NFC North News

While the Bears are the only team that will have a new head coach, all four teams in the division have one thing in common - new defensive coordinators.

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When Dick Jauron left the Lions headquarters without a contract late Thursday night it looked like the Lions might lose him to a competitor.

Jauron signed a three-year deal with the Lions reportedly worth $2.5 million with $500,000 coming the first year. Meaning the Bears still owe Jauron nearly $2 million on the final year of his contract with Chicago.

Five teams expressed interest in the former Chicago Bears coach including the New York Giants, Kansas City, Detroit, New York Jets and the latest to express interest were the Green Bay Packers.

Head coach Mike Sherman was interested in hiring Jauron as his defensive coordinator after the dismissal of Ed Donatell.

The Lions biggest competition for the former Jacksonville and Green Bay assistant appeared to be the New York Giants.

Head coach Tom Coughlin has offered Jauron the position of assistant head coach-defense but Jauron would not be the defensive coordinator. He would work with Tim Lewis, who was recently hired in that position but that is said to appeal to Jauron, who coached Lewis at Green Bay when he was defensive back there.

Jauron and Coughlin worked successfully together in Jacksonville where they combined for three playoff appearances in his four-year tenure including an AFC championship game appearance. That led to Jauron getting the head coaching job in Chicago.

In the end Steve Mariucci's strong friendship with Jauron played a role in the decision.

Scapegoat or not, Ed Donatell took the fall for Green Bay's collapse against the Philadelphia Eagles last weekend when head coach and general manager Mike Sherman fired him Friday.

Donatell, 46, had been the Packers' defensive coordinator since 2000, when Sherman was hired as head coach. Over the second half of the regular season, the Packers allowed just 114 points en route to an NFC North Division title.

But the Packers blew a 14-point lead to the Eagles in a divisional playoff game last Sunday and were unable to stop Philadelphia late in the game on fourth-and-26. Sherman said one play did not determine Donatell's fate.

"This is not a result of one play or one game," Sherman said. "It's a season-long evaluation. But then you come into the post-season and the after-season. You continue that, then make your decisions based on the information you've accrued throughout the season."

Sherman also released tight ends coach Jeff Jagodzinski, who coached in the college ranks for 14 years before being named to Ray Rhodes' Packer staff in 1999. He was retained as tight ends coach when Sherman succeeded Rhodes. But Sherman said he and Jagodzinski had "philosophical differences at times and didn't feel like we could overcome those," so he released Jagodzinski from his contract.

"Ultimately I had to do what I feel is best for the Packers," Sherman said. "It is very, very difficult for me. ... This has been tough for me. I care about both people very much."

Jagodzinski, a West Allis, Wis., native and a former University of Wisconsin-Whitewater fullback, was named to the Packers' staff after serving as offensive coordinator at Boston College in 1997-98. He was rumored last week as a candidate to become offensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns, but that opening was filled by Terry Robiskie, the Browns' receivers coach.

The two firings leave four vacancies on Sherman's staff. Besides seeking a new defensive coordinator and tight ends coach, Sherman also will be seeking a running backs coach and quality control coach on offense. Former running backs coach Sylvester Croom became head coach at Mississippi State in December. Stan Drayton, the Packers' former quality-control coach on offense, has accepted a job as running backs coach under the direction of Croom at Mississippi State.

The ever-positive Donatell expressed his gratitude for the opportunity he had the past four seasons in Green Bay.

"Looking ahead, son of a gun, I just ignited something inside of me," Donatell said. "I love coaching football. I love coaching aggressive. Around the corner, I think there's going to be an opportunity to coach some more guys. I'm ready for the task."

The Packers was ranked 17th in the league in total yards allowed this season (10th against the rush and 23rd against the pass). Last year and in 2001, Green Bay was ranked 12th overall in defense. In 2000, the Packers ranked 15th overall under Donatell, a Glenville, (W.Va.) State alumnus, coached defensive backs for the New York Jets (1990-94) and the Denver Broncos (1995-99) before joining the Sherman staff in 2000.

"I didn't see it coming. I have an excellent relationship with Mike. Anytime in this profession when you're in one of the top three spots, there's a possibility (of getting fired). I think that re-bond and move on. This is what I do as a coach. I'll adjust to this and good things will happen."

