Around the NFC North
Heading into training camp, the biggest concern for the NFC North-defending champion Bears was an offensive line that could have been sued by quarterback Jay Cutler for non-support in 2010.
Cutler was sacked 52 times in 2010, 12 more than any other NFL quarterback. So how did camp open? With the Bears and 12-year veteran and six-time Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz locked in a stare-down over $500,000.
The Bears refused to budge beyond $4 million on a one-year deal for the past-his-prime, but still-serviceable line leader. Kreutz refused to report for less than $4.5 million. He is now a member of the New Orleans Saints.
The next day the Bears paid $6 million on a two-year deal to unrestricted free agent center Chris Spencer, the former Seahawk, and promptly installed him as ... the backup to Roberto Garza.
That's right, the Bears took a 10-year NFL guard and stuck him at a new position. Well, not absolutely new, Garza played one game at center back in 2005. But the move could wind up being sheer genius. As the most experienced member of the remaining linemen, Garza is eminently qualified to make the line calls that he listened to Kreutz make for the past seven seasons. After a short adjustment period on the exchange with Cutler, Garza has adapted well to his new position.
Garza's move to the pivot left a hole at his right guard spot. Lance Louis was inserted into the spot at which he washed out after four games last season, when Garza was briefly moved to left guard. Louis also struggled initially but by the end of the preseason was flashing the potential that intrigued offensive line coach Mike Tice a year ago.
Chris Williams, a 2008 first-round pick who has already failed at both tackle spots, is back at left guard, where he was moved last season in a final effort to find him a home. So far, the guard spot seems to suit Williams.
The tackle spots are in the hands of youngsters with lots of upside. This year's first-round pick, Gabe Carimi is on the right side, and 2010 seventh-round pick J'Marcus Webb, an athletic big man, is on the left side.
The Bears allowed nine sacks in their preseason opener, but the starters have gotten significantly better each week, and Tice is hopeful. If the group lives up to expectations, the Bears can be a better team than last year's NFC North champions because most of the other key players are back.
The defense remains good enough to carry the team to the playoffs. The Big Three, Pro Bowlers Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher, haven't shown any evidence of diminishing skills, even though all are 30 or older. Briggs, however, missed most of the preseason with what is considered a fairly minor knee bruise, and he voiced his growing displeasure with the six-year, $36 million deal he signed three seasons ago.
The defensive line is deep and talented. Left end Israel Idonije has emerged as a talented complement to Peppers and, while there are no superstars inside, there are more than enough solid role players to make the line a team strength.
Linebacker is a concern because of a serious lack of depth. If the 33-year-old Urlacher or Briggs, who will be 31 in November, are forced to miss much time, there is nothing behind them.
The secondary is good enough to match the 16 interceptions of a year ago and possibly better with Major Wright, a third-round pick last year, moving in at free safety and enabling Chris Harris to move to his more natural strong safety spot.
Critics last season said the Bears lacked a big wide receiver, and they went out and signed one in Roy Williams, and then they handed him a starting spot ahead of last year's leading receiver Johnny Knox. With just a few days remaining until the start of the regular season, Williams had not impressed anyone, and there were growing questions of why he was moved ahead of Knox. Even if Williams has no impact, the receivers should be better, considering Earl Bennett, Devin Hester and Knox are all more comfortable in their second season in Mike Martz's offense.
They should give Cutler better weapons, but if the line doesn't protect the quarterback better than it did last year, it won't matter.
It's a put up or shut up year for the Lions.
"We have to win games. We have to be productive," said general manager Martin Mayhew. "There's no need to talk about it. It's time to stop talking about winning. It's time to start winning. We are at a point where we expect to challenge for our division. That's what most good teams expect to do. We are at that point."
That was the message coming into camp, and although there have been minor setbacks - namely a season-ending Achilles tendon injury to rookie power back Mikel Leshoure - the Lions embark on the 2011 season with a confidence and expectation level that far exceeds recent productivity.
"We definitely have the talent and the right attitude, the right makeup of players," said defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. "But there are a lot of things that have to happen for this team to be a playoff team. We're in a division where one team won the Super Bowl (Green Bay) and the other played in the NFC Championship Game (Chicago).
"We can't just say we're a playoff team. Right now, it's just a realistic expectation but it's up to us to put in the work and make it happen."
It's the third season under the Mayhew-Jim Schwartz regime. It is the third season playing the systems and schemes of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. In a year where a labor dispute took away teams' offseason work, that kind of continuity is as valuable as any first round draft pick.
There is Grade A talent on both sides of the ball. Start with a healthy quarterback Matthew Stafford and All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson on offense and All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and revamped linebacker core led by middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch on defense.
"The quarterback is in his third year," said center Dominic Raiola. "I think that's the biggest thing we've got going for us. What people are forgetting, yeah, he's older and smarter, but he's hungry. He really feels that. He wants to put this city on his back and win and he wants to do it for a lot of people - for the guys in this locker room, for the organization, for the fans, and he wants to validate their reasons for drafting him first.
"He feels that responsibility. It's not pressure. He just really wants to be good."
There is ample depth at most positions. There is a workable blend of experience and youth. And there is a hunger to achieve.
This is setting up to be a bridge year for the Lions. And whether they are on the bridge from average to good, or the bridge from good to great, remains to be seen.
"I don't even think we've gotten to good yet," said wide receiver Nate Burleson. "We're doing OK. But how many teams have been good in the preseason and mediocre later? Until we win games, we don't know.
