Happy football-is-back day, everybody!
That’s right, tonight is the night that the NFL makes its triumphant return to our television screens. I feel like the proverbial kid on Christmas morning. This is always one of my top days of the year, and this year, with an offseason full of lockouts and lawsuits, it feels all the more sweet to finally have real, actual football back in my life.
I know the games don’t count, but simply because I’ve been deprived of football for so many months since the Super Bowl, this is the day I get most excited about—even more than the start of actual games.
To help us all get back into the swing of the NFL season, I bring you the second installment in my series of NFL division previews. Today we go over the NFC Norris division, or the NFC North if we have to be all formal and stuff.
This division has great historical rivalries, is a case study in how NFL offenses are evolving and, above all, is the best division top to bottom in the NFL. All of the teams have potential to win games, and the team that comes out on top will be battle tested and ready for playoff success.
In case you missed it, check out my NFC East division preview from earlier this week. Make sure to come back on Monday, after a weekend of pigging-out on glorious, glorious football, when we’ll be talking about the NFC South.
2010: 11-5, NFC North division champion.
Better or worse in 2011? Worse. This is a tough division and 11 or 12 wins is going to be tough for any of them.
The Chicago Bears come into 2011 with big expectations. Not surprising, considering they lost in the NFC championship game last year to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
After taking a closer look though, the Bears might have gotten a little farther than their talent and strategy were likely to take them. They were able to get a first-round playoff bye with only 11 wins, an advantage that usually takes at least 12 or more. Then they got to play the Seattle Seahawks, a team that sneaked into the postseason with a losing record, and upset a beleaguered New Orleans team at home in their only playoff victory.
They aren’t likely to have so much good fortune this year, and with such a tough division I just don’t see them repeating their 2010 success, let alone building on it.
Important acquisitions: Marion Barber, Gabe Carimi (R), Dave Sanzenbacher (R) (alright, only because I want to hear John Gruden say his name), Chris Spencer, Roy Williams.
Toughest player losses: Greg Olsen, Olin Kreutz.
Key player: Devin Hester.
The “if” factor: I don’t see a lot of "ifs" here, because I don’t see any realistic upside for this unit. As the now famous saying goes: They are who we thought they were.
2010 offensive ranking: 28th passing, 22nd rushing.
Chicago runs the Mike Martz offense, a complicated high-powered scheme that confounds defensive coordinators with well-timed option routes. Oh wait, that would be true if this were 1999. Too bad it’s 2011 and Bill Belichick showed the world how to stop the Martz attack a decade ago.
The Greatest Show on Turf was an innovative reaction to the zone-blitzing schemes of the late ‘90s (which were a reaction to the west coast offenses of the early ‘90s), but turned out to be an offensive philosophy that wouldn’t stand the test of time.
Whether it’s because of how much it asks of the quarterback, that it requires receivers to make overly complicated split-second decisions on the fly, or simply that it was too easy to disrupt with even the slightest amount of pressure on the receivers when they came off the line, no Martz-led offense has been successful in years.
The Bears finished in the bottom third of the league in both passing and rushing in 2010, and unless they change their philosophy, or Jay Cutler finally becomes a thinking quarterback and not just a guy with a cannon arm, there isn’t much room for improvement in 2011.
Instead of upgrading their offensive philosophy, Chicago spent the offseason attempting to acquire the type of players that can flourish in the Mike Martz offense. Note the key word here is "attempting," because their two biggest additions, Marion Barber and Roy Williams, both ex-Cowboys, don’t fit the mold.
Receivers in the Martz system are asked to run precise routes and have the mental talent to adjust those routes on the fly, depending on how the defense reacts after the ball is snapped. Neither of these are things that Williams does well.
Despite his lack of success in Dallas, Williams does bring with him a Texas-sized ego to the Windy City. He made it clear when he was in Dallas that he saw himself as a clear cut No. 1 receiver, something that a Mike Martz offense doesn’t strive to have.
