The Vikings certainly made strides in Brad Childress' third season as coach, winning their first NFC North title with a 10-6 record and making their first playoff appearance since the 2004 season.
But in the wake of a first-round playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, Childress finds himself faced with a familiar question. Who will be his quarterback in 2009?
Not even Childress has that answer. What is clear is that if Tarvaris Jackson is going to remain the starter he's going to have to earn the job back. And even that might not be enough.
Jackson, who was benched after the Vikings lost their opening two games but returned to the starting role late in the season after Gus Frerotte was injured, struggled in the 26-14 defeat against the Eagles. He threw for only 164 yards with no touchdowns, an interception that was returned for a touchdown and a subpar 45.4 passer rating.
Four days after that loss, Childress was noncommittal about his plans at quarterback.
"It's really kind of a whole offseason type of study," Childress said. "I am not going to pass judgment right at this particular point. I think that you owe it to everyone here in the organization, just like we always have, to turn over all the rocks and see what you have there.
"I would also say there is a point with Tarvaris of continuing to evolve as a quarterback. While you would like the process to happen immediately, it doesn't always happen immediately. There isn't anything we are going to leave unturned in terms of free agency, the draft, and that goes until after the draft. You see who is out there and by the same token Tarvaris is going to be here and we are going to continue to get him better."
But how much time does Childress have to do this? He will be entering the fourth season of a five-year deal in 2009, and some feel he has stuck with Jackson too long since the Vikings selected him in the second round of the 2006 draft.
There also is the issue that the Vikings' roster isn't getting any younger and that the window for players such as defensive end Jared Allen, cornerback Antoine Winfield, defensive tackles Kevin and Pat Williams and even running back Adrian Peterson is going to be open for only so long.
That is why the Vikings likely are going to seriously explore their options this offseason and have at least one new quarterback coming out of the draft and free agency. Jackson almost certainly will be on the roster, but Frerotte could be gone.
Frerotte wasn't happy about being benched after he had recovered from a back injury, and he made no attempt to hide his frustration with Childress' decision to stick with Jackson.
John David Booty, a fifth-round pick last April from Southern Cal, likely will return, but it will probably be as the No. 3 quarterback again.
The Vikings' options could include looking to make a trade for Houston quarterback Sage Rosenfels, whom they tried to acquire last offseason, or making a run at Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel, who is expected to be given the franchise tag.
Whatever the Vikings do, they need far more consistency from a position where they have used five starters — Brad Johnson, Tarvaris Jackson, Kelly Holcomb, Brooks Bollinger and Gus Frerotte - in Childress' three seasons.
BEARS: Defense, QB let Chicago down
Expectations weren't high in 2008 for a Bears team coming off a 7-9 season, but it was still a major disappointment when they blew a chance at the playoffs by losing to the Texans in the season-finale.
The Bears had won three straight at home heading into Houston, where they fell 31-24 to finish at 9-7 as once again their supposedly talented and certainly highly paid defense was embarrassed. The Bears allowed 455 total yards, just another example of a defense that underachieved throughout the season.
It was the defense that failed to hold on to leads late in the game against the Panthers, Bucs and Falcons early in the season, all of which resulted in losses and left the Bears at 3-3, although they easily could have been at least 5-1.
The failure of Bob Babich's defense, which was essentially the same group that finished second in the NFL in 2005 and fifth in 2006 under Ron Rivera, who was fired, was ironic.
It was assumed that it would be the offense that dragged down the Bears in 2008. But with Kyle Orton playing at a much higher level than he displayed the last time he was the starter, as a rookie thrust into the job in 2005, the offense thrived - for 7 1/2 games. In Game Eight, Orton suffered a sprained ankle just before halftime against the Lions in a game the Bears barely won.
At that point the Bears were No. 11 in passing yards. They finished 23rd. The Bears lost to the Titans the next week with Rex Grossman at quarterback and then rushed Orton back into the lineup, probably a week early, for the big rivalry game against the Packers at Green Bay. The Bears were humiliated 37-3, dropping to 5-5.
