NFC CENTRAL

September 04, 1984

This is the year we'll find out how much the CHICAGO BEARS like their coach, Mike Ditka. The Bears were 3-6 in 1982, the first year of his three-year contract, 8-8 last year. Seems that they're moving in the proper direction, right? Well, somebody must have had second thoughts because Ditka's contract wasn't extended this season.

"We all know Mike's job is on the line," says quarterback Jim McMahon.

Under George Halas, there wouldn't have been a problem; Halas had great fondness for his former tight end. Mike McCaskey, Halas's grandson and the new president, says he expects Ditka to be the Bears' coach "for years to come," but he wouldn't offer him a new contract. "I have a lifetime contract with God; who needs anything else?" was all Ditka would say on the subject. Mysterious, eh?

Maybe McCaskey is nervous about a coach who breaks his hand against a locker after a loss. Maybe he doesn't want to rush into anything his first year. But the operation will get a long look this season, and if the players want Ditka back they'd better produce.

The theme for '84 has been togetherness. Jerry Vainisi, the new G.M., has been aggressive about signing players, including the club's top draft pick, linebacker Wilber Marshall, who went later than expected in the first round because his price (he asked for a million a year, got about half that) was too high. Training camp was moved to the cloistered environs of Platteville, Wis. Insiders say the big reason Ditka got rid of veteran guard Noah Jackson was not so much his superfluous weight but his predilection for pointing the finger at fellow linemen who erred.

A brief flare-up occurred between Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, when Ryan publicly questioned the speed of rookie linebacker Ron Rivera, the second-round choice. And Ryan's complex system is making it tough for Marshall to break in, even though Ditka wants him to see action. "He shows up, and he shows up with a thud," Ditka says. One answer would be to move Al Harris, the right linebacker, to the left side or back to his old position, defensive end, thus making room for Marshall. But Ditka should keep the peace with Ryan, whose system has been a plus, not a minus, in his five Chicago years. Corner-backs with speed are needed, and the Bears might have gotten lucky with their 10th-round choice, Shaun Gayle, who's swifter than expected.

The Bears' offense is strange. It led the NFL in rushing last year, and now with Walter Payton going for Jim Brown's rushing mark, it probably will "again. But the Bears had trouble scoring from inside the 20. They were sixth in the league in total offense but only 20th in scoring. World-class hurdler Willie Gault has the giddyaps at wide receiver to put more points on the board, but last year he didn't always know where he was going. Sixty-six NFL receivers caught more balls than he did.

The offensive line is young and improving, and in Stefan Humphries, a rookie guard who is aggressive, agile and intelligent, the Bears got the steal of the draft's third round.

Forrest Gregg will turn it around for the GREEN BAY PACKERS, but he needs one more year, one more draft. Last year's defense was too dismal to rescue overnight. How bad was it? Well, it made the NFL record book—right there on page 276—second-most yards allowed in history.

The D was so bad that not even the high-powered air game of Lynn Dickey throwing to James Lofton, J.J. Jefferson and Paul Coffman could bail it out. The Packers had almost a point-a-minute offense—27 minutes and a tick of possession time per game, 26.81 points scored. But the key figure there is the 27:01. It was the worst in the league. That lovely offense sat on the bench and watched the defense getting overrun.

The Packers still need players. Defensive end Ezra Johnson has a bad back. Safetyman Mike McCoy tore a quadriceps muscle in his left leg and is out for the season. No. 1 draft choice Alphonso Carreker, a 270-pound defensive end, twisted a knee in camp, slowing his progress. Two other rookies will help more. Auburn defensive end Donnie Humphrey (third-round choice) and Pitt free safety Tom Flynn (fifth-round). Flynn was so impressive that he was plopped into the starting unit right away.

In 1983 the Packers made a club-record $1.9 million profit, yet they let their best defensive lineman, Mike Butler, and valuable backup tight end Gary Lewis slip away to the USFL. Coming from Cincinnati, Gregg knew all about that kind of policy, and this year the front office got everybody signed. Here's a name for the future book: quarterback Randy Wright, sixth-round pick from Wisconsin. Remember, you heard it here first.

The DETROIT LIONS were 1-4 after five games last year. The Rams had just beaten them, and Eric Dickerson had run for 199 yards. "See you at the cemetery," was Lion coach Monte Clark's postgame comment. Owner Bill Ford is known for firing unsuccessful coaches.

But the next Sunday Ford went to the pregame breakfast with the players, told them to win it for Monte, or something, and they went out and put it to the Packers, 38-14. The surge carried them through the regular season and into the playoffs, where they came five seconds and one field goal short of beating the 49ers and advancing to the NFC championship. Eddie Murray missed a 43-yarder at the end, and a classic sideline shot showed Clark, his hands clasped in prayer, as the kick sailed wide.

Now, with a solid foundation to build on, the Lions should be a lock for the NFC Central, where a 9-7 record is big thunder, right? But here's the flip side: It's a space game nowadays. The quarterback position has taken on an exaggerated importance. And in four years Eric Hippie hasn't progressed much.

