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.
That might seem a strange game plan for a 7-9 team that saw five assistants depart on the heels of the 2006 Super Bowl team that went 13-3, including defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who was not offered a new contract, and defensive line coach Don Johnson, who was fired while still under contract.
"He's got to feel comfortable with the people that he works with every day, and that obviously is Lovie's call," Angelo said. "He feels real good about his staff. We have made changes on our staff before. If that were what he felt was in our best interest, I'm sure he would have done it. We've won with these coaches, and we feel that the problems that we have can be corrected with this staff."
The Dartmouth graduate worked with the Bears' nickel backs last season and has been an assistant linebackers coach in the past. He was the defensive quality control coach his first two years in Chicago.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have to play good defense, that's first and foremost. What's good defense here in Chicago? Good defense is takeaways, not giving up big plays, playing aggressive with top effort. Unfortunately we weren't able to get those takeaways, and we gave up far too many big plays on defense." — Bears GM Jerry Angelo.
When the Lions introduced Jim Colletto as their new offensive coordinator, it quickly became clear that they were distancing themselves from Mike Martz and his methods.
Colletto said things like "You don't have to be a genius to figure these things out" and "It's not rocket science." Asked about his philosophy, he talked about a "balanced attack."
Martz, of course, was hailed as a genius because of his record-setting offenses in St. Louis. His system was the closest thing to rocket science in the NFL - a lot of plays, with a lot of shifts, motions and formations. He was often unbalanced, preferring passing over running.
The Lions didn't handle it well.
"The only thing I can say in terms of problems is, we just had too much," Colletto said. "We couldn't do all the things that we tried to do all the time. The repetition of some of the things wasn't as thorough as it should have been.
"Don't fool the troops. I'd use different terminology if this wasn't in public, but the players are the key. It's not the coach. It's the player."
The Lions want a simpler, more straightforward offense, and they hope that will help support the defense and keep them competitive on the road.
"I want to make sure that we run a real balanced style of football," Colletto said. "Make the defense have to play both run and pass. You have play-action passes off your best runs. You don't have to be real fancy. You just have to be a good execution team.
"If you look at the teams that are playing in the NFL playoffs and are now approaching the Super Bowl, they aren't a bunch of wild-looking teams. They do the same things week in and week out, and they do them well with good players."
The Lions plan to pare down the playbook - keep what works, drill it, gain confidence in it and create an identity. They won't be afraid to run the same bread-and-butter plays again and again. They plan to cut down on the shifts, motions and formations.
"We're not going to be a lot of shifting and wideouts going on all these different sides and all that kind of stuff, because I think they get tired doing that and I couldn't figure out what they were doing anyway," Colletto said. "As long as I can figure it out, I'm happy."
Martz abandoned the run quickly at times and the Lions let some games spiral out of control on the road. The Lions hope a stronger commitment to the running game will help them manage games and control the clock.
Martz also put a lot of pressure on the offensive line, and the Lions gave up a lot of sacks. Colletto said the line was better than it looked and would be put in a better position to succeed. The Lions plan shorter drops and quicker releases by the quarterback.
"Let me put it this way: Whatever puts the line in jeopardy, I don't like," Colletto said. "That's the nice thing about being in this position. We're going to make it as easy for them as we possibly can and be functional as a football team."
Martz did not allow the quarterback to call audibles. All adjustments were built into the plays. But Colletto plans to let the quarterback call audibles and control the running game.
In short, the Lions are taking the emphasis off the coach and putting it on the players.
"You've got to get your good players to make big plays, and sometimes you can't coach them to do that," Colletto said. "Sometimes they do it on their own. But they have to be able to execute the game, and the game has never changed since it started back whenever Princeton played Rutgers."
Kippy Brown, the new assistant head coach/passing game coordinator, said: "I believe football players make football plays. I'd love to be smart enough to draw up the perfect play for every situation, but that doesn't happen. Eventually somebody's got to whip somebody."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I would have liked to have seen him stay another year. As far as everything going on with the football team, I think that might have been a good move." — WR Roy Williams, on offensive coordinator Mike Martz's departure.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Mike McCarthy and his coaching staff have a good excuse to not watch Super Bowl XLII.
They'll be, as McCarthy put it, "conveniently" en route to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl, in which they will be the coaches for the NFC team.
The long excursion by air from Wisconsin will be a welcome diversion, keeping some members of the organization from looking in on the big game that they feel they should be a part of in Glendale, Ariz.
"The next game is the game that you want to try to get to. We didn't quite make it," general manager Ted Thompson said forlornly.
