NFC North News

Rex Grossman received more confirmation that he'll be the Bears' starter in 2004, the Lions might continue to add to their safety ranks despite the addition of Brock Marion, and the Packers have concluded that Brett Favre's thumb will never be the same. That and more in our in-depth look around the NFC North.

CHICAGO BEARS

In yet another indication that Rex Grossman is the Bears' future and present at quarterback, veteran backup Chris Chandler was released last March 19.

Chandler started six games last season, compiling a 3-3 record. For the season, the 38-year-old, 16-year NFL veteran had a passer rating of 61.3 with three TD passes and seven interceptions. Chandler's departure saves the Bears the $1.4 million he was due this season and could improve the team's chances of signing another unrestricted free agent.

Without Chandler, the Bears have just two quarterbacks. Grossman, who had a 78.5 passer rating in three starts last season, is entrenched as the starter, even though he threw just 62 passes last season. New Bears coach Lovie Smith realizes that his team will lack experience at the most important position, but he has confidence in Grossman's ability to handle the job.

"It's not ideal," Smith said. "Five years from now, we're going to like Rex Grossman a lot more than we do this year. But we think that Rex can do the job. We'll put more on him (in five years) than we will initially. He just has to have a consistent year and not make a lot of bad plays for us this coming year. "Whether we win or lose, it isn't always just Rex. A quarterback has to play well, but to me the pressure's more on the guys around him. The defense has to come through and get a lot of turnovers to put Rex in position where he has to take the team 40 yards instead of 80 yards. We're going to be concentrating more on that type of stuff than anything."

Former Kansas City Chiefs No. 3 quarterback Jonathan Quinn, who was signed as an unrestricted free agent on March 3, is Grossman's only backup for now. The Bears are expected to add another quarterback, more likely through the draft than free agency, although both options are possible.

The 6-foot-4, 224-pound Chandler was signed by the Bears as an unrestricted free agent prior to the 2002 season and that year became the first player in NFL history to start for seven different teams (the Indianapolis Colts, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Phoenix Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, Houston Oilers and Atlanta Falcons in addition to the Bears.)

Chandler started seven games in 2002 but was knocked out of three of them with a sprained neck, then a sprained ankle and finally a concussion. He finished each of his first five starts last season but left his sixth with an injury to his right shoulder.


NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • Lovie Smith said he has no qualms about using starters on special teams, even as returners, as aid. "What's the object each play? To score. So it doesn't matter, offense, defense, special teams, the object is to score. If that's your best option to score, that's what you should do.

    "So, for us, Jerry's a great return guy. We're going to have him returning the ball. Some guys, if you don't have to put them at risk, we won't. But guys that we think can change the game on that play, we're going to put them in that situation. R.W. McQuarters returning punts. I just think it's important that you do that."

  • The Bears will open the 2004 preseason on the road against the Rams, coach Lovie Smith's former employer.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "We think John (Tait) can be an All-Pro at the right tackle. At left tackle he may be OK for right now. But we recruited John, and we signed him to play right tackle for us. We think we're going to do an awful lot on that right side, and we want him there." — Lovie Smith on recently signed UFA ORT John Tait.


    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES: Defensive tackle - UFA Keith Traylor won't be back, and holdovers Bryan Robinson and Alfonso Boone are ordinary players, not the kind of playmakers that Lovie Smith needs for his defense; Offensive left tackle - Mike Gandy filled in here for most of the past two seasons, but he's a guard, and he plays left tackle like a guard. 2002 first-round draft pick Marc Colombo may never make it back from a dislocated knee cap suffered in November of that year. For now, inexperienced Qasim Mitchell is No. 1 based on his two starts last season; Wide receiver - The Bears need a complement for Marty Booker, preferably one with big-play capabilities.


    DETROIT LIONS

    There is no doubt the addition of safety Brock Marion can be a major step in firming up the Lions' defensive secondary.

    But that does - and should not - mean the Lions have finished rebuilding in that area, which - except for cornerback Dre' Bly - was a virtual disaster area last season.

    In particular, it does not mean the Lions will - or should - forget about drafting safety Sean Taylor of Miami if he happens to be available when the exercise the No. 6 pick in the draft.

    Marion, who will be 34 in June, gives the Lions the leadership, experience and savvy they need at free safety and it is expected Brian Walker will start at strong safety with promising second-year safety Terrence Holt playing a backup role.

    What on earth would give anyone the idea that that combination would leave no room for Taylor, who is considered by some as the best athlete in the draft and has been referred to as the possible next Ronnie Lott?

