NFC North news, notes and quotes
Despite a disappointing 21-14 NFC title game loss to the hated Packers, it would be unfair to characterize the Chicago Bears' 2010 season as anything less than a success.
Considering their 11-5 regular-season record was a four-game improvement from the year before, and that they won a division title after they were widely perceived as the third-best team in the NFC North, the Bears made real progress.
Even general manager Jerry Angelo said he might have underestimated the team heading into the season, while he seemed to imply it still did not have tremendous talent.
"We have good talent on this football team," Angelo said. "But when I look at this football team, it was the talent of their character that was most impressive. I think that was really the identity of this team. We did a lot of good things. Again, there will be more positives than negatives when we go and when we start planning for next year. It's not like we have a bevy of holes or a bevy of concerns going into this."
But there is work to do if Angelo and coach Lovie Smith don't want a repeat of the three-year playoff drought that followed the Bears' last trip to the postseason in 2006. The first order of business may be a contract extension for Smith, who will otherwise be entering the final year of his contract in the 2011 season.
The offseason tinkering must begin with an offensive line whose best player is 34-year-old, 13-year veteran center Olin Kreutz, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on March 4.
The Bears found out this season that they could survive with Frank Omiyale at left tackle and Chris Williams at left guard, Roberto Garza at right guard and rookie J'Marcus Webb at right tackle. But they can't count on returning to the playoffs with an offensive line that merely allows them to survive.
And some would argue that quarterback Jay Cutler, their most valuable offensive commodity, barely survived. Cutler missed the first game of his professional career after suffering a concussion and an all-around beat-down while getting sacked nine times against the Giants - in the first half.
Cutler is capable of putting up big numbers in Mike Martz's offense, but only if he has better protection than he did in 2010, when he was sacked an NFL-high 52 times.
Angelo spoke of utilizing free agency along with the draft to improve the team.
"I'm not sitting here saying that we can't get better," he said. "We can get better, and we will get better. We've got a full complement of draft picks. I feel we're going to do business as usual. We'll have a plan for free agency, and I'm sure we will be able to get a few players in free agency. We'll want to bring some of our own back, and I'm confident we will be able to do that."
But if, as expected, there is no new collective bargaining agreement by March 4, and the owners lock out the players, there is no free agency until a new deal is struck. The Bears do not have a strong history of getting immediate contributions from their draft choices, so any quick fixes would probably have to come via free agency.
Another addition the Bears must make if they expect to optimize Cutler's abilities is a No. 1 wide receiver. Johnny Knox took another step in his second year and finished with 960 receiving yards and an impressive 18.8-yard average per catch. But Devin Hester appeared to regress as a receiver, catching 40 passes for 475 yards and a mediocre 11.9 yards per grab. Earl Bennett (46 catches, 561 yards) is strong, tough, reliable and has good hands, but he's more of a possession receiver.
One could make the case that running back Matt Forte was the Bears' offensive MVP. He bounced back big time from a sophomore slump to rush for 1,069 yards with a career-best 4.5-yard average and tied for the team lead with 51 receptions for 547 yards. Chester Taylor was brought in with the intention of being a complement to Forte and providing a backup with little drop-off in performance. But Taylor was a huge disappointment, averaging 2.4 yards per carry, the third straight season that number has dropped, a bad sign for a 31-year-old running back.
Defensively, there are three starters who will be unrestricted free agents: nose tackle Anthony Adams, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa and safety Danieal Manning. Adams was the most productive this season, starting all 16 games and leading the interior linemen in tackles with 36.
Marcus Harrison is bigger and younger, but he's never played to his potential and was inactive for 11 games. Handing him a job would be a big mistake. Matt Toeaina started 10 games ahead of Harris at the three-technique and is valuable for his ability to play there and on the nose.
Tinoisamoa, an eight-year veteran, missed 14 games in 2009 and four this season plus parts of a couple others with knee problems. He'll be 30 before training camp starts. Nick Roach, a four-year veteran who may or may not be unrestricted, depending on the language in a new CBA, has played well in place of Tinoisamoa in the past and might be a better way to go.
Manning started 16 games and has been a full-time starter in four of his five seasons, but it seems like the Bears are always looking for an upgrade, although he is a valuable on special teams as a kickoff returner and has played both safety spots and nickel back. But with last year's third-round draft pick, Major Wright, waiting in the wings, the Bears won't set the market for Manning.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Just when the Green Bay Packers were quick to resolve a pre-Super Bowl flap, veteran cornerback and anointed team spokesman Charles Woodson gave another jab to the country's commander-in-chief.
The timing of Woodson and teammates' reconvening Wednesday at Lambeau Field for meetings and film study after being idle since winning the NFC title Sunday at Chicago coincided with a planned visit by President Barack Obama to the Green Bay area.
