by Kent Sterling
The difference between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears can be summed up in the following 18 words, “With the fourth pick of the 2005 NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears select Cedric Benson, running back, Texas.” The Packers waited 20 more picks to declare their future by taking gunslinger Aaron Rodgers.
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Eight years later, Rogers is regarded as the best quarterback in the game, and Cedric Benson spent the 2012 season with the Packers (most of it on IR). From 2005-2007, Rodgers waited behind Brett Favre, and Benson misbehaved his way out of Chicago.
The Bears haven’t been the same since.
1 – Green Bay Packers (10-6)
Schedule – The NFC North, like all divisions in the NFL play very similar schedules. They play each other twice, and then a division in both the AFC and NFC. That leaves two games that differ from team to team based on where they finished in their division. The Packers play a sweet alternation of home and away only interrupted by two straight at Lambeau Field right smack dab in the middle of the schedule against the Bears and Eagles. The teams on the schedule which differ are against the 49ers and Falcons. The opener against the 49ers in San Francisco is a big game for both teams, but especially for the Pack, who dropped both their opener and closer against the 49ers in 2012. The North plays the AFC North and NFC East. The Ravens have revamped their defense, but the Bengals, Steelers, and Browns are all looking to take a step forward. The NFC East could be very similar. The Eagles are either to to improve or fall completely apart. Will Chip Kelly’s offense with Michael Vick at the helm soar or crash? Good question. It seems the only sure thing is that the Cowboys will remain mediocre. The health of RG3 will have a lot to do with the Redskins’ playoff hopes. Having the NFC Championship Game combatants as their wild card games is the price for winning the North last year.
Offense – This is Aaron Rodgers offense, and as long as he’s upright, they are going to be a beast. Don’t worry about the losses of wide receivers Greg Jennings and Donald Driver (with only eight catches in 2012, DD wasn’t a factor anyway). Randall Cobb caught 80 balls in 104 targets for a very righteous 77%. On the other side is the deep threat James Jones, who is targeted on first, second, and third down almost equally. He caught only 65.3% of his targets, but passes to Jones are typically a little deeper. He was a touchdown machine with 14, nearly as many Jermichael Finley (2), Jordy Nelson (7) and Cobb (8) combined. Then there is the similarly sure-handed Nelson who caught 49 balls on 73 targets. Let’s not forget Finley, who grabbed a career high 61 balls = 70.1% of his targets. While Nelson is a third down target, Finley is three times as likely to be thrown to one first and second down. This is the last year of Finley’s contract, so if he is ever going to play a consistently productive 16 games, this will be the year.
The area where the Packers need to improve – and will – is in being able to run. It’s not important to that Eddie Lacy run for 1,500 yards, but he must be able to move the sticks on third and two or less. Alex Green led the Packers in rushing in 2012 with 464 yards – a result of injury to Cedric Benson and himself. Rodgers was second with 259. Lacy is built for what the Packers need.
The offensive line is shuffling around all over the place, but will be just fine. Rodgers is smart enough not to let the pressure force turnovers and sacks are a part of the Aaron Rodgers equation, and Lacy can find seams.
Defense – Clay Matthews supplies the pressure and the best group of cornerbacks in the NFL make throwing the ball for big chunks of yards difficult. The defensive line is not exactly the three blocks of granite, but Datone Jones, Ryan Pickett, and C.J. Raji a are damn difficult to single block, and that leaves plenty of room for A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones, and Nick Perry to make plays.
Overall – Minus the games against Atlanta and San Francisco, the division plays the same schedule, except the Lions, Vikings, and Bears need to play the Packers twice each. That mitigates any disadvantage. The Packers have the best quarterback in the division – and the league – at that means they will win the division as long as Rodgers can move without assistance.
Minnesota Vikings (9-7)
Schedule – While the Pack play the Falcons and 49ers, the Vikings play the Panthers and Eagles. That should help them see finish .500 for the season.
Offense – The Vikings are a tough team to predict wins and losses because regardless of all else, Adrian Peterson can win games with his feet, and that allows Leslie Frazier to see every offensive play as a game breaker. Stay close, and let A.P. win it is not a bad mantra. The Vikes don’t really have much else to make defensive coordinators sweat. The only positive about Christian Ponder is that the pressure to keep wife and ESPN sideline reporter Sam happy will have him working 22 hours a day to improve. The bad news is that he was the least accurate deep ball passer in the league in 2012, and his weaponry didn’t improve much. Greg Jennings health has been an issue, and first round draft pick Cordarrelle Patterson is going to take awhile to develop much like virtually every wide receiver that comes into the league. Kyle Rudolph is a reliable weapon at tight end, but writing about the receivers and Ponder on the Vikings is like writing a review of a Ruths’ Chris Steakhouse and leading with paragraph on the iceberg lettuce.
