Norm Van Brocklin liked to call it the "Black and Blue Division," and the NFL's upper Middle Western contingent promises to live up to that billing this year. Indeed, for savage line play, hard running, prime conditioning and pure guesswork, the Central Division has to rate as the Fearsome Foursome of the NFL. Unfortunately for its members, most of the damage is wrought upon themselves by themselves, and the least maimed survivor is likely to take the title—as the Minnesota Vikings, somewhat to their surprise, did last year.
This year's Vikings have something more than durability: a passing attack of sorts. Last year, they were the only team in either league to win a divisional title with more running than passing, and Coach Bud Grant—a former end who likes to throw in practice—seemed to have the best arm on the squad. Now Quarterback Gary Cuozzo is healthy again (though two separate shoulder injuries last season mark him as fragile), and Joe Kapp is adding a little more throwing consistency to his leadership qualities. For a time it looked like Wide Receivers Gene Washington and Bob Grim would be complemented by a quick rookie, Volly Murphy, from UTEP, but Murphy went in the Army. Fortunately, Tight End John Beasley returns from the Army this week. The running game will be stronger than heretofore, with underrated Bill Brown (805 yards rushing, 329 on receptions in '68), Clint Jones (who averaged 4.2 yards a carry last year) and a sound Dave Osborn (who missed most of last season with a knee injury after gaining 972 yards in 1967).
Offensive lines in the Central Division suffer by comparison with the defenses, and Minnesota's is no exception, even though from tackle to tackle the Vikings look like the best. Led by All-NFL Center Mick Tingelhoff, it should give Cuozzo or Kapp time to throw. Tackle Ron Yary, last year's top draft choice, will be back from the Army next month to enhance the pass protection.
Defensively, the Vikings' strong suit remains the front four—Carl Eller, Gary Larsen, Alan Page and Jim (Wrong Way) Marshall. A bit of a flake, Marshall turned up at training camp with a hunting bow and a full quiver of arrows, which he shot every day after dinner on the corn-tasseled ridges of Mankato. Put a leopard skin on him and you have the first Minnesota Tarzan. The Viking linebackers, who went 21 straight games without making an interception, are improved (they stole two passes from Denver during a preseason game), and the corners and safeties are adequate. Thus, if Cuozzo and/or Kapp can get the passing game going, the Vikings will be tough. But, as Bud Grant points out, Minnesota's record against the top NFL teams—Rams, Colts and Cowboys—was 0-5 last year. "If we're going to move up," he says, "we've got to start beating those teams at least half the time."
Is the Pack Back?
That is hardly the problem of the Green Bay Packers, who consistently beat almost every name team over the years only to die at the hands of Minnesota, Detroit and Chicago last season. The Pack was stung to the quick and may very well be back—if not this year, next. Phil Bengtson is finally The Coach (last year, General Manager Vince Lombardi got the suite on road trips while Bengtson took a single), and he has had the Packers running "aerobically" since February. That form of superjogging may have produced the fittest team in football. But where the Packers were faulted for age last year, they are suspect because of inexperience this year.
The offensive line lost two of its four veterans by retirement—Jerry Kramer and Bob Skoronski—dealing a blow to Green Bay's traditional foundation. Center Ken Bowman and Guard Gale Gillingham remain, Gillingham moving from left to right, replacing Kramer, while Bob Hyland will probably share left guard with Bill Lueck. Francis Peay, a strong ex-Giant, looks like he has the makings of a Skoronski at left tackle, and the right tackle, who until recently was named either Dick Himes or Bill Hayhoe, once again bears the illustrious name of Forrest Gregg. Gregg had been serving as a coach, supervising line play and helping with the aerobic running program when, as predicted, he "unretired."
Early in the exhibition season, before the new offensive line acquired the timing and teamwork of its predecessor, the Packers kept bogging down and had to settle for field goals. Mike Mercer, a castoff AFL kicker, was high scorer for Green Bay against the Giants, the Bears and the Cowboys, while the Cowboys' pass rush dumped Quarterbacks Bart Starr and Don Horn eight times en route to a 31-13 route. But the new line has cohered and in exhibitions with Cleveland and Pittsburgh the Green Bay quarterbacks were sacked only three times. Mercer's toe remedies a glaring deficiency last season, and the Pack's offensive punch will get stronger. Starr is healthier than he's been in several years and Boyd Dowler and Carroll Dale, although not the fastest wide receivers in the league, pick up steps on defensive backs with knowhow. And Green Bay is rich in runners, too. Though they still have to pay off their price tags, Donny Anderson and Jim Grabowski are solid. Travis Williams is approaching his 1967 form and seems to have edged Elijah Pitts as Anderson's backup, and a burly rookie out of Purdue named Perry Williams may have beat out Chuck Mercein (Yalie hero of the 1967 NFL title game). But the hottest running prospect is Dave Hampton, a ninth-round draft choice from Wyoming who combines the explosiveness of the early T. Williams with the continuing shiftiness of Gale Sayers.
