Report from super bowl country: Bill Walsh is in the TV booth, George Seifert is manning the San Francisco 49ers' headphones, eight vets staged holdouts, Joe Montana is sharp, Roger Craig says that he is in the best shape of his life, and Jerry Rice is 12 pounds lighter.
Players have been heard mumbling about the pressure being off now that Walsh is gone. " Darth Vader...always watching you," one player said of Walsh. Some on the club mentioned that having Walsh around as executive vice-president of football operations—a job he briefly held after resigning as coach and before joining NBC—wouldn't have been so hot, either. He would have been looking over everyone's shoulder and all. Fellas, the man won three Super Bowls in 10 years, and he'll be in the Hall of Fame while you're still buying tickets, so cool it.
Seifert, the former defensive coordinator, is cerebral, low-key and modest, but he has mentioned that he will take a role in the offensive operation. He believes that all those years of studying offenses in an effort to design defenses to stop them has given him a feel for the other side of the ball. With offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren, he plans to write out the first 15 plays of each game beforehand. Walsh would have had 25.
Seifert's defense has been one of the best of the 1980s, both in concept and in its use of personnel. That part of the Niner package will not change, and it will make the team formidable again. Montana, who has had an excellent preseason, will not be under the pressure of a quick hook—as he was at the beginning of last season, when Walsh talked about bringing in Steve Young to relieve him—though Montana says, "You never know; it could happen again."
It seems the only thing that can hold back the 49ers is the traditional post-superbowlitis, because, on paper at least, they have the look of a dynasty. They're young. New talent keeps surfacing—for example, third-year running backs Terrence Flagler and Harry Sydney, who both looked terrific in the preseason, and second-year defensive tackle Pierce Holt. Look for tight end Wesley Walls, a second-round draft pick from Mississippi, to start in place of John Frank, who retired in the off-season. The 49ers haven't seen what their No. 1 choice, cornerback Keith Delong, can do, because he has been hobbled by an injured hamstring.
Some of the holdouts were low-priced guys who resented the bonus money paid to Plan B pickups. The club has a policy of no signing bonuses for veterans already with the team, but that can change. Owner Eddie DeBartolo has never been stingy with a buck. Look for a San Francisco- Chicago NFC Championship Game, just like last year.
I'll give you the name of a key player on the LOS ANGELES RAMS, and I'll bet it's someone you've never heard of: Fred Strickland. His position is another head-scratcher: nosebacker. A nosebacker is a guy who lines up over the center, either in the down position, as a noseguard, or standing up, a yard or so back, as a linebacker. The nosebacker is the key to defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmer's two-lineman, five-linebacker alignment called the Eagle, which was so effective in situational use last year that Shurmer plans to employ it almost exclusively this season.
In the 6'2", 250-pound Strickland, a second-rounder out of Purdue in 1988, Shurmer thinks he has the ideal nosebacker. "He never sits in one position," says fellow linebacker Mel Owens of Strickland. "He's always taking a side or a gap, always moving, sometimes dropping into coverage, and he's great at it."
He also has been injured. Cartilage was removed from Strickland's right knee on Aug. 9, but he should miss only one regular-season game. His recovery is vital. The Rams use no defensive ends in the Eagle formation. The two down linemen are tackles, and they're not pass rushers. That job goes to outside linebackers Mike Wilcher and Kevin Greene, a sack maniac who had 4� in one game against the Niners last year.
As in the old days, when the defense set the tone, this defense could dictate the outcome of games. Owens, who was hurt most of last year, has returned, and he's one of the best in the game at jamming tight ends.