Yes, I'm running with the herd and picking the Green Bay Packers
to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XXXI, and probably for the
same reason as everybody else. We're all tired of the same old
faces, the same old Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers, who
have won it all the last four years and six of the last eight.
Time for some new blood.
Sure, there are some questions about the Packers. Can
quarterback Brett Favre, coming out of substance-abuse rehab,
have anywhere near the season he did last year, when he threw a
league-high 38 touchdown passes and was the NFL's MVP? Well, why
not? Why can't he be even better?
An even bigger question involves the offensive line. Left tackle
Ken Ruettgers is out for at least the first six games with an
injured left knee, and first-round draft pick John Michels must
do the job until Ruettgers returns, if he ever does. Left guard
Aaron Taylor still isn't all the way back from knee surgery. If
he can't make it, his replacement will be Mike Arthur, a
sixth-year journeyman and converted center. Can this unit hang
Also, has defensive end Reggie White fully recovered from his
torn hamstring of late last season, or at 34, will he finally
hit the wall? Can the Packers, who under coach Mike Holmgren are
0-6 against the Cowboys, figure out a way to beat Dallas?
Despite all these possible negatives, there's one overriding
factor on the plus side: Green Bay is on a mission. In the
fourth quarter of last year's NFC Championship Game the Packers
were driving for the touchdown that would have put them ahead of
Dallas, but cornerback Larry Brown's interception turned out the
lights. It was a nasty game. Bitterness lingers about the way
Cowboys tackle Erik Williams came down on the back of defensive
lineman John Jurkovic's leg, ending his career in Green Bay. The
Packers don't like the Cowboys. Hey, join the crowd.
The 49ers? The Pack has their number. No one knows how to deploy
a defense against the Niners better than Green Bay's
coordinator, 64-year-old Fritz Shurmur, who faced them so many
times when he was with the Rams. Just look at the job his guys
did on San Francisco in Green Bay's 27-17 playoff win last year.
The Packers, who closed out the 1995 regular season by winning
six of their last seven, have an unheralded and emerging star in
outside linebacker Wayne Simmons (11 tackles and a sack against
the 49ers in the playoff game) and one of the best secondaries
in the league. In only his second season Craig Newsome is
already developing into one of the game's best cornerbacks. Free
safety Eugene Robinson, acquired in a trade from the Seattle
Seahawks in the off-season, can make the unit only better. And
that's a big plus in the pass-happy NFC Central.
Very quietly--it almost went unnoticed on the national
level--Chicago Bears quarterback Erik Kramer had a breakout year
in 1995. He set Bears passing records for touchdowns,
completions, yards and attempts, and with this team you're going
back to the dawn of NFL history. His touchdown-to-interception
ratio was 29 to 10. He was sacked a league-low 15 times. He even
led the NFL in drawing opponents offside, which is something you
don't expect from someone with such an honest face. His
quarterback rating was a showy 93.5. He put up the kinds of
numbers that usually get you into the Pro Bowl.
So why wasn't Chicago in the playoffs last year? Well, its
defense set records too. The wrong kind of records: passing
yards allowed, passing attempts allowed, completions allowed.
Are things getting away from coach Dave Wannstedt, a Pittsburgh
native who is awfully familiar with how the Steelers of the
1970s squashed all those fancy offenses, whose coaching
background was in defense? That defense was addressed in the
off-season. The draft brought Walt Harris, a nifty cornerback.
The Bears had to trade up to get him, forfeiting their third-
and sixth-round picks. A $13.2 million package that included a
$5 million bonus brought flamboyant middle linebacker Bryan Cox
over from the Miami Dolphins. Cox can stuff the run on base
downs and rush the quarterback from the right wing in passing
situations, thereby freeing 290-pound Alonzo Spellman to move
inside to tackle, a more natural position for him.
But no matter how much you like your defense, when you play in
the NFC Central, you're eventually going to get caught up in one
of those shoot-out games, and you'd better be able to shoot.
Enter second-round draft choice Bobby Engram from Penn State to
cover the free-agent defection of wideout Jeff Graham to the New
York Jets. How good is Engram? Coach Joe Paterno told Wannstedt
that no player in his 30 years with the Nittany Lions made more
plays for him, particularly when the game was on the line.
Engram looked terrific in the preseason.
The Packers still look like the class of the division, but the
Bears spell trouble.
The Detroit Lions brought the NFL's No. 1 offense into
Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium for a wild-card playoff against
the Eagles last December, and the oddsmakers, neglecting the
fact that the Lions hadn't won a postseason game on the road
since 1957, made them the favorite. Who could blame them? Just
look at all those weapons: quarterback Scott Mitchell; running
back Barry Sanders; flashy receivers Herman Moore, Brett
Perriman and Johnnie Morton; and linebacker Chris Spielman
anchoring the defense. Might even be a blowout, some said.
It was. The final score was 58-37 in favor of the Eagles.