Williams had some success with Martz in Detroit by doing his own thing and generally being a physically superior player. Now that they’re reunited, a big “if” is if Williams can swallow his ego and accept his role as just another player in the system.
Yet another round peg being forced into a square hole is the other Dallas castoff, running back Marion Barber.
When I think of the perfect back for the Martz offense, there can be none better than the now Hall-of-Famer Marshall Faulk. Faulk was smart, consistent and athletic in the open field. He was great in pass protection and even better when he was used in the passing game. Most of his rushing yards came off of misdirections and draws. The grand total of those things that can also be said about Marion the Barbarian? Absolutely none of them.
Barber is a downhill runner who does his best work wearing down opposing defenses with a power running style. He’s not a great receiver out of the backfield, hauling in the sum total of 11 receptions in 2011. The Bears could use Barber in short yardage situations, but would have been better served to try to pick up a more Martz-friendly back this offseason. Say a speedy, agile guy like Darren Sproles, or even Reggie Bush, who always reminded me of Marshall Faulk minus the football IQ.
Matt Forte will be the biggest "if" for the offense this year, which is an underhanded way of saying that I actually believe in Jay Cutler just a little bit. He’s had some success in the system so far, and 2011 should be another solid year for him.
Sure, he’s good for a few bad decisions and questionable character moments that will frustrate the Chicago faithful, but in the end he’s still a good NFL quarterback. Good but not great, which is pretty much what we’re going to see from this offense in 2011.
Important acquisitions: Vernon Gholston (remember him?), Stephen Paea (R).
Toughest player losses: Danieal Manning.
Key player: I’m going with Brian Urlacher here.
The “if” factor: None—well, maybe a half of an "if."
2010 defensive ranking: 20th passing, second in rushing.
The Chicago defense carried the team to the NFC Championship game last year, and will have to have an equally good 2011 if the Bears are to have the same kind of success this season.
This unit comes back pretty much intact, so they have a great chance to repeat their success. They were tremendous against the run, largely due to a superb year by All-Pro middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.
Urlacher, the prototype for a middle linebacker in the Tampa Two defense, had 125 tackles and four sacks last year, coming back from a subpar 2008 and a 2009 campaign lost to injury. Urlacher is the key to this defense, and the only “if” I see is whether Urlacher has enough in the tank to repeat his production from 2011, or if last year was a great player giving us one last glimpse at how great he can be.
The Bears are going to need the defense to be just as good against the run—and even better against the pass—as they were last year if they are going to see the playoffs again. One potential under-the-radar addition that could help the team pressure the quarterback from the front four, a must in the Chicago defensive scheme, is the pickup of ex-New York Jet Vernon Gholston.
And yes, I am serious here.
Gholston showed enough talent for New York to take him early in the first round of the draft; they then proceeded to play him out of position. Adjusting to the NFL can be hard enough, sometimes it’s just too much to ask of a young player to learn a new position, and the difference between rushing the passer from a three-point stance and reacting to plays as a stand up linebacker can be huge.
Gholston will now have the opportunity to play the position his skill-set is most suited for: an outside speed rushing defensive end in a 4-3. No more excuses, if he doesn’t get the job done in Chicago there will be no question that he just doesn’t have what it takes to be a difference maker in the NFL.
The Chicago defense will once again be the strength of the team. We’ll see if they have enough strength to carry them to the playoffs.
Green Bay Packers
2010: 10-6, second place in the NFC North.
Better or worse in 2011: Better.
If the Green Bay Packers' 2011 Super Bowl victory proved anything, it’s that the NFL has officially completed its transformation from a downhill running league to a spread formation, pass-first league.
The Packers dominated the air, both on offense and defense, and rode that strategy all the way to a Lombardi trophy. The writing has been on the wall for a decade now. Offenses that feature the pass-first, like the Patriots, Colts, Saints and even the Steelers (yes, I put the Steelers in there—the 2006 championship was still a run-first team, but by 2009 they were a predominantly passing squad), have gobbled up the championships.
