The Rams' fine quarterbacks—with protection—would pass and score heavily. But the running backs are not big enough to consistently protect the quarterbacks or to crack opposing lines. The defense depends entirely on the front four, but the front four cannot drop back for pass coverage. The Rams will finish last, but last in the West will be very close to first.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ers
"Nobody seems to realize that only one club in our division starts the season with the equivalent of eight veteran first draft choices," a coach in the West said about the San Francisco 49ers early this year. "They finished last a year ago. They could finish first."
They won't, but still they cannot be judged by their abysmal 1963 record. The squad was hit hard by injuries—nine first-line players were out for most of the season. But even if the 49ers had not been splinted and bandaged, they were not a first-division team.
This year the 49ers are healthy and happy. Most of them disliked their rugged and demanding coach, Red Hickey, at the beginning of 1963. He quit in mid-season, and his replacement—Jack Christiansen—was the players' choice.
"You can feel the difference," said John Brodie, whose passing arm seems entirely recovered after being broken twice in the same place last season. "We want to go. I think we have a chance."
Certainly the 49ers look like a better team. Behind Brodie is George Mira, who should certainly be the most exciting quarterback in the league. Brodie and Mira will throw to a group of receivers that includes Monty Stickles, Bernie Casey, Kay McFarland, rookie Dave Parks and Vern Burke. All can catch the ball well, but there are groups in the West who catch it better and run with it faster. The 49er running backs stand about halfway between the best and the worst. The offensive line will provide the runners with good holes and good protection.
The defensive secondary is fast and capable. Jim Johnson is a young Night Train Lane at corner back, and Kermit Alexander, Jerry Mertens and Elbert Kimbrough match the speed and quickness of the Bear safeties. Abe Woodson, at the other corner, is one of the rare players who has waterbug reflexes, greyhound speed and an appetite for tackling. Matt Hazeltine, a grossly underrated player, anchors a good set of linebackers.
The 49ers are in better shape than they were a year ago. They should, given an even break, finish sixth this year; with luck, they could go higher. San Francisco is the dark horse of 1964.