Most teams spend their training camp putting in an offense, working on a defense, practicing the kicking game, finding a rookie. The Lions found...well, Dr. J. Dr. Jerry. Dr. Jerry Argovitz, as in "I'm here to represent Billy Sims." And in the other corner, the blue corner, representing the Detroit Lions—General Manager Russ Thomas, owner William Clay Ford and the lawyers, as in "We've turned it over to the lawyers." And so, on sunny August days they were choosing their partners for the Contract Polka.
It went like this: "The guy's nuts, he's trying to negotiate a contract he himself got for Billy two years ago."
"Now waaait just one minute, podnah, all of us agreed that if Billy performed like the best in the NFL he'd get paid accordingly in his fourth year, his option year. We agreed, all of us, we even shook hands on it."
"See that, the guy's nuts, he's trying to negotiate a fourth year before the kid's even played his third, and besides, verbal agreements aren't allowed."
"But we agreed, dammit, shook hands, high-fived."
"Tell him to come to camp."
"I doubt he'll ever wear a Lions uniform again."
"Yeah, sez me, and we can turn it over to our lawyers, too."
No Billy, the Detroit offense goes poof. Eric Hippie? Nice little quarterback, that. Not as much fun without Billy to throw to, though. Offensive line? Good sturdy bunch, but it's more enjoyable blocking for Billy. Nice defense, fine defensive line—Bill Gay, Dave Pureifory, Doug English. Bubba Baker—as good as they come. But it's more fun playing defense when your offense keeps you off the field. Billy keeps you off the field. Stats say the Lions' defense spent less time on the field than any other team in the NFL last year. Sure is nice having Billy around.
The Lions, with Billy, have enough cards in their deck to win the division. They would have won it last year, except for some last-minute errors that are too painful to go into now. Bubba Baker has a very nasty groin pull that extends into the muscles of his stomach; they're hoping he comes out for Round 1. The defensive linemen must get over the shock of losing their much-respected coach, Floyd Peters. They should. Grown men don't cry. Rookies? No big help right away, but file this name under "sleepers": Rick Porter, 12th-round running back from Slippery Rock. Not another Billy Sims, but then who is?
Why do we figure the Chicago Bears for a second-place finish? Schedule. End up one through four in a division, and the next year's schedule is pretty much a push. But finish fifth, ah, fifth, and does the NFL ever throw you some cupcakes. I can hear the Bears' new coach, Mike Ditka, now: "Doesn't that damn fool know that they're all tough in the NFL?" But honestly, Mike, would you rather face the toughest four teams in the AFC East, as the rest of your division must, or Seattle and New England, as Chicago does? Two of the three NFC East's heavies, or St. Louis on a home-and-home? That's what finishing fifth last year did for the Bears. Only two 1981 playoff teams, the 49ers and Bucs, are on the '82 slate.
This is cop-out talk, and the Bears must still beat people on the field, but look for them to get out of the blocks fast. Ditka's diet of full contact work in camp will have them mean and tough in September. The complicated offense he imported from Dallas had some people scratching their heads at first, but they caught on. No longer will Walter Payton find himself running into grinning linebackers. Wide Receiver Jimmy Scott is back from Canada to add distance to the passing game. If Quarterback Vince Evans can learn to control his high, hard one, or if No. 1 draft Jim McMahon makes a real run at the position, the Bears' offense could join the '80s.
McMahon gimped around camp for a while on a sore knee, and he rested a sore arm, but in his first exhibition game—instant action. One quarter of work, two significant TD drives. He could be the real thing.
Holes in the line, though. Left Tackle Dennis Lick—postoperative knee. Left Guard Noah Jackson—sensational against the Randy Whites and Doug Englishes, but his attention wanders when he faces the so-sos. Center Dan Neal—solid but aging. Right Guard Revie Sorey—out for some early games with a partially torn larynx. Right Tackle Keith Van Horne—green and inconsistent.
On defense, the whole has been greater than the sum of its parts, although there are some very talented parts (Right Tackle Dan Hampton, switched from left end. Left End Mike Hartenstine, Strong Safety Gary Fencik, Left Cornerback Terry Schmidt) and some projected superparts (Middle Linebacker Mike Singletary, Right End Al Harris).
An interesting new face is tiny (5'8", 173 pounds) rookie Dennis Gentry, either darting out of the backfield or returning punts. Scouts have come up with an interesting term for these Joe Delaney-Bruce Harper types. They call them "instant impact" players.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Not meaning to make any trouble, but there are a few things about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that puzzle me. Why has Coach John McKay's picture been on the cover of four of the last five Buc media guides? Why did Tom Bass, the only defensive coordinator the Bucs had ever had, the man who built all those fine units and whose pass defense gave up fewer touchdowns than anyone last year, jump to San Diego? Writers have selected six yearly MVPs since the club was formed, and half of them have been traded away. Why? Why do superstars seem to go sour after a few years there?
Lee Roy Selmon, the great defensive end, is certainly not in that category. No siree. The players around the league all know how good he is, even though he has been outnumbered by the blockers in the Bucs' three-man-rush-scheme. Just look what he did as part of a four-man line in the Pro Bowl. Four sacks, that's all. The upcoming season should be a bit brighter for him. Wayne Fontes, the new defensive boss, says Right Linebacker Hugh Green will be doing a lot more blitzing, taking some of the pressure off Selmon, helping to break up the double team. Under Bass the linebackers would take fairly deep drops, give up the underneath stuff and knock hell out of the pass receiver. It was part of a give-up-yards-but-not-points philosophy. Fontes says the Bucs now will shorten things up and cover quicker.
