What a gloomy summer it was for the SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS. At one point, four of their five starting offensive linemen were out with injuries. Quarterback Steve Young broke his left (throwing) thumb. His backup, Steve Bono, separated his left shoulder. And all the while, people were trying to get over the ugly way in which Joe Montana's departure from the team was handled. Call it short-term gloom.

Young should be back for the opener. Harris Barton, the right offensive tackle and a bona fide All-Pro, will miss a few weeks with a sprained left knee, but the other linemen should return. And the mighty Niner point machine—Young, Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Brent Jones, Ricky Watters and Tom Rathman—will be cranking out those big numbers.

There's deep concern, though, over the defense, which has long been taken for granted. For 10 years, with George Seifert as defensive coordinator and then head coach, the Niner defense never finished in the bottom half of the league statistically. Last year, though, it slipped to 15th, burdened by a pass defense that was third from last. Meaningless numbers, the San Francisco coaches said, teams piling up a lot of gimme yards at the end of blowouts. Then the Niner defense cracked against the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game.

Two months later left end Pierce Holt, the Niners' best lineman, went to Atlanta as a free agent. Tim Harris, the leading sacker, left for Philly. The Niners reacted by picking up strong safety Tim McDonald from the Cardinals and extending an offer sheet (which was matched) to Buffalo nosetackle Jeff Wright. When they devoted the top four draft picks to the defense, it was clear that the situation was serious.

Top choice Dana Stubblefield may unseat Ted Washington at nosetackle. Another rookie, Todd Kelly, is locked in a battle with holdover Martin Harrison for Harris's vacated "elephant" position (the weakside rusher). Cornerback Adrian Hardy (second round) and defensive end Artie Smith (fifth) are backups. There could be a trade brewing for more defense.

Around the league there's a feeling that the Niners, well over the salary cap projected for next year, must trade now—before the great financial pogrom of '94. Maybe this Niner team doesn't compare with those of yesteryear—but it doesn't have to play them.

When Jim Finks took over as the president and general manager of the NEW ORLEANS SAINTS in 1986, the club had never had a winning season. For the last six years it hasn't had a loser. That is Finks's legacy to New Orleans. Now that he has resigned and is battling lung cancer, it remains to be seen where the Saints are headed. His work will be divided: Jim Miller, a Finks protègè, will handle contracts, and Billy Kuharich, the personnel man, will run the draft. Owner Tom Benson says he "will get more involved," whatever that means. And Jim Mora stays on as coach, running an operation that's rock solid in the regular season but comes apart when the playoffs begin. The Saints are 0-4 in the postseason.

When the Eagles scored 26 fourth-quarter points to knock New Orleans out of last season's playoffs, an ugly pattern was repeated. In their live losses last season, counting the one to the Eagles, the Saints were out-scored in the fourth period, 62-7. In six losses the year before, again counting the playoffs, the Saints blew a fourth-quarter lead each time and were outscored in final periods, 68-14.

The offense stalls, the defense tires. Those neat play-action passes that work so well in the first half don't fool anyone in the fourth quarter. "We just don't make the offensive adjustments that other teams do," quarterback Bobby Hebert said before he left for Atlanta and a pot of gold. Hebert has been accused of being an alibi guy, and now ex-Viking, ex-Falcon Wade Wilson will find out if the Saint system really has glitches. Hebert for Wilson was a very unpopular switch in New Orleans; Wilson, a 13-year veteran, seemed destined to be a perennial backup until the Saints gave him life. He's not as mobile as he once was, and in recognition of that, the Saints drafted some offensive help in the first round—William Roaf, an immediate and impressive starter at right tackle, and Irv Smith, a fine tight end.

Linebacker Renaldo Turnbull isn't in the departed Pat Swilling's class as a pass rusher, but the defense is a beautifully constructed mechanism that will maintain its high quality.

Final note: Add about two wins to my 8-8 forecast for the Saints. For some reason I always pick them too low.

The carnival goes on. Saturday night. Oct. 10, 1992: Deion Sanders plays for the Atlanta Braves in the World Series, flies to Miami and lines up at right cornerback for the ATLANTA FALCONS against the Dolphins. Sanders leads the Braves with a .533 World Series baiting average and makes the Pro Bowl for the Falcons as a cornerback, but he could have made it as a kick returner, too. At the other corner number 22 Tim McKyer is beaten so often they are calling him Highway 22. He leaves Atlanta, bad-mouthing his teammates and the organization.

Nov. 15, 1992: Billy Joe Tolliver, backup quarterback for the injured Chris Miller, gets into it with Falcon coach Jerry Glanville after he's pulled from the game. December '92: Wade Wilson starts the final three games and passes for 10 TDs and more than 1,000 yards. Where has he been? On the bench after Minnesota cut him. Now It's '93, and where's he headed? New Orleans, which supplied Hebert to back up Miller this year. And on it goes, as the fans jam the brand-new Georgia Dome. The Falcons finished last in total defense last season. Atlanta was 0-8 against playoff teams, but its Red Gun offense crushed the weakies, 34-0 over New England, 35-7 over the Bucs.

Free agency brought in former 49er defensive end Pierce Holt, Redskin tackle Jumpy Geathers and Lion cornerback Melvin Jenkins. The draft supplied Lincoln Kennedy to step in at guard on an offensive line that had lost Bill Fralic and Houston Hoover. Eric Dickerson arrived to address the nonexistent running game. The organization would be better off if personnel director Ken Herock weren't caught in a squeeze between Glanville and the reigning Smith family. It's a circus.

On the LOS ANGELES RAMS, the top two wideouts, Henry Ellard and Willie Anderson, finished 54th and 77th, respectively, among the NFL's pass catchers, which isn't much help for quarterback Jim Everett, who is trying to battle his way back to respectability. The leading runner and receiver on the Rams, tailback Cleveland Gary, held out for much of camp. The defense got pushed around. Where do you start?

Well, Chuck Knox is a methodical guy, so this year the offense gets the attention. Top draft Jerome Bettis must make the switch from fullback at Notre Dame to tailback, stationed seven yards deep. No problem, say the Rams. We'll see. Troy Drayton looks like a promising pass catcher at the "move" tight end position, or U-back. Scan LaChapelle is expected to be the possession wideout, and Cal tailback Russell White could see action if the Rams decide to run the ball by committee.

The offensive line, which lost two starters via free agency and has the NFL's second-oldest player, Jackie Slater, manning the right tackle post, is a subject for next year. The defense? The Rams are hoping the young guys will mature—or something. It's a long road back.

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PHOTOPETER READ MILLERTaylor is one of the Niners' big-play trio. PHOTOAL TIELEMANSAt 39, Slater anchors a Ram line that needs new blood.

the playoffs

AFC

DIVISION CHAMPIONS: Miami, Houston, Kansas City
WILD CARD TEAMS: Pittsburgh, Buffalo, San Diego
FIRST ROUND: Pittsburgh beats Buffalo, Miami beats San Diego
SECOND ROUND: Houston beats Pittsburgh, Miami beats Kansas City
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP: Houston beats Miami

NFC

DIVISION CHAMPIONS: Dallas, Green Hay, San Francisco
WILD CARD TEAMS: Washington, Minnesota, New Orleans
FIRST ROUND: Washington beats Minnesota, Green Bay beats New Orleans
SECOND ROUND: Dallas beats Washington, San Francisco beats Green Bay
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP: Dallas beats San Francisco

SUPER BOWL XXVIII: Dallas 24, Houston 20

prediction

SAN FRANCISCO

12-4

NEW ORLEANS

8-8

ATLANTA

7-9

L.A. RAMS

5-11

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)