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Saturday, May 8, 2010
NFC North weekend mailbag

By Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com

It's raining and 48 degrees at NFC North headquarters as I write this during the SECOND WEEK OF MAY. A quick check shows 44 degrees in Green Bay, 50 in Detroit and a balmy 57 in Chicago. The calendar shows the 2010 NFL season is more than fourth months away.

Ugh. All I can hear is Carole King in my head, and it's a straight-up curse:
So far away
Doesn't anybody stay in one place anymore?
It would be so fine to see your face at my door
Doesn't help to know that you're just time away.

While we navigate a cold end to spring and a long wait to the upcoming season, we can at least commiserate together via the mailbag, Facebook or Twitter. Not like we can go outside or anything. So let's dive into the weekend mailbag for some comfort food:

Jeff of Bloomington, Ind., writes: It's all well and good to pick the Packers to win the division, but I think at least one of your reasons is quite faulty. How exactly has Green Bay improved the "yin-and-yang" passing tree you talked about while the Vikings haven't? Sure, Jermichael Finley might have improved, but even if you're willing to predict Donald Driver won't regress a bit (a concession I disagree with), you certainly can't expect him to improve.

Meanwhile, Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin are probably going to improve in a second season with Favre guiding the offense, and Visanthe Shiancoe is at least comparable to Finley. Also, I don't see Bernard Berrian falling off any more than Driver. I just don't see how the Packers have improved while the Vikings haven't.

Kevin Seifert: Some fair points, Jeff, and they beg further explanation from me. We'll take it point-by-point.

First, my point on the Packers' "yin-and-yang" is based on where it stood during the first half of last season, when the Vikings swept the Packers, relative to the end. Let's republish the chart we first introduced in January. As you can see, Finley caught more passes than Driver or Greg Jennings over the Packers' final eight games. The Packers have a much more layered passing game now than they had while creating an early hole for themselves in 2009.


Second, it's fair to question Driver's sustainability at 35. But let's face it, the Packers have been transitioning toward Jennings for at least two years, and Driver's reception total has dropped in each of his past four years. He doesn't need to be a 70-catch player for the Packers' offense to run at a high level.

Third, one of the neat things we can do in this blog is compare the four teams relative to each other. I don't see the relevance in comparing the Packers' offense to the Vikings' offense. They don't compete against each other. My point was to compare the Packers' skill players in the passing game to the Vikings' defense, which as we noted, is in transition at multiple positions. And that was before Thursday's Hennepin County court ruling that made the suspensions of defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams more likely than ever.


David of New Haven, Ind., writes: What is your obsession with downgrading the Bears wide outs? Sure they are young and inexperienced but they also played under the worst offensive coordinator ever in Ron Turner. How are they going to get experience if the Bears sign a veteran? Were Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce stars before they played in Mike Martz offense? He knows what he is talking about so give them a chance before writing them off.

Kevin Seifert: David is referring to our discussion about some comments Gale Sayers recently made about the Bears. Quoting Sayers, one of them was: "They need a couple wide receivers." I noted the Bears have consistently expressed confidence in the current group, and their actions have indicated they mean it. I also suggested that their confidence is based on projections, not previously-demonstrated competence.

To me, there is a difference between healthy skepticism and your basic hatin'. When I look at the Bears' receivers, I see a slot man in Devin Hester and a possession guy in Earl Bennett. In Devin Aromashodu, I see a player who caught fire for the final four games of his fourth NFL season. And in Johnny Knox, I see a speedster who might have more potential than any of his teammates.

It could be a deep group, and the Bears should have some options. But here's where my skepticism clicks in: To this point, there are no hints of a legitimate No. 1 receiver emerging from it. Who among those players do you think will require double teams this season? That's the type of receiver most offenses need to succeed at a high level. All three NFC North teams have one: Jennings in Green Bay, Calvin Johnson in Detroit and either Bernard Berrian or Sidney Rice, depending on matchups, in Minnesota.

If someone of that nature emerges in Chicago, I'll be the first to acknowledge it. I'm absolutely willing to give this group a chance, but that doesn't mean anyone has to guzzle the Kool-Aid.


Mrs. Seifert of St. Paul, Minn., writes: Please quite ESPN. You are the worst blogger.

Kevin Seifert: There goes your Mother's Day present. And your spelling-bee trophy.


Via Facebook, Hans writes: What do you guys think of [Brandon] Pettigrew? I'm hoping he turns out to be like Vernon Davis, a really great blocker and an above-average pass catcher, although Davis drastically improved last season so maybe that's too high of a comparison.

Kevin Seifert: I'll chime in on this one. Davis caught 78 passes and 13 touchdowns last year. That's way above average. In fact, those numbers ranked No. 5 and No. 1 among all NFL tight ends in 2009. If Pettigrew emerges as that type of tight end, I think the Lions would be ecstatic. If he's as good of a blocker as the Lions have suggested, consistent 50-catch seasons would be acceptable.

But I think you're right to put Pettigrew's career arc on a high pedestal. He was a first-round pick last year, a relatively rare scenario for tight ends. He'll need to establish two-way production over an extended period of time to justify his draft position.


Alexdane436 of Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: What is your gut feel about the Vikings staying in Minnesota. Basically, stay or gone?

Kevin Seifert: In the end, I think they'll stay -- but not before an ugly confrontation with the state's political leaders.

The people I trust in this situation have long believed the Vikings' stadium situation won't be addressed until it reaches a crisis. That's what state leadership around the country has devolved to: crisis management. And in reality, this issue won't be a crisis until the Vikings have a legitimate option to move elsewhere.

That's simply not the case this year, and it's why their current bill has been gutted and largely dismissed by the state legislature. That option might not exist next winter, either -- especially if the NFL is focused on negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement rather than moving a troubled team (or teams) to Los Angeles.

The Vikings' lease expires in February 2012. If Los Angeles is a legitimate possibility at that point, then I think Minnesota state leaders will respond to that potential crisis. Perhaps the state's next governor, to be elected this fall, will take a different approach than incumbent Tim Pawlenty. But barring a game-changer like that, I think we're headed for a crisis that will be painful, ugly and expensive -- but will ultimately lead to a new stadium in Minnesota.