NFC North Report

Chicago is recounting the number of factors that caused its fall from grace, Detroit is trying to figure out how its 2007 season went so far south in such a hurry, but in Green Bay the story is very different. There, the Packers and Ryan Grant are getting a last laugh about a once-insignificant trade.


For the 2007 Bears, the excuses outnumbered the victories in their embarrassing fall from Super Bowl XLI to a 7-9 record and last place in the NFC North.

Among the factors cited for the disappointing follow-up were the "Super Bowl hangover" that has plagued losers of the big game the year after injuries, old age and a lack of turnovers that traditionally have characterized Lovie Smith teams. Add to that the unfortunate trade acquisitions of defensive tackle Darwin Walker and safety Adam Archuleta, and you've got the recipe for a six-game dropoff.

The injuries clearly took a toll, starting with the season opener. Former Pro Bowl safety Mike Brown and nose tackle Dusty Dvoracek, who had won the starting job after spending his rookie season on injured reserve, were both lost for the season with torn knee ligaments. Brown was the brains of the secondary and an emotional leader on and off the field. Dvoracek had already proven to be the team's best run stopper.

Just as critical were the 12 games that Pro Bowl cornerback Nathan Vasher missed with a partially torn groin muscle. In his first three seasons, Vasher picked off 16 passes, the active leader on the team. Other injuries weren't as severe but chipped away at the defense, the heart of the team. Tackle Tommie Harris made his third straight Pro Bowl, but he wasn't nearly the same player as he played through knee and hamstring injuries much of the season but amazingly never missed a game. The training camp acquisition of Walker was supposed to provide insurance in the middle of the line, but the veteran missed five games with minor injuries and was a non-factor in at least five others. Counted on to be part of the solution, Walker was more like part of the problem.

When a torn triceps forced unrestricted free-agent pickup Anthony Adams onto injured reserve and out of the final four games, it meant that each of the Bears' top four tackles were seriously affected by injuries, and they missed a total of 24 games.

Without the anticipated push in the middle from the d-line and minus Vasher and Brown, the franchise's all-time leader with seven defensive touchdowns, the Bears weren't able to put the kind of pressure on opposing offenses that characterized their Super Bowl season, when they forced a league-high 44 turnovers. A flurry of takeaways late in the season, when it was too late, still enabled the Bears to finish with 33, eighth best in the league.

Archuleta came up way short as a complement to, and then a replacement for, Brown, as he struggled in coverage, missed tackles and finally was benched for the final five games.

In the first 13 games of 2007, the Bears had a league-low nine interceptions. In 2006, the Bears forced at least two turnovers in 13 of 16 games. In ‘07, there were six games in which they had one or zero takeaways.

The Bears went into last season believing they were still youthful enough to keep their window of opportunity open for at least another year. At most positions, that is true, but signs of aging were evident along the offensive line early and often.

At 35, left guard Ruben Brown was unable to finish his 13th season when a persistent shoulder injury finally required surgery, and then understudy Terrence Metcalf played himself back onto the bench after five forgettable starts. Right tackle Fred Miller, 34, became more susceptible to speed rushers and false starts, but there was no one better to replace him. Left tackle John Tait will be 33 before the Super Bowl and would benefit from a move to the right side, and C Olin Kreutz, who will be 31 by training camp, missed his first Pro Bowl in seven years.
Given the starting job all to himself for the first time, Cedric Benson was decidedly underwhelming. The fourth overall pick in 2005 didn't resemble a legitimate NFL starter until his final two games, when he averaged 7.0 yards per carry, but he suffered a season-ending fractured ankle in Game 11. In his first nine games, Benson averaged just 3.0 yards per carry, although the offensive line must share the blame for that embarrassing number.

The offense was further handicapped when quarterback Rex Grossman played so poorly that he was benched after three games, precipitating the quarterback shuffle that has become synonymous with Bears football.

Brian Griese started the next six games and played decently before a minor left shoulder injury provided coaches with an excuse to give Grossman another chance. He performed much better for four games before an ankle injury ended his season. That gave third-stringer Kyle Orton a chance to start three games, and he did well enough to completely muddle the QB picture for next season.


Still searching. The Detroit Lions are still searching for the winning formula. They have won one playoff game in a half-century. They haven't appeared in the playoffs since 1999. They are 31-81 since Matt Millen became team president in 2001.

The Lions had their best season in seven years in 2007, but it still was a losing season — 7-9. As coach Rod Marinelli said, it was two seasons in one. The Lions started 6-2 but finished 1-7.

What happened? The simple answer is that the Lions are not ready to win. After the Lions improved to 6-2 by routing Denver, 44-7, defensive tackle Cory Redding said: "This is real. What you see is what you get. It's a different team. It's not the same, old Lions no more. I'll tell you that right now."

But then the Lions stumbled through a six-game losing streak that eliminated them from the playoffs. During the streak, they suffered two crushing losses at home. They blew three opportunities to score down the stretch and lost to the New York Giants, 16-10. They blew a 13-point, fourth-quarter lead and lost to Dallas, 28-27. Marinelli called those losses "season-turners."

"That was in playoff crunch time, which this team has never been in for a long time," Marinelli said. "They have never experienced that, how hard it is and how you have to be on top of every detail. We went through that unsuccessfully. Now we've got to learn from it."

Serious flaws were exposed in the Lions' other losses, though. The Lions became the first team since the 1990 Cleveland Browns to lose four games by more than 30 points. They lost seven games by double-digit margins, six on the road. Marinelli called the blowouts "disturbing."

