Northern Issues

The Bears were the first to make a move, but since then every team in the division has made major changes.

The changing of the guard has begun. The Green Bay Packers on Monday evening hired as defensive coordinator Jim Bates, the architect of top-10 defenses during his five seasons in Miami.

With the hiring of Bates, Bob Slowik had a chance to remain on as secondary coach, but appears ready to accept the same position in Denver. The Pack also cut ties with former defensive backs coach Kurt Schottenheimer.

Bates, 58, became Miami's interim coach when Dave Wannstedt resigned at midseason. The Dolphins were 1-8 at the time but went 3-4 under Bates. Bates interviewed for the full-time job but lost out to Nick Saban.

Bates also interviewed for the vacant Cleveland Browns head coaching position, though it appears that's going to go to Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. Since his season is not finished, Crennel cannot be hired until after the Super Bowl.

With Bates running the defense, Miami ranked eighth in yards allowed per game with 305.9 despite having four starters on injured reserve and another, AFC sack leader Adewale Ogunleye, traded to the Bears during training camp. Perhaps most important from the Packers' perspective, the Dolphins ranked second in pass defense with 162.0 yards allowed per game.

Under Slowik, the Packers ranked 25th in yards with 346.3 and 25th in pass defense with 228.9 yards allowed per game. The 33 touchdown passes allowed set a team record.

Turnovers were a huge shortcoming for the Packers. Green Bay forced 17 fumbles, recovering seven, and intercepted eight passes for a franchise-record-low 15 takeaways. Bates' Dolphins forced 22 fumbles, recovering 10, and intercepted 15 passes for 25 takeaways.

Bates will be entering his 37th year as a coach, including 15th in the NFL. He guided Miami's perennially stout defense from 2000-04. During those years, Miami's defense ranked a cumulative fifth in the NFL with 294.8 yards allowed per game. The Dolphins never finished worse than 10th in total defense. Eight Dolphins players were named to 18 Pro Bowls.

Slowik was promoted to defensive coordinator from defensive backs coach for the 2004 season after Ed Donatell was fired. Donatell's defenses forced a league-high in turnovers during his tenure in Green Bay, a huge contrast to what occurred under Slowik. Donatell, meanwhile, led an improved Falcons defense to the NFC championship game.

Schottenheimer, meanwhile, has been hired by the Rams to guide their secondary. Schottenheimer served one season in Green Bay, after being fired after a two-year stint as defensive coordinator with the Detroit Lions. Schottenheimer's season in Green Bay was stung by the meager development of rookie cornerbacks Ahmad Carroll and Joey Thomas.

Strategy & Personnel
The Packers not only found a new man to guide the defense, but someone to get him the talent.

There's a new sheriff in town, as the Green Bay Packers hired Ted Thompson to replace Mike Sherman as general manager.

Thompson's official title is executive vice president, general manager and director of football operations. Thompson returns to Green Bay — he served as pro personnel director and director of player personnel under Ron Wolf from 1992-99 — and becomes the new boss of Sherman, who was stripped of his duties as general manager by team president Bob Harlan.

Thompson was Seattle's vice president of football operations under Mike Holmgren from 2000-2004, has full authority over all aspects of the Packers' football operations. Sherman's new title is executive vice president and head coach.

Thompson was given a five-year contract.

Harlan said repeatedly that Sherman's losing of the GM tag had nothing to do with the playoff loss to Minnesota.

"This move is not meant in any way to criticize any element of Mike," Harlan said. "I told him basically the same things I told you. We are doing this for the future of the franchise and it's going to let him spend more time coaching. And it gives him that one more accountable person there to help him make the football decisions."

Harlan was never a proponent of Sherman being both coach and general manager, but went along with Wolf's suggestion for fear a new general manager would not work well with Sherman, who made a favorable impression by winning his final four games during his first year as head coach to finish with a 9-7 record.

Thus, after completing his first season as head coach in 2000, Sherman took over for Wolf as general manager in 2001.

