Someday, when Pete Rozelle's parity program has been honed and refined and worked out to the ultimate decimal point, all five NFC Central teams will have 8-8 records, all will be 1-1 head-to-head, all will have identical records against division, conference and common opponents, all will have the same number of net points. And as they hand out silver dollars for an orgy of coin flipping at the NFL office at 410 Park Avenue in New York, Rozelle will lean back, smile and say, "We've finally done it. We've achieved absolute parity. We've kept everybody in the race."
Ah, parity, thy name is NFC Central, that great gray swamp where, like Kipling's world east of Suez, "the best is like the worst"; where after 15 weeks of combat only three losses separate the leader from the bleeder; where the first-place team, Minnesota, couldn't come close to defeating one of the division's dogs. Green Bay, in two outings; where anyone can beat anyone else; and where you can honestly say no team is better than another. Close your eyes. Are those the Green Bay Vikings you see out there? The Detroit Bucs? The Chicago Lions? Is there no breaking out of a landscape as barren as Siberia?
Wait a minute, here comes Minnesota. The Vikings clinched the division title Sunday by beating Cleveland 28-23 in Bloomington. Here's how they did it—up to their Hail Mary pass at the end:
—Loused up two potential touchdowns with a holding penalty and an illegal pass beyond the line of scrimmage. Then were wide on the two field goal attempts they had to settle for.
—Blew three of four extra points. This, coupled with the two missed field goals, made it "the worst day of my life" for Kicker Rick Danmeier.
—Set up two Cleveland touchdowns with face-mask and head-slap penalties.—Blew an onside kick. It traveled only nine yards.
But as Chicago General Manager Jim Finks says, "The Vikings slop around and don't do much of anything, but they're never really out of it, and pretty soon they bring you down to their level."
Their level Sunday was a first down on their 20 with 14 seconds to play and no more time-outs. So Quarterback Tommy Kramer, who threw for 456 yards against the Browns, hit a first-year tight end named Joe Senser, who was best known at West Chester State as a basketball player. Senser lateraled to Ted Brown, who ran out of bounds on the Cleveland 46. "A sandlot play." Viking Coach Bud Grant called it. "We made it up on the sidelines the last time Cleveland had the ball." And then came the finale: three wide receivers on the right side, running like hell downfield, covered by five Browns—more than a third of the players on the field gathered in one little corner. Kramer lobbed the ball toward the goal line, the Vikes' Sammy White and the Browns' Thorn Darden leaped and tipped it near the four, Minnesota's Ahmad Rashad caught it at about the two. scored, and the Vikings had their 11th division title.
Atlanta calls that play Big Ben. San Francisco 49er Coach Bill Walsh calls it "ugly football...the game was never meant to be played that way." In the Viking playbook it's Squadron Right, Squadron Fly—tighten your silk scarves, boys, and let's win one for the RAF.
That's the NFC Central. Class we ain't got, but we're all in this swamp together. Tampa Bay tried to break out last season. A mere three years after joining the NFL, the Bucs burst to the top of the NFC Central with a 10-6 record. They even had a playoff victory. Cigars all around. Just wait till 1980. But the swamp got them, dragged them back. Not so fast, young fella. You must learn to march with the rest of the pack. You must reacquaint yourself with our constant companion, mediocrity. Tampa Bay is now the division's worst team, along with Green Bay. But until Dec. 7 the Bucs had a shot at the playoffs. That was the day they lost to the Vikings 21-10 and Coach John McKay, who had been criticized for publicly censuring his players, said that henceforth he would use the word "lovely" to describe his team's performances. "We just blew it," McKay said, referring to a 10-point lead that had evaporated. "I don't know who I can blame that on because all the players played lovely."
Detroit was walking the high ground in September. The Lions were 4-0 and snapping their fingers while dancing to the tune of their new theme song—Another One Bites the Dust. Their sensational rookie, Billy Sims, looked as if he'd run right out of the Silverdome. A local paper ran a contest to choose a nickname for Sims. Silver Streak edged some 37,000 other entries, including Bye Bye Billy, The Renaissance Man, The Roaring 20, Dandy Lion, Secretary of Offense, Quick Silver, Billy The Kid and The Flyin' Lion. The Silver Streak couldn't save Detroit. The swamp got the Lions, too. They lost seven of their next 10 and watched Minnesota creep by.
Last Sunday the Lions kept their wildcard hopes flickering—their only chance was for Los Angeles to lose its final two—by beating Tampa Bay 27-14 in a game that was notable only because 1) the Lions were the NFL's No. 1 rushing team but gained only 68 yards on the ground, and 2) Detroit Kicker Eddie Murray hit the crossbar on one field-goal try and the upright on another.
As for Chicago, it took six weeks for the Bears to find a quarterback, but by then they were 2-4 and sinking out of sight. "If I were the coach, I'd bench me next week," a disconsolate Mike Phipps said after his four interceptions set up a 13-7 loss to the Vikings in the sixth week of the season. Nobody argued. The next week Vince Evans was at quarterback, and on Dec. 7 he led Chicago to a 61-7 rout of the Packers. At half-time the Bears found out they had been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, and then they went out and scored 33 points. There was much head shaking and finger pointing on the Green Bay side, something about running it up.
But last Sunday the Bears regressed. They didn't bother to try a medium-range field goal that could have beaten Cincinnati at the end of regulation time, throwing an end-zone interception instead. They lost 17-14 in OT.
The Packers had been everyone's choice for NFL Worst in '80, but one rule of the NFC Central is that if no team rises too high, none sinks too low, either. Mediocrity has saved Bart Starr's job for one more year.
