"Is this what's left of the old NFC Central division? Where's Antonio Freeman taunting the Lions secondary after every catch? Why don't I see Denny Green patroling the Minnesota sidelines and where is Cris Carter? And we're on the road in Chicago, but this surely isn't Soldier Field. We're out in the middle of the sticks in Champaign/Urbana! And what is this jewel in Downtown Detroit? This certainly ain't the Silverdome. What's going on, am I dreaming?"
Welcome to the NFC North division, the one ESPN's Chris Berman always referred to as the NFC "Norris" (from the old NHL division of the same name). There have been a lot of changes in this division, but just as things change, they stay the same. Sadly, another year will pass by without the Detroit Lions in the Super Bowl. Yet another rebuilding project is underway in Motown. But at least the fans will be able to boast that they have the best stadium in the NFL, bar none, Ford Field.
Lets take a look at what the rest of the competitors in the tough NFC North have done.
Green Bay: You have to give the Packers credit, they didn't sit pat despite finishing with a wild card berth last season. In fact, the Pack made some of the risky off season tradeoffs that they've ever made and the result will put them on top of the NFC North.
Gone is Brett Favre's (4th in passing in the NFL) most consistent deep threat, Antonio Freeman. Freeman was dumped in a salary cap move made possible by the acquisition of volatile former New England Patriots receiver Terry Glenn. Glenn has been so tempermental in his career that former Patriots head coach Bill Parcells referred to the receiver as "she", as in "SHE's doing OK." She?
Glenn missed virtually the entire 2001 season in a contract squabble with the Patriots front office and no-nonsense coach Bill Belichick. Glenn was suspended three times and fined over $11,000 for his off the field antics. Initially Glenn was suspended by the NFL for four games for missing a drug test and the Patriots responded by not paying installments on Glenn's signing bonus a move that incensed the four year veteran from Ohio State.
with New England spiraled downhill from there with a variety of so-called 'ailments'
keeping him off the field. Still there's no doubting Glenn's talent. Falcon's
receiver Shawn Jefferson once said of Glenn, a former teammate, "How many
people would give [anything for] what Terry has in ability? Until I saw Michael
Vick, I thought Terry was the greatest athlete I've ever seen. I mean that."
In Green Bay, he will be in the role of the featured receiver and he will be complimented by first round draft pick Javon Walker from the University of Florida and backup receiver Robert Ferguson will replace the departed Bill Schroeder, now in Detroit. Donald Driver adds insurance.
The Green Bay running game is solid with Ahman Green (4th in the NFL), Jason Brookins and Ki-Jana Carter, a former #1 from Cincinnati.
Defensively Hardy Nickerson (rank 13th in the NFL in tackles) moves over from the Jacksonville Jaguars, hungry for a shot at a title. Green Bay also aquired outstanding defensive end Joe Johnson from New Orleans to go with sack specialist Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (tie for 4th in sacks), to soup up the pass rush. They still have big Gilbert Brown doing his best Jerry Ball imitation in the middle of that line. That should take the pressure off safeties LeRoi Butler (returning from injury) and Darren Sharper (tie 9th interceptions, 9th passes defensed) allowing them to roam freely and make plays. At the corners Mike McKenzie and Tyrone Williams (tie 24th interceptions) make a nice duo at the corners.
Green Bay is solid in virtually every phase and have the swagger that will be necessary if they are going to contend.
Pick: 12-4 First in the NFC North
The Bears don't have the 5th place schedule or Soldier Field to rely upon for home field advantage. Soldier Field is in the midst of a renovation and has been torn down to just the pillars on each side of the field. Chicago still has high hopes for this upcoming season based on the formula it established in 2001; Strong rushing game behind the "A-Train" Anthony Thomas (11th in the NFL in rushing), and a possession passing game to receivers Marty Booker (6th in the NFL in receptions, 100) David Terrell, Marcus Robinson, and Dez White.
The really smart move the Bears made was to dump Shane Matthews and signed extremely underrated Chris Chandler. Chandler, (8th in the NFL in passing) could unseat 5th year veteran Jim Miller for the starting position if he has anything left in the tank. Chandler certainly knows how to spread the ball around and his presence makes the Bears a more dangerous team. The Chicago offensive line is one of the best in the NFL (17 sacks allowed all season, 1st in the NFL) with Chris Villarial, "Big Cat" Williams and Olin Kreutz forming the corps of the Chicago front five.
