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NFC Central

On a gloomy day last December the TAMPA BAY Bucs closed out a miserable 5-10-1 season by turning the ball over to the Chicago Bears five times in a 14-13 loss. Almost 17,000 fans didn't show up for the game in Tampa Stadium, and it appeared that one of the NFL's sun-drenched franchises finally had turned chilly, that the fans were adopting the blue-collar toughness of a Buffalo and would start demanding some value for their money.

Not so. An off-season can cure all frustration. And big things were happening in the off-season. Tampa was awarded the 1984 Super Bowl. The Buc organization firmed things up by naming owner Hugh Culverhouse's wife, Joy, a vice-president, and making his son-in-law, Herb Gold, the director of administration. Even though the team went from first to last in its division, season-ticket sales stayed above 50,000. Now, is there real incentive to improve within this context of mindless optimism?

Well, yes. You see, it takes very little improvement by anyone to capture the NFC Central. A 9-7 record usually will swing it. The word from Tampa Bay is that there's a new mood of firmness. Practices are better attended. Meetings, too. Starters will be called upon to play on special teams. Fans have been wincing at the sight of their No. 1 draft, Pittsburgh's Hugh Green, flying downfield on a kickoff.

The draft, on a percentage basis, is the Bucs' best ever. Only eight choices, but three starters have emerged—Green at right outside linebacker; No. 2 James Wilder, a 220-pounder out of Missouri, at the upback spot in the I formation, meaning he'll block for Ricky Bell; and No. 4 John Holt of West Texas State, who'll play right cornerback and run back punts. Green, who will be used as a right-side blitzer, could take a lot of heat off Defensive End Lee Roy Selmon, who got multiple-teamed last year.

More good news is that Quarterback Doug Williams is coming in on target with his passes. "His big trouble last year," one Buc says, "was that he had his worst games on national TV and nobody saw his best ones."

The DETROIT Lions got hit by a very old one-two punch last season. It was called hubris and nemesis—false pride and retribution. Remember that song, Another One Bites the Dust? The Lions were singing it on the sidelines early in the 1980 season. Well, a couple of Lion victims lived to bite back, and at the end of the season the Lions had two sets of tooth marks on their behinds, courtesy of Minnesota and St. Louis, who waited for revenge in the rematches and then rose up to help knock the Lions out of the playoffs. And when it was over, Coach Monte Clark put a big "X" next to that song.

The Lions learned last year that no matter how much magic Halfback Billy Sims has in his legs, when the other guys gang up and outnumber him, there had better be something to draw away their attention. In the first half of the '80 season Sims gained 859 yards and the Lions won five of eight games; in the last half Billy gained only 444 yards and the Lions dropped four of eight. In the first exhibition game last month Dexter Bussey, who'd been a perfect backfield counterpart to Sims, went down for a month with a knee. Exhibition game No. 2 claimed the Lions' No. 1 draft choice San Jose State Wide Receiver Mark Nichols, out for six weeks with a broken left shoulder blade. So the Lions replaced Nichols with Leonard Thompson, who said he deliberately ran out of bounds last year because of his contract problems, a statement he later retracted. As for the matter of Coach Monte Clark's unhappiness with front-office interference, namely by G.M. Russ Thomas, revealed to the world by Quarterback Gary Danielson—that was all cleared up in the off-season, supposedly.

But for all their problems, the Lions will be a fairly de cent team because they've got the muscle where it really counts: in the defensive line, immeasurably strengthened now that Tackle Doug English is back after spending a year in the oil business. The Lions were No. 1 in the NFL at stopping opposing runners last year, and in Right End Bubba; Baker they have the finest pure sack specialist in the league—47 career games, 57 sacks. If the wounded heal on schedule, Detroit could win the division.

The MINNESOTA Vikings crept into the 1980 playoffs on little cat feet (and Ahmad Rashad's miracle catch at the buzzer against the Browns), then made a very hasty exit and withdrew north to go fishing. They left us rubbing our eyes. Were they really there? Was it a mirage, a vision the frozen tundra, or what?

