NFC North News

The Bears will be working with a new offensive coordinator too. The Lions are hoping their improvements are deeper than their one-game climb on their record. And the Packers are working under a new organizational structure. Get those stories and more with an in-depth look at the Vikings' divisional rivals.


For lack of an offense, a coordinator and a season were lost.

After No. 1 quarterback Rex Grossman suffered a season-ending ruptured ACL in the third game of the season, the Bears couldn't move the ball through the air or on the ground. Offensive coordinator Terry Shea and line coach Pete Hoener took the fall, replaced by Ron Turner and Harry Hiestand from the University of Illinois, where Turner was fired in November.

Turner also coordinated the Bears' offense from 1993-96 with some success, and he and Hiestand are expected to produce a more effective ground game than Shea, who often abandoned the run or never tried to establish it at all.

Head coach Lovie Smith wants to run the ball more but especially run it more effectively. The 5-11 Bears finished tied for 25th in rushing yards and 26th in average gain per rush. Those numbers are unacceptable to Smith although they are outstanding compared to the Bears' passing game, which suffered from the absence of a ground attack and many other inadequacies.

The Bears were dead last in passing yards, average gain per pass, sacks allowed, first downs and third-down efficiency, and as a result of their inability to throw the ball, they were also last in points and total yards.

Even without a viable passing game, running backs Thomas Jones and Anthony Thomas both performed fairly well when given the opportunity. Jones had four 100-yard games and led the team with 56 receptions. When he missed three games with a toe injury, Thomas rushed for 280 yards.

After Grossman went down for the count, the Bears turned first to career backup Jonathan Quinn, who came to them in free agency highly recommended by Shea, which proved to be another mark against the offensive coordinator. Quinn's robotic nature resulted in him being sacked 15 times while throwing just 98 passes. Through 10 quarters of play, Quinn was sacked 10 times, while the offense produced 12 points.

Enter Craig Krenzel, a fifth-round pick who wasn't supposed to do much more than carry a clipboard during his rookie season. Because of a better-than-average defense that showed a penchant for takeaways and the ability to score when it forced a turnover, the Bears won Krenzel's first three starts. But he got sacked more often than Quinn — five times in each of his first three starts — and he also lost five fumbles, three of which resulted in touchdowns for the opposition.

After both Krenzel, as the starter, and Quinn, in relief, were awful in a Thanksgiving Day loss to the Cowboys, the call went out to Chad Hutchinson. The former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher, who had been cut by the Cowboys just before the start of training camp, had been languishing along the Bears' sideline since the end of September. Hutchinson showed more mobility and a better arm than the two quarterbacks who preceded him, and he won his first start, beating the Vikings with a three-TD performance. But four straight defeats closed out the season as Hutchinson's play fluctuated from mediocre to inadequate.

Hutchinson also couldn't avoid the deluge of defenders that regularly poured through an offensive line that failed miserably to live up to high expectations. Hutchinson was sacked nine times, leaving the Bears with a league- and franchise-worst 66 sacks.

All the blame doesn't belong on the quarterbacks or Shea. The offensive line was a sieve. Sure, injuries forced 10 different players to start up front, but Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz started all 16 games. Qasim Mitchell, another in a long line of inadequate left tackles, started the first 14 games until Marc Colombo was given a shot after a two-year rehabilitation from a dislocated kneecap. He didn't appear to be the answer, either. Right tackle John Tait, a $33.6 million free-agent acquisition, started all but three games. Depth was supposed to be a strength on this unit, but it wasn't.

Defensively, there is hope. Despite playing without the heart and soul of the unit for much of the season, the Bears were No. 13 in points allowed and No. 1 in third-down efficiency even though they struggled to stop the run when four-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher was out for seven games.

Ron Rivera's group also didn't present much of a pass rush as Adewale Ogunleye played hurt most of the season and contributed just five sacks in return for his $33 million contract. Free safety Mike Brown, the quarterback of the secondary, was lost for the season in Game 2, and Charles Tillman, the team's best cover corner, missed half the season with a fractured leg.

The good news is that everyone will be back since all the starters and the top backups are signed through next season.

