In his first summer as an NFL head coach, Dan Henning has had to contend with holdout problems (Pro Bowl offensive linemen Mike Kenn and R.C. Thielemann) in Atlanta. His attempts to upgrade the Falcons (5-5 last season) have been slowed, but maybe not enough to prevent them from being a sleeper choice--not only to win the NFC West title but also to advance to the Super Bowl.
That's a tall order, certainly, for Henning. But Atlanta has talent; it just needs his stern direction, a standout season from quarterback Steve Bartkowski, the return of the holdouts and a solid effort from a once-thriving defense. William Andrews may emerge as the league's best back in Henning's new offense, but the special teams need to be improved under ex-Redskin Ted Fritsch and No. 1 pick Mike Pitts has to help immediately along the defensive line.
If not Atlanta, why not New Orleans? Bum Phillips built through trades in Houston; he's used the draft with the Saints. Others in the league mock his "who cares" college scouting methods, but this franchise (4-5 in 1982) finally is emerging under his guidance after years of embarrassment. Phillips has the defense, led by Rickey Jackson and Bruce Clark, in fine shape. He just needs quarterback Ken Stabler, who will be 38 on Christmas Day, to show winning habits again. Otherwise, young David Wilson will have to bail out the Saints, or running back George Rogers again will have to be most of the offense.
No one has forgotten about San Francisco. But any team that fell apart as fast as the 49ers did last season (3-6) after winning Super Bowl XVI is difficult to measure. Coach Bill Walsh felt he was a running back away from returning to the top, so he dealt for ex-Ram Wendell (Fumbles) Tyler, who is a legitimate 1,000-yard rusher. Joe Montana and Dwight Clark make a wonderful passing team, but they'd benefit from better offensive line play. A comeback by a suddenly poor defense depends on the health of lineman Dwaine Board and the return to form of pass rusher Fred Dean. Without pressure on the quarterback, the secondary became ordinary last season, especially cornerback Ronnie Lott.
That John Robinson agreed to coach the Rams was a shock; to think he might straighten out the Los Angeles mess in a year is outrageous. Not even Robinson, a success at Southern Cal, is that good. But at least the 2-7 Rams will be competitive under his persuasive approach. If rookie Eric Dickerson can stay in one piece, he will rival Tony Dorsett and Billy Sims for running excitement. He'll make quarterback Vince Ferragamo's job easier, too, although it would help if the receivers were more than average. At 33, end Jack Youngblood remains the top defensive player; that should tell you something about prospects for the unit.