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NFC Central


Barring a miracle, the world will be spared the sight of the Minnesota Vikings losing their fifth Super Bowl game next January in New Orleans. For eight of the last nine years, the Vikings have won the old black-and-blue division almost by default, but now the feisty Chicago Bears show a striking resemblance to the Monsters of the Midway of yore and, as a result, the Vikings may not have to do their Christmas shopping between playoff practices in Tulsa. In addition to two games with the Bears, Minnesota plays Oakland, Los Angeles, Dallas, St. Louis and Cincinnati this season. Moreover, the major asset of recent Viking teams—experience—should now be reclassified as a liability called old age. Nine of Coach Bud Grant's starters are at least 32 years old, and they acted about twice their age in Minnesota's most recent Super Bowl debacle.

However, there are two pieces of good news for the people in the land of the frozen tailgate. First, Francis A. Tarkenton has consented to interrupt his careers as a television commentator and a computer conglomerate to perform at quarterback for his 17th season. With newly arrived Wide Receivers Sammy White and Ahmad Rashad in the lineup, Tarkenton rediscovered the home-run ball last year; White, the NFC's best rookie, and Rashad each caught more than 50 passes, and White had 10 touchdown receptions.

In addition, Chuck Foreman, the normally disgruntled running back and short-pass catcher, claims he is happier now than ever. The reason for Foreman's euphoria is that the Vikings rewrote his contract after he announced he would never play for them again. "It's like lifting a two-ton weight off my head," says Foreman, who last season rushed for 1,155 yards, caught 55 passes for 567 more and scored 14 touchdowns. "I want to gain 2,000 yards," he says. "Tell Fran Tarkenton to give me the ball 30 limes a game and I'll do it. I think I'm the best all-round back in football."

That takes care of the Minnesota attack. Now who's going to take care of the defense? For years Grant has been saying, "Our defense bent but it didn't break." In the Super Bowl the Raiders not only broke the Viking defenders, they folded, spindled and mutilated them. Linemen Jim Marshall, Carl Eller and Alan Page are past their prime, as are Linebacker Wally Hilgenberg and Safety Paul Krause. Grant imported Safety Bill Bradley from Philadelphia, but he didn't work out, so Grant can only hope that such prospects as Linemen Mark Mullaney and James White and Linebackers Matt Blair and Fred McNeill play up to their potential. What the Vikings really need is more Nates; the two they've got, Allen and Wright, combined for 10 interceptions and headed the unit that blocked 16 kicks last season.

"If there has been a major accomplishment," says Grant, "it has been meeting the challenge of putting a team on the field each year that is competitive and contending." Grant may find the contending part a bit difficult this season.

Walter Payton led all NFC rushers last year with a Chicago Bear-record 1,390 yards. He has had nine 100-yard-plus games in his two pro seasons, he owns or shares five club records, and he already is the team's ninth-leading career ground-gainer. And his nickname is Sweetness. But all was not sweetness for the 7-7 Bears last year as they discovered that the one-man offense went out with the dropkick and the center sneak. Now the Bears will join the rest of the NFL and use a quarterback.

Chicago wooed innovative tactician Sid Gillman from semiretirement in La Jolla, Calif. and installed him as offensive coordinator. The Bears also surrendered a pair of draft choices, including their No. 1 pick next year, to Cleveland in exchange for Quarterback Mike Phipps, who was touted as "another Griese" when he left Purdue seven years ago but has never lived up to those lofty expectations. Phipps' competition is Bob Avellini, a scatter arm who completed only 43.5% of his passes last season and had the second-worst passing rating in the NFC. Gillman has altered the Bears' stodgy formations, revised blocking techniques and made receivers run deeper patterns. And he plans to have Payton catch more than the 15 passes he grabbed last year. But while all this may sound terrific, the real question is whether Phipps and/or Avellini can make it all work.