In addition to solid defense, this group provided more scoring than the offense at times. Five different players (Mike Brown, Jerry Azumah, Nate Vasher, Michael Haynes and R.W. McQuarters) scored defensive touchdowns.


Ron Turner still gets high marks from those who played for him is his first go-round as the Bears' offensive coordinator from 1993-96.

"It's a step in the right direction," former Bears wide receiver Tom Waddle said, "but they still have a long road to go."

Waddle's final two seasons in Chicago coincided with Turner's first two as the offensive boss. Waddle remembers Turner as a regular guy, up front, honest and down to earth.

"Ron's not going to give himself a ‘B' grade when his offense is last in the league (as Terry Shea did)," Waddle said. "I loved the guy. He was not only a great offensive coordinator but a great communicator. It was Dave Wannstedt's first stint as a head coach, and he had his hands on everything. But Ron was a great buffer. I don't remember one guy who had anything bad to say about him."

But Waddle is concerned that Turner might not get a fair shake this time around because of his poor 35-57 record at Illinois.

"The problem is everybody will look at his record at Illinois and he'll already have one strike against him," Waddle said. "But what they should be looking at is eight years earlier and what he did with the Bears. It's been a long time since the Bears' offense has been as productive as it was under him."

Quarterback Erik Kramer's career year in 1995 came under Turner's guidance.

"I think it's a big win for the Bears," Kramer said. "I think the Bears are lucky. Ron is a fantastic coordinator and was instrumental in my success. I learned an awful lot from him. I think as a coordinator, what he does is put people in position to be successful."

  • Of the Bears' starters at the end of the season, four were 27, three were 23, two were 24, defensive tackle Tommie Harris is 21 and defensive end Alex Brown is 25. Of the top 20 players on defense, including injured players, tackle Alfonso Boone is the oldest, and he just turned 29 on Jan. 11. Better yet, everyone is under contract through 2005.

    "As you're building a defense, you have to start up front," coach Lovie Smith said. "Everything we do is based on getting pressure from our four-man front, and we feel like we have the player that we want at every position across the defensive line, and we really like our depth, also. Defensively, as a whole, (Brian) Urlacher (26) is the linebacker that we want to lead us for many years, and Lance Briggs (24) is also a player that we really like."

  • Ron Turner's arrival means that Rex Grossman will be working with his fifth different offensive coordinator in as many years dating to his final two seasons at Florida. But rather than complaining about having to digest another new playbook, the Bears quarterback is eager to begin operating Turner's West Coast system.

    "I've heard him describe the offense and I'm excited about playing for him," Grossman said. "He seems like a nice guy. The people that were here when he was the coordinator (during his first stint from 1993-96) say he's a great guy. I look forward to getting to know him and working with him."

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I enjoy having some input. I've been in systems where I had a lot of input. I've been in systems where I've called plays on the field. With (Florida coach Steve) Spurrier, I would change routes and had that ability to get us into the right play against any given defense. I've been with (John) Shoop where you were not allowed to say ‘boo' and he was a dictator. There's merit in both of them. Coach (Terry) Shea allowed us to give him some input on the sidelines about what we liked, especially game-planning. He would listen to us a little bit with some of our personal preferences." — Bears QB Rex Grossman.


    The results are there, almost as ugly as they were the previous three seasons.

    Six wins, ten losses.

    On the surface it's scant improvement over the 5-11 of the 2003 season, which was scant improvement over the 3-13 of the 2002 season, which was scant improvement over the 2-14 of the 2001 season.

    Although it was indeed another disappointing season for the Lions and set the sports talk radio hosts to howling, the 2004 season provided more encouragement than the Lions have seen in recent years.

    As painstakingly slow as team president Matt Millen's rebuilding program has been, it appears he has put in place a foundation on which the Lions can build in the seasons ahead.

    To say the Lions should reverse the past season's 6-10 record, and make a run at the NFC North title as well as the playoffs, is no longer an outrageous statement.

    "I've got a thousand reasons to be optimistic," coach Steve Mariucci said at the end of the season, and he might have been only slightly overstating the case.

