Of pro football's six divisions, only the Central of the National Conference was unaffected by realignment. More's the pity, at least when it comes to playing conditions. Like doomed souls in the Ninth Circle, Minnesota, Detroit, Green Bay and Chicago seem fated to play out their football lives with frostbitten cleats and sleet-shrouded face masks. As Detroit Coach Joe Schmidt says: "Our warm-weather site is now Minneapolis in the summertime."
For all that, National Central football should be piping hot. Bud Grant's Vikings, last year's NFL champs, played most of their preseason schedule minus Defensive End Carl Eller, a holdout, and all of it minus Quarterback Joe Kapp. Although stronger overall at every other position this year, they missed Kapp's "gimme the seed" machismo and Eller's freight-train pass rush.
A free agent since May 1, Kapp is reported to be holding out for a five-year, million-dollar contract. And management has played it cool—going with Gary Cuozzo, a first-rate second-stringer—recalling perhaps that Joe refused the team's MVP award last December with a comment that all Vikes were equally valuable. Eller obviously thought at least one wasn't, but his analysis reportedly cost him $200 a day for each day he wasn't in camp—a total of $2,900.
With Kapp aboard, the Vikings could repeat as divisional champions. Without him Grant might not be able to take Atlanta—much less Detroit. For one thing, Minnesota has a tough schedule, and the opening game against the Kansas City Chiefs could be the whole Viking season. Should the Chiefs manhandle the Vikes the way they did in the Super Bowl, it could throw the gearshift marked "Momentum" into reverse.
If so, there would be a great clashing of forward gears in the Motor City, where the Detroit Lions are talking title. The Lions—9-4-1 last year—ended the season on a surge, winning six of their last eight games and tying another. Schmidt, now in his fourth year, has finally stabilized his units: two-thirds of the roster is made up of men he picked during his rebuilding program, and the dissent once heard in every corner of the Detroit locker room has now been replaced, hear tell, by great effusions of warmth and togetherness. Still, another traditional Detroit bugaboo remains: injury. Schmidt has lost three valuable wide receivers: Earl McCullouch had bone chips in his left knee and may miss one or two games; John Wright severed an Achilles' tendon and is out for the year and Billy Gambrell never came back from a back injury and was waived to the Saints, who waived him in turn.
Until the final exhibition game it looked like a new piece of talent would be a balm. Rookie Running Back Steve Owens was slated to start alongside Mel Farr. Said Schmidt: "Everything everybody doubted about Steve—blocking, catching—he does real well." Then, against Cincinnati, Owens suffered a third-degree separation of his left shoulder, and will be out for eight games. His replacement will either be Bill Triplett or Farr, with Altie Taylor moving to Farr's spot.
Defensively, Detroit remains intact, with the same unit that produced three shutouts last year. The team's main handicap to a possible divisional title is offense. All roar but no bite last year, the Lions finished dead last among 26 teams in total yardage. Perhaps a little patriotism would help. Wide Receiver Phil Odle was censured last season by Commissioner Pete Rozelle for not singing The Star-Spangled Banner during a nationally-televised game. Rozelle had been tipped off by an anonymous letter writer. Rumor has it that the correspondent was none other than Alex Karras, professional tackle and amateur comic. Karras has been strangely subdued this year. "I'm doing what every normal red-blooded American boy does," he explained. "Don't make waves. That's the secret of success in this country. I'm tired of being a hippie. Just keep nodding my head."
How Far Back, Pack?
Patriotism—of the local variety—is also a factor at Green Bay. Posters that in 1968 read: "We'll Win with Bengtson" now merely state, "We believe in Bengtson." Some cynics have even subsumed those "Pack Will Be Back" bumper stickers with "Way Back." In the last year of his contract Phil Bengtson will have to do better than the 6-7-1 and 8-6 marks of the past two seasons.