NFC North news, notes and quotes

The Bears see their foundation in place, but they also see areas to improve. The Lions made improvements in several areas, but they still have questions at linebacker. Are McCarthy and Thompson the new Holmgren and Wolf for the Packers? Go in-depth around the NFC North for notes and quotes from the Vikings' rivals.


Chicago Bears

All things considered, the Bears would probably be content to enter the alleged 2011 season status quo on defense and special teams.

The offense is another matter.

While the defense was top 10 in most of the significant categories, and special teams finished fourth overall in the Dallas Morning News comprehensive rankings, the offense did not rank above 21st in any key category.

That being said, the offense was decidedly better at the end of the season than it was on opening day. And considering the circumstances, the offense showed some encouraging signs for the future.

"It just has to come together," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "I feel good about what the offense did given we had a first-year coordinator (Mike Martz) coming in here, a new offensive line coach (Mike Tice), a whole new offense, (and) a new cast of young players.

"It wasn't a veteran offensive group. I thought the guys came together pretty good."

The offensive line struggled all season to protect quarterback Jay Cutler, and it stumbled through some difficult games against top teams. The Bears scored just three points in a 14-point loss to the Giants in which Cutler was sacked nine times - in the first half. And they were held to seven points in a 29-point loss to the Patriots and just three points in the regular-season-ending loss to the Packers, in which the defense permitted just 10 points.

But running back Matt Forte had his best season yet, averaging a career-high 4.5 yards per carry, and he came on strong in the second half of the season when the patchwork offensive line jelled.

The Bears also scored 78 points in back-to-back victories over the Vikings and Jets and hung 35 on the Seahawks two weeks later in a divisional-round playoff game.

"They had their moments," Angelo said. "Not all of them were great moments, but there were a lot of good moments. We won a lot of football games, and it wasn't solely because of the defense. The offense did its share, and special teams, too.

"So we feel good about the foundation that is in place. Obviously we have to continue to get better. There are probably going to be a few new faces in there somewhere."

The most likely positions to receive facials are the offensive line and wide receiver. On the line the Bears need an infusion of talent and youth; at wideout, a big, physical weapon would complement the youthful speed that already exists.

"I think all teams would want their offense and defense to both be a top-five team," coach Lovie Smith said. "I think we made a lot of progress this year (on offense). In order to win 12 games (counting the postseason) in this league, you have to have some power on the offensive side of the ball.

"As we look at our future, I'm excited about the direction our offense is going. Our defense ... we have some special players on that side of the ball. We made a stand this year to get back on top and hopefully all three phases we'll be talking about next year."

NOTES

  • While it may not have been in the best interests of advancing Mike Tice's career, the Bears' refusal to grant the Tennessee Titans permission to talk to him about their offensive coordinator vacancy was the right move for the Bears.

    Head coach Lovie Smith has usually been in favor of his assistants taking better jobs, even when it meant losing talented coaches, but Tice's situation is unique. He has been instrumental in converting a mediocre group into a unit that was good enough to help the Bears get to the NFC Championship Game.

    But there is still much work to be done before the Bears' offensive line is a championship-caliber group.

    Tice did excellent work last season, especially with seventh-round draft pick J'Marcus Webb, who started the final 14 games, including two in the playoffs and showed excellent potential. And, with the Bears expected to choose at least one offensive lineman early in this year's draft, Tice's experience and expertise will be needed again.

    In addition, at this late date, the Bears would find it impossible to hire a replacement with anywhere close to Tice's qualifications. And, with a work stoppage a virtual certainty, the last thing an offensive line that is still a work in progress needs is a new coach.

    Keeping Tice on staff was the right thing to do for the team.

    Giving Tice a new contract - and a raise - was also the right thing to do for him.

  • The Bears are guaranteed to have continuity in 2011, at least on the coaching staff -- assuming there is a season.

    All three coordinators remain under contract and seven of the eight position coaches are expected to be back under coach Lovie Smith. Since the end of the 2010 season, three assistant coaches whose contracts had expired have re-signed: running backs coach Tim Spencer, linebackers coach Bob Babich and defensive backs coach Jon Hoke, who interviewed late last month with the Philadelphia Eagles for their defensive coordinator position.

    The Bears lost assistant special-teams coach Chris Tabor, who joined new head coach Pat Shurmur's Cleveland Browns staff as special-teams coordinator, and defensive line coach Eric Washington, who left to take the same position on new Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera's staff.

