The NFC North has four of the most storied franchises in the NFL. The Packers and Bears are the foundation of the NFL and the Lions and Vikings have rich histories as well.
The recent past hasn't been as kind to this division as the 'old times.' Since Brett Favre arrived in 1992 as the Packers quarterback, he has pretty much been the center of attention in the division.
In the past three years, the Packers have won 34 games -- the same number of victories as the Bears and Lions combined. The Vikings are considered the second-best team in the NFC North, and they have 14 fewer wins over the past three years than the Packers.
Until Favre retires, it's hard to think any team is going to rule the roost in the NFC North. Here's an important piece of information to keep in mind about Mr. Favre when you start trying to convince yourself that this is the year Favre fades away and a new team takes over this division: He threw 20 touchdown passes on the road last year! How impressive is that number? Peyton Manning threw 12, Daunte Culpepper struck 11 times, the great Tom Brady connected 16 times and the dangerous Steve McNair did it 12 times.
Favre is the reason the Packers were 5-3 away from Lambeau field while the rest of the division could only muster four road wins combined. The Vikings are close again, the Lions are improving and the Bears are rebuilding, so it sounds like more Favre until further notice.
Five questions that need to be answered in 2004:
- Brett Favre had a better completion percentage, more touchdown passes and a better rating in 2003 than he did in 2002. Is he actually getting better or more effective now that young players like Javon Walker are maturing?
- Randy Moss is the backbone of the Vikings, productive no matter who the QB is under center. Will his foot problems slow down the best weapon the Vikings have?
- Is Joey Harrington finally ready to take the next step in his development now that he has two promising receivers and a quality running back behind him?
- The Bears have put the weight of the world on second-year passer Rex Grossman's shoulders. He has thrown only 72 passes in his NFL career. How long will it take this talented young man to get his team back into contention?
- Last year the Packers won the division with just 10 wins, the lowest of any NFC division champion. This year, can a wild card also come out of the North, or is this division "win-it-or-nothing?"
Let's take a closer look at each team as training camps approach.
Bears general manager Jerry Angelo finally has his own head coach in place in Lovie Smith, whom he knows from his days in Tampa Bay. Angelo knows what kind of defensive players Smith wants in order to build a carbon copy of the famous Bucs defense of the past eight years. There are so many inexperienced components to the 2003 Bears that it is a time to be patient. Keep in mind, when Warren Sapp was drafted in Tampa as a key component to the 4-3 defense, he had only 17 tackles and three sacks as a rookie. Safety John Lynch had 58 tackles and three interceptions in his first three seasons combined, and tackling machine Derrick Brooks didn't hit the 100-tackle mark until his third season. To ask too much of the "new" Bear defense in 2003 is unrealistic.
On top of that, the team is breaking in a new quarterback and two new coordinators, Ron Rivera on defense and Terry Shea on offense, both first-time coordinators. The whole thing is going to take time. One year when I was at the Jets we had a first-time head coach and two first-time coordinators and patience was the key. Without it, the whole Bears franchise doesn't stand a chance.
Let's look at the offense first. For some reason, running back Anthony Thomas fell on hard times last season. But if you look at his production in the last three games of 2003, there is reason for optimism. He rushed 67 times for 281 yards (4.2 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. He may not be the west-coast style of running back the Bears are looking for, but Jon Gruden, a west-coast coach, found ways to utilize Tyrone Wheatley in Oakland. Thomas Jones was brought in to complete for the rushing job but he doesn't have the career stats to say he's a shoe-in for the gig. A more likely scenario is that the two backs split time. The offensive line will be better with the addition of tackle John Tait and guard Ruben Brown. It would be impossible to expect young quarterback Rex Grossman to function without better linemen in front of him than he had last year; the Bears were 29th in the league in giving up sacks in 2003.
