NFC North Notes

A change in coordinators brings a change in style in Chicago, additional personnel is the key to bringing more explosiveness to Detroit, and for myriad reasons high-ranking offensive production may not be as easy in Green Bay.


New offensive coordinator Ron Turner is not nearly as gimmicky as the wacky Terry Shea was. Turner also runs the West Coast offense, but he is much more committed to a between-the-tackles power running game, which should favor rookie Cedric Benson ahead of veteran slasher Thomas Jones.

Shea's was supposedly a tight end TE-friendly scheme, but Bears tight ends were unproductive last season, although their general lack of talent at the position may have had something to do with that. The same nondescript group is back this season, although big WR Rob Johnson, a waived free agent, is being used as an H-back and could factor as a receiver. Veteran TE Desmond Clark has been a big bust and has missed almost the entire off-season with a sprained ankle.

A healthy Rex Grossman returning at quarterback should make all the Bears' receivers more productive and help the offense work more efficiently. Backup Chad Hutchinson has the benefit of a full off-season in the program and will be better equipped to fill in should Grossman suffer another injury.

Rookie running back Cedric Benson is No. 2 on the depth chart but that may be just the Bears' way of showing veteran incumbent starter Thomas Jones the proper respect. Not that Jones is a stiff, but Benson was the fourth overall pick in the draft, and he has shown better receiving skills than anticipated and the quickness and cutting ability to make the first tackler miss. It would surprise most observers if Benson is not the opening day starter.

The Bears' starting wide receivers are almost certain to be different this season. Career underachiever David Terrell was released and Bobby Wade could be on the bubble. Free agent Muhsin Muhammad was brought in to be the Bears' go-to guy and veteran leader, and he quickly adapted to that role. The mission now is to find a legitimate threat opposite Muhammad to take some of the heat off him.

For now, Justin Gage is the other starter. He was the forgotten man in Shea's offense last season. But with Shea gone and Turner running the offense, Gage is working with the first team and again showing the big-play potential that he did as a rookie. Gage doesn't have great speed, but he is a 6-foot-4 former college basketball player (Missouri) who has the ups to take deep balls away from shorter defensive backs.

Second-year wideout Bernard Berrian appears poised to take a big step this season. He showed flashes last season as a rookie - mostly as a deep threat - but he has demonstrated much more consistent hands this off-season and a greater willingness to test the middle of the field, something he shied away from last season or was not asked to do because of his frail appearance. Berrian provides a speed dimension lacking in other Bears wideouts.

Kicker Dough Brien has replaced Paul Edinger after the five-year veteran suffered through two straight unacceptable seasons. Brien has always been very accurate but chose the most inopportune times for his misses. Like Edinger, Brien is not a very effective kickoff man.

For the second straight season big bucks were poured into the offensive line. Free agent Fred Miller was signed to play right tackle, allowing John Tait to move to left tackle, which was a massive headache last season. Roberto Garza was added as insurance in case Terrence Metcalf is unable to hold on to the right guard spot.


  • Brian Urlacher appeared ready to realize his big-play potential last season in Ron Rivera's defense, but three separate injuries caused him to miss the first seven games of his career and derailed his season. But he still finished second on the team with 5.5 sacks, picked off a pass and forced two fumbles.

    That only served to heighten the anticipation for this season.

    "I think he can have a great year," coach Lovie Smith said. "Every time I talk with Brian I talk about him being one of the all-time great middle linebackers to play the game. I'm saying the same thing right now. He's healthy. It's the second year in the system for him. It should make a big difference. We're just looking for an excellent year from him."

  • With the departure of R.W. McQuarters, the punt-return job is up for grabs. WR Bernard Berrian, CB Nathan Vasher and rookie WR Mark Bradley are all contenders who have played the role effectively in college. Berrian also filled in as a kickoff-return man last season when Azumah was hurt, but his slight frame doesn't seem ideally suited to kickoffs.


    For the first three years of president Matt Millen's regime, the Lions' lament was a lack of big-play makers. That is no longer the case.

    Millen put the finishing touches on a nucleus of promising young playmakers that gives the Lions offense all the explosive capabilities it has lacked since the retirement of Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders six years ago.

    The last piece Millen fit into the offensive puzzle was wide receiver Mike Williams of USC – a big, sure-handed receiver expected to line up in the slot with two previous first-round picks - Charles Rogers and Roy Williams - lined up outside.

    The Lions also signed veteran tight end Marcus Pollard and wide receiver Kevin Johnson out of free agency, giving coach Steve Mariucci a solid, deep set of receivers from which to choose.

    The Lions believe they can create some favorable matchups when they put the full complement of receivers in the formation, with last year's rookie sensation running back Kevin Jones.

    If opposing defenses bring down a safety to stop Jones, they feel they can beat them with their receivers going downfield. If opposing defenses do not put the safety in the box, the Lions feel Jones will be able to take them apart with the running game.

    To facilitate the explosive offense, however, Millen also had to do some patchwork on the offensive line to fill a troublesome hole at left guard and bolster the tackle corps after the loss of starting right tackle Stockar McDougle to the Miami Dolphins in free agency.

    Millen signed Rick DeMulling, a three-year starter at Indianapolis, to move into the left guard position and landed Kyle Kosier to compete for the right tackle job and provide backup experience all the way down the offensive line.