    Millen has assembled the ingredients for a solid offense with talented players at running back and the wide receivers and has promising young players around whom he can build the Lions' defense.

    When the Lions won four of their first six games in 2004, expectations rose unrealistically. There was a hope that perhaps the Lions had bridged the gap from cellar dwellers to contenders in one fell swoop.

    That was not the case, of course, and the Lions struggled the rest of the way through the season with a five-game losing streak and only two wins in their final 10 games.

    Running back Kevin Jones came along dramatically, but the rest of the offense didn't keep pace. With Charles Rogers out for the season with his second broken collarbone in two years, Roy Williams playing on a sprained ankle and quarterback Joey Harrington having fewer ups than downs, the Lions offense sputtered inconsistently.

    Defensively, it was much the same.

    Pro Bowl cornerback Dre' Bly started slowly after suffering a sprained knee in the first game but finished strong, defensive tackle Shaun Rogers had his best year in four NFL seasons and defensive end James Hall had 11.5 sacks, which was more than he had total in his first four NFL seasons.

    Overall, however, the defense struggled with aging, slowing safeties, and the youthful linebackers experienced their share of growing pains.

    Unlike the Lions of two or three years ago, when the team needed help in virtually every position, this team has promise and potential. If Millen can plug a couple of holes — most notably at left guard and strong safety — the Lions might finally get back to respectability. Maybe even to the playoffs.


    Ted Tollner, the offensive coordinator of the 2-14 San Francisco 49ers last season, is among the first coaches Lions coach Steve Mariucci approached in his search for a replacement for Lions offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis, who is retiring.

    Tollner, 64, spent the past three years with the 49ers — two years as the quarterbacks coach under Mariucci and last season as the coordinator under Dennis Erickson. Before that, he had NFL experience at Buffalo, San Diego and the Los Angeles Rams.

    Mariucci interviewed three of his current staff members — line coach Pat Morris, running backs coach Tom Rathman and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson, who called plays the final three weeks of the season — but indicated he expects to hire from outside the Lions organization.

  • Mariucci and team president Matt Millen hastily denied a published report last week that they are entertaining plans to release quarterback Joey Harrington rather than pay him a $3 million signing bonus he is due later in the summer.

    The team put out a statement categorically denying the report and also refuted the suggestion that Sherman Lewis had been forced out as offensive coordinator.

  • Depending on exactly what happens in the free agent chase next spring, the Lions have a schedule that appears favorable to their attempts to get back into the race for the playoffs and an NFC North title.

    The Green Bay Packers (10-6) and Minnesota Vikings (8-8) both finished ahead of the Lions in 2004, but neither appears to be a dominant team in the division. And the Lions' 10 opponents outside the division include only three teams — Atlanta (11-5), Baltimore (9-7) and Pittsburgh (15-1) — with winning records.

    The other seven non-division opponents are no better than 8-8. They include Carolina (7-9), Arizona (6-10), Cincinnati (8-8), New Orleans (8-8), Tampa Bay (5-11), Dallas (6-10) and Cleveland (4-12).

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "We are giving Joey — and I'm trying to prove it by the way we've been with him — every opportunity to develop into our quarterback. I can't guarantee he's our quarterback for the next 12 years, but everything we have been doing is in keeping with developing him for the future, making progress every way we can." — Coach Steve Mariucci on a report that the Lions might dump quarterback Joey Harrington during the offseason.


    The Packers have gone back to the organizational structure that carried them to two Super Bowls in the 1990s.

    Last week, Packers president Bob Harlan informed coach Mike Sherman that he was stripping him of his duties as general manager and was hiring Seattle personnel director Ted Thompson to take his place.

    Thompson, a Packers scout under GM Ron Wolf from 1992 to 2000, received a five-year contract worth about $6 million. He was the only candidate sought by Harlan.

    Five days later, Sherman finally made his first public comment on his demotion.

    Declaring the loss of his GM position as "an opportunity, not an obstacle," he accepted the verdict of Harlan and agreed to return for a sixth season as coach.

    "Bob Harlan made a decision that he believes is in the best interests of the Green Bay Packers and Mike Sherman," Sherman said. "I trust in Bob's decision. From there we move forward."

