The holidays are always a time of reflection. With the regular season coming to a close, it's time to look back to see who has been bad and who has been good in the Central Division in 1994, as well as to look ahead to see what teams will have to do in the off-season to have a happy and prosperous new year.
The '94 season was business as usual in Detroit; the Lions were once again consistently inconsistent. When they upset the Cowboys 20-17 in overtime on Monday Night Football in the third week of the season, they were the surprise team of the NFL. But then they lost three in a row, and off they went on the kind of roller-coaster ride that has been typical under coach Wayne Fontes. Their biggest liability through the first 10 weeks was $11.1 million free-agent quarterback Scott Mitchell, who never showed any field vision or smoothness in the pocket. When he broke a bone in his right hand against the Packers on Nov. 6 and was lost for the season, he had a pathetic quarterback rating of 62.0, and the team's record was 4-5. His replacement, 36-year-old veteran Dave Krieg, took command of the offense and has been one of the highest-rated signal-callers in the league. His record as a starter is 5-1, which has left the Lions with a major dilemma.
Detroit management, including Fontes, still believes Mitchell will be productive, but he's a long-range project. Fontes would like to re-sign Krieg, who's a free agent, but with the understanding that he'll be a backup. Krieg still wants to start, and he'll most likely test the waters with one of the expansion franchises, Carolina or Jacksonville. Probably the only way Detroit can keep Krieg is to cut its losses and release Mitchell, but that would be too large an admission of error for management to make.
On defense, the Lions' sack total has dwindled from 43 a year ago to 27 with one game to go. Pass-rushing linebacker Pat Swilling, acquired in a draft-day trade with New Orleans in 1993, has been a bust. When Swilling made just 6½ sacks in '93, he was considered a disappointment. This season he has only 2½ sacks and lost his job to Tracy Scroggins.
The Lions could cut Swilling and his $1.5 million contract, opening up some room under their salary cap. The free agents they must re-sign are left tackle Lomas Brown, right tackle Dave Lutz, linebackers Broderick Thomas and Mike Johnson, and Pro Bowl kickoff returner Mel Gray. But to get better, Detroit must find a pass rusher either in the draft or free-agent market before next season.
The Vikes' off-season acquisition of quarterback Warren Moon for a fourth-round draft pick in '94 and a third-rounder in '95 paid off in a big way. Proving that he's one of the best quarterbacks ever to play the game, Moon easily made the transition from the Oilers' run-and-shoot to the Vikings' ball-control, short-passing game. With one game to go, Moon has already set Viking records for most completions (371) and passing yards (4,264) in a season, and he is on pace to break his own NFL record for completions (404, set in '91, when he was with Houston). He could also become the only player to throw for more than 4,500 yards in three seasons.
But at 38, with a right arm that has thrown for nearly 60,000 yards in 17 years as a pro, how much longer can Moon keep up these heroics? He is not only physically tired from all the pounding he has taken (30 sacks through Sunday), but he has also been playing with a badly sprained right wrist and tendinitis in his right elbow. Offensive coordinator Brian Billick admits that he abandoned the running game too quickly and relied too heavily on Moon.
Last Saturday the Vikings saw what can happen if they have to rely on backup Brad Johnson, a 1992 ninth-round draft pick out of Florida State. Moon injured his knee in a blowout loss to the Lions, and Johnson, who had thrown only eight passes in the NFL, was unable to move the team in Moon's absence. Look for Minnesota to scour the free-agent market for a more experienced reserve quarterback.
During the team's three-game losing streak in November, opponents also exposed the weakness in its defense—the lack of a solid pass rusher at defensive end. Double teams on tackles John Randle and Henry Thomas allowed opposing quarterbacks to carve up the once-mighty Viking defense, which couldn't replace Pro Bowl end Chris Doleman, traded to the Atlanta Falcons last spring. Minnesota will have two picks in each of the first two rounds of the '95 draft; the team must pick up a pass-rushing end.
The Vikes also must re-sign wide receiver Jake Reed, who could become a free agent. And the team must guard against defections in the coaching ranks. Coach Dennis Green has one of the finest staffs in football, but running backs coach Tyrone Willingham has already left to take the Stanford job; Tony Dungy, one of the game's brightest defensive minds, could get a belated shot at being an NFL head coach; and Jerry Rhome (wide receivers) and John Teerlinck (defensive line) may also be tempted by better opportunities in the off-season.
Coach Dave Wannstedt deserves credit for having gotten the most out of what is perhaps the least talented team in the NFC Central. He demands such total commitment from his players that most of them live in the Chicago area and have practiced together since March. As a result, the Bears have been able to overcome injuries to several important players, including fullback Merril Hoge, tight end Chris Gedney, guard Mark Bortz and receivers Tom Waddle and Terry Obee. Even with a lot of subs in the lineup, Chicago played virtually mistake-free football. This marginal group was among the best in the NFL in time of possession, penalties and penalty yards.
