Thursday, June 12, 2008

Packers, Bears Falling, Vikings Rising, Lions Being Lions

As Summer approaches and NFL teams look towards training camp and the beginning of the 2008 NFL season, most NFL teams already have made their most significant additions and subtractions, leaving them either to hope that their talent remains healthy or dramatically improves. With the addition of Bernard Berrian, Madieu Williams, Jared Allen, and Thomas Tapeh, the continuing nurturing of Tarvaris Jackson, Sidney Rice, Anthony Herrera, Aundrae Allison, and Cedric Griffin, and the lack of depth along the offensive line, the Minnesota Vikings are no different than most.

Not so for the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, or Detroit Lions--all, coincidentally, fellow denizens of the NFC North. With more glaring issues than most in the backfield, each of the Vikings' inter-division rivals appears destined for a decline this year, just as the Vikings appear poised to improve.

Supplanting Detroit as the team with the greatest off-season challenges this year are the Chicago Bears. Last season, Chicago moved to address what Coach Lovie Smith believed to be the team's most glaring short-coming outside of a rash of injuries to defensive players. The pinnacle move last season was the trade of Thomas Jones to the New York Jets and the installation at starting running back of former first-round draft choice Cedric Benson.

After a disappointing 2007 season that foiled not only the Bears' designs but those of numerous fantasy football players, Benson pledged to return to the Bears in 2008 fit and ready to lead the offense. That pledge did not even last until the opening of training camp as Benson picked up two OWIs--one boating, one driving--in the span of one month.

Willing to give Benson "the benefit of the doubt" that he was falsely accused in the boating incident, the Bears finally cut their losses with the former Texas running back after Benson's early morning arrest for driving under the influence this past week. The release of Benson leaves the Bears with veteran Adrian Peterson and rookie Matt Forte. Although either Peterson or Forte arguably would represent an improvement over Benson, the Bears had neither in mind as a starter in 2008, pinning their hopes on Benson's ability to resuscitate his career.

Adding to the Bears' woes in 2008 is the loss of wide receiver Bernard Berrian to division rival Minnesota. Though Berrian had his issues holding onto the ball as a member of the Bears, the general perception in Chicago is that the Bears guessed wrong in believing that Berrian would take less money to stay in Chicago and that the Bears now regret not retaining the wide receiver.

The loss of Berrian leaves the Bears with broken down Marty Booker, unpredictable Brandon Lloyd, and a slew of unproven young players as receiving targets next season. All of which might have been moderately stomachable for Bears' fans were it not for the fact that the Bears will have either the nearly released Rex Grossman or the dreadful looking Kyle Orton at quarterback.

With so many questions on offense, the Bears are left to pin their 2008 hopes on a defense that, though finishing the season relatively strong in 2007, remains smitten by too many injuries to depend on to carry the team.

The situation is not much better in Detroit where the Lions enter 2008 in year seven of the Matt Millen experiment. Under Millen's guidance, the Lions are a mind-numbing 31-81, including 8-48 on the road. Millen has admitted that the Lions have been "beyond awful" under his leadership, an admission that his peers appear more than willing to accept. In a Wall Street Journal article on April 26, 2008, WSJ reporters noted that, in private discussions with NFL executives, there was unanimoty that Matt Millen "had made more bad draft decisions than anyone else" in NFL history and that Millen was not cut out to be an NFL general manager--two things Lions' fans could have confirmed for WSJ.

Millen's poor decision-making has not been relegated to mere bad drafting, however, extending to questionable trades, bad free-agent signings, and the failure to fill glaring holes despite spending freely in off-season signings. The result has been a predictably bad football team.

Last season, after adding former Denver Bronco running back Tatum Bell and rookie wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Millen promised a playoff run. His quarterback, Jon Kitna predicted ten wins. Neither promise came to fruition as the Lions finished 7-9.

For their woes, the Lions pinned the entire blame on fired offensive coordinator Mike Martz. To be certain, Martz's unwillingness to scheme to the opponent's weaknesses, change in the face of the opposition's adjustments, and establish any semblance of a running game were substantial causes behind the Lions' failures in 2008. But such myopia is the reason that the Lions continue to be a bottom dweller in a league that makes consistent bottom dwelling virtually impossible.

With 377 yards and nearly 28 points allowed per game, the Lions easily finished at the bottom of the NFL in defense. Despite glaring needs just about everywhere on defense heading into 2008, the Lions used two of their first three picks in the college entry draft to select offensive players, relying on free agency to find defensive starters. Unfortunately for Lions' fans, those defensive free agents look an awful--with emphasis on awful--lot like the retreads that the Lions have brought in as free agents in past years.

While even marginal decision-making by Kitna, a modicum of a running game, and receptions by the Lions' highly paid wide-receiving corps could suffice to make the Lions better than they were at the end of 2008, the defense probably will continue to drag down the fortunes of the team. And with a 1-7 finish to the 2008 season, more than a little improvement will be necessary for the Lions even to keep pace with the Vikings and the Packers.

While the Bears and Lions face substantial challenges to winning in 2008, the Green Bay Packers have just one question mark entering the 2008 season--but it is a substantial one.

With the presumed retirement of Brett Favre, the Packers are left with former first-round draft choice Aaron Rodgers as the sole viable starting quarterback this season. If Rodgers is unable to go, there is no credible backup. And if Rodgers is able to go and falters, there might be outright panic in Green Bay where the defense is solid, the offensive line is intact, and the skill position players have shown both promise and production.

The big if, however, is Rodgers. With fewer starts than Vikings' quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, things could be challenging for Rodgers, particularly at the outset. And with promising rookie Brian Brohm staring over his shoulder, Rodgers might find himself pressing even more than he otherwise would have as the replacement for future Hall of Famer Brett Favre.

The Packers showed significant improvement from the beginning to the end of the 2007 season. That improvement was the direct result of consistent--and mostly very good--play from Favre. Favre's play allowed running back Ryan Grant to grow into the role of fantasy star, making the Packers' receiving corps all the more impressive. The offensive play trickled over to the defensive side of play and the two units gradually began to feed off of each other.

But there is a reason for old adages having staying power. And in the case of the Packers, the most applicable NFL adage is that as the quarterback play goes, so goes the team. For the Packers to pick up where they left off last season would be remarkable, given the loss of Favre and the installment of a virtual rookie in Rodgers as Favre's replacement. The Packers need not finish 13-3 to win the NFC North, but even predicting double-digit victories this season might be a stretch.

That leaves the Vikings, who finished a disappointing, though perhaps predictable, 8-8 in 2007. With significant off-season additions at positions of weakness in 2007, the Vikings enter the 2008 season with two persistent question marks--quarterback and head coach. Jackson showed some improvement in 2007, even if less than hoped, and Childress continues to evolve, at least as a person, if not necessarily as a coach.

For Minnesota, the question is not whether players such as Steve Hutchinson, Matt Birk, Adrian Peterson, Bernard Berrian, Sidney Rice, Jared Allen, E.J. Henderson, Pat Williams, Kevin Williams, Chad Greenway, Ben Leber, Darren Sharper, Antoine Winfield, and Madieu Williams can pull their weight, the question is whether the second-tier of players--the remaining offensive linemen, the secondary receivers, the other corners, and the tight ends--can lift their load. If they can, if Childress allows his top-tier players to make plays and gets results from Jackson, the Vikings ought to give the Packers a run for the division title. If not, it surely will be judgment time in Minnesota, for Childress, Jackson, or both.

Up Next: Around the NFL. Plus, ends and ends.

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