Now if only the Falcons didn't have to play defense. Atlanta allowed the most points in the NFL last year, even with Deion Sanders in the lineup. Now Sanders is probably gone for good, and this year the Falcons will try to stop opponents with imports such as cornerback D.J. Johnson, free safety Kevin Ross, end Chris Doleman and the amazing Clay Matthews, who at 38 has already played more games than any NFL linebacker in history.
The Falcons look like a team on the way up, a wild card ascending.
Personally, I think the fight that Jim Everett, the new quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, got into with that Jim Rome character on ESPN2 was staged. I mean, how can there be a fight with no punches thrown? And was that a smile I saw on Everett's face? What's that you say? It wasn't a smile, it was a grimace, and Everett was really tired of all those insults and was ready to fight back? Whatever, Everett shouldn't have had to take all the abuse that has been heaped on him by all those gin mill experts holding forth on his happy feet and lack of mechanics and whatever.
Memo to New Orleans fans: Give the guy a chance. Hold off on your booing until at least the second game, because with some real support, with some folks to rally round him, who knows what Everett might accomplish? He could regain the form that led the Rams into the NFC Championship Game live years ago. Everett and his new mates simply must pick up the offense, which finished 21st in the league last year, because the defense, which was seventh in the league, doesn't figure to be as good as it was last season. Three quarters of what was once a Pro Bowl linebacking corps is gone, and the survivor, Sam Mills, is feeling unappreciated after receiving a contract that did not provide for a raise. Half of a good secondary also has departed.
The defense loses people, but the offense gains two free agents: Michael Haynes, who caught 72 passes last year for Atlanta, and center Jeff Uhlenhake, late of the Miami Dolphins. The attack could be quite presentable. William Roaf is ready to stake his claim as the best left tackle in football, after moving over from the right side, and Lorenzo Neal is a bruising fullback. But if Everett falters, Wade Wilson will have to bail the club out, and there will be a lot of "I told you so's" in the bars on Bourbon Street.
Half a dozen years ago Bill Walsh was asked who his favorite was among the young crop of quarterbacks, and he said, "I really like that kid in Atlanta. What's his name, Miller? He scares me to death."
Well, this year Chris Miller might make foes of the Los Angeles Rams nervous, because when a club shells out nine million bucks for three years it expects some production. And that's what Miller specialized in until two knee injuries laid him low with the Falcons in 1992 and '93. And then the whispers started: Is he durable enough?
"I've had an ankle injury, a collarbone, two knees," Miller says. "But who hasn't? It's not a flag football game."
Here's what the personnel people have given Miller to work with: so-so receivers; Wayne Gandy, a first-round draft pick at left tackle to fortify an aging offensive line; and a potentially line tight end in Troy Drayton. And then there's Jerome Bettis.
Want to know about Bettis? Get out the old Earl Campbell tapes because Bettis is 243 pounds of speed and smack 'em. He says his goal is a 2,000-yard season, an average of 125 a game. In the last six games of 1993, after T.J. Rubley took over as the quarterback starter and Bettis became the featured part of the attack, he averaged 131 yards on just under 24 carries. That's almost six yards a pop, nifty going for a guy that size—or any size. He ended up with 1,429 yards, only 51 behind NFL rushing champ Emmitt Smith. "He's not just an inside guy," coach Chuck Knox says. "He ran outside 34 times for an 8.4-yard average. He took one 71 yards for a TD against New Orleans, and they've got some people who can run."