San Francisco 49ers
By now we all know that Bill Walsh's white sweater is on its way to Canton, Ohio and his 1981 playbook has been preserved in a time capsule and sunk deep into the earth, and a film of his life story is underway, with Robert Redford in the title role and George C. Scott playing Joe Thomas.
We know that Walsh did it all last year with the intricate swoops and swerves of his pass offense and the tricky strategy that kept him one saber thrust away from the opposition at all times—plus some mighty good studs on defense. What we don't know is what the 49ers will do for an encore. But you know something? Right now a lot of Niner fans don't care. It's too early for that kind of talk. They're still preserving the memory of Super Bowl XVI, taking it out of the closet every day and polishing it like a piece of fine crystal.
The Super Bowl season was one of those magical times when everything went right. There were a few injuries, but none to the defense, a magnificent unit that finished second in the NFL and, yes, carried the offense when things didn't exactly go as planned. All the pieces fell into place. Inside Linebacker Jack Reynolds and undersized Defensive End Fred Dean weren't burned out by January. They'd been used just right, as situation players. Five rookie defensive backs, led by Ronnie Lott, didn't suffer from the mental dizzies. They played like terrors. The offense, patchwork in spots, lacking a keynote running back, was saved because Joe Montana chose exactly the right time to come of age.
And now the '82 draft has provided some benefits, and that's not supposed to happen when you choose last. Two picks went to New England for Tight End Russ Francis, who joins the champs after a year's retirement. The Niners' first selection, in the second round, produced an instant starter at left tackle, 290-pound Bubba Paris. The 49ers also won the bidding war for hurdle champ Renal-do Nehemiah, showing the league that if Walsh wanted a guy, then owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. would spend anything to get him.
All 49er fans want now is for everything to be as it was a year ago, but change is ever present. Gone are two defensive stalwarts from '81, Middle Guard Archie Reese, who ate his way out of a job, and Inside Linebacker Craig Puki, who went through a drug rehab program. Gone temporarily is the starting right guard. All-Pro Randy Cross, who broke his left leg and tore ligaments in his left ankle in the off-season. He could be back in late September. The search for a halfback to team with Earl Cooper may well produce little Amos Lawrence, who never got a long look at the position in '81. Nehemiah, who's learning, seems a natural for the four-man taxi squad, and Francis, who suffered from back trouble in camp, has spurred the incumbent tight end, Charle Young. Don't forget that in 1981 Young had his most productive year since 1975, when he was a Pro Bowl choice with the Eagles.
Montana signed a new four-year contract that begins at $325,000 and ends at $425,000. Everyone's raving about a 6'3", 210-pound second-year man, Mike Wilson, as a budding star at wide receiver. Walsh will rescue Dean from the wear and tear of double-team blocking with occasional stints as a stand-up linebacker, and in general the defense should be as good as, if not better than, last year's.
The 49ers are now everyone's target. The schedule is tougher than in '81. But euphoria reigns.
The smart money had Atlanta as a Super Bowl team last year. The Falcons finished at 7-9. The year before, everyone had Atlanta battling San Francisco for last place in the division (that was the year New Orleans was going to make its move, remember?). So the Falcons won nine straight, finished 12-4 and almost beat Dallas in the playoffs.
It has been that way for the last four seasons: up one year, down the next. A mystery. An enigma. Who can figure them? Take their '82 draft, for instance. Everyone agreed defense was the need—a rusher, a linebacker, a pass defender, take your choice. Offense hadn't been a trouble spot in '81. Seven Falcons went to the Pro Bowl, all of them on offense. The club scored the most points in its history; Steve Bartkowski led the NFC in touchdown throws for the second year in a row; Wide Receiver Alfred Jenkins and Fullback William Andrews each had a terrific year. It had to be a defensive draft.
So the Falcons chose Gerald Riggs, a 230-pound fullback from Arizona State, as No. 1. Seems they never figured he'd be there when they picked (no one else did, either). Seems he was too good an athlete to pass up. Maybe they knew that Andrews would become a salary holdout in camp, and there's nothing as effective as a flashy rookie to soften a veteran's thinking. Riggs has shown flash. In his first exhibition game he ran with thunder. He also caught the only two passes thrown his way, and on one of them he went into a spin move, dipped to a knee, allowed a tackier to fly over him and rumbled for 15 more yards.
Jenkins was another camp holdout, so down from Canada came Box Office Billy Johnson, a/k/a Billy White Shoes, with a bit more mileage on him but the same old verve. Jenkins came to terms after Atlanta's second exhibition game.
On draft day the Falcons used the second round for defense—End Doug Rogers—but the line isn't where the problem really lies. In the Falcons' scheme of things the pressure comes from blitzing linebackers, so when their No. 1 blitzer, Joel Williams, injured a knee last year, the sack total shrank from 46 to 29. And the deep four, which prefers a gambling, frenetic style of pass defense anyway, gave up the most touchdown passes in the NFC. In spite of all this, the Falcons still lost seven games by a total of just 19 points. They could have been there.
Right now Rogers doesn't figure as a starter. Williams is still the designated sacking linebacker but says he's not sure whether his postoperative right knee can give him the same burst he had two years ago. Third-year man Al Richardson, the other outside linebacker and the leading sacker after Williams got hurt, had a gimpy knee in college, but it has held up in the pros—so far.
