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Original Issue

NFC central

When the Chicago Bears played the Steelers in the preseason, a pair of Chicago rookies were impressive: defensive tackle Alonzo Spellman, their first-round pick, who's an agile, relentless pursuit guy; and offensive tackle Troy Auzenne, a second-rounder, who seemed to plug into Chicago's mobile line. Then in the fourth quarter another rookie popped my eyes open, a terrifying guy who blotted out the moon: 6'7", 350-pound Louis Age, offensive tackle, 11th-round choice. On his pass blocks he was heaving guys right off the TV screen.

The Bears always draft low, but they always get guys who can help them. Bill Tobin, their player personnel director, might be the best in the business. If Spellman and Auzenne both become starters, which is likely, Tobin's draft record will be 17 first-stringers out of a total of 22 players selected in the first and second rounds since he took the job in 1984. That is the main reason that Chicago has been in the playoffs for seven of the last eight years, a record matched only by the 49ers.

But Tobin's talent machine will be put to the test in the next few years because Chicago is showing some age. Nine players who started in last year's playoff loss to the Cowboys are now 30 or older—not a disastrous figure, but it's getting up there.

Two weeks into the preseason, coach Mike Ditka said this Bear team was better than his 1985 Super Bowl champions at the same stage of the campaign. That was after he had threatened to resume two-a-days because he was unhappy with the way practices were going, and during a period in which he expressed his unhappiness that star running back Neal Anderson had not spent enough time rehabilitating his injured hamstring at the team's training facility in the off-season. Seems that Mike is playing both good cop and bad cop these days. So what else is new? His system is time-tested. Chicago will be right up there again, ready to take the division title away from Detroit.

Everyone is still trying to figure out how the Detroit Lions came from nowhere to win the NFC Central. The easy explanation is that they sneaked up on teams, caught them unawares. Here's another theory: defense. Statistically the Lions' D was last in the NFL in 1990, but right around the middle of the pack last season, when it gave up almost 700 fewer yards than the year before while the offense was gaining nearly 200 fewer.

Defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer's crew was bustling and aggressive. They intimidated people, made things happen. Three Detroit defensive players were chosen for the Pro Bowl—nose-tackle Jerry Ball, free safety Bennie Blades and inside linebacker Chris Spielman—the Lions' heaviest representation since the Alex Karras teams of the 1960s. Yet after Washington pounded the Lions in the NFC Championship Game, Detroit coach Wayne Fontes said of the Redskin offensive players, "They were just too big, too strong." Ten days later he hired Dan Henning, who had spent four years helping to run that big, strong Washington system, to put some more thump into the Lion offense.

Which means that Detroit's run-and-shoot, the Silver Streak, will now show more tight-end alignments, which means another blocker or two for Barry Sanders, who makes the whole thing go. The offensive line is still in disarray, following the off-season death of left guard Eric Andolsek, a tragic aftermath to the loss of right guard Mike Utley, who was paralyzed by an injury late last season.

Keeping the pass rushers away from quarterback Rodney Peete will be a major project. The Lions were 5-2 when he ruptured his Achilles tendon last season. Then they got lucky with Erik Kramer, who stepped in and was better than anyone expected. He led Detroit to seven wins and then turned in a magnificent playoff performance against Dallas.

The Lions should be solid, but the days of sneaking up on people are over.

Herschel Walker was unloaded in May, and thus ended the final chapter of one of the most one-sided trades in league history. But you have to understand the real reason that the Minnesota Vikings gave Dallas all those high draft choices and players for Walker, and why the ordeal really isn't over for the Vikings. Former Minnesota general manager Mike Lynn was a bottom-line guy with a financial stake in the club. The trade was a money-saver: Pay one big salary and then for three years you don't have to worry about all those costly signing packages for first-and second-round picks.

Into this scene, stripped of three years' worth of high draft picks (except for the 1992 second-round choice the Vikings got from Seattle for Keith Millard), steps new coach Dennis Green—a butt-kicker, they say, a shake-'em-up guy. Minnesota exploded out of the box, winning all four of its preseason games by a combined score of 140-6. Seems that Green was trying to prove something early.

He has got enough quality people to put points on the board—halfback Terry Allen, wideout Anthony Carter, tight end Steve Jordan—but the defense is aging. The best-known names, end Chris Doleman, cornerback Carl Lee and linebacker Mike Merriweather, are all older than 30.

Vinny Testaverde is working with his third head coach and fifth quarterback coach in six seasons with the Tampa Bay Bucs. The guy's head must be filled with a jumble of X's and O's. He hears all those voices in his sleep: "Air it out." "Tighten it up." "Control the ball." "Stretch the defense." Now he's running Sam Wyche's quick-huddle, attack offense. Will the two of them be on the same page, in the same book, on the same planet?

Once you get past that question, there are many upbeat things about the new marriage of Wyche, the former coach of the Bengals, and the Bucs. The community loves him. He made more than 90 luncheon and charity-event appearances in his first 100 days in Tampa. The black players must have noticed that he has five black assistants. Management loosened the purse strings and let him bring in 10 players on Plan B, most noticeably guard Bruce Reimers.

The defense, under holdover coordinator Floyd Peters, is better than the one Wyche had in Cincinnati, thanks to guys like tackle Reuben Davis, end Keith McCants and linebacker Broderick Thomas. The schedule is kind, with the first two games, against Phoenix and Green Bay, both winnable and at home.

The Green Bay Packers' new general manager, Ron Wolf, is a solid football man. Their rookie coach, Mike Holmgren, was a brilliant offensive coordinator for San Francisco. To them we can say, Buckle up, gentlemen. Keep your chin straps fastened. It's going to be rough for a while.

Training camp was a mess of injuries and holdouts, with the most significant absentee being first-round draft pick Terrell Buckley, a cornerback who has already demanded to be traded and has signed a minor league contract with the Atlanta Braves.

Quarterback Don Majkowski, the wonder boy of 1989, has been injured repeatedly behind a decaying offensive line. Holmgren has shortened Majkowski's drop and has him throwing on rhythm, 49er style, to keep him away from the horns of the rush.

Green Bay has to run the ball, Holmgren says, but the only back he has is sturdy, but not speedy, Darrell Thompson, who finished 36th among NFL ballcarriers with 471 yards last year. The defense, when healthy, could be O.K. Keep an eye on linebacker George Koonce, a World League pickup, who was the leading tackier in the spring league.

The season opens with four games against teams run by new coaches, some of whom have rebuilding tasks as formidable as Holmgren's.




With Ditka on his case, Anderson (35) has added incentive to prove that his injury-plagued '91 season was a fluke.