With not much time left until the season, and the Bar Exam having eaten my summer alive, we'll be going through Premature Evaluations division by division, explaining why each team is more interesting than you may think, and even picking the team we think will come out on top of each division. Today, we continue with the NFC North, where a little desperation changes everybody.
A fever dream, sustained long enough, becomes a sickness causing death. Last season, the Minnesota Vikings dodged suspensions for the centerpieces of their defensive line, saw their formerly underachieving receiving project become the 4th most prolific receiver in terms of yardage, and were helmed on offense by Brett Favre’s most impressive statistical performance ever, at age 39. But for one mistake, and an overtime rule that was changed almost five years after people had said it should be changed, this team could have won the Super Bowl, and their biggest loss to free agency was their backup running back. And yet, doesn’t it feel like things have changed? This team feels like the relationship that should have ended, except one party makes some big move to try and hold things together for just a little longer, hoping that the magic is still there (an analogy that makes Childress’s late visit to Favre all the more desperate).
To call last season anything but magical for the Vikings would be to do it a disservice. Favre and Rice’s breathtaking displays as passer and receiver aside, the entire team, from Jared Allen (2nd in the league in sacks) to Percy Harvin (a top 40 receiver in his rookie year and during a season in which the team was finding a role for him) to Adrian Peterson (who, in an off year, was still the 5th leading running back in yardage, and the leader in TD) all seemed to peak at once. So yes, while the overtime interception that effectively ended their season feels like the fluke that can’t repeat, it seems no more incredible than the 2009 season as a whole.
All of this makes Brad Childress’s demeanor, as well as the demeanor of the entire front office, nerve wracking for Vikings fans. Long torn between the future that may never arrive in Tarvaris Jackson and veterans that can’t do enough for the team, last season was a reprieve for Childress, allowing him to refrain from betting on his volatile project without losing any dynamic potency. At some point, however, things have to come back to reality. Sidney Rice’s injury already has this team looking painfully mortal. Even if Favre’s inevitable physical decline doesn’t take place this year (a long bet), everything can’t possibly last that much longer, which will only push Peterson's prime into irrelevance on an offense that hasn't developed around him. When it inevitably falls apart, this team is going to be that much worse for failing to invest in a real future, instead of clinging to the brief dream realized that was 2009. It’s a grim prospect for the future, and the kind of tension that can derail a team’s season.
You’re right guys; who needs Vincent Jackson when Devon Aromashodu is around? Oh, and Antonio Bryant? He’s definitely not better at 80% than Earl Campbell at 100%. While we’re at it, let’s alienate Greg Olsen and not utilize him as our most significant receiver. Seriously, if Jay Cutler doesn’t hang himself before this season is done, we lose all rights to call him mopey.
The fact is that as much as Mike Martz has taken an unfair share of the blame for bad situations in Detroit (no offensive line or defense) and San Francisco (no wide receivers), he’s shown himself to be far too stubborn about adjusting to the reality that the tight end is, for the most part, as much of a receiver as he is a blocker. Certainly the idea that you can buy your quarterback extensive additional time with an extra blocker is one that may have worked in the past, but defensive alignments and players have only gotten faster and more aggressive, making any advantage in blocking negated by the lack of an additional potential target under pressure. He did it with Vernon Davis in San Francisco; as much as Davis’s attitude was an issue, people didn’t talk enough about Martz’s irresponsible failure to build a pass attack around such an incredible talent. Now, having alienated Greg Olsen, who is similar to Davis in that he is by far the best receiver on the Bears, history appears to be repeating itself.
Which is a shame, because if the team focused more on blending Martz’s creative routes with the personnel available, there is talent to work with on the Bears. Matt Forte, though certainly not as good as he looked in his rookie season, is almost certainly not as bad as he looked last year, when the offensive line was in shambles and defenses had no reason to worry about anybody else for much of the season. Furthermore, the addition of Chester Taylor to the offense gives the team a legitimate one-two punch at running back, meaning that defenders will need to account for a fresher ground game. Meanwhile, the defense returns Brian Urlacher (who never gets the credit he deserves) and brought in Julius Peppers (who suffers from having gotten too much credit early in his career), creating the kind of athleticism in the defensive front that just about every team in the league would kill for. Throw in Jay Cutler, who is still one of the league’s most potent aerial weapons, and this should be a feisty team to contend with, right?
Except once again, the Bears (and Mike Martz) have failed to realize that the era of great coordinators turning ho-hum athletes into superstar receivers is over. Even if the offensive line is stronger (and honestly, Chris Williams SHOULD be better), does anybody believe that the Devin Hester experiment is anything other than the best example of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs? Are Johnny Knox and Devon Aromashodu putting the fear into anybody as second options? If Martz were willing to build an offense aroung Greg Olsen, this could be interesting (INTERESTING, not necessarily good), but history shows that Martz won’t adapt, much like the team he now joins. What we’re left with, then, is a strange forced marriage of elite, tempermental talent and yeoman grunts, with nothing in between to bridge the gap, preventing either group from influencing the other, and leading to a discordant pairing of outliers rather than a cohesive mean.