    Sherman had been GM since Harlan promoted him in January 2001 following Wolf's surprising resignation.

    As Sherman spoke in the team's media auditorium, Harlan watched on TV from four floors above and saw the pain reflected in Sherman's words and body language.

    "Oh sure, I know he's hurt," Harlan said. "He's a competitor, and it's tough for him to give up. But I still think in the long run it's going to be best for him. He was going to run himself right into the ground."

    Sherman, whose teams won three straight NFC North championships, acknowledged making mistakes as Wolf's successor but never came close to saying that the decision was just because he hadn't performed effectively.

    "I poured my heart and soul into this job since I've been here, and I'm proud of what I've accomplished, both as a head coach and as a general manager," he said.

    Clearly, his respect for Harlan's judgment was one reason why Sherman said he never considered walking away from the final year on his contract.

    "It doesn't matter if I agree or disagree," he said. "My boss made a decision, just like I make decisions to affect my staff.

    "This will in no way diminish my passion to do the very best job I can do in whatever capacity I'm called upon. The bottom line is, I want what Bob Harlan wants. And that is for the Green Bay Packers to continue to be successful and to achieve ultimate success.

    "I'm proud to be the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. I feel very fortunate to be the head coach of the Packers. I'm proud of what we did."

    At this point, Sherman also is a lame duck. He has a year left at about $3.2 million, the exact same amount that he would have made in the dual role.

    "Ted and I have not even discussed Mike's contract," Harlan said.

    Said Sherman: "Those things work themselves out. As I tell my kids all the time, you do the very best job you can and work as hard as you can. Give back to your employer every penny that he paid you and more, then live for another day."

    Harlan admitted it might be difficult to hire top-notch assistant coaches with a head coach entering the final year of his contract. Still, he basically has signed off on Sherman's future to Thompson, whose neck is on the chopping block and might want time to evaluate the coach.

    "That's basically what Ron did when he came in," Harlan said.

    Wolf signed a five-year contract worth about $2 million in Green Bay on Wednesday, Nov. 27, 1991, met with reporters and flew back to his home on Long Island. He joined the team that Sunday in Atlanta, scouted Brett Favre in pre-game warmups, evaluated coach Lindy Infante over the next three weeks and fired him the day after the last game.

    Thompson was the only candidate sought by Harlan. In October, Harlan consulted with Steelers owner Dan Rooney, chairman of the NFL Workplace Diversity committee, and was informed he wasn't required to interview a minority candidate.

    Sherman and Thompson have been friends since both worked for the Packers in the late 1990s. Several times over the years, Sherman said he would have preferred working under Wolf, but with his retirement he believed the omnipotent-coach structure was best.

    "Now if I didn't think Ted and I shared an equal vision and passion for the Packers, I would have concerns," Sherman said. "But I know what his work ethic is, and so I have very good confidence in sharing the responsibility.

    "As with Ron, he'll listen to me and consult me. Ultimately, it's his call. It's in his job description. That's the way it is. But I'm sure I'll have input."

    Some other names on Harlan's list didn't even know Sherman and, if hired, might have made for a more uncomfortable if not untenable situation for him.

    Sherman indicated that he appreciated Harlan keeping his feelings in mind in choosing a GM.

    "I would be lying if I said it was an easy thing for me," he said. "I asked him if this was a performance-based decision and he said absolutely, positively not. I take anything that's presented to me and I run with it. And I will run with this as far as he lets me."

    Harlan was concerned about how Sherman appeared to be increasingly consumed by the job and had worries about his health, which the coach said he also appreciated. Now, said Sherman, he will have less weighing on him during off hours and might spend less time working during his summer vacation.

    "He's got a place in Door County, but he kept running back here and being in the office," Harlan said. "I kept saying, ‘Why don't you stay for a while?' He's got a great work ethic, but it could kill him, too.

    "He went up to Door County one time last spring. Said he just got in the place and just sat down and the phone rang and it was somebody here informing him about (Mike) McKenzie's statement that he wanted out. He spent the next five hours on the phone.

    "Now, the general manager would do that."

