The Minnesota Vikings are not getting the most out of running back Herschel Walker these days, and it seems to be more their fault than his.
Walker is perhaps the NFL's most misunderstood player. A fine athlete with raw speed, he was born without much talent for the game. That is, he has few of the skills you see in the great running backs.
Throughout his college and pro career as one of the fastest ballcarriers in football history, Walker, who weighs about 230 pounds, has consistently proved that he is as hard to stop as a freight train. He almost never makes a tackler miss, and almost never runs down tacklers. He gets much of his yardage dragging them along.
Still, he is a remarkably valuable football player. He can be an effective, major contributor to any offensive team that properly fits him in.
Unhappily for the Vikings, their offensive coaches, Jerry Burns and Bob Schnelker, continue to demonstrate that they don't know how to incorporate Walker's two great assets--his speed and his abilities as a pass receiver.
Incredibly, they have occasionally benched him on passing downs.
The problem is that Walker is incompatible with the system established in Minnesota, which, despite its talent, is tied with Green Bay at 8-5 atop the NFC Central Division after beating Chicago Sunday night.
Burns-Schnelker running plays, based on trap blocking, usually develop slowly, whereas Walker's strength is hitting fast. On a running play, that's his only strength, as the Vikings should have known when they traded for him. He can't change--and the Vikings don't want to.
But they did change on Walker's first day in Minnesota two months ago, when he breezed in from Dallas and played after one day of practice. Almost the only ground plays that can be used without much practice are off-tackle runs, and that afternoon, capitalizing on a simplified blocking scheme, Walker repeatedly hit off tackle and ran up 148 yards in 18 carries to beat the Packers. He hasn't come close to that total since.
Overall, the personnel that Mike Lynn has accumulated for the Vikings--as their $1-million-a-year general manager--is probably the NFL's most gifted. It's hard to see how any club could beat them out of the NFL championship if they would use their big back the way the Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins used John Riggins--pounding away with Walker 25 or 30 times each week and throwing 15 or 20 play-action passes after fake handoffs to Walker.
They have that kind of team with a runner who, in the right formations, is a threat to go 40 or 50 yards on any snap--run or pass.
Against the Bears, quarterback Wade Wilson made the plays he always seems to make for Minnesota when his coaches have good passes in the game plan--which isn't every week.
If he were working for a coach who builds his confidence regularly, Wilson would rank among the league's most celebrated players.
He is much more than an accurate passer. He makes good reads, he can run the ball, and he is a gritty, down-in-the-dirt competitor.
CBS-TV commentator John Madden, who was possibly riding around in his bus Sunday night, should send for the Bear-Viking tape. Wilson is clearly the all-Madden quarterback.
The real surprise is that the Vikings don't beat every opponent by 40 points with their incomparable defense; their clever receivers, Anthony Carter, Hassan Jones and Walker, and Wilson to get them the ball.
The Raiders haven't experienced an undefeated home season in Los Angeles, but they will finish close again this year, with a 7-1 record, if they defeat the Phoenix Cardinals Sunday.
Although their 1989 crowds have been both large and small, they've been knowledgeable, pro-Raider crowds, for the most part. The fans there have been there .
They have seen a team that in the last two months has come together in the two places that count for a playoff contender--the defense and the offensive line.
Unlike some of the offensive lines that played for Tom Flores and Mike Shanahan in other years, this one has generally escaped injury. To improve, the one thing blockers have to do is play together, and these five have.
Left tackle Rory Graves, left guard John Gesek and right tackle Bruce Wilkerson have been out there every week. The rookie right guard, Steve Wisniewski, who figures as one of the NFL's consensus all-rookie linemen this year, has missed only one game.
The anchor, center Don Mosebar, who at 27 is the old man in one of the NFL's youngest offensive lines, has played in nine of the 13 games.
If the Raiders have some blockers who will be heard from over and over in the 1990s, one reason is the guidance they are getting. The coach, Art Shell, is a Hall of Fame blocker. The assistant coach, Alex Gibbs, who came over with Shanahan from Denver and stayed, is a former quarterback who in the '80s has become one of the league's most respected line coaches.
One thing for the Rams to think about between now and Monday night is whether they'd rather be ahead of or behind the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth quarter with, say, five minutes to play.
Their quarterback, Jim Everett, brought them back to win in Candlestick Park on Oct. 1, starting a trend that he was to continue in four other comebacks this season, though not always as a winner.
The opposing quarterback, Joe Montana, has brought the 49ers from behind to win three times this season, continuing an even longer trend. In 14 years, Montana has sustained 24 successful comebacks--six at Notre Dame, 18 in the NFL.
Otherwise, Everett, 26, is a player on the rise. At 33, Montana isn't looking at 14 more years as a quarterback.
Win or lose, the 49ers will remain division leaders by at least one game, but a 49er defeat would be damaging. The Rams will play the New York Jets and the New England Patriots in their last two games. The 49ers will be up against two teams that can match them in, among other things, motivation--the Buffalo Bills and the Chicago Bears.
The two most surprising teams of the season are the Green Bay Packers and the Denver Broncos, and they have been winning in similar ways.
Both have imaginative coaches, Dan Reeves of Denver and Lindy Infante of Green Bay.
And on several critical Sundays, both have used a little luck.
"Good players create their own luck," Infante said after the Packers wrought another miracle Sunday when they won, 17-16, after throwing an incomplete pass in the last minute on fourth-and-16--seemingly their last offensive play of the game.
A rarely called penalty against a Tampa Bay nose tackle, who was flagged for putting his hands in the face of a Green Bay blocker, gave the Packers another life and, eventually, another victory when Chris Jacke kicked a 47-yard field goal.
Four of the eight games Green Bay has won were decided by one point. Three were saved by last-gasp calls by referees or instant-replay officials. Ten of their 13 games have been won or lost by 21 total points.
Against the Bears, Green Bay's winning touchdown came on a pass that was judged illegal by the officials, who said Don Majkowski had crossed the scrimmage line before he threw it. The play was reversed after a replay.
Against New Orleans, a Green Bay receiver was judged to be out of bounds on a fourth-down play that seemed to be the last of the day for the Packers until it was reversed on replay. Reprieved, Majkowski drove on to win.
"I've never been a part of anything like this," said Packer running back Herman Fontenot, who came over during the off-season from Cleveland.
Neither have most players.