San Francisco's Frank Nunley, whose nickname—Fudgehammer—is even better than Reynolds', has shed 15 pounds in an attempt to increase his speed and mobility but his range still seems limited. Atlanta's Tommy Nobis, who has never experienced the thrill of postseason play in his 10 pro seasons, may lose his job to second-year man Ralph Ortega. New Orleans and Seattle both are set in the middle, though not in many other places. Joe Federspiel had 79 unassisted tackles for the Saints last season; he also recovered five fumbles, deflected 10 passes and sacked two quarterbacks. The Sea-hawks drafted Ed Bradley from the Steelers. As Jack Lambert's backup, Bradley had to play the final half of Pittsburgh's 1975 Super Bowl win over the Vikings after Lambert went out with a chipped ankle bone. Lambert was hardly missed.
Ball control, field position and points will come hard against the Rams, just as they did in 1975 when Los Angeles allowed NFL lows of 135 points, 15 touchdowns and 13 PATs. Fred Dryer, Larry Brooks, Merlin Olsen and Jack Youngblood comprise a flaky (Dryer), savvy ( Olsen) and rough (Brooks and Youngblood) rush line with 30 years' experience. Youngblood, probably the NFL's best pass rusher (14 sacks in 1975), has a new backup: 6'8", 240-pound Leroy Jones, who has three years of Canadian League experience and, with a bow to Dallas' 6'9" Ed (Too Tall) Jones, has been dubbed "Too Much" Jones. The linebackers—Rick Kay, Reynolds and Isiah Robertson—are reckless, and Safeties Bill Simpson and Dave Elmendorf are solid. One weak spot may be at left corner, where second-year man Rod Perry and rookie Pat Thomas are fighting for the job. The Rams also need better punting from newcomer Rusty Jackson than Duane Carrell (39.4) gave them last season.
Defense is a 49er strength, particularly the down line anchored by Tommy Hart and Cedrick Hardman, who has finally acquired some on-field discipline. Dave Washington, Nunley and Skip Vanderbundt are adequate linebackers, and Willie Harper will work with them when the 49ers use Miami's "53" formation. But the secondary is worrisome: Clark's best cornerback is Jimmy Johnson, and he's 38 years old.
Atlanta Tackles Mike Tilleman and Mike Lewis have been disappointing and while End Claude Humphrey has returned after sitting out 1975 with a knee injury, the Falcons' front is not too intimidating, especially since John Zook was traded to St. Louis. Left Linebacker Fulton Kuykendall, who answers to "Captain Crazy," is the best of the linebackers. New Orleans has a strong front, led by End Bob Pollard, and when injury-prone Tom Myers is healthy, he plays superbly at free safety. Seattle drafted Notre Dame's Steve Niehaus No. 1, and he starts at tackle, but retread Dave Tipton is the Seahawks' best down lineman. The linebacking is solid, with Bradley and Mike Curtis as regulars.
Los Angeles Owner Carroll Rosenbloom, who sometimes commutes to practice in a chartered chopper, doesn't like Knox' conservative, grind-it-out offense; he wants an aerial show and scores like 56-42, not 13-7. And Rosenbloom, whose bloodless coup failed to unseat Commissioner Pete Rozelle last winter, has not invited the NFL brass to his tennis parties. Hank Stram is so antihair that he sent 4,000 press brochures back to the printer for beardless mug shots of several New Orleans players. Stram later incurred the wrath of Owner John Mecom Jr. for spending too much money in training camp; occasionally the players were offered steak and lobster for dinner. Seattle sold 57,000 season tickets, including one to a prison inmate scheduled to be paroled shortly before the club's first game.
No race here. The Rams will win by default even if they fail to find a No. 1 quarterback. Trouble is, they may lose their competitive edge before the playoffs. A healthy and fiery Plunkett would make the 49ers the best of the rest. A sore-armed, disinterested Plunkett would make the Saints the best of the rest.