I mean, every 16-year-old who grew up playing Madden knows that the way to win is to spread a defense out and beat them with speedy receivers and an accurate, strong-armed quarterback. It’s not that these offenses don’t run the ball well, the key here is that it all starts with the pass, leading to openings in the running game.
The Packers personified this pass-first mentality in 2010, basically running an “air raid” offense—the same kind of multiple receiver, downfield passing attack that colleges have been using to put up crazy numbers for years.
I could go on for another thousand or so words about the X's and O's advantages of this offensive philosophy, but you're already probably skimming through this, so I’ll just say that it takes advantage of vertical seam routes and the fact that defenses can’t cover the whole field—and it all relies on how good the quarterback is.
The Packers aren’t likely to change anything in 2011, after all, defensive coordinators are still probably about two or three years away from figuring out how to stop their attack (hint: look at the TCU 4-2-5 scheme). They have one of the best quarterbacks in the league and an aggressive, disrupting defense.
2011 will be another great year for the Pack, who should be in contention for a repeat Super Bowl win this winter.
Important acquisitions: None, although it’s tough to improve on this high-flying offense.
Toughest player losses: Matt Tauscher.
Key player: Ryan Grant.
The “if” factor: One, as in “if they can break the Patriots’ 2007 scoring record.”
2010 offensive ranking: Fifth in passing, 24th rushing.
The Packers' offense comes into the 2011 season as one of the best units in all of pro football. Aaron Rodgers solidified himself last year among the very best signal callers in the game today; his group of receivers is also one of the best around. The offensive line is consistently reliable and they have a stable of running backs at their disposal, giving them flexibility and depth at the position.
Basically, this is the blueprint for how to build an offensive roster in 2011.
It really is that simple.
Just pay attention to what the Packers do offensively and you’ll see what the league is going to look like in the near future. Just like when Bill Walsh figured out the West Coast offense—and it was so obviously dominant that pretty much every other team was running a version of it within a decade—this Green Bay offense is what all the other offensive coordinators have been working towards.
It started with the Patriots and Colts airing the ball out in the early part of the 2000s, led to Sean Payton and the Saints confounding the league with their attack, and now the Packers offense is the new way to score points in the NFL.
Will offenses morph again? Of course they will, because defenses will eventually figure out a way to stop the Pack Attack. But for now, and most likely for the foreseeable future, this is what successful offenses are going to look like.
Their offensive philosophy is at the cutting edge of the game right now, and the Packers will continue to put up huge numbers. If they stay relatively healthy, especially Aaron Rogers, the team has a chance to have a historically potent offense.
Important acquisitions: None, it's tough to improve on this lot.
Toughest player losses: Cullen Jenkins.
Key player: A.J. Hawk.
The “if” factor: Higher than you’d think, this unit’s success is based on pressuring the quarterback, which can be an inconsistent trait.
2010 defensive ranking: fifth in passing, 18th rushing.
The Green Bay defense comes back as essentially the same group that we saw in 2010. Which is to say, a group that was good enough to get their team a Super Bowl victory.
The Packers are yet another team that is dispelling the old-school notion that defense wins championships. That just isn’t the case anymore. It used to be that you won it all with a dominant defense and an offense that simply didn’t lose you any games. Now it’s the opposite. You win a Lombardi trophy by having a dominant offense and a defense that is good enough to keep you in games.
That is exactly the way this defensive squad is built. It’s good enough against the run, and stops the opponents' passing attacks by putting pressure on the quarterback with an aggressive, uphill 3-4 scheme.
Clay Matthews had a breakout year in 2010—just getting in there and blowing things up. As silly as that commercial is, it does make one really good point: The key to playing good defense in today’s NFL is speed. The quicker you get in there, the quicker you can blow it up.
And that’s what this Packers defense does. It bends without breaking and gets enough big plays to give their high-scoring offense the chance to outscore the other team.
As the great John Madden once said, the team that scores the most points is going to win the game. Man do I miss having that guy in my life.
Better or worse in 2011: Better, but not better enough to make the playoffs. Not this year.