    There is a distinct possibility Taylor would join Marion in the starting lineup ahead of Walker, who has not been the high-impact player the Lions had hoped for when they signed him two years ago, and Holt, who is still a work in progress.

    By the time Marion is ready to retire, Taylor would be going into the prime of his career, capable of playing either safety position and assuming the leadership role.

    Even without Taylor, the Lions have made huge strides in upgrading their secondary by adding cornerback Fernando Bryant and Marion; the addition of Taylor would make it a smashing success.


    NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • The Lions' offseason workout program gets underway this week and coach Steve Mariucci expects good results.

    "I think 56 out of 61 guys are going to be in, which is tremendous," Mariucci said. "The other guys will be in a little bit later.

    "We have fewer guys this year that are nursing surgeries and injuries and are limited than in years past. We had nine guys (last year) enter the season on PUP. This year we seem to be healthier in March and April."

  • The Lions' preseason schedule has been set, except for the actual dates of the games.

    They will open and close the preseason with home games against Pittsburgh (the weekend of Aug. 12-16) and Buffalo (Sept. 2-5), with road games against Cleveland (Aug. 19-23) and Baltimore (Aug. 26-30) in between.

    The exact dates will be announced along with the regular season schedule in early April.

    The Lions' regular season schedule includes home games against the NFC North division opponents plus Arizona, Houston, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Washington.

    The regular season road schedule includes games against Atlanta, Dallas, Jacksonville, the New York Giants, Tennessee and the NFC North teams.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I feel that I'm playing at a pretty good level right now. I've been doing that pretty consistently over my career. The main thing is that I'm having fun playing football; I still enjoy playing." — Safety Brock Marion, who will be 34 in June, on how much longer he'll be able to play with the Lions.


    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    The Lions had a ton of needs going into the offseason and they have had a steady stream of visitors at their Allen Park headquarters as president Matt Millen and coach Steve Mariucci try to fill the holes in the roster.

    Their most recent success was the signing of free safety Brock Marion. Combined with the signing of cornerback Fernando Bryant in early March, it gives the Lions a major overhaul in the defensive secondary where they struggled in 2003. With Bryant and Marion joining cornerback Dre' Bly, they should be much stronger in 2004.

    On the same day Marion visited, the Lions also hosted Denver linebacker Ian Gold. Although he left without a contract, the Lions have an obvious interest and an obvious need in signing him after losing weak-side linebacker Barrett Green to the NY Giants.

    Guard Ruben Brown visited the Lions last week also, but was not signed, leaving them still looking for a starting guard to line up with LG Damien Woody, who was signed early in March.

    A new concern has surfaced also. Backup QB Mike McMahon is expected to accept their one-year offer for $1.3 million but he is likely to leave after the 2004 season for a team that will give him a shot at a starting job. And the Lions have lost third-string QB Ty Detmer to Atlanta, leaving them in need of at least one young quarterback to develop.

    NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES: 1. Running back. They released veteran RB James Stewart for cap reasons and last year's biggest producer, Shawn Bryson, is a UFA, leaving only second-year RB Artose Pinner. They need a lead back, probably in the draft but might have to re-sign Stewart just to stay respectable for a year; 2. Wide receiver. The Lions released Bill Schroeder after two unhappy and unproductive seasons but they have to find a replacement to line up across from WR Charles Rogers. Two possibilities - UFA WR Tai Streets of San Francisco and a first or second-round draft pick; 3. Guard. By signing UFA Damien Woody from New England, the Lions are all set at LG but would like to land an experienced starter at RG, then re-sign Eric Beverly as a backup to all three interior line positions.



    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    It has been almost six months since Brett Favre suffered a fracture in his right thumb, but the veteran quarterback still can't bend the top half of it and probably never will.

    Offensive coordinator Tom Rossley examined Favre's thumb earlier this month during the 12 hours that he spent with the legendary leader at his estate outside Hattiesburg, Miss.

    "Because he played with it and did what he did he's never going to have that bend that he has with his other thumb," Rossley said. "If you're going to lose something, I guess it's not a bad thing to lose."

    The fracture occurred Oct. 19 early in the Packers' 34-24 loss in St. Louis. Favre was able to play through the injury with the help of a protective splint. The idea of surgery was discussed at length before eventually being discarded.

    Upon examination, Rossley said Favre can move the main joint in the middle of his thumb only slightly. His range of motion at the base of the thumb is normal.

