Quarterback is no problem in Minnesota. Admittedly, Fran Tarkenton's return last year did not produce the Super Bowl rings that so many predicted, but he deserves none of the blame. He had a very good season, finishing third in the league in passing. Now the Vikings have added Atlanta's Bob Berry, who was ranked right behind Tarkenton.
And, after all, a 7-7 season is not the end of the world. Or is it? In the Minnesota dining hall at training camp a big poster read "7-7." Underneath were listed the scores of seven games, and they were not the wins. A "7-7" stared out from every door and every playbook in camp. Defensive Tackle Gary Larsen, who wore No. 77 last season, wore No. 140 in practice.
Where Minnesota needs help is in its running attack, which was slowed almost to a walk by injuries and age last season. Coach Bud Grant likes to employ all his backs, but he lacks a quick hitter. This year's No. 1 draft pick, Chuck Foreman, looks like he could be the one.
On defense, the return to health of the front four presumably spells splat to opposing quarterbacks, but Grant intends to have Alan Page, Carl Eller, Jim Marshall and Larsen concentrate more on the run. Too many opponents have discovered that running backs can slip by the hard-charging Purple People Eaters.
The loss of Karl Kassulke, who was critically injured in a motorcycle accident, and the status of Charlie West, whose knee is still questionable following surgery in January, makes the defensive secondary worrisome, but of greater concern is the age of the Vikings. Minnesota is treading a thin line between experience and senescence. Marshall is 35, Larsen 33, Eller 31, and the outside linebackers, Roy Winston and Wally Hilgenberg, are 33 and 31 respectively. Not surprisingly, the Vikings' collapse last season came in the fourth quarter. After three years of surrendering 133, 143 and 139 points, Minnesota gave up 111 in the fourth quarter alone in 1972. Grant kids about his aged—one day after practice he kept his over-30 group, all 16 of them, out late replacing divots—but the Vikings are concerned. If Tarkenton is going to lead them to a Super Bowl, it had better be this year.
By contrast, the Chicago Bears allowed opponents only 99 points in the third and fourth quarters of 1972. In nine of the Bears' 14 games they didn't permit a touchdown after the half, testimony to the sort of physical play Abe Gibron conditions his team to with daily scrimmaging. As Detroit's Steve Owens puts it, "The Bears still play like the Canton Bulldogs." True, they won just four times last year but that was four times more than most people expected. Now they are looking for a winning season.
Dick Butkus, who has led the team in tackles and assists in all of his eight pro years, made no secret of his desire to be traded during the off-season, but the Bears weren't about to let their defense go so he is back in the middle of the Chicago intimidation. If Defensive End Willie Holman, who missed last season with an Achilles' tendon injury, can return and if No. 1 choice Wally Chambers can learn to play the run, the defense will be even more formidable.
Last year the Bears led the conference in rushing, but that was a deceptive figure since the primary ground gainer was Quarterback Bobby Douglass and what he gained on the ground he did not gain in the air. Douglass completed only 37.9% of his passes. This year the running attack should be much improved by the addition of New England's disenchanted Carl Garrett. Douglass says he may pass as many as 100 more times this season. That's a frightening prospect to some Bear fans, but the left-handed quarterback bristles at any suggestion of inadequacy. "I'm as good as any thrower around," he says. "Last year we didn't throw percentage passes. If completing 50% of your passes makes you a great quarterback, then by next year you'll be able to say I'm a great quarterback."
Gibron says he will stick with Douglass, squelching the optimism about rookie Gary Huff, who looks like the thrower the Bears have needed for so long. Chicago has added some receiving strength in Tight End Craig Cotton, acquired from Detroit, and Wide Receiver Tom Reynolds, from New England, not to mention the multitalented Garrett.
This is Gibron's second year. In his first, he says, he learned just how slight the difference is between winning and losing—a truism in the NFC Central, where an 8-6 season could take it all.