    With all of the pieces in place for a seemingly more productive offense, the Lions also made a move to provide experienced help at the quarterback position, where Joey Harrington has been inconsistent in his first three NFL seasons.

    If Harrington falters, the Lions now have former San Francisco Pro Bowl quarterback Jeff Garcia in a backup role and - considering Mariucci's history with Garcia - there appears to be little doubt that Harrington will have to produce early and often or lose the job to Garcia.


  • Quarterback Jeff Garcia has carefully avoided comments that might be considered inflammatory regarding his role as the backup to three-year veteran Joey Harrington but - back home in Gilroy, Calif., for his annual golf outing - he recently spoke a little more freely.

    "It's Joey Harrington's job to lose," Garcia told the Gilroy Dispatch. "But I'm going to be right there nipping on his heels."

    There is speculation by Lions watchers that if Harrington does not get off to a fast start or if the Lions aren't winning early in the season, coach Steve Mariucci - who had Garcia as his quarterback in San Francisco - will be quick to make a change.

    And if Garcia gets that opportunity - a chance at the starting job for the Lions - he left little doubt about his intentions.

    "I don't plan on giving it back," he said.

  • In his first three seasons as the Lions quarterback, Joey Harrington has not gotten a lot of help from his receivers. Although he has never complained or pointed a finger at those who dropped passes, the performances in recent years by Bill Schroeder, Az-Zahir Hakim and Stephen Alexander speak for themselves.

    But Harrington is openly enthused with his current set of receivers - first-round draft picks Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams, veteran receiver Kevin Johnson and tight end Marcus Pollard.

    The three young first-round picks are particularly intriguing to a quarterback who will be under pressure to produce this year.

    "Big targets," Harrington said, when asked about Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams. "I think it'll be good for us because they're big targets down in the end zone.

    "We've struggled at times; we've had to settle for field goals sometimes when we didn't make plays down there. And having guys like that - who can screen out the defender and you can throw a high ball to -will really help out."

  • President Matt Millen talked about doing some free agent "bottom feeding" after the June roster cuts but he seems to be content with the Lions' roster as it presently stands.

    The addition of strong safety Kenoy Kennedy and cornerback R.W. McQuarters fortified the defense in a defensive secondary that now seems to be a solid as the rest of the defense, which is expected to be improved from last year when the Lions were 22d in the NFL in yards allowed.


    The Packers fielded one of the league's most prolific offenses in 2004, but it stands to reason that they won't be as good this season.

    Left guard Mike Wahle was deemed too expensive and GM Ted Thompson sacrificed him for salary-cap purposes. He signed a five-year, $27 million deal with Carolina that contained an $8 million signing bonus.

    Two days later, right guard Marco Rivera, whose contract had expired, signed a five-year, $19 million deal with Dallas that contained an $8.125 million signing bonus.

    Also, wide receiver Javon Walker and tight end Bubba Franks sat out the entire offseason for contractual reasons and are threatening to miss substantial portions of training camp. Walker wants to renegotiate the final two years of his contract. Franks is unhappy with his transition-player tender of $2.095 million and would like a long-term deal.

    At the same time, quarterback Brett Favre will turn 36 in October during the middle of his 15th season. That's about the time many great quarterbacks of the past began to fade.

    There are also durability concerns surrounding running back Ahman Green, who has taken a ton of punishment since 2000. He was dogged last season by Achilles' tendon, knee and rib-cartilage injuries and averaged 4.46 yards per carry in 17 games, down from 5.22 in 2003.

    The Packers signed oft-injured Patriot Adrian Klemm to replace Wahle. Klemm is a fine athlete and has good size, but any player with his injury background would be hard to rely on.

    Rivera's position will be filled by holdover Grey Ruegamer, an aggressive but not particularly athletic former center, or aging Matt O'Dwyer, a minimum-salary unrestricted free agent from Tampa Bay.

    Walker blossomed into a Pro Bowl receiver in ‘04 and now is demanding to be paid like it. He's a big, powerful player with the raw speed to run by almost any cornerback and a tremendous work ethic.

    Under the catastrophic possibility that Walker isn't on the field, the Packers would be hard-pressed to compensate with the triumvirate of Donald Driver, Robert Ferguson and rookie Terrence Murphy, a second-round draft choice from Texas A&M.

    The Packers selected Cal's Aaron Rodgers in the first round with the idea that he eventually will replace Favre. Coach Mike Sherman can only hope, however, that it happens later than sooner.


  • Brett Favre has sold his 7,800-square foot home on Green Bay's West Side. The exact price wasn't available but the asking price was $895,000, down from $1.35 million two years ago.

    It was purchased by Scott Gage, a radiologist from Racine, Wis., who is moving to Green Bay along with his wife and six of their eight children.

    "The fact that it was Brett Favre's was not the determining factor," Gage said. "But it was icing on the cake and a little more exciting for the kids. It takes a little of the dread out of moving."

  • The Packers have given thought to making a move on Lance Schulters, the veteran safety who was cut by Tennessee June 16.

    Don't expect GM Ted Thompson to fork out a lot of money for Schulters. Thompson has played it close to the vest since taking the job in January. He has been a frugal shopper in free agency, to say the least.

    The Packers appear weak at safety but at least there are plenty of bodies. Fighting for two jobs are incumbent Mark Roman, veterans Arturo Freeman and Earl Little, and rookie Nick Collins, a second-round pick from Bethune-Cookman.

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