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NFC SAN FRANCISCO IS A CINCH IN THE WEST, DALLAS SHOULD PREVAIL OVER RESURGENT ARIZONA IN THE EAST, AND THE WIDE-OPEN CENTRAL IS A THREE-TEAM RACE FROM WHICH CHICAGO WILL LIKELY EMERGE TRIUMPHANT

Sept. 04, 1995
Sept. 04, 1995

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Sept. 4, 1995

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NFL '95

NFC SAN FRANCISCO IS A CINCH IN THE WEST, DALLAS SHOULD PREVAIL OVER RESURGENT ARIZONA IN THE EAST, AND THE WIDE-OPEN CENTRAL IS A THREE-TEAM RACE FROM WHICH CHICAGO WILL LIKELY EMERGE TRIUMPHANT

By SCOUTING REPORTS BY Paul Zimmerman

NFC EAST

This is an article from the Sept. 4, 1995 issue Original Layout

THERE THEY SIT, THE SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS and the Dallas Cowboys,
glaring at each other across half a continent, matching each
other in arrogance and grandeur, playing their own private Super
Bowl in the NFC Championship and then brushing off the AFC's
Pigeon of the Year in what is officially called Super Bowl
XXVIII, or XXIX, or whatever. It has been that way for three
years, during which time each team has put together 37
regular-season victories, the most in football, and the battles
between them have ultimately determined which would collect the
jewelry. While the era of cap football is supposed to have
brought competitive balance to the league, Dallas and San
Francisco have been pulling away from the pack. No challengers
are in sight for either the NFC or the Super Bowl titles. You
just have to figure out which one will be standing over the
other at the close of business on Jan. 14.

This year the Cowboys get San Francisco at home during the
regular season (on Nov. 12), and for the last two years that
home-team win has determined the site of the NFC title game,
which in turn has produced victory for the home side. I'll say
that the trend will continue: The Cowboys will regain the Super
Bowl title from the 49ers. But if it doesn't happen, I won't be
shocked.

Once again Dallas lost more than it gained via free agency. With
Alvin Harper gone to Tampa Bay, the Cowboys need a second
wideout. Center Ray Donaldson may be a four-time Pro Bowl
veteran, but at 37 he's no substitute for 28-year-old Mark
Stepnoski, who signed with Houston after making the Pro Bowl
last year. The Dallas defensive line is thinner than it was a
year ago. Regulars will have to go longer, and any injury could
cause big problems. The special teams won't be as strong.

Nonetheless, the nucleus of the team remains intact and may even
have gotten stronger. The stars--quarterback Troy Aikman, wide
receiver Michael Irvin, tailback Emmitt Smith, guard Nate
Newton, defensive end Charles Haley, fullback Daryl Johnston--are
all terrific team guys and leaders. Dallas appears to have, for
the first time, some honest-to-goodness relief behind Smith, who
went down in a heap with a pair of bum hamstrings at the end of
last season. The relief is the No. 2 draft pick Sherman Wil
liams, from Alabama.

Call it Cowboys 24, Browns 17, in Super Bowl XXX. But I ain't
betting it.

The Arizona Cardinals offense was the second-lowest scoring unit
in football last year, and someone must have said to coach Buddy
Ryan, "You know, Buddy, you ought to fold your hand and deal the
cards over. Just get rid of all those guys." Buddy surely
replied, "You know something, you're right," and that's what he
did.

Gone are all three quarterbacks, the top three wideouts, the
leading ball carrier and the top tight end. Ryan would have
cleared out the offensive linemen, too, except that he didn't
have enough room left in the moving van. Besides, the line is
young and could improve as it grows.

What's left is an offense that looks nice on paper but is thin.
If 36-year-old Dave Krieg, a free-agent acquisition, has
anything close to the dynamite year he had with the Lions in
1994, the quarterbacking will be in fine shape. Trouble is,
there's no one behind him who knows how to work a game.

