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Pro Football / Bob Oates : After First Two Weeks, the NFC Central Is Running Ahead of the Rest

In the third week of the season, the National Football League’s only division with three undefeated teams is the NFC Central.

Two of those teams, the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears, each 2-0, play tonight in a nationally televised game at the Minneapolis Metrodome. The third team is Detroit.

Is the NFC Central good enough for that kind of exposure? The question made Chicago Coach Mike Ditka indignant.

“You people have got to understand that there are some good football teams in our division now,” he said.

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The Bears and Vikings have never seriously contended for the NFL title in the same year.

The Bears were a winner in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, and in 1963--under George Halas--and the Vikings won under Bud Grant in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

With the return of Grant to the Vikings, and the improvement of the Bears under Ditka and owner Michael McCaskey, the late ‘80s may belong to both.

Darryl Rogers of the Detroit Lions, at 2-0 the only pro coach who has never lost an NFL game, will continue to share first in the NFC Central with either the Bears or Vikings Sunday night. Or so he expects. His team will play the Indianapolis Colts (0-2) Sunday.

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Asked to sum up his approach in a sentence or two, Rogers, a veteran college coach, said: “There’s a fine line between a great football team and a good football team--and much of it is mental. Play like you have a chance to win, and a lot of things even out in a hurry.”

The Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, both expected to challenge in the NFC Central, haven’t played well yet.

But they think they’ll catch up. And most Midwestern critics agree that this is a division with five improving teams.

“They’re better in the NFC Central simply because they’ve been down so long,” Chicago Tribune writer Don Pierson said. “They’ve picked up a lot of high draft choices. The Packers have 11 No. 1s on their team, the Bears have 10 No. 1s, and the Vikings had 15 choices in the last draft--more than anybody.”

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The Cleveland Browns have had the look of a well-coached team in both starts this season, an overtime loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, 27-24, and Monday night’s win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, 17-7.

The new coach is their former defensive coordinator, Marty Schottenheimer, who led the Browns to first place in the AFC in defense last year.

He has seemed equally at home on offense this year.

Is Schottenheimer the answer at Cleveland? If so, he will solve the most persistent problem that Art Modell has had since he buying the club 25 years ago.

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“When the Steelers turned things around in the 1970s, I asked (owner) Art Rooney how they did it,” Modell said. “And I think he had it right. He said: ‘To win in the NFL, you’ve got to be lucky in two areas--coach and quarterback.’

“Maybe we are getting lucky, too. Maybe, just maybe, we’ve struck the mother lode.”

The quarterback of the future in Cleveland, the Browns hope, is Bernie Kosar, the rookie from Miami, where he threw passes for a national champion.

Modell said: “Kosar isn’t a pretty quarterback. He’s an instinctive quarterback. His only drawback is that he had only two years of college football. He has the skills. He needs playing time.”

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The coaches at Cleveland since Paul Brown, who served from 1950 through 1962, have been Blanton Collier, Nick Skorich, Forrest Gregg and Sam Rutigliano, none of them famous winners, though Collier’s 1964 team won the NFL championship.

Said Modell of Schottenheimer: “Marty is first and foremost a teacher. Some NFL coaches are motivators, some excel in player relations. Marty and his staff are all teachers. Second, he’s from the defensive side, and most successful head coaches began as defensive coaches--Don Shula, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, George Allen.”

The films show that the Houston Oilers were robbed in Sunday’s 16-13 loss to the Washington Redskins, when the officials made the wrong call on a disputed play.

Even so, Houston Coach Hugh Campbell remains strongly opposed to instant-replay assistance in officiating.

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Asked about it after studying the Houston-Washington films, he said: “The guy watching the replay (and making the final decision) is too important. You have a whole new can of worms. I’m against (video replay) because it isn’t fool-proof. The human part (of officiating) is part of the excitement.”

The Buffalo Bills lost, 42-3, Sunday to the New York Jets, who had been beaten by the Raiders a week earlier, 31-0.

Coach Kay Stephenson said: “I must have done a very poor coaching job.”

Owner Ralph Wilson said: “We’ve got a few very good players, and the rest can’t play in the National Football League.”

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The Bills brought in eight new assistant coaches this year.


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