Saints is that Howard Stevens, a 16th draft choice from Louisville who weighs 165 and stands 5'5", has made the team. He gained 5,297 yards in college, but this is the NFL. Well, if he can't run, he can certainly hide.