Assessing the NFC North at the quarter pole

September, 30, 2008
9/30/08
12:51
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

We're at the quarter pole of the season here in the NFC North. (Well, except for the 0-3 Detroit Lions, who just returned from their bye week. Man, the Lions are behind on everything).

What do we know four weeks into the season? For starters, the NFC North doesn't have a winning team -- joining Mike Sando's NFC West as the only other division with that distinction. Plenty of trends come to mind, including the stagnant running games in 50 percent of a division that some geniuses believed would run all over the NFL. (Green Bay ranks No. 23 in rushing offense, while the Lions are a solid 31st).

Amid all the din, however, here are some of the issues we're contemplating as the calendar shifts to October:

 
 AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
 Roy Williams has eight catches for 113 yards this season.

Receiver Roy Williams should be entering the final 13 games of his Lions career.

Williams, of course, is in the last year of his original rookie contract with a team that doesn't appear talented enough to win right away. If the Lions do it right, the firing of president/general manager Matt Millen will spark another rebuilding project, possibly with a new head coach and a new offensive scheme.

Williams is one of the Lions' two most-talented players, along with fellow receiver Calvin Johnson. You could make an argument that talent-challenged teams shouldn't be eager to ship out one of their best players. But as the Lions try once again to get themselves on track, Williams could be the Lions' Jared Allen.

No, the Lions probably wouldn't get as much in a trade as Kansas City received for Allen last spring. Trading Williams, however, would give them an opportunity to re-stock more quickly with additional draft choices. It would also allow the Lions to part ways with an assertive personality who might not take another rebuilding project to heart.

Dealing Williams -- either before the trading deadline or during the offseason via the franchise tag -- would rob the Lions of their one personnel strength: A pair of dynamic receivers who both require double teams. The Lions, however, might find it necessary to break up the Williams-Johnson duo in order to build a winner.

It doesn't look like the Green Bay Packers are going to get away with their backup quarterback gamble.

 
 Kim Klement/US Presswire
 Matt Flynn was called on Sunday when Aaron Rodgers injured his shoulder against the Bucs.

From a national perspective, so much attention centered around the Packers' transition to Aaron Rodgers at starter that it almost went unnoticed when general manager Ted Thompson decided to stack two rookies behind him in reserve. One of them, second-round draft pick Brian Brohm, tanked during training camp and left coaches with no option but to elevate seventh-rounder Matt Flynn to No. 2 quarterback.

Flynn has some talent and athletic ability, but he could find himself in a pretty difficult situation as early as Sunday against Atlanta: Starting for an NFL team with playoff aspirations. Only a small percentage of rookie quarterbacks are ready to start in their first season, let alone during the first month.

Rodgers sprained his throwing shoulder last Sunday against Tampa Bay and has told McCarthy he wants to play against the Falcons. Even if Rodgers is cleared to play, the episode illustrates the risk Thompson took in declining to pursue additional depth behind a new starter with a history of injuries.

Part of the gambit is based on McCarthy's reputation for working with young quarterbacks, but Thompson has put his coach in a tough spot. In general, Thompson has excellent personnel instincts. And like any good executive, he trusts his convictions. In this case, however, Thompson hasn't given himself much margin for error at the most important position in the game.

It's not yet October, but already it's hard to imagine all four NFC North coaches returning next season.

One case might be preordained. The firing of Matt Millen leaves Lions coach Rod Marinelli without the man who hired him. That's a dangerous situation for any coach, let alone one who has started the season 0-3 in the purported payoff year of his rebuilding contract.

MarinelliChildress

Marinelli has the right kind of temperament for this situation and will stay focused regardless of the chaos around him. And there are a lot of Marinelli admirers within the team's front office. But Millen's permanent replacement might prefer to choose his own coach, as is custom in the NFL.

In Minnesota, meanwhile, coach Brad Childress has started 1-3, and the Vikings have a difficult three-week stretch before their Oct. 26 bye.

Owner Zygi Wilf has expressed nothing but support for Childress, the first coach he hired after purchasing the team in June 2005. Wilf, however, has fortified the team's player budget with some $50 million in cash from his investors during the past three years. He is expecting results.

As is Childress, who pulled his one lifeline two weeks ago by ending the Tarvaris Jackson experiment and promoting Gus Frerotte to starting quarterback. Frerotte gives the Vikings a better c
hance to win immediately, but the Jackson saga left a notable hit on Childress' reputation for developing quarterbacks.

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NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 9/4
Sunday, 9/7
Monday, 9/8