Draft day 1981 signaled the opening of the Golden Era of the San Francisco 49ers. That day, the Niners nailed three immediate starters in the secondary, including Ronnie Lott. It was an unbelievable run of sevens at the crap table, but almost as important were two veteran pickups that same year. From the Los Angeles Rams came the old warhorse Jack Reynolds to solidify the defense at middle linebacker, and from the San Diego Chargers came the dynamite pass rusher Fred Dean. "A pass rush late in the game is the key to NFL football," was one of 49er coach Bill Walsh's pronouncements.
Now we turn to San Francisco's recent history, two years of seeing the roses but never smelling them, two straight defeats to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game, two defensive collapses. The Niners have sought mightily to duplicate the '81 draft trifecta, selecting four defenders with their first four picks in '93 and three out of four this year. And they have also sought to recapture the past by scooping up key veterans.
Former Charger Gary Plummer is the latter-day Reynolds, a sturdy plugger with lots of IQ points. The new Dean? Well, die Niners signed two of them, former New Orleans Saint linebacker Rickey Jackson, 36, to swoop down from the left side, and former Chicago Bear defensive end Richard Dent, 34, to blast in from the right. A bit long in the tooth, you say? Well, Jackson and Dent had 11½ and 12½ sacks, respectively, last season, and very few people put up that kind of numbers. And just for frosting, the Niners snatched Pro Bowl veteran Ken Norton away from the Dallas Cowboys to play the weakside linebacker. He could become the team's best "space" linebacker ever, certainly the finest since Keena Turner.
Judicious signing of veteran stars to long-term, pre-salary cap contracts has kept the NFL's No. 1 offense together, and with the work done during the off-season to improve the defense, the act is complete. I like San Francisco to unseat Dallas in a third straight NFC championship meeting and go on to take it all. The defense should be very active in the middle of the line if first-round draft choice Bryant Young, from Notre Dame, has anything near the kind of season that last year's top choice, defensive end Dana Stubblefield, had. The only concern has been at free safety, where in the preseason Merton Hanks, the finest at that position in the game last year, was switched to right corner and replaced by Dana Hall. That experiment may have ended, though, with the acquisition on Aug. 22 of another former Saint, Toi Cook.
Signing Jackson had folks wondering how a club so seriously burdened by the salary cap could still afford such pricey talent. The answer: When you're a team of the caliber of the 49ers, people will take a chance to come join you. Jackson is taking minimal pay ($162,000) on a contract that's heavily back-loaded with incentives. Such as a trip to Super Bowl XXIX. I'm betting he collects.
The strange odyssey of Jeff George has now taken him to the Atlanta Falcons, whose new coach, June Jones, is married to the run-and-shoot and whose quarterback coach, Mouse Davis, practically invented it. After four years of getting hammered unmercifully behind those dreadful lines in Indianapolis, in those nondescript offenses, George is feeling like a coal miner finally getting a look at the sunshine.
Pull the trigger quickly, make the instant reads and decisions, run the show—that's the zip-zap world of the run-and-shoot quarterback. But when you have a receiver like Andre Rison, you had better be ready to heave the deep one, too, and George has blockers such as Mike Kenn, Lincoln Kennedy and Bob Whitfield to give him time to crank up. "I can't remember the last time that I dropped back and launched one 60, 70 yards," George says. "That's going to be nice to do."
Before the Falcons decided to pursue George, they checked his release. A run-and-shoot passer without a quick release is like a shovel without a handle. "Watch him. See that? Zip, it's gone," Kenn says. "That's the thing that really amazed us about him."
Then the team checked George's psychological profile: a complainer in Indy, stayed out of camp, very unpopular with the tans. The Falcons were willing to take a chance. One thing George never whined about was the beatings he took. and, lord, did he ever get his share. The Archie Manning of the '90s. "When you're young, you don't worry about that," he says, "until you see the game films. I'd see certain hits and cringe."
Some of the Falcon offense has departed, such as wideouts Michael Haynes and Mike Pritchard, who combined for 146 catches last year, but there's still Rison, plus a nifty rookie, Bert Emanuel, and ex-Washington Redskin Ricky Sanders to throw to. Erric Pegram's relentless, punishing running style gave him 1,185 yards in '93, and now he's got a trimmed-down, 270-pound Craig (Ironhead) Heyward with him in the backfield to help ease the load. "We've got the fastball and the big ball," Davis says, "the speedball and the bowling ball."
