NFC North News

Lovie Smith is assembling his new staff with the Bears, evaluating his personnel and getting a feel for where his responsibilities start and end. Steve Marriucci is honing his staff, along with the lovable Matt Millen. And the Packers are still trying to recover from a devastating season-ending loss (sound familiar?). Get the in-depth reports on all the NFC North teams.

CHICAGO BEARS

Although the Bears have missed the playoffs in eight of the past nine seasons, new head coach Lovie Smith thinks he can get the team back to the postseason right away.

Smith is in a hurry to get the Bears to the next level, and he has some talent to work with on the defensive side of the ball, which is his specialty. But the 2003 season was typical of recent Bears teams in that the offense struggled to hold up its end of the bargain.

The Bears have played in the postseason just twice in the past 12 years and have one playoff victory in the past 13 seasons, but Smith thinks he already has the talent to get back there next season.

"No doubt," Smith said. "This is not a rebuilding process that we see ourselves going through. We're just adding a little bit and making that jump to be in the playoffs next year.

"I believe we have a talented group of players to make us successful. We have a promising young quarterback in Rex Grossman. We have a superstar linebacker in Brian Urlacher, and a perennial all-pro in (center) Olin Kreutz. I'm excited about the potential of other young (defensive) players like Alex Brown, Mike Brown, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman, to name a few."

Smith's enthusiasm for the job and his praise for the players he's inherited are typical of someone who's frequently referred to as a players' coach. Smith has endeared himself to his players in Tampa and most recently in St. Louis, not just for his teaching and coaching on the field, but for the way he treats players like people rather than interchangeable parts. Smith said he doesn't mind being called a players' coach, as long as those players respond to his coaching.

"A lot of times people take that in a negative way," Smith said of the description. "The athlete today is an educated athlete. He looks right through you, and he sees exactly what you are and what you have to offer to him. If guys say that about me, and they respect my knowledge of the game and my motivational skills, and they'll buy what I'm trying to get across to them, I'm all for that."

Smith inherits an above-average defense that could have been even better if GM Jerry Angelo hadn't inexplicably undermined the unit by trading away massive, run-stuffing defensive tackle Ted Washington just before the start of the season. Without the 375-pound Washington, who has become an integral part of the Patriots' success on defense, the Bears were helpless against the run early in the season. In addition, Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher struggled all season to get off blockers that Washington devoured in the past. By the time the Bears regrouped and figured out how to stop the run without Big Ted, it was too late.

By losing five of their first six games and seven of their first 10, the Bears were essentially eliminated from the playoff picture by Thanksgiving, a common occurrence under Dick Jauron, whose 35-45 five-year mark included just one winning season, 2001's 13-3 anomaly. By then, Jauron's fate was sealed. Even a strong finish and a 7-9 final record couldn't prevent the end from officially arriving on Dec. 29, when Jauron was fired by Angelo, who somehow managed to get a four-year extension through 2008 and avoid any blame for the team's failure to upgrade talent on the offensive side of the ball.

Angelo, to his credit, may have provided his new head coach with one of the team's better draft classes in recent history. Seven draft picks made significant contributions to the team. And as disappointing as the offense was most of the season, Rex Grossman showed that he has the potential to become the Bears' quarterback of the future when he was allowed to start the final three games.

Grossman performed admirably where Kordell Stewart and then Chris Chandler failed miserably, though neither was provided with much of a supporting cast. Injuries left three of the offensive line positions in the hands of journeymen and/or young players playing out of position. Marty Booker was the only reliable wide receiver, and he missed three full games with a sprained ankle that slowed him in at least a couple other games, and he also played through a painful rib injury without missing a game.

Running back Anthony Thomas was more than adequate when he was given a decent chance to establish the run game, but Thomas never has been and never will be special.

Former offensive coordinator John Shoop's conservative play calling, lack of imagination and resistance to change, may have hamstrung the offense as much as a lack of talent. Smith intends to bring in an offensive coordinator who will implement an offense similar to the Rams', but scheme will only take a mediocre bunch so far.

