NFC North: Bobby Layne
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- “It’s probably time to find a replacement for Bobby Layne.”
That was the suggestion of Jim Schwartz, then the Titans' defensive coordinator, in early 2009. He wasn’t yet the Detroit Lions' head coach, and didn’t yet truly understand the history of the Lions franchise. He was just a young up-and-comer looking for his first head-coaching job with a franchise coming off an 0-16 season.
Detroit needed a franchise quarterback. So did Schwartz, who needed to be able to groom him, succeed with him and turn around the fortunes of a franchise with him.
Schwartz thought he found his guy in Matthew Stafford, the Georgia product from the same high school as Layne. Stafford could make every throw and was projected to be an NFL quarterback since he was a high schooler in Texas.
Schwartz got it half right. That's why he is out of a job today.
From the moment Schwartz made that declaration and backed it up by drafting Stafford, the quarterback and the head coach were forever going to be linked with the Detroit Lions. If Schwartz was right, the two would end up being legends in Detroit.
If not, well, we’re seeing that happen now.
Stafford has been too inconsistent and has made too many mistakes, keeping the Lions from reaching their full potential. He still has so much promise and has showed glimpses of it, especially during the playoff season in 2011, when it appeared he could be ready to become an elite-level quarterback.
But he hasn’t been able to take the next step.
Why? Is it Stafford or the coaching that has held him back?
He possesses all the physical tools you would want in a franchise quarterback. He has put up big numbers -- nailing part of Schwartz’s declaration as he broke Layne's records -- but those numbers have not resulted in wins. Certainly not enough wins for Schwartz to keep his job.
If anything, Stafford has regressed over the past two seasons, culminating in the Lions' collapse this season, when Stafford threw 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in the last seven games -- the ones that mattered most. The Lions went 1-6 and fell from the divisional lead to out of the playoffs.
Schwartz and his staff defended Stafford publicly, saying the rest of the team had to be better around him. Except Stafford wasn’t getting better. Yes, his receivers dropped passes and his running backs fumbled the ball. But too often, Stafford made bad throws that led to turnovers.
At Georgia, Stafford did essentially what he has done with the Lions. He threw for big numbers, including a 3,209-yard season in 2008. But he never was particularly accurate, completing only 56.9 percent of his passes over his three seasons and more than 60 percent in just his final season.
With the Lions it has been more of the same. He throws for big yards, throws for a lot of touchdowns, but has accuracy issues. He’s completed more than 60 percent of his passes just once in his first five seasons (2011, the year the Lions went to the playoffs).
And it appeared he had made the leap this offseason as he started 2013 completing 62.5 percent of his passes over the first eight games with 16 touchdowns and six interceptions.
This was the Stafford that could have saved Schwartz. This was the Stafford the Lions hoped eventually would show up.
But just as quickly, he was gone, and with it the Lions' playoff hopes. From the minute Schwartz drafted Stafford, it would always come down to one thing: Would Stafford do enough to turn them both into winners?
He didn't. And now Stafford will either live up to his potential with the next coach or still be the guy who could never put it all together.
Either way, Jim Schwartz won't get to see whether, indeed, he did draft the next Bobby Layne.
He is about to break Bobby Layne's franchise record for passing yards.
In those four-plus seasons, Stafford has already thrown for 15,424 yards and 96 touchdowns while completing and attempting more passes than Layne did in his Lions career.
And there's a chance Stafford could end up doing this in his 54th start. That shows both the proliferation of passing in the NFL and Stafford's talent.
"It's obviously, any time you break a record, it's a humbling experience," Stafford said. "It's not something I'm setting out to do every time I go out to a game or whatever it is.
"It's not like I'm going out there trying to break records. I'm trying to win a game. If I do so in the process, obviously I have a lot of respect for the history of this game and this franchise, too, so it's something that when and if it happens, I'm sure I'll reflect on it after the fact."
Here, though, is where it gets a little weird. Layne and Stafford attended the same Dallas high school, Highland Park. Stafford, 25, will likely break all of Layne's marks considering he is about to pass his yardage benchmark and he is less than five years into the league.
"[He's] just really good," Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. "Quarterback play, I think, is at an all-time high."
Part of what helped Stafford reach the cusp of this mark has been his durability the past three seasons. Stafford has started every game for the Lions since the beginning of the 2011 season and will make his 41st straight regular season start Sunday in Chicago.
To give perspective, no other team in the NFC North will have had the same starting quarterback for every game this season after the Packers' Seneca Wallace starts in place of Aaron Rodgers on Sunday.
