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NFC CENTRAL division

When the Minnesota Vikings gave the Cowboys all those players and draft choices for running back Herschel Walker last October, people around the league figured, AHA! The Vikes are finally making the kind of deal only Super Bowl-caliber teams make, mortgaging the future for instant gratification. Minnesota general manager Mike Lynn reinforced that thinking when he said, "If we don't go to the Super Bowl, it's a bad trade."

But the cynics—and you can include me among them—felt that the deal was primarily a money-saver. Pay for one big package now, and then for three years you're free of all those hefty salaries, holdouts and the other headaches that accompany high draft picks.

No one, though, envisioned the disruptive effect the trade would have on the Vikings. Walker got his yards (669 in 11 games), but his average per carry (3.9) was the lowest of his NFL or USFL or any other FL career. One year he caught 76 passes for the Cowboys, but last season he caught more in five games with Dallas (22) than he did in 11 games with Minnesota (18).

Offensive coordinator Bob Schnelker was booed unmercifully. Coach Jerry Burns, who labored as an NFL assistant for 20 years, was sad that Schnelker had to take such abuse. And Lynn packed up the whole club in mid-May and took it to the Pecos River Learning Center in New Mexico for three days of rope climbing, cold flapjacks and what he called "improving the lines of communication."

Well, Walker is still the keynote back, and Minnesota has two new men joining Schnelker for offensive strategy—Tom Moore, who coordinated Pittsburgh's offense into last place in the NFL in '89, and Marc Trestman, who was canned as offensive coordinator in Cleveland. All three coaches agree that they have to figure out how to use Walker more effectively, so people won't boo anymore.

A pass-catching Walker should help Wade Wilson, who last season slumped to his lowest quarterback rating in five years. But even worse, Wilson seems to have lost his scrambling and escape skills, which once were a big part of his game. Young Rich Gannon, whom they're pushing hard to replace Wilson, has no trouble in that department, but he's still not in sync with the passing attack.

The defense, the league's best last fall, thanks to the best line (Chris Doleman, Keith Millard, Henry Thomas and Al Noga), will still control the action.

Last September a lot of people thought the Vikings would be a Super Bowl contender, but by season's end they were teetering on the brink of playoff elimination. At least they know each other better now.

I never really understood how good CHICAGO BEARS defensive tackle Dan Hampton was until he was lost for the season after four games last year. With him the Bears were 4-0 and didn't give up more than 27 points in a game. Without him they went 2-10 and allowed more than 30 points five times. Well, Hampton is back, but how much does he have left after 10 knee operations?

Coach Mike Ditka was rough on his team last season and rough on his offensive coordinator, Greg Landry—too rough at times. Ditka has promised to calm down. Jim Harbaugh is said to be ready to make his move at quarterback. No more just throwing bombs and scrambling and dumping off. We'll see. Perhaps the most ominous sign from this organization is what it did on draft day. The Bears, who had the sixth pick in the draft, shopped around until they found the right guy who would come in at their price. They settled for safety Mark Carrier, a head-scratcher of a pick.

The offense wasn't bad last season. It just couldn't carry a Hamptonless defense, which wound up 25th in the league. Once again the offense must kick in if the Bears are going to be in the hunt. Remember this name, please: running back Johnny Bailey, ninth-round draft choice out of Texas A&I, 5'9", 180 pounds, all-time leading collegiate rusher. He could liven things up. Came cheap, too.

The price of magic comes high. Last season GREEN BAY PACKERS quarterback Don Majkowski brought the team to within a heartbeat of the playoffs with his inspirational comebacks, and then held out for $2 million a year.

If I were representing the Packers in negotiations, I would tell Majkowski, "We had the easiest schedule in football, and you've had only one really good year." If I were in Majik's corner, I would say, "Where would you be without me?"

The preseason was devoted to hardball, including the announcement, late in August, that second-year pro Anthony Dilweg, who has thrown one regular-season pass in anger, will be the quarterback in the opener. It might cheer Packer fans to know that he completed that pass, for a nifty seven-yard gain. And maybe the announcement was just a negotiating ploy; sacrifice the opener (against the Rams in Green Bay) to get the Majik Man back.

When you scrape away last season's glitter, you see a club that's flawed in one big area—pass rush. The Packers had 34 sacks, and linebacker Tim Harris accounted for 19½ of them. The entire line had only 7½ sacks, or 22% of the total, which the coaches defend by pointing to the difficult rush angles in the 3-4 defense. But of the 21 teams that used the 3-4 in '89, 51% of their sacks came from the line; the seven 4-3 teams got 76% from the line. No pressure on enemy quarterbacks, too much rust on the Majik Man: It's oh-oh time for the Pack.

Do you want me to tell you how the DETROIT LIONS will do? O.K., tell me who their quarterback will be. Rodney Peete? Nifty guy, bad knee. Andre Ware? Long holdout. Bob Gagliano? Knows the run-and-shoot offense cold and led the Lions on a five-game winning streak that brought them to 7-9 and back to the ranks of the living at the end of last season. Still, he had twice as many interceptions (12) as touchdown passes (6).

Let's look at this run-and-shoot, which Philadelphia coach Buddy Ryan calls the chuck-and-duck. It was supposed to light up the Silverdome last year, but when the final tally was in, Barry Sanders' running was the big news. Detroit finished third from last in the league in passing.

The Lions won the final five games because they ran the ball well and got good defense from such stalwarts as linebacker Chris Spielman, nosetackle Jerry Ball and outside linebacker Mike Cofer. And Detroit had the NFL's finest special teams, with Eddie Murray kicking, Jim Arnold punting, Mel Gray returning and Crash Gansz coaching. Not a bad formula for 1990, either. If Ware gets enough reps to eventually be useful, it'll be frosting on the cake.

The run-and-shoot has a mesmerizing effect on some people; a few handicappers have awarded the Lions playoff status. But so far it is unproven, just another gimmick in a league that has a history of them.

The TAMPA BAY BUCS are gambling. They're gambling that the right knee of their top draft pick, linebacker Keith McCants, the $6 million man, holds up. So far, it has been sore. They're gambling that their second-round selection, running back Reggie Cobb, has put his drug problems behind him. So far, he has. They're gambling that running back Gary Anderson can be just as dangerous as he was for San Diego before he sat out last season. The Bucs had to give the Chargers two high draft picks to find out.

The team that traditionally has had one of the lowest payrolls in football is spending some money. If Vinny Testaverde can throw more touchdowns than interceptions for the first time in his three-year career, if the new defensive coaches can somehow put together a pass rush and a secondary...well, that's a lot of ifs for the worst team of the '80s.




Testaverde must get the Bucs' passing off the ground.