Minnesota is strictly a one-way team—all pass, no rut no defense—and when you go that route, you can only count on more miracles to get you anywhere. The pass-catch game, with Quarterback Tommy Kramer, wide receivers Rashad and Sammy White, Running Back Rickey Young and a converted basketball player named Joe Senser at tight end, is pretty enough, but year-end accounting showed the Vikings very close to the bottom of the NFL in all phases of defense.

For Minnesota, the logical way to approach the draft would have been to trade upward in an attempt to corral the one stud who could inject some life into the defense. Instead, Minnesota threw the gears into reverse and traded down, giving up its No. 1 draft for a bunch of No. 2s—a runner (Nebraska's Jarvis Redwine), a wide receiver (Mississippi State's Mardye McDole) and a linebacker (Texas' Robin Sendlein). None of these has wowed anyone.

Coach Bud Grant has received great credit for keeping the Vikes in a contending role in the NFC Central year after year. What they really are, in the entire NFL context, is a shade above mediocre.

Walter Payton is worth every penny his new CHICAGO Bears' contract calls for, whether it's $600,000 a year or $700,000 or a piece of Lake Michigan shorefront. He has started 79 straight regular-season games; played in all but one game in six years and rushed for at least 1,390 yards a year for the past five seasons. And that was with offenses whose passing often was a joke. Best of all, Walter is only 27 years old. Now the Bears must seriously consider taking some of the load off his back. So far Chicago's attempts to get some sense into its offense haven't been too productive, unless you count the delay-of-game penalty. The Bears perfected that maneuver last year. The coaches would huddle on the sidelines, decide on a play, phone Western Union for a messenger who had a field pass, send him in with instructions for Quarterback Vince Evans, and then watch as the ref walked off five yards for delay.

The cure: Ted Marchibroda, the ex-Baltimore head coach, comes in as the new offensive coordinator, and Dick Stanfel, an interim head coach last year in New Orleans, now handles the offensive line. Evans will call his own plays. There are few quarterbacks as athletically gifted as Evans; certainly no one sets up faster. He has never called his own plays, even in high school, but this might be the right formula for him. The funny thing is that the knock on Marchibroda in his last years with the Colts was that he was too conservative; he didn't let Bert Jones do enough. Stanfel immediately installed No. 1 draft Keith Van Horne of USC at left tackle, and moved Ted Albrecht to guard.

On defense, the Bears are blessed with fine wingmen in Dan Hampton and Mike Hartenstine. Alan Page's lack of bulk at tackle makes a quality middle linebacker essential, and the No. 2 draft, Mike Singletary of Baylor, has shown flashes. The secondary has a terrific strong safety in Gary Fencik, but as a unit it has had shortcomings.

The GREEN BAY Packers were another team whose weekly injury list in 1980 looked like a battlefield report. Twenty-seven Packers were on injured reserve at one time or another. One scout has an interesting theory why this always happens to the Packers; he claims that the physical exams they administer are a bit more lenient than those of other teams, and that the Packers will take players who would flunk elsewhere. It's a gambling game, and so far the wheel has come up double-eagle.

Everybody thinks Bart Starr is on perilous footing, except, that is, for the 45-man board of directors and the seven-man executive committee, which calls the shots. There was a mini-power struggle inside the boardroom after last season, and Starr was stripped of his G.M.'s job. That was just a token gesture; Packer President Dominic Olejniczak won the battle to keep Starr at the helm.

The reason we dwell so long on politics is that it's more fun than talking about the Packers on the field. They were 5-10-1 in 1980 only because they played in the NFC Central. They were the lowest-scoring team in football, and to offset that, they had trouble stopping people. Strengths: James Lofton is an All-Pro wide receiver; if healthy, their linebacking quartet is top-level, particularly George Cumby, who could be a very positive force at an inside line-backing spot now that he's up to 230 pounds. The rest of the Packers' operation will depend on how many people they can keep off injured reserve.


Kramer is the pitcher for pass-happy Minnesota.


Payton always gives Chicago its money's worth.