The National Central is where it all began, the division that is venerated and exalted for its founding of the pro game and feared and admired for its traditional rock-'em-sock-'em, put-it-to-'em style of play. Old-fashioned crunch football. Inflate the ball and they're ready. Straightforward men playing a brutally direct game. Chicago: George Halas and the Monsters of the Midway. Green Bay: Vince Lombardi and Title-town U.S.A. Detroit: the fierce Lions winning championships under Coach Buddy Parker and Quarterback Bobby Layne.
Those are the glories of the past. It is different now. Asked about his team's basic strengths and weaknesses, a Chicago man says, "The Bears have no basic strengths." Fans are restless, players frustrated, coaches suffer from rampant insecurities. At Green Bay, Dan Devine looks nervously over his shoulder at Bart Starr, the Packers' old hero, waiting in the wings. Chicago's Abe Gibron almost certainly will get the ax unless the Bears start to win. In Detroit, Rick Forzano was hired in a hurry by the Lions' owner, Bill Ford, after the sudden death of Coach Don McCafferty. Forzano was Ford's personal choice for the job, yet it's likely to be a short romance. Everything is friendly, but there is no long-term contract. Produce immediate results, or else.
For these three coaches it is a fight for survival, and it's an unfair fight. They are good men, first-rate professionals who deserve better, but the unsettled conditions in professional football this year make their jobs even more difficult. Unrest, strikes, name-calling, WFL raids, the logistics of dealing with unwieldy squads of 60, 70 or 80 players. "I haven't had a quiet meal since the rookies reported on July 10th," says Devine, trying to deal with crisis piled on crisis.
The one island of calm and accomplishment is in Minnesota, home of the Vikings, by decades the youngest member of the division. No siege atmosphere here. The Vikings stand alone. With two visits to the Super Bowl behind him and a new five-year contract tucked away in his pocket, Coach Bud Grant is untroubled. Not even a clutch of unsigned players and a powerful Players' Association lobby can shake the Iceman's glacial calm.
"The strike will leave no problems," says Defensive Back Charlie West. "We're people of the moment, and at this moment it's all football." The sentiment is reassuring, but of greater import is West's return to health from knee surgery. The Vikes need this talented Kamikaze to run back kickoffs and to serve as swing man in the secondary. Minnesota could use better depth throughout the defense, since age is beginning to catch up with those stalwarts, particularly the famous front four. Yet the oldest, 36-year-old End Jim Marshall, never looked better, and the quartet seems ready to swing again. Indeed, the decline of the Viking defense is not so much a result of advancing age as it is of changes in the game. The defensive structure was designed primarily to combat the pass, but in the last season or two the emphasis in the NFL has veered toward the run. Minnesota's opponents are doing just that, running by the awesome pass rush. And not only Larry Csonka; less powerful runners are succeeding against Minnesota. The Vikings hope to correct this by altering priorities, with the line reading on the run and accepting greater responsibilities for its lanes. A very bright secondary plays its part smoothly, filling the holes and stopping the footrace with admirable efficiency. Middle Linebacker Jeff Siemon and Cornerback Bob Bryant are particularly impressive.
If the defense is less effective than it used to be, it is still good enough to win. And the offense is better than ever. At times Fran Tarkenton, the most controversial Georgia Peach since Ty Cobb, is simply astonishing. Last year the notorious scrambler practiced economy, running around and throwing less often but with greater purpose. The Vikes made the Super Bowl as Tarkenton completed 61.7% of his passes, while having only seven interceptions, fewest among starting NFL quarterbacks. It was a virtuoso performance, and his accompaniment was often as good. Rookie Running Back Chuck Foreman was sensational, gaining 801 yards in his professional debut, and Wide Receiver John Gilliam proved a perfect target for Tarkenton's tosses. Gilliam developed an uncanny knack for sensing the busted play and coming back upheld to rescue a pass.