The Bears need to get injured offensive line starters Rex Tucker and Marc Colombo back on the field. Both missed the entire season. Tucker, a left guard with Pro Bowl potential, and Colombo, a first-round pick in 2002, both missed the entire season. Tucker's torn ankle tendon should be fine, but there is concern that Colombo's dislocated kneecap from No. 18, 2002, has taken an inordinate amount of time to heal. The Bears insist he'll be fine and that the rehab has just taken longer than expected, but there are concerns. The other concern is that despite a good supply of young talent, there is not a true left tackle on the roster. Guard Mike Gandy has started there most of the past two seasons, long enough to prove that he is not the long-term answer at that most-important position. Gandy could still be a solid starter inside.

The Bears are expected to add a back in the offseason who can provide the big-play, breakaway dimension that Thomas lacks.

Defensively, the secondary needs a big hitter, which it might already have in Bobby Gray, although the old coaching staff was reluctant to play him until Mike Green was injured. No one could figure out why. Strong safety Mike Brown had a lousy year, although, again, the coaching staff continually insisted that he was playing well. Keith Traylor, a smaller, lesser version of Ted Washington, has reached the end of the line. So, the greatest need on defense is an impact tackle, since neither Bryan Robinson nor Alphonso Boone comes close to fitting that description.

That will help Urlacher and weak-side linebacker Warrick Holdman, who was nowhere near the player he was before last season's knee injury.


NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • Slowly, but surely, new coach Lovie Smith is filling out his coaching staff. After an impasse was reached in contract talks, Kansas City QB coach Terry Shea agreed to become the team's offensive coordinator. Former Bears players left the Eagles, where he was linebackers coach, to be the defensive coordinator.

    Another Eagles assistant, Dave Toub, will be Smith's special teams coach. Toub was Philadelphia's assistant special teams coach and assistant defensive line coach. The Bears also retained DB coach Vance Bedford, and named Tim Spencer running backs coach. He had been at Ohio State.

    Named offensive and defensive assistants were Mike Bajakian and Lloyd Lee. Bajakian comes from Delaware State, while Lee was a pro scout for the Buccaneers last season.

    Previously, Smith brought linebackers coach Bob Babich from the Rams' staff and hired the Cardinals' Pete Hoener as offensive line coach.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "This has been a very tedious, exhausting process when you're looking for a head coach. There was no stone we weren't going to un-turn. I exhausted the college ranks, the professional ranks. I wasn't worried about titles as much as making sure we got the best man for the job and I'm very, very happy to say that we did do that." — GM Jerry Angelo, after deciding on Lovie Smith as the Bears' new head coach.


    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    There should be no confusion regarding the power structure at Halas Hall.

    GM Jerry Angelo has complete control over all personnel. New head coach Lovie Smith has control over his staff.

    "I have control over all personnel matters, trades, waiver wire, claiming players and (the) 53 (man roster)," Angelo said. "Ninety percent of the general managers in the league have that autonomy. So that's very much the norm of the general manager's position."

    Angelo's insistence on maintaining absolute control over personnel became an issue with some of the candidates, most notably LSU's Nick Saban. But that point was non-negotiable.

    "I'm not surrendering that because we have to have checks and balances," Angelo said. "I understand the coach's perspective when he comes in the building. He has to win right now. (But) I have to keep an eye on the future. There have to be checks and balances and I also told each candidate that I have to protect ownership. That is very important in the way we structured our organization."

    Angelo took exception to being characterized in the past two weeks by some as a power monger.

    "It has nothing to do (with being a) control freak," said Angelo, who was clearly stressed out by the process of picking a new head coach and bitter over the way he was treated by the media. "(It's not like) ‘He's going to shove some player down his throat, or he's going to make him hire his coaches.' I've listened to so much crap in the last two weeks. That's not the case.

