San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh would prefer 100-man rosters, college-style. Then he could keep, say, 15 defensive linemen. He'd have one line for the 3-4 base defense and then another for the alternate base defense and a special pass-rushing four-man line, and an alternate one to keep the first line from getting too tired, and then he'd have a 15th guy he'd designate the AE, the Animal End. He'd use him for one pass rush a game, one key sack at the most crucial time. He'd keep him locked up in the back of a huge moving van, and at the right moment gongs would sound, the doors would fly open and out he'd come.

Last year Walsh built a squad for the 49-man roster. Ten linebackers played in designated situations. There was a combination linebacker-end (Fred Dean) and a linebacker-safety (Jeff Fuller). Eight defensive linemen saw regular action. They picked their spots. Fresh legs, ever the quest for fresh legs.

Walsh did just about everything last year. He unbalanced his offensive line in the old single-wing style and put all sorts of strange people in the backfield, such as wideout Freddie Solomon and 270-pound guard Guy McIntyre, and as if the established stars—Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Ronnie Lott, et al.—weren't enough to beat you, there was all this flimflammery to worry about.

But the league chopped the roster on him, from 49 to 45. The losers did it, the money savers, the guys who said we don't have enough of our own, we want your rejects. So as the season approached Walsh fretted about the players he'd have to cut and gloried in the ones who'd be eligible for a varsity letter.

Talent, the 49ers are simply loaded with talent. Thirteen of the projected 22 starters have been picked for the Pro Bowl at one time or another in their careers...the whole defensive backfield, three of the five offensive linemen. Former reserves like the massive middle guard, Michael Carter, have emerged to push starters to the bench or to new positions. Walsh got the one rookie he coveted, pass catcher Jerry Rice, who averaged almost eight receptions a game in four years in that wild, freewheeling offense at Mississippi Valley State, and the kid was simply breathtaking in camp.

It's all there, all in place. The only negative is the history of defending Super Bowl champs. The last five have failed to repeat. San Francisco itself is one of them. After the 49ers won in '81, things got tough the next year. As the injuries mounted they had neither the depth nor the dedication to pull out of the dive. They've learned their lesson now, they say. They remember. We'll see.

The LOS ANGELES RAMS have forgotten how to beat the 49ers. They've lost their last three to them. At one time San Francisco was their patsy. L.A. ran up nine straight, but that was yesterday. It's one thing to beat up Atlanta and New Orleans, but the road to the Super Bowl runs through San Francisco, unless the Rams want to be a perennial wild-card team, stumbling into the playoffs on some last-minute NFL formula situation and then saying a quick goodby.

So how has John Robinson prepared for his 1985 assault on the Niners? The first thing he did was hire a psychologist to better equip his team for dealing with NFL head games, Walsh's included. "Sounds like voodoo to me," said tackle Bill Bain. Next, Robinson traded quarterback Vince Ferragamo to Buffalo for Tony Hunter, a speed-type tight end, a No. 1 draft who somehow never played like one. Now we're getting somewhere. The 49ers were one of three teams to hold Eric Dickerson to less than 100 yards last year, and they did it twice. In Anaheim they held him to the lowest total of his record-breaking year, 38 yards. They did it by having their surest tackler, strong safety Carlton Williamson, walk up to the line and become Dickerson's personal shadow. How do you beat that? You run your tight end deep, because the strong safety is his normal coverage guy, and force the defense to change its scheme. Neither Mike Barber nor David Hill is a deep threat, although Hill is a strong blocker, but now they have Hunter, who can motor.

There's plenty of speed at the flanks, with Henry Ellard and Olympic gold medal sprinter Ron Brown, but last year quarterback Jeff Kemp was never in sync with them, and the combination was unproductive. Maybe it was just the natural caution of a young quarterback leery of interceptions (he had the third-lowest interception rate of any starting QB last year), the desire not to jeopardize Dickerson and the running game, or maybe just a lack of confidence in his arm. But now from Canada comes 34-year-old Dieter Brock, who likes to gun it long if nothing else.

Few backs have aged quicker than the NEW ORLEANS SAINTS' Earl Campbell, who is 30 on the calendar and about 50 on the playing field. Tommy Jackson, the Broncos' outside linebacker, explains the defensive strategy that made Campbell get so old so fast:

"When we met the Oilers in the playoffs in 1979, our defensive coach, Joe Collier, told us he wanted us to get four helmets on Earl every time he carried the ball. He said if he carries 25 times a game that's 100 hits he's gonna receive, and the human body just can't stand up to that."