The receiving picture looked grim for a while, after the
Cardinals went 0 for 3 on Carl Pickens, Andre Rison and Alvin
Harper in the free-agency game. But then the skies opened, and
the Jets miraculously dropped Rob Moore into Arizona's lap in a
trade. He could be the best of the bunch, a graceful,
long-striding leaper. Pair him with No. 2 draft pick Frank
Sanders, a great-hands type from Auburn, and you've got a nice
set of targets, particularly if the tight end, 295-pound Wendall
Gaines, a second-year man whom Ryan is moving over from the
defensive line, comes through.

Garrison Hearst, once derided by Ryan as all flash and no smash,
has turned the coach into a believer, so he'll be the tailback.
Here's my advice to Buddy , and I know he welcomes it: Make
Larry Centers, the third-down guy, your every-down back. He's
the best runner you've got. End of advice.

Larry Tharpe, the new, 299-pound right tackle, got a $1 million
contract, mainly because Ryan's son, Jim, is his agent. Tharpe
did zero at Detroit, except with a knife and fork. We'll wait
and see here. Otherwise the line should be O.K. If the offense
is productive, Arizona will be a playoff team because the
defense is, in typical Ryan fashion, dynamic. Aeneas Williams is
the best cornerback in the business, not as flashy as Deion
but more sound fundamentally. Left tackle Eric Swann was the
best defensive lineman in football in the preseason. Just ask
the Bears, whom he pulverized for four sacks and nine tackles.

Not to be overlooked on a team whose game is defense and field
position is punter Jeff Feagles. He hit one punt in practice
that had a 5.69 hang time, and that was off a one-bounce snap.
How do I know? I clocked it. We leave no stone unturned here.

In his third year with the New York Giants, Dan Reeves is the
elder statesman among NFC East coaches. He projects stability,
control, a sense of command. Under him the Giants have gone
through a transition period, losing the premier stars from their
Super Bowl days, but they still had a winning record in each of
the last two seasons, falling one game short of the playoffs in
1994. Clearly Reeves knows how to coach, but he's going to be
sorely tested this year, by matters beyond his control.

Injuries are always dreadful, but they become worse when they
pile up in one area. Four offensive linemen have gone down since
the start of training camp. One of them, Scott Gragg, is a
rookie who figured to be a backup, but the other three were
starters. The most serious injury was to left guard Scott Davis,
who is lost for the season with a damaged left knee. Davis was
slated to replace William Roberts, who was let go because of one
of those salary-cap-versus-productive-years-left formulas. The
Giants wish they had him back now. The other two injured
first-stringers, center Brian Williams and right tackle Doug
Riesenberg, are expected to return sometime this month.

This might be a reach, but I've seen it happen too often to call
it pure coincidence. A banged-up O-line equals an unsettled
offense, which means that a quarterback or runner gets caught in
uncomfortable situations and bad things happen. Quarterback Dave
Brown hurt his elbow in the first preseason game and then
suffered a concussion in the final one last Saturday. The No. 1
draft choice, tailback Tyrone Wheatley, has a couple of cracked
ribs.

Now let's look at the start of the Giants' schedule--Dallas at
home in a Monday-nighter, followed by Kansas City and Green Bay
on the road. Could be a shaky start. Reeves went through a
seven-game losing streak last year that had the New York
tabloids screaming about the death of the franchise. Then came a
six-game winning streak to close the season, and that had them
singing Ave Marias. If anyone can handle pressure, Reeves can.

Brown, for whom 1994 was his first year as a starter, learned
how to work an offense. Free agency took away Dave Meggett, a
terrific little third-down receiver, and brought Herschel
Walker, who will combine the Meggett role with that of fullback.
A strange player is Herschel. He is ordinary for three quarters,
and then everyone else seems to get more tired than he does, and
that's when he starts breaking tackles.

The defense, now a pure 4-3, gets a good workday from middle
linebacker Michael Brooks and tackle Stacey Dillard. This team
could reach the playoffs, or it could struggle to extricate
itself out of an early hole. It all depends on who gets healthy,
and how quickly.

Mark Twain's wife once tried to cure him of swearing by
indulging in some serious cursing herself. Twain listened to her
salty tongue for a while and then told her, "You got the words
right, but you don't know the tune." That's the way Randall
Cunningham looks to me in the short-drop offense that Ray
Rhodes, the new coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, brought with
him from San Francisco. The patterns and everything are there,
but somehow it just doesn't look right. Rhodes is a positive
guy. Ask him about how Cunningham is adjusting and he says,
"Randall's taken to it real well. There were days in practice
when he looked like Joe Montana or Steve Young."

