"Once you get to the playoffs, you might as well roll dice to pick the Super Bowl champion," says Minnesota's Fran Tarkenton (see Key Player). If so, what the son of a preacher man must do for a change is roll sevens rather than snake eyes in the playoffs; despite seven Black-and-Blue titles in the last eight years, the Vikings have gotten to the Super Bowl only three times and, of course, are the only NFL team with three Super Bowl defeats. Starting his 16th season, the 36-year-old Tarkenton seems remarkably healthy. He has never missed a game because of injuries, and he has overcome the muscular problems in his right arm by following a therapy program prescribed by that noted kinesiologist Mike Marshall. Tarkenton does not throw perfect spirals, but he never did. Spirals or knuckleballs, though, Tarkenton has accomplished everything in football but winning the Super Bowl.
Probably unaware of the rules, the Chicago Bears played without a quarterback—a genus-NFL quarterback, that is—for nine years, or ever since Billy Wade called plays back in 1966. Then late last season Coach Jack Pardee suddenly discovered rookie Bob Avellini from Maryland. Unlike recent Chicago quarterbacks, Avellini does not throw sidearm or left-handed, and he does not ignore open receivers so he can run the ball himself. Avellini directed the rookie-laden Bears to two victories in their last four games, and now they will join the rest of the NFL and play the game of 11-man football.
Detroit features three backups but no starter. Coach Rick Forzano will lean to Gospel singer Joe Reed as his regular, with a disgruntled Bill Munson and an unhealthy Greg Landry on call. While Reed has captivated Lion fans with his uninhibited play-calling, he tends to perform erratically. In Green Bay, the search for the new Bart Starr continues. The latest candidate: curly-haired Lynn Dickey (see Newcomer), who was brought in by Coach Starr himself after Dickey occupied the Houston bench for five seasons. Maybe Bart ought to make a comeback.
"There are certain things a coach can't control, like bad weather and officials," says Bud Grant. "But he can control a 'funk.' " Grant's Vikings were a funkless 12-2 and averaged a funkless 27 points per game in 1975, both NFC bests. And despite the free-agent defections of Wide Receiver John Gilliam and Blocking Back-Safety Valve Receiver Ed Marinaro, Minnesota will not be very funky this season. Brent McClanahan replaces Marinaro as Chuck Foreman's bodyguard. Last year Foreman rushed for 1,070 yards (the first Viking to gain more than 1,000), caught an NFL-high 73 passes for 691 yards and scored 22 touchdowns to emerge as the league's best all-purpose back. Foreman earned a paltry $34,000 for all that, and will be paid only $85,000 this season. He wanted the Vikings to renegotiate that figure, but they refused. Second-round draft choice Sammie White and veteran Jim Lash combine to replace Gilliam. White averaged a touchdown for every three catches at Grambling last fall, occasionally carried the ball from the wingback slot and never missed a college game because of injury. In one preseason game. White outfoxed a Cincinnati defensive back to catch a 32-yard Tarkenton pass and give the Vikings a last-second victory. Ron Yary, a perennial All-Pro at tackle, and Guard Ed White, the NFL's arm-wrestling champion, who has reduced from a loggy 285 pounds to a svelte 260, anchor the line. And Dr. Fred Cox, the part-time chiropractor, resumes his placekicking rounds after operating flawlessly (9 for 9) inside the 40-yard line a year ago.
Maybe the ozone blinded the Chicago receivers, but the Bears' passing game last season was not good enough to beat the Bad News Bears. If Ron Shanklin isn't 100% healthy after last year's knee surgery, Avellini will have only Bo Rather (38 receptions) as a deep target and must concentrate on Tarkenton-style hunt-and-peck flips to Tight Ends Greg Latta and Bob Parsons and his running backs. Walter Payton is not Gale Sayers yet, but with Johnny Musso now available to keep defenses honest through the middle, Payton should get more running room outside. Musso joins the Bears four years after they drafted him from Alabama; he starred three seasons for British Columbia in the Canadian League and one for Birmingham in the WFL.
With Steve Owens forced into retirement because of his bad knees and Altie Taylor traded to Houston, top draft choice Lawrence Gaines, a 6'3", 230-pound Csonka-style inside bruiser, moves into the Detroit backfield alongside shifty Dexter Bussey (696 yards). The three backup quarterbacks throw to such experienced receivers as J.D. Hill (acquired from Buffalo in exchange for a No. 1 draft pick), Larry Walton, Ray Jarvis and Tight End Charlie Sanders, but the Lion line doesn't open very big holes or provide much passing time for quarterbacks.
Green Bay's attack should be called the Gnat Pack. Willard Harrell, 5'8", works alongside disgruntled John Brockington in the backfield. Three times a 1,000-yard rusher, Brockington slumped to 434 yards in 1975 and has asked to be traded. Dickey throws to 5'8" Steve Odom, 5'10" Eddie Bell (acquired from the Jets) and 6'1" Ken Payne (58 catches in 1975, the most by an NFC wide receiver), along with Tight End Rich Mc-George. Guard Gale Gillingham has unretired after a year's idleness, which could be a big help—but not big enough.