Are Rams Ready To Assume Dominance?

Tuesday, August 22nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Almost as fast as a run by Marshall Faulk, the NFC West turned over.

For the better part of 20 years, San Francisco dominated division foes. Now, the 49ers' run is done, and the St. Louis Rams believe they are ready to take over.

Kurt Warner, who went from obscurity to NFL MVP in a matter of months, led the Rams to a Super Bowl victory after they went 4-12 in 1998. Their unexpected arrival as an NFL powerhouse was reminiscent of the Joe Montana-led 49ers winning it all in 1981 following a 6-10 finish the previous year.

They should at least dominate their division.

Carolina is the best of the rest, but lost wide receiver Patrick Jeffers to a knee injury. At the bottom are the 49ers, ravaged by the salary cap, without the retired Steve Young and in a full rebuilding mode.

What separated the Rams from the pack in 1999 — speed — is back in abundance.

Warner can hand off and pass to Faulk, who had 1,381 yards rushing and 1,048 receiving, while rookie speedster Trung Canidate can be groomed slowly to back him up.

The receiving corps has Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim, all of whom averaged more than 15 yards per catch, and tight end Ernie Conwell is returning from injury.

Defensively, the Rams improved right along with the offense. They finished first in the NFL in rushing defense, tied for the league lead in sacks with Jacksonville, second in interceptions and fourth in scoring defense.

Kevin Carter and Grant Wistrom might be the best defensive end tandem in the NFL, and Mike Jones is a big-play linebacker, particularly his final-play tackle of Kevin Dyson that preserved the Super Bowl victory.

Practically the only change is at the top, where Mike Martz takes over as coach for the retired Dick Vermeil. But don't expect things to change much.

Carolina finished 5-2 last year to keep alive coach George Seifert's record of nine non-losing seasons, and the Panthers showed offensive firepower comparable to the Rams, averaging nearly 37 points in those five victories.

Steve Beuerlein quietly trailed only Warner in the NFL quarterback ratings, and his 4,436 yards passing were No. 1. But five off-season operations for a hernia (twice) and ankle, knee and shoulder injuries make him look older than 35. And, Jeffers, whose five straight 100-yard receiving games sparked the late rush, was hurt in an exhibition and will miss the season.

``I don't think you ever suggest losing one player means you've lost your whole season, and we'll move forward with the players we have,'' Seifert said. ``It's a blow, but it shouldn't be a knockout punch.''

Muhsin Muhammad, who led the NFC with 96 receptions, and tight end Wesley Walls, with 63 catches, are back, and the Panthers' added backfield depth with Natrone Means to share time with oft-injured Tshimanga Biakabutuka. Means averaged just 2.5 yards per carry in San Diego, but at age 28, there's no other reason to expect his career is over.

Defensively, Seifert hopes to field a veteran front four of Reggie White, back at 38 from a year of retirement and 30-year-olds Eric Swann, Chuck Smith and Sean Gilbert.

That quartet will be together for about 15 plays a game — mostly in passing situations. But for a defense that ranked 26th overall, why not give them a try?

While the Rams were rising in 1999, the Atlanta Falcons fell just as rapidly, dropping from a spot in the Super Bowl to 5-11.

Reason No. 1 was the loss of Jamal Anderson, who rushed for 1,846 yards in 1998, only to injure his knee in the second game. Without him, Atlanta fell to 30th in the league in rushing, and his return to form is vital to the Falcons' return to the playoffs.

QB Chris Chandler was in and out all season with injuries, and his performance was up and down. The Falcons are 21-9 the last three years when he started and finished a game, and 5-13 otherwise.

Defensively, the Falcons might be hard pressed to replace two defensive ends lost to free agency: Smith to Carolina and Lester Archambeau to Denver. Free agent Ashley Ambrose shores up the defensive backfield.

New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson was so unhappy with the team's 3-13 season that he fired all his coaches, including Mike Ditka, and the general manager.

Benson is going with youth — in the front office. Head coach Jim Haslett is practically a graybeard at 44; the general manager is 38-year-old Randy Mueller, and his 32-year-old brother Rick is the director of player personnel.

On the field, the Saints brought in veteran QB Jeff Blake from Cincinnati, and receivers Jake Reed, Joe Horn and Andrew Glover to help holdover Keith Poole, who averaged 19 yards on 42 receptions.

All this was done to give some support to Ricky Williams, who was noted more for his injuries and complaints than his rushing yardage during his rookie year.

The Saints could have a solid defensive line if Joe Johnson returns from the knee injury that knocked him out last season. Norman Hand, a free agent from San Diego, moves in a tackle alongside La'Roi Glover, who led the team in sacks last year.

The cap-strapped 49ers are finally paying for years of expensive success and salary deferrals.

Young and DE Charles Haley retired, and six-time Pro Bowl safety Tim McDonald, two-time Pro Bowl LB Lee Woodall, CB Darnell Walker and DE Marvin Washington were released, and more than a dozen contracts were restructured.

San Francisco did its best in the draft, trading down to acquire 11 choices, including seven to upgrade the defense, which slipped dramatically to 30th in the NFL in points allowed and last in passing yardage allowed. Three of the rookies — LB Julian Peterson, and CBs Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster — might be immediate starters.

The good news is that 38-year-old receiver Jerry Rice is back, and the bad news is that he was still the team's leading receiver last year. Terrell Owens, expected to take over as the top wideout, had seven fewer receptions than Rice's 67.

QB Jeff Garcia improved dramatically in the second half, including a 437-yard day against Cincinnati, and Charlie Garner led the way as the 49ers led the NFC in rushing yardage.

Prediction: St. Louis (11-5), Carolina (9-7), Atlanta (8-8), New Orleans (6-10), San Francisco (4-12).