NFC CENTRAL

September 03, 1985

Give me a cornerback who can fly, said CHICAGO BEARS defensive coach Buddy Ryan; give me a Mike Haynes and I'll show you a defense that will set records, that will sail in uncharted waters. The Bears didn't listen. On draft day they gave him a 360-pound refrigerator named William Perry. Call him a defensive tackle, or something like that.

Steve McMichael, whose job Perry was supposed to take away, must have felt just great about that pick. McMichael is the left tackle, the unsung hero on a defensive line that sent right tackle Dan Hampton and right end Richard Dent to the Pro Bowl. The Bears set an NFL record with 72 sacks, and McMichael got 10 of them. He freed Hampton to work against a lot of single blocking, the guiding principle of Ryan's crowding 46 defense, which led the league.

Just wait, the scouts said. Perry will go on a diet of sunflower seeds and alfalfa sprouts. He'll come in lean and mean at, let's say, 280, and won't he be something at that weight. Cut to Aug. 5. Perry, a two-week holdout, checks into camp. The scale groans and the needle stops at 330. He fails to complete his second afternoon workout. Fatigue, dehydration, cramps. Ryan, a blunt fellow, offers this evaluation: "He's just a big overweight kid. He hasn't shown me anything since he's been here. He was a wasted draft choice and a waste of money." Then he announces that he would play Perry the whole way in the first exhibition game. Trial by torture.

Picking Perry was an arrogant move by the Bears. They were saying, we're so good we can go for a gamble, a project. A fleet cornerback would have made more sense. Or maybe a wideout to give their talented young quarterback, Jim McMahon, an extra target. Willie Gault, the flyer, has been a disappointment. Last year his 34 catches ranked 83rd in the NFL, yet that was still almost as many as the rest of the Bear wide receivers combined. Maybe if McMahon had had more people to look to downfield he wouldn't have had to run around so much and he wouldn't have been injured so badly at midseason. That forced the Bears to start ex-Chief and ex-Ram Steve Fuller, who was overmatched against the 49ers in the NFC Championship game. How long have the Bears talked about building a passing attack to take the pressure off the still magnificent Walter Payton?

But shed no tears for Chicago. McMahon is healthy. Wideout Ken Margerum is back after missing the '84 season. They might have gotten lucky with second-round draft pick Reggie Phillips, a small but speedy cornerback who could work his way into the lineup. And if someday a trimmer William Perry becomes another Merlin Olsen or Rosey Grier, they'll look awfully smart indeed.

Halfway through the '84 season, the GREEN BAY PACKERS were 1-7, the worst record in the NFC. Coach Forrest Gregg prefaced a team meeting by saying, "After seven straight losses it's amazing that anyone would want to hear what I have to say." Then, suddenly, the Pack snapped back, going 7-1 in the second half of the season. Gregg's experiment of bringing in two new guards, Tim Huffman and Ron Hallstrom, looked pretty bad at first but then it paid off. Sacks dropped from 33 in the first half of the season to 11. The rushing stats went up 65 yards a game.

O.K., you can say that the Packers faced the tough teams at first and the easier ones later on, but Gregg sees it differently. A firm offensive line is the answer, he feels. This year his players reported to camp stronger. Grunt-and-groan coach Virgil Knight said the number of 400-pound bench pressers hit 20 at the start of training camp. Last year there were seven. The Packers traded a second-round pick to move up seven places in the draft and get Ken Ruettgers, a tackle from USC. They had projected him into the right tackle spot of Greg Koch, who has a perennial back-injury problem. But Ruettgers missed three weeks of camp as a holdout, so it was questionable whether he'd be able to pick up enough of the offense right away.

The Packers are taking a hard line on salaries. Last year they had the second-highest payroll in the NFL ($11.3 million), according to Players Association figures. Now management feels it's time to cut back. One of the free agent vets who held out, fullback Jesse Clark, had a legitimate case. He made $75,000 last year. The other one, J.J. Jefferson...well, he made $350,000, and the Packers are willing to let him fade out of the picture, replacing him with speedy but tiny (5'9½", 165) Phil Epps. Don't forget, though, that Gregg said sayonara at Cincinnati because the Bengals wouldn't get up the dough for their players.

Lynn Dickey, one of the survivors of the great quarterback class of '71 (Archie Manning, Dan Pastorini, Jim Plunkett), is showing his age, but he can still do a competent job with a decent line in front of him. Donnie Humphrey, projected to middle guard, showed up at camp at 312. At 280 he might be valuable, keeping enemy blockers off the Packer linebackers, who are talented but often get overrun. At 300-plus he's just another fat boy.

The TAMPA BAY BUCS theme this year is "A Whole New Ball Game." This is what Leeman Bennett, only the second head coach in the team's history, has done so far: made himself available for a number of public appearances, taken down the covering around the field and installed bleachers for the fans to watch practices (the stands have been full), given his assistants private cubicles. Under John McKay, the defensive coaches had one room, the offensive coaches another. The eventual record might not be a whole lot better than last year's 6-10, but at, least everyone will be happier.

