But no matter how much you like your defense, when you play in the NFC Central, you're eventually going to get caught up in one of those shoot-out games, and you'd better be able to shoot. Enter second-round draft choice Bobby Engram from Penn State to cover the free-agent defection of wideout Jeff Graham to the New York Jets. How good is Engram? Coach Joe Paterno told Wannstedt that no player in his 30 years with the Nittany Lions made more plays for him, particularly when the game was on the line. Engram looked terrific in the preseason.
The Packers still look like the class of the division, but the Bears spell trouble.
The Detroit Lions brought the NFL's No. 1 offense into Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium for a wild-card playoff against the Eagles last December, and the oddsmakers, neglecting the fact that the Lions hadn't won a postseason game on the road since 1957, made them the favorite. Who could blame them? Just look at all those weapons: quarterback Scott Mitchell; running back Barry Sanders; flashy receivers Herman Moore, Brett Perriman and Johnnie Morton; and linebacker Chris Spielman anchoring the defense. Might even be a blowout, some said.
It was. The final score was 58-37 in favor of the Eagles. Detroit was intercepted six times. Its defense gave up 452 yards to a team that ranked 25th in the NFL in total offense. And coach Wayne Fontes, whose Lions had put on a spirited run to even make the playoffs, winning their last seven regular-season games to finish 10-6, was again hearing the rumbles about being fired.
Fontes watchers say he has been loose and relaxed in camp, with no playoffs-or-else ultimatum hanging over his head, but in mid-August he surveyed his squad, and this is what he saw: Spielman and All-Pro left tackle Lomas Brown were gone, free-agency casualties: Michael Brooks, brought in from the New York Giants to replace Spielman at middle linebacker, was sidelined with a sprained knee; Reggie Brown, a first-round draft pick who was penciled in to play weakside linebacker, was out indefinitely with knee-ligament damage; and the other first-round draftee, guard Jeff Hartings, was a contract holdout and had to be written off for the opener, against the Vikings. (As of Monday he was still unsigned.) "We can't go to Minnesota with the ragtag bunch we have," Fontes said.
Nonetheless, there's too much talent in Detroit to predict a major foldup. Figure the Lions at 7-9.
There was a lot of hand-wringing when Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Tony Dungy left in January to become coach at Tampa Bay. The irony was that his long-awaited chance came after his defense had slipped from No. 1 in the league in 1993 to No. 5 in '94 to 20th last year, but it wasn't hard to figure out why. Free agency had stripped his once mighty line, the foundation of defensive success.
The Vikings, though, were willing to come up with the money to keep Warren Moon, who will be 40 in November. He was given a three-year, $15 million contract in June. Isn't it time to get someone else ready? Moon threw 606 of the Vikings' 642 passes last year. When does a guy's arm start tiring?
Well, not yet. Moon played in his eighth consecutive Pro Bowl last season and tied a career high with 33 TD passes. But Minnesota went 8-8, mainly because of that defensive slippage and because of a running game that ranked 16th in the league. Now coach Dennis Green is expecting at least 1,000 yards from tailback Robert Smith, which would be a neat trick when you consider that in his first three wars in the NFL, Smith, has yet to put together an injury-free season. The defense suffered a major blow when its best linebacker, Ed McDaniel, was lost for the year to knee surgery. The kicking game also took a big hit when Fuad Reveiz retired during naming camp because of a deteriorating ankle. First-round draft pick Duane Clemons should be a defensive force someday, but nobody has figured out whether it will be as an end or a linebacker. And if something happens to Moon? Look out.
That's how fine the margin can be between success and failure. Take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season. Two three-point losses, to the Lions and the Atlanta Falcons, and that's how close the Bucs came to a 9-7 record, which could have gotten them into the playoffs and broken a streak of 13 consecutive losing seasons. Dungy looks at his Bucs and says, "Hey, there's something to build on here." If you throw out quarterback Trent Dilfer's horrendous 1995 ratio of four TD passes to 18 interceptions and remember the heroic job he did in leading the Buccaneers to an overtime win over the Packers last December—if you say, That's the real Dilfer, and as a second-year player he was just experiencing growing pains—then you have to give Tampa Bay a chance. And if you try to put the defensive numbers in perspective the Bucs were 26th against the pass in '95, but no defense in the NFC Central was better than 21st—then things aren't so gloomy. But there are some downers, too.