The Eagles, whose offensive coach, Jon Gruden, learned the 49er
system under Mike Holmgren, both in San Francisco and Green Bay,
are committed to the quick-read attack, and we'll have to see
how well Cunningham, who has had trouble executing a game plan,
fits into Gruden's style. The petulant Ricky Watters has been
imported from San Francisco to help the running game, and woe to
the quarterback who doesn't call his number often enough. Little
Charlie Garner still looks like the team's best runner, but
here's the thing about the 49er-style ground game: It's keyed by
light, mobile linemen, trapping and cutting and blocking on the
go. Philadelphia's front group is more of a hog type. "The
running game will be tailored to their talents," Rhodes says.

One big plus for the defense is No. 1 draft pick Mike Mamula,
the right-side pass rusher who started slowly but came on with a
burst in the final exhibition game, last Thursday night against
the Steelers. Add his efforts to those of guys like William
Fuller and Andy Harmon, and you've got a big-league pass rush
that can cover a lot of deficits.

I had hoped that owner Jack Kent Cooke would give his coach,
Norv Turner, and general manager, Charley Casserly, time to dig
their way out of the deep hole that the Washington Redskins have
fallen into. But true to form, Cooke opened the preseason by
guaranteeing a winning record, which, if I've calculated right,
means 9-7 or better. If the Skins win eight, it will be a minor
miracle.

Turner and Casserly, both extremely competent people, have run
into flat-out bad luck, and they're sound enough to get things
straightened out if Cooke is patient. But he's 82 and is
frantically pressing the win button.

The pluses on this team are Heath Shuler, a young, talented
quarterback; Michael Westbrook, a potential star wideout; Ken
Harvey, a terrific pass rusher; and two aging stars who still
keep their game at a high level, cornerback Darrell Green and
wide receiver Henry Ellard. The minuses are the offensive and
defensive lines; the lack of a proven runner; a defensive
coordinator, Ron Lynn, who has yet to make the playoffs after
nine years in the NFL with three different teams; and a two-year
decline that resulted in a combined record of 7-25. That kind of
losing is hard to shake.

PREDICTION: Cowboys 13-3 Cardinals 10-6 Giants 8-8
Eagles 7-9 Redskins 3-13

NFC CENTRAL

USUALLY, THERE'S NOTHING MORE DREARY than the fourth quarter of
an exhibition game, but did you happen to catch the late action
in the Aug. 20 game between the Chicago Bears and the
Cardinals? There was some real drama there. Chicago quarterback
Steve Walsh, who has been designated as Erik Kramer's backup for
the season, threw a crucial interception, but he brought the
second unit down the field twice against Buddy Ryan's first-team
defense, putting the Bears in position to win the game both
times, only to have them fall short on a fumble and a missed
field goal.

Walsh's stats for the evening were worse than Kramer's. His
mechanics are not as refined, his arm might not be as strong,
and his paycheck is not as big as Kramer's, but there's
something that excites you about the guy. Kramer was the Bears'
big-money free-agent signee of 1994, and Walsh was picked up two
months later after being cut by New Orleans.

But last season, when it came down to crunch time, Walsh was the
man. His record as a starter was 8-3 in the regular season,
Kramer's was 1-4, and Walsh got the start in both playoff games.
Now he has been designated the backup again, and this, folks, is
what is known as a quarterback controversy.

You run into all sorts of miserable weather in the NFC
Central--blizzards, windstorms, monsoons--and you'd better have a
quarterback with a strong arm. So in a way it makes sense that
Kramer is the starter. I just want to see whether he will be in
December.

I would like the Bears' passing attack better if the receivers
didn't drop so many balls. I would like the running game better
if the line opened up holes for its backs the way it once did
for Walter Payton. Top draft pick Rashaan Salaam, the Heisman
Trophy winner from Colorado, is an active halfback, although he
showed a scary tendency to fumble in the preseason. But you've
got to love the fullback, Raymont Harris, an ultimate gamer
who hits the trifecta: he runs, he catches, he blocks.

