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San Francisco General Manager Joe Thomas, as usual, has made bold moves to upgrade his team. He has also—surprise!—brought in a new coach. The latter's name is Pete McCulley and he has generally received good reviews, as opposed to predecessor Ken Meyer, who was plagued by bad notices from the start of training camp last season. Things are looking up in the Bay Area, but the 49ers are at least one draft, if not two, away from being playoff caliber.
Thomas' biggest deal, of course, brought O. J. Simpson to town for a slew of draft choices. This may help more at the gate—season-ticket sales are up by more than $800,000—than on the playing field. Last year the 49ers had one of the league's best pairs of backs in Delvin Williams, whom Thomas traded to Miami, and Wilbur Jackson, who is injured and out for the season, but they were stymied by a poor line. To help open holes for Simpson, Thomas picked Tight End Ken MacAfee and Guard Ernie Hughes from Notre Dame and Guard Walt Downing from Michigan in the first three rounds of the draft.
If these three rookies prove out, they could take some pressure off Quarterback Jim Plunkett, who has been sacked frequently. Plunkett seems more confident after four months of private tutelage under McCulley, but he still must prove he has overcome a tentative, sometimes awkward manner. At least he should get better field position. San Francisco greatly improved its kick-return game by acquiring ex-Dolphin Freddie Solomon and ex-Redskin Larry Jones.
Thomas traded veteran Defensive End Tommy Hart to Chicago, but the 49ers are still strong in front with Cedrick Hardman, Jimmy Webb and Cleveland Elam (the last will move over from tackle to Hart's spot). Unfortunately, Hardman and Co. can't disguise the deficiencies of the secondary, which, among other things, must discover that intercepting the football isn't a sin. Second-year Free Safety Vern Roberson, acquired from Miami along with Solomon, might help a little, but opponents should still be able to beat the 49ers by passing.
The biggest problem has been front-office bungling, which is why many say the Saints could improve themselves most by trading owner John Mecom Jr. Between 1969 and 1975 the Saints used three first-round draft picks and two high seconds for offensive linemen, yet they are still juggling personnel and trying to keep Quarterback Archie Manning from getting killed. Nevertheless, Chuck Muncie and Tony Galbreath, who weigh 220 and 230 respectively, are such punishing runners that the Saints have a reasonable ground attack. Unfortunately, they have had a tendency to run much less than the average team. New Coach Dick Nolan will use that running power more often. A big boost to the Saints' passing attack could come from first-round draft choice Wes Chandler, a speedy wide receiver from Florida who was the third draft choice in pro football last May and should be its most exciting newcomer.
But no amount of offense can compensate for New Orleans' defense, the most-scored-upon in the NFL in 1977. Nolan's first priority is to beef up the pass rush. Last year's first draft choice, Defensive End Joe Campbell, could be a large asset if he can learn to rely more on finesse and less on brute strength. Nolan plans to feed the Saints small doses of the flex defense, which he helped Tom Landry install at Dallas when he was an assistant coach there. But with all the Saints' defensive woes, the team went out this year and used its first two draft choices for offensive players. Oh, well....
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