What we have here is an unguarded Brinks truck just waiting for somebody to come along and pick it clean. An 8-8 record is big thunder in this part of the world. The CHICAGO Bears are the most stable member of the division, and certainly the least-heralded playoff team since the Cincinnati Bengals in the early '70s. They've made the playoffs in two of the last three years, exiting after the first game each time. Only one ingredient is missing: a high-level passing attack. But that should be the easiest to find in this era of freer traffic. Coach Neill Armstrong got his professional coaching baptism in the wide-open days of the early AFL, and it must be a constant source of irritation to him that his Bears have had so much trouble putting the ball in the air. They just can't keep asking Walter Payton to carry the team.
Payton is coming off an incredible year—1,610 yards rushing, even though his first three blocking backs went down early in the season. He has started the last 63 regular-season games, but obviously he could use some help. It might be forthcoming now that the Bears' three-quarterback shuffle has ended and Mike Phipps has been given the job over Bob Avellini and Vince Evans.
Phipps earned it when he led the Bears to seven wins in their last eight games of 1979, ending with the 42-6 blowout of St. Louis that thrust them into the playoffs on point differential. Phipps lifted weights in the off-season, and Armstrong says his arm is "three notches stronger." That's better than two notches.
James Scott is a quality wide receiver, but he had a broken left ankle last year. He is healthy again, and if he stays that way the Bears will have two flyers on the flanks, Scott and Rickey Watts, plus a tough guy, Brian Baschnagel. Now all Armstrong has to do is figure out how to get his tight end into the end zone—in the last two seasons Bear tight ends have made 37 catches but scored no TDs—and Chicago will have a passing attack.
The Bears have drafted for defense the past two years. Whatever defensive weaknesses they have, they are hidden by a spectrum of 60 different coverages, plus the best pair of safeties in football, Doug Plank and Gary Fencik. The latter seems O.K. after off-season surgery on his left leg. Top draft choice Otis Wilson is the fastest linebacker on the team and he'll see action, although not as an immediate starter.
At TAMPA BAY, John McKay snarls and snaps when you remind him that the division-champion Bucs fattened up on a marshmallow schedule last year. "They're all tough in the NFL," he says. But John, honestly now, wouldn't you prefer Detroit and Green Bay twice a season to Pittsburgh and Houston?
The hard fact is that the Bucs played only two teams with winning records last year, and even against their schedule of patzers, they almost blew it, dropping three of their last four games. In fact, the Bucs would have been out of the playoffs if they hadn't edged K.C. in the finale. Tampa Bay wound up 10-6, a minor miracle, and it had the NFL's No. 1 defense, but this is a show-me business and let's see the Bucs do it again, now that the schedule's been firmed up a bit. Not that it's a crippler—you're never in too bad shape when you play eight games in the NFC Central—but Pittsburgh. Dallas and Houston appear this time, and three of the first five games are against playoff teams. They could be gasping for breath by mid-October.
Let's give a little credit, though. Assistant coaches Abe Gibron and Tom Bass did a heck of a job with the defense. Lee Roy Selmon is the finest defensive lineman in the game—no one else is close. (By the way, the Bucs had virtually no damaging injuries last year, until Selmon strained an Achilles tendon and Quarterback Doug Williams tore a muscle in his throwing arm against the Rams in the NFC title game.) The four linebackers, particularly David Lewis, play the 3-4 as if they were born for it; the offensive line, led by Guard Greg Roberts and Tackle Charley Hannah, is firm; and the Ricky Bell-Jerry Eck-wood-Johnny Davis combo will run for a lot of yards.
But it's going to be tough to topple the big boys when your passer, Williams, was the worst in the NFL in completion percentage in 1979. The big knock on Williams is that he has yet to learn how to get some touch on his passes, a criticism Terry Bradshaw also heard in his formative years. They also say that he guns the ball when he should feather it; that when he's wild he's wild high—way high; and that he still hasn't got the timing down on the sideline routes.
The defensive line has been juggled; Wally Chambers was axed, with his left-end spot going to Bill Kollar, last season's starting nose tackle. Who knows, maybe the Bucs are for real, and maybe they'll fool us again.
