NFC North News

Each team in the NFC North is heavily involved in the coaching carousel this year. While the Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings are searching for a new head coach, the Chicago Bears are fielding interest for defensive coordinator Ron Rivera as a head coaching candidate from several other teams.

CHICAGO BEARS

Bears coach Lovie Smith can relate to the situation that his defensive coordinator Ron Rivera finds himself in this week.

As a "hot" assistant coach being considered for one or more of several newly open head coaching positions in the wake of a bloodletting that has seen five firings and the possibility of more to come, Rivera is in demand.

Smith was in a similar position with the Rams after the 2003 season and wound up with the Bears' top job. Now it's Smith's former team that has been the first to express interest in Rivera, although the Vikings and others could soon follow suit.

Rams team president John Shaw hopes to hire a coach to replace the fired Mike Martz in three or four weeks, and so far, Rivera is the only NFL assistant with a playoff team that he's asked permission to speak with, which the Bears have granted. Martz was instrumental in promoting Smith's candidacy two years ago.

"I was in the exact same situation that (Rivera) is in right now, and Mike Martz did a great job of helping me," Smith said. "One of his goals was to help me get a head football coaching job, and he was able to do that. I'm going to do everything I possibly can to help Ron. Ron has done a great job for us here. He deserves his opportunity to run his own team."

Coaches on playoff teams that have games this weekend cannot interview with prospective employers, but because the Bears have a bye, Rivera is available per league rules. After that, he is off limits until the Bears are eliminated.

"This is the ideal week to do it," Smith said, "and I've told Ron that whatever he needs to do, when he needs to do it this week, to do that and just let me know what I can do to help. I think the resume speaks for itself. As teams look at Ron, they should look at what he was able to do with our defense this year. We have a lot of smart football people out there, and I think they'll look at that."

The Bears allowed 45 fewer points than any other team in the NFL, finished No. 2 in yards allowed and will send five defensive players to the Pro Bowl. Last season they were No. 13 in points and No. 1 in yards allowed in Rivera's first season. They were No. 22 in points and No. 14 in yards the year before Rivera arrived after five years as the Eagles' linebackers coach.

Smith will point out that and other attributes to Rivera's suitors.

"I would (tell them) what he was able to do in two years of being the defensive coordinator in charge of that group," Smith said. "I think that's what teams (will see). That's what you're looking for, a guy who can lead, and you have the results of what he can get accomplished. I think that should say enough for the job he's been able to do in two years."

The Rams are believed to be leaning toward a defensive coach but have not ruled out another offense-oriented coach like Martz. Another strong possibility is Pittsburgh Steelers assistant head coach/offensive line coach Russ Grimm, who interviewed for the Bears job that Smith got after the 2003 season. Shaw has already said he does not plan to interview Rams interim head coach Joe Vitt for the job and that no college coaches were on his list.

Smith wouldn't confirm that it was the Rams who requested permission to talk to Rivera, but he expects other teams to come calling.

"I don't really want to talk about the team that's contacted him, but if you were looking for a head football (coach) right now, wouldn't you want to contact him?" Smith said. "I think quite a few of the teams will contact him this week."

Because the Rams owe Martz two more years, including $3.25 million for the 2006 season, they are not as likely to pursue a high-priced replacement. With no former head coaching experience, Rivera isn't likely to command as high a salary.

NOTES

  • Before Sunday's season finale, rookie running back Cedric Benson wasn't positive what kind of response he'd get from the right knee he sprained seven weeks ago, but he came out of the game feeling better.

    "I was about 95 percent sure I was OK, and a couple of hits finished the rest of the 5 percent for me," said Benson, who picked up 35 yards on nine carries. "It felt pretty good. It was a little sore (afterward), but that's expected. I made it through; did pretty good, too."

    Benson said he'd be even healthier for the Bears' playoff opener.

    "I'll be better in two weeks than I am right now," he said. "If (Sunday) was a playoff game, I could have made an impact. I think we showed we not only can get it done with our starting (lineup), but we can get it done with our backups, too."

    While Benson has been hurt before, he'd never experienced an injury as significant as the one he suffered against the 49ers on Nov. 13.