Defensively Chicago's front improve last season with the addition of a pass rush threat in Phillip Daniels (tie 19th sacks) acquired from Seattle. Veteran Keith Traylor and Ted Washington solidfy the front to free pro bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher to roam the field and make plays. Chicago's secondary, led by Mike Brown, the former Nebraska star can put five solid cover guys on the field at any time.
While the Bears won't sneak up on anyone, they still have a solid squad.
Pick: 9-7 Second in the NFC North
The conventional wisdom is that the Minnesota Vikings are ready to go into the tank. Torn up by dissension, tandrums by superstar Randy Moss (18th in catches) and veteran Cris Carter,then the firing of highly respected head coach Dennis Green, the Vikings are headed to the NFC North basement right? Well not exactly.
The Vikings have the talent to be the surprise of the NFC North because they looked at the problems on their team and addressed them expertly. First, they lost Cris Carter, who once was a team leader, but last year his contant feuding with supposed protege' Randy Moss, became a distraction. Carter was replaced with Derrick Alexander, released by Kansas City in a contract move.
Alexander, who recovered from rib and achilles' tendon injury last year, is the perfect, steady compliment to Moss' deep threat and playmaking ability. Adding D'Wayne Bates, formerly of Chicago to the mix, give the Vikings an extremely potent 1,2,3 combination of receivers. Rookie Atrews Bell from Florida State will also add depth at returner and the 4th receiver spot.
I think we've got a lot of weapons now," new head coach Mike Tice said, "and it's up to the offensive line to give the quarterback time and open holes for the running backs."
Tice is correct. Minnesota (47 sacks allowed, rank 25th in NFL)had a terrible time protecting quarterback Daunte Culpepper (11th in passing), eventually leading to his injury. Part of the problem was out of Minnesota's hands. The devastating loss of franchise tackle Korey Stringer was a mountain like obstacle that the team never overcame.
The Vikings quickly addressed that problem by drafting Bryant (Mount) McKinnie, who never gave up a sack in his career at Miami (FL) to man Stringer's old left tackle spot. Despite being a rookie, Culpepper will be much better protected than he was last year by Lions castoff Chris Liwenski. Liwenski and Everett Lindsay will fight it out for the right tackle spot, while the middle with Dixon, Birk and Lacina is solid.
WIth a year of experience under his belt, Michael Benett ought to settle in and become the feature back the Vikings expected when they drafted the speedster out of Wisconsin.
The main problem with the Vikings, though, is their defense's inability to stop the run. The Vikings gave up an average of 143.7 per game (rank 30th) in the NFL. If team's can run on you, you can't win. To address that, the Vikes used their second round pick on Barrett Green clone, Raonall Smith of Washington St. They also selected strong safety Willie Offord of South Carolina in the 3rd round and corner Brian Williams in the fouth.
Still, the Vikes defense need a ton of work. But their offense is potent. With the addition of McKinnie into the offensive line, Minnesota will try to outgun teams.
Pick: They'll do it often enough to go 6-10 or 7-9 and third place in the NFC North.
While the Lions needed an impact player in the secondary like Quentin Jammer, Roy Williams or Phillip Buchanon, it's really hard to argue the selection of Joey Harrington. Harrington has the pedigree, the talent and the moxie to be a top-flight quarterback in the NFL. The only question is will it come together. Plenty of quarterbacks have been selected with the talent to do it, but other things have kept it from happening. Detroit hasn't done well when it comes to selecting quarterbacks but it looks like they have a keeper. The problem with Detroit is two-fold, the offensive line and the secondary.
Detroit sports the worst offensive line in the NFL. Detroit gave up an astounding 66 sacks (rank 31st in the NFL average of 4.1 per game) last season. It's no wonder that both starter Charlie Batch and Mike McMahon found themselves on the sideline injured.
This is the main reason Detroit will have to hesitate about playing Joey Harrington. The Lions will field a group that gets talented former Oklahoma tackle Stockar McDougle (first round pick in 2000) back on the field. McDougle has skill but questions about his desire and his conditioning have arisen ever since he stepped foot in Detroit. If McDougle is healthy and ready to play, that gives the Lions a much-needed boost in the interior line. Detroit also has to hope that Dominic Raiola, a second round pick in 2001 is ready to help out at either guard or center.
Detroit has spent four high draft picks in the past three years (Gibson #1 in 1999, McDougle #1 in 2000, Jeff Backus #1 in 2002 and Raiola #2 in 2001) with little production to show for it. Backus looks as if he'll be a fixture at left tackle. If McDougle pans out, then Detroit at least has the flanks covered.
Raiola needs to step up so Detroit can get better play in the middle, the problem spot in their offensive line.