    Mike Phair replaced Washington. Tabor was replaced by Kevin O'Dea, who held the same position with the Bears in 2006 and '07, when they finished No. 1 overall in special teams both years.

    With only two departures, this would be the least amount of turnover on Smith's staff from one season to the next since he was hired in 2004.

  • Head coach Lovie Smith didn't waste any time or words when asked about the job that offensive coordinator Mike Martz did in his first year in Chicago.

    "Mike was our offensive coordinator that helped us win 12 games," said Smith, who was Martz's defensive coordinator in St. Louis from 2001-03 when Martz was the Rams' head coach. "We brought Mike in here for a reason, and I thought he did a great job all year."

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "Even though we didn't finish again the way we wanted to, to go from 7-9 to finish up 12-6 is a step in the right direction. We look forward to hopefully taking another step next year." -- Bears coach Lovie Smith.


    Detroit Lions

    The Lions don't necessarily want to move DeAndre Levy from middle linebacker to outside linebacker, but circumstances could lead them to do just that.

    And Levy, who has started 21 games in two seasons, is ready and willing to move to the outside if need should arise.

    "Whatever happens, I am willing to play any position," he said while cleaning out his locker back on Jan. 3. "I am always ready. I know both positions and I have no preference."

    Lions head coach Jim Schwartz seemed puzzled when asked about the possibility of moving Levy.

    "He could play anywhere he wanted," Schwartz said. "We'll see. He's our middle linebacker right now. We're not actively looking to move him. Why? Are you trying to give us a draft pick? Do you have a free agent for us?"

    Levy gave the Lions absolutely no reason to move him out of the middle. Once he got healthy last season, he validated the coaching's staff's belief that he could lead the defense.

    "That's why we drafted him; we drafted him to play that position and at the end of his rookie year (2009), he finally got a chance to play it and played well," Schwartz said. "Most of this year he was dealing with injuries but over the last three or four weeks, we saw him play the way we expected him to play."

    In the team's last four games, all wins, Levy delivered a game-saving interception against Green Bay, a game-winning pick-six at Miami, and a pair of 11-tackle performances at Tampa Bay and against Minnesota.

    All of that after missing five games and most of a sixth with a groin injury.

    "The last couple of games I was feeling the groin less and less, but every game prior to that I was just trying to make it through, as opposed to letting it loose and making plays," Levy said. "It's part of the game, but it was incredibly frustrating."

    Levy had surgery on the groin on Jan. 18 and is expected to be healthy and ready whenever he's allowed to get back to work.

    So why would the Lions consider moving Levy? Because the Lions presently have no true starter at either outside linebacker position and it is possible that a quality middle linebacker will be easier to acquire than two outside linebackers.

    If the Lions can acquire a proven middle linebacker and move Levy to the outside, they will have essentially strengthened two spots with one move.

    Certainly there is no guarantee the Lions will be able to acquire a middle linebacker, especially one who would be an upgrade from Levy, but it is one of the scenarios the Lions would consider.

    Presently, the only outside linebackers on the roster are Bobby Carpenter, Ashlee Palmer and Caleb Campbell, none of whom the Lions consider full-time starters. General manager Martin Mayhew said that two-year starter Julian Peterson would not be back. Opening-day starter Zack Follett's career is in jeopardy because of the neck injury he sustained in Week 6 last year. His eventual replacement, Landon Johnson, is an unrestricted free agent.

    Although neither Mayhew nor Schwartz will discuss the team's offseason priorities, they will be looking hard at linebackers, both inside and outside, in the upcoming draft (April 28-30) and when the free-agency period begins, which will be whenever a new collective bargaining agreement is reached.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm heavily against it. You see the IR numbers this year were off the charts. It might have been a record year for number of players on injured reserve. At a certain point it kind of starts hurting the level of play. It hurts career longevity, all those things. They always want to talk about player safety but then again they want to put 18 games in the regular season, and that's not really taking players' safety into consideration at all. If they say play 18, I'll certainly play 18, though. We're hoping it doesn't come to that." -- QB Shaun Hill voting no on an 18-game schedule.


    Green Bay Packers

    General manager Ron Wolf and head coach Mike Holmgren lasted seven years together as a power couple in the 1990s, restoring the winning legacy of the Packers and bringing a Super Bowl title back to the NFL's smallest city.

    General manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy are doing much of the same more than a decade later, and Green Bay's current version of a terrific tandem appears headed toward outlasting the Wolf-Holmgren marriage.

