The Bears' chances of repeating last season's 11-5 record appear pretty good — at least on paper.
Their 2006 opponents had a winning percentage of just .445 last season, giving the Bears the easiest schedule in the NFL — on paper. Nine of the Bears' 16 games this season are against teams with new coaches, and most of those teams struggled badly last season. Only one of the new coaches the Bears face has previous head coaching experience in the NFL, which should give the Bears an advantage.
Home-and-away series against NFC North opponents Green Bay, Minnesota and Detroit, account for six of those games, as everyone else in the division changed coaches after disappointing seasons. The Bears won five of their six division games last season, losing only the meaningless season finale to the Vikings after they had already clinched the NFC North and home field for their first-round playoff game.
New Packers coach Mike McCarthy inherits a 4-12 team and still doesn't know if quarterback Brett Favre will be back for another season at age 36. Rod Marinelli takes over a 5-11 Lions team with loads of offensive talent and former Rams coach Mike Martz coordinating the group. But Marinelli is the Lions' third coach in four years, and they haven't won more than six games in any of the past five, leaving team president Matt Millen on the hottest of seats. The Bears host the Lions in Week 2 and visit Detroit in the next-to-last regular-season game on Dec. 24.
The Bears make it three NFC North foes in a row on Sept. 24, when they visit the Vikings and new coach Brad Childress. The Minnesota rematch is Dec. 3.
"We like having the opportunity to compete against our division rivals the first three weeks of the season," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "We'll know a lot about our football team and our division immediately."
This year the Bears will have the bulls-eye on their collective back, but that's fine with Smith.
"We're the defending champions," he said. "Things come through Chicago now, and we like that position. We lost some good football coaches in our division this year. We have some new ones coming in, and I know they can't wait to get a piece of us."
Smith's predecessor, Dick Jauron, who coached the Bears to a 35-45 record from 1999-2003, brings the Bills to Soldier Field in Week 5. Jauron was hired to replace Mike Mularkey after the Bills went 5-11 in 2005. They are the only AFC team besides the expansion Texans to miss the playoffs each of the past five years. The Bills ranked No. 28 in offense last year and No. 29 defensively.
There are also extremely winnable games against teams that don't have new coaches.
The Cardinals were 5-11 last season and have averaged just five wins per season over the past six seasons. But they added Pro Bowl running back Edgerrin James to a potent passing offense and could be primed to make a move in coach Dennis Green's third season.
The San Francisco 49ers, who come to town Oct. 29 after the Bears' bye week, were last in the league in offense and defense in 2005, finishing 4-12, and they haven't done much to improve.
After that the Bears play three straight road games for the first time since 1999, when they lost at Tampa Bay and Washington but won at Green Bay. This time they visit the Meadowlands in back-to-back weeks to face the Giants and Jets, then travel to Foxboro, Mass., to test the dethroned Patriots.
The Giants won the NFC East in 2005, but the Jets were 4-12. New Jets coach Eric Mangini has a lot of work to do with an offense that ranked No. 31 last year and is in a state of flux.
The Bears are back in the Monday night spotlight Dec. 11 in St. Louis against the Rams, who replaced Mike Martz with Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. As usual, the Rams are expected to be able to move the ball, but they allowed 27 points per game last season, second most in the league.
"You can never have enough pass rushers," Smith said. "We want to get more pressure on the quarterback this season."
Penn State's Tamba Hali is not considered a great pass rusher despite 11 sacks last season, but the 275-pound native of Liberia has enough size to be an every-down player and should be a late first- or early second-round pick. Tennessee's Parys Haralson is undersized for an every-down defensive end at 6-1 and 253 pounds, but he could make an immediate impact as a situational pass rusher in the second or third round. North Carolina State's Manny Lawson might be best suited to play the rush linebacker position in a 3-4 defense because he weighs just 241 pounds, but he's 6-foot-5, so he could grow into a full-time defensive end, and he runs a 4.46-second 40-yard dash.
The Lions are finally going to get a chance to practice what new coach Rod Marinelli has been preaching since he was hired three months ago.
Marinelli will hold a voluntary three-day mini-camp beginning Tuesday with an emphasis on toughness, discipline and an enthusiastic — bordering on fanatical — approach to playing football.
Those are the primary elements the former Tampa Bay defensive line coach has been talking about since he was hired, and he leaves no doubt that he wants to instill those qualities in the Lions' players.
"That's my goal," he said. "I want to get them playing on the edge a little bit. How hard do I want to play? That takes a massive amount of energy and repetition to get these guys to understand how hard it is. As a head coach, I want it in all three phases."
