NFC North news, notes and quotes

The Bears are looking for new coordinators, the Lions are still searching for upgrades at every position, and the Packers are hoping Aaron Rodgers can prove himself in the playoffs. Go in-depth around the NFC North, with reports from each of the Vikings' divisional rivals.


General manager Jerry Angelo and head coach Lovie Smith will be back for 2010, but the Bears will have new offensive and defensive coordinators among a revamped staff.

Ron Turner was fired as offensive coordinator with a year left on his contract. Linebackers coach Bob Babich held the title of defensive coordinator this past season, although Smith was defensive play-caller, duties he will relinquish.

"After discussions with Jerry, Lovie and ownership, the conclusion was that Jerry and Lovie still know what it takes to win," team president and CEO Ted Phillips said Tuesday afternoon. "They both brought us a championship contending team (in 2006). They did it together. They're aware of the mistakes that were made, and they're both welcoming change.

"In my opinion, when you have change, you're bringing in new ideas, you're bringing in new energy, you're bringing in new passion. And that will help our players become the best players they can be."

For the past three years the players that Angelo procured and Smith coached compiled a 23-25 record and missed the playoffs each season. Dissatisfied fans have clamored for radical change, which Phillips acknowledged.

"We know it's a bottom-line business, and we're not asking for patience," he said. "What we are committed to is putting a winning team together in 2010. That's our goal. I believe that the fastest way to improve is to keep the continuity that we've had with both Jerry Angelo as our general manager and Lovie Smith as our head coach."

But, citing three straight seasons without a playoff appearance, Phillips said, "Status quo was not an option, and changes were necessary."

Six offensive coaches were dismissed by Smith: Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton, tight ends coach Rob Boras, assistant offensive line coach Luke Butkus and assistant wide receivers coach Charles London, in addition to Turner. Wide receivers coach Darryl Drake and running backs coach Tim Spencer survived the purge.

"That just means there will be good coaches available for other teams," said Bears tight end Desmond Clark. "Our offensive coaches (got) us ready to play every week."

Turner's offense was 23rd in total yards, 19th in points and 18th in third-down conversions. The Bears scored 73 points in the final two games this season, but it wasn't enough.

"For the last three years," Phillips said, "it's been clear that no one did a good enough job in this organization; nobody did."

But Angelo, Smith and the rest of his staff will keep their jobs, despite the just-completed 7-9 season, the third losing campaign in Smith's six seasons.

"Organizationally, we're all behind the decisions to keep Lovie and Jerry," Phillips said. "We think that's our best chance to win now."

Phillips said he has held several discussions over the past few weeks with Angelo and Bears owner Virginia McCaskey and her son, chairman of the board Michael McCaskey, regarding Smith's status.

Although Smith's defense was arguably more disappointing than a young offense that incorporated seven new starters, that side of the ball was spared, with the exception of Smith losing his play-calling duties.

"He's relinquishing that role," Phillips said. "So to bring in two new coordinators is quite a massive change. We'll get the right people in here that can embrace the systems that Lovie wants to put together on both sides of the ball."

Phillips said Smith was not ordered to give up the play-calling duties after the Bears' defense finished 27th in third-down efficiency, 21st in points allowed and 23rd in rushing yards allowed.

"There was no dictating," Phillips said. "When I sat down with Lovie and Jerry, they both had already thought about the kind of changes they thought were necessary to get us back to our winning ways. That wasn't an issue at all."

Smith took responsibility for Tuesday's firings, but denied that the offensive shortcomings were solely responsible for a disappointing season.

"We're not blaming one side of the ball for our 7-9 record," Smith said. "I'm moving out of my role that I handled this past year as the defensive coordinator. I felt like last year, me being in that position was the best thing to do. I feel differently after going through this season so I will be bringing in a defensive coordinator."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "There's a fine line sometimes between winning and losing, but we expect to win now, in 2010. This isn't a long-term project in my eyes." — Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips.


