- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh would prefer 100-man rosters, college-style. Then he could keep, say, 15 defensive linemen. He'd have one line for the 3-4 base defense and then another for the alternate base defense and a special pass-rushing four-man line, and an alternate one to keep the first line from getting too tired, and then he'd have a 15th guy he'd designate the AE, the Animal End. He'd use him for one pass rush a game, one key sack at the most crucial time. He'd keep him locked up in the back of a huge moving van, and at the right moment gongs would sound, the doors would fly open and out he'd come.
Last year Walsh built a squad for the 49-man roster. Ten linebackers played in designated situations. There was a combination linebacker-end (Fred Dean) and a linebacker-safety (Jeff Fuller). Eight defensive linemen saw regular action. They picked their spots. Fresh legs, ever the quest for fresh legs.
Walsh did just about everything last year. He unbalanced his offensive line in the old single-wing style and put all sorts of strange people in the backfield, such as wideout Freddie Solomon and 270-pound guard Guy McIntyre, and as if the established stars—Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Ronnie Lott, et al.—weren't enough to beat you, there was all this flimflammery to worry about.
But the league chopped the roster on him, from 49 to 45. The losers did it, the money savers, the guys who said we don't have enough of our own, we want your rejects. So as the season approached Walsh fretted about the players he'd have to cut and gloried in the ones who'd be eligible for a varsity letter.
Talent, the 49ers are simply loaded with talent. Thirteen of the projected 22 starters have been picked for the Pro Bowl at one time or another in their careers...the whole defensive backfield, three of the five offensive linemen. Former reserves like the massive middle guard, Michael Carter, have emerged to push starters to the bench or to new positions. Walsh got the one rookie he coveted, pass catcher Jerry Rice, who averaged almost eight receptions a game in four years in that wild, freewheeling offense at Mississippi Valley State, and the kid was simply breathtaking in camp.
It's all there, all in place. The only negative is the history of defending Super Bowl champs. The last five have failed to repeat. San Francisco itself is one of them. After the 49ers won in '81, things got tough the next year. As the injuries mounted they had neither the depth nor the dedication to pull out of the dive. They've learned their lesson now, they say. They remember. We'll see.
The LOS ANGELES RAMS have forgotten how to beat the 49ers. They've lost their last three to them. At one time San Francisco was their patsy. L.A. ran up nine straight, but that was yesterday. It's one thing to beat up Atlanta and New Orleans, but the road to the Super Bowl runs through San Francisco, unless the Rams want to be a perennial wild-card team, stumbling into the playoffs on some last-minute NFL formula situation and then saying a quick goodby.
So how has John Robinson prepared for his 1985 assault on the Niners? The first thing he did was hire a psychologist to better equip his team for dealing with NFL head games, Walsh's included. "Sounds like voodoo to me," said tackle Bill Bain. Next, Robinson traded quarterback Vince Ferragamo to Buffalo for Tony Hunter, a speed-type tight end, a No. 1 draft who somehow never played like one. Now we're getting somewhere. The 49ers were one of three teams to hold Eric Dickerson to less than 100 yards last year, and they did it twice. In Anaheim they held him to the lowest total of his record-breaking year, 38 yards. They did it by having their surest tackler, strong safety Carlton Williamson, walk up to the line and become Dickerson's personal shadow. How do you beat that? You run your tight end deep, because the strong safety is his normal coverage guy, and force the defense to change its scheme. Neither Mike Barber nor David Hill is a deep threat, although Hill is a strong blocker, but now they have Hunter, who can motor.
There's plenty of speed at the flanks, with Henry Ellard and Olympic gold medal sprinter Ron Brown, but last year quarterback Jeff Kemp was never in sync with them, and the combination was unproductive. Maybe it was just the natural caution of a young quarterback leery of interceptions (he had the third-lowest interception rate of any starting QB last year), the desire not to jeopardize Dickerson and the running game, or maybe just a lack of confidence in his arm. But now from Canada comes 34-year-old Dieter Brock, who likes to gun it long if nothing else.
Few backs have aged quicker than the NEW ORLEANS SAINTS' Earl Campbell, who is 30 on the calendar and about 50 on the playing field. Tommy Jackson, the Broncos' outside linebacker, explains the defensive strategy that made Campbell get so old so fast: