In this cap-astrophic era of pro football the idealists are quickly reduced to realists. At first the idealists say, "O.K., we'll build a team with just the right mix of young and old. of superstar and rising star, with plenty of veteran backups around to keep the ship steady." Then they get their hearts broken by the very real constraints of the new salary cap.

Coach Dennis Green of the Minnesota Vikings is already a realist. Lose one guy, plug in whatever is available; a keynoter departs, grab someone out there to replace him. Last year Green imported 35-year-old Jim McMahon to play quarterback. The season ended with McMahon getting hammered by the New York Giants as the Vikings lost in the first round of the playoffs. Goodbye McMahon, and let's welcome 38-year-old Warren Moon, who ended his season—and his 10-year career with the Houston Oilers—wobbling off the held in a playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Moon will be the fifth Viking starter at quarterback in the last 35 games. Next year it will probably be someone else. It's an iffy formula, but that's cap football, folks. Better get used to it.

If he's comfortable in the pocket, Moon can still throw the high, hard one. When the protection breaks down, as it did in Houston last year, Moon pays the price. A Viking offensive line with only one member—Pro Bowl left guard Randall McDaniel—remaining from the unit of two years ago has got to make Moon-watchers nervous, but the addition of former Pro Bowl tackle Chris Hinton will help.

So will former Pittsburgh Steeler Adrian Cooper, the NFL's best blocking tight end; and, in time, first-round draft pick Todd Steussie, a tackle; and emerging wideout Jake Reed, a big guy who will miss the first two games on the schedule but has been a favorite target of Moon's in the preseason. If either of the slashing running backs, Terry Allen or Robert Smith, makes it all the way back from knee surgery, the Vikings could have a first-rate attack. That would be a rarity in the NFC Central, where no team's offense finished higher than 17th last year—which is the reason Minnesota led the NFL in defense, and three other NFC Central teams ranked in the top six.

The Viking defense will still be good, even without Chris Doleman, who took his 12½ sacks to Atlanta. Most important, though. Green knows how to beat his division foes—witness his 8-0 mark against Green Bay and Chicago. Keeping my fingers crossed for Moon, I'm calling the Vikes the division champs.

There are two ways to look at Reggie White's performance for the Green Bay Packers last year. They wanted sacks, and he provided them, an NFC-leading 13. He brought stability to a defense that rose from 23rd in the NFL in 1992 to second last year. He took on the double team and freed up other people. Then there's the other view: White was overweight. He loaded up for his one or two big sacks or hurries per game, and the rest of the time he tiptoed through the tulips, playing it safe, keeping people away from his body. He faded down the stretch, and power blockers, such as Minnesota's Tim Irwin, now with Tampa Bay, and the Dallas Cowboys' Erik Williams, overpowered him.

Well, White must have been hearing some of those negatives, because this year he reported to camp 10 pounds lighter. He looked quicker in the preseason. Maybe he's really getting ready to step it up, but don't forget—he's 32. There were a lot of other people busting their humps on that unit last year: pass-rush specialist Tony Bennett, now with the Indianapolis Colts: inside linebacker Johnny Holland, who retired in the spring; rookie free safety George Teague; noseguard John Jurkovic; and strong safety LeRoy Butler, who is the best in football at his position.

But while everyone was celebrating the emergence of the defense, which gave the Pack its first back-to-back winning seasons since the Lombardi era, defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes made a lateral move to the San Francisco 49ers in the off-season, and defensive-line coach Greg Blache took his talents to the Colts.

One other puzzler. What happened to Brett Favre? Two years ago he seemed to be the next young superstar quarterback. Last season, though his numbers were O.K., he regressed. He didn't seem to get his reads down. He made weird throws. Still, he had enough toughness and ability to get the Pack into the playoffs.

Well, let's not be too hard on this team and the fine job coach Mike Holmgren and general manager Ron Wolf have done. Sean Jones and Steve McMichael give the new 4-3 defense a very solid look. Sterling Sharpe is a marvelous receiver, with or without help. A running game? Well, they've been looking for one ever since Terdell Middleton went over 1,000 yards in '78. Looks like another playoff year, but then the climb gets steeper.

