Second-year man Joe Montana had a good enough preseason to mount a challenge for Steve DeBerg's quarterback job, and James Owens could be the keynote wide receiver Walsh has been looking for. He certainly has the speed, finishing third in the NFC in kickoff returns last year. Paul Hofer is the kind of running back who plays to absolute exhaustion every week, and Randy Cross is a quality guard. It's a neat offense Walsh has fashioned for himself.
The 49ers' claims are modest—"We were in 10 of the 14 games we lost last year," Walsh says—and so are their aspirations: an 8-8 season. One lesson Walsh learned in 1979 is that you can't keep running people in and out of camp hoping that somehow a defense will materialize. So this year he trimmed his preseason roster to 70 players after one week, then gave everyone the long look. What he found should mean three or four more wins in 1980.
This was the ATLANTA operation in 1979: start the game with heavy ground fire, Mike Kenn and Dave Scott blowing people off the line. William Andrews and Lynn Cain running and blocking like wild men. The Falcons move smartly down the field. Then a holding penalty. Then an offsides. After that, a draw play for eight yards, another holding penalty, a sack, a turnover. Then the defense would try to hold the fort by falling back on the Grits Blitz that worked wonders in 1978. Sorry, not this time. The opponent would score a cheap touchdown, then another, and the hunt would be over.
Coach Leeman Bennett looked at the wreckage of the 6-10 season, which came on the heels of a playoff berth in 1978, and decided he needed defensive help from the draft. But he got trapped. Junior Miller, the big Nebraska tight end, was available when Atlanta's turn came in the first round, and Bennett had to take him. Now to everyone's embarrassment, Russ Mikeska, a second-year man and a former free agent, has held off Miller's challenge; Miller, though, might be awarded a start based on his pedigree.
Secondary help never came, but the Falcons got lucky with a couple of linebackers: Buddy Curry, the No. 2 pick, and Al Richardson, an eighth-round selection who has been only sensational. Many linebackers will get a chance to play in Bennett's new 3-4 defense, the Grits Blitz having been sent back to the pantry. Overall, the Falcons must achieve a better mesh before they can hope to challenge anybody.