The Lions are at the top of everyone’s sleeper list this preseason. Which, of course, means they’re probably about a year or two away from being ready to make that jump into the next tier of teams.
For the Lions, that jump would mean making the playoffs, which would be a meteoric rise considering they were a historically bad 0-16 just three short years ago. They’ve rebuilt the right way, making the tough choices and building the roster with a foundation of young, cost-effective players.
This strategy will pay dividends. Probably not this year, it just feels a little too much too soon, but eventually it will pay off because this is the way that good teams are built.
If nothing else, this will be an interesting year in Detroit. A year in which the team will be competitive and fun to watch.
Important acquisitions: Jerome Harrison, Maurice Stovall, Mike Bell.
Toughest player losses: No big losses from last year.
Key player: Matt Stafford.
The “if” factor: I’m not sure I can count high enough.
2010 offensive ranking: 12th passing, 23rd rushing.
This Detroit offense reminds me of a roster my buddy Jay would come up with in Madden franchise mode. He loves to take a bad team, blow it up, “go young” and build a core group of players who can not only win a few games, but can win it all.
It sounds great, and it usually works, but the problem in real life is that it takes time for the young group to get good enough to start winning all those games. Eventually you get to a point where you have all the pieces in place, they just haven’t had enough time in the league to be quite ready to meet lofty expectations.
And that’s exactly where the Lions offense is in 2011.
The quarterback is in place, but he hasn’t shown he can get it down for a full season yet. They have the prototypical No. 1 wide receiver in Calvin Johnson, quickly starting to fulfill his potential as one of the league’s best pass catchers. They’ve been stockpiling running backs, although the loss of their third-round pick, Mikel Leshoure, to an Achilles injury puts them in a tough position as far as depth goes.
All the pieces are there for this to be a productive group, they just need a little more time. In Madden that’s no problem, it only takes a few minutes to sim to the next season; in real life you can’t fast forward, you just have to be patient and wait. Experience can’t be manufactured.
With all that being said, there is a scary upside to this offense in 2011. The “if” factor is through the roof, but if everything falls into place, there’s going to be a lot of points scored in Detroit.
Important acquisitions: Stephen Tulloch, Justin Durant, Nick Fairley (R).
Toughest player losses: None.
Key player: Kyle Vanden Bosch.
The “if” factor: One "if."
2010 defensive ranking: 16th passing, 24th rushing.
There may be no unit in the league getting more under-the-radar hype than the Detroit defense. That is, if there was still such a thing as anything being under the radar in the Internet age.
The hype is pretty well deserved, if not a bit premature.
The defensive line is quickly becoming one of the best units in the NFL, but there are a lot of "ifs" involved in that. We know now that we’re going to get Ndamukong Suh, which is to say he already has to be considered one of the best D-linemen around.
Also, don’t sleep on the steadily quiet performance of defensive end Cliff Avril, who had 8.5 sacks in 2010 and 19 total in his three years so far in the pros.
What we don’t know is what we’re going to get from Kyle Vanden Bosch and first-round draft choice Nick Fairley.
Both have plenty of upside, but both come with plenty of question marks as well. I have the usual trepidation with Fairley that I have with all rookies. I’m just not going to be a believer until I see them get the job done against NFL competition.
Vanden Bosch is a guy on the other end of his career. We know what he can do against the big boys, but we just don’t know if he can still do it at the age of 32. That’s right around the time that his production will start to slip. Will it be this year, or can he squeeze another good season out?
Time will tell, but there are a lot of "ifs" involved in whether or not the defensive line can be good enough to lead what are at best mediocre linebacker and defensive back units. I say there are too many "ifs" to believe they can elevate this defense to the level they will need to play at to win 10 or more games, which it will take to make the playoffs for any NFC team outside of the NFC West, considering how tough their division games are going to be.
Better or worse in 2011: I want to go with the same, but if you must, I have to go with worse.
I spent a lot of time earlier in this column talking about how the NFL is changing and that games are won with wide open passing offenses based on quarterback play and multiple receivers.