    "I'd like to think I'm a team guy. I'd like to think the people I've worked with, you check, you find out, see what they say about me. I would just be surprised if they didn't think that I'm part of a team. The ego part? Nothing. I'm doing what's in the best interest of business in this organization and that's part of my plan."

    Smith will have final say on his staff, but Angelo said he could be involved in discussions about assistants. Again, the GM was adamant about his role being misinterpreted.

    "I'm not going to force a head coach to make a hire, and I'm not going to force a head coach to terminate an assistant," Angelo said. "Will I bring up things about coaches just like I bring up things about players? Yes. But nothing in a confrontational way; in an adversarial way. That's not my style, but I am going to confront when I feel that it needs to be. But I don't want anyone to come out of here taking this that it's about a control freak. That is crap. That's just crap."



    DETROIT LIONS

    Three weeks into the off-season, the metamorphosis of the Detroit Lions coaching staff has hit high gear.

    Coach by coach, the staff of assistants is taking on a Steve Mariucci look and personality.

    As is frequently the case with NFL coaches when they move from one job to another, Mariucci is gradually loading up his staff with coaches he knows and obviously feels comfortable with.

    He started with offensive line coach Pat Morris, who worked with him at Southern Cal and for him in San Francisco.

    Next came offensive assistant Greg Olson, who worked with Mariucci for a year as the quarterbacks coach in San Francisco and is likely to end up with similar responsibilities when everything shakes out in Detroit.

    And, most recently, Mariucci landed former Chicago coach Dick Jauron, who surprised some observers by taking the Lions defensive coordinator job over an assistant head coach position with the New York Giants and a coordinator job in St. Louis.

    The Jauron hiring was probably the most significant because the Lions defensive personnel is presently ahead of the offense in terms of development and anticipates payoff in the 2004 season.

    Jauron and Mariucci worked together for three years in the early 1990s under Mike Holmgren in Green Bay and have remained close — personally and professionally — in the years since then, an obvious factor in Jauron's decision to accept the job with the Lions over a job with other higher-profile teams in the NFL.

    Mariucci has remained strictly incommunicado since hiring Morris but it is obvious he felt a need — in light of the Lions struggles on their way to a 5-11 season — to rebuild his coaching staff with coaches he knows and trusts.

    It remains to be seen how much benefit the Lions can reap from the staff shakeup, but if team president Matt Millen can add a few more quality defenders along the lines of those he landed last season — Pro Bowl cornerback Dre' Bly, defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, linebacker Earl Holmes and rookies linebacker Boss Bailey and safety Terrence Holt — the Lions have a chance to become at least a little more competitive in 2004.

    In Jauron's only other stint as a defensive coordinator, he worked under Tom Coughlin to turn the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars into an instant contender. He is low key and has always been a popular coach with his players, a trait very similar to Mariucci.


    NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • With approximately another six weeks before the start of the formal off-season workout program, the Lions are hoping wide receiver Charles Rogers will be entirely recovered from the broken collarbone he suffered in early October.

    There is no reason to believe their No. 1 draft pick of the 2003 season won't be ready to go back to work, except that his collarbone was slower to heal than the team originally expected.

    At the time of the injury, there was speculation Rogers might be ready to return to practice — if not game action — in six to eight weeks.

    Although they reported good news with every examination, the Lions eventually gave up on his chances for a return in 2003 and put him on injured reserve Dec. 2 with four games left on the schedule.

    In the weeks since then, management personnel has expressed concern with Rogers' slow healing process. Not only is there concern with a full recovery of the collarbone but there is also concern that Rogers' slight build might make him susceptible to other injuries during his NFL career.

    Although he is listed as 6-feet-2 and 202 pounds, Rogers looks lighter than that.

    The Lions are hoping he can put on a few pounds of muscle but he can't do any serious lifting until the collarbone is fully healed.

  • Stan Kwan, one of the best-liked members of the Bobby Ross coaching staff from 1997 through 2000, has been re-signed by the Lions to work with special teams coach Chuck Priefer and also work as an offensive assistant.