The biggest thing that coach Wayne Fontes of the Detroit Lions did this season was to cut his press conference workload by two thirds. Instead of having to answer questions about three quarterbacks every week, he'll only have to talk about one, 6'6" Scott Mitchell, whose seven starts for Miami last year were so noteworthy that he became the marquee name among 1994 free agents. And how were the Lions able to step forward and outbid everyone else for the free-agent quarterback? Cap management, the same strategy that got them in position to trade for linebacker Pat Swilling a year earlier.

In chief operating officer Chuck Schmidt they've got one of the best at that particular task. Last year, when the money didn't count against the cap, Schmidt spent a bundle redoing the numbers on the big-name guys: Barry Sanders. Chris Spielman, Herman Moore, Bennie Blades. This year the Lions unloaded Bill Fralic and Dave Richards, two high-priced, free-agent offensive linemen they had acquired in '93. The money they saved there provided funds for such newcomers as tight end Ron Hall, solid backup quarterback Dave Krieg, wideout Anthony Carter, inside linebacker Mike Johnson and, of course, Mitchell. See, it's not so tough when you plan ahead.

I sure like that Lion offense, with Mitchell, Moore and Sanders. The defense generally holds up well. What I don't like is the schedule, which they inherited along with their division title. So I'm calling them 8-8, but I just know they'll be better than that.

The Chicago Bears have known how to play defense for as long as I can remember, but, honestly, how long can those guys carry an offense that just keeps sinking lower and lower? The offense finished last in the NFL in '93. The total number of touchdown passes was seven, which is how many Dan Marino throws in two weeks.

The Bears addressed some of their most pressing needs in the free-agent market, but constructing a formidable attack is going to be a long-term deal. Erik Kramer, buried in Detroit's three-man rotation last season, replaces Jim Harbaugh at quarterback. Bear coach Dave Wannstedt remembers the way Kramer shredded his Cowboy defense in the playoffs three years ago, when Wannstedt was the Dallas coordinator. There are solid workmen among the other imports—tackle Andy Heck, backs Lewis Tillman and Merril Hoge, tight end Marv Cook, wideout Jeff Graham—but hardly a name there to make your pulse beat faster.

And as the offense slowly works its way back to the land of the living, the defense shows signs of slipping. First-round draft pick John Thierry, a defensive end from Alcorn Slate, is no Richard Dent, who left for San Francisco. Defensive tackle Steve McMichael, gone to Green Bay, still might have had some football left in him.

But Wannstedt's sound defensive background, plus warriors Dante Jones, a terrific middle linebacker, left end Trace Armstrong, cornerback Donnell Woolford and strong safety Shaun Gayle, all of whom play the game with a frenetic style, should keep the Bears in enough games to give them a shot.

I often wonder what it must be like to be a fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The club rewarded its loyal patrons this off-season by raising the top ticket price by 33%, from $30 to $40, which might be why only 23,000 season tickets were sold. Tampa fans cheered the salary cap because it meant the club would have no excuse not to spend the same kind of money other teams were shelling out. The Bucs will be paying $7.6 million for four years' worth of Jackie Harris, the most highly sought-after tight end in football, and $16.5 million for eight years of servitude from rookie quarterback Trent Dilfer, who might have opened the season as the starter rather than Craig Erickson if he hadn't departed the June workout program in a contract dispute.

The draft also brought a very popular local choice, running back Errict Rhett from the University of Florida; and just to show that he isn't kidding around with his attack, coach Sam Wyche even picked tackle Pete Pierson (fifth round)—the first offensive lineman Wyche has picked in three drafts with the Bucs.

The defense? Needs work. It finished 22nd in the league, in a division that doesn't pile up many yards; and it would have been much worse if not for heroic work by middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, the Bucs' first All-Pro since Lee Roy Selmon and Hugh Green in 1982.

Over the whole Tampa operation looms the long shadow of Jimmy Johnson. Will this be the former Dallas coach's next port of call? Stay tuned.


PHOTOAL TIELEMANSThe Lions, adept at the salary cap game, have Sanders safely secured. PHOTOTOM LYNNThe Packers hope that this year's White (92) is not only leaner, but meaner.












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