Sometimes known as the Black and Blue Division, the Central has been knocked around plenty by Minnesota during the past four years. Now the Vikings should win a fifth division title, "In itself no small honor," says Coach Bud Grant in that measured way of his. Perhaps, but his players, tired of honors without profit, have other ideas. "We've got to think of the Big Picture, the Super Bowl," says one, rubbing an old hurt.
Maybe dusting off new hopes, too. With the most complete of their very strong teams, the Vikings could be ready for their finest hour. Favorable trades, a good draft, the wholesale settlement of eight contract squabbles and a general state of harmony are but a few of the team's plusses.
The real one, though, walks around daintily in size 10½ football shoes and—for the first time since he was traded to New York—the Minnesota uniform he started his pro career in. He is Quarterback Fran Tarkenton, of course, and paying all respect to the modest Gary Cuozzo, the team's first offensive leader since Joe Kapp's abrupt departure in 1970. The players believe Tarkenton is their man. Tarkenton knows he is. "I'm pleased to be back," he says. "It's as comfortable as rediscovering an old slipper." Or, he might have said, a good football team. After those famine years with the Giants, Tarkenton suddenly has real material to work with. He moves in behind a fine line with the giant All-Pro tackle, Ron Yary, to pass-block. There are three outstanding deep receivers: John Gilliam, obtained from St. Louis in the trade for Cuozzo; John Henderson and Gene Washington, who scored nine touchdowns in Kapp's last year and only four in Cuozzo's tenure. Then there is a fleet of running backs so strong that talented but anxious rookie Ed Marinaro said, "All those NCAA rushing records, and I'm afraid the Vikes will taxi me." In 1971 Clint Jones ran for 675 yards and he is just beginning to realize his full abilities.
Tarkenton, who uses the entire field to pick and probe, throws both long and short and favors his backs as receivers. This will keep the defenses loose, a departure from the past seasons when the inside gag was that Minnesota backs needed a pneumatic drill or pointy heads to pierce the tight defenses thrown against them. "Poor Cuozzo, the more defenses pinched, the more constricted he became," commiserates an ex-teammate.
"We're going to have some heavy stuff for those tight defenses," says Jones. "Eye-openers. The Minnesota offense is going to score points."
Helped by a defense that gave up only 139 points, the fewest in the NFL, Minnesota does not need to hype its scoring very much to be red-hot. Led by Tackle Alan Page, the league's Most Valuable Player, and All-Pro Defensive End Carl Eller, the rush is truly oppressive. While quarterbacks unload frantically, the first-rate linebackers, Wally Hilgenberg, Lonnie Warwick and Roy Winston, drop back quickly to cover the under zones and punish the few ballcarriers who escape the defensive line. With Charlie West, a former minor league centerfielder, challenging Karl Kassulke at strong safety, the secondary's already high interception rate should rise.
In Detroit the great hope is to reach the playoffs—as a wild card. It may be only a hope; Detroit lacks the defense to finish closer than a distant second in the division. "I wish I had four killers up front but since I don't I'll make do with what I have," says Coach Joe Schmidt. What he has are excellent Linebackers Paul Naumoff, Mike Lucci and 15-year man Wayne Walker. Sandwiched between a weak rush line and a shaky secondary, the three blitz often. It is their only chance.
The high-powered offense keeps Detroit respectable and undoubtedly saves Schmidt's job, which is made no easier by the presence on the team of an inordinate number of cliques. ("There have to be 10 different groups on the Lions," says one ex-Detroit player.) It is made easier by the running (530 yards, a season record for quarterbacks) and passing (2,237 yards) of big, durable Greg Landry and the running of Steve Owens (1,035 yards) and Altie Taylor (736 yards). Unworried by the team's $100,000-a-year investment in Landry, Schmidt stresses the dangerous option play. When Landry throws, he can count on solid protection and excellent deep receivers although Tight End Charlie Sanders will be out for some time with a shoulder separation. In 1971 Detroit produced 39 touchdowns, second to Dallas' 50 in the NFC. But the Lions gave up 35, which ranked 10th.
Almost to a man, the pros applaud the promotion of Abe Gibron, whom they consider brilliant, to the head coaching job of the Bears. And almost to a man they bemoan Gibron's fate. "Poor Abe," they say, "he waited so long and now he has so little to work with." Gibron is not interested in sympathy, but he could do with a plaster cast and an Ace Bandage or two. There is the usual casualty list, and Gale Sayers has retired. Defensive Tackle George Seals and Wide Receiver Dick Gordon, though not hurt, refused to play for Chicago.
Still, there is enough material around, particularly on defense, to keep opponents from enjoying an afternoon in Soldier Field. Even a shopworn Dick Butkus intimidates ballcarriers, and Outside Backer Doug Buffone is nearly as physical. So it will be difficult to run against the Bears. The line applies pressure from the outside, where Steve De-Long and Willie Holman are at the defensive ends, but the inside rush could be weak unless Seals, a demon at defensive tackle, agrees to come back. Happily, the secondary is sound and should have improved coverage once outstanding rookie Craig demons works in.
Chicago has junked its complicated system that required the quarterback to read innumerable keys and direct the line-blocking assignments. Bobby Douglass now lets the linemen figure out their blocking angles for themselves. And under the new system he has shown improvement. Still, the Bears essentially will be a running team with the strong Douglass doing much of the legwork or handing off to Jim Harrison, Cyril Pinder or rookie Roger Lawson. The offensive line is a jumble of player switches. It is counting, perhaps prematurely, on Chicago's No. 1 draft pick, Lionel Antoine from Southern Illinois.
At Green Bay Coach Dan Devine has a master plan—don't all coaches?—which is to turn the Packers into a juggernaut. They traded Donny Anderson to St. Louis for 220-pound Halfback MacArthur Lane who runs hard, blocks well and holds on to the ball, a knack Anderson never acquired. Matching Lane with John Brockington, the NFC's top rusher, Devine expects to recapture the wonderful days of Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung. The line is solid, particularly in the middle where recently acquired Guard Malcolm Snider eases the burden on Gale Gillingham. But what then? "Since Bart Starr retired to coach Scott Hunter, the improvement has been amazing," says Brockington. "Starr's a wizard. Even Jerry Tagge [the rookie from Nebraska] looks as if he'll help us this year. That's the wizard again." There is the question of whom Hunter and Tagge will throw to. Only that worthy ancient, Carroll Dale, has the proven ability to shake loose. Provisionally, the Packers will rely on the running of Lane and Brockington.
The team cannot depend upon the punishing hitting of the defense, however, mostly because it is not punishing. The secondary, easily whipsawed, is inexperienced, and the front line seldom gets to the passer. To put it in a kit bag, all the Packers can do this year is smile, smile, smile.
Fans in the ardent, high-flying Central can't get into the stadiums fast enough to see their heroes thump one another.
The march of football medicine rests—rests?—on the shoulders of all those little men.