If you had to select one word to characterize this division, it would be "change." The best and the worst teams in the West—San Francisco and New Orleans—probably have not changed enough, and the two in between—Atlanta and Los Angeles—have probably changed too much.
The 49ers are as solid, and about as immutable, as Coit Tower. San Francisco made only one significant trade, sending Defensive Tackle Earl Edwards to Buffalo for Randy Jackson, a little-used running back who once did the 100 in 9.7. The offensive line, known as The Protectors and led by All-Pro Center Forrest Blue, is entering its fourth season as a unit. The defensive line topped the NFL with 46 sacks last season, End Tommy Hart making 17 all by his lonesome. More than anything else, these two units have been responsible for the club's recent success. The 49ers have won three division championships in a row, albeit with diminishing luster (10-3-1, 9-5 and 8-5-1) and despite a curious inability to beat their archrival, the Los Angeles Rams. They have lost five in a row to L.A. in the last three years.
The 49ers may be suffering in the sideline secondary; after two brilliant years Bruce Taylor tailed off in 1972 and Jimmy Johnson, who has been around a long time, has slowed accordingly. In spite of the trade for Jackson, San Francisco may still be hurting for offensive backfield speed, too, one of the reasons why it has been seeking to unload Fullback Ken Willard. The lack of long-strike capability on the ground forced the 49ers to substitute dink passes to the backs and Tight End Ted Kwalick for a running game last season. That tactic was just good enough for a division title, and will probably suffice again.
The Rams have a new coach, a new quarterback, a new discipline and not enough time or talent to take full advantage of them this season. They also have snazzy new uniforms and a new light song. The Rams Are Rollin', by Henry Mancini.
Owner Carroll Rosenbloom and Don Klosterman, his general manager, lay in the weeds last season, allowing Coach Tommy Prothro and Quarterback Roman Gabriel a year of grace. Once the 6-7-1 season ended, Rosenbloom and Klosterman went to work. Whether what they did was wise as well as wholesale remains to be seen.
Gabriel, sore arm and all, was peddled to the Philadelphia Eagles for Wide Receiver Harold Jackson, Running Back Tony Baker and first draft choices in 1974 and 1975 plus a third in 1975. Considering the probable finishes of the Eagles in the years to come, the trade was good for the Rams' future; Jackson, the league's top-ranked receiver last year, made it good for 1973. The Rams also sent Defensive End Coy Bacon and a fine young running back, Bob Thomas, to the San Diego Chargers for Quarterback John Hadl. This trade may help, too—if Hadl can control his penchant for throwing long passes into hostile crowds.
Probably the key change Rosenbloom and Klosterman made was at head coach. Prothro, a mild man with a conviction that pro football players are grown men who do not need childish things such as discipline and curfews, is gone. Replacing him is Chuck Knox, who was an assistant for the Lions and the Jets and who is an exponent of the Vince Lombardi school of coaching.
"The feeling of the camp is different," said All-Pro Defensive Tackle Merlin Olsen recently. "We have curfews and we work a lot harder than we did last year. But the players don't mind. They know that's what you have to do to win. There were veterans last year who didn't sleep in camp a single night."
"I believe these are intelligent men," said Knox. "The curfew is my way of reminding them that they have a hard day's work ahead of them and that they will need rest. I believe success in coaching stems from your ability to teach and communicate and create a desire to learn. I explained why I have reinstated curfews and I believe they understand the value of this rule. It gives them a sense of fellowship, too. If some of the veterans can disregard the curfew, that must create a feeling of dissatisfaction among the younger players. We treat all players alike."
Behind Hadl, the L.A. quarterbacks are James Harris, the strong-armed former Buffalo Bill, and Ron Jaworski, a rookie from Youngstown State known as The Polish Rifle, which may or may not be a joke. Although Jim Bertelsen performed brilliantly in the preseason, the Rams traded away much of their speed and ground-gaining potential in the backfield, and the defensive line has been reshuffled. The linebackers are spotty and the secondary is porous. All told, it seems doubtful that the graduates of the Rams' school of hard Knox will distinguish themselves.