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.