On defense the Bears will be in good shape because coach Dave
Wannstedt is one of those guys, like Buddy Ryan and Jeff Fisher,
who you just know will always put a good group out there. It's
in his blood. I get the feeling that, overall, Wannstedt's
operation is a sound one, and what does this project to? A
division title. Anything beyond that is a reach.

The Detroit Lions have solved the puzzle of how to get to the
playoffs. They've made them three of the last four years, but
now they've got to figure out how to move up a level, which is
more elusive. They have to learn, for instance, how to win a
playoff game on the road, which they haven't succeeded in doing
since--are you ready for this?--1957.

Lion management has evidently studied that model of corporate
football, the 49ers--an organization so attractive to the
wandering free agent that he will take a lesser paycheck to wear
the scarlet and gold. In the second week of camp Bill Ford Jr.,
vice chairman and son of the team owner, called 15 key Lion
veterans in for lunch. If you have any gripes, he told them, if
there's something that needs changing, come see me. Well, the
veterans suggested, the team's home airport needs changing, from
Metro to Pontiac-Oakland, 45 minutes closer to the Silverdome.
Done, Ford replied. See, Detroit can be a nice place to work, too.

Now listen to this one. Not only did the Lions not raise ticket
prices in the off-season, they actually lowered the charge on
some 10,000 seats in the upper deck of the Silverdome, from $30
to $19.95. The plan is to make sure that every home game is sold
out, so the local TV blackout will be lifted and the rest of the
fans in Detroit can catch the action, too, thus building
stronger community relations.

I don't know how this kinder, gentler approach will affect the
team's won-lost record, but it sure makes me want to root for
this club. More good things: Zefross Moss, a 324-pound right
tackle pancake specialist, was brought in from Indianapolis to
firm up an offensive line that was manhandled by Green Bay in
the playoffs, the Packers holding Barry Sanders to minus one
yard; former Lion quarterback Greg Landry was hired to
personally tutor Scott Mitchell, Detroit's $11 million
signal-caller, who had a case of the yips last year; the team
acquired two new defensive linemen, Luther Elliss, the No. 1
draft choice from Utah, and Henry Thomas, the Pro Bowl veteran
from the Vikings, to help pressure enemy quarterbacks, who as a
group completed an NFL-high 67.6% of their passes against the
Lions in '94; and the defense will be coached by former Viking
assistant John Teerlinck, a solid football guy who writes such
things as $ACK$ on the blackboard.

Free agency giveth and, alas, it taketh away--witness Mel Gray,
the Pro Bowl kick returner, who left for the Oilers. "I can't
tell you how happy I am that Mel Gray isn't playing for Detroit
anymore," Packer coach Mike Holmgren says. See that, the Lions
make everyone happy.

The draft choices of the Green Bay Packers had better come on
quickly, because this is a club that's getting eaten alive by
free-agent departures. Nine veterans have left Green Bay since
the end of last season, including outside linebacker/pass-rusher
Bryce Paup, who defected to Buffalo. Last season the Pack had a
dandy rush scheme going, with Paup flying in off the wing and
end Reggie White collapsing the pocket inside. Green Bay hit the
free-agent jackpot with White in 1993, but since then the
incoming flow of free agents has trickled off to just about
zilch.

Pass receivers don't want to play there. After the trade that
brought him to Green Bay for a second-round pick, Miami tight
end Keith Jackson said he would retire before reporting to the
Packers. Jackson has not reported to the club, and his reaction
gives you some idea how guys feel about heading for the media
noncapital of the NFL. Mark Ingram, also traded from the
Dolphins, is no longer the receiver he once was, and All-Pro
Sterling Sharpe retired after neck surgery.

The best of Green Bay's draft choices is Craig Newsome, a tough,
gifted cornerback who will move into the spot vacated by Terrell
Buckley, who was traded to Miami. The team's veteran assets
include quarterback Brett Favre, who is ready to step in to the
league's upper echelon; White and opposite end Sean Jones on the
pass rush, sandwiching a healthy mob of sturdy inside warriors;
strong safety LeRoy Butler; Edgar Bennett, a heavy-duty runner
who is just right for cold-weather duty; and coach Mike
Holmgren, a skilled offensive tactician.

