Of pro football's six divisions, only the Central of the National Conference was unaffected by realignment. More's the pity, at least when it comes to playing conditions. Like doomed souls in the Ninth Circle, Minnesota, Detroit, Green Bay and Chicago seem fated to play out their football lives with frostbitten cleats and sleet-shrouded face masks. As Detroit Coach Joe Schmidt says: "Our warm-weather site is now Minneapolis in the summertime."
For all that, National Central football should be piping hot. Bud Grant's Vikings, last year's NFL champs, played most of their preseason schedule minus Defensive End Carl Eller, a holdout, and all of it minus Quarterback Joe Kapp. Although stronger overall at every other position this year, they missed Kapp's "gimme the seed" machismo and Eller's freight-train pass rush.
A free agent since May 1, Kapp is reported to be holding out for a five-year, million-dollar contract. And management has played it cool—going with Gary Cuozzo, a first-rate second-stringer—recalling perhaps that Joe refused the team's MVP award last December with a comment that all Vikes were equally valuable. Eller obviously thought at least one wasn't, but his analysis reportedly cost him $200 a day for each day he wasn't in camp—a total of $2,900.
With Kapp aboard, the Vikings could repeat as divisional champions. Without him Grant might not be able to take Atlanta—much less Detroit. For one thing, Minnesota has a tough schedule, and the opening game against the Kansas City Chiefs could be the whole Viking season. Should the Chiefs manhandle the Vikes the way they did in the Super Bowl, it could throw the gearshift marked "Momentum" into reverse.
If so, there would be a great clashing of forward gears in the Motor City, where the Detroit Lions are talking title. The Lions—9-4-1 last year—ended the season on a surge, winning six of their last eight games and tying another. Schmidt, now in his fourth year, has finally stabilized his units: two-thirds of the roster is made up of men he picked during his rebuilding program, and the dissent once heard in every corner of the Detroit locker room has now been replaced, hear tell, by great effusions of warmth and togetherness. Still, another traditional Detroit bugaboo remains: injury. Schmidt has lost three valuable wide receivers: Earl McCullouch had bone chips in his left knee and may miss one or two games; John Wright severed an Achilles' tendon and is out for the year and Billy Gambrell never came back from a back injury and was waived to the Saints, who waived him in turn.
Until the final exhibition game it looked like a new piece of talent would be a balm. Rookie Running Back Steve Owens was slated to start alongside Mel Farr. Said Schmidt: "Everything everybody doubted about Steve—blocking, catching—he does real well." Then, against Cincinnati, Owens suffered a third-degree separation of his left shoulder, and will be out for eight games. His replacement will either be Bill Triplett or Farr, with Altie Taylor moving to Farr's spot.
Defensively, Detroit remains intact, with the same unit that produced three shutouts last year. The team's main handicap to a possible divisional title is offense. All roar but no bite last year, the Lions finished dead last among 26 teams in total yardage. Perhaps a little patriotism would help. Wide Receiver Phil Odle was censured last season by Commissioner Pete Rozelle for not singing The Star-Spangled Banner during a nationally-televised game. Rozelle had been tipped off by an anonymous letter writer. Rumor has it that the correspondent was none other than Alex Karras, professional tackle and amateur comic. Karras has been strangely subdued this year. "I'm doing what every normal red-blooded American boy does," he explained. "Don't make waves. That's the secret of success in this country. I'm tired of being a hippie. Just keep nodding my head."
How Far Back, Pack?
Patriotism—of the local variety—is also a factor at Green Bay. Posters that in 1968 read: "We'll Win with Bengtson" now merely state, "We believe in Bengtson." Some cynics have even subsumed those "Pack Will Be Back" bumper stickers with "Way Back." In the last year of his contract Phil Bengtson will have to do better than the 6-7-1 and 8-6 marks of the past two seasons.