In other words, he doesn't want only the defensive players taking that approach. He wants to see it from his offense and special teams also.
In recent years — probably since the end of the Bobby Ross-Gary Moeller era in 2000 — the Lions have not been a tough, physical team. They practiced at a leisurely pace, frequently practiced without pads and, in the estimation of many, became a soft team.
If they had been winning, that might have been acceptable, but with only 21 victories in five seasons that was obviously not the case. It appears Marinelli now has to change the atmosphere and the entire approach if he hopes to turn the team around quickly.
If there is a model for the Lions, it would probably be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the 2002 season.
"They wanted to be the best," Marinelli said. "They wanted to go to the Hall of Fame and they wanted to have a Super Bowl. They all kind of came up together, and the others who came on board, they brought them in: ‘This is how we do it. Let's go fast. Whatever it takes, let's be here all the time.' Their drive was football. They loved it, they wanted to be the best."
The Lions have an abundance of highly regarded but largely unproven talent surrounding the quarterback. That includes three receivers drafted in the first round — Roy Williams, Charles Rogers and Mike Williams — as well as a first-round running back, Kevin Jones.
Marinelli has indicated that if training camp started now, Kitna would take the first snap with the first offense, but the starter's job won't actually be settled until later in the summer.
Although Kitna and McCown are new to the team, Marinelli believes both have the quality he wants in his quarterback.
"Great, great passion for football," he said. "They're here (at the training facility) all day. They come in in the morning and stay all day. They like it. They just really like football. They think it's really important.
"That is your leader. The position demands leadership. Now, you put a man with great leadership ability that is driven in that position, and (watch) how he reacts under pressure. Your team is looking at him. He's the guy making the call in the huddle — how he makes that call (is important)."
Here is the list of recently-signed unrestricted free agents and their connection with new coaches on the Lions' staff:
GREEN BAY PACKERS
All of the games are aligned for a Brett Favre Farewell Tour.
Although the franchise quarterback still hasn't announced what he plans to do for next season, he did say recently that 2006 would be his last if he were to put off retirement. It's doubtful the league took that pronouncement into consideration and scrambled at the last moment to rework the Packers' regular-season schedule, which was released Thursday.
Still, it's interesting to note how the schedule was laid out.
Despite the uncommon fact that they have 11 games scheduled for the early Sunday slot of noon Central time — they had only six of those last year — it probably has more to do with the Packers' coming off a horrendous 4-12 season than the possibility Favre will retire. Not since 1995, Favre's fourth year as its starter and a season before its Super Bowl XXXI victory, has Green Bay been scheduled for so many early games.
Yet, thanks to the flexible schedule implemented by the league this year, five of the Packers' noon starts in the second half of the season will be up for consideration to be moved to Sunday night. Possibilities include Nov. 12 at NFC North rival Minnesota and Nov. 19 at home against New England. There's also the regular-season finale Dec. 31 at NFC North champion Chicago.
Speaking of the Bears, the Packers will open the season against their oldest rival Sept. 10 at Lambeau Field. The bookend games mark the first time Green Bay will open and close a season with Chicago as its opponent. It's an intriguing arrangement considering Favre's domination of the Bears, up until Chicago swept the series last year.
Meanwhile, the allure of the two Monday night games on the schedule give credence to the return of Favre. One of his former quarterback coaches, Andy Reid, will be on the opposite sideline when the Packers play at Philadelphia on Oct. 2. Then, on Nov. 27, Favre would get another shot against Mike Holmgren, his former head coach at Green Bay, with the Packers' visiting Seattle.
The Packers ended last season with a win over the Seahawks at Lambeau, leading to the early speculation that it was Favre's last game because Holmgren was there for it.
Team president Bob Harlan didn't discount the impact of a possible last season for Favre as to why the TV networks are keeping the Packers somewhat in the national limelight. They'll also have a Thursday night game Dec. 21 against Minnesota in Green Bay.
"I hope some of (the attraction) is because the Packers are a popular team and the ratings have been very good because we have a national following," Harlan said. "But I'm sure they're hoping in the back of their minds that Brett comes back."
Whether or not Favre returns, the Packers stand to benefit from a favorable schedule. They have the second-easiest schedule in the league — their opponents' cumulative record last season was 115-141, a .449 winning percentage. Only Chicago has an easier schedule with an opponents' winning percentage of .445.
Much to the delight of first-year coach Mike McCarthy, the schedule sets up for the Packers to make some hay early. Aside from the opener against the Bears and a Week 7 trip to Miami, Green Bay doesn't face any team that had a winning record in the first half. Those first eight opponents had an aggregate record of 50-78 last season.