Detroit was intercepted six times. Its defense gave up 452 yards
to a team that ranked 25th in the NFL in total offense. And
coach Wayne Fontes, whose Lions had put on a spirited run to
even make the playoffs, winning their last seven regular-season
games to finish 10-6, was again hearing the rumbles about being
Fontes watchers say he has been loose and relaxed in camp, with
no playoffs-or-else ultimatum hanging over his head, but in
mid-August he surveyed his squad, and this is what he saw:
Spielman and All-Pro left tackle Lomas Brown were gone,
free-agency casualties; Michael Brooks, brought in from the New
York Giants to replace Spielman at middle linebacker, was
sidelined with a sprained knee; Reggie Brown, a first-round
draft pick who was penciled in to play weakside linebacker, was
out indefinitely with knee-ligament damage; and the other
first-round draftee, guard Jeff Hartings, was a contract holdout
and had to be written off for the opener, against the Vikings.
(As of Monday he was still unsigned.) "We can't go to Minnesota
with the ragtag bunch we have," Fontes said.
Nonetheless, there's too much talent in Detroit to predict a
major foldup. Figure the Lions at 7-9.
There was a lot of hand-wringing when Minnesota Vikings
defensive coordinator Tony Dungy left in January to become coach
at Tampa Bay. The irony was that his long-awaited chance came
after his defense had slipped from No. 1 in the league in 1993
to No. 5 in '94 to 20th last year, but it wasn't hard to figure
out why. Free agency had stripped his once mighty line, the
foundation of defensive success.
The Vikings, though, were willing to come up with the money to
keep Warren Moon, who will be 40 in November. He was given a
three-year, $15 million contract in June. Isn't it time to get
someone else ready? Moon threw 606 of the Vikings' 642 passes
last year. When does a guy's arm start tiring?
Well, not yet. Moon played in his eighth consecutive Pro Bowl
last season and tied a career high with 33 TD passes. But
Minnesota went 8-8, mainly because of that defensive slippage
and because of a running game that ranked 16th in the league.
Now coach Dennis Green is expecting at least 1,000 yards from
tailback Robert Smith, which would be a neat trick when you
consider that in his first three years in the NFL, Smith has yet
to put together an injury-free season. The defense suffered a
major blow when its best linebacker, Ed McDaniel, was lost for
the year to knee surgery. The kicking game also took a big hit
when Fuad Reveiz retired during training camp because of a
deteriorating ankle. First-round draft pick Duane Clemons should
be a defensive force someday, but nobody has figured out whether
it will be as an end or a linebacker. And if something happens
to Moon? Look out.
That's how fine the margin can be between success and failure.
Take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season. Two three-point
losses, to the Lions and the Atlanta Falcons, and that's how
close the Bucs came to a 9-7 record, which could have gotten
them into the playoffs and broken a streak of 13 consecutive
losing seasons. Dungy looks at his Bucs and says, "Hey, there's
something to build on here." If you throw out quarterback Trent
Dilfer's horrendous 1995 ratio of four TD passes to 18
interceptions and remember the heroic job he did in leading the
Buccaneers to an overtime win over the Packers last December--if
you say, That's the real Dilfer, and as a second-year player he
was just experiencing growing pains--then you have to give Tampa
Bay a chance. And if you try to put the defensive numbers in
perspective--the Bucs were 26th against the pass in '95, but no
defense in the NFC Central was better than 21st--then things
aren't so gloomy. But there are some downers, too.
Linemen Santana Dotson, the Defensive Rookie of the Year in
1992, and Mark Wheeler left as free agents from a unit that had
only 25 sacks last season. As a result, both first-round draft
picks were spent on defensive linemen Regan Upshaw and Marcus
Jones. So were last year's top pick (Warren Sapp, a starter at
tackle) and the first pick two years before that (Eric Curry, a
starter at end). If Upshaw and Jones eventually start, and
they're close now, the Bucs could field a front four of No. 1s.
They can club opponents to death with their wallets.
Owner Malcolm Glazer is cash-poor, at least when the discussion
turns to free agents. The Bucs did little in the free-agent
market this off-season because Glazer relies on season-ticket
sales to provide the money to pay those big signing bonuses. A
Tampa Bay season ticket is hardly the hottest one in town.
Contracts for veterans are regularly back-loaded. It has been a
sticking point in the long and bitter holdout of third-year
tailback Errict Rhett, who as of Monday remained unsigned. Rhett
feels that two straight 1,000-yard seasons should be rewarded by
more than the $336,000 he's signed for, a lot of which Rhett has
returned in daily $5,000 holdout fines.
Glazer is another owner who's holding up a community for a new
stadium by threatening to move his team. The fans deserve
better. Average attendance last year was at a 13-year high. But
early indications are that it will decline this season. A
disappointing year looms--on the field and at the gate--for the
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Robert Brooks, who had 102 receptions in '95, puts punch into the Packers' air game.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS As Rashaan Salaam found out, Buc Chidi Ahanotu could teach the Bears a little about defense.