It's like old times in this division, where the question is not who will win but who will survive. To Abe Gibron, the coach of the Chicago Bears, this is one and the same. The winner of the Black and Blue, Abe predicts, will be the team that is least black and blue.
Only the Detroit Lions don't fit the bruising image. Not that new Head Coach Don McCafferty, who detests the nickname Easy Rider, is making life easy. Since 1968 the Lions have never been anything but No. 2, and McCafferty is insisting that they try harder. He conducted a more physical camp than the Lions have had in years. And if the atmosphere is a little more relaxed than that surrounding his predecessor, Joe Schmidt, he has not relaxed the rules that prohibit mustaches and hair that strays from helmets.
McCafferty even introduced competition to the quarterback position by putting Greg Landry and Bill Munson on an equal footing, although Landry's footing (1,054 yards rushing in the past two seasons) has once again given him the edge. Running should be the Lions' strong suit if Steve Owens, who missed four games last season, stays healthy. The blocking up front is excellent and the receiving, led by All-Pro Tight End Charlie Sanders, who sat out the first five games last year with a shoulder separation, is a bit above par.
The defense is atypical of the division—it has had trouble tackling—but McCafferty expects improvement. Last season Detroit surrendered more rushing yards than all but one other NFC team and tied for next to last in quarterback sacks. The emphasis here has been on youth—Detroit has not made a major trade in five years. The Lions' last three first draft choices—Bob Bell, Herb Orvis and Ernest Price—are battling for the defensive tackle spots.
In 1972 the nimble Lions won just two of six games against their more ponderous division rivals. They feel they can reverse that record if they stay healthy. Alas, Cornerback Rudy Redmond is out for the season and Safety Wayne Rasmussen could miss as many as four games, bad news with a schedule that starts Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Atlanta and Minnesota, and includes games with Miami and Washington.
In Green Bay the Packers packed them in before the preseason started. A sellout crowd of 56,267 gathered in July for the team's annual intrasquad scrimmage and three to four thousand more were turned away at the gate. Coach Dan Devine is making certain that success doesn't spoil his divisional champions. Recently he set a new record in the Lombardi grass drills, pushing his team through 158 up-downs, 60-odd better than the old record—after practice.
Last year the Packer defensive back-field was a presumed weakness with two newcomers, Jim Hill and Willie Buchanon, and two two-year men in new positions. But Hill, the oldest at 26, pulled the group together, Buchanon became Defensive Rookie of the Year and suddenly opponents had to butt their heads against the massive Green Bay line instead of going over it. By season's end the Green Bay defense ranked first in the NFC, yielding less than 110 yards rushing per game and a league-low seven TD passes. This year Devine has beefed up his pass rush with Kansas City's Aaron Brown and Oakland's Carleton Oats.
Green Bay also had the conference's Offensive Rookie of the Year in Place-kicker Chester Marcol, whose 33 field goals solved a long-standing Packer problem. Offensively, the Pack is backs. John Brockington, who last season became the first man in NFL history to rush for over 1,000 yards in each of his first two years, and MacArthur Lane were the best running twosome in the NFC. Brockington has set his sights on 1,500 yards in 1973, and with the Packers' offensive line depth, reinforced by the return to health of All-Pro Guard Gale Gillingham, this goal does not seem too unrealistic.
Lane and Brockington were also the two leading pass receivers, a statistic that pinpoints Green Bay's gravest shortcoming. Last year the Packers were the second-poorest passing team in the pros, so Scott Hunter and Jerry Tagge spent the off-season in Green Bay going to school; Hunter reported to the Packer offices for skull sessions three times a week, Tagge five times. Devine also brought his receivers in for a week at a time for target practice. The receiving, at any rate, should improve since Tight End Rich McGeorge has returned from knee surgery. First draft choice Barry Smith, who is supposed to complement 35-year-old Carroll Dale on the outside, is looking good after a slow start.
