We now continue our series of NFL previews with a look at the NFC North. You'll notice that the Bears were pretty good last year, and really nobody else was. The Packers and Vikings had respectable defenses, but were plagued by varying degrees of offensive ineptitude. The Lions, well, um, yeah.
1. Green Bay Packers
Last year: 8-8 (5-1 vs. NFC North)
I'm already being yelled at for being a homer. Let me explain this, and do so without pointing out that the brilliant Aaron Schatz has picked Green Bay to win the division, too. Just because Aaron Schatz says it doesn't make it true. I'm sure he's been wrong at least once before. Not only that, but I was picking Green Bay in this division before I knew he was.
The Packers are now three years removed from the idiocy that was Mike Sherman, personnel guy, and two years removed from the idiocy that was Mike Sherman, head coach. The personnel guy now, Ted Thompson, has been busy this offseason fielding criticism over his unwillingness to spend money. The new head coach, Mike McCarthy, has a nice shiny four-game winning streak to take into the season opener, and after some early hiccups, appears to be developing very nicely. Sherman is gone, as are Joe Johnson, Cletidus Hunt, Jamal Reynolds, and Ahmad Carroll, among others. There's a new group of young players growing up and preparing to lead this team into the playoffs. Oh, and there's that Favre guy, too.
1. Has Brett Favre lost it? Boy, as much as I like Aaron Rodgers, I have to answer in the negative on this one. Favre has not lost it. If you think he has lost it, ask the Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, New Orleans Saints, Minnesota Vikings, or San Francisco 49ers. Sure, he's not as good as he was in 1996, but is that seriously to be expected? Unlike 1996, the Packers have one proven playmaker on offense besides Favre, and that's Donald Driver. It won't be easy for Favre to keep his interceptions down while increasing his completion percentage, but it also won't take much effort on his part. The Packers were one of the worst teams in the league in terms of dropping passes last year. Parts of this can be attributed to the weapons not being as good, Favre not being as sharp as he used to be, the offensive line being purely offensive at times (especially early in the season), and the weapons not being as good (did I mention that already?). I expect that an improved and more cohesive offensive line and moderately better players at wide receiver will help Favre lift his completion percentage and TD numbers a hair. He's not lost it. He's more than capable of carrying this team to a win or two. But if McCarthy, Thompson, or anyone else expect him to do more than that, they're delusional. The MVP years have certainly passed us by.
2. Who will be running and catching for the Packers? Outside of Driver and a hopefully rejuvenated Bubba Franks, we just don't know. The running back situation is particularly messy, as unproven Vernand Morency is back at practice after missing the preseason with a knee injury, and rookie Brandon Jackson missed the last preseason game with a concussion. Morency appears to be the best hope for now, as Jackson is still figuring out how to block against blitzes and things. Defenses like, oh, Philadelphia would have a field day if he were in a one-back formation right about now. Favre, on the other hand, would be able to spend a lot of quality time finding shapes in the clouds above Lambeau Field. Anyway, Driver is the only reliable receiver, but rookie James Jones flashed enough ability in training camp to draw multiple comparisons to former Packer
3. How good is this defense, anyway? Let's start up front. End Aaron Kampman is probably one of the five best at his position in the league, and he is in rare company as a player who actually got a lot better after signing a big-money contract. The Packers moved Cullen Jenkins to the other end on run downs last year and got good results, so they'll do that again. The arrangement allows Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila to serve solely as a pass-rush specialist, and it should help keep him fresh. Tackles Ryan Pickett and Corey Williams/Colin Cole/Johnny Jolly/Justin Harrell provide push against the run, but outside of Williams, there isn't much pass-rush ability in that group. CBs Al Harris and Charles Woodson, LBs Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk are more than adequate, though depth can be questioned at both positions.
2. Chicago Bears
Last year: 13-3 (5-1 vs. NFC North)
Playoffs: Beat Seattle in NFC Divisional Playoff, Beat New Orleans in NFC Championship, Lost to Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLI
I'm not one of these morons who says the Bears "choked" or "didn't get the job done when it counted". As much as I don't personally care for the Chicago Bears, I was happy for them that they got to the Super Bowl, and I am glad that they represented the NFC North by playing a competitive game against a heavy favorite.
