NFC North news, notes and quotes
New offensive coordinator Mike Tice will not be making sweeping changes to the Bears' offense, but the team's former offensive line coach believes that differences will be noticeable.
"We're not going to overhaul things," Tice said Jan. 6 on ESPN Radio 1000 AM, just hours after being named to succeed Mike Martz, who resigned. "But I think you're going to see a different personality."
Take that to mean that Tice will stick with his run-first philosophy, which is similar to head coach Lovie Smith's mantra, "We get off the bus running."
"We were eighth in the league in rushing," Tice said, "and I think that went unnoticed. Our running game is moving in the right direction, but we do have other things we have to clean up."
That would be a passing game that was 26th in yards in 2011 and 23rd in average gain per play. Many of the problems in the air attack can be traced to an offensive line that permitted 49 sacks and ranked 31st in sack percentage allowed.
The Bears were a much more respectable 19th in sacks allowed until Jay Cutler suffered a season-ending thumb fracture. Backups Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown weren't nearly as adept at covering up the offensive line's weakness, and they were sacked a combined 36 times in the final six games. Martz continued to call for five- and seven-step drops despite the line's inability to protect on those types of plays.
Tice believes that the Bears must have the ability to throw and throw deep to improve.
"You have to be explosive in the passing game, you have to get those chunks, those big plays," he said. "But you can't throw the ball down the field in this league without protecting the quarterback."
As far as getting along with Cutler, something that some coaches, including Martz, have struggled with in the past, Tice laughed it off.
"I've met Jay once or twice," Tice said. "He seems like a pretty nice guy. I really admire Jay. I think he's a tough S.O.B. I like Jay a lot. We want him to be comfortable in the pocket. We're on the same page moving forward."
Tice has an intimate knowledge of the Bears' personnel and its strengths and weaknesses, an advantage over someone coming in from the outside.
"Lovie and I share a similar mind-set of what the Bears' offense should look and feel like," Tice said. "There will be a toughness about us. We are going to be a powerful run team, and we're going to be able to mix in explosive pass plays.
"It will be important for us to utilize the talents of our players and exploit matchups each Sunday. We have athletes we can build with. I feel fortunate Lovie has placed the trust in me to help move us forward to a championship."
Tice will call the Bears' offensive plays, even though he has limited experience as a play-caller. However, he will get input from a passing game coordinator, who has yet to be named.
Tice has had extensive experience in game-planning as the Vikings' head coach for five years (2001-05) and the assistant head coach/tight ends coach for four years after that (2006-09) with the Jaguars.
"I'm excited to have Mike move into our offensive coordinator role," Smith said. "He has been a valuable member of our staff over the past two years and has an excellent track record in the NFL. He was very impressive in his job interview ... and shares the same vision I have for our offense moving forward. We want to be a strong running team with a big-play pass attack."
The Bears will hire a new offensive line coach, although Tice will continue to work closely with that group, just as Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli continues to work with the defensive line.
The Bears will also hire a quarterbacks coach to replace Shane Day, who was not rehired.
"I'm going to be hands-on with the offensive line," Tice said. "I put a good plan together -- I think coach (Lovie) Smith felt like I did -- a management plan of how I foresee the staff being structured moving forward, including the quarterback-slash-passing game coordinator. I definitely want to make sure I maintain constant contact with that offensive line that we've been developing over the last two years. We're looking to bring in a guy that is going to buy in and is going to do it the way I want to do it.
"That could be a young guy, that could be an old guy, that could be a guy that hasn't coached O-line before. It could be a tight end coach that moves up. We have a list of guys that we've put together, and we're going to work through that list as the process proceeds."
As an offensive line coach with the Vikings from 1997-2001, Tice helped five players earn a total of 10 Pro Bowl selections. In 1998, the Vikings scored an NFL-record 556 points and sent three linemen to the Pro Bowl.
While Tice was head coach, the Vikings established an NFL record by producing more than 300 yards of offense for 36 consecutive games from 2002-04.
Minnesota led the NFL in rushing for the first time in franchise history in 2002 and topped the league in total offense for the first time in 2003. In 2004, the Vikings set club records with 6,339 total yards and 4,754 passing yards and scored 50 touchdowns, the fourth most in franchise history.
In Tice's first two seasons in Jacksonville, the Jaguars' rushing attack had the two most productive seasons in team history, gaining 2,541 yards in 2006 and 2,391 yards in 2007. Jacksonville set franchise records in 2007 for points (411), average yards per play (5.6) and touchdowns (50).
After the dust had settled and the sting of the 45-28 thumping in New Orleans had, if not completely subsided, at least found some cushion in the accomplishments of the long season, the Lions knew where they stood.
"We were pretty good, but not good enough," kicker Jason Hanson said. "I think everybody feels that way. But it's a good start after all we've been through. We feel like there's a foundation here now. We're going to be a team in the coming years that's going to stay like this. But, we have to prove it."
Ten wins, the first playoff berth since 1999, the best offensive season in franchise history -- the list of accomplishments is long and some items are unprecedented. Still, the best coach Jim Schwartz would offer was faint praise for 2011.
"It was an important year," he said. "I certainly wouldn't classify it as a good year. Our expectations are high. But it was an important year. We've done some things that hadn't been done for a long time. Making the playoffs was an important step, not only for the organization and the city, but for individual players."
