When Defensive Tackle Jimmy Webb, the club's No. 1 draft choice from Mississippi State, didn't sign until August 24, Nolan turned to 6'6", 268-pound Bill Sandifer, who sat out most of last year with knee surgery. The linebacking play of Dave Washington, acquired in a trade with Buffalo, took some of the sting out of Dave Wilcox's retirement, but the secondary has holes. Now as old as his number (37), Jimmy Johnson has returned—with optimism—for his 15th season at cornerback.
"I think this is a year where we can sneak in and do something a lot of people are not expecting us to do," Johnson says. With a quarterback, that is.
New Orleans has a quarterback of superb talents in Archie Manning, who unfortunately suffered a broken left arm in preseason play and will probably miss the first two games of the season. Manning's backups, Bobby Scott and Larry Cipa, will be faced with various problems, not the least of which is an offensive line that yielded 37 sacks a year ago, when Archie threw but six touchdown passes. Along the way, Manning also was rocked emotionally by the players' strike, a feud with Saints' Owner John Mecom, a Csonkasized offer from the WFL, rumors that he would be traded, a knee injury and infectious mononucleosis. This summer, however, Manning reported to camp in the best shape of his career, signed a new four-year contract and said he had benefited from an off-season weight program and some quarterback tutoring.
If Manning returns in top shape and can do his stuff without four defensive linemen bashing in his rib cage, the Saints could finish with a winning record for the first time in their nine-year history. Toward that end, Coach John North is hoping for instant maturity from rookie Kurt Schumacher, a 6'3", 260-pound guard from Ohio State.
Larry Burton, the team's No. 1 choice from Purdue, is a world-class sprinter who caught 38 passes for 702 yards as a senior. He figures to fill a need for outside speed. Burton, recovering from a pulled hamstring, has run the 100 in 9.1 and the 40 in 4.2. Joel Parker and Paul Seal, who combined for 73 receptions as rookies, should do even better.
The Saints' rushing attack was the NFC's third best last year. Alvin Maxson carried for 714 yards. Since Jess Phillips was traded to Oakland, North is banking on Rod McNeill, who was hampered throughout '74 with a hamstring pull, as Maxson's running mate.
The Saints' strength is a defensive unit that was the most consistent part of the team as well as the most overworked. "When you went out," says Safety Tommy Myers, "you were afraid to drink too much water because you felt you'd be going right back in."
Manning expects the offense to improve on last season's total of 166 points. "Last year we were about a 10-point offense," he says. "This year we've got to become a 17-20 point offense. That's going to take a certain consistency on my part, but for the first time since I've been here we've got the same offensive line that ended the season."
The Atlanta Falcons have about the same of everything they had last year—all of it bad. But they did get California's Steve Bartkowski, the NFL's No. 1 draft pick, for a reported $675,000 for three years. In 1974 Atlanta had the worst offense in NFL history, averaging fewer than eight points a game. They also set a league record for no-shows—143,488, including 48,830 in their last home game. Now with Dutch Van Brocklin retired, the Falcons are unintimidated and happy. They should also be better since they couldn't be worse. Bartkowski may earn every dime of his salary. Atlanta quarterbacks were sacked 50 times last year and the team's premier offensive tackle, George Kunz, was traded to Baltimore in order to get Bartkowski. In addition, All-Pro Defensive End Claude Humphrey is out for the season with torn ligaments in his left knee. On top of all this, the team's schedule is the toughest in the NFL. Still, with their former dictator deposed, the Falcons might do some surprising things for easy going Marion Campbell.
No way they won't be trying harder.