Before last season, there was little reason to believe that the San Francisco 49ers would win the Super Bowl. Now, there should be little reason to bet against their winning again, considering how young the team is, how much better an already capable Joe Montana should get, and how much stronger the offense could be with the addition of tight end Russ Francis and wide receiver Renaldo (Skeets) Nehemiah.
But can the 49ers go through another season without major injuries? Can Montana continue to play so well in dramatic moments? Can linebacker Jack Reynolds, 34, defy advancing age for another season? Is Coach Bill Walsh a one-season genius?
If San Francisco stumbles slightly, no one else in the NFC West appears good enough to take advantage of it. Even Los Angeles, which once had as much talent as any team in the league, has major questions despite getting both Bert Jones and Vince Ferragamo.
In fact, having two able quarterbacks might create more difficulties than pluses. Nothing divides a team more swiftly or creates fan discontent more quickly than a lively controversy over quarterbacks. And those disputes usually start the first time the starter (probably Jones) throws an interception. Besides, the Rams did little in the offseason to plug their holes at linebacker and on the defensive line. Nor do they have a halfback capable of replacing injury-prone Wendell Tyler.
Atlanta is so fragile that an injury to one player, linebacker Joel Williams, dropped the Falcons last year from playoff power to just another team. Now receiver Wallace Francis is gone.
Williams, one of the league's best blitzers, is healthy again and that may bring back the pizazz to the defense, although the team probably could use another defensive back or two. Now that Alfred Jenkins has signed, there will be someone to catch Steve Bartkowski's long passes. And any offense with William Andrews (hopeful that a knee injury won't keep him out) and Gerald Riggs (No. 1 pick, Arizona State) in its backfield will be difficult to shut down, much less shut out.
It also would be difficult to discuss New Orleans this year without saying the Saints are "improved." Considering how bad they were only two seasons ago, that may not be saying much. But Bum Phillips has given the organization much-needed stability and direction, mainly through his decision to pick George Rogers in the 1981 draft.
That move upgraded the Saints' offense, reinforced Phillips' commitment to the draft and took some pressure off quarterback Archie Manning. It didn't solve other problems, such as a so-so defensive line and mediocre receiving. Not even Rogers is that versatile.