In mid-October Minnesota was 3-5 and had scored exactly one touchdown in its last 12 quarters. The sharpshooters were saying, "It's finally come. The ultimate fade." But, no. The Vikings have now won six of their last seven.
And so, in ascending order, this is the NFC Central with one week to play:
TAMPA BAY (5-9-1)—Three weeks ago McKay said he might resign after the 1981 season. He said he'd quit after this year if he determined he was the cause of the decline. He says a lot of things. Not to worry. Before the end of last season his contract reportedly was extended by five years, through 1984. The kicker is that if McKay quits as coach, he gets to move into the president's office. Don't get jumpy, Ron, that's president of the Bucs. McKay has gotten really mad only once this year, when a Texas writer said Buc Quarterback Doug Williams is dumb. The rest of the time he has kept the pencils busy with his one-liners.
Before a preseason game with St. Louis: "I think Jim Hanifan made a good decision in naming Jim Hart as his starting quarterback. How the hell do you spell Pisarkiewicz?"
When the Bucs traded for Gary Davis, giving them four running backs named Davis: "The reason for the deal is pure and simple: we have four shirts with Davis on them. It's cheaper to trade than to change the name on a shirt."
Asked which was worse, a 23-0 loss to Chicago or a 14-14 tie with Green Bay: "You can't pick the better of two worsts."
GREEN BAY (5-9-1)—For the first time in NFL history a pair of Bays, Green and Tampa, are tied for last in their division. No one really expected much else from the Packers. The question is: what took them so long? Remember the preseason? First we were wondering whether Starr would be fired right then and there. No sooner had that cloud blown away when another one appeared—in the shape of a hot dog. Defensive End Ezra Johnson was seen eating a frank on the bench during a 38-0 preseason blowout by the Broncos, and the cavalier manner in which Starr handled this—he gave Johnson a slap on the wrist—so annoyed Assistant Coach Fred von Appen that he quit.
Then the players started grumbling about Starr. They called him J.R., in honor of J.R. Ewing who got his in Dallas. So after Green Bay's first regular-season game, in which the Packers beat the Bears in overtime when Chester Marcol scooped up his blocked field goal and toddled into the end zone—"He looked like the man in the New York Life commercial," said Bear Kicker Bob Thomas—Starr showed up with a cigar, a cowboy hat and a Western shirt with a J.R. monogram on the pocket. Ah, peace for a week, but as the days grew shorter and mediocrity took its iron hold, the grumblings started again.
"This is Starr's sixth year," one Packer said after the 61-7 loss to the Bears. "Six long years of excuses, close losses, flat teams and mental mistakes. Good grief, enough is enough."
CHICAGO (6-9)—Call this the apology season. A 28-17 loss to Atlanta turned on a Walter Payton fumble that really wasn't a fumble. The league office apologized, and incidentally, Walter, you don't have to pay that $200 fine for grabbing Head Linesman Ed Marion. Just don't do it again, O.K.? And, yes, the league apologized to the Bears for the interference penalty that set up the field goal that gave Philadelphia a 17-14 win. Seems it wasn't really interference after all. And, oh yes, the shovel pass off the fake field goal that gave the Oilers a 10-6 victory...well, the films showed an ineligible Oiler downfield. Sorry about that.
"Right now there's no question we're the best team in the division," Finks said after the 61-7 victory over Green Bay, pointing out that the offense had opened up considerably since Evans took over at quarterback. Coach Neill Armstrong had been getting heat for his no-pass, let-Walter-do-it attack, so when it came down to the last 20 seconds against Cincinnati last week, with the ball on the Bengals' 18 and the score tied, it was time to show 'em, dammit! Two end-zone passes, the second one intercepted, pushed the game into overtime, and Cincinnati won.
DETROIT (8-7)—Another One Bites the Dust came back to haunt the Lions. After the Colts beat Detroit 10-9 on Nov. 16, the Lions' fifth loss in seven games, a local disc jockey named Dick Purtan introduced a parody: Another One Beats Our Butts. Coach Monte Clark showed up at his weekly press conference in fake glasses, rubber nose and false mustache. "Hello, I'm Dick Purtan and I'm here to introduce my new song," Clark said. "I must say that I like it better than the first version." Wait, it gets better. When the Cards ran a punt back all the way to beat the Lions in St. Louis two weeks ago—it was the second game in a row that Detroit lost on a runback—the band struck up Another One Bites the Dust and the Cardinals mocked and taunted the Lions, just as the Detroit players had done when they beat St. Louis in September. When Minnesota beat Detroit 34-0, the Vikings sang that song, too, and one of them threw dust at the crowd in Bloomington.
The Lions might still be singing if, one by one, their offensive line hadn't bit the dust with injuries and their quarterback, Gary Danielson, hadn't been bothered by rib, shoulder and ankle miseries. "Everybody's making such a big deal about that song," Danielson says. "Last year we were 2-14 without a song."
MINNESOTA (9-6)—When you figure the Vikings out, let us know. They went into the Cleveland game with the NFL's 17th-ranked offense and 25th-best defense. And yet there are some things they do exceedingly well. They have blocked 45 kicks in the last five years, and they beat New Orleans on Nov. 30 by blocking a 25-yard field goal at the end. They have lost only three fumbles this season. That's right, three. And finally this one—for 14 straight years they have lost their final game of the season. But at least they'll be playing in January.
Let's face it. Even in the NFC Central, someone's got to be No. 1.