It's an iffy proposition, this team, but then again, it has always been that way.
Los Angeles Rams
The hit squad got Don Klosterman, the last executive holdover from the Carroll Rosen-bloom regime, while he was vacationing in Italy this spring with his wife. They were away for almost six weeks, and the Duke should have known that you don't turn your back on the Rams that long. Yep, they finally got him, and when he came back home he found out that he had been moved out of his office, had no real job, no nothing—just a contract with a year and a half to run. "If you wanna collect that dough," a guy with a turned-up collar told him, "you don't say nuttin', see. You say, 'I'm under contract.' Got that, Duke? Now repeat it."
"I'm under contract," said the Duke, who used to be general manager and was one of the few execs to remain loyal to Madame Ram, Georgia Frontiere. Let's look at what happened to the executive power structure that was in place in 1979, Georgia's first year at the top, and the year the Rams went to the Super Bowl. Stepson and Vice-President Steve Rosenbloom: gone before the season started, amid bitter recriminations. Harold Guiver, the operations VP: gone, pursued by rumors that he and Georgia scalped tickets. Jack Teele, administrative VP and a 21-year vet with Ram blood in his veins: gone. He couldn't take it anymore, and he quietly slid to San Diego. And finally the Duke, who was VP and general manager in those days.
Now the power structure is Georgia, surrounded by a small circle of accountants and MBAs. She is shielded from the press by the new marketing director, Les Marshall, who came to pro football direct from Playboy Enterprises, Inc. On the football side, it's Jack Faulkner, once a backfield coach for Ray Malavasi and now the front-office chief, and Malavasi, who canned five of his assistants from last season but managed to save his own skin.
"I'll never talk to the s.o.b. again," said Bud Carson, who had been Malavasi's defensive coordinator until he became one of the purged five. "I just can't believe a head coach can allow so many of his assistants to be tossed away like pieces of garbage."
The word is that Malavasi acted on orders from Georgia or husband Dominic. As a result, his image as a regular guy, just one of the boys, has turned a quick 180 degrees. "House man" and "survivor" are the expressions you hear when Malavasi's name comes up nowadays. Whatever he is, Malavasi will now coordinate the defense himself, a defense that never adequately replaced End Fred Dryer or Middle Linebacker Jack Reynolds. Elsewhere, the jobs aren't as clearly defined.
Late last season a story broke that the Rams owed Orange County back taxes of about $600,000 and that the tax collector would begin to seize equipment, including footballs, uniforms and. yes, even tape, until the bill was paid. The Rams paid—right on the deadline. At the end of the '81 season the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner ran a survey to find out who the fans thought was most responsible for the Rams' worst record in 16 years. The winner: Georgia. By a wide margin.
There's no focus to this organization, no direction. "This is the year the Rams self-destruct." says one NFL executive. And to help them along is the new force in town, the Black and Silver Gang from the north, the Pride and Poise boys. It should take about a month and a half until L.A. is Raiderland, not Ramland.
You have to feel sorry for the proud veterans on this club, who have seen so much turmoil and long for just one season of peace—guys like defensive linemen Jack Youngblood, Larry Brooks and Cody Jones. The resounding clunk of 1981's 6-10 record was a group effort—crippled offensive line, an unresolved quarterbacking situation, a defense that surrendered the most points in the club's history. Bert Jones has arrived from Baltimore to straighten out the quarterbacking. Vince Ferragamo is back from Montreal, supposedly for a quick showcase job before a trade. The offensive line is still shaky. Fullback Barry Redden, the No. 1 draft pick, slightly tore a ligament in his right knee on Day I of practice and missed a month of training camp. Brooks is out indefinitely with a bad knee, and the defensive line is aging and unsettled. The linebackers still miss Jack Reynolds' direction, and the secondary, though first-rate, is overworked. It all adds up to a season—and an organization—that's going nowhere.
New Orleans Saints
A drug scandal—just what the Saints needed after 15 years without a winning season. But if you really want to see something scandalous, take a look at the Saints' front-office operation. It takes real talent to screw things up so consistently for so many years.
Now look at George Rogers. The NFL's leading rusher last season. Rogers has admitted he was a recreational user of coke in 1981. In locker rooms around the league you hear: "Hey, find out what Rogers was on and get some of it for us."
Bum Phillips can handle the drug situation. But can the Saints' coach handle the loss of Dave Wilson, the heir apparent to Quarterback Archie Manning, with torn knee ligaments?
O.K., let's be positive about this thing. A terrific rookie crop last year, particularly on defense, made the Saints highly active and quite respectable when they didn't have the ball. At least four newcomers could start this year—rookie wide receivers Lindsay Scott (No. 1 pick) and Kenny Duckett, Defensive End Bruce Clark, from Canada via Green Bay, and Inside Linebacker Dennis Winston from the Steelers. When New Orleans does have the ball, Manning, honed to a fine edge by his expected competition with Wilson, should have a decent year, if his line holds up. Rogers will still get the bulk of his yardage on strongside pitches behind Tackle Stan Brock and tight ends Larry Hardy and Hoby Brenner. Now if only that front office shapes up....
San Francisco 11-5
L.A. Rams 8-8
New Orleans 3-13