Around the NFC North
In new general manager Phil Emery's introductory press conference, he grudgingly admitted that he had final say on the 53-man roster and ultimately the power to fire head coach Lovie Smith if necessary.
But the former Chiefs' director of college scouting and one-time area scout for the Bears (1998-2004) was much more focused on working together as part of a team than in exercising the authority that comes with his new position.
"My mind is around moving us forward as a team," the 53-year-old Emery said. "I have that authority, I have full control, but that's not where my head is. My mind is on helping everybody in this building advance to where we are a consistent winner and a championship team. That's where my mind is."
Emery's first order of business was undertaken hours before his mid-afternoon news conference Jan. 29 at Halas Hall. Director of player personnel Tim Ruskell was let go, although the team's website reported it as "a mutual agreement to part ways." Ruskell had a year left on the contract he signed in 2010, when he was brought aboard by former general manager Jerry Angelo. When Ruskell was the Atlanta Falcons assistant general manager in 2004, he hired Emery as the team's director of college scouting.
There will be some additional restructuring in the Bears' personnel department, including the area scouts, four of whom remain from when Emery held the same position. He was hired by then-vice president of player personnel Mark Hatley but remained after Angelo took over as general manager in 2001. The addition of a director of college scouting and a director of pro scouting and any additions or subtractions to or from the scouting department will not occur until after the draft, April 26-28.
In a 50-minute press conference, Emery spoke at length on several other timely topics that will consume his time in the days leading up to the scouting combine, the start of free agency and then the draft.
He claims to already have a good feel for the current 53-man roster, which he studied in preparation for the interview process.
"I have a very good feel for where this team is at," Emery said. "This team has a very good core of play-making players. Not only have I seen them like any fan on TV, but I've also done extensive research of this team and the players (in preparation for his interviews), and there is a good core. My job moving forward with the coaches, with the coaching staff, with the front-office staff, with the people in this building in operations, and video, and training, and marketing, is to continue to build this team so that we can be consistent winners and be consistently in the hunt to win championships."
Emery was asked specifically about only two players. On quarterback Jay Cutler, he said: "I think Jay is a fine quarterback. I got an opportunity to watch him extensively at Vanderbilt. The guy makes plays. Those are the kind of playmakers we want."
On 33-year-old Brian Urlacher, he said: "He's a player who is still making plays. I've heard rumblings that there is age on our roster. I kind of look at it this way: It's not a number. It's whether you are making plays. If it was just a number, (or a) number of gray hairs, I wouldn't be standing here."
To the dismay of the media, Emery was very forthcoming about his intention not to be forthcoming when discussing the team's personnel issues in the future.
"When it comes time to publicly assess our needs," Emery said, "or to publicly talk about players that we may target; we will not do that, OK? Because I feel that's a competitive disadvantage to do so. We will know internally what our needs are, we will know internally the players that we are going to target.
"(But) we will not give away our competitive advantage to outline who those individuals are, or in what particular position they are. I will say this: What is going to be targeted are good football players, producers, dynamic play-makers that can help this football team grow, help the players that are here and surround them with more weapons, more people that can make plays and to help this football team in its march towards championships."
The Detroit Lions were one of the NFL's biggest stories in 2011, jumping out to their best start in over 50 years and making the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
Now, the Lions are busy making sure that their success does not prove to be a flash in the pan.
The team has entered into contract negotiations with several players described as "key guys" by Lions president Tom Lewand. Detroit Free Press writer Dave Birkett identified those players as WR Calvin Johnson, LB Stephen Tulloch, OT Jeff Backus, QB Shaun Hill and CB Eric Wright.
Of those, Johnson stands out as the biggest name. Speaking to Birkett in Indianapolis, Cardinal WR Larry Fitzgerald said that Johnson should get a contract even richer than the eight-year, $120-million deal he signed with Arizona last fall.
"He's at the top of the game right now," Fitzgerald said of Johnson. "He's an extremely, extremely impressive talent."
Johnson recorded career bests in every major category this past season, catching 96 passes for 1681 yards at 16 touchdowns, and keeping him in Detroit is certainly a top priority for Lewand, GM Martin Mayhew and their staff.
"I wouldn't say he IS our offense, but he's certainly the biggest part of it," said one club official. Johnson is scheduled to have a $14 million base salary in 2012 and a salary cap charge of about $22 million.
One player not on Birkett's list is defensive end Cliff Avril. Avril told The Sports Xchange during an encounter outside one of the press conference meeting rooms here that he would be "less than happy" if the Lions use the franchise tag to keep him out of free agency. That said, Avril, who had 11 sacks and seven forced fumbles in 2011, reiterated that he hopes to return to Detroit on an extension. "I think we've got a good thing going and I think we can keep it going for a while," he said.
Lions coach Jim Schwartz, for his part, isn't getting involved in contract talk, despite the fact that he's entering the final year of his contract in 2012. "The next time I talk about my contract will be never," he told reporters, adding that his contract "has nothing to do with where we are, [and] the success of the team."
Ensuring that that success continues is the reason for the Lions' decision to raise ticket prices for 2012, as prices will rise by an average of 7.9 percent. "We have to be able to invest back into the product," Lewand said. "That's exactly where these dollars will go, right back into re-signing players, keeping the team together."
The Lions' average ticket price of $72.04 is still one of the lowest in the league. The team says its new pricing plan ranks 23rd among NFL teams' expected average ticket prices.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers will have to lick their wounds even longer this offseason with new rules in the CBA condensing the offseason workout schedules for the players. Whereas in recent years head coach Mike McCarthy would have players return in mid-March, Green Bay's offseason program this year won't start until April 16.
By then, the NFL Draft will be less than two weeks away, and as usual under the tried-and-true approach of general manager Ted Thompson, the Packers will most likely be waiting until those proceedings to supplement their roster.
"I do know this - as a football team, we will improve from within," McCarthy said. "We have every single year since I've been here.
"We will be adding another significant draft class to this football team. As far as free agency, veteran agency and all that, those are really hypothetical situations. I'm sure it's fun for everybody to play GM, but we'll go through the process like we always do."
The majority of the 2011 team that did a lot of things right in a dominant regular season for the record book but also infamously set itself apart with the quick exit from the playoffs will remain intact. Up in the air is which potential unrestricted free agents the team retains - among them Finley, running back Ryan Grant, center Scott Wells and No. 2 quarterback Matt Flynn - and whether standout safety Nick Collins can play football again.
Collins, who suffered a severe neck injury Sept. 18, anticipates getting definitive word from his doctors in a couple months.
"He has a big exam in March, and a lot will be riding on that exam," McCarthy said. "He feels good. He's very optimistic and positive about his future, and so am I. We'll see what March brings."
There will be changes on the coaching staff, too. The Packers promoted quarterbacks coach Tom Clements to the position of offensive coordinator. Clements replaces Joe Philbin, who left the Packers to become head coach of the Miami Dolphins.
Clements has been on the Packers staff for six seasons, after serving as the Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator for two years (2004-2005).
"Tom has been an integral part of our success and our staff, making it an obvious decision to promote him to offensive coordinator," head coach Mike McCarthy said in a statement. "He has earned this opportunity and we look forward to continued offensive success in 2012."
Clements has worked directly with two-time Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
"I think it's a great opportunity," Clements said. "We have a young team. We've had success over the past couple of years. We still have a lot of room to grow and I'm happy to be a part of it."
Clements led Notre Dame to a 29-5 record in his three seasons as a starter (1972-74), including an unblemished national championship season in 1973. He finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting that season.
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