The downside of the Packer equation is that nothing much was
accomplished during the off-season to improve this team. Three
years of 9-7 records have resulted in three-year contract
extensions for Holmgren and general manager Ron Wolf. Yes, 9-7
can be good enough to get you into the playoffs, but it's also
one tick above 8-8, which is mediocrity.

Sooner or later the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to get the
hang of how you win in this league. You select players you think
can help you, you develop them and then you pay them well in
order to keep them. Last year, personnel people around the
league played this game called, "Let's pick a team of guys Tampa
Bay got rid of." It was a pretty nice outfit. Steve Young was
the quarterback. He would have won some games.

The Bucs got rid of Young to go with Vinny Testaverde. Then they
got rid of Testaverde in favor of Craig Erickson. Then Erickson
was traded to make room for youngster Trent Dilfer. Young and
Testaverde, who is with the Browns, have been to the playoffs
and beyond. Erickson is expected to lead an upsurge in
Indianapolis. And Dilfer? Well, he's now the man in Tampa.

All the pieces are in place for him. He has a fine set of
receivers, including ex-Cowboy Alvin Harper, Lawrence Dawsey,
and Jackie Harris. Errict Rhett didn't start until week 9 last
year, and he still rushed for 1,011 yards behind a line that can
do some serious drive-blocking when it puts its mind to it.
Charles McRae, who struggled at right tackle, was surprisingly
effective when he was switched to guard. Seven of this year's
eight draft choices were defensive players. The Bucs had two
picks in the first round, and they went for defensive tackle
Warren Sapp and super-active linebacker Derrick Brooks. Both
players should help right away.

There's talent down there by the Bay, and there's a new owner,
Malcolm Glazer. I think that that combination is good for the
team's first winning season since 1982.

The Bears beat the Minnesota Vikings in the wild-card playoff
round last year. The Vikings had won the NFC Central, and the
Bears were a wild card. But let's look at how that order of
finish affects the two team's schedules for 1995: While
Minnesota will be playing Dallas and Arizona from the NFC East,
Chicago will meet the Giants and the Eagles. The Vikings must
contend with the best of the West, the 49ers and the Saints,
while the Bears can count on two wins against the Rams and the
Panthers. The only difference among their AFC opponents is that
Chicago gets the expansion team, Jacksonville, while Minnesota
tackles Cleveland, a Super Bowl contender. All in all, the
Vikings face one of the most brutal schedules in the NFL, with
10 games against 1994 playoff teams. "That's what they get for
winning the division," the Bears' Walsh says.

Other than that, the differences among Minnesota, Green Bay and
Detroit aren't all that dramatic. To wade through a schedule
like the Vikings', a club must be internally strong,
well-focused, distraction-free. Hmm. Over the past couple of
months the Vikings have seen their quarterback, Warren Moon,
charged with assaulting his wife, and their coach, Dennis Green,
charged with sexual harassment. Not exactly a recipe for
stability.

On the field the defense, especially against the pass, was worse
in 1994 than it had been the previous year. Forty-five sacks
dropped to 36. The number of passing touchdowns allowed versus
interceptions made went from 11 versus 24 in '93 to 25 versus 18
in '94. The rushing defense remained impressive, allowing an
astoundingly low 68.1 rushing yards per game, the lowest in the
league since the origin of the four-man line. But the reason was
that few teams did much rushing against the Vikings. It was far
more fruitful to throw the ball.

The sacks came up the middle from John Randle and Henry Thomas,
and it certainly was essential to keep this pair together. But
Thomas, one of the real pillars against the double-team,
free-agented to, horrors, Detroit. Defensive end Robert Harris
cleared out, too, and so did half the secondary.

The draft was supposed to address these vacancies, at least in
part, but the top choice, defensive end Derrick Alexander, was
the last first-rounder to be signed. He came in so late that
he'll be virtually useless in the early going.