    Kwan could have stayed on the Lions staff when Millen and Marty Mornhinweg took over in 2001 but decided to take a job with the Arizona Cardinals, in part to be closer to his family in Phoenix.

    When Lions assistant Kevin O'Dea was recently hired as the new special teams coach at Arizona, the Lions had an opening and re-hired Kwan.

    Kwan has a rare combination of accomplishments on his resume as an athlete and a coach: He was an assistant on the Ross staff that took the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl and he has also pitched batting practice to all-time Padres hitting great Tony Gwynn.

    Kwan did not play college football but was an outstanding three-year baseball player at San Diego State and, on occasion, pitched batting practice for the Padres, including Gwynn.

  • Previously hired Greg Olson (Bears ‘03), has been assigned to coach the Lions' quarterbacks. When he joined the Lions, coach Steve Mariucci hadn't decided what position he would coach. Kevin Higgins, the quarterbacks coach last season, will now coach the receivers.

    Kurt Schottenheimer, who lost his defensive coordinator to Dick Jauron, was hired by the Packers to be their defensive backs coach. Secondary coach Ray Horton left for the Steelers, while assistant special teams coach Kevin O'Dea in now with the Cardinals.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'd be lying if I said it was going to be easy. But nevertheless, it can be done and it will be done. We just have to be right with who we bring in here. We have to be right with who stays and then of those who are with us, we've got to coach them hard and get the most out of our players." — Lions coach Steve Mariucci on the magnitude of building the Lions into an NFL contender.


    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    Since president Matt Millen arrived three years ago, his goal has been to make the Lions younger and faster.

    It didn't work in the first three years but in the past season, Millen seems to have laid a defensive foundation upon which he and coach Steve Mariucci can build.

    The Lions have many needs — especially on the offensive side — but with a good draft and good choices in free agency, they might have a chance at playing near the .500 mark in 2004.

    At the top of the list of needs are a running back, a receiver, a couple of guards and a tight end on the offensive side. They need a pass rusher, a safety and probably another cornerback to firm up the defense.



    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    At mid-season, it looked like the Vikings were going to embarrass the NFC North the way the Packers did in 2002: win it by a margin of six games.

    Trailing the Vikings by three games in the standings and behind them in the head-to-head tiebreaker as well, the Packers went to Minnesota Nov. 2 with their season on the line and won in their least favorite venue.

    Thus began a turn of events in which the Packers would win six of their last seven regular-season games, the Vikings would fall apart and the miraculous fourth-and-25 catch by Arizona's Nathan Poole enabled the Packers to repeat as division champs.

    Actually, it shouldn't have been so close.

    The Packers were all but injury-free (eight starters missed a total of 27 starts, but Joe Johnson and Antuan Edwards ate up 20 and hardly were missed) and the NFC North was awful once again.

    However, the Packers lost five times as a favorite, including 7-point spreads in Arizona and Detroit, that eventually would cost them home-field advantage and send them in Philadelphia in the divisional playoff game.

    Put those injury-racked Eagles at Lambeau Field and Green Bay rolls. Even with the divisional game in Philly, the Packers still had better personnel and an extraordinary opportunity to reach the Super Bowl.

    But a harrowing sequence of momentous plays and decisions led to an overtime defeat that cast a pall over the entire organization. Coach Mike Sherman has been raked over the coals for punting instead of going for it on fourth down and less than a yard with 2:30 left at the Eagles 41.

    When that failed, the Eagles converted a fourth and 26 against a prevent defense. If you were to assign blame on the play, it might go like this: linebacker Nick Barnett, 70%; safety Darren Sharper, 18%; dime back Michael Hawthorne, 6%; safety Marques Anderson, 6%.

    After the Eagles scored to force overtime, the Packers forced a punt. On their first play, Brett Favre lobbed up a beach ball on first down rather than take a sack and the ball was intercepted by Brian Dawkins, who returned 35 yards to set up the winning field goal.