After Stafford's first two seasons, both of which saw him miss games due to injury, he has been remarkably consistent and durable.
"It was something that honestly, in my mind, wasn't an issue," Stafford said. "Obviously I didn't like missing games my first two seasons. But it's something that I never really experienced, didn't have a lot of history with so I knew it'd get back to normal soon enough and I feel like it's gone that way.
"I've played through some stuff to make sure I stayed on the field but it's something I take pride in, for sure, being out there every Sunday."
This season, that has also led to more consistency for Stafford, who has thrown for 2,617 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions.
He's still learning, for sure, but he's starting to make a move into the top tier of quarterbacks in the NFL as he reaches his prime. Staying healthy and learning to make intelligent decisions -- like sometimes a throwaway is OK -- all helped with that.
"I'm just playing the game the way I know how to play it," Stafford said. "And trying to be as conscious as I can of trying to make sure I'm out there for the next snap.
"But at the same time playing the game the way I've always played it."
- Benching a kick returner qualifies as a mild message at best, but nothing would be weaker than sending Stefan Logan back onto the field Sunday against the Chicago Bears. Logan had two brainlocks that would be inexcusable for a rookie, let alone a four-year veteran who has returned 301 kicks in his career, and he hasn't had a good enough season to merit tolerance. His accidental fair-catch signal and his inexplicable downing of a live return are the exact type of mistakes people refer to when calling the Lions undisciplined. Most of Logan's potential replacements are unavailable because of injury, but coach Jim Schwartz still has a ready-made opportunity to demand accountability. Speaking to reporters Sunday, Schwartz brought up receiver Mike Thomas and running back Joique Bell as potential replacements -- which for him is a major hint that Logan's job is in jeopardy. Quite frankly, it should be.ESPN.com
- Schwartz was asked Sunday why a team with the production of quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson is 4-11. Schwartz pointed squarely at the Lions' turnover ratio, and the comparison between this season and last year is striking. They have endured a 23-turnover swing between last year's plus-11 ratio and this season's minus-12. The Lions have forced exactly half of the turnovers they created last season (34 versus 17) and have committed 29 as opposed to 17 in 2011. Their three turnovers Saturday night led to 17 points for the Falcons in a game decided by 13 points. Their defense, on the other hand, did not have a takeaway. It's as good of a place to start as any when analyzing the Lions, and again, it fits the undisciplined narrative the Lions seem to object to.
- If Saturday night's game wasn't an indication that the Lions need to prioritize their secondary in the offseason, I don't know what is. The Falcons have a pair of really good receivers in Roddy White and Julio Jones, but it couldn't have been more clear that their game plan was to take deep shots every time they indentified man-to-man defense. White beat cornerback Chris Houston for a 44-yard touchdown in the first quarter, and White later weaved through a host of defensive backs who had been blocked to the ground for a 39-yard score. Meanwhile, while Jones beat Houston for a 16-yard score just before halftime. Ryan is one of the league's best quarterbacks, but statistically he had a near-perfect game despite a significant pass rush from defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (half-sack, four quarterback hits). The Lions need more playmakers in their back end. End of story.
Stafford is going to finish with one of the most contradictory seasons in recent memory. He leads the NFL in completions, attempts and yardage and is 305 yards away from becoming the first player in league history to throw for 5,000 yards in consecutive seasons. Saturday night, he also set the Lions' franchise record for career completions, breaking Bobby Layne's mark of 1,074. Stafford is 24 years old. On the other hand, as we noted last week, it's hard to look at his actual game performances and see this season as anything other than a step back from 2011. He has thrown for only 17 touchdowns, and his statistical splits show he has been much less effective when games are close. In the end, I guess we should all be so lucky to have a near-5,000 yard season be a disappointment.
Matthew Stafford has a long way to go before overtaking Layne on that scale. But while the nation has fixated on the Lions' behavior here in 2011, Stafford has put himself on pace for the most prolific passing season in franchise history.
Granted, there isn't a long list of elite quarterbacks in the team's record books. And there is no doubt that raw passing numbers have risen steadily during the NFL's past two decades. But facts are facts, and if Stafford continues at anywhere close to his current pace, he'll set new team records for completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns. He's got a shot at the top completion percentage and isn't that far off the team record for passer rating.