Hunter's and Tagge's throwing apparently didn't satisfy Devine, who knows that without passing his Packers will face more of the five-man fronts that the Redskins employed to shut them down in last year's playoffs. Midway through the exhibition schedule he added Jim Del Gaizo, an anxious Dolphin backup with a strong left arm.
Quarterback is no problem in Minnesota. Admittedly, Fran Tarkenton's return last year did not produce the Super Bowl rings that so many predicted, but he deserves none of the blame. He had a very good season, finishing third in the league in passing. Now the Vikings have added Atlanta's Bob Berry, who was ranked right behind Tarkenton.
And, after all, a 7-7 season is not the end of the world. Or is it? In the Minnesota dining hall at training camp a big poster read "7-7." Underneath were listed the scores of seven games, and they were not the wins. A "7-7" stared out from every door and every playbook in camp. Defensive Tackle Gary Larsen, who wore No. 77 last season, wore No. 140 in practice.
Where Minnesota needs help is in its running attack, which was slowed almost to a walk by injuries and age last season. Coach Bud Grant likes to employ all his backs, but he lacks a quick hitter. This year's No. 1 draft pick, Chuck Foreman, looks like he could be the one.
On defense, the return to health of the front four presumably spells splat to opposing quarterbacks, but Grant intends to have Alan Page, Carl Eller, Jim Marshall and Larsen concentrate more on the run. Too many opponents have discovered that running backs can slip by the hard-charging Purple People Eaters.
The loss of Karl Kassulke, who was critically injured in a motorcycle accident, and the status of Charlie West, whose knee is still questionable following surgery in January, makes the defensive secondary worrisome, but of greater concern is the age of the Vikings. Minnesota is treading a thin line between experience and senescence. Marshall is 35, Larsen 33, Eller 31, and the outside linebackers, Roy Winston and Wally Hilgenberg, are 33 and 31 respectively. Not surprisingly, the Vikings' collapse last season came in the fourth quarter. After three years of surrendering 133, 143 and 139 points, Minnesota gave up 111 in the fourth quarter alone in 1972. Grant kids about his aged—one day after practice he kept his over-30 group, all 16 of them, out late replacing divots—but the Vikings are concerned. If Tarkenton is going to lead them to a Super Bowl, it had better be this year.
By contrast, the Chicago Bears allowed opponents only 99 points in the third and fourth quarters of 1972. In nine of the Bears' 14 games they didn't permit a touchdown after the half, testimony to the sort of physical play Abe Gibron conditions his team to with daily scrimmaging. As Detroit's Steve Owens puts it, "The Bears still play like the Canton Bulldogs." True, they won just four times last year but that was four times more than most people expected. Now they are looking for a winning season.
Dick Butkus, who has led the team in tackles and assists in all of his eight pro years, made no secret of his desire to be traded during the off-season, but the Bears weren't about to let their defense go so he is back in the middle of the Chicago intimidation. If Defensive End Willie Holman, who missed last season with an Achilles' tendon injury, can return and if No. 1 choice Wally Chambers can learn to play the run, the defense will be even more formidable.
Last year the Bears led the conference in rushing, but that was a deceptive figure since the primary ground gainer was Quarterback Bobby Douglass and what he gained on the ground he did not gain in the air. Douglass completed only 37.9% of his passes. This year the running attack should be much improved by the addition of New England's disenchanted Carl Garrett. Douglass says he may pass as many as 100 more times this season. That's a frightening prospect to some Bear fans, but the left-handed quarterback bristles at any suggestion of inadequacy. "I'm as good as any thrower around," he says. "Last year we didn't throw percentage passes. If completing 50% of your passes makes you a great quarterback, then by next year you'll be able to say I'm a great quarterback."
Gibron says he will stick with Douglass, squelching the optimism about rookie Gary Huff, who looks like the thrower the Bears have needed for so long. Chicago has added some receiving strength in Tight End Craig Cotton, acquired from Detroit, and Wide Receiver Tom Reynolds, from New England, not to mention the multitalented Garrett.
This is Gibron's second year. In his first, he says, he learned just how slight the difference is between winning and losing—a truism in the NFC Central, where an 8-6 season could take it all.