A few weeks ago I read a gloomy training camp quote from Bill
Walsh, who, amid much fanfare and some head-scratching, is back
with the San Francisco 49ers as, er, something called
"administrative assistant to coaching staff." "Part of it is
wonderful, but at other times, I wonder," Walsh said. "My room
is this small cubicle with an overhead light hanging down.
Sometimes I feel like Father Serra, going from mission to
mission."

And I wondered, What under the wide blue sky is Walsh doing?
Then one night, when I went to pay my respects to him after an
exhibition game, it came to me: Clark Shaughnessy. He's the
modern-day Clark Shaughnessy, his idol, the great
behind-the-scenes strategist who masterminded the Chicago Bears'
powerhouses of the early 1940s and got little credit for it.
Walsh will whisper into the ear of Marc Trestman, the Niners'
offensive coordinator, and presto!

Too romantic a notion? Maybe not. When San Francisco won three
Super Bowls under Walsh in the 1980s, one of the keys to his
attack was a nasty, cut-blocking running game that not only
produced yards but also kept the defensive linemen from getting
too frisky, making them ever mindful that one of those
undersized 49ers blockers was ready to crack down on the backs
of their legs. Of course, there had to be a slashing type of
running back to dart through the creases.

Last year, with Ricky Watters having left as a free agent, the
slasher's job fell to Derek Loville, a hard worker but a guy
without real pop. His job was made harder by the injuries that
raked the San Francisco offensive line, but when the Green Bay
Packers overran the Niners in the playoffs, leaving battered
quarterback Steve Young in their wake, it was clear something
had to be done. "I talked to some Packers in the off-season,"
Young says, "and they told me their orders were to just rush the
passer, don't worry about the run, which makes it an uphill
battle."

The great running back search was on. First came a big offer to
the New York Giants' Rodney Hampton, which was matched by the
Giants. Then came the signing of Johnny Johnson, who sat out the
1995 season, but a bad back ended his Niners career before it
got started. Finally came the trade with the Miami Dolphins for
Terry Kirby, who may or may not be the answer. Not as well
publicized but quite important was the acquisition of the heart
and soul of the Washington Redskins' offensive line, 315-pound
guard Ray Brown, who adds some muscle to what typically has been
the smallest forward wall in the NFL.

The Niners are always looking for pass rushers, but this time
they might have hit it big when they signed two good ends,
former Atlanta Falcon Chris Doleman, who had a terrific
preseason, and Roy Barker, a former Minnesota Viking. They join
the best pair of defensive tackles in the league, Dana
Stubblefield and Bryant Young, to form a foursome that can solve
a lot of problems, including the loss of Pro Bowl cornerback
Eric Davis, who signed with the Carolina Panthers as a free agent.

You know the passing game's going to be high-tech, with Young
throwing to Jerry Rice and Brent Jones and J.J. Stokes, who
spent the off-season working with Rice, plus rookie wideout
Terrell Owens. Now if the running game pulls its weight, the
Niners are in business.

The New Orleans Saints won't be as good as the Falcons, but
their record should be better. Say what? Just look at the
schedule. The Saints finished in a three-way tie for third in
the division last year, but they got the fifth-place schedule.
Is that ever helpful for a coach in the last year of his
contract. New Orleans plays only three teams--Atlanta, San
Francisco and the Chicago Bears--that had winning records in 1995.

After watching his team fall into the blah category, with an 8-8
or 7-9 record three years running, owner Tom Benson made his
presence felt. General manager Jim Miller was fired. Vice
president of operations Bill Kuharich was promoted. "We have as
good executives as there are in the NFL," says Benson, who
nevertheless hasn't extended Kuharich's contract beyond 1996.

Coach Jim Mora and his staff are also working on one-year deals,
but many people thought Mora wouldn't even be around this
season, after the Saints opened 0-5 last year and Jimmy
Johnson's phone started ringing. But New Orleans went 7-4 down
the stretch, and after the season a number of players, including
cornerback Eric Allen, guard Jim Dombrowski, quarterback Jim
Everett and defensive tackle Wayne Martin, told Benson to stick
with Mora. "They said he held the club together during a very
bad situation," Benson says.

O.K., so Mora's got his troops behind him. But who are those
troops? Everett has done a lot better than people thought he
would when he joined the Saints in 1994, but his top two pass
catchers, Quinn Early and Wesley Walls, departed through free
agency. Now New Orleans is talking about running the ball. New
running backs coach Dave Atkins hopes for a 1,300-yard year from
Mario Bates, who has yet to give any indication that he can
perform at that level.

Mark McMillian, signed as a free agent from the Philadelphia
Eagles, is a courageous cornerback who gives you every ounce of
energy in his 5'7", 150-pound body. He joins Allen and
first-round draft pick Alex Molden in the secondary, and if
you're wondering why the Saints loaded up on cornerbacks, bear
in mind that they're playing in the same division as pass-happy
Atlanta and San Francisco.

I've taken my rips at the run-and-shoot offense through the
years, but I'll be sad to see it go. There should always be one
maverick in the bunch. Now the number of teams using the
run-and-shoot, which was going to revolutionize the game, is
down to one--the Atlanta Falcons.

Statistics buffs had a field day with Atlanta in 1995. For the
first time in his career, quarterback Jeff George passed for
more than 4,000 yards. And for the first time three players on
the same team each had more than 1,000 yards receiving. But to
balance it out, the Falcons also gave up the most passing yards
in NFL history: 4,541. Still Atlanta made the playoffs, defying
the maxim that says you win with defense. Outpass 'em, outscore
'em.

