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There are two ways to look at the Chicago Bears. In the context of this division the Bears—presto!—are an instant playoff team. We're talking about a division that includes Detroit, Tampa Bay and Green Bay, a trio that has had only two winning seasons ( Lions in 1983, Packers in '89) since the nine-game strike season of '82. Minnesota, the only challenger to Chicago, has troubles of its own. So the Bears are a sure thing to make the playoffs, but how far do they go? They get through the first round, and then the music stops.
The main reason is the quarterbacking, which has been unable to bring the team from behind. The off-season talk was about second-year man Peter Tom Willis, who completed nine of 13 passes late in the season and looked ready to give Jim Harbaugh a run for the job. Boy, do they love backup quarterbacks in this town. In '82, Bears fans booed Bob Avellini and got Jim McMahon. Then they booed McMahon and got Mike Tomczak, and they booed Tomczak and got Harbaugh. They were all set to boo Harbaugh when Willis showed, in the preseason, that he couldn't get the job done.
Harbaugh is a decent enough quarterback—within the offensive scheme. Low risk, low production. The Bears had the least passing yardage of any NFL team last year. They were top-heavy in running, and when the Giants massed their defense to stop the ground attack in the divisional playoffs, it was all over. Tomczak was Chicago's quarterback that day, but he's gone now—a Plan B free agent who signed with Green Bay.
Coach Mike Ditka says he'll back off and let offensive coordinator Greg Landry do more play-calling, or maybe it's the other way around. I lose track. The offensive line is showing cracks. Only right guard Tom Thayer did not have off-season surgery, and left tackle Jimbo Covert is out for the season after surgery on his back. First-round pick Stan Thomas of Texas seemed a little shaky on the sacking side, so the Bears acquired veteran tackle Ron Mattes from the Jets in a trade.
Defense and running will keep Chicago on top of the division, though, and how can you not like second-round pick Chris Zorich, the Notre Dame defensive tackle who looked like a Chicago Bear when he was in the cradle?
I was surprised when Minnesota Vikings coach Jerry Burns fired two veteran coordinators, Bob Schnelker (offense) and Floyd Peters (defense). Burns, who spent 30 years in the trenches as an assistant, has always been protective of those under him, but I guess he's feeling the heat.
This team has too much talent, especially on defense now that lineman Keith Millard is back, to go down the tubes again, but I wonder about an offense that is supposed to be built around someone as spoiled as Herschel Walker. He doesn't like to run from split backs, he doesn't like his paycheck.... O.K., what does he like? The new one-back formation, they say. We'll see.
The quarterback situation has been deteriorating since Wade Wilson had his Pro Bowl season in '88. Wilson is 32 and coming off an injury-plagued year, but no one is seriously challenging him for his job, not even Rich Gannon, who started 12 games last year in his place. When Wilson was the starter last season, the Vikings were 1-3.
This is a team of hothouse flowers. The Vikings can't seem to win a game in the open air. Outside of domed stadiums, they have lost their last nine, 13 of their last 14. This year they've got a half dozen games outdoors. All right, New England is one of them. That doesn't count.
The NFC Central's B Division title is up for grabs. A 6-10 record will probably win it. It usually does. The Tampa Bay Bucs get the nod, because their new defensive coordinator, Floyd Peters, is that good. A year and a half ago he was one of the hot names for a head coaching spot. Then he was out of a job. Hey, you don't slip that much in one season.