When Jim Schwartz took over the Lions last January, they were coming off the NFL's first 0-16 season. He said their No. 1 need was talent.

A year later, not much has changed.

"I think we're still in that situation in a lot of areas," Schwartz said after going 2-14 in his first season as coach. "There aren't many positions on this team that we can just sort of step back and say, ‘Hey, we're good the way we are.' That's the facts of life. That's where we are."

Years of bad drafting by former president Matt Millen left the roster severely lacking. Here's a stunning stat: Of the 39 players Millen drafted from 2002-06, only one was on the active roster in ‘09: linebacker Ernie Sims.

General manager Martin Mayhew has explored every avenue since he took over officially at the end of the 2008 season, from the draft, to free agency, to trades, to waiver claims. The Lions turned over about half the roster entering the ‘09 season and kept turning it over week after week.

Still, much work remains.

Asked for his single biggest priority entering the off-season, Schwartz said simply: "Improve the talent level of the team." Later, he said: "We've still got a lot of ways to go, not only with starting talent, but also with depth on this team."

That about covers it.

Before you can identify what the Lions need, you must identify what they don't need.

The Lions feel they drafted well in 2009, finding a franchise quarterback in Matthew Stafford, a complete tight end in Brandon Pettigrew, a leader for the defense in safety Louis Delmas, plus promising players like linebacker DeAndre Levy and defensive tackle Sammie Hill.

They have more faith in some players than the public does, such as center Dominic Raiola and left tackle Jeff Backus. Schwartz said Backus had an excellent season and even deserved some votes for the Pro Bowl.

"I think there are some players that we feel strongly about that were here in the past, and there's other guys that we feel strongly about that we acquired last year, particularly in the draft," Schwartz said. "I think that there are some areas that you look at and you say, ‘OK, we just need to make more good decisions like that.'

"Is there going to be turnover? Yeah, there's going to be turnover. How much? It's too early to tell. But there will be significant turnover from this year to next, sure."

The Lions are closer to respectability on offense than they are on defense, at least in terms of numbers. Still, they need to surround Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson with a much stronger supporting cast to make the most out of their best playmakers. They need help at wide receiver, running back and left guard.

The defense, the NFL's worst for the third year in a row, needs help at every level. Linebacker is in better shape than the defensive line or the secondary, but even there, Larry Foote is an unrestricted free agent, and the Lions must decide whether Julian Peterson is worth a $7.5 million salary next season.

One thing the Lions won't do is look for a quick fix.

"We can't panic," Schwartz said. "We can't go for immediate gratification, because immediate gratification might be ... It's a short-term thing. It might do well for one year, and everybody feels good. ‘Oh, wow. This thing's turned around. We did this.' But in the long run, it was counterproductive and you're back where you were."

Schwartz went back to what he, Mayhew and team president Tom Lewand said about a year ago. They need to make good decisions, build through the draft and supplement through free agency.

"If you want to have a good franchise, if you want to be a consistent team from year to year, you have to draft well," Schwartz said. "You have to keep stacking good young players behind good young players and you have to do that over a period of time. That's not an overnight thing."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We need to do better than that, and we're going to do better than that. We have a lot of ways to go. We have a lot of areas we need to improve." — Coach Jim Schwartz, on the Lions' 2-14 record in first season.


  • The Lions are expected to bring back the vast majority of the coaching staff, if not all of it. The biggest question mark is special teams coordinator Stan Kwan, a holdover from the previous staff whose unit struggled this season. Kwan said he didn't know what would happen. Schwartz was noncommittal when asked if he would bring back his staff intact. "There are always changes in the NFL," Schwartz said. "I don't want to lock into one way or the other because there are some things that happen for a lot of different reasons. That's part of the evaluation."

  • Schwartz said there is a good chance the Lions' staff will coach the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. "We would relish that opportunity," Schwartz said. "There's a lot of information. I've done that before, I've been on different staffs before, and that's a great opportunity to get to know some of the best college football players in the country."