"I am not here because I lost a bet," Obama quipped during a speech at an energy company in Manitowoc, making reference to his prediction that his beloved Bears would beat the Packers.
Obama said he received three Packers jerseys during his stop in Wisconsin, including one bearing Woodson's name and number (21) that included a special message from Woodson. Scrawled on the jersey, which Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt presented to Obama upon his arrival, were the words "See you in the White House."
"Just a gift for him," Woodson explained later. "He's in Wisconsin, so we want to treat him right."
Woodson took exception to Obama's announcement last week that he would attend Super Bowl XLV on Feb. 6 in North Texas if the Bears, not the Packers, would be playing.
Teammates elected Woodson a team captain in the playoffs, and the usually modest leader was urged to deliver pep talks in the locker room before and after games. Woodson gave a victory speech Sunday at Soldier Field and stoked the guys by yelling, "If the president don't want to come watch us in the Super Bowl ... we're going to see him!"
The Super Bowl winner traditionally is honored by the president at The White House.
Woodson admitted Wednesday that he's not happy about the perceived snub from Obama to attend the game at Cowboys Stadium.
"I voted for him (in 2008). So, why is he not a Green Bay fan?" Woodson said. "I jumped on his bandwagon a couple of years ago and voted for him. So, for him to only go to the Super Bowl because Chicago's there, I thought, 'It's not fair to me. I'm a voter. I'm a taxpayer. I want him to root for the Packers as well.'"
Meanwhile, the Packers, who will hold practice for the first time this week Friday, did some in-house damage control Wednesday.
The team photo to be taken in Texas was pushed back from Tuesday to Friday during Super Bowl week. The photo will have all players, including the 15 on injured reserve who originally weren't going to be in the group shot.
The photo opportunity was changed after linebacker Nick Barnett and tight end Jermichael Finley, both on IR, expressed their displeasure with the team's original decision in posts on their Twitter accounts Tuesday.
Green Bay won't have its IR players travel to the Super Bowl site until Thursday next week.
The Lions finally rejoined the NFL in 2010. They were no longer the automatic win on everybody's schedule, no longer the butt of all the jokes across the league. They didn't threaten a playoff spot, but week in and week out they competed.
And when they finished the year winning four straight games — winning two of them with their No. 2 quarterback and two others with their No. 3 quarterback — they had produced more wins (six) than they had in the two previous seasons combined (two).
More importantly, they had at last expunged the stench and self-perpetuating culture of defeat.
"We want to give this city a winner," said center Dominic Raiola. "We want to make this organization a winner. These last four weeks, it's been a different feeling. We have learned how to win. When I talk about this being a different team headed in the right direction, it's finally evident.
"We've won four in a row and we know the nucleus of this team is coming back. We feel like we're ready to make a playoff run. That's our expectation now. We have the personnel to do it."
The Lions in 2010 stopped most of the negative streaks they had forged the previous three seasons.
"We have broken a lot of streaks this year and we've started some streaks," coach Jim Schwartz said. "We hadn't won a division game in a long time (19 straight) and we've won two in a row. We hadn't won on the road in a long time (26 straight) and we've won two in a row. We had the 0-16 season and other long losing streaks and now we've won four in a row.
"I don't know if that qualifies as a culture change. I didn't think the culture was bad when we were 2-10. It couldn't have been bad for the guys to mount the comeback that they have. It's more about experiences that we've gained from and having tough-minded players persevered through it."
There is still a long, hard road between 6-10 and making the playoffs, and there are still significant holes in the roster, particularly in the defensive back seven. But a stable foundation appears to be in place now. From general manager Martin Mayhew, to Schwartz and the coaching staff, to the offensive and defensive systems, to the majority of the players — they will be entering their third season intact.
Raiola, for example, has been a Lion for a full decade and never played in the same system, with the same guards on either side of him, more than two straight years in 10 seasons.
"It's that continuity and stability that helped us overcome so much this season," he said.
The Lions won games with three different quarterbacks. Starter and franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford played in only three games because of right shoulder injuries. They played with three different running backs, five different middle linebackers, five different right cornerbacks. They even finished the season with a back-up kicker.
They had 18 players on injured reserve by the end of the year, including starters Stafford, defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, kicker Jason Hanson, running back Kevin Smith, cornerback Alphonso Smith, right tackle Gosder Cherilus, and outside linebackers Zach Follett and Landon Johnson.
And yet, they found a way to finish with four straight wins.
"This is definitely going to carry over," said wide receiver Nate Burleson. "Six and 10 is not where I wanted to be, but to win four games in a row, a couple against our division rivals, that's huge for us.
"We are all familiar with the woes of this organization. For us to end up where we are right now, to see the maturity and the improvement throughout the season, it's definitely going to help us going into next year. There's not going to be that nervousness or anxiety about what might happen. We know what we can do when we play Detroit ball."
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