Fortunately for Baltimore, the major soft spot of the principal contenders in the Coastal Division is at wide receiver, the attacking point against cornerbacks. The Rams have improved appreciably by judicious trading and the acquisition of three good first draft choices, but Coach George Allen is still thin at the flanks. Bernie Casey, a notably underrated wide receiver, has retired to paint and write poetry, and Jim Seymour, a No. 1 draft choice from Notre Dame, was called to active duty with the National Guard and may miss the entire season. Wendell Tucker, who backed up Casey in 1968, is fast and has good moves and hands, but he is 5'11", 185. Veterans Jack Snow and Pat Stud-still could be the answer, if Snow plays as he did in 1967 and Studstill can avoid injury.
The Rams' only other major problem is to put to good use the emotional binge brought on by the firing of Allen, the threat by a group of players led by All-Pros Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen to quit if Allen wasn't reinstated, and the grand rehiring. "I think the whole thing has brought us closer together," Allen said at training camp. He is a small, enthusiastic man with a strong empathy with his players, and he is probably as well liked and deeply respected by his players as any coach. "I know I now have a much warmer, deeper feeling for this team than any I have ever known," he went on. "And I think the players feel that way about me."
Probably the most helpful trade Allen made on his return was the acquisition of Offensive Tackle Bob Brown from the Philadelphia Eagles. Brown, who will be playing at a svelte 278 (he once went over 300), may be the best there is; certainly he adds enormous blocking strength to what was already a good offensive line. Says Brown: "I figure there isn't anybody in this business I can't block. The way I look at it, there's $25,000 at stake for an afternoon's work in the Super Bowl. I'd block King Kong all afternoon for that." This blocking power could animate a running attack which has been hampered by injuries. Much of the long-run potential of the Rams depends on the health of Les Josephson, who sat out last season with a torn Achilles' tendon, on the development of young Willie Ellison and the indoctrination of Larry Smith, a big (6'3", 220 pounds) No. 1 draft choice from Florida. If Tommy Mason can rally his aching legs and Dick Bass regain his form, the run will be better than it has ever been for the Rams.
Defensively, the club has always been gung-ho and grudging. The Fearsome Foursome may miss injured Lamar Lundy at defensive end early in the season, but he has a strong replacement in Gregg Schumacher. The rest of the quartet is intact, although Diron Talbert is pressing Roger Brown at right tackle. The linebackers are good, experienced and deep, and Allen improved his secondary with Jimmy Nettles, an Eagle tradee, at corner and ex-Bear Richie Petitbon at safety. Ron Smith, who started at safety last year, has moved to right cornerback.
The defense should turn over the ball to Roman Gabriel, the big quarterback, often enough, and in the last two years Gabriel has markedly improved, too, although he isn't in Unitas' class.
John Brodie, the 49er quarterback, isn't, either, but he was the third-ranked passer in the NFL in 1968 and might move up with the help of two rookies—first draft choice Ted Kwalick at tight end and speedy Gene Washington at wide receiver—and the league's leading receiver in 1968, Clifton McNeil. With a ponderous running game headed by the NFL's No. 2 ballcarrier, Ken Willard, the 49ers could be the most explosive team in the division despite their dismal exhibition-season record.
Helping will be Brodie's familiarity with the complicated offense imported from Dallas last year by Coach Nolan. "We are way ahead of where we were this time last season," Nolan said not long ago. "I was new, and I spent an awful lot of time getting things organized the way I wanted them. We had to go slow putting in offense and defense. Now the players are more familiar with the system and they have more confidence in it. We would be much better if that were the only change, but I think our personnel will be better, too."
The 49er players do exhibit a new air of confidence and determination. In past years—the club has never won a division championship—the attitude seemed almost lackadaisical, but today it is grim and businesslike. "We've never had as well-run or as tough a camp," said one veteran. "You don't mind the work when you see the results."
Brodie and Steve Spurrier, who got the backup job when George Mira was traded to Philadelphia, work behind an offensive line, most of whom have been together a long time and all of whom are good; and Nolan, a defensive coach for Dallas before coming to San Francisco, produced the best defensive record since 1961 in his first year with the 49ers. Indeed, the defensive line is second only to the Rams', the linebackers are handicapped only by a lack of range in the middle and the secondary has matured. The one weakness is a lack of reserves in the secondary and at linebacker.