NFC North: 2014 NFC key to success

Cutler
Former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb, who is a Chicago native, summed things up succinctly when asked about Chicago Bears QB Jay Cutler's new contract, which pays $126.7 million over seven years.

"Are you serious?" McNabb asked on 87.7 The Game's "Jarrett, Harry and Spike" show.

"Jay might be the luckiest dude in Chicago, to be honest with you, with the contract he received for what we haven't seen thus far. I think the sky's the limit for him. But for what we've seen in Chicago, when you didn't finish the NFC Championship [Game], which was due to injury. Even with that, you haven't been able to get past that hump. One game to get into the playoffs, you couldn't get it done. Caleb Hanie comes in to play. Josh McCown comes in to play, and then the contract comes up and you get paid like a top-three, top-four quarterback. Are you serious? For what we've seen? If he doesn't do it this year, it's going to end up being a mistake."

That's precisely why Cutler's performance and continued development remain the most important key to success over the next three seasons for this team. Essentially, the Bears are handcuffed to Cutler at least until 2016, which more or less makes his new contract a three-year, $54 million deal. The contract contains rolling options from now until then, with no cap repercussions if the team releases Cutler after 2016 because he didn't receive a signing bonus, meaning there's no proration to account for.

Cutler showed tremendous growth in 2013 during coach Marc Trestman's first year in Chicago. In four seasons with the Bears prior to 2013, Cutler had generated a passer rating of 81.9. Cutler produced a career-high passer rating of 89.2 in 2013, his best since 2006.

Such positive trends need to continue with Cutler for the Bears to sustain any level of success over the next few seasons.

Packers' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers are well positioned to contend in the NFC over the next several years because they have perhaps the NFL’s three most important components in place: Their quarterback, coach and general manager.

Rodgers
Rodgers
Their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, is 30 years old and should be in the prime of his career. He is barely more than a year into a five-year, $110 million contract extension that should keep him in Green Bay through the 2019 season. Among quarterbacks who have started in the Super Bowl in the last five years, only three are younger than Rodgers.

Their coach, Mike McCarthy, is entering his ninth season. Only three NFL coaches have been with their current teams longer, giving the Packers stability and continuity in their game plans and schemes. McCarthy has two years left on a five-year deal he signed after the Packers won Super Bowl XLV and is still relatively young in coaching circles at age 50.

Their general manager, Ted Thompson, is entering his 10th season. Like McCarthy, he signed a five-year contract extension following the Super Bowl victory. Although Thompson is 11 years older than McCarthy, he said after this year’s draft that he has no intention of retiring any time soon.

Myriad other things make up a championship team, but none is more important than the quarterback-coach-GM trio. An elite quarterback automatically gives a team a chance. Combine that with an experienced, successful coach who has the trust of his players and a proven system, plus a general manager with a solid track record in the draft and free agency, and the Packers are a team that should be an annual contender.

The Packers had the same type of combination in the 1990s with Brett Favre, Mike Holmgren and Ron Wolf. They combined for two Super Bowl appearances. The Rodgers-McCarthy-Thompson trio has one so far, but should be a contender for another.
The main key for success for the Detroit Lions this season is remarkably simple and has been the main focus of the franchise since it fired coach Jim Schwartz following the 2013 season.

Stafford
Stafford
From hiring new head coach Jim Caldwell, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter to signing Golden Tate, re-signing Brandon Pettigrew and drafting Eric Ebron, that focus has been giving quarterback Matthew Stafford everything he could possibly need to succeed.

Stafford has to use those tools to turn into the elite quarterback the team has been hoping for since they drafted him first overall in 2009. Statistically, Stafford has been one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, putting up massive numbers for the Lions during his first five seasons.

Yet for every fourth-quarter comeback he completed and remarkable play he made, he has also made a decision leaving those watching and wondering what he saw or thought on that play. That has been the conundrum of Stafford's career. The Lions believe any issues Stafford has are correctable and these are the guys to do it after working with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.

If the Lions turn Stafford into the consistent quarterback that led them to the playoffs in 2011 full-time, then the entire shift in coaching staffs and upgrading the offensive roster will have been worth it. But it all falls to Stafford -- as it often does to quarterbacks around the league.

There's a reason many franchises believe they can go only as far as the quarterback plays. Thus far, Stafford has taken them from a club that didn't win a game in 2008 to one with realistic playoff expectations each season.

Detroit has set itself up for more than that now, though. The Lions have a roster with enough talent to at least make a run at the playoffs, if not succeed in the postseason. If they do, Stafford and his improvement will play a major role in making it that far.

Vikings' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
12:00
PM ET
Over the next three seasons, as the Minnesota Vikings begin the tenure of head coach Mike Zimmer, play in two home stadiums and likely wind down the days of Adrian Peterson's prime, the key to their success will be finding some stability at a position where they haven't enjoyed much of it in the last decade.

Bridgewater
Other than two seasons with Brett Favre, the Vikings' quarterback position has essentially been in a state of flux since Daunte Culpepper was traded to Miami following the 2005 season. Since then, the Vikings haven't had a quarterback start 16 games in back-to-back seasons. Even when Favre was at the helm, the Vikings knew they needed a long-term solution at quarterback. Now that they have Teddy Bridgewater on the roster, much of their future success will hinge on the rookie's development.

Bridgewater figures to start training camp behind Matt Cassel, though he'll get a shot to win the job before the season. Even if he sits on the bench for much of 2014, though, Bridgewater will likely be the starter by the time the Vikings open their new stadium in 2016. Assuming he claims the job sometime in the near future, the first-round pick will have to develop quickly if the Vikings want to make the most of Peterson's remaining years as one of the league's best running backs.

Peterson turned 29 in March and will likely see a larger role in the passing game as the Vikings seek to find more balance on offense than they had under coach Leslie Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. That means the quarterback, not Peterson, will likely be the focal point of the Vikings' offense, and eventually it will put the burden on Bridgewater's shoulders to carry the Vikings.

The rookie was impressive during OTAs and the Vikings' mandatory minicamp, though it's hard to accurately assess his progress in such a controlled setting. When he is ready to play, though, Bridgewater will have a clear charge: He'll be asked to create a foundation for the Vikings at the most important position in the game.

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