The chart shows the details of records set mostly by Jon Kitna and Scott Mitchell, along with Stafford's current 12-game statistics. At this rate, Stafford is on pace to throw for 4,702 yards and 36 touchdowns, and he might get there Sunday against the injury-depleted Minnesota Vikings pass defense. (Mild sarcasm intended.)
I think we should save a full evaluation of Stafford's 2011 performance for after the season. But has there been a time since 1958 when the Lions felt as good about their long-term quarterback prospects as they do now? I would say not. Don't forget that Stafford entered the 2009 draft early and won't turn 24 until February. Some things are worth waiting for, I guess.
No, I hadn't fallen into a heat-induced delerium. In fact, I had just left the Detroit Lions' air-conditioned locker room. Therein, I heard:
Quarterback Matthew Stafford talk about the latest ailment that forced him to stagger off the field.
Coach Jim Schwartz rant about "stupid" football and "inexcusable" mistakes, promising that "it's not going to be a real pleasant film session" on Monday.
Guard Rob Sims express his conviction that coaches would "jump us on a whole bunch of stuff" in the coming days.
Hmmm. Tapping into my long history as a reporter, I confirmed that Sunday's game in fact took place in 2011. The Lions defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27-20 in a game that wasn't as close as the final score indicated, winning their season opener for the first time in four years and putting on display many of the components that caused so many of us to catch Lions Fever this offseason.
That Stafford's "injury" was nothing more than cramps, and that Schwartz was able to discuss Sunday's troubles in the context of a victory, marked the start of a new era that only the Lions could indoctrinate. They are far from perfect and in fact could have botched Sunday's game. But overcoming injuries and "bad football," as Schwartz called it during a different portion of his rant, is half the battle in the NFL. There are no perfect teams, and just about every one of them has a knucklehead like Lions right tackle Gosder Cherilus, whose fourth-quarter unsportsmanlike conduct was almost certainly what Schwartz was referring to when he said: "There are some things that happened in this game that are inexcusable and will not continue."
Indeed, Cherilus' post-whistle shove of a Bucs defender stopped the clock with 1 minute and 24 seconds remaining and the Bucs out of timeouts. It gave the Bucs enough time to mount a potential game-tying drive, but ultimately they ran out of time. It also gave Schwartz exactly what any coach wants: A victory with plenty of material to humble his players with moving forward.
You see what's happening here, right? One of Schwartz's biggest tasks this season will be to shield players from the hype we've all created for them. It's always preferable to have players who believe they can be good than to be convinced that they already are.
But let's make no mistake here. For the most part, what we saw Sunday verified what we thought about the Lions this summer. Playing in a heat index that reached 94 degrees, the Lions controlled the game from start to finish. Frankly, much of the Bucs' success came after Lions breakdowns, namely Aqib Talib's 28-yard interception return for the touchdown and Sammie Stroughter's 78-yard kickoff return.
Indeed, Schwartz said, "They couldn't really move the ball on our defense but they had 10 points in the first quarter mainly because of two mistakes."
"During the process of dropping back, I was losing it," Stafford said. "I bet I looked pretty stupid on TV. He made me look pretty good once again."
I'm sure it took the breath of many Lions fans to see Stafford on his back on the sidelines while athletic trainers worked on his leg. But he never missed a snap, finishing with the second 300-yard game of his career and the Lions' first on opening weekend since Bobby Layne threw for 364 yards in 1953.
Stafford made a handful of mistakes himself, throwing high for tight end Will Heller on Talib's interception and nearly throwing a second on a pass behind running back Jahvid Best. But Stafford appeared in command of the offense from the start, and the Lions never trailed after the 36-yard play to Johnson.
"We didn't play our best football out there but we still got a win," Stafford said. "That's a good sign. Obviously you won't want those mistakes to keep coming back. We've got to fix those."
As Stafford and the offense rolled up 431 total yards, the Lions' defense largely shut down Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman. Middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch served in a modified spy role, sacking Freeman once and finishing with two quarterback hits. Freeman had 98 passing yards through the first three quarters, and the Bucs a total of 128 yards, before the Lions' late-game breakdowns.
"This is the beginning of something special and I'm glad to be a part of it," Tulloch said. "It's crazy when you win and you know you can play better. That's what makes this so exciting. We can just keep working."
That's what I think will distinguish this edition of the Lions. Trust me, I understand why Schwartz was upset. Any coach would have been in that situation. But he doesn't get to rain on our parade. "We can just keep working" is much different sentiment than "back to the drawing board." The Lions are done with that place. This is, after all, 2011.
