“I think each and every year the division gets tougher. I think this year will probably be the toughest year,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “You have coaches at every division team that has their program in place, and with that you have continuity and the new challenges that they will present to us and we will present to them.
I think our division is as tough as ever. I think the years, particularly this year, could be our toughest.”
John Fox enters his second year with the Chicago Bears, who finished last after jettisoning aging veterans like Jared Allen and, more recently, Matt Forte. It was a necessary part of a rebuild that often takes place in coaching transitions.
Jim Caldwell enters his third year with the Detroit Lions. After going 11-5 in 2014, the Lions fell behind the Vikings and went 7-9 last year and things could become more difficult if 2016 is the first year in a decade that Detroit no longer has Calvin Johnson.
“They still have Stafford, right?,” said Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, referencing Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. “He’s a very good quarterback and we’ve got great quarterbacks in this division. I don’t know the situation with Calvin and what will transpire, but he is a great player. Just playing against him throughout his career, he’s a future Hall of Famer and those guys are few and far between when they come through.”
The Vikings finally unseated the bullies of the NFC North, the Packers, with a win in Green Bay to end the regular season. Yet, the Packers still have Aaron Rodgers at quarterback and will get the return of Jody Nelson after losing him to injury for the entire 2015 season.
Detroit might be down this year if they end up losing Ndamukong Suh and Johnson in successive offseasons, but a second season under John Fox should improve the Bears, and the Packers don’t look like they are going to give up the fight any time soon.
“I think we have a great division. I thought that all along,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “I think the year I got to Minnesota, Chicago was in the playoffs or right close to being in the playoffs. And then Detroit was in the playoffs a year ago. And obviously Green Bay won the division the last four years. It’s a heck of a division.
“There’s a lot of great coaches in there. Mike McCarthy I think does an unbelievable job, and Ted Thompson … they’ve been at the pinnacle of this division for a long time. John Fox is a friend of mine and he’s done a great job and I do see their football team getting a lot better. I think all of us, and Detroit has a ton of athletic ability, and so hopefully we’ll continue to keep fighting.”
Zimmer won’t relax with one division title, as his personality and his goals attest, but even if the Vikings continue to improve there are no guarantees they will repeat in the North.
The Vikings have the utmost respect for Green Bay, but Spielman believes in Zimmer’s coaching style and saw the relative success of 2015 as a reflection of that.
“That true-grit mentality,” Spielman said of Zimmer. “Green Bay is a great team. They have a great organization. And for our guys to respond, to go up there in that atmosphere in a primetime game – in the past, we haven’t been good in those situations – that was just a reflection of, one, the coaching staff and, two, the type of players that we’re bringing in and the most important thing – our players buying into what Coach Zimmer is teaching and preaching.”
Fox relayed the hope that the Bears have as he continues his transition project with that team.
“I think, you know, we were last. We were 6-10. That’s reality. I think we were competitive. I don’t think there were too many off-kilter games. We did a lot,” he said. “We were one of the older rosters in the league and became one of the youngest in one season. I think we’re in good position with nine picks.
“We’ve got way better cap room this year than last, not that that means we’re going to go crazy. But we’re in better financial position that way. And, again, this is about evaluating and decision-making and we need to do very well this offseason.”
But the reality is that the Vikings and Packers appear to be the favorites in the division for years to come.
“Even though we had success and built on that this past year and were able to win the division, we still haven’t reached all of our goals,” Spielman said. “And every year is a new year. You can’t predict injuries. You can’t predict what’s going to happen with players. But we have to take the approach that we are starting over. What we did last year doesn’t matter. It’s what we’re going to do going forward and that’s the approach we have to take.”