    Can you imagine Joe Montana ever throwing a pass like that? Of course not. By the same token, a great coach wouldn't have taken a powder and punted when the smart call would have been to jam the ball down the throat of coach Andy Reid and his exhausted, beaten defense.

    Thus, this so-called "team of destiny" will go down as one that might have gone all the way but ultimately caved to a lesser opponent. It won't be a nice way to be remembered.


    NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • Just one year after an onslaught of injuries decimated the unit, the Packers' starting offensive line gobbled up a phenomenal 98.4% of the available snaps.

    Kevin Barry played 65 snaps at right tackle, mostly in the first three games when right guard Marco Rivera needed a break because of a sprained knee and right guard Mark Tauscher then moved inside.

    Grey Ruegamer played a total of 26 snaps at center and guard late in the season after Mike Wahle broke his hand and the Oakland and Denver games turned into blowouts.

    Guard-tackle Marcus Spriggs and tackle Brennan Curtin never get off the bench.

    Of the 5,675 plays available for offensive linemen this season in 18 games, the starters took 5,584.

    "We had great continuity," said Larry Beightol, the offensive line coach who completed his fifth season coaching Rivera, Wahle and center Mike Flanagan. "Everybody answered the bell."

    According to Beightol, the most effective player for the second year in a row was Rivera.

    "Marco had an outstanding year but the whole offensive line had a superior year," he said. "They're better as a group than they are individually, which is what the game is all about, anyway."

  • The Packers allowed just 20 sacks, including 19 in the regular season. That broke the club mark for fewest sacks allowed in a 16-game season.

    The offensive line was responsible for just five of the 20 sacks. Flanagan didn't allow any, Rivera gave up 1/2 sack and Chad Clifton, Tauscher and Wahle each yielded 1 1/2.

    Brett Favre was responsible for 10 1/2 sacks.

    Knockdowns, defined as pass plays not including sacks in which the quarterback is knocked down, totaled 34. That's 1.88 per game, the lowest at any time since 1992, but Beightol added that the emphasis by officials in recent years on safeguarding quarterbacks clearly has reduced the number of knockdowns league-wide.

    Clifton allowed the most knockdowns with 4 1/2, followed by Tauscher with 4, Flanagan and Rivera with 2 1/2, and Wahle and fullback William Henderson with 2.

    Clifton, Rivera and Tauscher also were responsible for 6 pressures, defined as times when the quarterback's throw was impeded or he was forced to vacate the pocket.

    Flanagan allowed the least total of sacks, knockdowns and pressures with 5 1/2. Clifton yielded the most with 12.

    "Bad runs" were defined as rushes for 1 yard or less not occurring in short yardage or goal-line. By subjective count, Bubba Franks was responsible for 19, followed by Clifton with 17, Tauscher with 14 1/2, Wahle with 10 1/2, Rivera with 9 1/2, Flanagan with 9, Najeh Davenport with 8, Henderson with 7 1/2, Nick Luchey with 7, David Martin and Barry with 4 1/2, Javon Walker with 3, Donald Driver and Robert Ferguson with 2 1/2 and Wesley Walls with 1 1/2.

    A total of 21 1/2 "bad runs" were considered as good plays by the defense without the fault of an offensive player.

  • Center Mike Flanagan was named to the NFC Pro Bowl team as an injury replacement for injured Olin Kreutz of Chicago.

    Quarterback Brett Favre (thumb) withdrew and was replaced by his former backup, Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "There's a lot of my life here, there's a lot of my skin on that football field, but things change. This is the best temporary job in the world. That's what it is." — FB William Henderson.


    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    After firing defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who quickly was hired for the same job with the Falcons, coach Mike Sherman promoted secondary coach Bob Slowik to be the new defensive coordinator. Sherman also hired Kurt Schottenheimer as defensive backs coach. Schottenheimer was Detroit's defensive coordinator last season, but was replaced by Dick Jauron. Former Cardinals assistant Johnny Roland will coach the running backs following the departure of Sylvester Croom to be the head coach at Ole Miss.



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