Don't knock winning," Bud Grant, the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, was saying recently. "The Vikings aren't good copy, but all we do is win and that's enough for me." With the acquisition of Quarterback Norm Snead from Philadelphia, there may be more this season, some of the pizazz that Minnesota has shunned. "Snead gives Minnesota something they haven't had, the great arm," says former Eagle Coach Charlie Gauer. "He could be the player of the year. It's another Y.A. Tittle case."
Around the country coaches are agreeing with Gauer, which makes one wonder why some of the other teams didn't try to trade for Snead. And the Snead claque has a case: he played behind poor lines at Washington and Philadelphia. For the most part, confidence is his problem but with the best blocking line in the NFL in front of him, Snead's anxieties should vanish. He has a quick release and unloads rapidly in the face of a blitz, but then he has had a lot of practice at it. Most important, Gary Cuozzo, the incumbent, has been dragging his feet getting to the front office and signing a contract. Too, the Vikings have been unhappy with Cuozzo's reluctance or inability to throw over the middle to the tight end. Bob Lee, the third quarterback, is happy; he's also the punter, so his job is secure.
For Snead, life in the Northland will be more than a change of scenery. Besides the line, there are the strong backs, Dave Osborn and Bill Brown, and the fast backs, Clint Jones and rookie Leo Hayden. The Vikes, who had more fine receivers than they could use, picked up another, Al Denson, in a trade with Denver; he can be paired with the peerless Gene Washington.
But defense is the Vikings' game. It is a simple principle. Stop the drive, stall them, make them panic, force mistakes. Then get the ball for the offense with good field position. On offense the Vikes play it close to the vest; the defense has a free hand. They stunt and blitz but mostly they leave it up to their storied front four—Carl Eller, Gary Larsen, Alan Page and Jim Marshall. The line-backing, with Lonnie Warwick in the middle and Roy Winston and Wally Hilgenberg on the outside, is excellent, not so much individually as collectively, which is the way the Minnesota units should be judged. Each brilliantly performs its function: the front four make a cavalry charge at the passer and crumble ball carriers, the linebackers aggressively cover the holes and any receivers seeping into their zone. Meanwhile, the defensive backs go for the ball.
September 19, 1971
"There's too many guys talking Super Bowl around here," Detroit Coach Joe Schmidt grumbled after the Lions lost to the Bengals in an exhibition game. "Heck, we'll have to work our butts off, fight for every inch just to make the playoffs." Schmidt's accomplishments in the past four years have been near miraculous. Seventy-five percent of the roster has changed, 11 of the first 22 starters are his draft picks, and the defensive polarity of the club has been altered. The Lions have become a scoring team. More important, they made the playoffs as a wild-card choice in 1970. If push comes to shove they hope to squeeze in that way again this year.
Essentially a young team, Detroit has experience, too; no rookies will make the starting lineup. Detroit can't match Minnesota's defense, but the Lions can score. Last season they set a club record of 41 touchdowns. This was due to the quick development of Greg Landry, the 24-year-old quarterback. Landry's precocity can be judged by his 61% completion average. "He always generates something when he's playing," says Schmidt. Sometimes it's too much excitement for the coach. Landry likes to run, and unfortunately he is too successful to be easily discouraged, so the quarterback run is now an integral part of Detroit's game plan. Landry's one failing is a tendency to throw the dangerous crossfield pass. Fortunately, Schmidt has a competent back-up in Bill Munson.
The Lions have the speed at wide receivers in Larry Walton and Earl McCullouch to go long, but after three years McCollouch still runs sloppy patterns and fails to get open as often as he should. For now, Landry's favorite target is Tight End Charlie Sanders. The running, with Mel Farr and Altie Taylor carrying the ball, was second best in the NFC last season. It could be better with the two light, fast backs spelled by Steve Owens and Nick Eddy.