If you want to believe Grossman can defy all the odds and bring the Bears a winning record in 2004, just point to the Redskins game last year when he was 19 for 32 for 249 yards and two touchdowns in a 27-24 win. Opposing defensive coordinators have all studied that game tape 100 times and will find ways to stress the young star. I might add that in that big win, the "A-Train" rushed for 141 yards. The receivers don't have a player who grabbed 60 passes last season and it's now or never for former first-round selection David Terrell. He caught just one touchdown last year and it wasn't when Grossman was playing.
On defense, Tommie Harris was drafted to play the role of Sapp, and as I pointed out earlier, that will take time. Herm Edwards and Tony Dungy have both found out since they left Tampa Bay that this is not an easy task to achieve. As for the secondary, the question will be who matches up with the likes of Randy Moss in Minnesota, Charles Rogers and Roy Williams in Detroit, and Javon Walker in Green Bay. All four of these division receivers are big and fast and the Bears corners have been playing behind the 32nd-ranked defense in sacks. The pass rush and the blitz pressure will be better because coach Smith emphasizes quickness over size, but how much better remains to be seen.
Finally, the Bears finished up last year with a 4-2 record in the final six games. Some thought that was good enough to save Dick Jauron's job, but it wasn't. It is enough for some optimism about this season, though. The first three games are against division opponents and two of them are on the road (in Green Bay and Minnesota). That makes for a tough start for any team, especially a rebuilding team. The Bears will be a better team in the second half of the year and will look to make a statement in 2005.
The Lions are on the rise in many people's eyes. How far of a jump can they make is a different issue. This is a team that has won only 10 games in the past three years and hasn't won one the road in 24 tries! The growth might be more like two road wins, 4-4 at home and one big upset late in the year off a playoff contender. Last year they beat the Rams and Packers in the second half of the season and lost to the Panthers by six points.
The offense was a much better looking unit in 2003 when Charles Rogers was healthy. In the first five games of the season, he caught 22 passes and three touchdowns before he went down with injuries. He was on pace for 70 receptions and 10 touchdowns, and that was without a top-flight receiver on the other side and a very questionable running game to keep the defense honest. This season, both aspects are much improved with rookies Roy Williams and Kevin Jones aboard. The Lions had an excellent draft, and with the ever-optimistic Steve Mariucci coaching them, things could get interesting.
It is time for quarterback Joey Harrington to step up. He's been sacked less than 20 times in 1,000 pass attempts over the first two years, which sounds great, but it's time to hit the third read rather than throw the ball away to prevent a sack. Look for the running back, tight end and slot receiver to enjoy better receiving numbers now that Harrington is more mature. Offseason acquisition guard Damien Woody will help buy him the time to find that "checkdown" receiver.
The defense is aging up front and doesn't get after the opposing quarterbacks as well as they should. They gave up an average of 21 points a game in the division last year and the addition of former Bears head coach Dick Jauron as the defensive coordinator should help lower that number even more. The additions in the secondary of cornerback Fernando Bryant and safety Brock Marion will help against the top two quarterbacks in the NFC North last year, Favre and Culpepper, whom they face twice each. Unless Robert Porcher finds the fountain of youth, the Lions defense is probably a year away from where they want to be.
In conclusion, the Lions have drafted well since Mariucci came to Detroit and are going to be fun to watch. Right around Thanksgiving in their only national TV appearance they should be able to give the Indianapolis Colts all they can handle. In 2005 they will be ready for goals that include the playoffs.
Make no mistake about it, the Packers are still the team to beat in the division. Brett Favre played with a rekindled spirit after the death of his father last year and it appears he's going to carry that over into 2004. The Packers' first job is to fix their home-field advantage. After going 8-0 at home in 2002 they slipped to 5-3 last year. I doubt they will be worse than 6-2 at home in 2004. Ask any Packers fan about his team and it's offense, offense, offense. But this past offseason, the coaches had to ask themselves what happened to the offense in a 20-13 loss to Arizona, a 17-14 loss to Philadelphia and a 22-14 loss to Detroit. The Eagles loss was one thing, but the other two teams were both in the lower third of NFL defenses.