The big question is how did Detroit's secondary get so bad so quick? The answer is failing to address a key position, safety for so long. Detroit hasn't fielded a decent pair since Bennie Blades and William White lined up together in 1993. They went to a stopgap move under Bobby Ross, getting Mark Carrier from Chicago. Carrier played well enough to get named to a pro-bowl before leaving Motown for yet another stopgap move, signing Todd Schulz from Buffalo. Ron Rice manned the strong safety position adeqately after stepping up as an undrafted free agent. But last year the wheels came off.
Matt Millen was smart enough to go out and sign Miami free agent Brian Walker to fill the free safety spot and Corey Harris of the Baltimore Ravens still has enough left to give Detroit a nice group back there. Lamar (Soup) Campbell will also figure into the mix and might fight Harris for the starting position or vice-versa.
But where are the corners? Years of bad drafts and injuries took their toll. Todd Fransz (5th round pick in 2000) never panned out, neither did Jamaal Anderson (6th in 1998). Injury prematurely ended the career of tough, speedy, but undersized Kevin Abrams (#2 in 1997) and 3rd round pick in 1996 Ryan Stewart never was able to make an impact.
Now Detroit is hoping that Terry Fair's slow healing broken foot is OK in time for at least one exhibition game and the regular season opener. If not, Detroit will line up Eric Davis and fiesty Todd Lyght (tie 24 in interceptions), arguably the oldest set of corners in the league.
What happened to Bryant Westbrook? Arguably Detroit's best corner when healthy, Westbrook has found a new home in Dallas when Detroit decided not to re-sign him. Dallas feels Westbrook will be a major contributor and perhaps a starter. "When I first got here, I was wondering if I could run with these guys and make plays," Westbrook said. "Now that I am a little more acclimated to the defense and know the schemes better, I feel better. I'm starting to feel real comfortable."
And the Lions are beginning to feel uncomfortable. Now, they must put their hopes in two injured players, South Carolina corner Andre Goodman and Southern California corner Chris Cash.
Cash, a JC transfer from Palomar Junior College is big enough, 5' 11" and 170lbs to be able to mix it up. He started USC first nine games before going down with a fractured right knee, which caused him to miss the rest of the season. Cash still is unable to participate in contact drills. Most scouts pegged Cash as a nickle or dime back, the role he'll likely play this season in Detroit.
Goodman size, 6' 0" and 190 and his agressive ball-hawking nature had eyes opening early in his senior season and he looked as if he had 2nd round talent, but Goodman suffered his second serious injury when he dislocated his shoulder and has not been able to wear pads since. Goodman recovered from a serious knee injury his sophomore season that required two knee operations to repair.
Detroit is impressed by Goodman's combination of size and speed (4.32 40 in 2000) and believes if healthy, he could challenge for a starting job, better wait a year on that one.
The Lions can field decent offensive weapons behind likely starter Mike McMahon. James Stewart is a solid running back. Receivers Az-Zahir Hakim (Detroit's prize free agent acquisition), holdover Germane Crowell and former Green Bay Packers receiver Bill Schroeder for a decent group of wideouts. Defensively, Detroit line is one of the best in the NFL (Robert Porcher, Luther Elliss, Shaun Rogers and either Jared DeVries or #2 pick Kalimba Edwards). The Linebacker aren't shabby either with Chris Claiborne in his natural position and speedy Barrett Green outside. The inside spot will be decided from a group including Brian Williams, Jeff Gooch, Clint Kriewaldt and perhaps undrafted free agent Josh Thornhill from Michigan St.
Detroit could have been looking at between 7-9 wins if they had held onto a trio of players, quarterback Charlie Batch, receiver Johnnie Morton (12th receiving yards) and tight end David Sloan (Westbrook's presence wouldn't have hurt either). But Matt Millen and Marty Mornhinweg are into wholesale changes. They felt the presence of Batch would have stifled the development of McMahon and Harrington. They also felt Morton and Sloan were too expensive.
Hey, you get what you pay for. In Detroit's case, it'll be a either between 4-6 wins unless Harrington catches lightning in a bottle. But if everyone gets healthy and shows promise, the season can at least be termed progress towards turning the corner in 2003. Detroit will attempt to get Cash, Goodman and Harrington some NFL experience while keeping them all healthy. Their thinking will be if they can keep everyone healthy and make one more good draft, they'll be set to make a big upward move in 2003. Are they right? Let's cross our fingers and hope so.
Pick: Detroit will go 5-11 last in the NFC North. Mornhinweg will be "on the bubble" and Harrington will be starting by week eight.