The Atlanta Falcons, with acerbic, belligerent Norman Van Brocklin doing the coaching, are almost the complete antithesis of the Rams. Unlike Prothro, Van Brocklin, who quarterbacked the Rams in some of their best years, makes his players wear short hair and answer to a very strict curfew. Like Dick Nolan in San Francisco, Van Brocklin has spent a good deal of time constructing a team that is formidable on defense, hopeful on offense. Now, also like Nolan, he's got the defense, and he's only a year or two away from having as good an offense as the 49ers.
The one big change the Dutchman has made is in wide receivers, where the Falcons had two rather elderly performers. Gail Cogdill quit after 11 years on the firing line and Paul Flatley, who was with Van Brocklin when he was the fledgling coach of the fledgling Minnesota Vikings, retired after being waived to the New England Patriots. Most teams throw most often to their wide receivers. A measure of the ability of these two is that the leading receiver for the Falcons a year ago was Jim Mitchell, a tight end. Van Brocklin would have liked to have traded his discredited quarterback, Randy Johnson, for a veteran receiver, but no one wanted Johnson enough to give up someone who can catch a pass for someone who can't throw one. So the wide receivers will be two of three youngsters—No. 2 draft pick Ken Burrow of San Diego State, No. 5 Ray Jarvis from Norfolk State and No. 7 Wes Chesson of Duke. The best so far has been Burrow. Johnson finally wound up with the Giants, ostensibly for a high draft choice, but at practically the same time Atlanta claimed Quarterback Dick Shiner, one of the Giants' walkouts.
Van Brocklin has one big plus, although it may not do him any good this season. He has one of the youngest teams in the league, the oldest player being Ray Poage, 30, a tight end who was picked up in a trade with the New Orleans Saints and will probably see little action. Bob Berry, the quarterback who went to Van Brocklin's alma mater, Oregon, is 29; he played briefly for the Dutchman at Minnesota and presumably has improved, although it is not always noticeable.
The defense is sound and almost unchanged from last year, when the Falcons lived—although it wasn't the best of lives—on defense. One linebacker has been switched to the outside but the defensive line, a very good one, is unaltered. It features two admirable outside pass rushers in Claude Humphrey, who was All-Conference, and John Zook. Tommy Nobis sets up a mobile and aggressive set of linebackers. Nobis, whose injured legs curtailed his spectacular range in 1970, is healthy and that in itself improves the defense by about 20%.
The offensive line was decimated by injuries last season, dropping the Falcons' average gain per carry 1.8 yards below that of 1969, but the halt and the lame are now apparently hale, including George Kunz, a No. 1 pick in 1969, who missed five games in 1970. Only one regular, Malcolm Snider, managed to survive all of 1970, and the heavy body count forced him to play three positions.
The backs, who searched in vain for holes in 1970, are bolstered by the addition of rookie Joe Profit out of Northeast Louisiana. He may nudge one of last year's starters—Cannonball Butler or Art Malone—onto the bench. Van Brocklin has such capable running backs in reserve as Harmon Wages and Sonny Campbell, a good thing at a position where injuries are commonplace.
The Falcons lack depth here and there but if they can avoid injury they could do well. Not well enough, however, because of that fearsome schedule, the third worst in the NFL. The teams they play this year won .588 of their games in 1970; the teams that play the 49ers won .446.
And the teams that play the New Orleans Saints won .562 while the Saints themselves won .154. Does that sound hopeless? It is. The Saints' coach, J. D. Roberts, had a 2-7 record with the Richmond Roadrunners of the Atlantic Coast Football League before taking over, in mid-1970, a team that subsequently traded away two fine young tackles, Mike Tilleman (the most valuable player on the club last year) and Dave Rowe. The hapless Roberts went 1 and 7 after replacing the beleaguered Tom Fears.
Archie Manning, a fine athlete and potentially a fine quarterback, was the Saints' first draft selection and he has a lively year ahead of him. The offensive line leaks, the defensive line leaks, the secondary leaks and the best thing Manning can do all season is to throw very quickly to Danny Abramowicz, a very good receiver. Manning played part of last year at Ole Miss with a broken arm. In retrospect, he may have been well off. After a couple of exhibition games he said he had never been hit so hard. And the season hasn't even begun.
The Saints may win one or two games this year, but it's hard to figure out which ones.