Were they anything so mundane as the 1973 full-power, 900-horse, sorghum-drive, family vinyl top, Ralph Nader would have demanded their recall some time ago for erratic performance and defective parts. They have been the bane of boosters and bookies from Pismo Beach, Calif. to Buford, Ga. A graph of their disparate accomplishments challenges the fever chart of a malaria victim. They are sometimes superb, occasionally impossible, frequently inept and, despite it all, suspiciously still contending for the Super Bowl out of the NFC Western Division.
The subjects of this attention and concern are those bumbling, talented, mysterious, manic-depressive football brothers known as the San Francisco 49ers (6-4-1), the Atlanta Falcons (6-5) and the Los Angeles Rams (5-5-1)—three contenders in search of consistency. Playing the game the way a bachelor bathes the baby, they are sustaining what may be the most fascinating race of them all, as well as the most perverse.
It is the peculiar charm of pro football, for everyone but the Miami Dolphins, that the road toward a division title is potholed with defeat, and among legitimate contenders of relative strengths an interception wins for you one week, a fumble beats you the next. It's close, exciting and to be expected. Not so, however, in the NFC West, where a four-touchdown win indicates neither skill, strength or "finally getting it all together" quite as much as it might suggest a subsequent four-touchdown defeat. (Exhibit A: Los Angeles, a 31-3 loser to Atlanta on Oct. 1, routed San Francisco 31-7 on Oct. 8 before the 49ers crushed the Falcons 49-14 on Oct. 29.) Even more baffling is the dubious talent that each would-be champion has shown for losing to an underdog club it reasonably should have expected to beat by some number approaching the cubical displacement of Totie Fields. (Exhibit B: Denver stunned Los Angeles 16-10, Buffalo astonished San Francisco 27-20 and New England infuriated Atlanta 21-20.)
"We have a tendency to forget how erratic other years have been," Ram Coach Tommy Prothro says, "but this one has been a little more that way than...normal. I think one reason is that Los Angeles, San Francisco and Atlanta play each other so hard that it's tough for a week before and a week after. When teams are this evenly matched and one of them gets ahead the other team has to play their style of football. The probability is that this race will come down to the last week of the season."
Prothro may well be right, and league rules do, after all, quaintly require one team to win each and every division, but the struggling troika has several other hurdles before the final weekend. Typically, only the day after Prothro offered his thoughts, his prized defensive unit—second best in the whole conference—turned belly up in the second half of a game against the Vikings. The Rams gave up 35 points in that half and 45 in the game, which was the way they figured out how to lose, since the offense, behind Roman Gabriel, unaccountably came up with 41 points.
Gabriel, whose ailing passing arm momentarily regained its lethal quality, was as confused as the next fellow. "This was one of the strangest games I've ever been in," he said, "but it's appropriate, because it fits perfectly the kind of season we're having. We're experiencing all kinds of ways to win and lose."
Gabriel found a new way to lose himself this Sunday when he was called for grounding a pass late in the game against New Orleans, a pitty-pat outfit with the 25th best record in a 26-team league. That forced the Rams to punt from the end zone, which set up a Saints' field goal shortly after. New Orleans beats L.A. 19-16. (Mark that Exhibit C.)
"These things just happen," says John Brodie, the 49ers' injured veteran quarterback, who exhibits an insouciant attitude toward the fortunes of football. "People draw analogies from scores, but there just aren't any. It's just football. Three or four bounces of that thing can change the whole day. All that prediction stuff bores me. The game is in the playing, and this race is in the hat."
With that in mind, it will behoove the other members of the contenders' club to keep a wary eye on the 49ers, who in Brodie's successor may have discovered the implausible leader perfectly suited to snatch success from an implausible year. In case you were watching a heartburn commercial Thanksgiving and missed seeing the 49ers score a 31-10 victory over the Dallas Cowboys—the finest performance by any NFC West team this season—San Francisco's new leader is a gentle lad named Steve Spurrier (see cover). A Heisman Trophy winner at Florida, Spurrier, 27 now, has been with the 49ers for six seasons, but he only became a starter late this October when Brodie suffered an ankle injury in the last half-minute of a loss to the Giants.
A round-faced blond with delicate features, Spurrier did start some games in 1969 when Brodie was hurt, but he was promptly returned to the bench for 1970 and last year his entire season consisted of four passes and two punts. The fans, who in other cities are prone to madly implore the coach to send in the second-string quarterback as soon as the starter throws back to back incompletions, were of no help to Spurrier. For one thing, Spurrier's personality seemed de-pressingly devoid of spark, marked with a coolness that bordered on the lackadaisical. His arm was also suspect, for Spurrier's passes, both then and now, flutter as if filled with helium.