"I was reluctant to bring in someone over Mike who he might not get along with, someone who would probably change the scouting department who I felt was very efficient," Harlan said. "And even though I'm not fond of the one-man system, I thought at that particular time it was the best."

Harlan early this season, however, became convinced a change needed to be made. Harlan recalled meeting a NFL general manager, who said, "I don't care where I went scouting this off-season, no matter how remote the place was, your head coach was there.' I thought maybe some of that time would be better spent with the coaching staff."

The Packers have won three division titles, made the playoffs in four consecutive years and have gone 2-4 in the postseason under Sherman as head coach and general manager. Sherman took on the general manager duties in 2001 when Ron Wolf retired.

"We feel this restructuring helps the Packers in two ways," Harlan said. "First, we are able to add to our staff a respected, 13-year National Football League veteran who is a proven talent evaluator and an efficient administrator. And, second, it will reduce Mike's workload and enable him to devote more time to coaching."

Green Bay and Philadelphia are the only clubs to reach the postseason each of the last four years. And, since 2000 only the Eagles have more regular-season wins. Now, moving forward, the Packers are making an attempt to improve on that track record.

"In today's salary cap world of professional football," Harlan added, "where rosters are overhauled every offseason, both the job of a general manager and the job of a head coach are extremely demanding and require an inordinate amount of time and effort.

"I am quite pleased to know the Packers will be moving into the future with these two highly regarded men at the top of our football operation."

Ted Tollner, a veteran of 30 years coaching on the college and NFL level, has been hired as the Lions' offensive coordinator, replacing Sherman Lewis, who retired at the end of the 2004 season.

"I've known Ted for more than 20 years and consider him to be one of the best minds in football," said Lions head coach Steve Mariucci, in a statement released by the team Wednesday. "His pedigree is incomparable, having learned from Don Coryell, who most regard as one of the most innovative offensive coaches in the history of our game.

"Ted's been involved with the most successful and progressive offensive philosophies in football from Don Coryell to LaVell Edwards to John Robinson to Marv Levy to Chuck Knox. He will be a tremendous asset to our young offensive players. This is an exceptional addition to our staff."

What Mariucci did not say was how Tollner will be used -- whether he will work primarily in the background, as Lewis did, or handle play-calling, a responsibility Mariucci does not freely delegate.

Tollner, 64, is highly regarded around the NFL and spent the past season as the offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, but there are questions whether Mariucci is bringing him in to help with alterations to the Lions' West Coast offense or to help him hold the line in running what has been a relatively conservative offense in Detroit.

Mariucci is expected to answer some of those questions within the next week but the real answers might not be known until the Lions get into the 2005 season.

The Lions' quarterback situation will undoubtedly be changed for the 2005 season, but coach Steve Mariucci and president Matt Millen are denying vigorously that they plan to release quarterback Joey Harrington rather than pay him a $3 million signing bonus he is due later in the summer.

The team put out a statement categorically denying the report and also refuted the suggestion that Sherman Lewis had been forced out as offensive coordinator.

"We are giving Joey -- and I'm trying to prove it by the way we've been with him -- every opportunity to develop into our quarterback," Mariucci said. "I can't guarantee he's our quarterback for the next 12 years, but everything we have been doing is in keeping with developing him for the future, making progress every way we can."

Backup Mike McMahon and veteran No. 3 quarterback Rick Mirer will become free agents in March, and it appears unlikely the Lions will re-sign either although both Millen and Mariucci have said on previous occasions that they would not be opposed to bringing back McMahon.

Whomever the Lions eventually sign as the backup quarterback, it appears he will be allowed to compete with Harrington for the starting job rather than simply be considered the backup.

Offensive line coach Steve Loney won't leave the Vikings to join former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan in Miami.

Linehan left the Vikings on Jan. 19 to take the Dolphins' offensive coordinator position for a three-year deal estimated to be worth around $600,000 a year. There was speculation Linehan might try to get Loney to join him, but the Vikings promoted him to take over as their offensive coordinator.