On offense, a lopsided pass (third best in the NFL) to run (20th
best) ratio certainly wasn't helped when their second pick in
Round 1, Korey Stringer, a 332-pound tackle from Ohio State
whose history of leg injuries had made him suspect, went down
with a sprained ankle. Then leading rusher Terry Allen was cut,
while his replacement, Robert Smith, was launching a lengthy
holdout that ended only last week.

Maybe we're being too pessimistic here. Moon might not be as
quick on his feet at age 38, but he can still wing it. Cris
Carter set an NFL record in '94 with 122 catches. The other
wideout, Jake Reed, who had caught 11 passes in his first three
years in the league, caught 85 last season. Fuad Reveiz kicked
his way into the Pro Bowl. And Tony Dungy is one of the game's
soundest defensive coordinators. I know the Vikings will do
better than the 6-10 I've predicted for them, but when I played
out the schedule, game by game, that is what showed up.

PREDICTION: Bears 10-6 Lions 9-7 Packers 9-7
Bucs 9-7 Vikings 6-10

NFC WEST

if you consider the San Francisco 49ers a dynasty--and I do--then
it's time to look at the historical question of why dynasties
end. The Packers, the dynasty of the 1930s, were supplanted by
the younger and tougher Bears, who ruled until World War II put
all dynasties on hold. The Browns towered over the '50s and
early '60s. They declined just a bit, making room for the kings
of the rest of that decade, the Pack. Green Bay was allowed to
get old, which is what happened to the Steelers, the rulers of
the '70s, and to the Cowboys, who maintained a standard of
excellence from the mid-'60s through the mid-'80s.

Now we come to San Francisco. Dallas unseated the Niners for a
couple of years, but they're back, ready to stake a claim on
their second straight decade. "We've been through probably four
transformations, without noticeably falling off," says
quarterback Steve Young. "It's amazing for an organization to
fight through something like that and forestall what could have
been inevitable."

Says wideout Jerry Rice of his 49er bosses, "They do little
things in smart ways. They drafted [wideout] J.J. Stokes to
replace John Taylor, but they still kept John around, just in
case. Now J.J.'s hurt with a broken hand, but they're not stuck.
Seems like they always do the right thing."

Is there a risk of complacency? "It's inevitable, and, yes, I've
seen moments," says coach George Seifert. "I want to react to
it, but I don't want to overreact, either. Sometimes you just
work your way through it."

"Complacency? With these guys? Are you kidding?" says Pete
Carroll, the new defensive coordinator, who coached the Jets
last year. "Do you know how many special characters there are on
this roster, how many leaders? Rice, Young, [tight end] Brent
Jones, [safety] Tim McDonald, [tackle] Harris Barton. I just saw
[center] Bart Oates in the weight room, pumping iron two days
after he'd torn ligaments in his elbow. These are special people."

The Niners are showing some age, but only on one side of the
ball. Eight offensive starters are 30 or older, and Taylor has
indeed lost a step, but you don't see senior citizens like
Young, Rice, Jones and left guard Jesse Sapolu slowing down. The
defense is young, with only three first-stringers who have
reached 30. The best players are free safety Merton Hanks, 27,
and tackles Bryant Young, 23, and Dana Stubblefield, 24.

Two seldom-used holdovers from last season, Derek Loville and
Adam Walker, will carry the load at running back if William
Floyd is not 100% when he returns from a knee injury this
Sunday. But during the exhibition season the varsity offense
didn't look much different from last year's machine. The new
offensive coordinator, Marc Trestman, had been out of football
for three years. He prepared for the job by watching reels of
what he calls installation tapes-"tapes of each coach installing
the offense in practice, going back to the Bill Walsh days."
What Trestman learned was: Don't mess with things, at least not
right away.

Which should be good enough to keep the Niners near the top.

In the years when they were good, the New Orleans Saints ran the
ball well, played stiff defense and tortured their fans with a
passing game out of the Stone Age. Lately they've been mediocre;
they can throw the ball, but they can't run or play tough
defense. So what's it going to be, fellas? How are you going to
challenge San Francisco with a defense that gave up almost 350
yards a game last year and that ranked third from last against
the pass with an NFL-high (tied with the Broncos) 28 touchdowns
surrendered through the air?

