Assessing the North: Quarterbacks
Starter – Jay Cutler. Backups – Josh McCown, Caleb Hanie, Nathan Enderle.
Cutler was well on his way to his best season as a Bear when he suffered a freakish, season-ending fractured and dislocated thumb while being knocked to the ground as he positioned himself to make a tackle after an interception near the end of the Nov. 20 victory over the Chargers. The Bears were 7-3 when Cutler went down, but they didn't win again for six weeks and missed the playoffs.
What happened after Cutler was hurt probably ended the Bears career of Hanie, who went 0-4 as a starter while throwing three TD passes and nine interceptions and compiling a 41.8 passer rating. He was also sacked 19 times. McCown, who was signed off the street three days after Cutler's injury, played much better than Hanie, even though he hadn't started a game in four years. The nine-year veteran posted a respectable 68.3 passer rating and looked as though he belonged. He seems to be the ideal backup to a QB like Cutler, who had never missed more than a game because of injury before the 2011 season. Enderle was not ready to play in the NFL, partly because he was not prepared in training camp or the preseason, when coaches rushed to get Hanie up to speed – or so they thought. The 2011 fifth-round pick should get a longer look next training camp.
Starter – Matthew Stafford. Backups – Shaun Hill, Drew Stanton.
Stafford answered all the questions about whether or not he is a franchise quarterback. In rewriting the single-season record book in Detroit, he proved he was durable enough, intelligent enough, accurate enough and tough enough. He threw for more than 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns.
Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton are both free agents. Both have indicated they want to stay, but Hill, 32, could draw some attention on the free-agent market. This would be his last opportunity to seek a starting job. If Hill goes, Stanton would re-sign and fight for the No. 2 spot.
Green Bay Packers
Starter - Aaron Rodgers. Backups - Matt Flynn, Graham Harrell.
A sluggish performance in the stunning divisional-round loss to the New York Giants was the anomaly for Rodgers in an otherwise unforgettable season that should end with him still in Indianapolis in early February to receive his first league MVP award on the eve of Super Bowl XLVI. Rodgers didn't play the final regular-season game, but his staggering body of work the first 15 games gave him the team records for completion percentage (68.3), passing yards (4,643) and touchdown throws (45) with ease and also the new NFL standard for efficiency with a 122.5 passer rating. All the while, Rodgers made more inroads as a savvy quarterback in Green Bay's pass-happy offense who isn't reckless with the football, throwing a career-low six interceptions in his fourth season as a starter while registering a personal-high average of 9.3 yards per pass attempt. Rodgers absorbed 36 sacks (his second-highest total), but he has few peers who can break the pocket and pick up sizable yards with his feet - he ranked third on the team with 257 rushing yards and scrambled for a career-best 66 yards in the postseason loss.
Flynn, Rodgers' patient understudy the last four seasons, is poised to get a hefty pay raise in free agency and contend for a starting spot somewhere else after his team-record-setting 480-yard, six-touchdown performance in only his second pro start in the regular-season finale against the Detroit Lions. Harrell has yet to play in a game in his two-year run with the Packers, but general manager Ted Thompson thought highly enough of the young prospect to promote him from the practice squad the last month of the season when the Buffalo Bills tried to sign him.
Starter – Christian Ponder. Backups – Joe Webb, Sage Rosenfels.
Ponder remains the team's quarterback of the future, despite his regression throughout his 10 starts to close the season. Ponder has a lot to learn and will benefit from staying in town and getting the offseason tutelage that he missed because of last year's NFL lockout. Ponder tends to hold the ball too long, focus on one receiver and try to force balls into windows that close quickly in the NFL. He's got the personality, work ethic and intelligence to make significant strides with a better supporting cast in Year 2.
Webb is one of the best athletes on the team and will factor into the offense in some fashion. He's an electric scrambler with speed and a strong arm. He outplayed Ponder down the stretch in 2011, but won't become the starter. The fact he will play in some capacity as the team expands on its "Blazer" package means the Vikings will need a veteran No. 3 guy who can move quickly to No. 2 if Webb is injured. This makes Rosenfels an attractive option to re-sign. Rosenfels, who was signed late in the season, would know the offense from Day 1 in camp.
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