On defense the Cardinals lost starting Linebacker Larry Stallings to the service, but they have an adequate replacement in five-year backup man Dave Meggyesy. Jerry Hillebrand, from the New York Giants, joins a linebacking corps that is beginning to show its age.
Abe Woodson has retired from a corner-back post, but the club should still field the best set of defensive backs in the division, with either Jim Burson or Bobby Williams replacing him. In Larry Wilson and Jerry Stovall, both Pro Bowl selections, the Cardinals have the best set of safeties in the league.
The deep men get good help from a defensive line that was second only to Dallas in pass defense last year. Joe Robb, injured but expected back, Don Brumm, Sam Silas and Chuck Walker give St. Louis not not only a quick pass rush but a solid bastion against runs.
All in all, this was the most effective defensive unit in the NFL in 1966, and it may be again in 1967. Last season the Cards were handicapped by poor punting, which often left their opponents in good field position from which to diversify their attacks. Charley Winner, the young St. Louis coach who has done a good job with the club, may relieve Place-kicker Jim Bakken of punting duties if Chuck Latourette, a free agent from Rice, continues to kick as well during the season as he did in preseason games.
If Hart can accomplish a miracle and become a full-fledged quarterback in his rookie season, or if Johnson can maintain full efficiency as a commuting quarterback, the Cardinals could win. But the odds are against them.
The odds against the New York Giants are astronomically higher. Allie Sherman, in another winter of discontent for the Giant fans, will hear the dirge "Goodby, Allie" often, but the collapse of the Giants is not his fault.
It is difficult to decide where to start in listing the deficiencies of the team. A defensive line that was weak to begin with and then all but destroyed by injury is probably the worst in the league. Defensive Tackle Don Davis, who was counted on to occupy one spot, has been operated on for a knee injury and will be out half the year. Sherman, in desperation, assigned one of his thin squad of linebackers to defensive tackle, and Jeff Smith promptly wrecked his knee in a scrimmage. That leaves the Giants about where they were last year, when their defensive line managed to reach the passer only 26 times. That was a depth of ineptitude exceeded only by Minnesota with 25. The failure to mount a good pass rush was one of the big reasons why New York gave up a total of 501 points, a league record.
The linebackers are due for long and hard service. Mike Ciccolella is in his second season as middle backer, and Bill Swain, one of the outside men, is in his third year after missing all of 1966 because of injury. Larry Vargo, counted on at linebacker, is out for the season. But forget these troubles. There is too much slack in the defensive line for the best linebackers in the world to make up.
The secondary, given reasonable support from the men in front of them, could be good. Given no rush and no linebackers of quality, it is not.
Clarence Childs and Henry Carr, the corner backs, have the speed and the intuition to handle most flankers and split ends, and Freeman White and Spider Lockhart, in a more salubrious climate, might match the St. Louis safeties at interceptions. But they operate under intolerable pressure and give up touchdowns because the receivers have too much time to fake them.