West more woozy than wild But Rams, Broncos are riding high

September 05, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Dick Vermeil chose the perfect time and the most opportune place for his coaching return to the National Football League this season.

Who would have thought it would be St. Louis, one year after the Rams went 6-10 and fired director of football operations Steve Ortmayer and coach Rich Brooks?

Yet here in Week 2, Vermeil's Rams already are positioning themselves for a hostile takeover in the NFC West. This is the same division that has been dominated by the San Francisco 49ers for the past 16 years, the same division that spawned the sudden success a year ago of the expansionist Carolina Panthers.

Vermeil's timing is uncanny. The two teams rated ahead of him in the division -- the 49ers and Panthers -- are both reeling with injuries, old age and upheaval. The two teams rated below the Rams -- the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons -- appear perpetually locked in the rebuilding mode.

The Rams still are a long shot to win the division and reach the playoffs for the first time since 1989, but their chances get better every day.

One week into the 1997 season, this much seems clear: The West isn't as wild anymore as much as it is frenzied.

That goes for the AFC West, too. The Seattle Seahawks, Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers all underwent major roster repair in the off-season in an effort to catch the Denver Broncos. But so far, there is precious little to show for the time and investment. All four of them lost on opening week.

How bad are the woeful Wests?

The two divisions are a combined 2-8 after one week.

They've already had to replace 40 percent of the starting quarterbacks because of injury.

And since last year, they've replaced 50 percent of their head coaches.

That's beyond turnover; that's serious turmoil.

Here is a look at what's happened in these two divisions.

NFC West

No team has taken a more dramatic plunge, almost overnight, than the 49ers, who have won their division four of the last five years and 11 of the last 14.

Losing All-Pro receiver Jerry Rice for the season to reconstructive knee surgery this week was a crippling blow. The short-term loss of concussion-prone quarterback Steve Young, who will sit out Sunday's game in St. Louis, is a clear signal the 49ers are operating on borrowed time. The short-term loss could become permanent if Young endures another hit to the head.

Steve Mariucci, the 41-year-old rookie coach from Cal, was brought in to restore order to the offense. One of the things he wanted to do was revive the downfield passing game.

Little did Mariucci suspect he'd have to attempt revival in Week 2 with a rookie quarterback (Jim Druckenmiller) and a pair of receivers (Terrell Owens and J. J. Stokes) who've started a total of 18 NFL games between them.

The bigger problem is up front, where the 49ers have grown old and infirm. The offensive line allowed seven sacks in a 13-7 loss at Tampa Bay, the most since 1989. While Young suffered a mild concussion in the barrage, backup quarterback Jeff Brohm fractured a bone in the middle finger of his throwing hand and chipped a transverse process in his lower back. Brohm couldn't throw in practice this week.

Where that leaves the 49ers is as a 1 1/2 -point favorite at St. Louis. That's because they've beaten the Rams 13 times in a row, and won in St. Louis each of the past two years without Young.

As good as the Panthers were a year ago, they've been that bad so far. They lost to the Washington Redskins, 24-10, on top of a winless preseason.

Under new coach Mike Ditka, the Saints attempted two flea-flicker passes in their first two series against the Rams. One set up a field goal, the other was intercepted. The Saints finished with five turnovers, 10 penalties and a grim 38-24 loss in Ditka's return.

The biggest question facing the Saints is whether quarterback Heath Shuler develops. He had to come out of the loss to St. Louis with bruised ribs and a bruised left hand.

Atlanta had 13 penalties and four turnovers in an abysmal, 28-17 loss to the Detroit Lions.

That leaves the Rams as the lone NFC West team with momentum. Lawrence Phillips rushed for 125 yards and three touchdowns against New Orleans, and quarterback Tony Banks threw for 226 and two touchdowns. They're young, they're promising, and they're in the right place at the right time.

AFC West

The Seahawks and Raiders led the way in off-season acquisitions. Seattle had two major free-agent signings in linebacker Chad Brown and cornerback Willie Williams, then maneuvered to get two of the first six picks in the draft (cornerback Shawn Springs and tackle Walter Jones).

And all of it was obliterated in a 41-3 loss to the New York Jets at home. Said defensive end Michael Sinclair afterward, "That was a tragedy out there. We played like rag dolls."

Worse, the Seahawks lost quarterback John Friesz to a broken )) thumb. He'll miss eight weeks, and in his place will be 40-year-old Warren Moon.

The Raiders collected tackles for the defensive line in the off-season with the idea of improving their run defense. How'd they do in the opener? They gave up 216 rushing yards to Tennessee's Eddie George, and 255 overall. The result was a 24-21 overtime loss that looked a lot like last year, when the Raiders had six losses of five points or fewer.

The Chargers lost quarterback Stan Humphries (dislocated left shoulder) in a 41-7 loss to New England. Their new man is Jim Everett, who faces his old team, the Saints, on Sunday in the Superdome. Ditka released Everett last May to give the job to Shuler.

"There's always a little extra motivation in situations like this," Everett said.

The Chiefs revamped their offense this year, signing quarterback Elvis Grbac and a host of new receivers. But it was the same old stodgy Chiefs offense in a 19-3 loss at Denver.

All of which makes the Broncos the prohibitive favorites in the division.

Pub Date: 9/05/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.