    "This was my first injury," he said. "You play with hurts all the time. I've played with cracked ribs, bruised shoulders, sprained ankles, things like that. But this was the first major injury I've ever had."

  • Backup interior offensive lineman Roberto Garza, who could be the Bears' starting right guard in their playoff opener, signed a six-year contract extension on Monday.

    Garza has started four games at left guard earlier this season when Ruben Brown was out with a partially torn chest muscle, and three at right guard when Terrence Metcalf had a shoulder injury. Garza might be back at right guard in the Bears' divisional-round playoff game the weekend of Jan. 14-15 because of Metcalf's sprained knee. The five-year veteran was signed to a one-year, $900,000 contract as an unrestricted free agent last season after playing four seasons with the Falcons and starting 31 games.

  • S Brandon McGowan, the Bears' No. 3 safety, suffered a sprained knee and could miss the divisional-round playoff game.

  • OG Terrence Metcalf suffered a sprained knee Sunday and might not be back for the first playoff game. He was making his first start after missing three games with a shoulder injury.

  • OG Roberto Garza would replace Terrence Metcalf in the starting lineup if Metcalf can't play due to a sprained knee. In the seven games Garza has started this season, four at left guard and three at right guard, the Bears' offensive line hasn't suffered any drop-off in effectiveness.

    Garza also signed a six-year contract extension Monday.

  • QB Kyle Orton remains the Bears' No. 2 despite an unimpressive performance as the starter in the meaningless season finale.

  • QB Jeff Blake completed seven of eight passes Sunday for a passer rating of 129.2, but he was not promoted from No. 3 to No. 2 ahead of Kyle Orton.


    DETROIT LIONS

    Even if interim coach Dick Jauron is passed over in president Matt Millen's search for a permanent replacement for Steve Mariucci, the Lions players say Jauron has left a mark on the team.

    Since taking over the coaching duties for his deposed pal Mariucci on Nov. 28, Jauron has extolled the virtues of hard work and accountability. And, even though the Lions were just 1-4 under Jauron's watch, his approach seems to have made an impression.

    "I think some of the things Dick started to instill in us, things that we talked about, his demeanor, his attitude, I think it started to rub off," tight end Marcus Pollard said Monday. "I think he did a great job the last five games he coached."

    Jauron, who won NFL coach of the year honors for taking the Chicago Bears to a 13-3 season in 2001, has made no secret of his interest in becoming the Lions' permanent head coach.

    Millen noted after Mariucci's firing, however, that he had made no commitment to Jauron or any other coaches on the current staff, and it appears he will conduct a thorough search before settling on a successor.

    Jauron was aware of that fact, but he seems to feel good about the five games he had as the team's interim head coach.

    "I have said all along that I like these players," Jauron said. "I like most players, I like being around them. These guys are hard workers.

    "You feel disappointment for them that we didn't have a better year and that we didn't have more success on the field. You just have to believe strongly that the work they put in does make a difference and will make a difference down the road; it will pay off.

    "We talked about that a good deal because I think that is the truth. What they do does make a difference on and off the field. They have to believe that and then build on it."

    NOTES

  • After four years with the Lions, quarterback Joey Harrington isn't sure what's next in his NFL career — whether the Lions will keep him, trade him or simply release him during the offseason.

    Although he finished relatively strong — after twice losing the starting job to veteran Jeff Garcia during the season — there is speculation among fans and even some media that Harrington will not be the Lions quarterback when they go to camp next summer.

    And Harrington, the third player taken in the 2002 NFL draft, isn't even sure where he would like to continue his career or what would be best for him.

    "Initially at least, I'm not in control of what happens," Harrington said. "It's a waiting game for me. I've expressed how I feel, and I'm still not convinced myself.

    "A big part of me wants to stay and right what we've started, but another part of me wants to get a fresh start somewhere. So I don't know. It will play out, but for now you sit and wait and clear your mind, so you're prepared for what happens.

    "I'm in a position waiting to see what they want to do with me."

    Harrington's three-touchdown performance in the season-ending 35-21 loss to Pittsburgh helped his overall season numbers. He completed 57 percent of his throws, had 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, and finished with a passer rating of 72.0.