  • Except for quarterback, which Schwartz considers the most important position on the team, Schwartz doesn't weight one position or area more than another. The Lions need help just about everywhere else, anyway. "You can look around the NFL and see teams that are really a strong running team and don't necessarily have an explosive pass team, or really a good run defense but don't have a really good pass defense, things like that," Schwartz said. "That's not us. We didn't have anything this year that we can hang our hat on and we could say, ‘Hey, look, we're really strong in stopping the run, we just need to improve our coverage,' or, ‘We're really strong in running the ball. We just need to improve some skill players.' That wasn't us this year."

  • Don't forget depth. As much as the Lions need starters, they need role players. "I've been a part of teams that say, ‘Hey, if we stay healthy, we're a playoff team,' and that's not a good strategy in the NFL," Schwartz said. "You need to be able to say, ‘When we get injured, we're a playoff team.' ... We had injuries just like everybody else has had, but we didn't have enough depth to be able to handle those. Our depth showed up with injuries and our depth showed up in second half of games."

  • Schwartz denied that not looking for instant gratification was a built-in excuse for low expectations. "There's no excuse, and there's no low expectations," Schwartz said. "I disagree 100 percent with that. I am not setting the bar low at all. I mean, I'm very disappointed to be 2-14, and there are no apologies, there's no excuse. We're a 2-14 football team. What I'm saying is that we need to make good decisions, and sometimes those decisions aren't made for what happens in the next month or in the next six months, or things like that." Schwartz also denied he was saying the Lions need to take it slow. "My words were not that we have to do it slow," Schwartz said. "My words were that we have to do the right thing, that we have to make good decisions. We have to keep making progress. Not that we have to get immediate gratification. Like I said, that can be a little bit of a Chinese finger trap. The harder you pull on that, the tighter it gets."

  • How can Schwartz improve as a coach? "Keep my blood pressure down maybe a little bit," Schwartz said. "I take pride in being even-keeled. I take pride in being the same way whether we win or lose. There have been some Mondays where obviously my temper was little bit shorter than others, and there are times that I've showed my displeasure with certain things that have happened on the field and things like that. But I'd like to be that head coach that is the same whether we're winning or losing, the same whether we're 10-1 or 1-10. I wasn't that way this year, but it was me. I'll work on it."


    Welcome to the big time, Aaron Rodgers.

    "I've gotten text messages from buddies who are already into the offseason," Rodgers said gleefully Wednesday. "I couldn't imagine going home. Although I love San Diego (his offseason home), I'm loving being in Green Bay right now and being with these guys and hopefully keep this thing going."

    If Rodgers still hasn't done enough in two record-breaking seasons as a starting quarterback, his proving ground will surely come in this postseason and future seasons of playoff football.

    Sure, fifth-seeded Green Bay's planned run in this winter's tournament, which starts Sunday with an NFC wild-card game at the fourth-seeded Arizona Cardinals, could hinge on its highly rated and opportunistic defense or the improved play by its offensive line or the late-season reawakening of running back Ryan Grant.

    Rodgers knows as a well-versed student of the sport, however, that how he performs at his critical position behind center often dictates what transpires in January and into early February.

    "Obviously, the quarterback is going to be judged fair or unfair by success in the playoffs," Rodgers said. "You remember the quarterbacks — Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Tom Brady — who have won three or four Super Bowls. That's not my main focus, but at some point, you'd love to be mentioned in the same breath as guys like that who have won multiple Super Bowls."

    Rodgers insists his first meaningful foray in the playoffs — he came on for a culminating series in the Packers' pasting of the Seattle Seahawks in the 2007 divisional round — "is just another game," but who is he kidding?

    The 26-year-old has been dreaming of this moment since he grew up in Northern California idolizing Montana and cheering on the San Francisco 49ers' championship dynasty. He has been looking forward to this moment since he patiently sat behind the legendary Brett Favre for three seasons in Green Bay, never mind that Rodgers had starter-ready qualities when he fell to the Packers at No. 24 in the first round of the 2005 draft.