"Hopefully four or five games into this season our record will depict what we are showing right now, then I will talk to you and say we're good headed to great. Right now, I wouldn't even stamp good on us."
Schwartz and company took over after the 0-16 season of 2008. The Lions won two games in 2009 and six last season, including the final four in a row. Momentum doesn't carry over from year to year, but experience does, winning habits do, individual confidence gained through consistent competence does.
All of that is fueling what has been an inordinate spewing of optimism and hype from sources outside the organization, media sources like Sports Illustrated and ESPN.
"I get it," Burleson said. "If I was on the outside looking in, I would say the same thing. But as players, we've got to stay humble. I think everybody on the outside looking in can respect us remaining humble rather than getting overexcited during the preseason.
"Don't get me wrong, we're happy and we have confidence in what we have in here. But it doesn't mean anything until we get some wins in the regular season."
Green Bay Packers
Maybe it's just a coincidence, but how's this for linking one big season to what may be another one for the next?
Seven months after the Packers celebrated with a private performance by Kid Rock into the wee hours of the North Texas morning after they beat Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV, the hard-rockin' and rappin' musician from the Midwest will be the opening act for Green Bay's encore. Kid Rock will headline a pregame bash outside Lambeau Field as the Packers and New Orleans Saints kick off the 2011 NFL schedule Thursday night, Sept. 8.
The tunes Green Bay belted out at the end of last season couldn't have been more rousing. The Packers won their last two regular-season games to sneak into the playoffs as the NFC's No. 6 seed and then rattled off four wins in a row away from home to bring the Vince Lombardi Trophy back to Titletown for the first time in 14 years.
Turning out an album of greatest hits didn't come easy for the Packers, however. Some fortuitous bounces they received from other teams' being off-key late in the season to be able to crash the postseason -- and ultimately party with Kid Rock -- gave them a valuable lesson as they set out on trying to repeat as champions this season.
"We realize that it's going to be important for us to do things better than we did last year," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "We went 10-6 (in the regular season), and we can start faster and hopefully get things jelling a little quicker than we did last year."
The team's elder statesman, 36-year-old receiver Donald Driver, drove home that latter point.
"Our back was up against the wall, and we ended up going on a six-game winning streak," Driver said. "Those opportunities don't come around often. We need to go out there and start fast."
The health of the team will be essential for that, as the Packers quickly discovered in 2010. They lost lead back Ryan Grant (ankle), veteran linebacker Nick Barnett (wrist), starting rookie safety Morgan Burnett (knee) and dynamic tight end Jermichael Finley (knee) just in the first five weeks of play. Green Bay went on to recover from those casualties and starting the season 3-3 to win the Super Bowl despite ending the season with a league-high 15 players on injured reserve.
"I think we played well with everyone down last year," Driver said. "But, if everyone was healthy, then we probably wouldn't have been fighting the last two games to get into the playoffs. Hopefully, this year, we can seal the deal early, get in the playoffs and go from there."
Although the Packers avoided anything catastrophic in a rapid-fire preseason on the heels of an offseason without football because of the lockout, they go into this season as title favorites with some minor injuries that can't be overlooked.
Finley (ankle), All-Pro outside linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring), would-be starting defensive end Mike Neal (knee), the receiver quartet of Greg Jennings, James Jones, Jordy Nelson and promising rookie Randall Cobb (all with bruised knees) were banged up late in training camp. The team already will be without second-year outside linebacker Frank Zombo, who started nine games opposite Matthews, for at least the first few games because of a broken shoulder blade.
Even Rodgers, the powerful engine that makes Green Bay's supercharged offense go, had to miss a day of practice in the final week of camp because of a foot strain.
Little wonder the Packers aren't taking a predicted coronation for granted.
"It's tough to win at any time," general manager Ted Thompson said. "So, it's even tougher to win (the Super Bowl) twice. It's even tougher to win it three times. Like (head coach) Mike (McCarthy) said, every team, their marching orders is to win some games, put themselves in position to have a chance. And, that's what they're going to try to do."The somewhat delicate physical state of the team notwithstanding, the Packers left themselves after a month of the preseason with some questions to be answered in short order as the season gets under way:
--Is their experienced offensive line, which made only one starting change at left guard (T.J. Lang for the departed Daryn Colledge), good enough to protect Rodgers? He was sacked six times in the first three preseason games, and Green Bay ranks among the league's worst with an average of 41 sacks allowed per season since 2008.
--If Rodgers is given the time to throw, how will he distribute the football and keep everyone in what he calls the best group of skilled players he's seen in his seven years with the team? Finley, Jennings, Driver, Jones, Nelson and Cobb all will be looking for the ball.
--Where will the pass rush come from on defense besides Matthews, who has 28 sacks his first two years in the league? The team lost veteran lineman Cullen Jenkins, who tied nose tackle B.J. Raji for second on the team with 7.5 sacks last season, in free agency.
--Does defensive coordinator Dom Capers have enough up front for the Packers to turn the tables on their No. 28 league ranking for stopping the run last season? Raji could be lined up at end quite a bit to compensate for the loss of Jenkins and the uncertain availability of Neal, who missed most of his rookie season in 2010 with a shoulder injury.
"Just because you win the Super Bowl doesn't mean you're going to come back that next season and be perfect," veteran cornerback Charles Woodson said at the end of camp. "We still have a lot of pieces that we have to get shored up -- some guys left, you bring some new guys in. So, we're still looking at some different guys to play different roles for us.
"I don't think it's going to slow us down at all. I think we have the right pieces in place that are still here, that have been here the last couple of years. So, we'll be ready for the first game."
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