As AP goes, so goes the Vikings offense. If he’s healthy for 16 games, he has a shot at 2,000 yards, and the Vikings could win as many as 10 games.
Defense – The focus, as it seems to have been for generations in Minnesota, is on the pass rush. Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Kevin Williams, and Everson Griffen can change the game at any time with a sack/strip. They combined for 30 sack last year, and the pressure they apply makes a questionable secondary passable. Minnesota ranked right smack in the middle of the league in most defensive statistics, including a obviously average -1 in giveaway/takeaway.
The defensive backfield could be a significant problem with Antonio Wingfield gone. His replacement will be an inexperienced corner regardless of whether it’s Josh Robinson or 2013 first rounder Xavier Rhodes. Robinson was regularly torched as a rookie last year. Either way they go, Rodgers, Matt Stafford, and Jay Cutler are going to test that side of the field.
I would like to share something with you that is remarkable about this defense other than the front four, but I can’t. Leslie Frazier is one of my favorite guys in the NFL. He clawed his way up from nowhere to fashion a very successful coaching career after his playing career with the Chicago Bears was derailed during what should have been a very happy day in his life. Frazier tore his knee apart during a reverse on a punt return in Super Bowl XX, and that was that. His first nine seasons were spent at Trinity International in Deerfield, Illinois. That is called starting at the bottom.
Overall – Hard to say it any other way. If Peterson stays healthy, and the Vikings don’t wear him out, they have a chance to win games. He makes them an exception to a pretty solid rule of football – the best quarterback wins. Peterson is a throwback to a time when a back was the marquee player on his team. Jim Brown, Walter Payton, and Barry Sanders preceded him. Longevity will determine whether he joins them.
Detroit Lions (7-9)
A strange team with some excellence, and some wretched. Megatron is one of the most imposing players in the NFL regardless of position. I walked beside him in the tunnel on the way to the field prior to the Rams game, and while most NFL players are smaller than you picture them, Calvin Johnson is monolithic in the same way Dwight Howard is when you sit court side at an NBA game.
Schedule – The wild cards are Tampa and Arizona, but the Cardinals are going to be different if not better. Tampa will be – well, a win in Detroit.
Offense – Matt Stafford is an interesting guy. He can make all the throws, but he can be fooled by coverages, and his release point drops. No matter the work a quarterback does, a very smart defensive coordinator and former NFL head coach told me, the way he picks up a rock and throws it the first time as a child is the way he’ll throw a football when under duress. Stafford is comfortable throwing sidearm, so that’s what happens now and again. Losing both starting tackles from 2012 is not going to help. That won’t hurt their run blocking much, but pass protection could be frightening for Stafford. If I were his health insurance carrier, I would have a team of actuaries with their slide rules out trying to predict our exposure. Reggie Bush will be a legitimate threat to catch 60 balls out of the backfield, and Megatron will have to catch the rest.
Defense – Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are bonafide badasses. They are among the top DTs in the NFL, and are joined by #5 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft Ziggy Ansah, Israel Idonije, and Jason Jones. As for the secondary, I don’t know what’s going on back there. According to Pro Football Focus, an incredible 11 different DBs played more than 150 snaps, and only one played 600 or more. As a result, the Lions sucked against the pass. Well, of course they did. How would they not? When you are into third teamers, life is not going to be pleasant unless you are a receiver and quarterback playing against them. The linebackers return, minus Justin Durant, but that could be a bad thing as minus Durant, that group wasn’t great against the run.
Overall – I love their defensive front and Megatron. Bush is an asset as a receiver, and Stafford is mercurial but improving. No chance to make the playoffs in this division, but the Lions are occasionally going to smite someone. The City of Detroit deserves better. They have enough problems without worrying about the Lions.
Lovie Smith being punted as the head coach was a surprise, but that’s the way most teams in the NFL work. After nine or ten years, teams get antsy and feel that they are just a new coach away from breaking through the ceiling to a championship. The Steelers have been the most consistent NFL franchise since 1972, and they have had a total of three head coaches during that time, but everyone else knows better, so Lovie gets the boot.
Marc Trestman was hired to lead the offense in a different direction, and he will. He’s said to be an offensive genius, but the guy who he needs to teach to run his offense has shown a propensity for anti-genius behavior.
