NFC North news, notes and quotes

Devin Hester wants to reduce his role on offense despite being paid handsomely, the Lions are making changes to their coaching staff, and the Packers have some interesting free-agent decisions ahead of them. Get some of the top early offseason stories from the Vikings' divisional rivals.


"I know what I'm best at," Devin Hester said last week on "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN Radio-1000. "The return game is my bread and butter, so if I had to cut back on my receiving and go back to returning, that's something I would love to do."

The problem is that the Bears are paying Hester as a starting receiver (four years, at least $30 million), not a kick returner who plays a little wideout. Hester's already been paid $15 million in guaranteed money from his 2008 contract extension in addition to a $5 million roster bonus last season.

In 2006 and ‘07, Hester scored 11 regular-season touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns and added another kickoff-return score in Super Bowl XLI. But he hasn't scored a touchdown on a punt or kickoff return since Dec. 30, 2007.
There's no guarantee that it would even help the Bears to have Hester return kickoffs, especially based on his lousy punt returning the past two seasons. His 7.8-yard punt-return average in 2009 was 19th in the NFL. His 6.2-yard average in 2008 was 23rd best.

In 2008, Danieal Manning took over Hester's kickoff-return duties midway through the season and led the NFL with a 29.7-yard average. Hester averaged just 21.9 yards before losing the job.

This past season, rookie Johnny Knox averaged 29.0 yards on kickoff returns, just one-tenth of a yard off the NFL lead, and he was a late addition to the Pro Bowl. Manning averaged a very respectable 26.6 yards.

So, if Hester really wants to help the Bears, he should focus on continuing to evolve as a receiver, where there's still lots of room for improvement after a decent 54-catch, 682-yard season. There's even more room for improvement in his punt returns, where he's become way too much of an east-west dancer seeking the sidelines than a north-south home run threat.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I felt very comfortable with him. The results of his offense speak for themselves. He had a lot of success in St. Louis, and his offenses made improvements each year in Detroit and San Francisco. I haven't run his system, but I am familiar with it. I'm anxious to start digesting the playbook and getting back on the field." — Bears QB Jay Cutler said after his initial meeting with Mike Martz, before he was hired as the Bears' offensive coordinator.


With the coaching staff finally complete, the Bears can focus on returning to the playoffs after a three-year absence. Unfortunately for coach Lovie Smith, the Bears don't draft until the third round, and they aren't expected to be a major player in a watered-down class of free agents, although they might have the resources to make one big move or a couple smaller acquisitions.


The Lions have made some minor changes to their coaching staff.

They fired special-teams coordinator Stan Kwan, replacing him with Danny Crossman. Defensive line coach Bob Karmelowicz is contemplating retirement, with assistant Kris Kocurek expected to take his place.

Crossman will bring a new system and new terminology to special teams.

"Sometimes some things new and fresh excite guys, so we're going to change things," Crossman said. "It'll look a lot different schematically. But then it all comes down to getting good players to play hard and to play tough and play fast."

When Schwartz took over the Lions last January, his first choice for special-teams coordinator might have been Scott O'Brien, with whom he had worked in Cleveland and Baltimore. O'Brien ended up in New England.

But Crossman worked under O'Brien in Carolina. When O'Brien went to Denver in 2005, Crossman became the Panthers' special-teams coordinator.

Schwartz and Crossman share other connections, plus similar philosophies and styles.

"It's not just all scheme," Schwartz said. "There's some more to it, and I think Danny fits that really well."

Crossman is intense. Schwartz joked he wished he could have turned down the volume in a meeting Monday morning.

"I'm an exact, detailed guy," Crossman said. "I have high expectations of myself, and I'm going to be the first one to take blame for anything that goes wrong. It's my fault, first and foremost.

"We're not going to have repeat offenders. So the first time something happens, it's my fault. Blame me. If it continues to happen, then it goes from there. It starts with me, and I'm going to expect a lot of myself and expect a lot of the players."

Kocurek is intense, too. He drew attention for ranting and raving at his position group during practices at the Senior Bowl last month.

"Once you cross that white line, it's business," Kocurek said. "I just sometimes catch myself just being in a zone. I want them to feed off my energy, and I want them to play with that type of energy every snap. I feel like if I sit back and relax and let them go, then they feed off of that."

But there's more to Kocurek than that. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said Kocurek knows how to turn down the volume in a meeting room, and he said no one should be fooled by Kocurek's Texas drawl.

Kocurek also played at Tennessee in 2002, when Cunningham was the Titans' linebackers coach and Schwartz was their defensive coordinator. Kocurek learned from Tennessee defensive-line coach Jim Washburn, one of Cunningham's closest friends in the business.

Cunningham called Kocurek "unbelievably smart" and said there is "no question" he would be comfortable with him coaching the defensive line if Karmelowicz retires and the Lions draft a defensive tackle at No. 2.

"I told him the other day, some day somebody's going to figure out who you are," Cunningham said. "He asked me what I meant. Well, he's a west Texas guy. I said, ‘Well, you come across as this volatile country guy,' and I said nobody, nobody, except maybe me, knows how really smart he is."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "There's hope from both of those teams that we'll be able to get here." — QB Matthew Stafford at Super Bowl XLIV, talking about the Saints and Colts, who rose from the bottom by building around quarterbacks.