Denver's philosophy was nothing new. Everyone tried to get four helmets on Earl, and how many hits, how many helmets later is it now? Granted that in Houston Bum Phillips rode into the playoffs behind Earl, and Bum is loyal to his old buddies, but does it really make sense to bring Campbell in for a No. 1 draft choice and then ship out George Rogers, thus building your offense around Earl?

Last year, with both Campbell and Rogers on the squad spelling each other, the running attack dropped 18 yards per game from what it had been in '83. A banged-up offensive line was one reason, a deteriorating passing game another. To correct the latter, the Saints have signed Bobby Hebert from the USFL, just as they brought in Richard Todd last year as a quick fix. Unfortunately, under the predictable offensive system of Phillips and his ever-present offensive coach, King Hill, every quarterback has deteriorated. The year before Bum and Hill became a team in Houston, Dan Pastorini had a higher rating than he ever had under them. Ken Stabler's rating dropped the first season he played for Hill and Phillips, and it never came back. When Bum and King arrived in New Orleans, Archie Manning's rating dropped 17 points and it fell even lower the next year.

O.K., you say, these were old guys and their numbers probably would have dropped anyway, but what about Todd's decline last year? Now Hebert is the new project. Meanwhile, Dave Wilson, the eternal third man in the shuffle, wants out. Who can blame him?

The receiving corps is nothing to get excited about, either. Can Earl Campbell save this weird offense? C'mon now.

At least the Saints' defense remains solid. Bum Phillips defenses will always be solid.

Atlanta Falcons coach Leeman Bennett heard the long drum roll in '82. The ax fell on him five days after the Falcons' last game. He had been the only winning coach in the franchise's history, so he got a chance to finish the year. His three predecessors, Marion Campbell, Norm Van Brocklin and Norb Hecker, were all fired during the season. The Falcons have never had a coach they didn't fire; now Dan Henning is hearing the funereal music.

Let's see, how can Dan save his job? The owner, Rankin Smith, has already said he wants a winner this year. Is that a winner as in above .500, or a winner compared to last year's 4-12? We'll find out. William Andrews, out with a shattered left knee, will not be back in October, as some Falcons foolishly predicted in training camp. Gerald Riggs is a pretty good runner, and Redskins tradee Joe Washington might help.

The defense could be O.K. if the Falcons get lucky on their draft picks, particularly on their No. 2, Mike Gann, the end from Notre Dame. Rick Bryan, last year's No. 1, had a good season and some real thrust up front. Combined with a good set of linebackers, the unit will at least be respectable.

But it's the offense that could save Henning's job. It can't be only good; it must be exciting. There's got to be an angle, and here it is: Henning keeps talking about the untapped potential of David Archer, the backup to Steve Bartkowski. Archer is from Soda Springs, Idaho, a 1984 free-agent rookie with that John Unitas fire in his eye.

O.K., Dan, go for it. Go with Archer this year. Yeah, coaches hanging by a thread don't start rebuilding around free agent QBs, but what's there to lose? There's a good rookie wideout who can fly, Emile Harry. Henning's just wild about him. That should bring some excitement to Fulton County Stadium. It'll bring the fans back. It'll sell tickets and make money for the boss and, who knows, it just might win enough games to save the old joberoo.

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PHOTOPETER READ MILLERLeading rusher Wendell Tyler (26) was a big reason the 49ers left opponents gasping last season. PHOTOMANNY RUBIOAtlanta's passing game needs TE Arthur Cox to break away from the crowd. PHOTOTHERON HENDERSONWhen it comes to their special teams, the Rams have no kicks coming. ILLUSTRATION

Dr. Z's Power Rankings

Falcons

Rams

Saints

49ers

Coaching/Mgmt.

3

2

4

1

Quarterbacks

3

2

4

1

Running Backs

3

1

4

2

Receivers

3

2

4

1

Offensive Line

3

1

4

2

Kicking/Punting

1

3

2

4

Defensive Line

3

4

1

2

Linebackers

4

1

3

2

Defensive Backs

4

2

3

1

Special Teams

4

1

3

2

Depth

3

2

4

1

Rookies

1

2

4

3

Rankings reflect strength within the division, 1 being best

Predicted Finish

49ers

12-4

Rams

10-6

Saints

4-12

Falcons

4-12

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)