This division race should provide the answers to some of the most vexing questions of the season. Can a rookie quarterback lead the Atlanta Falcons back to respectability and profitability? Can any single quarterback lead the San Francisco 49ers? Will Archie Manning recover from his broken arm in time to lead the Saints to their first winning season? And just how do the Los Angeles Rams plan to spend their Super Bowl checks?
The Rams, need it be said, again are almost everyone's choice for locker-room space at Miami in January, blessed as they are with talent, experience, depth and the cushiest schedule in the NFL. Between Sunday's opener at Dallas and the regular-season finale with the Steelers, the Rams will play 12 games against teams which never got above .500 last year. The dreary dozen includes six games with NFC West rivals, each of which has too many problems or weaknesses to prevent the Rams from winning their third straight division title.
"How good we are kind of depends on us," says Merlin Olsen, the veteran defensive tackle. "If we can get the improvement we've had the last two years, we can be better than any team in pro football."
The Rams' biggest improvement could come at quarterback, where James Harris, who was almost waived out of the league three years ago, took over in the sixth game of last season and finished as the NFC's No. 2 quarterback and the most valuable player in the Pro Bowl. Harris led the Rams to seven victories in their last nine games, throwing for 1,544 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Contributing to Harris' success was an offensive line, with an average of 10.8 years of experience per man, that allowed but 21 sacks. With the exception of Rich Saul, who replaces Ken Iman at center, it returns intact. A further boon to Harris is the acquisition of Ron Jessie, who caught 54 passes at Detroit last season while playing out his option. Jessie and Harold Jackson, who pulled in 30 passes for 514 yards and five touchdowns in 1974, give the Rams two 9.4 speedsters as deep threats, each especially worrisome because of the presence of Tight End Bob Klein, whose receiving has been overshadowed by his blocking. In an exhibition game against Dallas, Klein made four key catches to help crush the Cowboys 35-7.
While the passing should be more effective, the Rams' offensive strength again will be a rushing attack headed by Lawrence (not Larry) McCutcheon, who has gained more than 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons. McCutcheon (his brother's name is Larry) broke the L.A. record again last year when he gained 1,109 yards to lead the NFC; Jim Bertelsen, perhaps the team's best all-round back, gained 419. Backing them up are John Cappelletti, the 1973 Heisman Trophy winner, and stay-at-home Cullen Bryant, the 235-pound body-builder who defied the Rozelle Rule in the Jessie non-trade. Tony Baker, whom Chuck Knox uses for touchdown smashes and other short yardage work, and Rob Scribner bring enviable depth to the position.
On defense, the Rams again will be almost impervious to the rush while conspicuously mistreating rival passers. Olsen and his mates allowed but four touchdowns on the ground last year, sacked opposing quarterbacks 44 times (a conference high) and yielded a mere 181 points (a league low). With strong, mobile linebackers and the prospect of an improved secondary led by All-NFC Safety Dave Elmendorf, Knox hopes to cut off the pass as well as the run. Toward that goal, rookie Monte Jackson, a No. 4 choice from San Diego State, may eventually replace Charlie Stukes at left corner who is out for the year.
If San Francisco had a reliable quarterback, the division might be a two-team race. Dick Nolan's club has a classy corps of running backs, some quality receivers and a defense that is adequate if not spectacular. Unfortunately, the 49ers also have three quarterbacks who seem to be waiting for a starter to show up: Tom Owen, 23, who led the team to four victories in its last five 1974 games; veteran Norm Snead, claiming his gimpy knee never felt better; and Steve Spurrier, who sprained his knee in July. Each moved the team fairly well during the exhibition season.
Whoever wins the job—Snead leads at the moment—the 49er offense could be interesting. In Wilbur Jackson, who was named NFC Rookie of the Year, Nolan has an explosive, tackle-busting runner. Larry Schreiber, who gained 634 yards last season, is a mean man through the middle, and also led the team in receptions. Kermit Johnson gained more than 1,000 yards in the WFL, and Sammy Johnson, Delvin Williams and Manfred Moore will be capable reserves.
To take some of the defensive heat off Gene Washington, one of the NFL's finest receivers although he caught but 29 passes from four different quarterbacks last year, the 49ers acquired Bob Hayes from Dallas. Hayes undoubtedly is at least a step slower than he was when he joined the Cowboys following the '64 Olympics, but, Washington says, "He still has a great deal of speed and I think he will pose some problems for the defense by just running down the field. You can't ignore him, he's a potential six points—from anywhere." Speedy Thomas and Tight End Tom Mitchell also are fine receivers.