Try this idea: Joe Montana starts at quarterback for the SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS. He works the game in his usual precise way, moving the sticks and putting points on the board. The other team's defense tires a bit, say, late in the first half. The edge is off the pass rush. Then wham! Niner coach Bill Walsh hits them with QB No. 2, Steve Young, who scrambles, sprints down-field, goes deep, buys yardage off busted plays. The defensive guys go into the locker room scratching their heads. They don't know what or who they'll see in the second half—or when.
Two high-level signal callers, each used to provide maximum production. Why not? Start with the curveball and slider pitcher, and then come in with heat. The Giants did it on their 1956 NFL championship team with Don Heinrick and Charlie Conerly. The Rams did it with Bob Waterfield and ' Norm Van Brocklin in the early '50s. Both made the Pro Bowl two straight years. We're not talking about switching quarterbacks out of weakness or indecision. Use them as weapons.
"Joe Montana's my quarterback," said Walsh when the Bay Area clamor for Young reached a crescendo. "But Young's running ability has to be a factor in our offense. I've got to find a way to accommodate both of them. It's an intriguing concept that needs work."
Montana was brilliant last year, but everybody is down on him because he couldn't escape the Vikings' rush in the NFC divisional playoff game. "Trade him," the fans said. Walsh didn't exactly discourage the rumors for a while. He had troubles of his own. Owner Eddie DeBartolo, who was delighted with the Niners' 13-2 regular season, went into a pout after the Minnesota loss. We had the best record. Why didn't we win? He stripped Walsh of the team presidency. The two men hardly communicated.
But I still like San Francisco to go to the Super Bowl, where I give Cleveland a slight edge. Call it 27-24, Browns. The 49ers were rebuilding last year, and they still had an outstanding season. They haven't grown old. How many starters remain from their 1981 Super Bowl team? The offensive and defensive lines have been overhauled and so has the secondary, where Jeff Fuller has emerged as a major force. The team stars, Jerry Rice. Roger Craig. Michael Carter, are all young. And there's the QB named Young.
The NEW ORLEANS SAINTS amazed people last year because the team finally had the look of a major league franchise, with a let's-get-it-done coach, Jim Mora; a general manager, Jim Finks, who actually knew something about football; and an owner. Tom Benson, who danced on the sidelines but didn't mess up the operation. What a relief. The result was a terrific season. The reason the transition came so dramatically was that Mora dipped heavily into the USFL talent pool and filled a lot of holes in a hurry.
Mora and Finks's approach to the game is very traditional: build through the draft, outwork the others, and on the field put up a strong defense and make sure your offense commits a minimum of mistakes. The New Orleans defense should be similar to the one that finished fourth in the NFL in '87. The offense, which was weighted toward the run—no one rushed the ball more often than the Saints did—lacked one ingredient: a pass catcher who could go deep consistently. New Orleans might have solved that problem by drafting Brett Perriman, its fastest receiver since Wes Chandler, in the second round.
Worried about running back Rueben Mayes's return from knee surgery, the Saints selected heavy-duty back Craig (Ironhead) Heyward in the first round. Well, they got the heavy part right. In the early exhibitions he looked like Earl Campbell on his last legs. When they replaced Heyward with '87 backup Barry Word, the Saints had a runner who looked like a runner. Unless lightning strikes, Ironhead will not be a major factor in 1988.
The schedule is two-tiered. The first half of the season features Atlanta, Detroit, Tampa Bay and San Diego, plus Dallas and the Raiders at home. The Saints will be 6-2, and everyone will have them in the Super Bowl. Then come the biggies—49ers, Rams (twice), Broncos and Giants. Maybe Mayes will be back by then.
Charles White, plugged into the LOS ANGELES RAMS system that yielded all those yards for Eric Dickerson, led the NFL in rushing last year. That says something about White, the comeback story of 1987, and also about coach John Robinson's offense, which could produce serious rushing yardage for Moe, Larry and Curly. But what about the Ernie Zampese pass-offense look in '87? And Jim Everett, the young quarterback who was supposed to blossom? And the 6-9 record? And a defense that sank from fifth to 21st?
"We lost our love of football," says Robinson. "We had things to overcome, and we just didn't overcome 'em. You used to put a film of the Rams on, and at least you saw guys playing hard. Last year we didn't play hard."
Everett should have a much better year in '88. Look who he'll be throwing to: Henry Ellard and two nifty rookies. Flipper Anderson and Aaron Cox, instead of Ellard and Ron Brown; tight end Damone Johnson, a pass catcher, instead of David Hill, a 270-pound blocker; and in the backfield, an eyecatching fifth-round rookie, Robert Delpino, who some say was the steal of the draft. He runs, blocks and catches.
The defense will have a new look. Fritz Shurmer, the coordinator, has always been an old-fashioned type who believed in a carefully controlled system. But now his eyes light up as he describes his attack formula, the Eagle, which calls for only two down linemen and five linebackers, some—and occasionally all—of them crashing in from crazy angles. Which could be another way of saying the Rams don't have enough defensive linemen. But why knock them? They're trying.
Lost in the forests of the night could be a major talent. Chris Miller, who as a rookie quarterback for the ATLANTA FALCONS last year brought a lot of NFL people straight up in their chairs. Miller saw action in the last three games, in which he completed only 42% of his passes, but he showed a real love of the deep. The problem is building a team around him.
In '87 Atlanta might have set a league mark for worsts: worst record, worst offense, worst defense, worst rushing offense and defense, worst time of possession. The reason the team's passing game wasn't the worst is that when you can't run the ball you put it up a lot. Even so, the completion percentage was second worst.
On draft day, though, coach Marion Campbell, an old defensive coach, looked at the '87 worst that bothered him the most—an anemic sack total of 17. So he went for a pair of fleet-footed, pass-rushing linebackers in the first two rounds—Aundray Bruce, the first player chosen, and Marcus Cotton in the second round. Then Campbell devoted four of his next five choices to helping the offense, or rather Ken Herock did. Herock, the veteran personnel director whose drafts built Tampa Bay into a contender in the 1970s, was hired after the '87 draft. That was a sensible move for an organization that no longer seemed able to compete on a professional level. Herock's first draft was a dandy, with at least nine players given a chance to make the team. Bruce, although he had knee problems in the preseason, and Cotton should provide immediate impact. The rest of the show is wait and hope.
HOW THEY'LL FINISH
1 SAN FRANCISCO
2 NEW ORLEANS
3 LOS ANGELES