    Describing himself as "a Buick as opposed to a BMW," Sherman defended some of his personnel moves and expressed confidence that rookie cornerback Ahmad Carroll will develop into a good player.

    "Did I make mistakes? Yeah, I did," he said. "And I admitted those mistakes and have learned from those mistakes. But there aren't many guys out there, including my mentor (Wolf), who didn't."

    The decision by Sherman and late VP Mark Hatley to select punter B.J. Sander in the third round was sheer folly. Not only did they go against the recommendations and pleas of their scouts but also against the consensus of opinion across the NFL. Sander simply wasn't that good of a prospect. Sherman became the first GM to trade up for a punter in at least 20 years.

    The Packers could have used that third-rounder on a real player if they had just given unrestricted free agent Josh Bidwell another $100,000 or so. Bidwell had another Bidwell year for Tampa Bay, tying for 11th in net.

    Sherman also wasted picks by trading up for DT Donnell Washington, a classic boom-or-bust choice, and dealing for DE R-Kal Truluck. The Truluck deal negated the heist of fifth- and sixth-round picks from Oakland just 48 hours earlier for S Marques Anderson.

    Mike McKenzie's personality conflict with Sherman eventually led to his Oct. 4 trade to New Orleans for a second-round pick. However, it came only after McKenzie's distracting presence contributed to an awful opening month. Panicked to gain leverage on McKenzie, Sherman took a midget cornerback (Ahmad Carroll) in the first round and another immature one (Joey Thomas) in the third. The only new contributor of merit was defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins.

    The signing of quarterback Tim Couch in June for a $625,000 signing bonus at least made sense even though it didn't work out. Spending $700,000 on a safety, Mark Roman, who wasn't wanted by Cincinnati was a mistake. He was the worst starter on one of the worst defenses in club history.

    Sherman began the year by firing the perfectly capable Ed Donatell and replacing him with Bob Slowik, his secondary coach, assistant head coach and good friend. While Donatell continued doing solid work in Atlanta, the Packers' defense had its fewest takeaways (15) ever and its worst ranking (No. 25) since ‘83.

    Sherman did his best work when the team was 1-4 and being written off. His Saturday night speech in Detroit ignited a six-game winning streak. Days earlier, Sherman stepped into the play-calling breach when offensive coordinator Tom Rossley underwent angioplasty.

    One source close to the situation estimated that from midseason on Sherman called about 60% of the plays, but whoever was doing it the Packers shattered their club record for total offense by 11 1/2 yards per game (397.3).

    Although his team didn't reflect it in ‘04, Sherman is a regimented grinder who runs highly efficient practices and never met a problem that he didn't think could be solved. He isn't as facile on game days.

    Becoming the first team since the exceptional Green Bay squads of 1995, ‘96 and ‘97 to win the division three years in a row almost was forgotten after the bitterly disappointing playoff defeat against Minnesota, a back-sliding team they had beaten twice.

    On the night of Oct. 11, the Packers were 1-4 after being flogged by lowly Tennessee and ahead of not one other team in the NFC. When the season ended, the Packers had turned a 9-2 finish into the NFC's third-best record, 10-6.

    To be sure, it was a suspect 10-6, given that the NFC was in disrepair (20-44 against the AFC) and the Packers didn't beat a foe that finished better than 8-8.

    Just as the Packers scored a ton of points (424, fourth best in team history) and allowed a ton (380, fifth most in team history), they played dramatically different at home and on the road. Pfffft ... there went the Lambeau Field mystique with a disgraceful 4-5 record.

    However, Green Bay went 6-2 away, its best since Dan Devine, of all people, went 6-1 in ‘72. The record against the spread (7-9-1) reflected unmet expectations for a team whose Super Bowl aspirations weren't farfetched at all given a modicum of defense.

    The Packers caught a break for the second year on the injury front when six starters missed a combined total of just 24 games. But for the seventh straight season a team quarterbacked by Brett Favre didn't even make the NFC Championship Game, let alone the Super Bowl.


  • The Packers' ground game in 2004 generated 40 fewer yards per game than a year ago, but the dropoff certainly wasn't because of poor blocking by tackle Chad Clifton or tight end Bubba Franks.