The most important moment in Green Bay Packers history was nearly scuttled by an unlikely source. Shortly after Vince Lombardi accepted the Packers' job as head coach/general manager in 1959, his wife was "distraught," according to historian David Maraniss.
Marie Lombardi approached New York Giants owner Wellington Mara, who owned Lombardi's contract as a Giants assistant coach. As Maraniss writes in "When Pride Still Mattered," Marie begged Mara to block her husband's move.
Lombardi's arrival in Green Bay was your overwhelming choice as the Packers' Flash Point, and it received a higher percentage of votes (69 percent) than any individual event offered in last week's series of polls. Lombardi won his first NFL title in 1961 and collected four more before giving up the job in 1967, building an unmatched legend and painting the franchise in gold mystique for generations to come.
Some of you made impassioned arguments for Curly Lambeau's push to sell stock and make the franchise a non-profit organization in 1923, a short-term fundraising effort that embedded a structure still in operation today. "How can it not be Curly?" wrote mallow420. "If Curly doesn't save the Packers then there's no Packers to hire Lombardi."
Hadessniper allowed that "Lambeau making the Packers public is more important for the Packers, as without that there is simply no way Green Bay keeps a team." But, wrote hadessniper, "Lombardi is probably more important for the NFL as a whole. The NFL was gaining popularity, but Lombardi gave the game a legend. Without Lombardi the NFL wouldn't be what it is today."
Timarquardt was more direct: "Get back to me when someone else wins five championships in seven years. That's Lombardi's legacy and with all due credit to Curly, he did it when there was a bunch of good teams. Curly saved the franchise, obviously important, but without those Lombardi years the team never would have had the following through the dark years of the '70s and '80s to be successful."
What's fascinating to me is that Lambeau actually wanted Lombardi's job in 1959, a decade after an internal power struggle led to Lambeau's ouster. As Maraniss recounts, Lambeau flew to Green Bay during the interview process and launched a campaign to capture at least the general manager position that Lombardi ultimately filled. Dominic Olejniczak, president of the Packers board of directors, resisted the urge to hire him despite heavy public support.
The Flash Point mandate was less clear for the NFC North's other three teams. Let's sort through them in alphabetical order:
BEARS: A hero of 1985
About half of you voted for the arrival of defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, the architect of the 46 defense that led the Bears to a championship in 1985.
I hear ya, Lewie21982. Red Grange made the Bears an early heavy hitter in pro football, and George Halas' schematic innovations led to the golden age in franchise history -- four world titles in seven years between 1940-46. But I understand where the baby boomers, hippies and mulleteers were going.
The 1985 Bears were the best team in franchise history and one of the most dominant of the NFL's post-merger era. With all due respect to Ditka and running back Walter Payton, Ryan's 46 defense was the biggest reason. It's impossible for a single moment to spawn something so impactful, and I heard a suggestion for ex-general manager Jim Finks acquiring many of that team's stars. But without Buddy Ryan, the 46 defense doesn't exist and the 1985 Bears as they were known never come to be.
LIONS: Forgetting yesteryear
The Detroit Lions' Flash Point vote got more action than any team in the division, garnering more than 53,000 votes. On that, we can agree.
I'm not on board, and neither was j_sleik83. We agree that quarterback Bobby Layne brought the Lions what Sanders never did. J_sleik83: "Bobby Layne in combination with the Hall of Fame defensive backfield the Lions had during the entirety of the '50s IS their defining era. Barry Sanders didn't lead them to the promised land, Layne did."
I mean no disrespect to Sanders, who forged a Hall of Fame career on some otherwise undermanned teams. But with Layne behind center, the Lions won NFL titles in 1952 and 1953. He contributed to a third in 1957, and upon his subsequent departure, Layne placed a (possibly apocryphal) 50-year curse on the franchise. (For that reason, DWargs thought trading Layne away is the defining moment in franchise history: "Haven't gotten close to a championship since.")
Several of you pointed to the ownership of the Ford family as the primary reason for that dubious run. Regardless, I understand that Lions history is defined more by failure than success. But on an otherwise desultory landscape, the Lions once had a brilliant run. Bobby Layne was the single biggest reason why.
VIKINGS: Varied opinions
I did either an excellent or terrible job of choosing options for the Minnesota Vikings' Flash Point: All four possibilities received between 19 and 32 percent of the vote. Assembling the "Purple People Eaters" had the highest percentage, but its total was hardly a mandate among the 38,000 or so votes cast.
