One of these years St. Louis will confound its friends, who have choked so often on fond predictions, with a season of consistent, injury-free football and will win in the East. Few teams in history have looked as strong on paper or as erratic on the field as the Cards of 1963 (finishing third), 1964 (second) and 1965 (tied for fifth). Coach Wally Lemm has returned to the Houston Oilers, leaving the mysteries he was unable to solve to Charley Winner, who had earned respect as the Colts' defensive coach. Winner is willing to spend 12 months a year coaching the Cardinals (Lemm would coach only on a part-time, six-month basis) and, unlike his father-in-law, Weeb Ewbank, coach of the Jets, he is cautious about his public statements. "We are not going to talk championship this year," he says. That is prudent enough for a man with so many puzzles.
Mystery No. 1 for Winner is whether Charley Johnson can become a first-rate quarterback rather than merely one of great promise with an occasional hot afternoon. Johnson was healthy and St. Louis was 4-1 last year when the young quarterback suffered a collarbone separation. Then the Cardinals went into a steep decline, winning only one of the next nine games, although Johnson was able to play half the time. With a corrective operation behind him, Johnson is fit again and intent on proving he has reached that plateau of maturity on which the Unitases and Starrs operate. However, skeptical fans still wonder whether he can curb his tendencies to become overdependent on two or three pass patterns, to play it cautious when a more natural freewheeling strategy is indicated and to have the big pass intercepted. He has had the Cardinal quarterback job for three and a half years and should be just about as mature this year as he is ever going to be. Substitute Terry Nofsinger is an even darker mystery, having spent five years sitting inactive on the bench.
As usual, the rest of the Cardinal offense seems strong. Flanker Bobby Joe Conrad and Split End Sonny Randle ranked sixth and ninth among the league's receivers last year. They are an outstanding pair, well complemented at tight end by the experienced Jackie Smith. Swift little Billy Gambrell is another good wide receiver. Again the running game has quality and depth in Bill Triplett, Willis Crenshaw, Prentice Gautt and Thunder Thornton—although none of these men have proved to be as valuable in a pinch as John David Crow, who was traded to San Francisco a year ago. Again the offensive line boasts such large and capable performers as Tackles Bob Reynolds and Ernie McMillan, Guards Irv Goode and Ken Gray and Center Bob DeMarco. Reynolds and McMillan are especially proficient at pass protection. Gray, an All-League choice, has the speed to lead wide plays and the strength (he weighs 250) to execute any kind of interior blocking assignment. Goode is close to Gray's level, lacking only his experience. DeMarco is an ideal center. He is strong enough to handle choke and angle blocks and quick enough for cutoff blocks on wide runs.
Jim Bakken kicks field goals and extra points with exceptional accuracy. He has booted 117 consecutive points and last year made good on two of every three of his field-goal attempts.
The defensive lineup is also impressive to read about, but like the offense it can be very, very good at times and horrid at others. In the front four there is a large hole to be filled at right tackle. Luke Owens, the senior defensive lineman, is finished because of a heart problem. His replacement appears to be Chuck Walker. Otherwise the line is intact. Ends Joe Robb and Don Brumm are among the best pass rushers in the league. Tackle Sam Silas is quick on the rush, too, although he can be trapped. Except for Brumm, a sharp, wary campaigner, this unit is extremely aggressive—sometimes to the point of recklessness. Linebackers Larry Stallings, Dale Meinert and Bill Koman have better than average speed and size. The corner men, Stallings and Koman, are demon blitzers. Meinert is somewhat small for his position but survives on a ferocious kind of courage. St. Louis needs injury insurance here in the way of competent replacements not yet visible.
Reading the individual qualifications of the men in the secondary makes you wonder how anyone can pile up passing yardage on them—as a couple of opponents invariably do. These backs lack neither ability nor desire. Against Pittsburgh, for example, Safety Larry Wilson, with broken bones in both hands, intercepted a pass that set up the first of three Cardinal touchdowns. Pat Fischer, Jerry Stovall, Monk Bailey, Abe Woodson and Jimmy Burson allegedly could start for anyone, and Coach Winner's problem is picking the first four.
Such promising rookies as Running Backs Johnny Roland and Roy Shivers and Defensive Back Jimmy Heidel missed training time because of the All-Star Game (although Roland on the day afterward returned a kickoff 58 yards against Atlanta in a preseason game), and it is unlikely that they will make the starting lineups.
Moving into the new Busch Memorial Stadium under a new coach as the most baffling team in the NFL, the Cardinals could finish anywhere from first to fifth. Fourth should be about right.