Although Tarkenton dismisses the Super Bowl as a circus and a pageant "for the press," he and the Vikings would like another go at the big game. Minnesota's chances to visit New Orleans in January depend on Grant's ability to infuse new blood into an old offensive line and find a receiver good enough to pair with the gifted Gilliam.
At Green Bay, Fuzzy Thurston, an alum from the Lombardi era, was commiserating with the new Packers on their foundering offense. "At the end, we had trouble with the sweep," said the former left guard with refreshing candor, "and we never could make the screen work."
"Damn, nothing's changed," replied a young Packer cynic. "Our problem is an offensive imagination so dim it wouldn't light a 10-watt bulb." A less passionate analysis of the situation might blame the quarterbacks instead of the system. Whatever the reason, a relentless diet of line smashes has stacked defenses against Green Bay. As a result, John Brockington and MacArthur Lane, a fine tandem of heavy-duty backs, often ran into as many as six defensive players jammed on the line, with grinning safeties perched at their backs. For want of enough passes, the good Tight End Rich McGeorge angrily classified himself as "the third tackle." Meanwhile, Dan Devine vigorously, perhaps too vigorously, looked for the solution: the right quarterback. The heir apparent is Jerry Tagge but journeyman Jack Concannon's savvy and mobility could win the job. Neither Tagge nor Concannon is a long-term answer, but the Packers will settle for short, instant relief. Too bad the game can't be played without quarterbacks—in that case, Green Bay could once again be selling tickets to the Super Bowl.
The lack of offense placed an insuperable burden on the Green Bay defense. "I believe the defense was on the field too long and just wore out," says Brockington. And the defensive picture was further clouded by a leg injury to blue-chip Cornerback Willie Buchanon. When it is healthy and not overburdened, the defense is Green Bay's strength. It is the last team in pro football to use man-for-man pass coverage, and it is probably the only one that has talent enough to handle that demanding assignment. A strong linebacking corps has been bolstered by the acquisition of tall Ted Hendricks from Baltimore in what can be called a short-term lend-lease deal. "Next year," says Hendricks, "I'm off to Jacksonville and the WFL." No matter, the Packers are borrowing time. For the future there is Rookie Steve Odom, a quick, tough little punt returner who lifts Devine's depressed spirits every time he gets his hands on the ball. Under the new rules this promises to be the season of the long return, which gives Devine hope.
"The unusual play, the unexpected, gives a team momentum and wins ball games," he observes, "and we just might come up with more than our share of those important plays."
In Chicago there doesn't even seem to be hope, only grating complaints. Last year Running Back Joe Moore demanded to know why he was being trained for World War III. When dealt to the Bears from St. Louis, Center Wayne Mulligan moaned, "I asked to be traded, traded anywhere, but that didn't mean to the Bears." Mulligan never reported to Chicago. This year Moore, Carl Garrett and Jim Harrison, the club's best running backs, all asked to be traded.
Abe Gibron is trying his best to turn the Bears around. And trades arc helping, including one for Philadelphia Defensive End Rich Harris that rounded out a powerful rush line that has Dave Gallagher at the other end, and Wally Chambers and Jim Osborne at tackles.
Furthermore, Gibron has installed a classy passer at quarterback in Gary Huff and has high hopes for a rookie tight end named Jim Kelly, who will curl into the middle, bust the zone and, oh yes, catch the football. Still far from being contenders, the Bears are at least striving, and in Chicago that may be enough to muffle the jeers.
Detroit's Rick Forzano is a ball-control disciple, the kind who believes in hanging tough, biting the bullet, and grinding it out. With a sloppy defense and the Lions' penchant for trying the big play, Forzano's Sundays will be long and grim. They will get even grimmer when Quarterback Bill Munson starts throwing deep to his wide receivers—they dropped the ball 36 times last year. The toughest ordeal may be the locker-room harangues by Owner Ford, which may weigh heavier than dropped passes, feckless tackling and all the rest. How's your stomach, Rick?