In Los Angeles, the great quarterback debate raged on throughout the off-season: Would it be quiet James Harris, 29, who was hampered by a shoulder injury the last four games of 1975 and then bombed out in the Dallas playoff defeat, or bombastic Ron Jaworski, 25, the "Polish Rifle"? Jaworski easily won the war of words. "I know who the quarterback will be: me," he kept repeating to anyone who would listen. "I feel it. I know this is my year. I have the arm. I want to lead this team, and I will." So Jaworski will, but only because Harris broke his right thumb late in the exhibition schedule and will miss at least the first few games. Jaworski has started only two games for the Rams, and they won both. For the time being, the backup will be Pat Haden, the USC graduate who is interrupting his Rhodes scholar studies to learn about pro football.
Jim Plunkett (see Key Player) will need time to absorb new Coach Monte Clark's system in San Francisco, but there is so much concern about the condition of his passing arm that Clark obtained 29-year-old Marty Domres and his $110,000 contract from Baltimore. Atlanta's 6'4", 215-pound Steve Bartkowski has the physical ability to be the best of all; playing behind a weak line, he completed 45% of his passes—and now he has John Gilliam to throw to. At New Orleans, Archie Manning is still recovering from shoulder surgery, Bobby Scott is only adequate as a replacement and Bobby Douglass still runs the ball better than he throws it. Seattle opens with lefthander Jim Zorn. He is, fortunately, very mobile.
Don't feel sorry for the Rams. Sure, Offensive Linemen Joe Scibelli and Charlie Cowan took their 30 years of experience and retired. However, General Manager Don Klosterman had prepared for just such a possibility a year ago when he drafted 6'5", 252-pound Guard Dennis Harrah and 6'5", 260-pound Tackle Doug France in the first round. And Coach Chuck Knox wisely made certain that both Harrah and France played in every game in 1975, France eventually becoming a starter when Cowan was injured. Says France, "I don't want to be good. I want to be great. I know I'm going there. I haven't hit no greasebone and gone downhill." Jim Bertelsen returns from knee surgery to block for Lawrence McCutcheon (911 yards); with Bertelsen absent, McCutcheon gained only 10 yards in 11 carries in the Dallas debacle. John Cappelletti is available, too, but the Penn State Heisman Trophy winner carried only 48 times in 1975. Harold Jackson and Ron Jessie, who combined for 84 receptions and 10 touchdowns, work the flanks and Bob Klein (16 receptions) provides solid blocking and catches the few passes that the Rams throw to him. Knox bristles when he hears his offense called "predictable," which it has been the last three seasons. He now has added such wrinkles as the shovel pass, but again the Rams will emphasize a slow, patient, grueling ball-control attack.
Luckily for San Francisco, Clark knows how to build an offensive line from the junk heap. As Don Shula's aide in Miami, Clark assembled an All-Pro line by scouting waiver and free-agent lists and discovering such players as Center Jim Langer and Guard Bob Kuechenberg. Clark's 49er line is all tattered: top Guard Woody Peoples and Center Bill Reid are lost for the season after knee surgery. Clark traded for Minnesota Guard Steve Lawson and signed veteran Guard Dick Enderle off the waiver list. Former 49er Quarterback Tom Owen, sent to New England in the Plunkett deal, looked at the line and said, "Plunkett won't last out the season. He won't have four seconds, or even three, to throw behind those guys." If he does, his chief target will be old Stanford teammate Gene Washington. Delvin Williams, Kermit Johnson and Wilbur Jackson are the running game, and a good one, although Jackson fumbles too often. Clark obviously plans to imitate Miami's conservative offense; throughout the exhibition schedule. Plunkett passed mainly to his tight ends and running backs, thus heightening the speculation that he has a sore arm.
Gilliam returns home to Atlanta as Bartkowski's leading receiver. He will work with Alfred Jenkins (38 receptions for 767 yards in 1975), and together they will rid Tight End Jim Mitchell (34 for 536) of the double coverage he has always attracted. Dave Hampton ran for 1,002 yards last season, although few people knew it because of the Falcons' 4-10 record. He gets help from rookies Bubba Bean of Texas A&M and Sonny Collins of Kentucky.
If rookies Chuck Muncie (see Newcomer) and Tony Galbreath seem lost for a few games, don't be harsh on them. New Coach Hank Stram has given the Saints a playbook that is 760 pages thick and probably weighs more than the New Orleans telephone directory. One play calls for Muncie to pass from his running-back position. He threw for a 27-yard touchdown against Cincinnati in the preseason and, considering the Saints' quarterbacking state, may be their best passer. None of the tricky plays will work, though, unless the Saints develop a strong line. Seattle's best weapon may be the talented toe of rookie Kicker Don Bitter-lich of Temple. The Seahawks neglected their attack in the various drafts, selecting only one runner with any experience. Baltimore's Bill Olds, in the expansion grab bag and passing up Muncie in the college draft.
Jack Reynolds of the Rams has one of the NFL's most intriguing nicknames: Hacksaw. It seems that Reynolds collects jeeps as a hobby, and when confronted one day by a balky engine, he took a hacksaw to the offending vehicle and destroyed it. Reynolds also tends to destroy himself. Last season he cut his nose with a razor while trying to remove tape from his hands, and last month he poked himself in the eye while trying to tackle a Dallas runner. But on the field Reynolds is so consistent that Defensive Coordinator Ray Malavasi says, "He hasn't missed a signal in three years."