Even looking beyond the obvious, Ymacdaddy offered this litany: "Herschel Walker, Metrodome [collapse], Gary Anderson, Dimitrius Underwood, too many in huddle, big-game chokers, etc. How about Darrin Nelson before Marcus Allen?"
The 1989 Walker trade, in which the Vikings ultimately gave up five players and six draft choices, received multiple mentions. So did Gary Anderson's shocking field goal miss in the 1998 NFC Championship Game. BuckeyeVikes80 is "still reeling from that 12 years later."
Dbatten1 noted Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach's Hail Mary pass to Drew "Push" Pearson in the 1975 playoffs. TampaPacMan's moment was the final play of the 2003 season, when the Vikings lost the NFC North title and a playoff berth by giving up an improbable touchdown to Arizona Cardinals receiver Nathan Poole. It was "the signature moment in a franchise history littered with failures!" wrote TampaPacMan.
If it were up to me, Bud Grant's arrival would rank as the most significant moment in Vikings history. Many of us would agree that Grant has made the single-biggest impact in this franchise's 50 years. But what do I know? I just work here.
The Detroit Lions have been playing football under one name or another since 1929, and although they're best known for the second-longest championship drought in pro football (53 years and counting), there are plenty of history-making events to choose from in this project.
In 1950, for example, the Lions acquired quarterback Bobby Layne via a complicated trade that ultimately left the Lions making financial payments to the Chicago Bears. Layne led the Lions to a pair of championships in 1952 and 1953 and was injured during their run to the 1957 title. As legend has it, he cursed the Lions upon his departure for the next 50 years.
The Lions had a rare moment of excitement in 1980, when running back Billy Sims proved to be every bit as good as his billing when they made him the No. 1 overall draft pick. But in a symbol of the Lions' bad fortune, he blew out his knee in 1984 and never played again.
Five years later, the Lions made running back Barry Sanders the No. 3 overall pick in the draft. Sanders' legendary elusiveness made him one of the best players in franchise history.
The arrival of Matt Millen as team president/general manager/CEO in 2001 ushered in the worst decade of performance, based on winning percentage, in NFL history. Millen was fired in 2008 as the Lions were on their way to a 0-16 season, but the franchise is still reassembling itself from the mess he left behind.
Use the module in this post to cast your vote. If you vote Other, give us your suggestion in the comments area below.
The Packers were originally scheduled to practice at Southern Methodist University. Their indoor venue would be at Highland Park high school, the alma mater of former and current Detroit Lions quarterbacks Bobby Layne and Matthew Stafford.
Don't be fooled. As you would expect from a Texas high school, the Highland Park facility is big-time. Check out the photograph that accompanies this story in the Park Cities People.
With Super Bowl XLV to be played indoors, it's hard to imagine why the Packers would practice outdoors in snow and ice. But we'll keep you updated on this critical issue.
*Update: The Packers just announced they will practice indoors Wednesday. Hallelujah!
At Kentucky, George had become a fine linebacker, an outstanding punter and place-kicker, and developing quarterback when George Halas drafted him as a 12th round pick for the Chicago Bears. Chicago already had some big name quarterbacks on its roster such as Sid Luckman, Johnny Lujack and Bobby Layne. Blanda signed with the Bears when Halas offered him a $6,000 contract and a $600 bonus.
"What could I do?" George remembers, "That's an awful lot of money for a 21 year-old kid who's never had anything in his life."
Widely recognized as one of the truly great competitors sports has known, Blanda was also a student of the game he played. In his first pre-season game for the Bears he took over in the third quarter of a 0-0 game and promptly threw a 40-yard TD strike to George McAfee on the first play and had a seven for seven day and a 34-0 win.
This performance was not, however, the sign of things to come. Except for the 1953 and 1954 seasons, Blanda was never a regular for the Bears. He was enjoying great success in 1954 when a shoulder injury kept him out of the last four season games. This was the only time in his stellar career that he had to miss a game due to injury. The Bears had kicking in mind for the 31-year-old Blanda, but George balked at the offer and retired (for the first time) in 1959.
Our thoughts are with Blanda's family.
The 1970 Lions ranked second in the NFL in points scored and points allowed, won their first two games by a combined score of 78-3 and finished the season with the league’s second-highest average point differential (10.4), according to pro football-reference.com. They had the best turnover ratio in the league, were the victims of Tom Dempsey’s then-record 63-yard field goal and produced an impressive five-game winning streak to end the regular season.