It could be the system. Hippie's a freewheeling type of guy with a powerful gun, but the Lions have been throwing more to their backs. Their leading receiver was 230-pound fullback James Jones, who ranked only 49th among NFL pass catchers. Next was halfback Billy Sims. The Lions have capable wideouts—Leonard Thompson, Jeff Chadwick and former first-round draft choice Mark Nichols, if he ever gets his routes figured out—but somehow these guys have never gotten in sync with the quarterback.

Gary Danielson, with less physical ability but more savvy than Hippie, has been the bailout man, and the situation won't change. In six years Clark has had three offensive coordinators: Bob Schnelker, who has been orchestrating the Green Bay show for the last two years; Ted Marchibroda, now with Philadelphia; and this year Bill Nelsen, whose last port of call was Tampa Bay. Maybe Nelsen will let Hippie open up a bit more. Maybe the top two draft choices, tight end David Lewis and wideout Pete Mandley, will add more zip. Some things never change, though. Five veterans, each with moderate contracts, were camp holdouts. The front office could use a little zip, too.

Ten-hutt! MINNESOTA VIKINGS front and center! First general order: Be prepared to occupy territory stretching from the headwaters of the upper Mississippi River down through Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, with strike-force potential aimed at the Florida Gulf Coast. Put personal goals above monetary considerations; do not let the knowledge that the enemy is better paid than you are dim your will to fight. Do not be distracted by such passive endeavors as fishing during non-duty hours. Avoid cheerleaders; we want no war brides!
—L. Steckel, Commanding Officer

Bud Grant has resigned his commission. Les Steckel, former receiver coach, former Marine Corps combat lieutenant, is in command. "I've led 210 Marines and 80 Vietnamese soldiers into combat," he says, "so don't talk to me about being a head coach." Ah, but has he led 310-pound guards into Tampa Bay?

Steckel has done a "Column right, maaarch!" from the Grant plan of battle, spicing the first day of camp with a grueling, eight-event Ironman competition. The wounded: defensive end Mark Mullaney, pulled hamstring; kicker Benny Ricardo, ditto. He plans to start every regular-season practice with 45 minutes of conditioning drills.

Report on current situation: offense O.K., defensive line under siege. Mullaney hurt, left end Neil Elshire out for a month (knee), middle guard Charlie Johnson wondering why he ever left Fort Vermeil.

Report on defensive line reinforcements: negative. Doug Martin, unwilling to put personal goals above monetary considerations, staging a long holdout; first-round draft choice Keith Millard a deserter to the USFL.

Maybe the troops have been in lousy shape. They've gotten mowed down in December for six straight years (7-14). But it'll take more than starched uniforms to capture and hold a division.

I keep staring at this quote that's in front of me and wishing that I were a millionaire. The quote is from TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS owner Hugh Culverhouse, and it goes, "If I were allowed to bet, I'd wager a million dollars that my team wins the NFC Central championship." Now how am I gonna cover all that? Tell you what I'll do, Hugh. I'll take $20 of it and try to lay the rest off, O.K.? No? Well, I'm sorry, too.

This is a club that lives with delusion, with strange and puzzling decisions. A year after he lost Doug Williams for less money than it would take to sign most other quarterbacks these days, Culver-house rushed to get all his keynote players under contract. Fine. Only one year too late. The feeling was that Williams's successor. Jack Thompson, would be O.K., freed of the injuries and uncertainties that plagued the offense last year. But then the Bucs traded for Steve DeBerg to set up still another of those quarterback shoot-out situations. Special teams and kicking, the Bucs' downfall for as long as anyone can remember, still need improvement. Player personnel director Ken Herock admitted being courted by the USFL when he was negotiating his contract, and he was fired.

Within the thin ranks of this organization there are heroes, to be sure—defensive end Lee Roy Selmon; Dave Logan, one of the game's finest middle guards; linebacker Hugh Green; a secondary that plays with recklessness and enthusiasm; underrated tailback James Wilder, who ran the ball 73 times in the two games preceding the one in which he broke two ribs last year. The defense again will be big league, carrying an offense that will be improved enough to lift the record a few notches higher than last year's 2-14. But playoffs? A lot of things have to be straightened out first.

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TWO PHOTOSDickey (12) and leapers Lofton and Jefferson key the Pack's point-a-minute O. PHOTOThompson is one of several wide receivers Lion quarterbacks must hit more often.

PREDICTED FINISH

Bears 9-7
Packers 9-7
Lions 7-9
Vikings 6-10
Buccaneers 5-11

DR. Z's POWER RANKINGS

BUCS

BEARS

PACKERS

VIKINGS

LIONS

COACHING/MGMT.

5

2

1

4

3

QUARTERBACKS

4

3

1

2

5

RUNNING BACKS

3

1

5

4

2

RECEIVERS

3

5

1

4

2

OFFENSIVE LINE

5

3

1

4

2

KICKING/PUNTING

5

4

2

.3

1

DEFENSIVE LINE

1

3

5

4

2

LINEBACKERS

1

2

4

5

3

DEFENSIVE BACKS

2

3

5

4

1

SPECIAL TEAMS

5

3

4

2

1

DEPTH

5

1

3

4

2

ROOKIES

3

1

4

5

2

(Rankings reflect strength within the division, 1 being best.)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)