The Bears ran away with the division title last year, winning 13 games. They beat the stuffing out of everyone in the NFC North except Minnesota at least once. They were a good team and a deserving NFC champion. However, I see issues with this team's ability to repeat. The Bears were outgained by their opponent in four of their 15 wins last year, including a margin of 346-107 in a win over Minnesota. The defensive line depth has taken a hit with departures and the suspension of Tank Johnson. And Rex Grossman is still the QB. Please note that, despite those hits, there aren't any questions below about the defense. It's still going to be good, even if the overall production falls off a bit.
1. Can Rex Grossman become a passable NFL quarterback? When you're simply assuming that Grossman can play mistake-free football and allow other facets of this team to win the game, keep the following numbers in mind: 14-37-144-0-4, 18-42-210-1-3, 11-22-119-1-0, 6-19-34-0-3, 11-26-144-1-0, 20-28-165-1-2. Those are Grossman's numbers (Comp-Att-Yards-TD-INT) in six selected games from a year ago. In those games, the Bears were, inexplicably, 5-1. The only loss was the last game listed, when Grossman had snap issues as well as issues keeping from throwing the ball to the Colts. Grossman had some good games last year, but the good was surrounded by games that were mediocre or just plain horrific. That's the story of Grossman. He plays well for a time, then bobbles a center snap or makes a bad read. As the teams in this division improve, it's going to be tougher and tougher for the Bears to win it without quality play from the quarterback position. At this point, it's anyone's guess whether Grossman is the guy to give them that.
2. Is Cedric Benson ready to be the every-down guy? Last year, Benson got the ball 157 times and averaged a shade over four yards per rush. Not bad. In fact, his per-carry average was practically identical with that of the departed Thomas Jones. The only question is whether Benson can handle the pounding. He's had two years of virtual inactivity after he was almost run into the ground at Texas. The Bears hope that he's fresh and capable of carrying the run game. Backup Adrian Peterson is better-known for his work on special teams, and doesn't figure to get the ball very much. Third-stringer Garrett Wolfe is a small but interesting rookie who had a super career with Northern Illinois.
3. Devin Hester can't possibly score six more return touchdowns this year, can he? History says he can't. Any run of touchdowns that you get from sources besides your offense is often difficult, if not impossible, to duplicate the next season. The Bears scored five defensive touchdowns in 2001, but only one in 2002. Dante Hall had that really nice run of return touchdowns, but has not been as successful since 2003. Even the really good ones fall off a little bit, so it stands to reason that Hester will. If/When that happens, who will make up for those lost touchdowns?
3. Minnesota Vikings
Last year: 6-10 (2-4 vs. NFC North)
This Vikings team is a tough one to figure out. On paper, you'd think that their defense would be among the league's best. But despite their prowess against the run, they have struggled enough against the pass to make me question that. New England, Green Bay, Arizona, the Jets, and St. Louis all had success against the Vikings by not over committing to the run and spreading the field (it's notable that St. Louis had much success running the ball, but this appears to be an odd exception).
Offensively, it appears that the mess will be cleaned up just a bit with the addition of Adrian Peterson. The Vikings have also done something of an overhaul with their receivers, in hopes of creating a few more big-play chances for young QB Tarvaris Jackson.
1. Is Jackson ready? Probably not, but the Vikings are doing the right thing. He seems like a tough kid, so I don't think they have to worry about him getting down when mistakes happen. The coaches have to keep working with Jackson, because his mechanics are far from refined. His arm is strong, and he's a very good athlete. There's no reason to think that he won't be a player in this league. This year will be about developing Jackson. Hopefully, Brad Childress shows more willingness to use Jackson's mobility as an advantage, rather than trying to turn him into a strict dropback passer. If he shows he's clearly not ready, and that he's not benefiting from playing time, the Vikings have veterans Kelly Holcomb and Brooks Bollinger serving as backups. Holcomb has worked in the West Coast offense before, so if he has to play, you shouldn't expect a tough transition.