    Head coach Mike McCarthy is more than enthused to give Rodgers his long-awaited opportunity in the face of the single-elimination pressure cooker.

    "He's putting up Pro Bowl numbers in both of his seasons," McCarthy said. "It does come down to winning — winning is important — but he's put together two quality seasons so far."

    Rodgers has a first-time invitation to go to South Florida and play in the Pro Bowl on Jan. 31, but he's determined to skip the all-star game and help the Packers get to that sunny destination a week later for Super Bowl XLIV.

    "It has more meaning, obviously, because it's one-and-done in the playoffs," Rodgers said. "But, it's still 11-on-11, it's still 60 minutes, and we're going to go out there and try to put our best product on the field."

    Green Bay likes the total package it has put together entering the postseason. The Packers are the hottest club going in the six-team NFC bracket, winners of seven of their last eight games and undaunted by the prospect of possibly having to run the conference table on the road three straight weeks.

    Rodgers has been a big part of the resurgence for Green Bay, which finished 6-10 in his unenviable first season as the successor to Favre.
    All Rodgers has accomplished so far this season are numbers that transcend his fantastic output of 2008, when he passed for 4,038 yards, 28 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions.

    Buoyed by an offensive line that belatedly jelled after it exposed Rodgers to serious injury when he was sacked 41 times in the first nine games, the California cool QB has been lights out down the stretch.

    He absorbed only nine sacks in the final seven games and finished with a near-team record of 4,434 passing yards with 30 touchdowns and a minuscule seven interceptions. His passer rating was a glowing 103.3 — not even Favre reached the century mark in his 16 years at the reins of Green Bay's offense.
    McCarthy has repeatedly lauded Rodgers for being first-rate disciplined on the field, not to mention in his approach off the field.

    "He has that trait as far as in his preparation," McCarthy said. "He is just a very consistent personality — the way he approaches the game of football, the way he plays, the way he conducts himself on the sideline — and it carries over to the game."

    Rodgers' uncanny ability to be under control and produce with high efficiency enabled him to become the first quarterback in league history to have 4,000-yard seasons each of his first two years as a starter. That rubbed off on the rest of the team, which set a club record with only 16 giveaways this season, in sharp contrast to its league-leading 40 takeaways.

    "It starts with Aaron," McCarthy said. "He handles the ball every play. He is very, very decisive as far as his decision-making in the passing game, and I think that is a big part of the low interceptions.

    "So, that will be a key statistic in the playoffs because I think you establish your style of play, you establish who you are as a football team, and what we have established so far in the first (16) games is the ability to take care of the football and take the football away."

    SERIES HISTORY: 71st meeting. Packers lead series, 44-22-4. Fresh off a 33-7 rout of the host Cardinals in the regular-season finale, Green Bay has won six of the past seven meetings since 1988, including a 4-1 record in Arizona. The teams are meeting in the playoffs for the second time. The Packers beat the then-St. Louis Cardinals 41-16 in an NFC first-round game at Lambeau Field during the strike-shortened 1982 season, on the strength of four touchdown passes from Lynn Dickey to tie a club record in the postseason. Green Bay is 6-11 in road playoff games and has lost three in a row away from Green Bay.

    BY THE NUMBERS: 668 — Total yards racked up by the Packers' first-string offense in just five quarters of two previous meetings against the Cardinals in Arizona this season. The Aaron Rodgers-guided unit produced 357 yards in the first half of a preseason game and 311 yards in the first three quarters of Green Bay's lopsided win to end the regular season Sunday.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "We want to quietly just kind of get in the playoffs and jump on some people. Hopefully, some people are sleeping on us, and hopefully, nobody's really talking about us. That's the way we like it — we like to be just kind of quiet in the background." — Left guard Daryn Colledge on the Packers' entering the postseason as a No. 5 seed in the six-team NFC playoffs.

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