While admitting that National Football League predictions often miss the mark , either because of injuries or complacency, nobody is putting the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers anywhere but first in the NFC West.
Head Coach Bill Walsh is considered much too smart and much too organized to allow his team to have a mental letdown. The 49ers also figure to be too explosive not to put more points on the scoreboard than they'll probably need. In addition, their defense allowed the second fewest points (250) of any team in the league last season with pressure that came from all points of the compass.
In the interim, San Francisco got itself the best tight end in football by acquiring the retired Russ Francis from the New England Patriots. The team also bought itself a ton of extra publicity by signing world record-breaking hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah, though despite his talent he Ys probably going to need a whole season to learn his trade.
The top draftee is offensive tackle Bubba Paris - and the last time Walsh saw Paris he looked liked Orson Welles with speed. After that the draft pickings may be slim, though, since due to previous trades, Paris was the only choice the 49 ers had in the first four rounds.
Basically, therefore, San Francisco is the same well-balanced organization that became only the fourth team in NFL hiCtory last year to win 16 or more games in a single season. That record put the 49ers in the same company with the Miami Dolphins (17-0 in 1972); Oakland Raiders (16-1 in 1976); and Pittsburgh Steelers (17-2 in 1978). It should be remembered that all three remained power teams for several more seasons.
San Francisco, in putting together its Stalingrad defense last season, finished 12th against the run and third against the pass. Yet even more impressive was the regularity with which the 49ers' defense frustrated opponents in third-down situations.
What may have been forgotten in the glow of the Super Bowl triumph over the Cincinnati Bengals are the two deals Walsh made last year for veteran defensive stars Jack Reynolds and Fred Dean. Bill also got tremendous mileage from three rookies - cornerbacks Ronnie Lott from USC and Eric Wright of Missouri, plus free safety Carlton Williamson of Pittsburgh. What those three couldn't accomplish with man-to-man coverage, they did with quickness and a sliding zone.
Although Reynolds has never had much range against the pass, Jack has built-in radar when it comes to stopping the inside running game and is also a natural leader.
Dean, a situation player who is apt to show up anywhere on the line of scrimmage and who plays as though he invented the pass rush, parlayed his speed, 235-pound rock-hard body, and eight years of experience into an outstanding year.
Yet to understand Walsh's thinking in terms of winning now while also building for the future, you first have to understand the man himself.
Simply calling Bill a good organizer is not nearly enough. This is a coach who sees the need to challenge his players intellectually; who constantly creates situations in practice that can be related to in games; and who perhaps works hardest at preventing mistakes.
''Rather than being obsessed with what other teams do, we work instead to achieve a standard of our own,'' Bill told reporters at the 49ers' training camp. ''Equal ability among players is thenorm in the NFL, yet they are all unique in specific things they can do. The trick is to find a way to use that ability.''
Too often last year Walsh was probably overpraised for his quick-throw, short-pass, ball-control offense when much of that applause should have been directed toward the 49ers' defense.
However, that statement is not meant to take anything away from quarterback Joe Montana, whose 19 touchdown passes; 3,565 yards through the air; 63.7 completion average; and MVP Super Bowl Award speak for themselves. Montana also had a superstar to throw to in wide receiver Dwight Clark, who caught a team-record 85 passes in the regular season and also made the spectacular last-minute touchdown reception against Dallas that sent the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
Of the teams San Francisco must beat to win again in the NFC West (Atlanta, New Orleans, and the Los Angeles Rams) all three gave u0 at least 100 more points to opponents than the 49ers did last season.
Simply stated, a team with San Francisco's outstanding desyo can even win on those rare days when its offense is out to lunch.