The time for the Atlanta Falcons, the fourth member of the Coastal Division, lies in the distant future. If you were given an Atlanta roster you might recognize a few names—Middle Linebacker Tommy Nobis, for instance. If you were from Minnesota you would remember Ron VanderKelen, who scrambled behind Fran Tarkenton for so long. Some of the other names would ring a distant, faint bell, so that you would say to yourself, "What does he do?"
Next year's roster won't have even the faintly familiar names anymore, because Head Coach Norb Hecker must make the painful switch from elderly veteran to hopeful rookie this season. It is a switch incumbent upon all expansion teams. They must hire a nucleus of veterans from the other clubs in the league in their first year, nurse them along for the second and, because of age or good drafting, dispense with most of them in the third season. This is the third season for the Falcons, and the veterans dealt out parsimoniously to them in the first season are leaving. Sam Williams, a defensive end with 10 years behind him and a militant union man, recognized the necessity facing Hecker when he was cut. " Atlanta plans to go with the young kids," Williams said.
Starting now with the kids, Hecker can look forward to several years of frustration. Augmenting his problem is the fact that the Falcons are in what is clearly the toughest of the four NFL divisions. The only relief in sight is in the reshuffling due for the 1970 season, when the AFL and the NFL merge. Then the Falcons can look forward to sharing a division with Miami and New Orleans.
Meantime, Hecker is experimenting with VanderKelen at quarterback. VanderKelen is ideal for the job of throwing behind Atlanta's porous line. He is a scrambler and may make enough time with his feet to gain a slim margin of safety in which to throw the ball. Randy Johnson, battered through two seasons as the drop-back quarterback for the Falcons, will have it easier, if only because VanderKelen should play more than substitutes of previous years.
Fullback Junior Coffey has been almost the entire Atlanta running attack for the past two years, but last month he suffered a knee injury which will keep him out for most, if not all, of the season. Coffey's job goes to Perry Lee Dunn, who was to have been the starting halfback. That leaves a problem at halfback. The Falcons recently traded for veteran Amos Marsh, who may help. If not, the job will probably go to one of two rookies, Bill Harris, the Falcons' 13th draft choice, or Harmon Wages, a converted quarterback. No matter how it turns out, Atlanta's running attack will be mini.
The rookie receivers, according to Coach Hecker, are the best he has ever seen. They have veteran Tommy McDonald to beat out, and Tommy is one of football's most tenacious competitors. But he may be forced to the sideline by any one of a group of good rookies: John Wright of Illinois, Rick Eber of Tulsa, Ed Larios of San Francisco State or David Ray of Alabama. Then there's Jerry Simmons, in his fourth season, and veteran Gary Barnes. Ray Ogden is a good tight end after four years, but support for him is slim. In short, the Falcon quarterbacks will have a plethora of receivers but a minimum of time in which to find them.
The offensive line, which leaked grievously in 1967, is back intact, so to speak. Youngsters are pressing at most positions, but it is not likely that the Falcon linemen, no matter who is playing, will give Johnson much time or save VanderKelen the need to scramble.
The defensive line, unhappily, will have rookies at two positions. Claude Humphrey, 255 pounds, of Tennessee A&I, was the Falcons' No. 1 draft choice and should play at left end. Carlton Dabney, the second-round draft choice from Morgan State, is definitely set to start at tackle. A third-year tradee from Minnesota who played in only one game for the Vikings last year, Jerry Shay, will be the other end, and four-year veteran Jim Norton will start at left tackle, rounding out a rather shaky front four.
Last year the club's defense was made up in large part of the Awesome One-some—Middle Linebacker Tommy Nobis. There is no reason to think it will be much different in 1968. Nobis has Marion Rushing and Ralph Heck on his flanks and rookies behind them.
The secondary is competent but beset by receivers who take what seems like hours wandering around in search of a free path. Lee Calland and Ken Reaves are good but harried corner-backs. Jerry Richardson, probably the best of the Falcon deep defenders, has quit, but Nick Rassas and Bob Riggle can do well enough, if they don't have to do it too long.