2. Can the pass defense improve? Something tells me that the Vikings will benefit from not having Fred Smoot around. He was anywhere between ineffective and brutal as a Viking. Cedric Griffin appears to be a keeper, and he takes over the starting spot opposite star Antoine Winfield. Where Winfield lacks as a pure cover guy, he more than makes up with his intuition and physical play. The Vikings drafted a big guy, Marcus McCauley out of Fresno State, and they hope he can play a lot as a rookie nickel back. Darren Sharper has shown some signs of decline at safety, and injuries are always at least a bit of a concern with him, but he was actually pretty good in coverage last year. He's not the world's most physical player, but he has a great nose for the football.
3. Will the highly-paid offensive line start playing like it? The left side wasn't as good as the investment would suggest last year, as Steve Hutchinson appeared to struggle at times in a new (for him) system, and Bryant McKinnie was his usual inconsistent self. McKinnie's biggest weakness in college was his footwork and ability to handle outside rushers, and he has shown virtually no improvement in that area in the NFL. Because they didn't play up to their paychecks last year, and the right side isn't nearly as good as the left, the Vikings' line struggled, especially in pass-blocking. Having a mobile Jackson back there won't help matters much unless Childress turns him loose, and that won't happen until Jackson's fundamentals improve.
4. Detroit Lions
Last year: 3-13 (0-6 vs. NFC North)
I'm not sure it's worth posting the same old song and dance here. You all know how brutal the Lions have been since Matt Millen took over the football operation. While not all of it is his fault, it's amazing the guy still has a gig. Blah. Blah. Blah.
(My favorite Millen Fixation Note comes courtesy, again, of Pro Football Prospectus. Millen has had six top-ten picks in the NFL Draft, and has spent four of them on wide receivers. In the last six years, the other 54 top-ten picks have combined to yield six wide receivers.)
This team could be decent, and should at least challenge the Vikings for third. Anything beyond that is a stretch for this team, which is building slowly. And I mean "slowly".
1. How bad is this defense going to be? DT Shaun Rogers is really good. DE/DT Cory Redding is a nice young talent. Outside of that, bring on the chirping crickets. LB Ernie Sims has promise, but struggled last year. The Lions are injury-prone at the other LB positions, with Paris Lenon and Boss Bailey being, probably, the best of the bunch. CBs Dre Bly and Jamar Fletcher are gone, leaving a mess behind them. The Lions lack talent and depth in the backfield, and if the defensive line can't generate consistent pass pressure, they will get regularly torched by even average passing attacks.
2. How is Jon Kitna going to stay upright long enough to throw for 4,000 yards? You got me. Outside of Dominic Raiola and Jeff Backus, the Lions were mish-mashing a line together throughout the season because of injuries and ineffectiveness. More of the same can be anticipated this year, though the Bly trade to Denver gave the Lions a potential starting RT in George Foster. The 63 sacks allowed last year represented a career high for Kitna, but he still managed to approach 4,000 yards passing. And he did that with Mike Furrey as his second option at receiver.
3. Are the Lions really going to make an effort to run the ball? With or without the injured Kevin Jones, it appears so. They brought in Tatum Bell in the Bly trade, and the Lions also signed big T.J. Duckett. It's certainly an upgrade, but now it's up to offensive coordinator Mike Martz to use all these guys. He's never been shy about pounding away with the run game (see: "Faulk, Marshall"), but it's hard to imagine he'll ignore his outside weapons. Roy Williams, Furrey, and rookie Calvin Johnson will see plenty of footballs flying through the air. The Lions will be an exciting team on offense, but will it be enough to help out a beleaguered defense? Martz needs to recognize his team's need to play a somewhat balanced offense. The Lions don't have the defensive personnel to force a lot of turnovers or make a lot of stops. If they're going to win more than a small handful of games, they need to exhibit enough balance to hold the ball for at least a few long drives.