The San Francisco 49ers, who have been panning in pro football's gold fields for 25 years with only a couple of nuggets to show for it, should find the Mother Lode this season. First, they were a notably sound team in 1970. They will be better in 1971 with the addition of outside speed in the backfield, almost the only thing they lacked last season. Second, the Los Angeles Rams, the 49ers' principal rivals and, during the George Allen era, almost perennial champions of the NFC West or its predecessor, the NFL Coastal Division, are in a state of flux, many of their veterans having been traded. Third, the 49ers have the seventh-easiest schedule in the NFL (for the record, the Rams have the 15th, the New Orleans Saints the 22nd and the Atlanta Falcons, who may replace the Rams as the chief obstacle to San Francisco winning its second straight division championship, the 24th).
John Brodie, the best quarterback in the league last year, looked even sharper than usual during training camp. One day, before practice, Brodie was playing catch with a wide receiver named Jerry Simmons (since waived), who was wearing No. 83. Brodie called to Simmons, who was standing 20 yards away, "What part of the 3 would you like me to hit?" Simmons pointed to the bar in the middle and when he caught the pass the tip of the ball rested squarely on the bar.
At 36, Brodie is indubitably in his prime (page 63) and he is durable, a useful asset since the No. 2 quarterback, Steve Spurrier, lacks game experience. An offensive line which allowed Brodie to be sacked only eight times last year insures his durability and gives him time to throw, which he does with precision, short, long and incomplete. The latter talent will be more important than ever this season with a new and tougher rule against intentional grounding.
His receivers, including All-Pro Gene Washington, are speedy, in good supply, and more accomplished than in 1970, but the most marked improvement in the 49ers will be in the running attack, which ranked ahead of only the Saints in the division last year and was 10th (out of 13) in the NFC.
Ken Willard, the draft horse of the backfield for many years, came to camp at a svelte 216 and looks much quicker, but two rookies will provide the outside speed the club needs. They are Vic Washington, a 5'10", 200-pound defector from the Canadian Football League, and Joe Orduna, the Nebraska star. Washington was pressing Doug Cunningham, who started with Willard last year, at halfback, but two key fumbles in the 49ers' 34-28 exhibition loss to the Raiders may have set him back. Larry Schreiber, who taxied last year, ran well in the exhibitions and superseded Bill Tucker, who was traded, as Willard's backup.
Interestingly, the 49ers' newfound running game may work to the detriment of its passing attack. To protect Brodie, the offensive linemen have been in the habit of lining up with their weight on their heels, so they can set up for pass blocking. Moreover, they had huddled together like sheep to close up the rushing lanes. To enable the linemen to fire out for the run, the new offensive line coach, Dick Stanfel, has told his charges to put their weight on the balls of their feet; also to increase their spacing so the defense will spread out and the backs have room to run. As a result the rushers are doing fine, but the 49er quarterbacks were sacked six times in the first four exhibitions. So you want to be a football coach?
The 49er defense was strong in 1970, with some new people breaking in, so it will be stronger in 1971, with the new people settled in. The line is especially deep, with a good pass rush, and the linebackers, although not as well known as some, are capable. Frank Nunley, the middle backer, calls the defenses with what may seem to be reckless abandon, but his calls work. "We look surprised, but we don't second guess him any more," says one teammate. "He's been right too often."
The secondary, with Bruce Taylor, a brilliant rookie in 1970, teaming with All-Pro Jimmy Johnson to give the team the best set of cornerbacks in the NFL, is so good that San Francisco let its first draft choice, Ohio State's Tim Anderson, go to Canada without much of a struggle. Anderson was to have had a shot at strong safety.
The 49ers are probably as stable as any club, a prerequisite for championships. By contrast, the Rams have cleaned house under Tommy Prothro, the new coach up from the college ranks ( Oregon State and UCLA). The changes are most sweeping on defense, with a completely new set of linebackers, and only one starter in the secondary, Kermit Alexander, returning, and he has been switched from cornerback to safety.
All told, nine starters are gone, the system is new and the emphasis has changed from defense to offense. Allen's strategy was based on the fewest mistakes possible; Prothro believes a few mistakes can be overcome by an occasional big score. Prothro may be right, but he will have trouble proving it this season. He has a first-rate quarterback in Roman Gabriel, and such wonderfully strong and able defensive players as Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen, but he doesn't have enough offense. When that deficiency is combined with a lack of professional experience in both his players and himself, the conclusion can only be that Prothro is a few years away.