In June, as he sat in his windowless nine-by-nine-foot office, San Francisco 49ers consultant Bill Walsh pondered the following: What happens if the Niners lose two in a row and impetuous owner Eddie DeBartolo pulls a Steinbrenner, demanding you take over the offense? "It's not a possibility," Walsh said smiling. "It will not happen. Everyone here understands that. This is the time and place in my life to be a resource, not to be a CEO. It's a pretty common role, the consultant's role, in corporate America. It just hasn't happened much in football. One of the unfortunate things about our country is that we turn people out at a time in their lives when they have the most knowledge and expertise they've ever had."
Walsh's role is to fine-tune a West Coast offense that has strayed from its early '80s roots. Since his hiring in January, Walsh has worked with the 49ers' quarterbacks, particularly Steve Young, in about 15 on-field sessions, concentrating mostly on footwork and release. He pops in on coaches, making suggestions on how a technique might be taught differently. And he counsels offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. On game days he will sit in the press box, advising Trestman on play-calling. Trestman and Walsh insist, however, that the coordinator retains decision-making autonomy. "He's already told me several times, firmly: 'Bill, we're going to do it this way,' instead of what I'd suggested. Which he should. It's his job," says Walsh.
Observers around the league wonder, however, whether Walsh will be able to sit quietly by if the 49ers struggle this year. Trestman told SI he offered club president Carmen Policy his resignation when Walsh came aboard, but Policy told Trestman he viewed him as the long-term offensive coordinator. Trestman says he's comfortable with Walsh looking over his shoulder. Coach George Seifert says the same (page 102). Perhaps that's because the 64-year-old Walsh says he will be around for only one year.
Although bringing back Walsh is a potentially unsettling move, it's a smart one too. Walsh has already helped Young, whose completion percentage dropped from 70.3 in the Super Bowl season of 1994 to 66.9 last year and who admits that his mechanics also got a little sloppy. Sure, Trestman's confidence was shaken, but ask him five years from now whether the 49ers were a better offensive team in 1996 because of Walsh, and he'll probably answer yes. "If we put our egos aside," says Seifert, "and I think we can, then this is an excellent move."
2 Which players should be feeling the most heat in '96?
In the AFC the answer is easy. New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe lived a nightmare last season, his aching shoulder and crummy offensive support ruining what should have been his coronation as The Next Marino. What a comedown for a kid who set the league on fire in 1994 and was rewarded with a seven-year, $42 million contract. "We have to help him as much as possible for this franchise to grow to its potential," owner Bob Kraft said after the Patriots finished 1995 a disappointing 6-10.
Bledsoe, who enters his fourth season, seems to be at his best when there's some slack in the leash. He had difficulty working with tightly wound offensive coordinator Ray Perkins, so coach Bill Parcells moved the easygoing Chris Palmer from receivers coach to quarterbacks coach. Bledsoe enjoys practicing with Palmer so much that he has spent more time than ever working out during the off-season.
On draft day Parcells wanted to use the Pats' first-round pick to bolster his defense, but Kraft insisted on Ohio State wideout Terry Glenn because Glenn was rated much higher than the best available defensive player on the Patriots' board. Glenn must get tougher, but he should be Bledsoe's go-to guy, which Vincent Brisby wasn't in 1995.
Competition for the NFC player under the most pressure is tougher. For our money it is defensive tackle Sean Gilbert, whom the Redskins acquired from the St. Louis Rams in a predraft trade. When he was taken with the third pick of the 1992 draft, out of Pitt, Gilbert was expected to develop into a poor man's Reggie White, or at least a rich man's Leon Lett. He hasn't. In his last two seasons with the Rams he had only 90 tackles and 8½ sacks in 28 games. Injuries to his right knee and both shoulders have troubled him over the past two seasons, though the Rams thought Gilbert also had lost some of his fire. Gilbert believes the Rams' attitude about him changed after he shed his wild-man reputation and found religion in October 1994.
"I think I lost a lot of respect as a player when I became a Christian," says Gilbert. 'But Christians aren't soft. Look at Reggie White, Darrell Green, Mike Singletary. They don't lay down. They run through brick walls."