That's right, we said the new 4-3. The most famous 3-4 in the game for nine years, the system that once sent all four linebackers to the Pro Bowl, has been junked, and so has the guy who installed it, Steve Sidwell. It must have been difficult for coach Jim Mora to fire his friend and colleague of 26 years, but off Sidwell went, along with defensive line coach John Pease, who had been with Mora for 16 years. The new coordinator is Monte Kiffin, who coached the Vikings' inside linebackers in 1994.
Last year's push was for offense, and the acquisition of quarterback Jim Everett and wideout Michael Haynes resulted in an increase of nearly 1,000 yards of offense. If this season's defensive moves click smoothly on opening day, the Saints' prospects will be looking up; New Orleans plays the 49ers at the Dome on Sunday, and, as everyone in the division knows, the best time to get the Niners is early in the season.
Here's another sad story about a defense gone awry. Last season the Atlanta Falcons brought in two aging stars, end Chris Doleman and linebacker Clay Matthews, just as veteran end Pierce Holt had been imported the year before. Jim Bates, who had crafted sturdy defensive lines for Cleveland, was named coordinator, and his idea was a 4-2-5. After eight games the Atlanta defense ranked 20th in the NFL, the 4-2-5 was junked for a standard 4-3, and things got even worse. Over the next eight games the Falcons yielded an average of 390 yards, and by season's end they were the second-worst defense in the league.
Predictably Bates was fired during the off-season. He was replaced by Joe Haering, who had coached the linebackers last year. Atlanta will play a 4-3, naturally, and will do its share of blitzing. But that's nothing new in this town. Remember Jerry Glanville's old Gritz Blitz days? "At the end of the year they'll either say I did a good job," Haering says, "or they'll try to run me down the road. I've been down a few roads before. It's not that big a deal."
The interesting import is former Buffalo linebacker Darryl Talley, interesting because the acquisition gives the Falcons what is believed to be the oldest starting linebacking corps in history: Talley, 35, Matthews, 39, and Jesse Tuggle, 30. The other new face is rookie corner-back Ron Davis, who coach June Jones says is the most fluid player he has seen since Deion Sanders. It would be nice if Holt and Doleman could shrug off the injuries that bothered them in 1994, but they both are a fingers-crossed deal. Chuck Smith, rushing from the left end, is a relentless sort who had 11 sacks last year, the first double-digit total for the Falcons since Al Richardson—remember him?—in 1981.
Quarterback Jeff George had a nice year statistically, operating the run-and-shoot. He set personal records for his five-year career in three passing categories, but he was disgusted with the team's 7-9 finish and with his erraticism, particularly when trying to force the ball to a covered Andre Rison. No need to worry about that now. Rison is in Cleveland, and his spot has been taken by former Chief J. J. Birden, with former Brown Eric Metcalf taking over Ricky Sanders's slot position.
Hats flew into the air in Atlanta when the Falcons signed Morten Andersen, the longtime Saint whose foot had beaten them in five games. However, let's look at this thing logically: Over the last two years Andersen was 1 for 11 on kicks of 50 yards or more. The man he replaced, Norm Johnson, was 3 for 7 from that distance. Johnson didn't miss a kick of less than 50 yards last season, and he missed only one the year before. Andersen missed eight during that span.
An oft-repeated maxim around the NFL—at least in the modern era—is that you don't hire a college coach to run your team, especially if he has had no pro experience. Tommy Prothro was a huge success at Oregon State and UCLA, but with the Rams and then the Chargers? It just didn't work out. Everyone predicted disaster when Billy Bidwill hired Bud Wilkinson to coach his St. Louis Cardinals in 1978. And you know what? Wilkinson was a disaster. Then came Jimmy Johnson from the University of Miami, and that notion about college coaches bit the dust.
Well, Rich Brooks, fresh from 18 years at Oregon, is now coaching the St. Louis Rams. The what? I still can't say it—just as I never got used to the "L.A. Raiders." I think back to January's Rose Bowl, in which Brooks's Ducks gave unbeaten Penn State a spirited battle, using an imaginative and sophisticated prostyle attack. I remember thinking at the time, Gee, I'd like to see this guy's offense in the NFL.
So here he is, right where the big people live. I like about half his offensive line, particularly center Bern Brostek. I'd like his old Oregon quarterback, Chris Miller, if he could put together one healthy year. I certainly like tailback Jerome Bettis, wideout Isaac Bruce and tight end Troy Drayton. Yes, I also like fullback Leonard Russell, a sock-it-to-ya type of runner who fell into disfavor with both New England and Denver—why I don't know. Are those enough offensive weapons to worry the NFC West folks? I'm not so sure.