The NFC Central is the "Pete Rozelle's Division." With none of its teams winning more than nine games last season, the Central Division has reached the ultimate in parity and mediocrity.
National publications have variously picked Chicago, Tampa Bay, Minnesota and Detroit to win the division. Green Bay is a consensus pick to finish last.
Chicago has played well in the odd years, making the playoffs in 1977 and 1979. But this probably will be the Bears' last chance at winning before rebuilding. Walter Payton, 27, is in his seventh season. How much longer can a running back who carries 20 times a game survive?
With new Offensive Coordinator Ted Marchibroda, the architect of three AFC East championships in Baltimore, Chicago's offense is supposed to take on a pass-happy look. Payton's new role likely will resemble that of former Colt back Lydell Mitchell when he was the league's leading receiver.
Coach Neill Armstrong has finally given quarterback Vince Evans the starting job. With Evans in the backfield, defenses can no longer key on Payton. Evans ran for eight touchdowns two seasons ago and has also developed nicely as a passer.
Almost all Chicago's question marks are on offense. The defense, which allowed the second fewest points in the NFC last season, is sometimes spectacular.
Minnesota and Tampa Bay have their own problems.
The Vikings need a running game, ranking 27th in that category last season. Coach Bud Grant says a healthy Ted Brown will run the ball more. But Minnesota will still rely on Tommy Kramer throwing deep and often to Ahmad Rashad, Sammy White and tight end Joe Senser.
With Steve Dils backing up Kramer, the Vikings have the best quarterback situation in the division.
Kramer's 3,582 yards passing last season placed Minneota third in the league behind San Diego and Cleveland and enabled the fifth-year quarterback to break Fran Tarkenton's single-season record.
The Minnesota defense finished ahead of only New Orleans and San Fransisco. On paper, the Vikings seem doomed every August, but usually wind up winning the division somehow.
Which is the real Tampa Bay? The team that finished 10-6 and advanced to the NFC title game in 1979 or the 5-10-1 club that tied Green Bay for last in the Central last season?
The Bucs likely will fall somewhere in the middle. They must upgrade a neanderthal offense and overcome at least one major injury. Doug Williams has had the same difficulties most young quarterbacks face, but has one of the strongest arms in the league.
Randy Crowder, a veteran nose guard, is on injured reserve. And Ricky Bell, who gained gained 1,263 yards in 1979 and then 599 in 1980, has been less than impressive, according to some observers, in training camp.
The defense, which sacked opposing quarterbacks 40 times in 1979, had only 24 last season. Same players, different results. Still, with one of the league's easiest schedules, and rookie Hugh Green from Pitt at linebacker, they once again could contend.
Detroit, picked by many to win the division, must prove it is not overrated. It does have a remodeled offensive line and Billy Sims (1,303 yards). Quarterback Gary Danielson, who had a league-low 11 interceptions last year, was the league's seventh best passer. But rookie Mark Nichols, who was to be a primary receiver with Freddie Scott, is injured.
What can you say about Green Bay? The Pack is back, with most of the same players who lost 10 games last season. It could be worse this year. After reciever James Lofton and defensive end Ezra Johnson, Green Bay is in trouble. Rookie quarterback Rich Campbell from the University of California, supposedly the next Bart Starr, will probably start and show enough class to keep the Packer fans happy for one more year. Coach Starr, however, may not be around that long.