by Robert Ferringo - 08/02/2005
There is no stress more ruthless than the pressure you face when you know that it's your absolute last chance to do something. That's pretty much the theme of the NFC North this year, with a pair of coaches (Minnesota's Mike Tice and Green Bay's Mike Sherman) and a pair of quarterbacks (Chicago's Rex Grossman and Detroit's Joey Harrington) playing out this season hoping just to have a job when training camp rolls around next July.
The Minnesota Vikings made the most noise of any team in the NFL this offseason by trading Randy Moss, bringing in six new starters on defense and using one of its two first-round picks on Troy Williamson instead of Mike Williams. However, not all of the sound was that pleasant. Between Tice's Super Bowl ticket scalping, a botched attempt by shady businessman Reggie Fowler to purchase the team and Onterrio Smith's Whizzinator episode, there was plenty of laughter directed at the Land of Lakes.
Even without Moss, the consensus is that this is a better Vikings team. Tice, who was given the job in part because of his plan for developing the Randy Ratio, is a paltry 24-27 in four seasons at the helm. The last two years he's led the Vikes to 5-1 starts, only to go down in flames with 1-7 collapses. Tice is the lowest-paid coach in the league, and since he's in the last year of his contract he'll have to prove to new ownership that he's worth keeping around.
Sherman is also in the last year of his contract, and was stripped of his general manager duties by team president Bob Harlan this offseason. Harlan has given football power to Ted Thompson, who is in the first year of a five-year deal. The Green Bay Packers have won three consecutive NFC North titles, but their win total has steadily decreased over the last four years. If they get off to a slow start, Sherman adopts lame-duck status and this team could quit on him.
Joey Harrington's three-year grace period is over, and it is now-or-never for the former Oregon star. The Detroit Lions have had a myriad of problems over the last few years, but Harrington has become the scapegoat for the team's woes. The Lions did everything they could this offseason to eliminate any excuses the QB might have: he has three former No. 1 picks at receiver, an emerging star at running back, a new tight end and an improving offensive line. With ownership and fans expecting immediate results, and Jeff Garcia waiting in the wings, Harrington will have as much pressure on him in September as anyone in the league.
Quarterback problems are something that the Chicago Bears have come to know quite well over the last 20 years. Jim McMahon is the best QB they've had in that time - and even he wasn't all that good. This season may be the last for Rex Grossman with this team. He's had two straight seasons ended by injury, so coaches and fans still don't know just how good he is or could be. Fortunately for Grossman he won't be asked to go out and win games like Harrington may have to. With a retooled running attack and a strong defense, Grossman just has be above average or it's back to the drawing board for Da Bears.
2005 NFC North PreviewCHICAGO BEARS
2004 Record: 5-11 (2-6 home, 3-5 road)
2004 Rankings: 32nd offense (32 pass, 25 rush); 21st defense (15 pass, 25 rush)
2004 Against the Spread: 7-9 (2-6 home, 5-3 road); 6-10 vs. pts. (3-5 h, 3-5 r)
2005 Odds: 50-1 to win Super Bowl, 20-1 to win NFC, 8-1 to win NFC North, 7 as O/U win total
2005 Strength of Schedule: 25th (.480 opp. win %)
Returning starters: 21 (10 offense, 11 defense)
Key acquisitions: Mushin Muhammad, WR (from Carolina); Fred Miller, OT (from Tenn.); Cedric Benson, RB (draft); Doug Brien, K (from NYJ); Roberto Garza, G (from Atlanta)
Key departures: Paul Edinger, K (to Minn.); David Terrell, WR (to N.E.); Anthony Thomas, RB (to Dallas); R.W. McQuaters, CB (to Detroit).
Key stat: Their offense scored 116 points (19 TD's, 1 two-pt.). Their defense and special teams accounted for 115 points.
Offense: Awful. Pathetic. Horrendous. Dead last in the NFL. Converted only 25 percent of third downs. Managed 3.9 yards per play. But there's hope. Bringing in Ron Turner as offensive coordinator and drafting Cedric Benson shows me that the Bears are going back to their roots of a smash-mouth running game. When they do throw the ball, they have Muhammed to haul it in. Their offensive line will be healthy and more effective this season.
Defense: Of their top 20 players on defense, 19 of them are 28 or younger (Alphonso Boone is 29). They were ball-hawks in their first year under Lovie Smith, forcing 29 turnovers and scoring seven touchdowns. Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs give Da Bears one of the top young linebacking duos in football. Also, their corners - Jerry Azumah, Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher - are some of the best young talents in the league.
X-factor: Grossman. He not only needs to stay healthy, but they need him to mature and develop at warp speed. He has only six starts in two years, and they can't afford for him to be making rookie mistakes that cost them wins. But no matter what they get from him, it will be better than last year.
Outlook: If you want to talk about sleeper teams, here you go. They didn't have Mike Brown after Week 2 last year, and were 0-7 without him and Brian Urlacher. If those two stay healthy, if Grossman plays decent, and with that easy schedule, 10 wins aren't out of the question.
2004 Record: 9-9 (5-3 home, 4-6 road)
2004 Rankings: 4th offense (2 pass, 18 run); 28th defense (29 pass, 21 run)
2004 Against the Spread: 8-10 (3-5 home, 5-5 road); 8-10 vs. pts. (3-5 h, 5-5 r)
2005 Odds: 12-1 to win Super Bowl, 7-1 to win NFC, 10-11 to win NFC North, 9.5 as O/U win total
2005 Strength of Schedule: 24th (.480 opponents 2004 win %)
Returning starters: 16 (9 offense, 7 defense)
Key acquisitions: Sam Cowart, LB (from NYJ); Paul Edinger, K (From Chicago); Darren Sharper, S (from GB); Fred Smoot, CB (from Wash.); Travis Taylor, WR (from Balt.); Pat Williams, DT (from Buffalo); Napoleon Harris, LB (from Oak.); Troy Williamson, WR (draft). Key departures: Randy Moss, WR (to Oak.); Chris Claiborne, LB (STL); Chris Hovan, DT (to TB); Brian Russell, S (to Cleve.).