    "What I really like is (McCarthy) and Ted work really well together. It's a really good combination," team president Mark Murphy said.

    Fresh off the Packers' triumphant appearance in Super Bowl XLV, Murphy was doing his part to keep the union intact for what Murphy said is "the foreseeable future."

    The Packers on Feb. 11 completed an agreement that was reached in December by signing Thompson to a three-year contract extension through 2015.

    A similar arrangement is in the works for McCarthy, who squeezed in some time off this week before things get busy again with the NFL Scouting Combine on the horizon, beginning Feb. 24 in Indianapolis.

    Both Thompson and McCarthy had two years left on extended contracts they received after the 2007 season.

    Just like Wolf and Holmgren, it took Thompson and McCarthy only five years as Green Bay's football decision-makers to not only get the Packers to the Super Bowl but win the league title.

    Unlike Wolf and Holmgren, whose partnership dissolved two years later after one more Super Bowl appearance as the latter bolted for the Seattle Seahawks to have greater control of a team, Thompson and McCarthy appear to be joined at the hip for the longer haul.

    "I would hope this is my last job," McCarthy, 47, said. "I'm a builder, and we have built something special. This program was built the right way, has quality people in (quarterback) Aaron Rodgers and all the way through that are going to lead this football team for a long time. So, I would definitely hope this is my last job."

    That likely is the outlook Thompson has for himself, given his age of 58. Yet, it's hard to get a read on the considerably reserved architect of what has the makings of the next NFL dynasty.

    All but four players on Green Bay's Super Bowl roster were acquired since 2005 on the watch of Thompson, who incidentally was mentored by Wolf as a personnel director with the Packers in the 1990s.

    Saying "this doesn't come around all of the time," with regard to winning a Super Bowl, Thompson is cautiously optimistic about the Packers' prospects for remaining the league's top dog in the seasons to come.

    "I think we have a good team," Thompson said. "But, if we learned anything from this year (which was marred by several injuries), your best-laid plans ... this isn't fantasy football. You can't say, 'We got this guy at tight end. We got this guy at left tackle.' You can't plan that way. You have to try and get as many good players as you can. I hope and I think we'll be a competitive team in the future, but we'll still be the kind of team that has to play well, and if we play well, we'll have a chance to win."



    PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

  • The fallout from becoming Super Bowl champions has begun for the Packers.

    Receivers coach Jimmy Robinson left for the Dallas Cowboys, who hired him Feb. 11 for the same position but also made it more than a lateral move by giving Robinson the additional title of assistant head coach under Jason Garrett.

    Robinson, a coaching veteran of more than 20 years in the NFL, spent the last five seasons with the Packers. He oversaw arguably the best receiving corps in the league.

    This past season, Green Bay experienced a first in team history with four receivers who had at least 40 catches and three wideouts with at least 50 receptions - Greg Jennings (76), Donald Driver (51), James Jones (50) and Jordy Nelson (45).

  • Defensive end Johnny Jolly has his sights set on rejoining the Packers after sitting out the entire 2010 season because of an indefinite suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.

    Jolly was eligible to apply for reinstatement after the Super Bowl. Jolly's agent, Brian Overstreet, told the Green Bay Press-Gazette that the required paperwork was being filed just days after the Packers' win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.

    Jolly, who turns 28 on Feb. 21, remained the property of the Packers during the suspension. If he's reinstated by commissioner Roger Goodell, Jolly would be under contract for a year, per the $2.5 million tender he signed as a restricted free agent last spring before he was suspended in July.

    Jolly was a full-time starter in 2008 and '09. He had 75 tackles, an interception, two fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and a sack his last season of play.

  • The spoils of being Super Bowl champs have been many for the players.

    Quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers, linebacker Clay Matthews and receiver Greg Jennings have appeared on national TV late-night and daytime talk shows. The long-haired and charismatic Matthews, who has been transformed into Mr. Hollywood at the start of the offseason, also made an on-stage appearance at the Grammy Awards on Feb. 13.

    Meanwhile, team president Mark Murphy, cornerback Charles Woodson and running backs Ryan Grant and John Kuhn made the rounds as a traveling party in New York City this week. They attended the Broadway play "Lombardi," which is based on legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi, on Tuesday night and then had the honor Wednesday afternoon of ringing the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "It will be a different team. Every team has a different face to it. Every year, different players, guys come and go. But, I think the core, the nucleus of this team is intact to make runs like this for the next four or five years." - Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, on the challenge the Packers will have to repeat as NFL champions.


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