Favre had some numbers last year when he completed 124 of 196 for 1,259 yards and 12 touchdowns against NFC North teams. His teammate Ahman Green loves the NFC North too; he rushed 121 times for 663 yards (5.4 per carry), six touchdowns and caught 22 passes for an additional 145 yards and a score. When you look at the two division losses the Pack had last year, two things are clear. One, Favre threw the ball more than 35 times, and two, Green carried the ball 15 times or less. When Green gets 20 carries and Brett throws it less than 30 times, that's the winning Green Bay formula.
The Packers defense was sporadic at times last year. In the last two games of the year they held Denver and Oakland to a combined 10 points, while against Kansas City and St. Louis they gave up 74 points in back-to-back games. Highly respected defensive coordinator Ed Donatell was fired and the Packers defensive coaches have to do a better job with just one new starter in safety Mark Roman. The Packers' problems are up front where the pass rush was less than acceptable. Last year they brought pressure from the back seven to compensate for the front four, and there is risk and reward in that tactic. This year I suspect they will have to do more of the same if they want to get to the quarterback.
Until Favre hangs up the cleats this team will always have a chance to win. They beat Seattle in the playoffs and should have beaten the Eagles. Both games were played into overtime and that's the way it's going to be again this year with Favre doing extraordinary things to bring his team back week after week. I think the Pack can win 11 this year, which is one more than last year.
The Vikings are a hard team to figure out. People say the return of running back Michael Bennett for 16 games will put them right back in the playoff hunt. He played in seven games last year when he wasn't hurt and the team went 2-5. Some people say Daunte Culpepper is the best quarterback in the NFC and maybe even the NFL. When he was hurt, the Vikings went 2-0 without him and really 3-0 when you consider what Gus Frerotte did off the bench. Frerotte completed 38 of 64 passes for 609 yards and seven touchdowns while the team didn't lose a game. Everyone talks about the value of a QB who can run in modern football. Well, what you can say about the fact that when Culpepper ran for more than 40 yards in a game, the team had a record of 2-5?
What about the 2004 Vikings that is worth keeping an eye on is the offensive line and the pass protection. Minnesota started the season 6-0 and was the hottest team in the league. During that period the Vikings quarterbacks were sacked just 13 times. The next six games resulted in a 1-5 record and opponents got to the passer 24 times. The Vikings offensive line gets lots of respect and they were the unit that was a big part of the No. 1 ranked offense in the NFL in total yards, but when you look at the second half of the season it was an every-other-week offense. Look at these points per game in the last eight games: 28, 18, 24, 17, 34, 10, 45, 17. Guess which games they won and guess which games they lost just by looking at how much they scored. The Vikings need more consistency.
For all the criticism the defense gets, they did a great job of getting the ball back for the offense. They led the NFL in interception percentage, and by the end of the season they gave the ball back to the offense 35 times, mostly on a short field. That translates into three extra games of offense, which goes unnoticed. I like what the Vikings have done to fortify their front seven defenders to go along with their ball-hawking secondary. DT/DE Kevin Williams had an exceptional year for a rookie in 2003, Chris Hovan plays with intensity and rookie draft pick Kenechi Udeze will complement them. Linebacker Chris Claiborne played well for them last year in his first season with the team and a number of linebacker coaches in the NFL thought Dontarrious Thomas was an excellent selection in the second round this year. My favorite addition to improve this defense was the signing of cornerback Antoine Winfield. He is a complete player, he tackles well, can close a slot receiver down in the three-wide receiver packages, can blitz and he's a high-character person. Simply put, the Vikings defense will be better in 2004.
The 2004 Vikings have a chance to get to double-digit wins, but before we get too excited about the prospects of a division crown and home-field advantage in the playoffs, I have to wonder about a 3-7 finish last year with losses to Arizona, Chicago, Oakland, San Diego and the Giants -- teams with a combined record of 23-57. Winning teams win on the road, which the Vikings didn't do. Winning teams also beat the teams they are supposed to beat, which the Vikings also didn't do. Mike Tice is my kind of head coach and he will get most of these issues fixed, but at some point the players have to take care of business and that means 17 weeks of staying focused. I say the Vikings make the playoffs as a wild card.