On defense, Detroit is a gambling, punishing group. At times it plays with too much abandon, and as a result has been burned by the big play, which was Cornerback Lem Barney's problem last year. He kept trying for the interception and was beaten too often. This style is also physically beyond some of the older defenders. The rush line sacked opposing quarterbacks only 23 times, and management pointed at 36-year-old Alex Karras, who played on a balky knee. Last spring Karras claims he ran from Detroit to Clinton, Iowa to prove the knee was O.K. Witty fellow, Alex, but management didn't laugh. That's only half the problem. Jerry Rush, the other starting tackle, had disc surgery in mid-June, leaving the inside pressure in doubt. The rest of the defense is strong, particularly Linebackers Paul Naumoff (who may miss a few games because of a foot injury), Mike Lucci and Wayne Walker. The Lions blitz and stunt more than most pro teams, which points up the extent of their line problem.
"We're hearing the gospel, something we haven't heard in a few years," says Green Bay Center Ken Bowman. "Dan Devine is a heck of a coach. He's got us believing we can win." An efficient, well-organized man, Devine is starting his pro career with the caution of an Iowa banker. "We've made changes and improvements in the team without giving up our valuable draft choices," he says. He is husbanding two first-round picks in the 1972 draft; inevitably, one will be spent on a hotshot quarterback unless Devine forgoes the long wait and makes a trade. In the meantime, the Packers are faced with the limited alternative of playing Zeke Bratkowski, returned from two years as an assistant coach, or Scott Hunter, a rookie from Alabama. The options do not include Bart Starr, who has been forced to delay his comeback by a second arm operation.
One thing is certain: Green Bay will junk the tactical frills initiated by Phil Bengtson and go back to the pro set. Rushing appears to be the Packers' surest way of moving the ball, even though Jim Grabowski was waived to the Bears and the other half of the million-dollar backfield, Donny Anderson, could be pushed aside by the more explosive but fumble-prone Dave Hampton. Rookie John Brockington is a strong blocker with the speed to run outside and he will start at fullback.
Green Bay fans have long adored the defense, which carried the Packers to at least one championship in their final moments of glory. Now only Lionel Aldridge ("I was known simply as the other defensive end until Willie Davis retired") is a recognizable name on the rush line. Combined with Mike McCoy, Bob Brown and Clarence Williams, the front four has improved and its philosophy has changed from containment to pressure since the bigger, stronger linemen are better equipped for that assignment.
Linebacking remains the muscle as well as the nerve center of the Packer defense. The outside backers, Dave Robinson and Fred Carr, shut off the flanks and cover the under zones, but there is a question whether Ray Nitschke will start, the plan being to replace him with Jim Carter. "I'm not holding the door and moving aside," vows Nitschke. "I'll be at the old stand when the season begins." Either way, the linebackers will be accomplished enough to compensate for a weakened secondary. The problem here is not the old reliable safeties but timid young cornerbacks.
In a word, the Chicago Bears situation is unbelievable. It began with knee operations on Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus, the two most gifted performers in football. Sayers' return to form, even to partial service, remains in doubt, but Butkus seems to have recovered. Whatever chance the Bears have for a respectable season hinges upon them. The unpromising picture is further darkened by six salary malcontents, one of whom, Defensive Back Bennie McRae, never showed up and was traded to the Giants. Dick Gordon, the NFL's leading receiver, and George Seals, a regular on the defensive line, reported but remain disgruntled and unsigned.
Moreover, the Bears have problems like who to play at quarterback, tight end and running back. The quarterback will be either Jack Concannon or Bobby Douglass. Concannon will probably win by default. He would get the popular vote of the players, since the contempt for Douglass has reached the point where they boo and curse his calls at the line of scrimmage. Both men have ability, but at different positions. Concannon would make a good receiver and Douglass is a natural to be the Bears' starting fullback. However, they insist on playing quarterback.
Running produced only three touchdowns last year and most of the feckless backs have been traded or cut, the Bears choosing to start afresh with rookies Joe Moore and Jim Harrison. Until he was injured, Moore showed to advantage; Harrison has revealed nothing. The latest aspirants: Grabowski and Don Shy.
The defense is strong enough to rescue a few games and make low-scoring contests out of most others. It is Chicago's only hope for a decent season.