But Wannstedt faces the same dilemma that Wayne Fontes does with the Lions. It probably won't be economically possible for the Bears to keep both quarterback Steve Walsh, a $600,000 free-agent acquisition who has been 8-2 as a starter, and Erik Kramer, who was 1-4 but will be in the second year of an $8.1 million, three year deal next season. The Bears owe Kramer $2.4 million for 1995 if they keep him. To sign Walsh they'll probably have to pay him that much in bonuses and salary as part of a multiyear contract. Some sleepless nights await Chicago management as it tries to decide what to do.
The team might have trouble keeping its defensive house in order too. Two key free agents include defensive tackle Chris Zorich, with whom the Bears have already started negotiating, and free safety Mark Carrier.
Chicago's biggest needs include a workhorse running back, whom the Bears would love to get in the draft. They are also seeking speed at wide receiver, and there will be some tempting names in the free-agent market, including Alvin Harper, whom Wannstedt is familiar with from his years with the Cowboys.
Green Bay Packers
A three-game losing skid late in the season may have told Packer management everything it needs to know about how to proceed in the off-season. Up until that time the Pack's defensive line had played well and the D was ranked No. 3 in the NFL. Left end Reggie White, 33, looked brilliant, having regained his quickness after off-season surgery to remove bone chips in his ankle. Free-agent right end Sean Jones, 32, had given Green Bay another outstanding pass rusher, and free-agent defensive tackle Steve McMichael, 37, was contributing.
Then came consecutive losses in road games on artificial turf against the league's best running backs (Thurman Thomas, Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders), and suddenly the line looked ancient. To make matters worse, White injured his left elbow trying to tackle Thomas on Nov. 20 and was never the same after that. McMichael became such a nonfactor that it won't be surprising if he retires at the end of the season. The Pack must get help in this department fast.
Another large concern is at outside linebacker, where Bryce Paup, a sixth-round draft pick from Northern Iowa in 1990, has had a Pro Bowl season. He'll be a free agent this spring, and salary-cap limitations may keep the Pack from matching the offers he's likely to attract.
On offense, quarterback Brett Favre started slowly, but as the season went on, he started to handle the blitz better and learned to take the time to find his second and third receivers. By being patient and not forcing the ball, Favre drastically cut down on interceptions, which were his downfall last season. A year ago he had 24, to only 19 touchdowns; this year, through Sunday, he had 13 pickoffs and 30 touchdowns. But he needs a running game to complement his improved passing. Reggie Cobb, a $2.2 million acquisition from Tampa Bay, was a bust, and fullback Edgar Bennett, who broke the team's receiving record for running backs on Sunday, is still not a dominating rusher.
Look for Green Bay to try to get faster in the draft. The team was built by general manager Ron Wolf to be effective in cold weather and on grass. But Green Bay's 0-5 record on artificial turf this year is a sign that slow and sure is not always the way to win the race.
Tampa Bay Bucs
"We've arrived," declared coach Sam Wyche after his Bucs defeated the Rams 24-14 on Dec. 11 for their third straight victory, the team's longest winning streak since 1982. "We're not that far away anymore. We're finding out that we're able to play like winners."
Wyche's euphoria is understandable, but let's not get carried away. The Bucs could still lose 10 games this year, giving them 12 straight seasons of double-digit losses.
Giving credit where it's due, however, the team finally appears to have some of the ingredients needed to be competitive in the Central Division. Rookie running back Errict Rhett, the alltime career rushing leader at Florida who was the Bucs' second-round draft pick this year, was the highlight on offense. Despite not winning a starting role until the ninth game, Rhett has rushed for a Buc rookie record of 957 yards with one game to go. He should be only the fourth player in franchise history to rush for 1,000 yards.
Another bright spot was the play of the defensive line, which made a dramatic turnaround this season. Right end Eric Curry seems to be maturing into the dominant pass rusher the team had hoped for when it selected him in the first round of the '93 draft.
In order to keep moving in the right direction, however, the Bucs need to re-sign free-agent quarterback Craig Erickson. He not only held off rookie Trent Differ, the sixth pick in the '94 draft, but he is also among the top-10-rated quarterbacks in the NFL. Although the Bucs would like to have him back next season—and Erickson says he wants to stay—at least five teams, including the Chiefs and the Cardinals, are high on him.
Events could easily conspire to keep the Bucs from leaping into contention. The franchise is up for sale, and it could even be moved from Tampa. New ownership would undoubtedly want to hire its own coaching staff. Wyche, in the third year of a five-year contract, readily admits that he probably won't be around to reap the fruits of his labors.
There's only one way Wyche will be with the Bucs in '95. The team's trustees have hinted that if a deal is not in sight by Jan. 1, they may maintain ownership for another year because, soon after that, the Bucs would be behind the eight ball in both the coaching and the free-agent markets.