    The overall feeling of fans and media seemed to warm toward Harrington after he missed five starts, apparently with the realization that Harrington was only one part of the Lions' on-going problems.

    His fate is probably in the hands of Lions president Matt Millen, although the new coach might have some input into the eventual decision on whether to keep Harrington.

    "I'm waiting to see what they would like to do with me," he said. "Two months ago, the consensus was that I was on the first thing smokin' out of town, and a month ago, all of a sudden I'm staying.

    "You can't let yourself get too high or too low. You can't let yourself read into every sort of fad, every mentality the mob picks up. You've just got to ride it out and see what happens."

  • Mike Williams, the third of the Lions' three consecutive first-round pick wide receivers, packed up and headed for warmer climes (Tampa, Fla.) after what was basically a disappointing rookie season.

    Williams, the 10th player taken in the 2005 NFL draft, caught 29 passes for 350 yards and a touchdown.

    The feeling around the team was that Williams, who will be 22 on Wednesday, still has a lot of growing up to do, has to learn better work habits and — lacking in speed — has to learn to use his size and strength better.

    The Lions hoped for more from him but — considering he had missed a full season of football after following Maurice Clarett's ill-fated lead out of the NCAA ranks — a period of transition might have been expected.

    Williams, himself, was not entirely disappointed with his rookie season, although he admitted he could have done more to help himself.

    "There's always room to do a lot more," he said. "I didn't really take advantage of the opportunity when Chuck (Charles Rogers) got suspended and Roy (Williams) got hurt, to really kind of take off. I think I could have done better."

    Rogers was suspended for four games in October and early November for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, about the same time Roy Williams was missing three games with a severe quadriceps injury.

    Mike Williams had two notable games — five catches for 95 yards Oct. 23 against Cleveland and six catches for 86 yards Nov. 24 against Atlanta.

  • For the past two seasons, cornerback Dre' Bly has been one of the most enthusiastic of the Lions players, even to the point that he helped the team's management convince free agent players — including guard Damien Woody — to play with the Lions.

    He expressed disappointment, however, when coach Steve Mariucci was fired in late November and was openly critical of quarterback Joey Harrington.

    Bly was asked whether he still feels strongly about staying with the Lions after the frustrations of the just-completed 5-11 season.

    "I want to win," Bly said. "That's plain and simple; that's basically how I feel. I just want to win, and I want to be a part of something good. That's the reason I came here."

    Bly felt that Mariucci would have had the same success rebuilding the Lions that he enjoyed after two down seasons with the San Francisco 49ers earlier in his career.

    "I've had some great times, and I'm not saying I want to leave," Bly said, "but if we're not going to win, if things are not going to go right, a lot of veteran guys toward the end of their careers are not going to want to be here."

    Bly said he won't necessarily be involved in the recruiting of free agents this year.

    "I'm going to stay away," he said. "I need to relax some and spend time with my family. That's really not my job to do that. ... I need to take a break because it's been a long year. I need to get away from football."

  • QB Joey Harrington improved his completion of percentage (from 56.0 to 57.0) but took a step back in most of the other important categories in 2005. His touchdown passes dropped from 19 to 12, his interceptions remained the same (12) and his passer rating slipped from 77.5 to 72.0. Harrington got less playing time than in any of his previous three seasons, sitting out four full games when Jeff Garcia started.

  • QB Jeff Garcia, coming off his second consecutive subpar season, appears unlikely to be back with the Lions for the 2006 season. The Lions signed Garcia after a disappointing season at Cleveland in 2004 on the insistence of former coach Steve Mariucci, but Garcia threw just three touchdown passes, was intercepted six times, was 1-4 as a starter and had a passer rating of 68.0.

  • RB Kevin Jones had one of his strongest performances of the season in the Lions' 35-21 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the finale. After sitting out three of the previous four games with injuries, Jones carried 18 times for 78 yards. Jones' production was off drastically from his rookie rushing total of 1,133 yards and five touchdowns. He had 664 yards and five touchdowns in 2005.