Now if only the Falcons didn't have to play defense. Atlanta allowed the most points in the NFL last year, even with Deion Sanders in the lineup. Now Sanders is probably gone for good, and this year the Falcons will try to stop opponents with imports such as cornerback D.J. Johnson, free safety Kevin Ross, end Chris Doleman and the amazing Clay Matthews, who at 38 has already played more games than any NFL linebacker in history.
The Falcons look like a team on the way up, a wild card ascending.
Personally, I think the fight that Jim Everett, the new quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, got into with that Jim Rome character on ESPN2 was staged. I mean, how can there be a fight with no punches thrown? And was that a smile I saw on Everett's face? What's that you say? It wasn't a smile, it was a grimace, and Everett was really tired of all those insults and was ready to fight back? Whatever, Everett shouldn't have had to take all the abuse that has been heaped on him by all those gin mill experts holding forth on his happy feet and lack of mechanics and whatever.
Memo to New Orleans fans: Give the guy a chance. Hold off on your booing until at least the second game, because with some real support, with some folks to rally round him, who knows what Everett might accomplish? He could regain the form that led the Rams into the NFC Championship Game live years ago. Everett and his new mates simply must pick up the offense, which finished 21st in the league last year, because the defense, which was seventh in the league, doesn't figure to be as good as it was last season. Three quarters of what was once a Pro Bowl linebacking corps is gone, and the survivor, Sam Mills, is feeling unappreciated after receiving a contract that did not provide for a raise. Half of a good secondary also has departed.
The defense loses people, but the offense gains two free agents: Michael Haynes, who caught 72 passes last year for Atlanta, and center Jeff Uhlenhake, late of the Miami Dolphins. The attack could be quite presentable. William Roaf is ready to stake his claim as the best left tackle in football, after moving over from the right side, and Lorenzo Neal is a bruising fullback. But if Everett falters, Wade Wilson will have to bail the club out, and there will be a lot of "I told you so's" in the bars on Bourbon Street.
Half a dozen years ago Bill Walsh was asked who his favorite was among the young crop of quarterbacks, and he said, "I really like that kid in Atlanta. What's his name, Miller? He scares me to death."
Well, this year Chris Miller might make foes of the Los Angeles Rams nervous, because when a club shells out nine million bucks for three years it expects some production. And that's what Miller specialized in until two knee injuries laid him low with the Falcons in 1992 and '93. And then the whispers started: Is he durable enough?
"I've had an ankle injury, a collarbone, two knees," Miller says. "But who hasn't? It's not a flag football game."
Here's what the personnel people have given Miller to work with: so-so receivers; Wayne Gandy, a first-round draft pick at left tackle to fortify an aging offensive line; and a potentially line tight end in Troy Drayton. And then there's Jerome Bettis.
Want to know about Bettis? Get out the old Earl Campbell tapes because Bettis is 243 pounds of speed and smack 'em. He says his goal is a 2,000-yard season, an average of 125 a game. In the last six games of 1993, after T.J. Rubley took over as the quarterback starter and Bettis became the featured part of the attack, he averaged 131 yards on just under 24 carries. That's almost six yards a pop, nifty going for a guy that size—or any size. He ended up with 1,429 yards, only 51 behind NFL rushing champ Emmitt Smith. "He's not just an inside guy," coach Chuck Knox says. "He ran outside 34 times for an 8.4-yard average. He took one 71 yards for a TD against New Orleans, and they've got some people who can run."
That may be one reason why Knox passed up premier quarterback Trent Dilfer in the draft and instead traded down and got Gandy. But then again, at 62, maybe Knox isn't too interested in long-range projects. He would rather bring in a guy who can play right away.
The defense is built around a 315-pound house wrecker at tackle, Sean Gilbert, but injuries crippled the line and the secondary last year. "We lost three cornerbacks in the middle of the season," Knox says. "We were picking up guys off the street." Final ranking of the Ram defense: 24th.
Every 20 minutes there's a new rumor about where this club will eventually wind up—St. Louis, Baltimore, you name it. The playoffs wouldn't be a bad place, either, but that trip's going to have to wait for a while.
SI's Super Bowl picks
Peter King: COWBOYS 27, RAIDERS 22
Dr.Z: 49ERS 27, RAIDERS 17