I’m more and more convinced that this is the only team that the Packers are genuinely afraid of. I think the Packers look at Favre’s Vikings and sees inevitable victory on the horizon. I think they look at the Bears and sees a middling squad that can’t hang with thair offense or overpower a revamped defense. I think they looks at the Lions, however, and see what Ndamukong Suh did to a better Browns offensive line en route to manhandling Jake Delhomme. They see how speedy Jahvid Best (CJ Spiller with a better salary) will keep their elite linebacking corps from attacking the offensive backfield without distraction. Most of all, they see that Calvin Johnson finally has new playmates in Nate Burleson (a number one receiver with gifts to be an amazing number two), Tony Scheffler (a great downfield TE when healthy), Brandon Pettigrew (primed for a breakout year after showing flashes last season), and canon-armed Matthew Stafford (whose stats don’t reveal how much he was unfairly asked to do as a rookie), meaning that Megatron should finally get the single coverage mismatches that will wreak havoc on their older corners and shaky safeties. No, they might not be a complete team, but the Lions are volatile, and for a predetermined favorite like the Packers, there’s nothing scarier than a volatile division opponent, particularly when they’re tailor made against your weaknesses.
With the drafting of Suh and Best, the Lions used this offseason to get what Matt Millen always wanted but never understood how to get: Firepower. This time, however, the focus is on spreading the fireworks around, giving the Lions at least one potentially scary playmaker at every level (with the unfortunate exception of the offensive line, unless Gosder Cherilius improves quickly and shockingly). While that weakness may keep them from having the consistency required of a contender, the distribution of talent gives them the potential to steal games from any given opponent. Certainly we’ve all been taught that consistency always trumps intermittent brilliance, but I’m not as inclined to write this year off as another failed experiment for the Lions. Going back to that scary spread of talent discussed earlier, isn’t it fair to say that if enough positions click in enough games, this team could steal enough of the season to go to the playoffs, or, considering how well matched they are, even beat Green Bay out for the division? Yes, it’s a long season, but it’s easy to forget that the NFL, on the micro level, is a game of short term, even momentary explosiveness that decides contests. This team is built to win with scattered explosions rather than systemic consistency, something that works more often than we’d care to admit (the Cardinals in 2008 were a good example of this). Whether or not you think that this team, can put everything together for a great year, there’s certainly too much here to ignore, which is more than anybody thought they’d be saying about the Lions this early in the Schwartz regime.
Green Bay Packers
The always clever Cian from The Norman Einsteins described last year’s Packers as something like cake frosting and fireworks. I didn’t realize at the time how apt that was, or how it would be the driving force behind the fun of last season as well as its greatest disappointments. The fact is that they were probably too happy for their own good. Everybody was all excited about how good Aaron Rodgers was performing as a starting quarterback, or how the defense, relying on two stellar corners and a linebacking corps from hell, and the statistics showed that this defense was built to kill and that the same receivers Favre had thrown under the bus a year earlier were now a young, underpriced, athletic hydra to defend against. The problem is that hopeful and overjoyed are great ways to wind up, but ineffective mindsets for the journey to a championship. That’s why the Packers couldn’t hold off a Cardinals team hell bent on proving their legitimacy, or a Tampa Bay squad whose beloved coach was backed against the wall, or a Pittsburgh squad in a shootout for their playoff lives. It’s the same reason why they couldn’t close the door on a vengeful Brett Favre, playing to salt the earth he’d made his own so recently.
This year, I’m expecting things to be a little heavier. That isn’t to say that we can’t see the same kind of free wheeling offensive aerial assault or creative blitz packaging that made the Packers fun to watch last season. Rather, if it all works out the way it should, there’s going to be some edge to all of it, making it all mean a little more. All I’ve heard this offseason is that Aaron Rodgers cares a whole lot more about the Favre legacy than he lets on; I’d like to see some of that jealousy and disdain played out on the field with a focus that will keep him from being the most sacked quarterback in the league (yes, his line was bad, but he also loves holding onto the ball and teasing a play out when escape should be the priority). A little anger and desperation about potential needing to be met should also help the run game, 14th in the league and clearly the weak link on this team, get the toughness and innovation from which truly impressive ground games emerge (don’t sleep on Brandon Jackson, a shiftier back than Ryan Grant, getting more of the workload to make both Grant and the run game as a whole more effective). We all understand that this team has more than enough talent to crush its competition; what’s more important is whether they understand how important it is that they do it NOW.
PREDICTION: Packers win the division, followed by the Vikngs, Lions, and Bears. I think Rodgers gets the importance of immediacy. I’m tempted to give the Lions the two spot, but I’d say they need one more year of growth before talent meets experience.