As much as Green Bay wasn't on the preseason radars of many to have a brush with the postseason, much less advance to the NFC Championship Game, how its season ended in similarly stunning fashion was hard to digest.
The league's youngest team overachieved in going 13-3 in the regular season and winning the NFC North. Yet, when the games mattered most, the heavily favored, home-standing Packers underachieved in losing 23-20 in overtime to the New York Giants in the conference title game Jan. 20.
"For us, it was a great year. In some ways, it was a surprise to a lot of people that we were even in this game," veteran quarterback Brett Favre said. "The unfortunate thing is the last thing you remember usually, that sticks out of your mind, is the game like (Sunday). For me, the last play, whatever."
The last pass made by Favre in a nearly flawless season that earned him consideration for a fourth league MVP honor ironically was an ill-advised throw that was intercepted by Corey Webster on the first possession of overtime. The Giants then kicked Green Bay out of the playoffs with a 47-yard field goal by Lawrence Tynes, whose two misses late in regulation never came back to haunt him because Green Bay stubbed its collective toe for one of the few times this season.
"To have a season like this, where we weren't expected to be here, but having a team that was good enough to be here and then getting here and not putting together your best game, it will stick with you for a long time," veteran cornerback Charles Woodson said. "Because you had an opportunity, you were right here, you were at the NFC Championship Game. The only game left is the Super Bowl. We won't be playing in it."
Conventional wisdom says the youth-laden Packers, who are far removed from the team's 4-12 debacle in 2005, will be the trendy preseason favorites in the NFC next season.
The roster turnover won't be great. Defensive tackle Corey Williams is the only starter due to become an unrestricted free agent. Perhaps no more than five starting jobs on both sides will be up for grabs going through offseason workouts and into training camp.
Plus, Favre, seemingly reinvigorated at age 38 by the budding talent around him, is expected to put off retirement yet another year.
"There's so many great things and individual achievements this year," Favre said. "To me, that's what will stand out, how we overcame from Day 1 all of the adversity. I don't think people gave us too many chances right away. The fact that we just continued to succeed despite all of that. Guys like a Greg Jennings who has emerged as a premier player (at receiver). Our defense, I think, is going to get better. They're young, and they're fantastic. (Halfback) Ryan Grant, guys like that. Good stories, good guys, good team. That's what I'll remember."
Long snapper Rob Davis, a year older than Favre, can't be sure that the 2008 season will be more memorable for the Packers. With the exception of Philadelphia for three years straight from the 2002 to ‘04 seasons, no NFC runner-up has returned to the conference championship the next season in the last 10 years.
"I try to instill and tell a lot of these young players, ‘Capture it now because you never know when you're going to get back,'" said Davis, whose own future with the team is uncertain as a free-agent-to-be. "Now, we go back to the drawing board. I don't think one year's success guarantees success the following year. If anything, it's probably harder, because of this success we had this year. We're going to have to fight and scratch and claw - through the draft, through free agency and through the guys that are already here - and get ready to do this thing all over again."
Saying he considered trying to freeze Tynes only for a moment, McCarthy explained the decision this way: "I didn't think he was going to make it. I even said that to the offense on the headset."
Tynes had missed two potential game-winning field goals late in the fourth quarter, including a 36-yard kick as time expired, on a bitterly cold night.
Meanwhile, the suddenness of the defeat had kept McCarthy from watching the game film as of three days later. McCarthy was wrapped up in exit interviews with players and starting to meet with his assistant coaches.
"I'm not looking forward to (watching) it," McCarthy conceded.
The first-time selection gives the Packers five players on the NFC roster. Quarterback Brett Favre, receiver Donald Driver, defensive end Aaron Kampman and cornerback Al Harris were voted in.
Lewis is the son of longtime NFL assistant coach Sherman Lewis, who was the Packers' offensive coordinator from 1992 to ‘99.
Just to be sure, Woodson underwent an MRI exam a day after the season-ending loss. Results of the test weren't available.
Receiver Koren Robinson won't require surgery, only fluid drained from a balky right knee.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "As tough as the loss has been, 99 percent of all of the conversations that I've had with players and coaches has been extremely positive. This group of players was a fun group to coach. It was a fun run that we were on. We won a lot of football games. We won a lot of ‘em in big fashion, won some tight games, too. Just the culture that's been created, I feel very good about the direction of our program that's in place. So do the players. ... There's been so much positive feedback about how the year went along. But, everybody, to a man, is disappointed the way it ended. We have a lot of positive energy, a lot of positive experiences to tap into as we move forward." — Head coach Mike McCarthy on what the team has to look forward to in the offseason, despite ending the season on a downer with a 23-20 overtime loss at home to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game.