  • TE Marcus Pollard finished his first season in Detroit as the Lions' leading receiver. The 11-year veteran caught 46 passes for 516 yards and three touchdowns. His career bests were 47 catches for 739 yards at Indianapolis in 2001.

  • WR Roy Williams' 15-yard touchdown reception in the Lions' 35-21 loss at Pittsburgh in the season finale pushed his second-season touchdown total to eight, the same number he had as a rookie last year. Williams' two-year total of 16 touchdown receptions is the most by any Lions player in his first two seasons.


    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    The Packers' 4-12 record, their worst season in 14 years, didn't cost Mike Sherman his job as head coach.

    At least that's what general manager Ted Thompson put forth in announcing the firing of Sherman on Monday. In fact, Thompson was vague about his reasons for the move, other than to say more than once that "it's time for a new face."

    "I didn't really base this decision on our record this year or the play of our players," Thompson said. "I think our team hung in there very well and played under some very difficult circumstances and played hard each and every week. This was more thinking in terms of where we are and where we need to get to. It's what I thought was best for the Green Bay Packers over the long haul."

    With that, one of the most successful tenures in the illustrious 87-year history of pro football's oldest franchise abruptly ended. The move came sixteen hours after the Packers gave their supporters something to smile about in a gloomy season with a 23-17 victory over Seattle at Lambeau Field.

    Thompson informed Sherman of the decision during a brief meeting, which wasn't prearranged, shortly after 7 a.m. Monday.

    "Naturally, he was disappointed," Thompson recounted.

    Turns out the players, who were mostly resolute down the stretch in not quitting on Sherman, couldn't have saved his job anyway by beating the Seahawks.

    Thompson said he had his mind made up about cutting loose Sherman, 51, a few days before the game.

    Including postseason appearances, Sherman compiled a 59-43 record in six seasons with the team. The .578 winning percentage is fourth-best in franchise history, behind Vince Lombardi, Mike Holmgren and Curly Lambeau.

    The Packers, though, were just 2-4 under Sherman in the playoffs. They suffered the franchise's only home losses in the postseason in NFC wild-card games to Atlanta and Minnesota in the 2002 and ‘04 seasons. Those defeats sandwiched the infamous fourth-and-26 meltdown and overtime loss at Philadelphia in a divisional-playoff game.

    Thompson said no assistant coaches were relieved of their duties.

    Sherman wasn't made available to the media Monday.

    Following the game Sunday, he acknowledged, "Regardless of circumstances or situations, every coach is measured by wins and losses, and we fell short in that area."

    Many of the players were as surprised when Thompson broke the news to them later in the morning Monday as Sherman was said to have been.

    "I'm just really shocked because of how hard coach Sherman works," defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila said. "When you think of someone getting fired, you think of someone as (being) lazy, don't work hard, don't put effort into it. He's the epitome of a professional."

    The players gave Sherman a standing ovation when he entered the team auditorium for their annual season-ending meeting.

    "It was a sad moment at the time," nose tackle Grady Jackson said. "To come in after the general manager said he just fired coach Sherman, that hurt a lot of guys because they felt like coach Sherman didn't have a full deck of cards."

    Jackson was referring to a slew of injuries that doomed the Packers from the outset of the season. They lost Pro Bowl receiver Javon Walker to a season-ending knee injury in Week 1. By midseason, the top running back tandem of Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport, along with promising rookie receiver Terrence Murphy, had joined Walker on injured reserve.

    At season's end, an IR list that was dotted by 19 players at one time or another since the preseason also included receiver Robert Ferguson, tight end Bubba Franks and rookie Samkon Gado, who flourished as the team's fifth featured back for a stretch in the second half before succumbing to a knee injury in December.

    "I feel like we could have done better," Jackson added.

    Rather than give Sherman a mulligan for the Packers' nose dive from the top of the NFC North for three straight years to the cellar, Thompson dropped the ax.

    Never mind that Thompson in August extended Sherman's lucrative contract by two years through the 2007 season. On Monday, the first-year GM said he had no regrets digging deep into the franchise's coffers and committing $3.2 million annually to Sherman, reasoning that the would-be lame-duck coach "deserved that vote of confidence."