On defense, the Bears have no such problems. Coach Jack Pardee plans to maximize the talents of Wally Chambers by using him as a "specialist," playing him at different line positions according to down, distance and the opponent's personnel. It was felt that the moody Chambers needed some extra incentive—"He should work harder, but he's an All-Pro as it is, so what are you going to tell him?" says one Chicago assistant—so the club ripped up the option clause in his contract and now Chambers will be a free agent at the end of the season, with Chicago retaining the right to match the highest bid. "The gamble was for both of us," says Chambers. "I plan on this being one of my best—if not my best—years. I am confident in Wally Chambers."

The Bears need help at linebacker—Ross Brupbacher has retired to his law office and Doug Buffone is trying to return from an Achilles-tendon operation—but Chicago is improving and could well unseat the Vikings.

"I want an attacking team. I'd rather go down with my guns blazing. We're going to have to make a couple of key trades. We've got to have some big-play players. And as long as I own the team and get the rap for losing, we might as well lose my way." Thus spoke Detroit Lion owner Bill Ford last year at the end of his club's dismal 6-8 season. So the Lions paid dearly to acquire Kenny Stabler and Chuck Foreman—right? Wrong! As usual, they did nothing. Oh, they tried to hire Chuck Knox away from the Rams as head coach and general manager, but they even botched that. The new coach is the same man who led the Lions in the last 10 games of the 1976 season, Tommy Hudspeth.

Luckily for Hudspeth, he has a three-year contract. Unluckily, the Lions' offensive line—the unit that permitted Quarterbacks Greg Landry and Joe Reed to be sacked a whopping 67 times a year ago—is still not very good, and Fullback Lawrence Gaines had a second knee operation during training camp and was out for the preseason. Marv Hubbard, who missed the 1976 season after shoulder surgery, has been acquired from Oakland—but when was the last time Al Davis gave away a capable player? On defense, Herb Orvis is the only Lion lineman of renown, so Bill Ford will again have to take the rap for losing.

Bart Starr maintains that 1977 launches "Phase Three," his third season as coach of the Green Bay Packers and the year he hopes his rebuilding program will "turn the corner artistically." If that happens, Starr can thank his lucky stars for Chester Marcol. But a team needs more than a superior placekicker to turn a corner in any fashion, much less artistically, and the Packers are short in all other areas.

On defense, the Packers are peppered with ifs. If rookie Defensive End Mike Butler lives up to expectations, if Middle Linebacker Jim Carter is fully recovered from his broken arm and other injuries, and if Mike C. McCoy can develop at right cornerback, then there is a chance that Green Bay will not give up points in geometric progression. On offense, Guards Gale Gillingham and Bruce Van Dyke have retired, leaving gaping holes in a line that already resembled cheesecloth. And the line is the least of Starr's problems. The running game, once so promising with John Brockington, is unimpressive, and Quarterback Lynn Dickey has never played up to his college press clippings. Wait till Phase Four, Bart.

What can you say about a team that lost its No. 1 and No. 2 quarterbacks (Mike Boryla and Gary Huff) with exhibition-season injuries and may have to open the season with an eighth-round draft choice from Minot State (N. Dak.)—someone named Randy Hedberg—calling signals? A team with a running back (Anthony Davis) who may be the only player ever to be a rookie three times—in the WFL, the CFL and now the NFL? A team whose roster includes the son of the coach (J. K. McKay), two starters who are brothers (Lee Roy and Dewey Selmon), and a free-agent linebacker from Miami (Cecil Johnson) who selected the Bucs over three other clubs bidding for him because "If I didn't make it, I wouldn't have a long, sad ride home"? What can you say about a team that set an NFL record by going 0-14 in its first season and had 17 players on injured reserve? Unfortunately, you can't say much, and Coach John McKay doesn't even try. Asked to assess his Tampa Bay Buccaneers, McKay pulled out a cartoon that showed a coach explaining his lineup to a reporter while his players fumble and bumble in the background. The caption read, "I think we should start with our strongest weakness."

The Bucs' strongest weakness has to be youth. Their average age is 24. The defensive line has a total of 11 years of pro experience. The second-strongest weakness is at running back, although Davis and NFL No. 1 draft pick Ricky Bell, both of whom starred under McKay at USC, will find the NFL tougher going than the Pac 8. Once again, the best thing about the Bucs will be McKay's one-liners.