Marinelli preaches consistency and mental toughness, but the Lions weren't consistent or mentally tough. They went 5-3 at home and 2-6 on the road.

The offense never established an identity. The Lions were most successful when balanced, but they were often unbalanced. They ranked ninth in passing and second worst in rushing.

The defense lived and died with the takeaway. The Lions led the league in the first half, then faded. They ranked second worst against the pass and last in yards per game and points per game.

The special teams units had an up-and-down year, too.

The Lions have already fired Mike Martz and promoted offensive line coach Jim Colletto to offensive coordinator, while promoting wide receivers coach Kippy Brown to assistant head coach and passing game coordinator. The plan is to keep some continuity but become more balanced.

There are other issues on offense that need to be addressed. The Lions plan to run the ball more, but they're thin at running back because of injuries and expiring contracts, and they have a hole at right tackle.

But the biggest issues are on defense. The Lions badly need to upgrade their talent at all levels of the unit — line, linebackers, secondary. The only starters who should be secure are linebacker Ernie Sims, end Dewayne White and perhaps Redding.


The New York Giants could see for themselves Sunday how much they were hoodwinked in the art of swapping before the season started.

The Packers committed the equivalent of grand larceny when they acquired young running back Ryan Grant from the Giants for a 2008 sixth-round draft pick. The funny thing is no one knew at the time of the Sept. 1 trade what a steal it was for Green Bay.

Not until after Grant started out No. 4 on the depth chart at halfback, did penance in head coach Mike McCarthy's doghouse for a late-game fumble in Week 4 at Minnesota and was the last healthy back available by midseason did the Packers get the last laugh that has grown louder in the postseason.

"That's what I've heard," Grant said Wednesday.

The first-year player, with only six carries and 27 rushing yards to his credit after six games this season, is the focal point of the NFC championship game at Lambeau Field. That Grant originally was property of the Giants, who will be paying the Packers a visit in an unexpected matchup for a berth in Super Bowl XLII, adds to the drama.

Asked if he thought the Giants made a mistake in letting him go, Grant replied matter-of-factly, "They're in the NFC championship, so I don't think so."

Giants head coach Tom Coughlin was just as straightforward in saying Wednesday that Grant was expendable because he was caught at the bottom of a running-back logjam in the preseason.

"We liked Ryan very much and always did, and we were glad to see the progress that he was making. We were excited about him," Coughlin said. "The simple fact of the matter is we did have a position, one position where we thought we had five and possibly six players that were NFL-caliber runners. So, our people obviously thought that this was an opportunity to gain a draft choice. But, we have great respect for Ryan."

Four-and-a-half months after the fateful deal was consummated, the onus is on Coughlin and his defense to contain, if not shut down, the most explosive running back of the second half of the NFL season.

Grant's rise from obscurity after two-plus years with the Giants, which included a season lost because of a near-fatal hand injury sustained in a nightclub incident, started Oct. 29 when he had to jump in for injured rookie DeShawn Wynn in the Packers' Monday night game at Denver. Grant served notice on the national stage with a 104-yard rushing effort in just three quarters.

He had five 100-yard games in Green Bay's last 10 contests of the regular season and finished just 44 yards short of 1,000, giving credibility to what was a lifeless rushing attack.

"We had a run game that wasn't being very productive, and Ryan earned the opportunity to be that guy because I felt the running-back-by-committee that we were using wasn't working because we were so young at the position," McCarthy said in retrospect. "I used running-back-by-committee in the past (with other teams), but there were veterans involved. So, at that point, we needed to go with one guy. ... (Wynn) was injured early in that (Denver) game, and Ryan Grant was the No. 2 player, and we haven't looked back. That's the reality of what happened."

The rags-to-riches story intensified last Saturday. Grant, in his playoff debut, fumbled twice in the Packers' first three plays, which led to two quick touchdowns by Seattle and a 14-0 deficit for heavily favored Green Bay in the divisional round.

McCarthy never thought for a second to pull Grant for a series or two or the rest of the game. In a blink of an eye on a snow-covered field, Grant rebounded in grand style with a franchise-record 201 yards in 27 carries and three touchdowns.

"He's a big part of the way we approached that game, and I felt it was important to give him the ball," McCarthy said.

Unless his former teammates have something to say about it, Grant likely will get the football often Sunday. A weather forecast calling for below-zero wind chill for the night game will make it incumbent for the Packers to run the ball frequently and effectively. The Jan. 20 date is the latest in the winter a game is being played in Green Bay — a week later than the Jan. 13, 2001, wild-card game against San Francisco, when the temperature at kickoff was a relatively balmy 28.

McCarthy wasn't concerned that Grant would waver off course in essentially his first showdown against the team that had no use for him. Grant was a bit player in the teams' Week 2 game at Giants Stadium, where the young back made his Green Bay debut.

"I like the way Ryan goes about his business," McCarthy said. "He's focused. He's a hard worker. He's always asking the details about the game plan in the blitz drill and things like that, so I think he'll be fine. I don't think he'll be one of those guys that will be so revved up that he'll go the other way. I know this is a big opportunity for him, but he's a focused young man."

For his part, the soft-spoken Grant swears he has no score to settle with his previous employer and the guys he used to call teammates.

"We're competitors," Grant said. "I'm looking forward to it, and even though they are my friends and we know it's nothing personal, we want to win and we're competitors, and I expect that out of them. They're professionals also, and I'm looking forward to the opportunity. I'm excited about it, and I can't wait."

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