The competition has improved considerably, but LOS ANGELES should prevail for the seventh year in succession. More speed and a retooled offense promise to make the Rams more exciting, but unless scholarly Pat Haden earns an A-plus at quarterback, the thrills will be gone before the Super Bowl.
Coach Ray Malavasi has revised the Rams' offensive playbook, adding flexibility, audibles, explosiveness and a wide-open look to an attack once dominated by the four-yard rush. Just how explosive the new offense proves to be will depend on Haden, who studied under Joe Restic, the innovative Harvard coach, during training camp, and the staying power of the Ram running backs, who could have worked as extras in M*A*S*H a year ago. Injuries to Wendell Tyler (knee), Elvis Peacock (knee), and Lawrence McCutcheon (thigh) robbed the Rams of their backfield speed. Then John Cappelletti, who is more of a plodder, joined the wounded with a shoulder separation in the NFC championship game loss to Dallas. Cappelletti will miss the '79 season, but the others are healthy.
One back Malavasi especially hopes will stay healthy is second-round draftee Eddie Hill from Memphis State. Hill has the best pair of hands among the Ram ballcarriers, and his 4.6 speed will add a new dimension to the attack—if Haden can isolate him one-on-one.
Critics claim the 5'11", 180-pound Haden is unable to throw the ball over 1) 60 yards or 2) Harvey Martin's head. Yet, in 34 starts for the Rams, Haden has walked off the field as the winning quarterback 25 times. Thirteen of those victories came last year, when his rushing support consisted almost solely of the burly warhorse Cullen Bryant. Haden is neither quick-footed in dropping back to pass nor especially nimble when escaping a blitz, but despite these and other handicaps he passed for 2,995 yards and 13 touchdowns. The index finger of his throwing hand, which was fractured in the Dallas playoff game, has healed, and he also should benefit from Restic's instruction.
Haden completed 50 passes to Willie Miller and 49 to Ron Jessie in 1978; he will have yet another outside target this season in Preston Dennard, a second-year speedster with good hands. The Rams also have not one but two dependable tight ends, Terry Nelson and Charle Young.
Guard Tom Mack is gone from the offensive line, where he played 13 seasons without missing a game, but Malavasi is confident that veteran John Williams will be a capable replacement. Kicker Frank Corral, who led the NFL in scoring and won three games with last-second field goals, is another Ram asset.
The team's most imposing strength, however, is a defensive unit that ranked first in the NFL a year ago. Los Angeles had 47 sacks and 28 interceptions while limiting the opposition to 15.3 points per game, second best in the NFC, and there is no reason to expect any fall-off. Nolan Cromwell has taken over for Bill Simpson at free safety, but the rest of the unit is intact.
With a little luck and an improved offensive line, NEW ORLEANS could be the surprise team of the division, with the first winning season in its 13-year history. In finishing 7-9 last season, the Saints were in every game but one until late in the fourth quarter. Five of the losses were by six or fewer points.
To improve a line that allowed 37 sacks and blocked so poorly that New Orleans had the third-worst rushing attack in the NFL, Coach Dick Nolan made an off-season trade with St. Louis for Tackle Roger Finnie. Nolan also is counting on the full recovery of Guard Conrad Dobler and Tackle Emanuel Zanders; early in '78 each suffered a knee injury that required surgery.
If the line approaches acceptable standards, and if Archie Manning has another banner year, New Orleans could make the playoffs as a wild-card entry. Outside the trenches, the Saints' talent is impressive. Manning passed for 3,416 yards and 17 touchdowns a year ago, when his 61.8% completion rate was tops in the NFC, and his effectiveness will be even greater if the Saints can open holes for bullish running backs Tony Galbreath and Chuck Muncie.