If you are looking for the longest of long shots, you might pick the San Francisco 49ers to win the Western Division championship. It is difficult to fault the 49ers except perhaps at quarterback; otherwise, they have a sound offensive line, a plethora of good big running backs and excellent pass catchers. Their defensive line is big and experienced, they do not suffer from a lack of linebackers and they are strong enough in defensive backs to trade away an Abe Woodson, who was—and probably still is—one of the best.
Considering all this, it is surprising that most experts expect the 49ers to finish no higher than sixth in the West. The experts may be wrong—look to find the 49ers finishing between third and fifth, depending upon the quality of the Los Angeles linebackers and how well Fran Tarkenton survives and throws for the Minnesota Vikings.
Last year the 49ers were a star-crossed club. They lost most of the nucleus of a good football team by injury; few clubs have been so grievously maimed so early. Bob St. Clair, who may be the top offensive tackle in football, was lost with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Don Lisbon (who has been traded to St. Louis) had a knee operation. J. D. Smith, a fine fullback, was hurt. The volatile Miami star, George Mira, who had begun to come on at quarterback, was racked up for the last three games of the year.
" John Brodie is my No. 1 quarterback," says Jack Christiansen, the young San Francisco coach. "If Mira hadn't been hurt at the end of the year in 1964, he might have been No. 1. Who knows?"
Mira may be No. 1 when the 49ers go to the wars this year, but if he is he will have to overcome some built-in handicaps. First, he is not tall. He is 5 feet 11, and small quarterbacks can't see over their own offensive linemen, let alone the massive defensive linemen who populate the league. This means that Mira must run out of the pocket formed by his blockers to find an open field of vision. If he runs out of the pocket, the blockers have difficulty knowing in which direction to block, since they don't know where Mira is. The 49ers have hired Y. A. Tittle, an old hand at staying in the pocket, to teach Mira this lesson, but as intelligent and aware as Tittle is he can't increase Mira's height.
Brodie has the physical equipment and the potential to be a superior quarterback, but in eight years he has never realized it. He is a beautiful passer who tends to come apart in important games. Between Mira and Brodie the 49ers may have enough at quarterback, but the odds are against it.
Elsewhere, the 49ers are ready. The receivers are young and capable. Dave Parks is in his second year after a fine rookie season; Bernie Casey is in his fifth year and has steadily improved as has tight end Monte Stickles. The offensive line has been together awhile and protects the quarterback well. The addition of John David Crow as a running back gives the 49ers a game-breaker, and their other backs are potent enough when healthy.
The defense is sound, deep and unusual in that it has more than enough good linebackers and defensive backs. Jim Johnson could be the best young corner back in football; Elbert Kimbrough and Kermit Alexander are a pair of safeties with the speed, experience and reactions to match any in the West.
The starting defensive line is strong. So are the replacements. Dan Colchico, Charlie Krueger, Roland Lakes and Clark Miller form a young and big and experienced front four. Charlie Sieminski replaces either Lakes or Krueger with no grievous drop in quality. The only soft spot here is at defensive end; should Colchico or Miller go out, Christiansen would have difficulty finding quality substitutes.
Summing up, the 49ers should surprise some teams and, with health and luck, might move all the way to third place.