San Francisco's Frank Nunley, whose nickname—Fudgehammer—is even better than Reynolds', has shed 15 pounds in an attempt to increase his speed and mobility but his range still seems limited. Atlanta's Tommy Nobis, who has never experienced the thrill of postseason play in his 10 pro seasons, may lose his job to second-year man Ralph Ortega. New Orleans and Seattle both are set in the middle, though not in many other places. Joe Federspiel had 79 unassisted tackles for the Saints last season; he also recovered five fumbles, deflected 10 passes and sacked two quarterbacks. The Sea-hawks drafted Ed Bradley from the Steelers. As Jack Lambert's backup, Bradley had to play the final half of Pittsburgh's 1975 Super Bowl win over the Vikings after Lambert went out with a chipped ankle bone. Lambert was hardly missed.
Ball control, field position and points will come hard against the Rams, just as they did in 1975 when Los Angeles allowed NFL lows of 135 points, 15 touchdowns and 13 PATs. Fred Dryer, Larry Brooks, Merlin Olsen and Jack Youngblood comprise a flaky (Dryer), savvy (Olsen) and rough (Brooks and Youngblood) rush line with 30 years' experience. Youngblood, probably the NFL's best pass rusher (14 sacks in 1975), has a new backup: 6'8", 240-pound Leroy Jones, who has three years of Canadian League experience and, with a bow to Dallas' 6'9" Ed (Too Tall) Jones, has been dubbed "Too Much" Jones. The linebackers—Rick Kay, Reynolds and Isiah Robertson—are reckless, and Safeties Bill Simpson and Dave Elmendorf are solid. One weak spot may be at left corner, where second-year man Rod Perry and rookie Pat Thomas are fighting for the job. The Rams also need better punting from newcomer Rusty Jackson than Duane Carrell (39.4) gave them last season.
Defense is a 49er strength, particularly the down line anchored by Tommy Hart and Cedrick Hardman, who has finally acquired some on-field discipline. Dave Washington, Nunley and Skip Vanderbundt are adequate linebackers, and Willie Harper will work with them when the 49ers use Miami's "53" formation. But the secondary is worrisome: Clark's best cornerback is Jimmy Johnson, and he's 38 years old.
Atlanta Tackles Mike Tilleman and Mike Lewis have been disappointing and while End Claude Humphrey has returned after sitting out 1975 with a knee injury, the Falcons' front is not too intimidating, especially since John Zook was traded to St. Louis. Left Linebacker Fulton Kuykendall, who answers to "Captain Crazy," is the best of the linebackers. New Orleans has a strong front, led by End Bob Pollard, and when injury-prone Tom Myers is healthy, he plays superbly at free safety. Seattle drafted Notre Dame's Steve Niehaus No. 1, and he starts at tackle, but retread Dave Tipton is the Seahawks' best down lineman. The linebacking is solid, with Bradley and Mike Curtis as regulars.
Los Angeles Owner Carroll Rosenbloom, who sometimes commutes to practice in a chartered chopper, doesn't like Knox' conservative, grind-it-out offense; he wants an aerial show and scores like 56-42, not 13-7. And Rosenbloom, whose bloodless coup failed to unseat Commissioner Pete Rozelle last winter, has not invited the NFL brass to his tennis parties. Hank Stram is so antihair that he sent 4,000 press brochures back to the printer for beardless mug shots of several New Orleans players. Stram later incurred the wrath of Owner John Mecom Jr. for spending too much money in training camp; occasionally the players were offered steak and lobster for dinner. Seattle sold 57,000 season tickets, including one to a prison inmate scheduled to be paroled shortly before the club's first game.
No race here. The Rams will win by default even if they fail to find a No. 1 quarterback. Trouble is, they may lose their competitive edge before the playoffs. A healthy and fiery Plunkett would make the 49ers the best of the rest. A sore-armed, disinterested Plunkett would make the Saints the best of the rest.
Monte Clark mortgaged San Francisco's future to bring Jim Plunkett home to California. The price: two 1976 first-round draft choices, a first and second next year and backup Quarterback Tom Owen. Now there are indications that Plunkett, who as a rookie in 1971 passed for 19 touchdowns at New England, may have lost both his live arm and his flair for the game. Apparently concerned about past injuries to his shoulder, Plunkett seems to be playing scared; he has not shown an ability—or a desire—to stand up and withstand a rush. "You've got to play this game aggressively," says one coach, "and Plunkett isn't doing that anymore." If Jim can come back, the 49ers' quarterback problem will be settled for the first time since John Brodie's heyday in the '60s. If not, they face a bleak future.
Chuck Muncie, a 6'3", 220-pound All-America at California, has the size, speed and hands to overcome a New Orleans offensive line ' that opens seams instead of holes. Muncie signed a seven-year. $900,000-plus contract that included a $200,000 bonus, but he has already paid back part of the money in fines for missing planes, practices and curfews. If Muncie can get along with Coach Hank Stram, who likes to upset free-thinking souls. New Orleans could accomplish its rebuilding job almost overnight. Muncie's superstar potential, though, is obvious: one coach already calls him "a Franco Harris with good hands."