Nice numbers if you can get them. Last year the Rams had the second greatest runs-to-passes overload in the NFL (the Bears were first). They also had the worst third-down efficiency of any playoff team. But now they have a big league offensive coordinator and a quarterback who could become the Rams' first home-grown star since Roman Gabriel.
With the possible exception of defensive back and return man Cliff Hicks, no rookie will make a major impact this year, but some of the vets seem much improved. Guard Tom Newberry is the hardest-hitting offensive lineman in football—bar none. Jerry Gray has looked terrific at cornerback, and outside linebacker Kevin Greene has shown real fire. Now, if the Rams can only find those extra 100 plays.
The front office is a zoo. The Atlanta Falcons fired the only coach, Leeman Bennett, who ever had a winning record with the team, but that's nothing new. They've fired all their coaches, including Marion Campbell, who has been rehired to coach the team. Campbell was axed 11 years ago. Dan Henning, who got Atlanta off to a 4-0 start in '86, was canned at the end of last season.
Atlanta is into firing, all right. Charlie Dayton, the club's p.r. guy and one of the best in the business, was let go because he was pleasant to writers who had ripped the Falcons. Dave Kindred and Furman Bisher, columnists for The Atlanta Constitution-Journal, wrote tough pieces this spring about the direction in which the team was headed. The airheads in the Falcons' front office couldn't fire them, but they told the paper that because of the Kindred/Bisher blasts, they wouldn't pay a $2,053.70 ad account they owed. Rankin Smith Sr., the club owner, finally stepped in and promised that the Falcons would pay.
Into this managerial mess steps Campbell, a consummate old pro who as defensive coordinator last year kept the Atlanta defense seventh in the league while everything else was crumbling. Best of all he hired two highly professional assistants, Jim Hanifan and Rod Dowhower, who had been fired as head coaches in St. Louis and Indianapolis, respectively. Hanifan is handling the offensive line, and Dowhower is the offensive coordinator. Both know their jobs.
With Hanifan behind him, guard Bill Fralic will be devastating. Tackle Mike Kenn should regain his Pro Bowl form. Under Dowhower's direction, Dave Archer, the young quarterback, should raise his '86 rating of 71.6 by at least 10 points. The challenge to Archer from the No. 1 draft choice, Chris Miller, fizzled when Atlanta didn't come up with the bucks to bring him into camp on time. Some organization.
They have held their breath before, all those long-suffering New Orleans Saints fans who have waited and waited for a winning season. This isn't the first time they've whispered. "This is the year, this is finally it." Remember Hank Stram and his Thunder and Lightning backfield of Chuck Muncie and Tony Galbreath? Bum Phillips and his Houston magic? The Saints have been on the brink of a winning season before—they finished 8-8 in 1979 and 1983—only to collapse immediately afterward.
I wish I could take a fling and say, yes, this is the year they will finish with more W's than L's. With president Jim Finks and coach Jim Mora, the Saints are at last getting solid direction. But the schedule is brutal: Cleveland, Chicago, the Giants, two against the Rams, two against the Niners.
There's one way to win with the kind of talent New Orleans has, and that's with an exceptional quarterback—a Jim Kelly—who's capable of stealing a few victories that should have been losses. No luck there. Bobby Hebert was supposed to be the answer last year. He started two games. He played well in one and poorly in the other. Then he broke his foot in the first series of Game 3 and departed for a quiet life of enforced spectatorship until the last game. Dave Wilson took over and finished next to last in the NFC rankings. Right now New Orleans is recruiting volunteers for quarterback.
The '86 season was saved from total oblivion by the brilliance of rookie runner Rueben Mayes, who thrashed his way for 1,353 yards, and by the defense, which finished 14th overall and fourth against the rush—despite the fact that the offense had the ball for fewer plays than any other team in the league. The draft was heavy in wideouts and defensive backs (seven total), but the top one was a noseguard, Shawn Knight, who turned out to be a signing problem.