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Original Issue

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General Manager Ron Wolf and head coach Mike Holmgren of the GREEN BAY PACKERS seem to have been born for this free-agency game, and now that the Pack is poised for back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since the 1966-67 heyday of Vince Lombardi, people are expecting miracles.

Whoa, there. Hold on a minute. A division title? Why not? The competition is weak. But the Pack's next step up will be tough. Active recruiting addressed Green Bay's major '92 weakness: softness on defense. The 4.5 yards per rush the Packers gave up was third worst in the NFL, and their total of 34 sacks was seventh worst. Plug in Reggie White at left defensive end, the power side, to stand tough against the double team; line up ex-Chief Bill Maas, swearing revenge on a league that thought he was washed up, next to White; and turn linebacker Tony Bennett (once he signs) or Bryce Paup loose on the other side, and Green Bay is on its way.

Linebacker Wayne Simmons, the No. 1 draft pick, was supposed to line up behind White, but Simmons tore knee cartilage in July. The second first-round pick, cornerback George Teague, is an action guy in the secondary.

Quarterback Brett Favre made the Pro Bowl, throwing to a fine tight end, Jackie Harris, and to wideout Sterling Sharpe, whose record-breaking 108-catch year was even more remarkable when you consider that there was no one to take the double-team heat off him. The second leading wideout, Sanjay Beach, caught 17 balls. Maybe ex-Dolphin Mark Clayton will help, maybe not.

There's still no speed in the backfield. The offensive line needed help, so the free-agent auction brought in Miami's best offensive lineman for the last couple of years, guard Harry Galbreath, and the old Pittsburgh warhorse Tunch Ilkin, and a trade brought Denver's Doug Widell. Wolf and Holmgren aren't standing still. The Pack's on track.

The financial consortium that runs the MINNESOTA VIKINGS will give you 20 good reasons why the club couldn't cave in to left tackle Gary Zimmerman's salary demands, or get into a bidding war for center Kirk Lowdermilk and right guard Brian Habib. But the suits don't have to put a team on the Held. Dennis Green does, and he did a magnificent job in bringing the Vikes a division title last year. But now hall his O-line is gone, and a patchwork unit will try to keep people off 34-year-old Jim McMahon, who has a history of injuries. The Vikings still have some serious weapons in tight end Steve Jordan, All-Pro left guard Randall McDaniel and the wideout Carters, Anthony and Cris, and on Monday they picked up running back Barry Word to cover for Terry Allen's loss to knee surgery.

The Viking defense, with four Pro Bowl veterans, is active and aggressive, and the secondary, led by strong safety Todd Scott, has great depth. But the dynamism of the coaching department seems to be offset by a certain front-office stodginess. And that's why I think the Vikings are due for a minor slip.

Rookie coach Dave Wannstedt of the CHICAGO BEARS learned two things from his years with Jimmy Johnson—youth and speed. Those two factors brought a national title to the Miami Hurricanes and a Super Bowl victory to Dallas, and now Wannstedt has to supply that elixir to the Bears, who were just a little older, just a little slower than the teams they lost to in last year's 5-11 season. The pace of practice at the Bear camp was stepped up. The top draft choice was wideout Curtis Conway, who has terrific speed and will also return kicks. Alonzo Spellman and Chris Zorich are ready to add zip to the defensive line, where something has to be done about William Perry, who has slipped badly in the last few years. On Monday the Bears finally gave up on speed wideout Anthony Morgan. I can still hear Mike Ditka snorting that Tom Waddle is the best they've got.

A front-office power play cost the Bears one of the league's finest personnel men, Bill Tobin, and a weird free agency give-and-take brought them the Saints' 300-pound fullback, Craig Heyward, and cost them Brad Muster, who has put up 1,336 more all-purpose yards than Ironhead in parallel five-year careers.

The Bears' schedule is kind in the beginning, with four of the first six games at home and two early byes. But the youth and speed injection will take a year or two, and those who argue that four rookie head coaches, Green, Holmgren, Bill Cowher and Bobby Ross, worked miracles last year will simply have to be patient.

After seven losing seasons, the DETROIT LIONS flashed like a comet in 1991, with a 12-4 record and a division title. Terrific coaching job by Wayne Fontes, said the faithful. Easy schedule, said the cynics. Wait till they get that first-place schedule next year.

Which they got—plus a 5-11 record. Well, if the formula holds, the Lions should be right back in it, because they inherited a last-place schedule. Instead of having to face the Redskins and the-Cowboys in the NFC, the Lions will get the Cardinals twice, plus the Rams and the Falcons; instead of playing the AFC Central, they will meet the Patriots and the Seahawks. Get the picture?

Not that anyone's going to hand the Lions a playoff spot. They gave up 59 sacks last year and lost quarterback Rodney Peete twice via blows to the head. So they acquired Bill Fralic and Dave Richards to man the guards, and former Chief guard David Lutz to play the power tackle. That's a step.

Three guys started at quarterback last year, Peete, Andre Ware and Erik Kramer, the hero of the '92 playoff win over Dallas. This year Fontes made it a competition between Ware and Peete, naming Peete as his starter after the third exhibition game. Kramer never figured. The offense still will be a crossbreed between the four-wideout Silver Stretch and a one, sometimes two, tight end alignment. One plus for the Lions is that Barry Sanders, behind the new linemen, should put up even bigger numbers than last years 1,352 rushing yards.

QB Steve DeBerg of the TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS is 39. He started for the 49ers before Bill Walsh got there. He broke in Joe Montana with the Niners and John Elway in Denver. He had one center-stage year, 1990, in K.C.; then he slipped into the shadows.

DeBerg once said his goal was to be the oldest player in the NFL, and when Jet kicker Pat Leahy retired in January, he made it. Now DeBerg has to hold the Bucs together, and give the team dignity and respectability until second-year man Craig Erickson is ready. And DeBerg will have to do it without holdout All-Pro left tackle Paul Gruber (who never missed a snap in 80 games, 4,850 plays), and without Anthony Munoz, who was coaxed out of retirement by coach Sam Wyche, then was lost with a shoulder injury.

The Bucs have an unsung runner in Reggie Cobb and a terrific tight end pair in Ron flail and Tyji Armstrong. There is talent in left corner Ricky Reynolds and 'backer Hardy Nickerson, and possible pass-rush help from No. 1 draft pick Eric Curry. You can find some interesting names here and there. Just not enough of them.

One tough note. The Bucs' 7-3 win over Phoenix in last year's finale earned them a very rough third-place schedule instead of Detroit's last-place schedule. Wins will be very hard to find.




The Pack needs to ease the pressure on wideout Sharpe.



With a new Lion line, Sanders will be harder to lay a hand on.