Sure, the run-and-shoot is fun to watch, but the question
remains: How far can you go with it? Only one run-and-shoot
team--the '91 Detroit Lions--has ever reached a conference
championship game. Last season a 9-7 record earned the Falcons a
playoff date in Green Bay, and the Packers blew them out. In
fairness, the blame for Atlanta's mediocrity can't be laid on
its offense until it comes up with a decent defense, and the
Falcons' unit was the worst statistically in the NFL the last
two years. Rod Rust is Atlanta's fourth defensive coordinator in
four seasons, replacing Joe Haering, who's back coaching the
linebackers. "Attack," was Haering's credo last year. "Gap
control," says the 68-year-old Rust. "Get better players," say
the fans.

How about Juran Bolden, a raw but breathtakingly fast cornerback
from the Canadian Football League? Or former Buffalo Bills
linebacker Cornelius Bennett, a free-agent signee? Or Patrick
Bates, a free safety and a former first-round draft pick of the
Raiders? It's a start.

Last month George signed a one-year contract, and it looks as if
he'll take the free-agent route out of Atlanta after this
season. Behind him is Bobby Hebert, who'll be 37 next year. So
let's enjoy the show while we can. Let's watch Terry Metcalf and
Terance Mathis catch the ball and run up all those yards, and
250-pound Ironhead Heyward splatter tacklers. Let's watch all
those intricate stop-and-go patterns. The run-and-shoot won't be
around forever.

After only one full season in the league, Carolina Panthers
owner Jerry Richardson is already a power in NFL politics,
chairing the stadium committee, sitting on another. General
manager Bill Polian, who had built the Bills into an AFC
champion, won his third NFL Executive of the Year award last
season. Panthers president Mike McCormack is an old pro who has
seen the game from all levels. Dom Capers picked up some Coach
of the Year votes for leading Carolina to a 7-9 record, the best
ever by an expansion team.

The future looks like nothing but roses for the Panthers. So why
pick them to go 6-10? Their schedule is tougher than it was a
year ago, and they won't be taken lightly anymore. Still, it
wouldn't be a surprise if Carolina sneaked into the playoffs at
9-7.

Walls, who is coming off a 57-catch season, signed with the
Panthers even though the Saints offered the same money. "What
they couldn't match," he said, "was the chance to be the guy."

What a nice gift for second-year quarterback Kerry Collins, who
leads an offense that's strong in the line but weak in the
superstar department. So was the acquisition on Sunday of
Raiders wideout Rocket Ismail. The long holdout of top draft
pick and former Michigan tailback Tim Biakabutuka didn't help.
But free agency brought a couple of former Pro Bowl players,
Davis and sack specialist Kevin Greene of the Pittsburgh
Steelers, to fortify a defense that finished seventh in the
league in 1995. Let's hear it for 37-year-old inside linebacker
Sam Mills, who was the leader of that defense. Oh, yes, people
will be taking the Panthers seriously now.

Someday people might look at the St. Louis Rams '96 draft and
say, "This is the one that turned them around." Here are some
things that must happen for that statement to become reality.

Lawrence Phillips, the top pick, has to study some old Lawrence
McCutcheon film clips and decide he can run and catch passes
like the player who starred for the Rams from 1972 to '79.
Phillips's most exciting burst to date was a 78-mph jaunt on a
California highway last June with a blood-alcohol level of .15
and one flat tire.

Wideout Eddie Kennison, St. Louis's other first-round pick, has
to keep people from ganging up on Isaac Bruce, who had a
sensational season with 1,781 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns
on 119 catches, 72 more than the Rams' second-leading receiver,
tight end Troy Drayton. Kennison's three-touchdown performance
in a preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs gives St.
Louis hope that he and Bruce will be ganging up on opponents.
Plus he's a serious return man.

Second-round draft choice Ernie Conwell, a 253-pound tight end
who has been converted to fullback, must police the middle in
the manner of the Dallas Cowboys' Daryl Johnston. And here's the
big one: Second-round pick Tony Banks has to be the quarterback,
if not immediately, then sometime this season. He's 6'4", 220
pounds, and watching him cut loose in the preseason, you had to
wonder how long it will be until he takes Steve Walsh's job.

Young stars haven't had an easy time of it with the Rams lately.
Running back Jerome Bettis, 24, and defensive lineman Sean
Gilbert, 26, both former Pro Bowl players, are gone. So St.
Louis has turned to new faces. Defensive end Leslie O'Neal was
brought in as a free agent from the San Diego Chargers to
upgrade the pass rush. Robert Jones, whom the Cowboys kept
touting as one of the game's fine young middle
linebackers--right up until the time he left them as a free
agent--is the new man inside.

In effect, the Rams played two seasons in 1995, going 5-1 at the
start and then 2-8 as the club settled into an all-too-familiar
mediocrity. Then came the draft--and what a draft it could turn
out to be.

COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Loville (20) and the 49ers need to rush more effectively in 1996 than they did in '95. [Derek Loville] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS The broad-beamed Heyward adds a unique dimension to the Falcons' run-and-shoot. [Ironhead Heyward] COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Help is on the way for the Rams' Bruce, who was a one-man receiving corps in 1995. [Isaac Bruce]

Prediction

49ers
11-5

Saints
8-8

Falcons
7-9

Panthers
6-10

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)