Bennett, who coached the last winning team at Atlanta, has brought in the one-back offense. If ever a team was made for it, it's Tampa Bay, because they have only one back, James Wilder. But what a back. The Bucs might have some more zip if the club's quest for quarterback Steve Young of the L.A. Express is successful. There is no guarantee Young would beat out Steve DeBerg, but the competition would be interesting.

The loss of defensive right end Lee Roy Selmon, who is on injured reserve with a bad back, is a blow, but Bennett isn't crying about it. Life goes on. Top draft pick Ron Holmes is the new Lee Roy. This means that the linebacking corps will get more pressure on that side, but it's a very fine outfit. And with Bennett's more wide open attack philosophy, Hugh Green should have a big year. The Bucs aren't a playoff team yet, but wait. Soon, soon.

With Billy Sims in the lineup last year the DETROIT LIONS went 3-5, and all but one of those games were close. Without him they were 1-6-1 and were blown out in five of those contests. Well, Billy's gone. Projections for an October return are wishful thinking. His knee simply isn't coming around, and he'll be 30 this month. No new Sims is on the horizon, either from the USFL or the draft. The Lions had their pick of the running backs but instead they chose a tackle, Lomas Brown, who became a long holdout.

This is the way the Lions helped themselves this year: They got a new coach, Darryl Rogers from Arizona State. He put in a 3-4 defense, thereby turning a very solid line into a question mark, with Doug English, a premier sacking tackle being converted, at 32, to noseguard. Their idea of trading was getting rid of quarterback Gary Danielson, who had the most productive year of his career, based on the NFL's rating points, and bringing in the Bills' Joe Ferguson, who finished 26th among the 28 quarterbacks who were ranked. Maybe Joe will perform better now that he's indoors and away from the Buffalo windchill, but he still must contend with Eric Hippie, who went from prospect to suspect in four seasons under Monte Clark.

They could have shown some imagination. They might have made a move on USFL stars like Anthony Carter and Bobby Hebert, who once played in town. At least that would have juiced up the fans. They went for one USFLer, Ernest Anderson, who carried a meager 14 times for Arizona, but USFL stars cost money, and the Lions have enough trouble paying their draft choices and veterans, one of whom, linebacker Garry Cobb, was holding out at the start of preseason and swore he would never play in Detroit again. All in all, a picture as bleak as those long Michigan winters.

The MINNESOTA VIKINGS' collapse last year was shocking but predictable. All the signs were there. It's easy to castigate departed coach Les Steckel, but the fact is the Vikings had been eroding for five years under Bud Grant, before Steckel took over. Their record in those five seasons was 36-37. The offense had been flashy and innovative, covering up a defense that was dying. Superstars grew old and retired and no new ones took their place. Since 1978, only one Minnesota defensive player had gone to the Pro Bowl, linebacker Matt Blair. In the old days the Vikings would send a squad. From 1979 through '83 the Vikings didn't finish higher than 17th in the league in defense. Steckel read the problem. His No. 1 draft choice was a defensive end, Keith Millard of Washington State. The club lost him to the USFL.

When quarterback Tommy Kramer was hurt in the eighth game, that was it. The Vikings lost eight of their last nine, and down the stretch they had nothing left. They were blown out in their last six games, giving up no fewer than 31 points in any of them, for an average of more than 40. Maybe it was Steckel's Spartan regimen that had sapped their strength, maybe it was just a sense of hopelessness, but the Vikes were terrible.

Now Grant is back to try to pump new life into the body. Millard has returned from the USFL. Grant will have to load his defense with rookies, something he always shunned in the past. There are plenty of them around: No. 1 draft choice Chris Doleman, an outsized 6'5", 250-pound linebacker; defensive backs Issiac Holt (No. 2) and Kyle Morrell (No. 4); linebackers Tim Meamber (No. 3) and Nikita Blair (No. 8); noseguard Tim Newton (No. 6). Desperate measures are called for.

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PHOTOJERRY LODRIGUSSWas Buccaneers tight end Jerry Bell in a receptive mood against the Jets last year? Eye, eye, sir. PHOTOANDY HAYTThe Bears hope they won't need Payton as a backup quarterback. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERDefensive end Ezra Johnson, leveling Dave Krieg, is a feared Packer sacker.

Dr. Z's Power Rankings

Bears

Packers

Lions

Vikings

Bucs

Coaching/Mgmt.

2

1

5

3

4

Quarterbacks

2

1

4

3

5

Running Backs

1

4

5

3

2

Receivers

4

1

3

5

2

Offensive Line

1

3

4

5

2

Kicking/Punting

2

3

4

1

5

Defensive Line

1

3

2

5

4

Linebackers

1

2

4

5

3

Defensive Backs

3

1

2

5

4

Special Teams

2

1

5

4

3

Depth

1

2

3

5

4

Rookies

4

3

5

1

2

Rankings reflect strength within the division, 1 being best

Predicted Finish

Bears

13-3

Packers

9-7

Bucs

7-9

Lions

3-13

Vikings

3-13

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)