It was a grim, haunting memory, a picture that stayed with the San Francisco 49ers throughout the off-season: Joe Montana stretched out on the Giants Stadium turf for 10 minutes and then wheeled into an ambulance. Montana with a severe concussion, a victim of that relentless New York rush that, as 49er coach Bill Walsh said at the time, "simply devastated us, shattered our blocking angles."
Translation: shattered our blockers. The 49er blockers became the scapegoats after that 49-3 playoff devastation. Montana, a newly fragile commodity following back surgery earlier in the season—which threatened to end his career—simply must be protected. At one time Montana could be counted on to evade the first charging point men of the rush by himself. No more. As a result, the offensive line has been called upon to perform at a higher level.
There are good people up front—three have been to the Pro Bowl—but they are aging. So Harris Barton, a finesse tackle, was drafted in the first round. The best offensive lineman on the board, Niner scouts said. Jeff Bregel, a drive-block guard, came in Round 2. Lucky to get him, the scouts said, should have gone a round earlier. The message went out that no job on the line was secure, except that of left tackle Bubba Paris. To drive home the point, San Francisco cut guard John Ayers, who had started 128 of the last 129 games.
Neither Barton nor Bregel has emerged as a starter. Paris developed a weight problem. Drop below 300 pounds and we'll give you $50,000, the club coaxed him. Other players heard about this and grumbled: Hey, all we have to do to pick up an extra 50 G's is get fat.
So Paris reported at 323 and a week later was at 326. Writers had a field day. The Badyear Blimp, they called him.
If the 49ers don't get their line straightened out, none of the off-season moves they made will mean much. They traded for Tampa Bay quarterback Steve Young, hoping that a thorough brainwashing would make him unlearn everything he picked up from the Bucs. From the Jets they got Lam Jones, a wideout whose repeated injuries had earned him the nickname Lame Jones. The first week in camp he pulled a hamstring. Three weeks later he was gone. When the Cowboys cut wide receiver Tony Hill for being overweight, San Francisco grabbed him. The jury's still out on Hill, but Walsh's offense is full of people to scare you. Among them are Jerry Rice, the best wideout in the game last year, and fullback Roger Craig, who fought injuries last fall but looks fine.
The defense, coached for four years now by the quiet schoolmaster, George Seifert, has allowed the second fewest points in the NFL in the time that he has been coordinator. He runs the ultimate situation-substitution defense. San Francisco doesn't keep the same people on the field for two consecutive plays. They come at you in waves. The Niners will make the playoffs, but on the horizon are the Giants, who so thoroughly shattered those precious blocking angles—along with the blockers.
The sun was shining at the Los Angeles Rams' Fullerton training camp, and quarterback Jim Everett was signing autographs, trading one-liners with a few people and exulting over his team's new passing attack. "It's all angles with him." Everett said, "back routes against the zone, ways to fit the ball in, quick seam routes I never saw before. He's just got some great concepts. It's exciting."
The "he" is Ernie Zampese, the Rams' new offensive coordinator and Don Coryell's first lieutenant at San Diego in the years when the Chargers had one of the great passing machines of all time. Now Zampese is installing an offense in Los Angeles that must maximize the talents of Eric Dickerson, the game's most productive runner, and utilize the credo of John Robinson, a head coach who believes in sock-it-to-'em football. The question is: Has Zampese been hired just to bring Los Angeles's pass-catch game into the 20th century, or will he be allowed to infuse his airborne brilliance into the overall offense? For instance, it's third and three. What's the call—Robinson's power pitch to Dickerson or Zampese's 15-yard seam-pattern pass to the tight end?
"We're going with Ernie's total system and our own running system," Robinson says. "We expect to give the ball to Dickerson the same amount of times this season, only we'll throw the ball 100 more times. We'll bring our whole offense up by 100 plays."