1998 NFL TEAM-BY-TEAM PREVIEWS --- NFC WEST.
Last year's record in parentheses.
SAN FRANCISCO (13-3)
Last year: Lost first game in Tampa, and also effectively lost Jerry Rice for the season with a knee injury. Then won 11 straight as 49ers took advantage of league's weakest division. That got them home field for the playoffs, but they lost to Green Bay in NFC title game 23-10.
Key additions: LB Winfred Tubbs; CB Antonio Langham; QB Ty Detmer; DE Gabe Wilkins; TE Irv Smith, all free agents.
Key subtractions: DT Dana Stubblefield, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, FB William Floyd, CBs Rod Woodson and Tyronne Drakeford, K Gary Anderson, all free agents. TE Brent Jones and LB Gary Plummer retired.
Players to watch: DT Junior Bryant, who will replace Stubblefield; FB Marc Edwards, who will replace Floyd. Tubbs, RB Garrison Hearst, and most of all WR Jerry Rice, back after missing all but half the first game and half the 15th with a knee injury.
Rookies to watch: CB R.W. McQuarters, who has made a very strong first impression.
Notable note: Since 1981, the 49ers have failed to win 10 games only once - in 1982, when the season was limited by a strike to nine games.
Outlook: This isn't the juggernaut of the late '80s or early '90s. But the defense, strong last season, has been helped by Tubbs and Langham. If Rice is anywhere near peak form, he gives 36-year-old Steve Young yet another weapon to go with Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes, who thrived in his absence. Easy schedule makes them a Super Bowl contender again.
Last year: Falcons had their second straight losing season in coach Dan Reeves' debut. After starting with five straight losses, Falcons went 6-2 in second half. None of the victories came against teams with above-.500 record.
Key additions: S Eugene Robinson, OT Corey Louchiey (free agents); LB Keith Brooking, first-round pick; WR Tony Martin (trade with San Diego).
Key subtractions: WR Bert Emanuel (free agent), team's leading receiver; DT Dan Owens (free agent).
Players to watch: RB Jamal Anderson had second straight 1,000-yard season; QB Chris Chandler coming off Pro Bowl year, despite injuries; reserve QB Steve DeBerg trying to become NFL's oldest player, coming back at age 44 after five-year layoff; LB Cornelius Bennett tries to bounce back from offseason stint in jail.
Rookies to watch: Brooking; OTs Ephraim Salaam and Jose Portilla.
Notable note: The Falcons have never had back-to-back winning seasons in their 32-year history.
Outlook: If Chandler stays healthy, they could contend for wild card. Big-time sackers Lester Archambeau and Chuck Smith make defense go.
Last year: Couldn't maintain the momentum from a surprising second season in which they won the NFC West and lost in conference title game. Finished in bottom third of many NFL categories on offense and defense.
Key additions: Gil Haskell, the new offensive coordinator, brings a West Coast-style of attack to a team that was ineffective and predictable last year under Joe Pendry, who has migrated to Buffalo. Defensive end Sean Gilbert (trade) sat out the 1997 season in a salary dispute with Washington, but was made the NFL's highest-paid defensive lineman by the Panthers.
Key subtractions: Inside linebacker Sam Mills and nose tackle Greg Kragen, both retired.
Players to watch: Veteran OLBs Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene try to see if they can still make big plays in Carolina's 3-4 defense. QB Kerry Collins, hounded by injury and off-field problems last year, led the league in interceptions and had the NFL's worst rating, but he seems more comfortable in Haskell's system.
Rookies to watch: DT Jason Peter, the team's first-round pick who recently ended his long holdout.
Notable note: Carolina allowed one touchdown per game more in 1998 than in '97.
Outlook: Need to re-establish passing offense with Collins, running game with Fred Lane and Tshmanga Biakabutuka, and rediscover the dominant defense.
NEW ORLEANS (6-10)
Last year: Mike Ditka's first season as Saints coach was a relative success, considering the level of talent on hand. He used four quarterbacks on the lowest-rated offense in league, but got a league-high 59 sacks from the defense.
Key additions: G Kyle Turley, the top draft pick; RB Lamar Smith, S Chad Cota, CB Tyronne Drakeford and WR Sean Dawkins, all free agents.
Key subtractions: LB Winfred Tubbs was headed for stardom, then headed to San Francisco as free agent. CB Eric Allen, demanded trade and wound up in Oakland. TE Irv Smith left as free agent.
Players to watch: Smith, who should boost running game; Cota and Drakeford figure to upgrade secondary; and Dawkins should help passing game. Sackmasters Wayne Martin, Mark Fields and Joe Johnson on defense.
Rookies to watch: Turley and second-round TE Cam Cleeland.
Notable note: Although they allowed 50 sacks, the Saints made up for it with a league-high 59 quarterback traps, including 10.5 by Martin, 8.5 by Johnson and 8.0 by Fields.
Outlook: Ditka accepted a contract extension through 2002. He'll need all that time to get the Saints turned around.
ST. LOUIS (5-11)
Last year: Split their first four games under new coach Dick Vermeil, then went into eight-game tailspin. Although defense ranked 19th in points allowed, it was second in interceptions (25) and third in takeaways (39).
Key additions: Veteran LB Eric Hill should boost defense and C John Flannery might help offense. Rest of free-agent signings were mediocre. Orlando Pace was in camp from day 1, a big plus.
Key subtractions: Lost Bill Johnson from the defensive line and Torrance Small from receiving corps through free agency; released DE Leslie O'Neal.
Players to watch: DLs Kevin Carter and D'Marco Farr must make up for O'Neal's departure. Secondary knows how to get ball as CB Ryan McNeil and S Keith Lyle finished 1-2 in NFC in interceptions. QB Tony Banks must find consistency and team needs to develop semblance of running game. WR Isaac Bruce is best offensive player.
Rookies to watch: Top pick Grant Wistrom at DE and RB Robert Holcombe, who will get shot to start; third-round DE Leonard Little, a pass-rushing specialist.
Notable note: Eddie Kennison, a sensation as a rookie receiver with 54 catches for 924 yards in 1996, managed only 25 for 404 Last year.
Outlook: Bleak. If Banks struggles and the pass rush is minimal, Rams could be league's worst team.
Photo: The key to the San Francisco 49ers' Super Bowl hopes is the health of All-Pro receiver Jerry Rice, who missed most of last season with a knee injury.
Paul Sakuma/Associated Press
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Sep 4, 1998|
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