McKay strongly defends his quarterback, Doug Williams, against critics who say his arm has too much scatter in it. Anyone who has faced Williams knows he can do it to you quicker than anyone in the game. The Raiders found out last year. After almost three quarters of ho-hum, Williams started throwing rockets—325 yards' worth in the last 22 minutes. He's coming off his best year, the only one of his four NFL seasons in which he completed more than 50% of his passes.
Dallas got to him in the playoffs, though, overrunning the Buc line with a furious all-out rush. That made people a bit nervous about Tampa Bay's offensive-line prospects for 1982, but in the first round the Bucs grabbed Penn State's all-everything guard, Sean Farrell, who's gradually working his way into the lineup. The Bucs caused some stir on draft day when they traded a 1983 No. 1 to get a second-round pick in order to take Defensive End Booker Reese, and then a story broke that they had submitted the wrong name on the first round—it should have been Reese, not Farrell, all along—but the Bucs staunchly deny this. They also add that Reese is closing in on a starting position. He'll help shore up a pass rush that has declined in the last two years.
Quick now, who holds the record for most passes attempted in a season? San Diego, you say. Forget it. The Minnesota Vikings threw 80 more than the Chargers last year. Completed more, too. Both alltime records. The running game? Well, last year I saw a Viking play that looked like this: three wide receivers left, tailback goes in motion right, one of the wide receivers runs a reverse right, with the left tackle, the off-tackle, pulling and leading the interference. Picked up a first down, too.
All this fancy stuff comes from the brain of Offensive Coordinator Jerry Burns, whose attack once upon a time was Bill Brown and Dave Osborne snorting off tackle, with Joe Kapp leading the blocking, a concept as punishing as the horns on the Viking helmet. "We had to change with the times," Burns said. "We had to open things up."
The Vikes' new stadium, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, is built for that—they'll be playing under glass and on a carpet. Just right to showcase their No. 1 draft, flashy Running Back Darrin Nelson, who'll put even more whoosh into the offense. The idea is to get Nelson playing in space, to shift him out of the backfield into the slot as a third wide receiver for Quarterback Tommy Kramer, to keep the defense guessing. It's a backfield loaded with pass receivers—Tony Galbreath, Sam Harrell, Rickey Young—and one designated runner, Teddy Brown. Last year Brown carried the ball more than twice as many times as the rest of the team combined.
It's all very pretty, but the Vikings stopped being a dominant force in the NFC when their old Purple Gang defense broke up. It has been five years since their defense finished in the top half of the NFC, six years since they had any kind of formidable pass rush. Ex-Eagle Defensive Tackle Charlie Johnson firms them up against the run but he won't get to the passers. For the second straight year they drafted for offense, but only Nelson figures to make any kind of impact there.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers like to play a little shell game on draft day. In 1981 their player personnel director, Dick Corrick, said Green Bay had no interest in Rich Campbell, the Cal quarterback. Too immobile, too banged up. Nope, USC Tackle Keith Van Home was the man. Then the Packers drafted Campbell, not Van Home, with their first choice.
This year they let it be known that Michigan Tackle Bubba Paris would be their pick in the first round. No question about it. So they selected Iowa Guard Ron Hallstrom. Got a million of 'em, fellas. Want to know our first-round pick next year? Well, the University of Chicago has this 180-pound linebacker....
But here comes the accounting: Campbell is still the Packers' third-string quarterback behind Lynn Dickey and David Whitehurst, neither of whom has ever finished very high in the Pro Bowl balloting. Van Home is a starter at Chicago. Hallstrom hasn't emerged as a serious challenger on an offensive line that gave up nine sacks to the Jets in the 1981 finale, a game that cost the Pack a playoff spot. Paris is the starting left tackle for the Super Bowl champion 49ers. The last two Packer drafts haven't yielded a single offensive or defensive starter, and Green Bay couldn't sign its top choice in '80, Defensive End Bruce Clark. Time to get serious, fellas.
Not everything the Packers have done has been silly, though. They got there firstest with the mostest when San Diego was ready to trade away J.J. Jefferson, thus supplying James Lofton with the only man who can jump high enough for his high five. Best wide-out combo in football. Even better if 4.35 sprinter Phil Epps bounces back from his knee injury and continues to dazzle everyone, as he did in camp, and better yet if Dickey or Whitehurst gets the time to deliver the ball. There are some high-powered names in that offensive unit. Paul Coffman is the perfect tight end to complement Jefferson and Lofton. Fullback Gerry Ellis and Halfback Eddie Lee Ivery caught 115 passes between them—albeit a year apart; Ellis caught his 65 last year, Ivery his 50 the year before. That was Ivery's only healthy season. In the last two odd years, 1981 and '79, Ivery was totaled for the season, each time with a knee injury and each time in the opening game against the Bears. The odds are with him this time. It's an even year, and the Packers open against the Rams.
The offensive line has some sturdy battlers, such as Center Larry McCarren and Left Guard Darrel Gofourth, but it has lacked continuity for years, and not even the dazzle of a Jefferson and a Lofton can cover up a weak underpinning. It wasn't dazzle, though, but defense that made the Pack a playoff contender last year, a relentless, fly-to-the-ball defense that led the NFL in takeaways, led by a terrific outside linebacker, Mike Douglass.
Finally, the ongoing saga of Bart Starr's contract. He has a new two-year deal, but the new Packer president. Judge Robert Parins, says that could turn into a one-year-and-out if things don't get better. So what else is new?
Detroit's hopes for the playoffs depend on one man—Billy Sims; the Bucs' Williams (12) is thisclose to putting everything together.
Kramer directs a razzle-dazzle offense that isn't a throwback to the Viking attack of yore.
Tampa Bay 7-9
Green Bay 5-11