A few weeks ago I read a gloomy training camp quote from Bill Walsh, who, amid much fanfare and some head-scratching, is back with the San Francisco 49ers as, er, something called "administrative assistant to coaching staff." "Part of it is wonderful, but at other times, I wonder," Walsh said. "My room is this small cubicle with an overhead light hanging down. Sometimes I feel like Father Serra, going from mission to mission."
And I wondered, What under the wide blue sky is Walsh doing? Then one night, when I went to pay my respects to him after an exhibition game, it came to me: Clark Shaughnessy. He's the modern-day Clark Shaughnessy, his idol, the great behind-the-scenes strategist who masterminded the Chicago Bears' powerhouses of the early 1940s and got little credit for it. Walsh will whisper into the ear of Marc Trestman, the Niners' offensive coordinator, and presto!
Too romantic a notion? Maybe not. When San Francisco won three Super Bowls under Walsh in the 1980s, one of the keys to his attack was a nasty, cut-blocking running game that not only produced yards but also kept the defensive linemen from getting too frisky, making them ever mindful that one of those undersized 49ers blockers was ready to crack down on the backs of their legs. Of course, there had to be a slashing type of running back to dart through the creases.
Last year, with Ricky Watters having left as a free agent, the slasher's job fell to Derek Loville, a hard worker but a guy without real pop. His job was made harder by the injuries that raked the San Francisco offensive line, but when the Green Bay Packers overran the Niners in the playoffs, leaving battered quarterback Steve Young in their wake, it was clear something had to be done. "I talked to some Packers in the offseason," Young says, "and they told me their orders were to just rush the passer, don't worry about the run, which makes it an uphill battle."
The great running back search was on. First came a big offer to the New York Giants' Rodney Hampton, which was matched by the Giants. Then came the signing of Johnny Johnson, who sat out the 1995 season, but a bad back ended his Niners career before it got started. Finally came the trade with the Miami Dolphins for Terry Kirby, who may or may not be the answer. Not as well publicized but quite important was the acquisition of the heart and soul of the Washington Redskins' offensive line, 315-pound guard Ray Brown, who adds some muscle to what typically has been the smallest forward wall in the NFL.
The Niners are always looking for pass rushers, but this time they might have hit it big when they signed two good ends, former Atlanta Falcon Chris Doleman, who had a terrific preseason, and Roy Barker, a former Minnesota Viking. They join the best pair of defensive tackles in the league, Dana Stubblefield and Bryant Young, to form a foursome that can solve a lot of problems, including the loss of Pro Bowl cornerback Eric Davis, who signed with the Carolina Panthers as a free agent.
You know the passing game's going to be high-tech, with Young throwing to Jerry Rice and Brent Jones and J.J. Stokes, who spent the off-season working with Rice, plus rookie wideout Terrell Owens. Now if the running game pulls its weight, the Niners are in business.
The New Orleans Saints won't be as good as the Falcons, but their record should be better. Say what? Just look at the schedule. The Saints finished in a three-way tie for third in the division last year, but they got the fifth-place schedule. Is that ever helpful for a coach in the last year of his contract. New Orleans plays only three teams Atlanta. San Francisco and the Chicago Bears—that had winning records in 1995.
After watching his team fall into the blah category, with an 8-8 or 7-9 record three years running, owner Tom Benson made his presence felt. General manager Jim Miller was fired. Vice president of operations Bill Kuharich was promoted. "We have as good executives as there are in the NFL," says Benson, who nevertheless hasn't extended Kuharich's contract beyond 1996.
Coach Jim Mora and his staff are also working on one-year deals, but many people thought Mora wouldn't even be around this season, after the Saints opened 0-5 last year and Jimmy Johnson's phone started ringing. But New Orleans went 7-4 down the stretch, and after the season a number of players, including cornerback Eric Allen, guard Jim Dombrowski, quarterback Jim Everett and defensive tackle Wayne Martin, told Benson to stick with Mora. "They said he held the club together during a very bad situation," Benson says.