The Minnesota Vikings were on the six-yard line, trying for the touchdown that could have tied Washington at the end of last year's NFC Championship game. They came up short. It was a sad end to a fine season. In the playoffs the Vikings had beaten New Orleans and San Francisco on the road. In the second half of the Skins game Minnesota had held Washington to three straight three-and-out series. Wade Wilson had quarterbacked the Vikes magnificently in the postseason. And now practically everyone likes them to make the Super Bowl. But I'm not so sure. I think they'll lose to the 49ers for the NFC Championship in a close one.
Minnesota's salary structure remains inordinately low for a contending team. Owners around the league admire the way Viking general manager Mike Lynn has kept paychecks low, but there's a time to loosen up the purse strings and let people know you're serious. Halfback Darrin Nelson, defensive end Doug Martin, offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman and center Kirk Lowder-milk were lengthy camp holdouts. The last two hurt the most because the Vikings must have a settled offensive line. In addition to that final failure against the Redskins, they had first-and-goal on the Washington three earlier in the fourth quarter and settled for a field goal. They just didn't have that oomph.
All of their first five draft picks should get some playing time. Arizona State guards Randall McDaniel (first round) and Todd Kalis (fourth) will vie for the right guard spot. Two safeties, Brad Edwards (second) and Darrell Fullington (fifth), have performed well, and defensive end Al Noga, a third-rounder, has been starting in place of Martin. Who said low-drafting teams don't help themselves?
The pluses are Wilson, the weakside pass rush of right end Chris Doleman, right tackle and emerging star Keith Millard, wideout Anthony Carter and weakside linebacker Jesse Solomon. But you've got to pay 'em. Mike.
The CHICAGO BEARS had two No 1 picks in this year's draft and will have three more next year. That's the future. Wilber Marshall is in Washington and Willie Gault is a Raider. That's the present. What tense do you want to live in when you're a contender?
What the Bears have lost is speed and instant striking power both offensively and defensively. What they've gained is a guarantee that the talent will continue. Player personnel director Bill Tobin is one of the best drafters around, Chicago's unsung hero. He should have gotten Executive of the Year when the Bears won Super Bowl XX.
Chicago still has plenty of talent. Both No. 1 draft choices will see a lot of action. Fullback Brad Muster runs hard and catches passes, though he's not in Matt Suhey's class as a blocker. Wide receiver Wendell Davis has looked fine. So what's the problem? The little things: the firing of general manager Jerry Vainisi, with no football man hired to replace him; the fact that Mike Ditka still projects that image of firmness but messes around forever with William Perry's weighty battle; the failure to land much-needed San Diego tackle Jim Lachey when he was trade bait. One good pop and quarterback Jim Mc-Mahon's left shoulder is out again, and that will mean curtains for the year, says the doc. The Bears are a solid team with too many ifs to go all the way.
This division has turned into a two-tiered society. Minnesota and Chicago are the elite; the DETROIT LIONS. Green Bay and Tampa Bay are the dregs. It has been five seasons since a member of this threesome had a winning record. You can pick them in any order you want and have a good chance of being right.
The Lions are a maybe club. Maybe coach Darryl Rogers can save his job with some motivating. His top priority: last year's No. 1 draft pick, defensive end Reggie Rogers, whose total contribution was six tackles. Maybe a superior pass-blocking line—Chuck Long was sacked only 17 times in '87 while throwing 416 passes, the second-best ratio in the NFL—can shift gears and block for the run. The ground game is in shock. The leading ballcarrier, fullback James Jones, ranked 45th in the league, with a career low of 342 yards and no TDs.
From our scout in Green Bay comes this stat: Since 1970, of the 84 coaches who have taken over losing teams at the start of a season and finished the year, only nine were over .500. I wish Lindy Infante of the GREEN BAY PACKERS good luck, but let's face it, he's bucking odds longer than 8-1.
He's bucking lots of other things, too, as he tries to establish the kind of offense that worked so well for him in Cincinnati and Cleveland. The line has been damaged by holdouts and injuries. In training camp Infante looked at a slew of quarterbacks. Former Raider Marc Wilson has emerged on top, but he doesn't keep the ball low and avoid interceptions, which is the style Infante likes. Infante also favors running backs who can catch, but neither Kenneth Davis nor Brent Fullwood is an especially gifted receiver.
The defense was better than the offense last year. It has some talented players, including linebackers Brian Noble, John Anderson, Johnny Holland, Tim Harris and cornerback Mark Lee, but bear in mind a second depressing stat: Since 1980 just four Packers have made the Pro Bowl, none of them on defense.
One more statistic and we'll give it a rest: The Packers made $3 million last year, the second-highest profit in their history. And that was during a strike season. So who needs to be great?
On April 24, 1987, four days before the draft, the TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS traded Steve Young to San Francisco for second-and fourth-round draft choices. No one questioned the move at the time. Everyone knew Tampa Bay was going to get Vinny Testaverde, and the formula of a young star plus an old vet (Steve DeBerg) to show him the ropes is the correct one.
Now the second-guessers are being heard from, as Young continues to wow them on the coast and Testaverde struggles. Vinny made his first start against New Orleans on Dec. 6. The kid had butterflies. He fumbled twice, which led to two Saints touchdowns. Then he settled down. New Orleans won 44-34, but the 34 points scored against the Saints was the most they gave up all season. Testaverde broke the NFL's rookie single-game passing record with 369 yards and two touchdowns. But he ended the season with a 43% completion rate and a lot to learn.
What does the future hold for Testaverde and the Bucs'? We're not about to second-guess coach Ray Perkins on his handling of quarterbacks. He played with Johnny Unitas; he scouted and broke in Phil Simms. His first two 1988 draft choices were offensive players, including the country's best college lineman, tackle Paul Gruber, in the first round. He traded DeBerg and brought in an even older pro, Joe Ferguson, to help baby-sit his young quarterback. Alas for Vinny, my prediction is that the Bucs stop here.
HOW THEY'LL FINISH
4 GREEN BAY
5 TAMPA BAY