"We are happy to be able to keep some continuity on our offensive staff by promoting Steve Loney," coach Mike Tice said in a statement. "He has proven himself during his coaching career and has been key to our success here during the previous three seasons. He has the respect of the players and coaches on staff and we are excited to get to work for the 2005 season."

Promoting from within promotes a positive atmosphere, but Linehan's departure was the latest reminder that the Vikings will never win a Super Bowl with Red McCombs as owner.

McCombs, an outsider from Texas, will never get a new stadium from Minnesota's legislators. And as long as he doesn't have a stadium deal, he won't invest properly in his team.

He'll continue to cut corners while trying to sell his team for the bloated price of $600 million. Nobody can win the Super Bowl doing business that way.

The team has been on the market since May 2002. This has to end. Either McCombs needs to sell, or the NFL needs to step in and decide whether it's healthy for one of its teams to be run in the lame-duck fashion that McCombs is running his.

The Vikings' budget for coaches and facilities is believed to be among the lowest in the league, if not the lowest. Coach Mike Tice is under contract for one more year at $1 million, which is the lowest in the league. McCombs said he won't discuss an extension for Tice until after the 2005 season.

All of Tice's assistants are working under one-year contacts. Linehan, 41, one of the brighter young NFL coaches and QB Daunte Culpepper's position coach and mentor the last three seasons, left because of the Vikings' uncertain future.

Linehan said that job security was his top priority. McCombs answered him by saying the most he would get is a one-year deal.

"If it was just about the players I coach, it would be a no-brainer (to re-sign with the Vikings)," Linehan said.

If McCombs were trying to win, he'd extend the contracts of his coaches for three to five years or clean house and find coaches he has faith in. To just hang on with one-year deals screams out that McCombs is only interested in dumping the team.

Basically, the overriding factor in everything the Vikings do is based on how it will affect McCombs and his ability to sell the team. It appears McCombs is becoming more serious about selling the team now that the season is over.

His group has started talking again with Arizona entrepreneur Reggie Fowler, who some believe is finally prepared to make McCombs an offer.

Another potential buyer is Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor. Taylor is interested but has said $600 million is too much for a team that doesn't have a stadium deal.

It's believed that Taylor, a Mankato, Minn., native and local entrepreneur, has a better chance to get a stadium deal. Taylor turned down an invitation to join Fowler's group last summer but has not ruled it out entirely.

--QB Gus Frerotte said he enjoyed his two seasons as Daunte Culpepper's backup, but he's now ready to compete for a starting job elsewhere. "I wouldn't say there was stellar quarterback play throughout the NFL this season," said Frerotte, an unrestricted free agent this offseason. "I'm not going to run all over the place for you, but if a team needs a strong-armed quarterback who can stand in the pocket and knows where to throw the ball, I can do that."

--QB Daunte Culpepper's wife, Kim had to be rescued by security officers at Lincoln Financial Field from verbally abusive Eagles fans during Sunday's game against the Eagles. Said Culpepper: "Lord knows, if I had been up there, somebody really would have gotten hurt."

--WR Randy Moss was in a rare talkative mood after the playoff win at Green Bay -- you know, the game in which he fake mooned the fans at Lambeau Field. Well, a week later at Philadelphia, Moss was back to his usual self when reporters approached. "I ain't doing no interviews," he said. Moss didn't give himself a chance to comment on Eagles WR Freddie Mitchell's playful touchdown celebration. After giving the Eagles a 7-0 lead, Mitchell pretended to pull his pants up.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Goodbye, Minnesota." -- Former first-round draft pick Chris Hovan, looking over his shoulders at reporters as he pushed open the door from the locker room to the players' parking lot on the day after the season ended with a 27-14 loss in an NFC divisional playoff game at Philadelphia. Hovan, who is a free agent this offseason, lost his starting job to rookie free agent Spencer Johnson at midseason and was inactive for five of the last seven games, including both playoff games.

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