There are three things a great runner can give you. Ground power is No. 1, naturally. He also can help open up the passing attack. And he can keep your defense off the field. DETROIT is asking only one thing of its top pick, wealthy Billy Sims. Be great. Please be great. None of this messing around, Billy, trying to earn a position. Sims was installed as the starting halfback the day he reported to camp. The second time he handled the ball in the opening scrimmage, he broke a 60-yarder. In his first exhibition game he caught three passes, matching the total for his whole college career. There had been some question about his pass-catching ability, mainly because they never pass at Oklahoma. The question has been answered.
Sims will try mightily to transform the NFC's worst rushing attack into something respectable, but he must operate behind its youngest offensive line. That was part of the reason for Detroit's 2-14 record in 1979. Quarterback Gary Danielson had lit a fire in '78, but then he went down for the year with a knee injury in preseason, and so did his backup, Joe Reed. The Lions were left with the shorts offensively, and the defense was no world-beater, either. Now Danielson is back and Sims is in town, but the defense still poses problems.
Bubba Baker, the sack artist, walked out of camp, hoping to renegotiate a contract that had already been extended. A more serious loss was Tackle Doug English, the Lions' most valuable defensive player, who went into the oil business. Coach Monte Clark is trying to talk English into returning, but if he fails Lion fans can expect a flashy team that will score a lot of points and give up same.
In the best of times, the MINNESOTA formula for success was simple: a great pass rush that could cover any failings behind it, an all-purpose back who could run and catch, an action quarterback who could move, and a deep receiving threat. But as the Vikings' pass rush eroded over the years, the whole equation broke down. Oh, Bud Grant tried to keep it alive; four of the Vikings' last six No. I draft picks have been defensive linemen. Somehow, though, the sacks have dwindled, and a weakness that was always pretty well hidden—vulnerability to the run—became exposed. And the offense, which in the old days was carried by the defense, suddenly found itself in a role reversal that just didn't work.
This year Minnesota drafted Doug Martin of Washington, the best pass-rushing tackle in college, on the first round, figuring to play him in Alan Page's old spot at right tackle, the sacking tackle. Bring back the pass rush and you can get by with an undistinguished secondary; the linebackers don't have to take such deep drops and can cheat up a little and help out with the run. The offense will get better field position, too. And there's nothing wrong with the Viking pass-catch game, anyway. Tommy Kramer, Ahmad Rashad, Sammy White. Rickey Young—they can all make it go. Sure, the Vikes still can't run the ball, but maybe Ted Brown will stay in one piece and add some firepower.
Enter finances. Howard Slusher, Martin's agent, emerged as the b‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢te noire in a little drama in which Martin is still unsigned and apparently ready to sit out the year. You don't turn a program around by failing to sign your No. 1.
In GREEN BAY, the Pack Is Back—to the wall. The blindfolds have been handed out and the guy with the baton is saying, "Ready, aim—." This could be the worst team in football. I ask you, is this so bad? The worst team will get first crack in the draft at Purdue Quarterback Mark Herrmann, or any of the other blue-chippers in what promises to be a bumper year. Bart Starr then can talk about a great rebuilding program in 1981. If Starr is around, that is. Don Shula might be ready to switch jobs this winter.
Let's be fair. Eight knee operations and a broken arm wrecked the Packers in 1979, which was supposed to be their comeback year. The 1980 draft looked terrific, but Defensive Lineman Bruce Clark, the No. 1 pick, went to Canada and Linebacker George Cumby, the No. 2, injured a knee in camp. He won't play until October. Then Quarterback David Whitehurst hurt his knee, a two-month injury, and Center Larry McCarren, the Pack's best offensive lineman, had a hernia operation. Running Back Eddie Lee Ivery has a banged-up shoulder.
The defense hasn't stopped the run since the days of Lombardi. Switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 isn't the answer. The switch was a necessity—"We've got better linebackers than linemen," that type of thing. Teams must be philosophically committed to the 3-4 concept or it won't work.
Offensively and defensively, the Pack is weak through the middle. McCarren and Whitehurst are out, and Whitehurst's backup, Lynn Dickey, limped through the preseason on a pulled groin muscle and a strained arch. Starr still doesn't know who his middle linebacker will be; Rich Wingo was placed on injured reserve and Mike Hunt has had persistent headaches.
There were dump-Starr rumblings during the off-season, and Starr heard only boos as the Packers went 0-4-1 in the preseason and scored just 17 points.
TAMPA BAY 8-8
GREEN BAY 2-14