The Saints have a powerful running game (second-year men Chuck Muncie and Tony Galbreath) but only adequate receivers, and the offensive line is weak. The Saints' defense is spotty. If there is a key man here, it's Defensive End Bob Pollard, now in his eighth season. If Pollard and Tackle Derland Moore can generate a consistent pass rush, they may inspire their teammates. And with Dick Nolan—the ex-Giant player, ex-Cowboy assistant coach, ex-head coach of the 49ers—handling the linebackers, another Stram miracle could materialize in short order. But it will be a long while before the Saints upgrade their woeful secondary. That takes good drafts, perceptive trades and time, time, time.
If Manning stays healthy, and if the defense comes through, then the softest schedule in the West could help New Orleans to a good season, maybe 8-6. Otherwise the Saints will be back to 4-10 or, brighter, 5-9.
The Atlanta Falcons, like a few of their avian namesakes, should be classed as an endangered species. Never winners, this year they play eight games against teams strong enough to win divisional titles—if not reach the Super Bowl. The Falcons once again will finish dead last in their division.
During the off-season, Atlanta completely redid its front office, from head coach to flack. Like Ken Meyer of San Francisco, Leeman Bennett is a former assistant to the Rams' Chuck Knox (he coached the L.A. receivers). Bennett, who at 39 is the NFL's youngest coach, has plugged in the L.A. look, concentrating on ball control and a strong running game (although without the Rams' talent), and, like Knox, he believes in patience and power. That bodes well for the future, but not for this year.
If the Falcons have any strengths worth recounting, they are on offense, particularly at running back where Woody Thompson and Bubba Bean are ably supported by three reliable backups. Quarterback became a problem area, though, when Steve Bartkowski had a knee operation this week.
The offensive line, although firmed up at right tackle by top draft choice Warren Bryant, is at best inconsistent, at worst porous on pass blocking. The Falcons' offensive problems surfaced early as they failed to score a touchdown in their first three exhibitions.
But that's the bright side. Atlanta's chief weakness is at linebacker. Last year, the Falcons were 25th in the 28-team league on defense against the run. Then Tommy Nobis, their one competent linebacker, retired. He couldn't do it all. And besides, he was hurting. Ralph Ortega, a third-year pro, replaces Nobis, and he won't suffer from a lack of work. Led by Claude Humphrey, the Falcons have had an effective pass rush and the addition of rookie Tackle Wilson Faumuina will help.
Oh, yes. Atlanta has good legs in Nick Mike-Mayer and Punter John James. But it seems likely that James will see a lot more action than Mike-Mayer this year and for quite a while to come.