The Bears are getting old almost everywhere, and they might be in a position in two years where they long for the records that Lovie put together over his nine seasons. Of the four Pro Bowlers from the defensive side of the ball, only Henry Melton will be younger than 30 at the end of the 2013 season. Lance Briggs will be 33, Charles Tillman is already 32, and Tim Jennings will turn 30 on Christmas Eve.
Offensively, the teeth are growing long too. Quarterback Jay Cutler is 30, and while he’s likely to maintain his level of play for a few more years, he’s unlikely to improve, and what he did in 2012 simply wasn’t good enough to go to the playoffs for a variety of reasons. It wasn’t all Cutler’s fault, but 38 sacks, 19 TDs, and 14 picks do not reflect a championship level of play. Cutler is good enough to inspire hope, but not quite good enough to win it all.
Matt Forte is going to turn 28 toward the end of the 2013 season, so he’s another guy who is who he is, hwich isn’t bad, but in a division with the Vikings, Lions, and Packers, it isn’t enough. Devin Hester will be 31, and Brandon Marshall is 29 – both beyond the threshold where improvement can be expected.
If the Bears are going to leap forward to a championship anytime soon, I don’t see anything that would lead a reasonable person to foresee it.
Offense – The Bears go as quarterback Jay Cutler goes, and that won’t be very far. This is Cutler’s contract year, and that will put additional pressure on a guy who doesn’t need any. Trestman is called the “Quarterback Whisperer”, but he hasn’t met Jay Cutler during a contract year yet. The arm is world class but the ability to read coverages comes and goes. Matt Forte and Brandon Marshall are the workhorses, and behind them are guys who do not inspire hope for success. Cutler hasn’t played a full 16 games since 2009, and backup Josh McCown has started only 33 games in his nine seasons in the NFL for a reason.
Defense – Healthy, they are pretty good, but for how many games can Peppers, Melton, Briggs, and Tillman be expected to ignore father time’s less than subtle reminders. New linebacker Jon Bostic has shown the ability to lay the wood to offensive players, but as the 50th overall pick in the 2013 draft, does he make enough money to pay the fines for those hits?
Overall – Bears fans consistently overrate their favorite team as though simply by wearing the jersey of Sayers, Payton, George (Bill not Jeff), O’Bradovich, Butkus, Fencik, Luckman, and Grange they should excel. I wish it was true.
There are teams in the NFL that I believe should surprise by winning more than many predict, like the Rams and Brown. Conversely, there are teams that will lose more, and the Bears appear primed to be one of those.
It would be hard to pick against Green Bay winning the division. A healthy Rogers but beyond that, I have to disagree with the projected rankings (full disclosure, I’m a Bears fan).
First, I think rumors of the Bears’ demise have been greatly exaggerated. There will be only minor regression on the defensive side of the ball, as Mel Tucker has admitted to making a point of changing very little. Offensively, it would be hard to get much worse. A rebuilt O-line under Kromer’s direction, combined with Trestman’s implementation of a West Coast-style offense, leads me to be optimistic. It should be noted that under Shanahan’s variation of the West Coast scheme, Cutler was a Pro Bowler. At season’s end, I predict the Bears defense remains in the top five or six, while the offense improves to somewhere between 10th and 14th in the league.
It’s hard to envision the Vikings as runners up in the North for a second year. It would require Peterson to have another near-Dickensonian year to once again carry his team to that position. Don’t misunderstand me, if any man can do it, it’s A.P., but I think that this season, just about every opposing defensive player the Vikings face will be gunning for the distinction of shutting down the reigning MVP’s running game.
As for the Lions, it’s hard to see their situation improving much. They’ll be well served by Bush and Idonije, certainly. But their lack of recent success has not been for a lack of talent, but discipline. Simply put they’re an unfocused and undisciplined team. If Schwartz hasn’t figured out how to control his guys by now, I don’t see how he’s going to do it. Bring in a coach who can change the attitude in the locker room, and then this is a team that could really succeed.
Finally, for whatever it’s worth, there’s the strength of the teams’ schedules. You can’t put too much weight on this, but Chicago has the weakest schedule in the division, followed by Minnesota, then Green Bay, and finally Detroit, whose schedule is the fourth most difficult in the league.
Anyway, me prediction for the division:
1. Green Bay 2. Chicago 3. Minnesota 4. Detroit
In any event, the NFC North should be a good division to watch this season. This is probably the closest thing we have seen to parity between Green Bay and Chicago since Rodgers took the helm (although GB will still be the smart money), so the rivalry should be good. Adrian Peterson single-handedly makes the Vikings interesting, and while we’ve all written him off as nuts for shooting for 2,500 this year, deep down we wonder if he’ll get there.
Nice analysis, and I would agree if not for the age of the Bears. The defense almost has to breakdown.