But there is plenty of work still to be done, and that was the crux of his postseason message to the team.
"Any time you are trying to stay the same in this league, that's not going to last -- that's a poor strategy," he said. "You have to start over every year. There has to be a grind to it. That has to be the message. When we left the players today, we weren't saying, 'We just have to pick up right where we left off.'
"There is a danger in thinking you have arrived and we will certainly guard against that."
Among the things helping to keep the team grounded is the 0-5 record against NFC playoff teams (Green Bay twice, Atlanta, San Francisco and New Orleans) and the defensive collapse the last seven games of the season.
"To take another important step, we have to have a better record against our peer group; by that I mean playoff teams, not just the 12 that make it but teams like San Diego, Oakland and Chicago who are right there," Schwartz said. "We're proud of the effort, proud we didn't have any of those lapse games where we lost to a lesser team. We have taken a lot of steps and going to the playoffs was big, but that's not our endgame. It's not the last thing we want to accomplish."
Clearly, shoring up some areas on the defense will be a point of emphasis this offseason. Linebacker and cornerback will be two areas of concentration, just as they've been the last few years.
"We struggled on defense, other than the San Diego game, the last seven weeks," Schwartz said. "How much of that was losing (Louis) Delmas and (Chris) Houston ... we lost a lot of depth on the defensive line and a lot of key players in the secondary. We didn't adjust well to dealing with those injuries."
Schwartz pointed out the Lions were a top-10 defense through the first eight games. And even by the end of the year they were among the league-leaders in forcing turnovers, defensive touchdowns and third-down defense.
But in the second half of the season, opposing offenses started to find ways to neutralize the Lions' defensive line. They exploited its aggressiveness with traps, delays and reverses. They used maximum protection packages, knowing the Lions weren't a very willing or efficient blitz team.
In doing that, they exposed the weaknesses of the secondary.
"We dealt with that this year," Schwartz admitted. "When you bring what we bring to the table (talented defensive line), teams do their best to take that away. You have to find other ways to succeed."
Schwartz was asked point-blank what he thought the difference was between the Lions and the standard-bearers of the NFC -- New Orleans and Green Bay?
"You look at our games this year, we could go toe-to-toe for 30 minutes," he said. "If we can go toe-to-toe for 30 minutes, I don't know why we can't go toe-to-toe for 60 minutes.
"There is still work to do. We have another important step to go. We do not feel like we have arrived."
Green Bay Packers
After being accustomed to having a "Victory Monday" on nearly a weekly basis this season, the players who trudged into team headquarters at Lambeau Field on Monday morning had a tough time processing why they were there.
"No one prepared for this," said receiver Donald Driver, the elder statesman on the Packers roster.
Rather than have the well-deserved day off that followed most of the team's victories in its 15-1 regular season, Driver and teammates spent this Monday in clean-up mode. Players gathered personal belongings from their lockers and said their goodbyes less than 24 hours after Green Bay's meteoric season crashed with a thud.
The fourth-seeded New York Giants sent the top-seeded Packers home for the rest of the season with a 37-20 knockout in an NFC divisional playoff Sunday at Lambeau.
"No one prepared to pack their bags up and move out," Driver said. "But, you play the way we played, and that's the outcome. You have to pack your bags and head down the road.
"I think, right now, a lot of guys are saying they don't know what to do, they don't know when to go home because no one prepared to leave this week."
A year after winning four straight games away from Lambeau to become the surprise NFL champions, the Packers never made use of the home-field advantage they had in the NFC bracket. They became the first team out of six that have finished a 16-game season no worse than 15-1 since 1978 to be eliminated in its first game of the playoffs.
Green Bay was a big favorite to defend its title in Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5 in Indianapolis.
"It's very disappointing," head coach Mike McCarthy said after Sunday's game. "It's a locker room that expected a lot more and rightfully so. I wish I would've done a better job tonight.
"It was an excellent regular season. But, we clearly understand in Green Bay it's about winning championships. Just going to the playoffs is not enough. We're disappointed as a football team. We're disappointed for our fans. We had a heck of a run in the regular season.
"I thought we were playing very well down the stretch," he added. "Two of the five significant wins we've had throughout the regular season were in the last four weeks, so I was really anticipating us playing very well (Sunday). So, I have to look at myself and go back and find out why I didn't have the team in that mode because I thought the preparation was very good this (past) week."
The Packers never led Sunday, done in by a season-high four turnovers (three fumbles) from their highly productive offense and a league-worst pass defense that was torched for 330 yards and three touchdowns by Giants quarterback Eli Manning.
Showered by boos' raining down from the stands at Lambeau, the Packers face a longer-than-expected offseason without another Vince Lombardi Trophy they felt would be theirs again.
"Oh, it's real," dejected quarterback Aaron Rodgers said after the game. "We got beat by a team that played better tonight. That's the reality of this league. (I've) been in for a while and been in the playoffs four times, and three times you lose your last game and you go home, and the one time (last year's Super Bowl title) you have that euphoric feeling that you keep fighting for.
"It's tough. (I) didn't think it was going to end tonight -- felt good about our chances, felt good about our team."
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