Key stat: The Vikings converted a phenomenal 52.3 percent of third downs last year, tops in the NFL.
Offense: In four of the games that Culpepper played without Moss last year, he only averaged 203 yards and 1.3 touchdown. I wouldn't expect them to have a top five offense again this year. However, they should still be effective. They need to get back to a power running game, and they're counting on the oft-injured Michael Bennett.
Defense: Their front four of Pat and Kevin Williams, Erasamus James and Keneci Udeze should dominate people this year. Besides the pressure that those four can apply, their secondary is one of the top three or four in the NFL. They only forced 22 turnovers last year, but with Sharper, Smoot and Antoine Winfield that number should improve.
X-factor: Tice. Do you really see this guy as a Super Bowl coach? They have the talent, but chemistry is still a huge issue with so many new faces. If management doesn't have much trust in him, how will the players?
Outlook: I do like this team because they've shifted the focus to defense. I think Super Bowl talk is premature, but I could see 10 wins. Remember, how many times have you seen a collection of really good players underachieve because they didn't gel as a "team"?
GREEN BAY PACKERS
2004 Record: 10-7 (4-5 home, 6-2 road)
2004 Rankings: 3rd offense (3 pass, 10 run); 25th defense (25 pass, 14 run)
2004 Against the Spread: 7-10 (2-7 home; 5-3 road); 11-6 vs. pts. (5-4 h, 6-2 r)
2005 Odds: 38-1 to win Super Bowl, 18-1 to win NFC, 3-1 to win NFC North, 8 as O/U win total
2005 Strength of Schedule: 17th (.496 opp. win %)
Returning starters: 19 (9 offense, 10 defense)
Key acquisitions: Arturo Freeman, S (from Miami); Adrian Klemm, G (from N.E.); Earl Little, S (from Cleve.)
Key departures: Bhawoh Jue, S (to S.D.); Darren Sharper, S (to Minn.); Mike Wahle, G (to Carolina); Marco Rivera, G (to Dallas)
Key stat: The 15 turnovers the defense managed in '04 was the league's lowest total.
Offense: Ahman Green is showing signs that he might be wearing down. Favre is back, and that means Green Bay will never be out of any game. Javon Walker has threatened a holdout after his superb '04 (89, 1,382, 12), and that's caused a little rift with Favre. Be wary of how that plays out. Also, an offensive line can't lose two Pro Bowlers at guard and still be just as good.
Defense: They needed a ton of help on this side of the ball, but they didn't get any of it in the offseason. They'll be the Kansas City of the NFC this year because they can't stop anyone. I don't think any of their three starting linebackers would start on 90 percent of the teams in the league. Same goes for a secondary that gave up over seven yards per pass attempt.
X-factor: Grady Jackson. Everyone's making a big to-do about Javon Walker's holdout. However, without the big man playing top-notch at the point they won't be able to stop the run or the pass.
Outlook: I don't like the direction they're headed, with or without Favre. The Packers win totals from the last four years have been 13, 12, 11, 10. See a pattern here?
2004 Record: 6-10 (3-5 home, 3-5 road)
2004 Rankings: 24th offense (23 pass, 19 run); 22nd defense (20 pass, 15 run)
2004 Against the Spread: 8-8 (3-5 home, 5-3 road); 7-9 vs. pts. (4-4 h, 3-5 r)
2005 Odds: 45-1 to win Super Bowl, 18-1 to win NFC, 9-4 to win NFC North, 8.5 as O/U win total
2005 Strength of Schedule: 22nd (.488 opp. win %)
Returning starters: 18 (8 offense, 10 defense)
Key acquisitions: Mike Williams, WR (draft); Rick DeMulling, G (from Indy); Kenoy Kennedy, S (from Denver); Marcus Pollard, TE (from Indy); Jeff Garcia, QB (from Cleve.); Kevin Johnson, WR (from Balt.); Shaun Cody, DT (draft)
Key departures: Stockar McDougle, T (to Miami); Stephen Alexander, TE (to Denver); Az Hakim, WR (to N.O.); Brock Marion, S; Tai Streets, WR
Key stat: The Lions converted less than 50 percent of their red zone chances into touchdowns last year.
Offense: Kevin Jones quietly had an outstanding year last year. Now, with Rogers, Williams and Williams all ready to roll, the offense could really do some damage. It's tough to jump from the 24th offense to the top 10, but I can see them doing just that if the offensive line can pick it up. One question though, with so many high draft picks vying for the ball, could chemistry become an issue?
Defense: Didn't really do anything to get better on this side of the ball. They do have some outstanding individual players - Shaun Rogers, Dre Bly and Boss Bailey - but I don't see a cohesive unit. They are average against the run and the pass, and they didn't upgrade in any specific area. That puts a lot of pressure on the rookie Cody to step in and contribute.
X-factor: Head coach Steve Mariucci is going to have a QB controversy on his hands. He and Garcia have history, so I think he'll have an itchy trigger finger when it comes to pulling Harrington. How the coach handles this situation will determine the course of the Lions' season.
Outlook: I'm happy for them that they have three nice wideouts, but you win in the NFL by running the football and playing defense. I still really think that either Chicago or Detroit will be the breakout team this year.
If you enjoyed Doc's 2005 NFC North preview, check back throughout the week for more NFL division previews.
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