In sharp contrast, though, the Packers' last eight opponents were a combined 65-63 in 2005. A three-game November stretch with trips to Minnesota and Seattle sandwiched around a home game against New England, figures to be the toughest.
Ending the season with three straight division games — Detroit and Minnesota at home and the finale at Chicago — could prove to be critical if the Packers make a remarkable turnaround and are in the hunt for the NFC North title.
"It's important to start fast," McCarthy said. "(But finishing with three division games is) great because you control your own destiny down the stretch, particularly having five of the last six games against NFC opponents."
Based on comments Woodson's agent, Carl Poston, made to the Tampa Tribune a few days later, the eight-year veteran could be leaning toward Tampa Bay and reuniting with Jon Gruden, his former coach with Oakland.
"Charles wants to win, and that's the bottom line," Poston said. "He went 12-0 his last year at Michigan (in 1997) and won a national championship. Now he wants that Super Bowl ring, and he wants to join a team that's committed to winning."
The Buccaneers, coming off an NFC South-winning season with an 11-5 record, would seem to be farther along in that regard than the Packers. Green Bay is in rebuilding mode after finishing in the cellar of the NFC North at 4-12.
Woodson has visited only the Bucs and the Packers in the first month of free agency. His recent injury history, coupled with a desire for a lucrative contract after earning $10.5 million as the Raiders' franchise player last year, has turned most teams off on the high-profile player.
The Packers put Woodson through a thorough physical during his visit and apparently aren't too concerned about how he'll bounce back from a broken right leg that cost him the last 10 games of 2005.
Woodson, who turns 30 in October, has the versatility to play cornerback and safety. The Packers, though, would like to keep him at his natural corner spot and plug him as the starter on the left side in place of the shaky Ahmad Carroll.
Although the Packers have the financial means with about $19 million in salary-cap room to make a worthwhile offer to Woodson, Poston suggested that Woodson's past with Gruden and Bucs general manager Bruce Allen would have a bearing on the decision. Allen previously was with the Raiders as an executive.
"We want to get a deal done, but it has to be the right fit at the right numbers," Poston said. "Green Bay probably is in better shape cap-wise, but you never know. Sometimes, those things can be deceiving."
Ruegamer's contract calls for him to make the veteran minimum of $710,000. He received a signing bonus of $40,000.
Ruegamer was primarily a backup in his three seasons with the Packers. He made 14 starts in that span, including 12 in 2004 in place of injured center Mike Flanagan. He started two games at right guard last season.
Ruegamer's signing leaves nose tackle Grady Jackson as the Packers' only unsigned unrestricted free agent. Jackson, who isn't expected to return after the Packers signed St. Louis free agent Ryan Pickett, has drawn mild interest on the open market.
Brown told The Capital Times in Madison, Wis., that he has stayed in contact with members of the Packers' front office, including general manager Ted Thompson.
"I don't know what is going to come about," Brown said. "But a guy in my situation will probably have to wait until after the (April 29-30) draft before he starts getting calls. ... So, I'm just in a holding pattern right now — just try to stay in shape and be ready when they do call me."
Brown, who hasn't played since 2003, feels he can play "two or three more years." The notoriously rotund Brown, whose weight ballooned to more than 350 pounds toward the end of his 10-year career with the Packers, said he's been working out and dropped some weight.
"My goal is to lose a few more pounds," Brown said. "I would like to play football if I get an opportunity. This will be my last year trying, so if it happens, it happens."
Brown worked out for Kansas City last year, but nothing came out of it. He's been dabbling in auto racing, having joined a group of investors involved with the Milwaukee Mile track in West Allis, Wis.
They've begun readying Aaron Rodgers, last year's first-round draft choice, for the possibility he'll have to be the starter on opening day in five months. Yet, should Favre walk away, Green Bay is without any sort of reliable backup after allowing Craig Nall to bolt for Buffalo as a free agent.
The Packers, armed with the fifth overall pick in the draft, are giving Texas' Vince Young strong consideration.
Save for linebacker and possibly addressing an upgrade over Ahmad Carroll at cornerback, the Packers are in better shape defensively after re-signing end Aaron Kampman and then landing former Seattle safety Marquand Manuel and onetime St. Louis nose tackle Ryan Pickett in free agency.
If he were to get assurances by the start of the draft April 29 that Favre will continue to play, general manager Ted Thompson can concentrate on finding a starting-ready player at linebacker, cornerback or possibly defensive end (if Mario Williams lasts that long) with the top pick.