Jeff Siemon hardly fits "the image of the nail-eating gorilla, because he's not going to take any cheap shots or clothesline guys," says Bud Grant. "He's just quietly efficient." The 26-year-old Siemon quietly and efficiently led the Vikings in tackles last year, intercepted three passes and was named to the Pro Bowl for the second time in three seasons.
Green Bay's once-brilliant Jim Carter suffers now from injury and controversy. Heralded as another Ray Nitschke, Carter ripped up a knee in 1974, broke a leg in 1975 and broke an arm this year. He is out indefinitely. Compounding Carter's difficulties, he also has a lawsuit pending against him in Green Bay for indecent exposure. Tom Perko, a fourth-round draft choice from Pittsburgh, is his replacement.
Chicago's Don Rives does not have the legend of Nitschke to compete against—only Dick Butkus. Rives missed 12 of the Bears' 14 games last year with a dislocated foot. Rather than trouble the inexperienced Rives with calling the defenses, Pardee—an old middle linebacker himself—has given the task to veteran Left Linebacker Doug Buffone. To continue the comparisons, Detroit's Jim Laslavic has not shown any Joe Schmidt-type brilliance in his three NFL seasons.
The popular theory is that Minnesota's defenders are, well, ancient. True, End Jim Marshall is 38, End Carl Eller is 34 and Tackle Alan Page is 31. And the line does average 33. Sure, Linebacker Roy Winston is 36, while Linebacker Wally Hilgenberg and Safety Paul Krause are both 34. Big deal! These chaps act young—and play even younger. "Age isn't the concern," Grant says. "It's performance that counts." And Minnesota had the NFL's second-best defense in 1975. Grant is quietly stockpiling big, mean draft choices—like 6'6", 242-pound End Mark Mullaney and 6'3", 263-pound rookie Tackle James White—for the day when Page finishes law school and hangs out his shingle and the other old men up front decide to quit. If the Vikings have a weakness, it is a lack of depth in the secondary. Cornerback Bobby Bryant broke his arm and Grant has not found an adequate replacement.
The joke around Chicago is that some of the Bears are young enough to be sons of some of the ancient Vikings. Pardee practically wrote off the 1975 schedule when he decided to start 10 kids plus 10-year Linebacker Doug Buffone, and, sure enough, the Bears yielded an embarrassing 27 points per game. No more! Tackle Wally Chambers and End Mike Hartenstine power a tough front four that had an impressive 35 sacks in 1975. And Waymond Bryant has found a home at outside linebacker after failing in the middle. All the Bears need is some height in the secondary; in fact, their tallest starter there is only 5'11�", so rivals tend to pick on the Lilliputians.
Green Bay has secondary troubles, too, with the departure of Ken Ellis to Houston in the Dickey deal and Al Mathews to Seattle in the expansion draft. However, Fred Carr still plays an All-Pro style of left linebacker.
The most impressive defensive rookie in the exhibition games was Detroit Cornerback James Hunter, a No. 1 draft from Grambling. He could join the revived Lem Barney and Dick Jauron to give the Lions a superior set of deep backs. Mean Ed O'Neil provides stability for the otherwise shaky linebacker corps, and with Tackle Herb Orvis in Forzano's doghouse because of his verbal tirades, the Lion line will need all the backing it can get.
Like a lot of Packers, John Brockington seems put off by Bart Starr's police-state atmosphere in Green Bay. He wants out. Now! And Brockington hardly endeared himself to his linemen when he recently suggested that the reason for his poor 1975 performance (434 yards) was their inept blocking. Discord also seems to reign in Detroit. Altie Taylor's "trade me" request was granted, and Munson and Orvis both have expressed a desire for new homes, too.
"We're not trying to improve over 1975," says Minnesota's Grant. "We're just trying to be as good." The Vikings probably will not match last season's 12-2, but even a 9-5 will win the division—and maybe Tarkenton will roll sevens in the playoffs. Detroit's seven-year hold on second place may be over, too, because the young Bears, who won five of their six exhibition games, are probably the most improved team in the NFL.