Bengtson may well be aided by a schedule that gives the Packers a home-field advantage—in Green Bay and Milwaukee—for seven of their first nine games. But even that edge might not help a squad that has lost seven starters, six of them former All-Pros. Wide Receiver Boyd Dowler retired to coach with the Rams; Tight End Marvin Fleming went to Miami after playing out his option; Defensive End Willie Davis and Tackles Forrest Gregg and Henry Jordan all retired honorably of age, while Cornerback Herb Adderley quit in a pet over his coaches' refusal to nominate him for the Pro Bowl, and was traded to Dallas. Also decamped are three men banished to the Chicago Bears. In exchange for a first-round draft choice, George Halas got Linebacker Lee Roy Caffey, Bob Hyland, who never quite made it at guard or center, and Running Back Elijah Pitts, who was eventually cut.
To fill those shoes, Bengtson moved Tackle Bob Brown into Davis' end position, and Fred Carr, who looked just tremendous in the preseason, outboard of Ray Nitschke in the linebacking row. Two rookies have made the starting defensive squad: Ken Ellis, who replaces Adderley, and Notre Dame's Mike McCoy, a first-round draft choice who will start at tackle.
The offense, however, is still a question mark. Bart Starr, second in the league in passing last year, missed half of the '68 and '69 seasons due to injuries, and his replacement, Don (Green) Horn, needs more than the three years' experience he has thus far acquired before he can match Starr's cool. Packer running remains deep with the Williamses—Travis and Perry—and Dave Hampton threatening to dethrone Donny Anderson and Jim Grabowski. Indicative of the wrenching changes in Packer offense from the Lombardi era is the fact that this year Green Bay is running 95% of its plays out of the I, though usually shifting to the pro set after the initial (and hopefully confusing) alignment.
There's been a shift in Chicago, too, but one of mood rather than execution. This year the Bears seem downright jolly. Well, anyway, they aren't denigrating George Halas in public, as erstwhile Quarterback Virgil Carter did near the end of last year's calamitous 1-13 season. The Bears appear in their 1970 incarnation as a last-place team once again, but a strong last-place team.
The muting of intrasquad rancor is largely the result of individual dissatisfaction with being losers, but also, to a lesser degree, it stems from some sharp trading during the off season. Carter was sent to Buffalo for $100—and if someone had offered $200 for him Halas would have turned it down, being a vengeful, 19th century man—but the Green Bay deal was pure business. Center Mike Pyle, 31, was dispatched to New Orleans and replaced by Hyland. Caffey, in combination with Doug Buffone and the incomparable Richard Marvin Butkus, gives the Bears a first-class linebacking unit, and ex-Cowboy Craig Baynham will hopefully give Sayers a breather now and then. Unmissed among those departed will be the much-singed Defensive Back George Youngblood, who retired. Also absent this year is Defensive Backfield Coach Jimmy Carr, whose misfortune it was to bring in a complex secondary system just at the moment Halas decided to eliminate almost every Bear who could differentiate between an airborne football and a gin bottle hurled from the stands. It was hard enough to teach Halas' new deep backs how to get to Wrigley Field, much less what to do once they got there.
Offensively, the Bears are almost wholly dependent on Gale Sayers and Place-kicker Mac Percival. The quarterbacking is sorry. Jack Concannon runs better than he throws and Bobby Douglass throws so hard that he has punched new navels in most of his receivers. That group has its own problems: known by Catching Coach Bob Shaw as the "Mouse Brigade," it averages 5'10". (Obviously, 6'3" Bob Wallace and 6'4" Jim Seymour, who was obtained from L.A., haven't enlisted.) Dick (Super Mouse) Gordon is 5'10", as is Cecil (Mighty Mouse) Turner. Rookie Linzy (Mini Mouse) Cole is listed at 5'11" and 170, but he's barely 5'9" by 160. Speedy, with good hands (five catches for 107 yards and a TD against the Packers), Cole was the first black varsity player at TCU—which means he won't be overwhelmed by the pros.
The Bears have a gentle schedule—half of their opponents won only a third of their games last year—and a few early-season wins could generate delusions of grandeur. But they aren't for real as yet. Detroit, Minnesota (without Kapp) and Green Bay—in that order—are.