What we have here is an unguarded Brinks truck just waiting for somebody to come along and pick it clean. An 8-8 record is big thunder in this part of the world. The CHICAGO Bears are the most stable member of the division, and certainly the least-heralded playoff team since the Cincinnati Bengals in the early '70s. They've made the playoffs in two of the last three years, exiting after the first game each time. Only one ingredient is missing: a high-level passing attack. But that should be the easiest to find in this era of freer traffic. Coach Neill Armstrong got his professional coaching baptism in the wide-open days of the early AFL, and it must be a constant source of irritation to him that his Bears have had so much trouble putting the ball in the air. They just can't keep asking Walter Payton to carry the team.
Payton is coming off an incredible year—1,610 yards rushing, even though his first three blocking backs went down early in the season. He has started the last 63 regular-season games, but obviously he could use some help. It might be forthcoming now that the Bears' three-quarterback shuffle has ended and Mike Phipps has been given the job over Bob Avellini and Vince Evans.
Phipps earned it when he led the Bears to seven wins in their last eight games of 1979, ending with the 42-6 blowout of St. Louis that thrust them into the playoffs on point differential. Phipps lifted weights in the off-season, and Armstrong says his arm is "three notches stronger." That's better than two notches.
James Scott is a quality wide receiver, but he had a broken left ankle last year. He is healthy again, and if he stays that way the Bears will have two flyers on the flanks, Scott and Rickey Watts, plus a tough guy, Brian Baschnagel. Now all Armstrong has to do is figure out how to get his tight end into the end zone—in the last two seasons Bear tight ends have made 37 catches but scored no TDs—and Chicago will have a passing attack.
The Bears have drafted for defense the past two years. Whatever defensive weaknesses they have, they are hidden by a spectrum of 60 different coverages, plus the best pair of safeties in football, Doug Plank and Gary Fencik. The latter seems O.K. after off-season surgery on his left leg. Top draft choice Otis Wilson is the fastest linebacker on the team and he'll see action, although not as an immediate starter.
At TAMPA BAY, John McKay snarls and snaps when you remind him that the division-champion Bucs fattened up on a marshmallow schedule last year. "They're all tough in the NFL," he says. But John, honestly now, wouldn't you prefer Detroit and Green Bay twice a season to Pittsburgh and Houston?
The hard fact is that the Bucs played only two teams with winning records last year, and even against their schedule of patzers, they almost blew it, dropping three of their last four games. In fact, the Bucs would have been out of the playoffs if they hadn't edged K.C. in the finale. Tampa Bay wound up 10-6, a minor miracle, and it had the NFL's No. 1 defense, but this is a show-me business and let's see the Bucs do it again, now that the schedule's been firmed up a bit. Not that it's a crippler—you're never in too bad shape when you play eight games in the NFC Central—but Pittsburgh. Dallas and Houston appear this time, and three of the first five games are against playoff teams. They could be gasping for breath by mid-October.
Let's give a little credit, though. Assistant coaches Abe Gibron and Tom Bass did a heck of a job with the defense. Lee Roy Selmon is the finest defensive lineman in the game—no one else is close. (By the way, the Bucs had virtually no damaging injuries last year, until Selmon strained an Achilles tendon and Quarterback Doug Williams tore a muscle in his throwing arm against the Rams in the NFC title game.) The four linebackers, particularly David Lewis, play the 3-4 as if they were born for it; the offensive line, led by Guard Greg Roberts and Tackle Charley Hannah, is firm; and the Ricky Bell-Jerry Eck-wood- Johnny Davis combo will run for a lot of yards.
But it's going to be tough to topple the big boys when your passer, Williams, was the worst in the NFL in completion percentage in 1979. The big knock on Williams is that he has yet to learn how to get some touch on his passes, a criticism Terry Bradshaw also heard in his formative years. They also say that he guns the ball when he should feather it; that when he's wild he's wild high—way high; and that he still hasn't got the timing down on the sideline routes.
The defensive line has been juggled; Wally Chambers was axed, with his left-end spot going to Bill Kollar, last season's starting nose tackle. Who knows, maybe the Bucs are for real, and maybe they'll fool us again.