The Atlanta Falcons seemed ready to fly high this season. Then Coach Norman Van Brock tin decided that he could not win with Quarterback Bob Berry, who finished second in the conference to the Giants' Norm Snead in passing efficiency in 1972. Van Brocklin dispatched Berry back to whence he came—Minnesota—and is relying on second-year man Pat Sullivan, who threw 19 passes and completed three in 1972; Bob Lee (the ex-Viking), who threw six and completed three; and the veteran Dick Shiner, who did not complete a pass, but then he did not throw any, either.
If Van Brocklin is right, the Falcons could win their first division championship, since they have the other tools in ample supply. The team added punch to a weak inside rush by picking up Defensive Tackle Mike Tilleman from Houston. Tilleman has a soft heart for animals (he owns a Labrador retriever, a rabbit named Peter Punkin and a turtle called Simple Simon), but he is a mean man on the trail of a quarterback if his left knee holds up. Defensive Ends John Zook and Claude Humphrey will be able to apply more pressure now that they needn't worry about the middle. The Falcons also added speed where they needed it—at wide receiver—getting Al Dodd from New Orleans.
Running Backs Dave Hampton and Art Malone are good both running and receiving. Last season Hampton gained his 1,000th yard in Atlanta's final game. An official stopped the action and Hampton was presented with the football. On his next carry he lost six yards. "It was such a fantastic thrill for such a short time," he says. "Somewhere inside of me the emotion is all jamming up and I'll use that as a weapon this year."
Helping him is a line that blocks well on running plays. With a year's experience it may provide more protection for the quarterbacks, who will need it.
The Falcons have another plus: the easiest schedule in the NFL, with only two adversaries who won more games than they lost last year. The total won-lost record of their opponents is worse (72-112-12) than the record of any other team's adversaries.
A minus may be Van Brocklin, an abrasive, demanding man. His parting with Berry was not amicable and he castigates first and thinks later when he differs with his players on matters of execution or ability. This works with a winner, but the Dutchman has not had a big winner and time may be running out, both with his owner and, more importantly, with his players.
Having failed to unload his team to a group of Chicagoans, New Orleans Saints Owner John Mecom Jr. had another bright idea: unload Coach J. D. Roberts. This masterstroke was accomplished late last month, Offensive Coordinator John North taking the reins. For all the good it is going to do, Mecom might as well have given the job to the team's executive vice-president, ex-Astronaut Richard F. Gordon Jr.
New Orleans' biggest asset, aside from the prospect of moving into a $161-million domed stadium in 1975 (would you believe 1976?) is Quarterback Archie Manning. He is, by choice and necessity, a scrambling quarterback, but more in the mold of Roger Staubach than Fran Tarkenton in that he is a true runner, not a man dodging midtown traffic. Manning rushed 63 times for 351 yards last year. He also completed 230 of 448 passes, a remarkable achievement when you consider that he was throwing in imminent peril of his life almost all the time. Too, he finally has a dependable wide receiver to complement Danny Abramowicz. Bob Newland caught 47 passes last season to become the only other man ever to lead the Saints in receiving.
An indication of the lack of running backs on the Saints is that Howard Stevens, a 16th draft choice from Louisville who weighs 165 and stands 5'5", has made the team. He gained 5,297 yards in college, but this is the NFL. Well, if he can't run, he can certainly hide.