Try this idea: Joe Montana starts at quarterback for the SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS. He works the game in his usual precise way, moving the sticks and putting points on the board. The other team's defense tires a bit, say, late in the first half. The edge is off the pass rush. Then wham! Niner coach Bill Walsh hits them with QB No. 2, Steve Young, who scrambles, sprints down-field, goes deep, buys yardage off busted plays. The defensive guys go into the locker room scratching their heads. They don't know what or who they'll see in the second half—or when.
Two high-level signal callers, each used to provide maximum production. Why not? Start with the curveball and slider pitcher, and then come in with heat. The Giants did it on their 1956 NFL championship team with Don Heinrick and Charlie Conerly. The Rams did it with Bob Waterfield and ' Norm Van Brocklin in the early '50s. Both made the Pro Bowl two straight years. We're not talking about switching quarterbacks out of weakness or indecision. Use them as weapons.
" Joe Montana's my quarterback," said Walsh when the Bay Area clamor for Young reached a crescendo. "But Young's running ability has to be a factor in our offense. I've got to find a way to accommodate both of them. It's an intriguing concept that needs work."
Montana was brilliant last year, but everybody is down on him because he couldn't escape the Vikings' rush in the NFC divisional playoff game. "Trade him," the fans said. Walsh didn't exactly discourage the rumors for a while. He had troubles of his own. Owner Eddie DeBartolo, who was delighted with the Niners' 13-2 regular season, went into a pout after the Minnesota loss. We had the best record. Why didn't we win? He stripped Walsh of the team presidency. The two men hardly communicated.
But I still like San Francisco to go to the Super Bowl, where I give Cleveland a slight edge. Call it 27-24, Browns. The 49ers were rebuilding last year, and they still had an outstanding season. They haven't grown old. How many starters remain from their 1981 Super Bowl team? The offensive and defensive lines have been overhauled and so has the secondary, where Jeff Fuller has emerged as a major force. The team stars, Jerry Rice. Roger Craig. Michael Carter, are all young. And there's the QB named Young.
The NEW ORLEANS SAINTS amazed people last year because the team finally had the look of a major league franchise, with a let's-get-it-done coach, Jim Mora; a general manager, Jim Finks, who actually knew something about football; and an owner. Tom Benson, who danced on the sidelines but didn't mess up the operation. What a relief. The result was a terrific season. The reason the transition came so dramatically was that Mora dipped heavily into the USFL talent pool and filled a lot of holes in a hurry.
Mora and Finks's approach to the game is very traditional: build through the draft, outwork the others, and on the field put up a strong defense and make sure your offense commits a minimum of mistakes. The New Orleans defense should be similar to the one that finished fourth in the NFL in '87. The offense, which was weighted toward the run—no one rushed the ball more often than the Saints did—lacked one ingredient: a pass catcher who could go deep consistently. New Orleans might have solved that problem by drafting Brett Perriman, its fastest receiver since Wes Chandler, in the second round.
Worried about running back Rueben Mayes's return from knee surgery, the Saints selected heavy-duty back Craig (Ironhead) Heyward in the first round. Well, they got the heavy part right. In the early exhibitions he looked like Earl Campbell on his last legs. When they replaced Heyward with '87 backup Barry Word, the Saints had a runner who looked like a runner. Unless lightning strikes, Ironhead will not be a major factor in 1988.
The schedule is two-tiered. The first half of the season features Atlanta, Detroit, Tampa Bay and San Diego, plus Dallas and the Raiders at home. The Saints will be 6-2, and everyone will have them in the Super Bowl. Then come the biggies—49ers, Rams (twice), Broncos and Giants. Maybe Mayes will be back by then.
Charles White, plugged into the LOS ANGELES RAMS system that yielded all those yards for Eric Dickerson, led the NFL in rushing last year. That says something about White, the comeback story of 1987, and also about coach John Robinson's offense, which could produce serious rushing yardage for Moe, Larry and Curly. But what about the Ernie Zampese pass-offense look in '87? And Jim Everett, the young quarterback who was supposed to blossom? And the 6-9 record? And a defense that sank from fifth to 21st?