If there’s a team that’s going to prove me wrong this year, it’s going to be the Vikings.
This is a team that’s built the old-fashioned way. The offense is run first, then looks to make defenses pay when they load up the line of scrimmage to stop Adrian Peterson. Things like field position and time of possession are their strengths.
Can this old-school style of play still win games in 2011? I guess we’ll see, but I just don’t think so.
Maybe in a weaker division I could buy this being an eight- or even a 10-win team, but the NFC North is just too competitive. When you have a division with four solid teams, at least one of them has to fall to the bottom of the bunch. And in this division, that team is going to be the Vikings.
Important acquisitions: Donovan McNabb, Michael Jenkins, Christian Ponder (R).
Toughest player losses: Sidney Rice, Tarvaris Jackson, Bryant McKinnie.
Key player: Percy Harvin.
The “if” factor: One "if." It’s a big "if" though. Donovan and the passing game will be the difference between something like two wins or making the playoffs.
2010 offensive ranking: 26th passing, 10th rushing.
This offense is about as old school as you’re going to get in the NFL right now.
They rely on using the run to set up the pass, which only has a chance to work because they have the only true feature back left in the league, Adrian Peterson. He’s cut from a cloth that you just don’t see anymore.
He’s big and fast at the same time, he can run through you or around you depending on his mood and, most importantly, he can get yards without relying on draws or misdirection type plays. No, Peterson is a throwback to the time when you just lined up your guys against my guys and we saw who won.
This was the way to win, say about 30 or 40 years ago. Unfortunately for the Vikings, this is 2011 and you just can’t score enough points with that philosophy to beat the better teams in the league, a couple of which just happen to be in their own division.
Donovan McNabb is an upgrade from any quarterback they’ve had since Brett Favre stopped taking steroids (yep, I went there. I just don’t buy a 40-year-old quarterback who had such a bad year in New York miraculously coming back better than ever in Minnesota without a little chemical help—but that’s a story for another day).
He’ll benefit from better pass protection than he had in Washington, as well as throwing against defenses keying on the running game. But just like Farve, quarterbacks at McNabb’s age don’t get better, they can only stay as good as the year before, and most of the time they go downhill fast. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Minnesota make the move to rookie Christian Ponder in the second half of the season.
This offense would have been coming into the season as one of the best units in the league, if this were 1974. But it’s not, it’s 2011, and the things they do well are just too easy for defensive coordinators to stop.
That is, unless Peterson goes into Beast Mode for the entire season and McNabb has another gear we just don’t know about yet (or he got a better pharmacist in the offseason). AP is good enough to carry them to a few wins, but they just won’t be able to score enough points to beat the teams with better offenses like Green Bay.
Important acquisitions: Remi Ayodele.
Toughest player losses: Pat Williams.
Key player: Chad Greenway.
The “if” factor: I can’t think of one good "if" here. What you see is what you get.
2010 defensive ranking: 10th passing, ninth in rushing.
If there’s a way that this Minnesota team is going to see themselves end up with more wins than you can count on one hand, it’s going to be because their defense takes a step up and does their best impression of the ’85 Bears.
We’ll never see another defense dominate the league the way that Chicago did that year. It’s now officially an offensive league, and defenses more and more are just being asked to be good enough to slow down the point-scoring machines they’re facing week in and week out, to just give their offenses a chance to win the game.
Minnesota’s defense did that in 2010. In fact, they were one of the best all-around defensive teams in the NFL last season.
They come back with much the same roster as they had last year, so we can expect the same high level of play. They have solid players on all levels of the defense, very few liabilities and even a couple of players capable of being true game changers in Jared Allen and Antoine Winfield.
Their only major loss was breaking up the Williams boys in the middle of the D-line, but they brought in a capable replacement in Remi Ayodele, an ex-Saint who lined up against this squad when they lost the NFC Championship game two years ago.
The defense is good, really good, but that just doesn’t matter as much as it used to. The offense wins championships now, and the Vikings just don’t have enough firepower on that side of the ball right now.