PRO FOOTBALL ’85 : PLAY IT AGAIN : San Francisco and Miami Share XX-XX Vision: Their Sights Are on Super Bowl XX at New Orleans : N : If Montana Can Keep Them Intense, 49ers Could Repeat in NFC
The National Football League’s 66th season begins this weekend, and Bill Walsh and Joe Montana are focusing on a goal that their fans believe is within reach.
Walsh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers, and Montana, the 49er quarterback, have it in mind to win the Super Bowl again--for the third time in five years--and establish San Francisco as the team of the ‘80s.
“The biggest obstacle is ourselves,” Montana said the other day, noting that no NFL club has been able to win successive championships since the 1978-79 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Another possible obstacle is Miami’s Dan Marino, whose only off day in two years as an NFL passer made it easy for San Francisco in Super Bowl XIX last winter, 38-16.
But Miami is in the other conference. The 49ers, whose 1984 record was 15-1, may be challenged in the National Conference only by the Washington Redskins.
Washington and San Francisco have won three of the last four Super Bowls, reversing a trend in which AFC teams had won eight of nine.
Last year injuries pulled down the Redskins, who lost seven starters to injured reserve. Once again, the championship went to one of the healthiest good teams.
In a similar instance, the 1983 champion Raiders could not repeat in 1984, when their two quarterbacks were struck by injuries at the same time.
The 49ers aren’t exempt from injury, but Walsh has the depth to withstand a lot of trouble.
His 45-man club is stronger than last year’s 49-man team. Moreover, the 49ers play in a weak division, the NFC West, in which--as one of the youngest teams--they have the youngest starting quarterback, Montana.
The question for the 49ers is whether they will be undone by the emotional and mental consequences that so frequently influence games in this sport. Defending football champions, pleased with themselves, often lack some intensity. And each week they invariably face fighting opponents who, by upsetting a champion, can improve their public image, as well as their self image, not to forget their won-lost record.
Two other aspects of the new NFC race:
--The old black and blue division, the NFC Central, could be back in business after a number of off years. Chicago is a leader in 1980s’ defense. Green Bay was 7-1 in the last half last year, second only to San Francisco’s 8-0. Tampa Bay has come under an effective new coach, Leeman Bennett, and Bud Grant is back at Minnesota.
--There will be a three-way struggle in the NFC East involving St. Louis, which has the players, Washington, which has the coaching, and Dallas, which has some of each. New York must prove that it isn’t overrated.
The 14 National Conference teams in the order of their predicted finish in each division:
(Won 36, Lost 28 in 1984)
1. San Francisco 49ers (15-1 last year). Coach: Bill Walsh (56-41, including playoff games), seventh year.
Backup quarterback Matt Cavanaugh throws the long ball more accurately than Joe Montana. The Wendell Tyler-Roger Craig backfield has been called the NFC’s best. Adding a star a year, Walsh has brought in receiver Jerry Rice this time. But the 49ers are essentially a defensive team with a secondary that went to last year’s Pro Bowl intact.
2. Rams (10-6). Coach: John Robinson (20-15), third year.
Eric Dickerson gained 3,913 yards in his first two NFL seasons. That’s 87 short of averaging 2,000 yards a year. The Rams also have two gifted receivers, Henry Ellard and Ron Brown, as well as a superb blocking line. But they haven’t had a pass offense for several years. And their defense is neither as intimidating nor as resourceful as it used to be.
3. Atlanta Falcons (4-12). Coach: Dan Henning (11-21), third year.
There have been no recent indications that the Falcons are going anywhere. They’ve also been unlucky. Injuries last year cost their best runner, William Andrews, who may never be back, and their flashiest receiver, Billy (White Shoes) Johnson. Johnson and quarterback Steve Bartkowski, who missed five 1984 games, have returned. New backup quarterback David Archer is a free agent from Iowa State.
4. New Orleans Saints (7-9). Coach: Bum Phillips (23-34 at New Orleans, 82-72 in the NFL), fifth year.
In recent years, the Saints have busied themselves collecting running backs (George Rogers, Earl Campbell) and quarterbacks (Richard Todd, Dave Wilson, Bobby Hebert), spending No. 1 draft choices on all but USFL import Hebert. “Competition makes players,” Phillips says. Well, maybe. With Rogers traded, Phillips thinks Campbell, 30, will carry him. If they could find another quarterback, the Saints could use a different one each quarter.
(Won 31, Lost 48 in 1984)
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-10). Coach: Leeman Bennett (47-44 in NFL), first year at Tampa.
