What's the Score?
The bye week in the NFL means different things to different teams. It's a chance for a battered team like Tampa Bay to get healthy; it's a momentum-breaker for the Bears, winners of three in a row before last week's break. But it's also a natural time to take stock of the NFC Central's five teams. With six games under each club's belt, the '94 season is beginning to take shape.
An NFC Central Division championship looks to be in the cards for Minnesota (4-2), and much of the credit goes to 37-year-old quarterback Warren Moon, who has made the difficult transition from the run-and-shoot to a ball-control offense. He got off to a slow start, but the Vikings scored 80 points in back-to-back wins against Miami and Chicago and, after stumbling 17-7 at Arizona, pasted the Giants 27-10 on the Monday night before the bye. And don't forget: Coach Dennis Green has a 15-4 lifetime record against Central Division teams, the opponents in half of the Vikes' remaining 10 games.
The most pleasant surprise so far has been the play of running back Terry Allen, who has come back from ACL surgery on both knees. Allen is fourth in the NFC in rushing, with 439 yards. "He gives us the physical toughness we've lacked since he hurt his knee in camp last year," says Green. Adds offensive coordinator Brian Billick, "He's not easing into holes. He's hitting them full blow."
The Vikings have also benefited from what is arguably the best draft in the NFL. Left tackle Todd Steussie and cornerback Dewayne Washington, both first-rounders, have started every game and have been more than solid. Playing the most critical position on the offensive line, Steussie has helped keep Moon alive and well, and Washington returned an interception 81 yards for a TD against Chicago. Tight end Andrew Jordan, a sixth-round pick from Western Carolina, has done a good job helping to replace Steve Jordan (no relation), who was released by the Vikes for salary-cap purposes. And Green sees big things ahead for running back David Palmer, a second-round pick. "He could be the one guy who shows the most improvement from the first half of the season to the second," says Green.
The area of greatest concern for Minnesota may be the defense. The Viking D was top-ranked in the NFL in 1993, but it had slipped to No. 7 after the first six weeks of this season. Arizona coach Buddy Ryan predicted that the Cardinals would run over the Vikings' smallish interior linemen, Henry Thomas and John Randle, and Ryan was right. Thomas and Randle have combined for 10� sacks, but there is still concern about their ability to stack up against bigger offensive linemen.
Don't get carried away by the Bears' 4-2 record. Chicago had a favorable early-season schedule—four of the first six games were at Soldier Field. Talentwise, Chicago is probably in the bottom 10 in the NFL, and the road gets tougher from here. Of the next eight games, six are on the road and six are against NFC Central opponents.
The most obvious good news for coach Dave Wannstedt is that the Bears have won three straight without starting quarterback Erik Kramer, who has been out with a separated right shoulder. Backup Steve Walsh has committed only one turnover, and as a unit, the nine new starters on offense have gotten in sync faster than anyone expected. Less obvious, but perhaps just as important to the team's success, has been the solid play of another backup, Joe Cain, filling in for Dante Jones, who has a pulled groin. That the Bears could win without Jones, one of the keys to their defense, is a testament to Wannstedt's coaching.
Even so, the question remains: How could Wannstedt have so underestimated the loss of defensive end Richard Dent and defensive tackle Steve McMichael? Plain and simple, the Bear defense has lacked fire. The defensive line has been easily pushed around, and the pass rush has been terrible (only nine sacks). A year ago the Bears had the fourth-rated defense in the NFL; through Week 6 it was ranked 18th.