Someday, when Pete Rozelle's parity program has been honed and refined and worked out to the ultimate decimal point, all five NFC Central teams will have 8-8 records, all will be 1-1 head-to-head, all will have identical records against division, conference and common opponents, all will have the same number of net points. And as they hand out silver dollars for an orgy of coin flipping at the NFL office at 410 Park Avenue in New York, Rozelle will lean back, smile and say, "We've finally done it. We've achieved absolute parity. We've kept everybody in the race."
Ah, parity, thy name is NFC Central, that great gray swamp where, like Kipling's world east of Suez, "the best is like the worst"; where after 15 weeks of combat only three losses separate the leader from the bleeder; where the first-place team, Minnesota, couldn't come close to defeating one of the division's dogs. Green Bay, in two outings; where anyone can beat anyone else; and where you can honestly say no team is better than another. Close your eyes. Are those the Green Bay Vikings you see out there? The Detroit Bucs? The Chicago Lions? Is there no breaking out of a landscape as barren as Siberia?
Wait a minute, here comes Minnesota. The Vikings clinched the division title Sunday by beating Cleveland 28-23 in Bloomington. Here's how they did it—up to their Hail Mary pass at the end:
—Loused up two potential touchdowns with a holding penalty and an illegal pass beyond the line of scrimmage. Then were wide on the two field goal attempts they had to settle for.
—Blew three of four extra points. This, coupled with the two missed field goals, made it "the worst day of my life" for Kicker Rick Danmeier.
—Set up two Cleveland touchdowns with face-mask and head-slap penalties.—Blew an onside kick. It traveled only nine yards.
But as Chicago General Manager Jim Finks says, "The Vikings slop around and don't do much of anything, but they're never really out of it, and pretty soon they bring you down to their level."
Their level Sunday was a first down on their 20 with 14 seconds to play and no more time-outs. So Quarterback Tommy Kramer, who threw for 456 yards against the Browns, hit a first-year tight end named Joe Senser, who was best known at West Chester State as a basketball player. Senser lateraled to Ted Brown, who ran out of bounds on the Cleveland 46. "A sandlot play." Viking Coach Bud Grant called it. "We made it up on the sidelines the last time Cleveland had the ball." And then came the finale: three wide receivers on the right side, running like hell downfield, covered by five Browns—more than a third of the players on the field gathered in one little corner. Kramer lobbed the ball toward the goal line, the Vikes' Sammy White and the Browns' Thorn Darden leaped and tipped it near the four, Minnesota's Ahmad Rashad caught it at about the two. scored, and the Vikings had their 11th division title.
Atlanta calls that play Big Ben. San Francisco 49er Coach Bill Walsh calls it "ugly football...the game was never meant to be played that way." In the Viking playbook it's Squadron Right, Squadron Fly—tighten your silk scarves, boys, and let's win one for the RAF.
That's the NFC Central. Class we ain't got, but we're all in this swamp together. Tampa Bay tried to break out last season. A mere three years after joining the NFL, the Bucs burst to the top of the NFC Central with a 10-6 record. They even had a playoff victory. Cigars all around. Just wait till 1980. But the swamp got them, dragged them back. Not so fast, young fella. You must learn to march with the rest of the pack. You must reacquaint yourself with our constant companion, mediocrity. Tampa Bay is now the division's worst team, along with Green Bay. But until Dec. 7 the Bucs had a shot at the playoffs. That was the day they lost to the Vikings 21-10 and Coach John McKay, who had been criticized for publicly censuring his players, said that henceforth he would use the word "lovely" to describe his team's performances. "We just blew it," McKay said, referring to a 10-point lead that had evaporated. "I don't know who I can blame that on because all the players played lovely."