Bald but Immortal
Green Bay's defense remains tough and deep. Willie Davis, having announced that this is his last year, is playing as if he were his own replacement. Bengtson sent Defensive Tackle Ron Kostelnik to Baltimore because his No. 1 draft choice, 285-pound Richie Moore from Villanova, looked like an instant regular. The other tackle spot is only as strong as Henry Jordan's aching back or Bob Brown's broken limbs. Green Bay's line-backing gets better all the time: Dave Robinson is wilder and rangier than ever, Ray Nitschke grows more immortal with each falling hair and Lee Roy Caffey, a tough guy himself, is being pushed hard by even tougher Fred Carr, last year's top draft pick from UTEP. The defensive backfield is intact save for Doug Hart who replaces Tom Brown (who followed Vince to D.C.) at strong safety. Green Bay's defense is adequate for championship ball, but it will take more than Mercer's kicking to bring the Pack back.
Much the same problem confronts the Detroit Lions, who like the Packers are rich in offensive talent but seem to be lacking in the necessary beneficence of coordination. Quarterback Bill Munson, who was supposed to be the catalyst, suffered from the black-and-blues last year and seems to be wincing in anticipation this year. Against the Buffalo Bills, he hit only three of 14 passes and overthrew his key receiver, Earl McCullouch, three times when the Pearl was open. Nonetheless, Munson has the arm and head to pull a team together, and if he can do so, the Lions could surprise.
No Central Division team—save the Packers—has as strong a running and passing game as Detroit. McCullouch and Tight End Charlie Sanders are receivers enough, though Billy Gambrell is out for at least half the season after a back operation. Add Bill Triplett, a healthy Mel Farr and a rookie named Altie Taylor, and you have blazing offense. Taylor, who showed up out of Utah State and the All-Star Game, is already known as "Super Rook" to his teammates. In the Buffalo game he ran for 106 yards, including a 48-yard scoring bolt up the middle. While most reporters were badgering O. J. Simpson after the game, Taylor was toweling his scarred, blue-black persona in the solitude of the Lions' dressing room. Did you ever meet O.J. or talk to him? "No, I've never seen him, and I don't know if I'd like to. If he called me up on the phone, maybe I'd talk to him."
The Lions still lack a properly offensive offensive line. But it is a young line, while the defense is getting older. Average age of the front four: 30 years, nine months. Cornerback Lem Barney has been phenomenal in the exhibitions and Safety Mike Weger is as good as they come, but even they can be burned with the lackluster tinder surrounding them. Like most struggling teams, the Lions are looking for specialty points, but they still lack a good field-goal man. Errol Mann, who beat the Lions at Denver two years ago, is reliable in close but has no long-range ability, and Punter Jerry DePoyster is in service, as is Placekicker Garo Yepremian. Still, Lion morale is high—hyped a bit by Altie Taylor's can-do spirit—and Coach Joe Schmidt has a winning attitude. He'd better. If he doesn't win he may be out in the cold next spring. "I think eight wins can take the division," he says. "I hope we can do that well."
On a Foot and a Sayers
Schmidt is a lot more hopeful a hoper than Chicago Bear Coach Jim Dooley. The Bears don't seem to have anything but Placekicker Mac Percival, Gale Sayers and history working for them. Sayers appears to have recovered from last season's knee surgery and will continue to keep defenses busy keying on him. But that's really about it. Quarterback Jack Concannon still runs better than he throws. When Concannon hits his fine Wide Receiver Dick Gordon, watch out, but unfortunately for the Bears the combination doesn't click often enough. With pulling Guard George Seals retired, the offensive line has not been able to coordinate for the sweep, and Dooley has been forced to curtail Sayers' spectacular end runs, sending him either up the middle or into the flat for little swing passes in an effort to shake him clear.
Defensively, the Bears are strong, but nowhere near as strong as in their contending and championship years, although Dick Butkus, the ferocious middle linebacker, is playing superbly this year, as is Defensive End Willie Holman. Richie Petitbon, the thinking-man's safety, is gone to L.A. with (as yet) no adequate replacement, but the whole secondary strategy has been changed; the Bears are finally installing a zone defense, having brought in Minnesota's witty, wily Jimmy Carr, who reduced the Vikings' yield in pass yardage from 2,493 in 1965 to 1,885 last year. Still, the Bears are vulnerable to the deep pass, a fact shrewd quarterbacks are sure to prove as the season wears along.
So how do you bet the Black and Blue? Barring unforeseen bloodbaths, it would seem to line up in the order of least bruises—Packers, Vikings, Lions, Bears.