    Since it wasn't in the win-loss columns, where Sherman lost Thompson's trust in the 4 1/2 months that ensued isn't clear.

    "I'm thinking in terms of where we are, where we need to get to. I just think it's time for a new face in that position," Thompson said.

    The face of the club could be radically altered next season, starting with its most prominent feature. Thompson didn't inform Brett Favre of the imminent firing of Sherman before the quarterback returned home Sunday night.

    Favre had said earlier in the season he wouldn't be in favor of coming back for a 15th year with the team if a coaching change were made and it meant having to learn a new offensive system. Thompson said he didn't heed the purported warning from the team's undisputed leader in making the call on Sherman's fate.

    "Eventually, Brett Favre's going to retire and go back to Mississippi. But, that didn't have any sway in this particular decision," Thompson said.

    Favre, who didn't address the media after the game Sunday, indicated in comments made through the team's public-relations department that he plans to take some time in the offseason before announcing whether he will return next season or retire.

    What could convince Favre to come back for at least one more year is the hiring of Steve Mariucci, his first quarterbacks coach in Green Bay. Favre and Mariucci remain close.

    The name of Mariucci, fired in November as Detroit's head coach, has been bandied about in recent weeks with regard to returning to the Packers as offensive coordinator.

    As Thompson this week begins the process of identifying and interviewing candidates for the job of head coach, Green Bay defensive coordinator Jim Bates may emerge as a leading contender.

    Bates, in his first year with the team, lifted a unit that ranked 25th in total defense to seventh this season. The Packers also were No. 1 against the pass.

    Some of the players on the defensive side were lobbying Monday for Bates to get the top job.

    "I think he's qualified," Jackson said. "He's a great guy. Just being on the defensive side and how he comes down and adapts to the players and messes around with ‘em and jokes around with ‘em, I think he'll be a great coach."

    Other prospective candidates include Philadelphia offensive coordinator Brad Childress, New York Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, Chicago defensive coordinator Ron Rivera and University of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz.

    NOTES

  • After firing Mike Sherman as head coach Monday morning, general manager Ted Thompson planned to meet individually with the team's long list of free agents.

    The Packers have 15 players who are slated to become unrestricted free agents in March. Notables are running backs Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport, fullback William Henderson, center Mike Flanagan, nose tackle Grady Jackson, defensive end Aaron Kampman and kicker Ryan Longwell.

    Jackson said the possible promotion of defensive coordinator Jim Bates to head coach could convince him to stay in Green Bay.

    "You don't have to learn a new defensive system," Jackson said. "We've had three years of learning a new defensive system" under three different coordinators.

  • Thanks in great part to the Packers going through six featured backs in an injury-filled season, they had their poorest season output from a running standpoint in more than 50 years.

    They amassed 1,352 yards on the ground, averaging 84.5 yards per game to rank 30th in the league.

    Not counting the strike-shortened season in 1982, when they totaled 1,081 yards, the last time the Packers were so anemic was 1954, with 1,328 yards in a 12-game season.

    The per-game average of 84.5 yards is the lowest for a season in the team's recorded history, which dates to 1932.

  • Wide receivers coach James Franklin remains a candidate for the position of offensive coordinator at Kansas State. Franklin completed his first season with the Packers.

  • RB Samkon Gado, who was a bright spot for the running game, has been told by the team that it will not send him to NFL Europe in the spring.

    Gado is rehabilitating his right knee, in which he sustained a tear of the medial collateral ligament Dec. 19 at Baltimore. He missed the last two games of the season.

    Gado, signed to the practice squad in mid-October, starred as the Packers' fifth featured back until he suffered the injury. He gained a team-high 582 yards in eight games, averaging 4.1 yards per carry.

  • QB Aaron Rodgers won't be heading to NFL Europe. The team would like to have the first-round draft pick of 2005 continue with his development in its offseason sessions.

    Rodgers appeared in only three games this season, including taking a knee to end Sunday's 23-17 win over Seattle after relieving Brett Favre in the waning seconds. Rodgers compiled a dismal 39.8 passer rating, completing nine of 16 passes for 65 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.

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