It was a grim, haunting memory, a picture that stayed with the San Francisco 49ers throughout the off-season: Joe Montana stretched out on the Giants Stadium turf for 10 minutes and then wheeled into an ambulance. Montana with a severe concussion, a victim of that relentless New York rush that, as 49er coach Bill Walsh said at the time, "simply devastated us, shattered our blocking angles."
Translation: shattered our blockers. The 49er blockers became the scapegoats after that 49-3 playoff devastation. Montana, a newly fragile commodity following back surgery earlier in the season—which threatened to end his career—simply must be protected. At one time Montana could be counted on to evade the first charging point men of the rush by himself. No more. As a result, the offensive line has been called upon to perform at a higher level.
There are good people up front—three have been to the Pro Bowl—but they are aging. So Harris Barton, a finesse tackle, was drafted in the first round. The best offensive lineman on the board, Niner scouts said. Jeff Bregel, a drive-block guard, came in Round 2. Lucky to get him, the scouts said, should have gone a round earlier. The message went out that no job on the line was secure, except that of left tackle Bubba Paris. To drive home the point, San Francisco cut guard John Ayers, who had started 128 of the last 129 games.
Neither Barton nor Bregel has emerged as a starter. Paris developed a weight problem. Drop below 300 pounds and we'll give you $50,000, the club coaxed him. Other players heard about this and grumbled: Hey, all we have to do to pick up an extra 50 G's is get fat.
So Paris reported at 323 and a week later was at 326. Writers had a field day. The Badyear Blimp, they called him.
If the 49ers don't get their line straightened out, none of the off-season moves they made will mean much. They traded for Tampa Bay quarterback Steve Young, hoping that a thorough brainwashing would make him unlearn everything he picked up from the Bucs. From the Jets they got Lam Jones, a wideout whose repeated injuries had earned him the nickname Lame Jones. The first week in camp he pulled a hamstring. Three weeks later he was gone. When the Cowboys cut wide receiver Tony Hill for being overweight, San Francisco grabbed him. The jury's still out on Hill, but Walsh's offense is full of people to scare you. Among them are Jerry Rice, the best wideout in the game last year, and fullback Roger Craig, who fought injuries last fall but looks fine.
The defense, coached for four years now by the quiet schoolmaster, George Seifert, has allowed the second fewest points in the NFL in the time that he has been coordinator. He runs the ultimate situation-substitution defense. San Francisco doesn't keep the same people on the field for two consecutive plays. They come at you in waves. The Niners will make the playoffs, but on the horizon are the Giants, who so thoroughly shattered those precious blocking angles—along with the blockers.
The sun was shining at the Los Angeles Rams' Fullerton training camp, and quarterback Jim Everett was signing autographs, trading one-liners with a few people and exulting over his team's new passing attack. "It's all angles with him." Everett said, "back routes against the zone, ways to fit the ball in, quick seam routes I never saw before. He's just got some great concepts. It's exciting."
The "he" is Ernie Zampese, the Rams' new offensive coordinator and Don Coryell's first lieutenant at San Diego in the years when the Chargers had one of the great passing machines of all time. Now Zampese is installing an offense in Los Angeles that must maximize the talents of Eric Dickerson, the game's most productive runner, and utilize the credo of John Robinson, a head coach who believes in sock-it-to-'em football. The question is: Has Zampese been hired just to bring Los Angeles's pass-catch game into the 20th century, or will he be allowed to infuse his airborne brilliance into the overall offense? For instance, it's third and three. What's the call—Robinson's power pitch to Dickerson or Zampese's 15-yard seam-pattern pass to the tight end?
"We're going with Ernie's total system and our own running system," Robinson says. "We expect to give the ball to Dickerson the same amount of times this season, only we'll throw the ball 100 more times. We'll bring our whole offense up by 100 plays."
Nice numbers if you can get them. Last year the Rams had the second greatest runs-to-passes overload in the NFL (the Bears were first). They also had the worst third-down efficiency of any playoff team. But now they have a big league offensive coordinator and a quarterback who could become the Rams' first home-grown star since Roman Gabriel.
