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There are a lot of candidates for fourth place and only one for first in this division. The Minnesota Vikings have a virtual lock on the title; they have taken six of the past seven. So what if they slipped up in 1972; after all, it was Fran's first year back.

That's not to say people aren't optimistic in those other towns, FRESH START WITH BART proclaim bumper stickers in Green Bay. Jack Pardee has escaped from the WFL and is restoring pride to the Chicago Bears. And the Lions have moved into spanking-new Pontiac Metropolitan Stadium (capacity 80,399) with all the high hopes that go with a new home. Still, in December, when the dust clears or the Astro Turf is vacuumed, the big question will be: Who's in second?

Leading the battle of the bridesmaids will be the Chicago Bears, who haven't fashioned a winning season since 1967. They were so bad last year they didn't even produce a highlight film ("There just weren't any highlights," says a Bear official). Instead, they made a preview film called—get this—"History of Pride, Future of Promise." Pompous as that may sound, the Bears may just be the most improved team in the NFL.

They are certainly in the running for the most changed team. Vice-President and General Manager Jim Finks, hired on the eve of the 1974 season, sat back and watched the Bears flounder to a 4-10 record point. Perhaps he winced when they went 22 quarters without a touchdown. No doubt he grimaced when they averaged 2¼ points per game during one four-week stretch. But nary a change did he make—until after the season.

Head Coach Abe Gibron was suddenly gone with the wind, the Chicago Winds, that is, of the WFL. And gentlemanly Jack Pardee was hired in Abe's place on New Year's Eve. Pardee is a quiet, dedicated fellow who coached the Florida Blazers to the WFL's World Bowl and even inspired them to play out their season without paychecks. Pardee brought five assistant coaches with him to the Bears' new training camp in Lake Forest, one of Chicago's most affluent suburbs.

So Finks had himself a new coach and a new camp; now he needed some new players. Moving to bolster an offense that ranked 25th in the NFL in total points and average gain per play, the Bears made Walter Payton their No. 1 draft pick. Payton, from Jackson State, is the leading scorer in NCAA history. He is, in fact, being compared with Gale Sayers, a comparison Payton rejects. "Sayers is the man," he says, "and he'll always be the man." Payton and Roland Harper, a 17th-round pick, will be fighting for the halfback spot. Finks also traded away a draft choice for veteran Fullback Cid Edwards of the San Diego Chargers, who should provide solidity and experience.

It just wouldn't be football season in Chicago if the quarterback position weren't up in the wind somewhere. Last year, Gary Huff started the first 11 games and failed to move the team. So Bobby Douglass will probably be back there this year. Douglass is a proven runner (968 yards rushing in 1972), but his career-completion percentage of .421 is hideously low. He should be able to improve that by throwing to a receiving corps enhanced by the acquisition of Ron Shanklin from Pittsburgh, but he still must set up behind a weak offensive line. Hefty Noah Jackson (260 pounds) is in from the Canadian League to help at guard.

The defense is strongest at linebacker. Ten-year veteran Doug Buffone will be calling the plays, relieving NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year Waymond Bryant, who is on his way to becoming one of the NFL's best middle backers. Jimmy Gunn, third man in tackles made last season, will round out a fine threesome. Defensive Tackle Wally Chambers is on the line and Nemiah Wilson was acquired from the Raiders to strengthen the secondary. The Midway Monsters of 1975 may not exactly be behemoths, but there shouldn't be any problem finding footage for a highlight film.

Up in football-crazy Green Bay, Bart Starr, the people's choice, is being hailed as the next messiah. They are saying the departure of Dan Devine can do nothing but help the organization and morale of the Packers. "He just tore the team apart," says Fullback John Brockington. Although the Packers made the playoffs under Devine in 1972, Packer backers are quick to point out that Starr just happened to be assistant coach that year. Starr has brought discipline to a squad desperately in need of it. But that is a modest start for a 6-8 team badly shaken by retirement, defection, lack of draft choices and a quarterback who hasn't begun to justify the astonishing price paid for him.