Ted Cottrell garnered instant respect among the Vikings organization, but they were keenly aware of his abilities long before his interview this year. His hiring is just the first step in honing the team into an ultra-competitive product this off-season, according to a team source.

Wise football executives make smart choices. Smart football men know when to make a statement and improve the team, while holding a trump card in the event a replay of the 2003 season transpires. This trump card may ultimately come in a package known as Ted Cottrell, the newly hired defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings.

Cottrell, a veteran of 20 NFL seasons, brings instant credibility and experience to a coaching staff that at times lacked both. Throughout his tours of duty in the league, Cottrell provided a solid element of teaching, along with a tremendous amount of respect from his peers.

Known for his vast experience and ability to adapt to the changing game of the NFL, Cottrell is not being viewed as a defensive savior for the Vikings. Rather, Cottrell comes to Minnesota to do what he does best — communicate, teach, and organize a defense, one in which he will have complete control over.

"Much like we had with George (O'Leary), Ted Cottrell is coming in to help take this defense to the next level, a competitive championship-type level," a team source said. "If you look at the coaches in the game today, Ted (Cottrell) is a man that is worthy of a head coaching job in this league and we are fortunate to have the opportunity to bring such a solid coach in."

Coming off a disappointing season heading up the defense of the New York Jets, Cottrell was released by the team at season's end and the phone started ringing almost immediately. But, not with the type of offers which should be warranted to a coach that has been successful at every stop along his long and productive career.

With numerous head coaching openings throughout the league this off-season, Cottrell, once a hot candidate in league circles, including being a runner-up to Mike Tice for the Vikings opening after Dennis Green resigned, was barely mentioned. Much to the delight of the Minnesota organization, arguably one of the brightest defensive minds in the game today was available.

"It is ironic that a couple years later and we have both Ted (Cottrell) and Mike Tice here. He (Cottrell) was a very impressive candidate back in 2002, and if it weren't for our knowledge and familiarity with Mike (Tice), Ted may have been the head coach of this team today," the source said. "We have high expectations for this team for the 2004 season, but we have a lot of work to do before we can get too far ahead of ourselves.

This off-season will be a critical one for this organization, for many reasons. We are potentially looking at signing a few impact free agents — by impact free agents we are talking about players who will come in and make an immediate contribution. These moves will be coming on both sides of the ball, but primarily on the defensive side as Cottrell breaks down the defense and works out a plan with Tice."

Cottrell is the new defensive coordinator, with the experience, ability, and leeway to make changes to a Vikings defensive unit that struggled over the second half of the season. Already, indications coming from the organization are change will continue and the owner (Red McCombs) is committed to providing the main men in player acquisition the resources to improve this Minnesota team.

"One of the issues we discussed following the season was how we needed to improve the state of the defense. The belief is we have some very talented players on this roster and wholesale changes are not necessary," the source said. "Sometimes a fresh perspective can point out issues that are at times overlooked when the same eyes watch the product on a daily basis. We have already gotten some feedback from Cottrell, as to the first-impression issues with the defense. McCombs has said we can get the type of players we need to win, to escape the disappointment of the late-season losses.

"As he takes in the film and gets to know some of these guys better, he'll have a scheme in place to take our defense to the next level. Free agency and the draft will be a critical time for us, as we look to not only turn the corner, but to become the team to beat in the NFC North and the NFC in general."

If the team falters, as it did in the second half of the 2003 season, head coach Mike Tice once again will be on the hot seat. With Cottrell on the staff, concerns about the team already seeking out a replacement for Tice have to be addressed. It was not long ago Tice was rumored to be close to losing his job following the team's late-season collapse.

"Ted Cottrell was brought in here to help the Minnesota Vikings improve the defense, improve the team, which only improves his status in this game and certainly with the Vikings. If this team does well and the defense is improved to the point of his expectations, this is a win-win for us," the team source said. "If we play to the level we believe we can and the defense continues to build upon the growth we tasted last season, Cottrell will become a hot commodity again for a team looking for a head coach.

"We are not looking at this team failing, we are not looking at Mike Tice not being with us. Winning pretty much takes care of most issues. We win, all should be all right; if we don't, then you have to investigate all the possibilities."

The Minnesota Vikings expect to improve and win. The organization is of the belief they hired the right man in Mike Tice, but if they struggle, then all bets are off.

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