    "You can see it just start to move a little bit," Rossley said. "He can't bend that top joint. It stays straight. He said he's learned to really just live with it. He's fine with the way it is now."

    Late in the season Favre said X-rays of the thumb revealed little structural improvement. When he touched the crack in his thumb, according to Favre, there were times that his stomach would begin to turn over.

    In the morning, Favre showed Rossley the many ongoing projects on his 460 acres of heavily wooded property.

    In the afternoon, they played golf.

    "We spent until 1 o'clock just going all around his property," Rossley said. "He's putting in culverts and building roads back through his property. He's chasing beavers and snakes and whatever. He goes in his own little world, then if it's a nice day he'll go play golf in the afternoon. He's getting that rush of Mississippi that he needs."

    Rossley served as Favre's position coach from 2000-'02 as well as coordinator before Darrell Bevell was promoted to the quarterbacks coach in ‘03. There have been occasions, conceded Rossley, when he and Favre haven't always agreed, but he maintained that their relationship always has been solid.

    "Not a lot of people think that but I think we get along real good," Rossley said. "Of the other quarterbacks I've coached or worked with, I (disagree) probably less with him because we've been together now going on five years. We kind of know each other pretty good."

    During their time together, the 34-year-old Favre was the one who kept bringing up football.

    "He's here to play," Rossley said. "He doesn't know how many more years (he'll play) but he knows he feels good right now. He's very confident in our team. He knows what we can do and how we're going about doing it. And, he's happy to have him (Chad Clifton) back."

    Despite the thumb injury, Favre had a passer rating of 90.4, sixth best in the NFL and the sixth best mark of his 12-year career in Green Bay. He led the NFL in touchdown passes (32), was second to Tennessee's Steve McNair in completion percentage (career-best 65.4 percent) and was sacked the fewest times (19) in his career.

    "When you run the ball as well as we did yet he leads the NFL in touchdown passes and he has the fewest number of sacks, I think it's a good year for him," Rossley said. "We can build on that next year and try to get more touchdown passes and maybe fewer sacks and maybe win a few more games."

    Favre also had 21 interceptions, a total that tied him for 28th in the league and was the fourth highest of his career.

    In order to advance deeper into the playoffs, the Packers also will need better performance from Favre in the postseason. His passer rating is merely 54.3 in the losses to St. Louis, Atlanta and Philadelphia that ended the last three seasons. However, coach Mike Sherman said Favre played the best game that he had ever seen him play in the wild-card victory over Seattle in January.

    When the painful subject of Favre's overtime interception by the Eagles' Brian Dawkins came up, Rossley said he told him: "I'll take the blame for that last play. Don't put it on yourself."

    Favre won't be asked to throw much in the late April minicamp but will participate more fully in the June minicamp.


    NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • Former Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Eric Crouch is back on an NFL roster.

    Crouch was placed on the reserve/retired list last July by the Packers when he left training camp after working as a quarterback throughout the offseason. He had been tried as a wide receiver by St. Louis in 2002.

    Now Crouch wants to play defensive back and the Packers have agreed to reinstate him from their retired list.

  • The Packers and linebacker Nate Wayne reached a settlement on the player's grievance against the team for full payment of a $750,000 roster bonus that was due in March 2003.

    Wayne contended that the club missed the deadline for cutting him in order not to pay the bonus. The club contended they got the move done by the deadline.

    Neither side would discuss the settlement, which came shortly before the grievance was to be decided by arbitration.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's something that I think will elevate my game. But it's not just him. It's the whole secondary. They have a good group of guys back there." — S Mark Roman on playing next to Darren Sharper.


    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    The Packers have expressed some interest in Cleveland quarterback Tim Couch.

    The Browns are through with Couch and are trying to trade him for a late pick before cutting him after June 1.

    The Packers are looking for the heir apparent to Brett Favre and have permission from the Browns to talk with Couch, and coach Mike Sherman has met with him.

  • The Packers are seriously interested in former Cowboys punter Toby Gowin. However, Gowin is expected to visit several teams, including the Jets.

  • Meanwhile, Green Bay signed a free-agent punter, Travis Hale. He punted for Rice in 2002 but was injured that season and didn't get into an NFL camp.

    NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES: The Packers will be looking to improve their shaky defense in the early stages of the draft; They would like to replace Marques Anderson as the starting strong safety; They would like to sign a defensive end to be in the rotation at the least. Possibly, he would take some playing time away from Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila; They need a cornerback, because Bhawoh Jue is the best that's behind Mike McKenzie and Al Harris; And they would like to find the heir apparent to Brett Favre.
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