A former Chuck Knox ally, Bennett knows what it takes to win, and did for a while at Atlanta. This time he has a supportive owner, Hugh Culverhouse. The trigger in Tampa’s new one-back offense is James Wilder, a 1,544-yard runner who also caught 85 passes last year. Quarterback Steve DeBerg is adequate. So is a defense that will be without the injured Lee Roy Selmon but still has Hugh Green.
2. Chicago Bears (10-6). Coach: Mike Ditka (22-21), fourth year.
This is the team that could deny Tampa Bay the division. It has running back Walter Payton and possibly the NFL’s best defense. Four defensive Bears conceivably top the league at their positions: ends Richard Dent and Dan Hampton, middle linebacker Mike Singletary and safety Todd Bell. At quarterback, Jim McMahon is back from injury. And Ditka is learning to be an NFL coach.
3. Green Bay Packers (8-8). Forrest Gregg (8-8 at Green Bay, 60-58 in NFL), second year.
The Packers could surprise Tampa Bay and Chicago in one of the NFL’s closest races. Historically, Gregg’s first couple of seasons have been his best. He led Cincinnati to the Super Bowl in his second year there. Lynn Dickey is quarterback enough when well. Gregg improved the defense last year from 28th in the NFL to 16th, inserting three rookies, including Alphonso Carreker.
4. Minnesota Vikings (3-13). Bud Grant (161-99-5), 18th year.
This is the start of Grant’s second tour at Minnesota. During his most recent six seasons (1978-83), he finished 8-8, 5-4, 7-9, 9-7, 7-9, 8-7-1--for a total 44-44-1. This time, he has adequate pass offense personnel, with Tommy Kramer passing to Sammy White and the USFL’s Anthony Carter, but not much else.
Under Les Steckel last year, the Vikings were 28th on defense, 25th on offense.
5. Detroit Lions (4-11-1). Coach: Darryl Rogers, first year in NFL.
The Detroit offense is Billy Sims, whose return from injury this year is problematical. The new coach has traded off the old quarterback, Gary Danielson, who will be 34 in September, and brought in Joe Ferguson from Buffalo. Ferguson is 35. At fullback, James Jones can run and catch. A former John McKay assistant, Wayne Fontes, has put the Lions in the 3-4 defense.
(Won 44, Lost 35 in 1984)
1. Washington Redskins (11-5). Coach: Joe Gibbs (47-17), fifth year.
Gibbs’ 39-10 leads the NFL for the last three years, in each of which Washington did better than Dallas to replace the Cowboys as the NFC’s Eastern team to beat. The one-back Redskins, who still have their no-name defense, are as familiar as they’re ever going to be on TV except for their new runner, George Rogers, who hits the outside faster than John Riggins.
2. Dallas Cowboys (9-7). Coach: Tom Landry (243-141-6), 26th year.
Under quarterback Danny White, the 1983 Cowboys were 12-2 before losing to the NFC’s best teams, the Redskins and 49ers, to finish 12-4. They then lost in the playoffs to miss the Super Bowl. For this, Dallas’ players and writers blamed White. In 1984, responding, Landry benched him for Gary Hogeboom. Eventually, White was reinstated, but it was too late, and Dallas missed not only the Super Bowl but also, for the first time in 10 years, the playoffs. The players can’t decide who to use this year, so Landry named White.
3. St. Louis Cardinals (9-7). Coach: Jim Hanifan (34-39-1), sixth year.
Many scouts say St. Louis’ young talent is football’s finest. At quarterback, Neil Lomax may be second in the NFC only to Montana. There is a 1,174-yard runner, Ottis Anderson. And receiver Roy Green finished second to Miami’s Mark Clayton in touchdowns last year and second to Green Bay’s James Lofton in average per catch. The defense improved in 1984 from 22nd to 8th.
4. New York Giants (9-7). Coach: Bill Parcells (13-20-1), third year.
Any New York team that wins a few games tends to be overrated. Many Western scouts doubt that Phil Simms is the quarterback the Giants think he is. Some say they’d win more often with Jeff Rutledge. And there are offensive line injuries. But Joe Morris and rookie George Adams are good backs and there are good receivers. With Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, holdout Mark Haynes and others, the Giants have some Pro Bowl strengths on defense.
5. Philadelphia Eagles (6-9-1). Coach: Marion Campbell (17-39-1 in NFL), third year.
Quarterback Ron Jaworski has returned from injury, but holdouts have disrupted the club’s whole program under a new owner this summer. Although Campbell is an accomplished defensive coach, the Eagles aren’t much on offense.
As a critic said: “Their 6-9-1 last year was no fluke.”