Until the injury, Orton looked a lot like the franchise quarterback the Bears have been searching for for most of the past 20 years or so. After the injury, not so much. Before the injury, Orton threw 10 TD passes and just four interceptions. After that, Orton threw eight touchdown passes and eight interceptions and had three games with a passer rating under 50.
After the season, coach Lovie Smith gave Orton a strong vote of confidence.
"Going into the season, we had questions about our quarterback position," Smith said. "I think Kyle Orton did a lot of good things during the course of the season — not enough to get to the playoffs, just like the rest of our football team. But I like the progress that Kyle made throughout the year. I was asked if Kyle was our quarterback — of course Kyle is our quarterback."
General manager Jerry Angelo wasn't so sure.
"I'm not convinced 100 percent, obviously," Angelo said of Orton. "I believe in Kyle, but until Kyle puts a (full) year together, we can't say for sure. I saw some really good things out of Kyle, particularly early on in the season, (but) he didn't have the second half of the season that he did the first half."
Defensively the Bears still believe they have superior talent, but they didn't play that way most of the season.
So, rather than blame underachieving, overpaid players like CB Nate Vasher, DT Tommie Harris and MLB Brian Urlacher, among others, Smith jettisoned linebackers coach Lloyd Lee, defensive line coach Brick Haley and defensive backs coach Steve Wilks.
But that enabled Smith to hire Rod Marinelli, an old buddy from their days with the Bucs, to be the defensive line coach and assistant head coach. Marinelli may have failed as a head coach with the Lions, but he's expected to get much more out of the Bears' defensive line, which has enough talent to become a force again, as it was in 2005 and '06 under Rivera.
Smith also announced that he would assume most of the defensive play-calling duties from Babich, who will lose some if not all of his game-day decision-making chores but will still coordinate the defense and will add the title of linebackers coach, his original role on Smith's staff.
LIONS: New start under Schwartz
The Lions have a clean slate now that coach Jim Schwartz has been hired to replace Rod Marinelli.
The 0-16 season is in the rearview mirror, although Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew will face the daunting task of overhauling a roster that is devoid of high quality talent at almost every position.
"There's no better feeling in football than turning a situation around," Schwartz said a day after agreeing to a four-year deal worth about $11 million. "That's what drives me here."
The Lions hit bottom after a long fall. They are 1-23 in their past 24 games and 31-97 since 2001, the NFL's worst eight-year stretch since World War II.
Though the Lions practiced hard and played hard under Marinelli, they played poorly. They badly lacked talent, especially on defense. The Lions allowed 517 points, second-most in NFL history, and intercepted only four passes, an NFL record-low for a 16-game season. Only one pick was by a defensive back.
"I can't speak of the past, I'm here right now," Schwartz said. "I'm not here to exorcise any ghosts."
Mayhew, a former NFL defensive back, will try to rebuild the team with Schwartz and restock the roster in the draft, with the No. 1 overall pick and five picks in the first three rounds.
Mayhew faces deeply skeptical fans and media, because he worked alongside president Matt Millen from 2001 until he replaced Millen three games into the '08 season. He has played his cards close to the vest during his coaching search.
"He's been a scout, he's been a position coach, he's been a coordinator and he's been very successful at all of those things," Mayhew said. "We think that he's going to be the guy to take our football team to where we're trying to get to."
Schwartz caused a stir in Detroit with one comment even before he was hired. Asked about the No. 1 pick in the draft, he said: "I think the important thing is finding the right person. I don't think you tie yourself into positions. Obviously there's a lot of needs. I think obviously the most important position on the team is quarterback. It's probably time to find a replacement for Bobby Layne." That drew laughter. Layne led the Lions during their glory days of the 1950s. Since they traded him to Pittsburgh in 1958, they have won one playoff game and had one Pro Bowl quarterback.
Though Miami and Atlanta went 11-5 this year, after going 1-15 and 4-12 last year, respectively, Schwartz said he wouldn't look too far ahead. "I think if you talk about a quick turnaround, it's probably not going to happen," Schwartz said. "If you talk about getting better every single day, then you have a chance to be there."
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