    Clifton reduced his number of "bad" runs from 17 to 6 whereas Franks trimmed his team-leading total from 19 to 8 1/2.

    A "bad" run is defined as a carry for 1 yard or less not occurring in short-yardage or goal-line situations.

    Offensive line coach Larry Beightol said Clifton's fifth season clearly was his best as a run blocker. He also said that Clifton probably should showed more improvement on the back-side cutoff block than at the point of attack.

    "There's a lot of times last year he'd dive at their feet," Beightol said. "Sometimes he got them and sometimes he didn't. This year, he stayed on his feet better. He sustained and finished those blocks where a year ago he didn't do it as much."

    Franks benefited from a blocking change on strong-side counter and power plays partially because of opponents' tactics in which he wound up matched outside more often against linebackers and defensive backs than inside blocking down against defensive ends.

    However, his major area of improvement also might have been cutting down defenders on plays run away from him.

    "I think his footwork on the back side, taking a better drop step and getting a better aiming point, was better," first-year tight ends coach Joe Philbin said.

    Grey Ruegamer was charged with the most "bad" runs. By subjective count he had 13 1/2, followed by Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle with 12 1/2, Ahman Green with 9, Mark Tauscher with 8, Tony Fisher with 6 1/2, Mike Flanagan with 6, William Henderson with 5, Nick Luchey and Kevin Barry with 4 1/2, Scott Wells and Najeh Davenport with 2, Ben Steele with 1 1/2, Donald Driver and Walter Williams with 1 and Robert Ferguson with 1/2.

  • One year after setting the team record for a 16-game season by allowing 19 sacks, the Packers broke their all-time mark by yielding just 14. They allowed two more in the playoff game.

    The offensive line was charged with nine of the 16 compared to five of 20 (counting playoffs) last season. Rivera allowed 2 1/2, followed by Clifton with 2, Wahle with 1 1/2 and Ruegamer, Flanagan and Wells, each with 1. Tauscher and Barry didn't allow any.

    Brett Favre, who was accountable for 10 1/2 sacks in 2003 and 10 in ‘02, reduced his number to 3 1/2.

    In six seasons with Beightol tutoring the line, the Packers have ranked eighth, sixth, third, seventh, fifth and first in percentage of sacks allowed.

    Knockdowns, defined as pass plays not including sacks in which the quarterback is knocked down, totaled 34 for the second straight year. Tauscher allowed the most with 6, followed by Ruegamer with 3 1/2, Clifton and Rivera with 3, Wahle with 2 1/2 and Franks with 2.

    Clifton also was responsible for 12 pressures, defined as times when the quarterback's throw was impeded or he was forced to vacate the pocket.

    Of the four linemen who played almost every snap, Wahle allowed the fewest total of sacks, knockdowns and pressures with 9 1/2 followed by Rivera and Tauscher with 13 1/2 and Clifton with 17. Ruegamer gave up 7.

  • The Packers had the 19th most penalties (116) in the NFL, their second-worst finish since 1992. The defense had 51 penalties accepted, 18 more than the team's average over the previous 15 seasons. Another 17 penalties on the defense were declined or offsetting.

    Ahmad Carroll was penalized 17 times. His 12 accepted penalties included five holds, three pass interference and one illegal contact on defense plus two holds and one illegal block on special teams. His five declined or offsetting penalties included two holds, one illegal contact and one offsides on defense plus one hold on special teams.

    Meanwhile, Al Harris had 13 penalties, all on defense. His 10 accepted penalties included four illegal hands to the face, three holds, two illegal contacts and one pass interference. His three declined or offsetting penalties included one hold, one illegal hands and one pass interference.

    On the other hand, Darren Sharper didn't have an accepted penalty. He has just 12 penalties in eight seasons.

    Clifton led on offense with 9 penalties, including 8 false starts. He was followed by Rivera with 7 (5 holds), Wahle with 6, Javon Walker and Robert Ferguson with 5, Ruegamer and Franks with 4, Favre with 3, and Tauscher and Barry with 2.

  • Viking Update Top Stories