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.