With speed, the Saints would respond, and with quickness, a new
defensive scheme, new coaches and a handful of new
players--although not as many as they need. Pro Bowl cornerback
Eric Allen, a veteran of seven years with the Eagles, cost owner
Tom Benson a bundle, but he'll draw the MDR assignment--Most
Dangerous Receivers. In other words, he'll be on Jerry Rice
wherever Rice lines up. Rufus Porter, a former Seahawk who once
ranked among the league's most feared pass rushers, will man the
strong outside linebacker spot, and No. 1 draft pick Mark Fields
eventually will step in on the weak side. The team's best
defensive player, Wayne Martin, a fine end the last few years,
moves to tackle in the new 4-3 scheme.

That's right, we said the new 4-3. The most famous 3-4 in the
game for nine years, the system that once sent all four
linebackers to the Pro Bowl, has been junked, and so has the guy
who installed it, Steve Sidwell. It must have been difficult for
coach Jim Mora to fire his friend and colleague of 26 years, but
off Sidwell went, along with defensive line coach John Pease,
who had been with Mora for 16 years. The new coordinator is
Monte Kiffin, who coached the Vikings' inside linebackers in 1994.

Last year's push was for offense, and the acquisition of
quarterback Jim Everett and wideout Michael Haynes resulted in
an increase of nearly 1,000 yards of offense. If this season's
defensive moves click smoothly on opening day, the Saints'
prospects will be looking up; New Orleans plays the 49ers at the
Dome on Sunday, and, as everyone in the division knows, the best
time to get the Niners is early in the season.

Here's another sad story about a defense gone awry. Last season
the Atlanta Falcons brought in two aging stars, end Chris
Doleman and linebacker Clay Matthews, just as veteran end Pierce
Holt had been imported the year before. Jim Bates, who had
crafted sturdy defensive lines for Cleveland, was named
coordinator, and his idea was a 4-2-5. After eight games the
Atlanta defense ranked 20th in the NFL, the 4-2-5 was junked for
a standard 4-3, and things got even worse. Over the next eight
games the Falcons yielded an average of 390 yards, and by
season's end they were the second-worst defense in the league.

Predictably Bates was fired during the off-season. He was
replaced by Joe Haering, who had coached the linebackers last
year. Atlanta will play a 4-3, naturally, and will do its share
of blitzing. But that's nothing new in this town. Remember
Jerry Glanville's old Gritz Blitz days? "At the end of the year
they'll either say I did a good job," Haering says, "or they'll
try to run me down the road. I've been down a few roads before.
It's not that big a deal."

The interesting import is former Buffalo linebacker Darryl
Talley, interesting because the acquisition gives the Falcons
what is believed to be the oldest starting linebacking corps in
history: Talley, 35, Matthews, 39, and Jesse Tuggle, 30. The
other new face is rookie cornerback Ron Davis, who coach June
Jones says is the most fluid player he has seen since Deion
Sanders. It would be nice if Holt and Doleman could shrug off
the injuries that bothered them in 1994, but they both are a
fingers-crossed deal. Chuck Smith, rushing from the left end, is
a relentless sort who had 11 sacks last year, the first
double-digit total for the Falcons since Al Richardson--remember
him?--in 1981.

Quarterback Jeff George had a nice year statistically, operating
the run-and-shoot. He set personal records for his five-year
career in three passing categories, but he was disgusted with
the team's 7-9 finish and with his erraticism, particularly when
trying to force the ball to a covered Andre Rison. No need to
worry about that now. Rison is in Cleveland, and his spot has
been taken by former Chief J. J. Birden, with former Brown Eric
Metcalf taking over Ricky Sanders's slot position.

Hats flew into the air in Atlanta when the Falcons signed Morten
Andersen, the longtime Saint whose foot had beaten them in five
games. However, let's look at this thing logically: Over the
last two years Andersen was 1 for 11 on kicks of 50 yards or
more. The man he replaced, Norm Johnson, was 3 for 7 from
that distance. Johnson didn't miss a kick of less than 50 yards last season, and he missed only one the year before. Andersen
missed eight during that span.