The Packers gave up heart and soul—not to mention two first-, two second-and one third-round draft choice—to obtain John Hadl from Los Angeles last October. Hadl, 35, had the second-lowest completion rate (47.5%) of NFC regulars for 1974. One local sportswriter called the Packers "the worst first-and-goal team in the NFL." As a result, Chester Marcol, the Pack's Polish placekicker, led the league in scoring with 94 points.

Brockington, who has averaged 1,040 yards in his four seasons at Green Bay, provides scoring punch but he will miss the blocking of MacArthur Lane, now with the Chiefs. Impressive mini-rookie Willard Harrell (5'8¼") may fill Lane's shoes.

Not even O.J. can run if there aren't any holes, but that's the problem with the Packer offensive line: too many holes. All-Pro Gale Gillingham was one of three starting linemen to retire, and tackle Bill Hayhoe is out for the season.

Defense kept the Packers near .500 last season, but the loss of All-Pro Linebacker Ted (Mad Stork) Hendricks, who played out his option and went to Oakland, will certainly hurt. The front four is still strong, however, and could keep the Pack in some close games. The good people of Green Bay should not expect miracles from Starr. He says simply, "We have a big task in front of us."

Not as big as the one Coach Rick Forzano faces at Detroit. After six straight seconds in the division, the Lions' motto this year is "Now to Win." It should read "Second is Good Enough."

What offense Detroit was able to generate last year rested largely in the hands of Ron Jessie, who snared 54 passes for 761 yards and three TDs. Jessie made a paltry $16,000 a year. "They treated me like a damn slave," he says. So he played out his option and went to the Rams. The Lions are getting only a draft choice in return, Cullen Bryant—Pete Rozelle's compensation player—having floated in and out of their grasp. Dennis Franklin, who played quarterback for Michigan, is being given a shot as Jessie's replacement.

Bill Munson is recovering from injuries, so he and Greg Landry will share the quarterback duty. There wasn't a single 100-yard rushing game last year from a Lion back-field that ranked 24th in the league, and that situation isn't likely to improve because Steve Owens is sidelined with a bad knee. All-Pro Center Ed Flanagan also went West, and his replacement, Guy Dennis, walked out of camp in August. The only bright spots on the offense are Charlie Sanders at tight end and Placekicker Errol Mann, who calls himself a "conventional, old cloddy kicker" but scored 92 points in 1974. Forzano has essentially the same defense that ranked 12th in the NFC, with the secondary being its strongest element. Detroit won six of its seven games by five points or less. Some of those will be going the other way this year.

Placidly sitting atop the Central Division is staid old Minnesota. Staid? "We are not an emotional team," says Head Coach Bud Grant. He doesn't give his players pep talks, he just gives them the football. Old? The defensive line averages 32, but anyone who wants to tell Carl Eller or Alan Page they're too old for football isn't playing with a full deck. "Where we've got age, we've got quality depth," says Grant. He's right. The Vikings' first draft pick was 242-pound Defensive End Mark Mullaney, who will eventually replace 37-year-old Jim Marshall.

Fran Tarkenton is 35. Is it tough to quarterback at that age? "Sure, it's a grind," Tarkenton says. "I was exhausted after the Super Bowl, but a month later I was ready to play." Fran has a two-year contract and a chance to break four of Unitas' records. Naw, he's not too old.

The offensive linemen are all under 30, with the exception of Center Mick Tingelhoff. Grant has a backup, John Henry Ward, all ready. And behind them there's Chuck Foreman, who gained 777 yards rushing and snagged 53 passes for 586 more. Foreman is 24. So what if Wide Receiver John Gilliam has gone? He was fifth on the team in receiving last year and Sam McCullum (19.7 yards per reception) should do even better than that when he recovers from a shoulder separation. Wait, there is one problem. Fred Cox. He's 36 years old and last year missed 18% of his extra points and 62% of his field-goal attempts from 30 yards and out.

But the Vikings have the best regular-season record in their conference (.743) since the 1970 merger and have 21 starters back from a 10-4 near-Super year. Only two teams on Minnesota's schedule were over .500 last season. No, the Vikings still haven't won the Super Bowl. Something to shoot for. Sure, they're old. So is good whiskey.