  • Quarterback Matthew Stafford was part of the Super Bowl media blitz, pitching products for Axe Hair, Gatorade and Visa. "It's fun," Stafford said. "For the most part, it's talking football. The hard part is sometimes talking the product, getting that in, too." Stafford is at ease with Axe Hair's edgy marketing campaign. Asked what the company means by "hair action," Stafford said: "It's when girls can't resist your hair, and they're getting their hands all up in it, rubbing it, sniffing it, smelling it." One female reporter actually sniffed his hair during an interview. Does this happen all the time? "All the time," Stafford laughed. "Can't stop it." So, before he used Axe Hair, Stafford obviously was just a nerd who never got attention from girls, right? "Never," Stafford laughed. "Never ever, ever. It's been a struggle. They pulled me out of the bottom of the bin."

  • Cris Carter, the former star receiver, walked into an ESPN green room during Super Bowl week and greeted QB Matthew Stafford. He congratulated him on a "great year" and said it was good to see the Lions turning things around. Polite small talk? Maybe. But Carter said he thinks Stafford has the right disposition to be the quarterback in Detroit. "I believe he's going to be a star in the league," Carter said. "It's nice that it's not just the talent. He is tough. His teammates seem to like him, and he's in a tough situation but he's not complaining or crying about it, and a lot of young quarterbacks in the league, you don't see that. For guys who have played the game, we respect that, and when you respect it, you acknowledge it."


    Green Bay's collection of five impending unrestricted free agents is an impressive who's-who list of instrumental players in team lore.

    Offensive tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, running back Ahman Green, nose tackle Ryan Pickett and linebacker Aaron Kampman have combined for 40 seasons, 546 games and seven Pro Bowl selections playing for the Packers.

    While Pickett is a good bet to be re-signed, Clifton and Tauscher probably will return and the 33-year-old Green likely won't be back, the jury is out on what Kampman's future holds in Green Bay.

    "This is the only place I've been, and it'd be great to continue my career here," Kampman said. "But, we'll see what happens."

    A radical change in position coupled with a late-season knee injury that will keep Kampman off the field for most of the offseason could spell the end of his eight-year stint with the Packers.

    The two-time Pro Bowl player is recovering from Dec. 4 surgery for a torn ACL in his left knee. Kampman has been encouraged by the progress he's made in rehab with the knee and anticipates he will be ready for the start of training camp, but there's no telling what kind of player he will be when he is cleared for action again.

    General manager Ted Thompson has said the team would offer Kampman a contract. Yet, trying to get Kampman to accept presumably a modest deal, since he's coming off the serious injury, is wishful thinking with a player who already had reservations about how he was being used in the defense last season.

    Kampman was moved from defensive end to outside linebacker when Dom Capers was hired as defensive coordinator and junked the team's traditional 4-3 scheme in favor of a 3-4 system. The position switch compromised the pass-rushing skills of Kampman, who had only 3 1/2 sacks in nine games and took on the extra responsibility of periodically dropping into coverage.

    "I didn't get a chance to get a full year to critique and say, ‘Hey, this is great.' But, I was starting to get more comfortable with it," Kampman said of the 3-4. "Having said that, I've got a lot of experience in the 4-3. So, I can do both."

    A team with a 4-3 scheme that is willing to spend money on a player over whom uncertainty hovers because of the knee injury could have little trouble luring Kampman out of Green Bay.

    Thompson surely doesn't want to spend an arm and a leg when the team already has a lot invested in players at linebacker, including starters Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk and backup Brandon Chillar on the inside and Clay Matthews at the other outside spot. Matthews, a first-round draft pick last year, went to the Pro Bowl.

    Hawk is due to make $4.6 million this year, and the Packers apparently won't be asking their underwhelming 2006 top draft pick to take a pay cut.
    Green Bay managed the last part of the season without Kampman by plugging in rookie Brad Jones, who flashed at times. Free agency and/or the draft would allow the Packers to bolster the depth should they allow Kampman to walk.

    "Whatever happens with him, whether he's with Green Bay or not, I know he's going to be successful," Matthews said. "I think whatever team that gets him will benefit, and I'm hoping that he comes back next year."

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I know guys are looking forward. We're excited. We still have a young squad but a squad that has played in some big games, performed in some big games, taken some lumps and known how to get back up and fight. This was a very testing year for us, and character-wise, guys stepped up and showed that they want it and are willing to lay it on the line." — Running back Ryan Grant, on the Packers' outlook following an 11-5 season that ended with a 51-45 overtime loss at the Arizona Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs Jan. 10.


  • Cornerback Charles Woodson, the league's defensive player of the year in 2009, was named to the NFL's all-decade team for the first 10 years of the 2000s.

    He was the only Packers player to earn the honor. Former Green Bay safety Darren Sharper, who went on to play for the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints during the decade, also made the list.

    Woodson is one of four cornerbacks on the all-decade team, joining Ronde Barber, Champ Bailey and Ty Law.

    Woodson, a 12-year veteran, was named to four Pro Bowls in the decade, including 2008 and ‘09 with the Packers, with whom he signed as a free agent in 2006 after previously playing for the Oakland Raiders. He had 39 interceptions in the decade — 28 with the Packers.

  • Green Bay will begin its offseason training and workout program March 15.

  • General manager Ted Thompson, head coach Mike McCarthy and their staffs are in draft-preparation mode. A lot of time is spent in meetings the first few weeks of February — studying, discussing and ranking players to be put on the team's preliminary draft board.

    The staff will head to Indianapolis en masse for the draft combine, which will be Feb. 24 to March 2.

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