An oft-repeated maxim around the NFL--at least in the modern
era--is that you don't hire a college coach to run your team,
especially if he has had no pro experience. Tommy Prothro was a
huge success at Oregon State and UCLA, but with the Rams and
then the Chargers? It just didn't work out. Everyone predicted
disaster when Billy Bidwill hired Bud Wilkinson to coach his St.
Louis Cardinals in 1978. And you know what? Wilkinson was a
disaster. Then came Jimmy Johnson from the University of Miami,
and that notion about college coaches bit the dust.

Well, Rich Brooks, fresh from 18 years at Oregon, is now
coaching the St. Louis Rams. The what? I still can't say it--just
as I never got used to the "L.A. Raiders." I think back to January's Rose Bowl, in which Brooks's Ducks gave unbeaten Penn
State a spirited battle, using an imaginative and sophisticated
pro-style attack. I remember thinking at the time, Gee, I'd like
to see this guy's offense in the NFL.

So here he is, right where the big people live. I like about
half his offensive line, particularly center Bern Brostek. I'd
like his old Oregon quarterback, Chris Miller, if he could put
together one healthy year. I certainly like tailback Jerome
Bettis, wideout Isaac Bruce and tight end Troy Drayton. Yes, I
also like fullback Leonard Russell, a sock-it-to-ya type of
runner who fell into disfavor with both New England and Den
ver-why I don't know. Are those enough offensive wea pons to
worry the NFC West folks? I'm not so sure.

The defense has a chance because the front four could turn into
one of the league's better units, if--and here come the ifs--No. 1
draft pick Kevin Carter develops at right end, Sean Gilbert on
the other side stays healthy, and cat-quick but undersized
(6'1", 270 pounds) D'Marco Farr doesn't wear down. We will
attack more, says the new coordinator, Willie Shaw, of his
defensive unit, but new coordinators always say that. The thing
is, who are you attacking with?

Did you happen to notice that the Carolina Panthers gave up only
62 points in five exhibition games? Yeah, I know, preseason
stats are for fools, but 12.4 points a game is still impressive
for new kids on the block. And that number may be more
significant in this case because the Panther coach is Dom
Capers, who spent the last two seasons coordinating the monster
defense of the Steelers.

Did you also happen to notice that the young offensive line
showed some real quality? "I've got a rookie left guard named
Andrew Peterson [a fifth-round draft pick] that no one's ever
heard of," says line coach Jim McNally, who coached Anthony
Munoz in Cincinnati, "and a free agent named Brandon Hayes and a
left tackle named Blake Brockermeyer [a No. 1 pick] who are
exciting players. You watch. We're going to have a good unit."

Which is crucial because the running game is iffy--Randy Baldwin,
best known as a return man, is Carolina's No. 1 back--and Frank
Reich, a free-agent signee, is 33 years old. "People warned me
about playing behind an expansion-team line, about all the hits
I'd take," says Reich, who backed up Jim Kelly in Buffalo. "But
it was never a factor in my decision. I wanted a chance to play."

Carolina signed an NFL-high 17 unrestricted free agents. It had
11 draft choices, which general manager Bill Polian parlayed
into three first-rounders. The Panthers will have 11 more next
year. Four victories, which would be a record for an expansion
team, is a strong possibility.

PREDICTION: 49ers 13-3 Saints 9-7 Falcons 6-10
Rams 4-12 Panthers 4-12

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS If Emmitt Smith's legs are sound, the Cowboy offense will be tough to bring down.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Ryan's hope is that punishing defensive play will make up for an anemic offense. [Two football players tackling opposing player]COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Like fullback Brian Mitchell here, the Skins seem headed the wrong way.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Kramer had better stay focused because Walsh is waiting in the wings. [Erik Kramer]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER If Brett Perriman breaks loose, the Lions' passing game will surely prosper.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Bennett was the top Pack rusher in an attack better known for air power. [Edgar Bennett]COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Forty-niner graybeards like Rice are showing no signs of slowing down. [Jerry Rice]COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER A new offensive scheme could give Jessie Hester and the Rams a big lift.COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Panther Bob Christian will see lots of daylight behind a strong young line.