With the possible exception of defensive back and return man Cliff Hicks, no rookie will make a major impact this year, but some of the vets seem much improved. Guard Tom Newberry is the hardest-hitting offensive lineman in football—bar none. Jerry Gray has looked terrific at cornerback, and outside linebacker Kevin Greene has shown real fire. Now, if the Rams can only find those extra 100 plays.
The front office is a zoo. The Atlanta Falcons fired the only coach, Leeman Bennett, who ever had a winning record with the team, but that's nothing new. They've fired all their coaches, including Marion Campbell, who has been rehired to coach the team. Campbell was axed 11 years ago. Dan Henning, who got Atlanta off to a 4-0 start in '86, was canned at the end of last season.
Atlanta is into firing, all right. Charlie Dayton, the club's p.r. guy and one of the best in the business, was let go because he was pleasant to writers who had ripped the Falcons. Dave Kindred and Furman Bisher, columnists for The Atlanta Constitution-Journal, wrote tough pieces this spring about the direction in which the team was headed. The airheads in the Falcons' front office couldn't fire them, but they told the paper that because of the Kindred/Bisher blasts, they wouldn't pay a $2,053.70 ad account they owed. Rankin Smith Sr., the club owner, finally stepped in and promised that the Falcons would pay.
Into this managerial mess steps Campbell, a consummate old pro who as defensive coordinator last year kept the Atlanta defense seventh in the league while everything else was crumbling. Best of all he hired two highly professional assistants, Jim Hanifan and Rod Dowhower, who had been fired as head coaches in St. Louis and Indianapolis, respectively. Hanifan is handling the offensive line, and Dowhower is the offensive coordinator. Both know their jobs.
With Hanifan behind him, guard Bill Fralic will be devastating. Tackle Mike Kenn should regain his Pro Bowl form. Under Dowhower's direction, Dave Archer, the young quarterback, should raise his '86 rating of 71.6 by at least 10 points. The challenge to Archer from the No. 1 draft choice, Chris Miller, fizzled when Atlanta didn't come up with the bucks to bring him into camp on time. Some organization.
They have held their breath before, all those long-suffering New Orleans Saints fans who have waited and waited for a winning season. This isn't the first time they've whispered. "This is the year, this is finally it." Remember Hank Stram and his Thunder and Lightning backfield of Chuck Muncie and Tony Galbreath? Bum Phillips and his Houston magic? The Saints have been on the brink of a winning season before—they finished 8-8 in 1979 and 1983—only to collapse immediately afterward.
I wish I could take a fling and say, yes, this is the year they will finish with more W's than L's. With president Jim Finks and coach Jim Mora, the Saints are at last getting solid direction. But the schedule is brutal: Cleveland, Chicago, the Giants, two against the Rams, two against the Niners.
There's one way to win with the kind of talent New Orleans has, and that's with an exceptional quarterback—a Jim Kelly—who's capable of stealing a few victories that should have been losses. No luck there. Bobby Hebert was supposed to be the answer last year. He started two games. He played well in one and poorly in the other. Then he broke his foot in the first series of Game 3 and departed for a quiet life of enforced spectatorship until the last game. Dave Wilson took over and finished next to last in the NFC rankings. Right now New Orleans is recruiting volunteers for quarterback.
The '86 season was saved from total oblivion by the brilliance of rookie runner Rueben Mayes, who thrashed his way for 1,353 yards, and by the defense, which finished 14th overall and fourth against the rush—despite the fact that the offense had the ball for fewer plays than any other team in the league. The draft was heavy in wideouts and defensive backs (seven total), but the top one was a noseguard, Shawn Knight, who turned out to be a signing problem.
Finks and Mora will make the Saints winners sometime—but not this time.
HOW THEY'LL FINISH
1. SAN FRANCISCO
2. L.A. RAMS
4. NEW ORLEANS