In Los Angeles, the great quarterback debate raged on throughout the off-season: Would it be quiet James Harris, 29, who was hampered by a shoulder injury the last four games of 1975 and then bombed out in the Dallas playoff defeat, or bombastic Ron Jaworski, 25, the "Polish Rifle"? Jaworski easily won the war of words. "I know who the quarterback will be: me," he kept repeating to anyone who would listen. "I feel it. I know this is my year. I have the arm. I want to lead this team, and I will." So Jaworski will, but only because Harris broke his right thumb late in the exhibition schedule and will miss at least the first few games. Jaworski has started only two games for the Rams, and they won both. For the time being, the backup will be Pat Haden, the USC graduate who is interrupting his Rhodes scholar studies to learn about pro football.
Jim Plunkett (see Key Player) will need time to absorb new Coach Monte Clark's system in San Francisco, but there is so much concern about the condition of his passing arm that Clark obtained 29-year-old Marty Domres and his $110,000 contract from Baltimore. Atlanta's 6'4", 215-pound Steve Bartkowski has the physical ability to be the best of all; playing behind a weak line, he completed 45% of his passes—and now he has John Gilliam to throw to. At New Orleans, Archie Manning is still recovering from shoulder surgery, Bobby Scott is only adequate as a replacement and Bobby Douglass still runs the ball better than he throws it. Seattle opens with lefthander Jim Zorn. He is, fortunately, very mobile.
Don't feel sorry for the Rams. Sure, Offensive Linemen Joe Scibelli and Charlie Cowan took their 30 years of experience and retired. However, General Manager Don Klosterman had prepared for just such a possibility a year ago when he drafted 6'5", 252-pound Guard Dennis Harrah and 6'5", 260-pound Tackle Doug France in the first round. And Coach Chuck Knox wisely made certain that both Harrah and France played in every game in 1975, France eventually becoming a starter when Cowan was injured. Says France, "I don't want to be good. I want to be great. I know I'm going there. I haven't hit no greasebone and gone downhill." Jim Bertelsen returns from knee surgery to block for Lawrence McCutcheon (911 yards); with Bertelsen absent, McCutcheon gained only 10 yards in 11 carries in the Dallas debacle. John Cappelletti is available, too, but the Penn State Heisman Trophy winner carried only 48 times in 1975. Harold Jackson and Ron Jessie, who combined for 84 receptions and 10 touchdowns, work the flanks and Bob Klein (16 receptions) provides solid blocking and catches the few passes that the Rams throw to him. Knox bristles when he hears his offense called "predictable," which it has been the last three seasons. He now has added such wrinkles as the shovel pass, but again the Rams will emphasize a slow, patient, grueling ball-control attack.
Luckily for San Francisco, Clark knows how to build an offensive line from the junk heap. As Don Shula's aide in Miami, Clark assembled an All-Pro line by scouting waiver and free-agent lists and discovering such players as Center Jim Langer and Guard Bob Kuechenberg. Clark's 49er line is all tattered: top Guard Woody Peoples and Center Bill Reid are lost for the season after knee surgery. Clark traded for Minnesota Guard Steve Lawson and signed veteran Guard Dick Enderle off the waiver list. Former 49er Quarterback Tom Owen, sent to New England in the Plunkett deal, looked at the line and said, " Plunkett won't last out the season. He won't have four seconds, or even three, to throw behind those guys." If he does, his chief target will be old Stanford teammate Gene Washington. Delvin Williams, Kermit Johnson and Wilbur Jackson are the running game, and a good one, although Jackson fumbles too often. Clark obviously plans to imitate Miami's conservative offense; throughout the exhibition schedule. Plunkett passed mainly to his tight ends and running backs, thus heightening the speculation that he has a sore arm.
Gilliam returns home to Atlanta as Bartkowski's leading receiver. He will work with Alfred Jenkins (38 receptions for 767 yards in 1975), and together they will rid Tight End Jim Mitchell (34 for 536) of the double coverage he has always attracted. Dave Hampton ran for 1,002 yards last season, although few people knew it because of the Falcons' 4-10 record. He gets help from rookies Bubba Bean of Texas A&M and Sonny Collins of Kentucky.
If rookies Chuck Muncie (see Newcomer) and Tony Galbreath seem lost for a few games, don't be harsh on them. New Coach Hank Stram has given the Saints a playbook that is 760 pages thick and probably weighs more than the New Orleans telephone directory. One play calls for Muncie to pass from his running-back position. He threw for a 27-yard touchdown against Cincinnati in the preseason and, considering the Saints' quarterbacking state, may be their best passer. None of the tricky plays will work, though, unless the Saints develop a strong line. Seattle's best weapon may be the talented toe of rookie Kicker Don Bitter-lich of Temple. The Seahawks neglected their attack in the various drafts, selecting only one runner with any experience. Baltimore's Bill Olds, in the expansion grab bag and passing up Muncie in the college draft.
Jack Reynolds of the Rams has one of the NFL's most intriguing nicknames: Hacksaw. It seems that Reynolds collects jeeps as a hobby, and when confronted one day by a balky engine, he took a hacksaw to the offending vehicle and destroyed it. Reynolds also tends to destroy himself. Last season he cut his nose with a razor while trying to remove tape from his hands, and last month he poked himself in the eye while trying to tackle a Dallas runner. But on the field Reynolds is so consistent that Defensive Coordinator Ray Malavasi says, "He hasn't missed a signal in three years."