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Two years removed from USC, Robinson looks like the Trader Horn of the NFL. His secondary is half Kansas City, ex-cornerback Eric Harris moving to strong safety (Cromwell will slide over to free) and Green at corner. Washington bombed the secondary in the playoffs last year, but now it's much firmer. The Redskin defeat dimmed the luster of L.A.'s solid victory over Dallas in the wild card game and some inspired work by a mob of good young defensive players, i.e., linebackers Jim Collins, George Andrews and Mel Owens, middle guard Greg Meisner, end Reggie Doss. It's enough to build a program around.
The offense is presentable enough, with Dickerson gunning his motor for another heavy season (Irv Pankey returning to left tackle after missing last season with a torn Achilles tendon, will help), and it could be even prettier if Brown scares people into thinking long ball. Quarterback Vince Ferragamo should have all the time he needs; the Ram line allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL in '83. One of Robinson's declared priorities is to get Dickerson deeper downfield on pass patterns. Last year he caught 51 passes, almost triple his entire SMU output, but his yards-per-catch average of 7.9 was second-lowest among the NFL's top 50 receivers.
Off-season, uh, joke: Q—What defense will the ATLANTA FALCONS line up in this season? A—They'll line up in an Okie.
That's a joke, see, a har-har. Okie means Oklahoma defense, and their first three draft picks are defensive guys from Oklahoma, and ah, forget it. So it's not funny. Neither is the Falcons' defense, unless you're another team in the NFC West.
Last year, Dan Henning's first as coach, the Falcons drafted for defense; the first four picks were defensive players. So what happened? The offense got better, the defense worse. This year they went even heavier into defense, devoting their first five picks to that area. The snapper is that Oklahoma connection, but if you look hard enough, you can find a reason for that, too.
Quick now, what kind of a division is the NFC West? You're right if you said it's a running division. When you play the Rams, you've got to stop Dickerson. Against the Saints, you've got to stop George Rogers. Even the 49ers can run at you now, with Tyler and Craig. Last year the Falcons were 0-4 against the Rams and Saints, the heavy-running teams. They allowed an average of 193 yards on the ground in those four games. O.K., now answer this: What kind of a conference does Oklahoma play in? Right, the last of the great run, run conferences, the Big Eight. A defensive player in that conference better learn how to stop the run if he wants to hold on to his scholarship.
In the first round the Falcons picked the Sooners' Rick Bryan, everyone's All-America tackle. No messing around here. The Falcons popped him into the right-tackle position in their 4-3 defense and said, "Please be great, kid." He's been a little raw but certainly willing. "Relentless" is the way Henning describes him. Last year the Falcons tied for last in sacks. There hasn't been a straight-up, non-blitz pass rush on this team since the days of Claude Humphrey.
The second-round picks were Sooners Scott Case—a wild, turn-the-body-loose safetyman who could break in somewhere, or break something—and a burly 235-pound linebacker named Thomas Benson, who will probably be a backup man. Buddy Curry, moved in from the outside, is excellent in the middle. The offense is dotted with All-Pros: quarterback Steve Bartkowski, running back William Andrews, linemen Mike Kenn, R.C. Thielmann and Jeff Van Note. But the Falcons go to the playoffs only when their defense comes alive, when they're gritz-blitzing people into a stupor or doing other wild things.
Once again I see some preseason polls that have the NEW ORLEANS SAINTS first in the division. Well, I'd love to see it, because Bum Phillips is a nice guy and I wish him luck. But Bum, let me tell you this straight, and no hard feelings, right? You're a terrific defensive coach. You and your son, Wade, have worked miracles with the Saints defense, getting it up to No. 2 in the league last year, but man, you're never going to make the playoffs with Kenny Stabler as your quarterback, even as your backup quarterback. O.K., I know you traded for the Jets' Richard Todd, but the mere fact that the job wasn't given to him from Day 1 is a minus.
Yeah, I know all the arguments. The Snake had bad knees last year; he wasn't right; he could have signed with Memphis for a million bucks and he stayed loyal to the Saints; etc. I also remember a Monday night game you played against the Jets, when you were down by three and you got the ball back with plenty of time left, plus all three time-outs and the two-minute warning, and Kenny butchered the clock as badly as I've ever seen it done, and you finally missed a long field goal from just outside your kicker's range—with 19 seconds left. Hey, you could have called another play or two. That game could have gotten you into the playoffs. The Snake doesn't have it anymore. Give Todd or somebody a shot. Get an offensive coordinator who can work with him. Give your offense a chance to catch up to your defense.