This team fielded two Hall of Fame cornerbacks, and both Barney and LeBeau had the best seasons of their careers. LeBeau intercepted nine passes, while Barney had seven -- returning two for touchdowns. The Barney/LeBeau team helped the Lions limit the powerful Dallas Cowboys to five points in the playoffs, and that total should have been enough for an offense that put up at least 28 points in six of its regular-season games.
But the offense inexplicably fell flat that day in a 5-0 defeat, leaving Lions fans their first in a series of torturous “what-ifs.” At the time, there was a feeling the Lions were bound for a Super Bowl victory had they gotten past the Cowboys.
I realize there is some room for discussion here. But the 1970s were a newly competitive era for the NFL, and that’s where I landed when comparing this team with the 1950s teams.
Most impressive victory: I’ll go with a tie for the Lions’ collective performances in shutting out Green Bay twice -- 40-0 in the season opener and 20-0 in the season finale. The Packers weren’t a good team that year but they did win six of their other 12 games.
Did you know? The 1970 Lions were the first wild-card playoff team in NFL history. When the league merged with the AFL, the postseason was expanded to eight teams -- three division winners and one wild-card team.
Did you know, Part II? Soul musician Marvin Gaye had a failed tryout for the 1970 team.
1952: A high-powered offense scored 40-plus points five times on the way to a 9-3 record and an NFL Championship.
1953: A similar team scored a touchdown in the final minutes of the championship game to become the third team in NFL history at that point to win back-to-back titles.
1957: The Lions overcame the training camp resignation of coach Buddy Parker and the broken leg of quarterback Bobby Layne to win its last NFL title.
And down the stretch we come. By the time this week is over, the entire NFC North will be in training camp in preparation for the 2009 season. But there is plenty of work to do before we get there.
- By my count, there are 10 unsigned draft choices -- including four first-rounders. Twenty-two of 32 Black and Blue picks are signed.
- We have that little issue of the quarterback position in Minnesota. Brett Favre's agent said last week it would be reasonable to expect a decision by the middle of this week. Vikings players have a mandatory meeting Thursday morning.
- We have the latest installment of ESPN.com's power rankings to reveal. More on that later Monday.
For now, let's catch up on the highlights of weekend coverage in the NFC North:
- Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press takes a thorough look at the life and times of quarterback Matthew Stafford. Here is Part I and here is Part II. Interesting tidbit: Stafford not only attended the Dallas-area high school of former Lions quarterback Bobby Layne, but he also grew up in a house on the same street that Layne did. The houses are about six blocks away.
- John Niyo of the Detroit News offers 10 questions on the Lions. Niyo also notes the Lions still have interest in veteran defensive lineman Kevin Carter.
- On his Twitter feed, NFL Network reporter Jason La Canfora reports the Lions will work out receiver D.J. Hackett on Tuesday.
- Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald suggests Chicago's training camp could be "the most interesting ever."
- The Chicago Tribune's David Haugh on the Bears: "Perhaps not since 1986 has an NFL season in Chicago been anticipated with such a mixture of hope and hyperbole. The arrival of this season has the feel of what it used to be like counting down to a space-shuttle launch."
- Defense is the top issue facing the Bears as they approach training camp, writes Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times. The Bears are banking on the fact that coaching, not personnel, was the root of the team's 2008 problems.
- As Aaron Kampman transitions to linebacker, Green Bay is using the successful transitions elsewhere of Greg Ellis in Dallas and Mike Vrabel in New England as models. Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette looks at the challenge ahead for Kampman.
- Mike Vandermause of the Press-Gazette wonders if the Packers' season would have ended differently last season had linebacker Nick Barnett not suffered a season-ending injury.
- Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel opens his position-by-position Packers preview with quarterbacks and then moves on to the offensive line.
- Minnesota coach Brad Childress kept smelling salts on hand for the recent wedding of his daughter, Cara. Literally. Here's Rick Alonzo's nugget in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
- Gad. Minnesota state legislators are already lining up to say the Vikings have little chance of having a new stadium approved during the 2010 legislative session. Here's what House Minority Leader Kurt Zellers told Bill Salisbury of the Pioneer Press about the Vikings' chances in 2010: "Probably about the same as the odds of me starting at cornerback for the Vikings." The Vikings' lease at the Metrodome expires in 2011.
A few weeks ago, we referred to the Jay Cutler story as "fun speculation" as it applied to the NFC North. You had three division teams expressing a desire to improve the quarterback position, but at the time there was no indication that Denver would be willing to trade Cutler to the Upper Midwest or anywhere else.
That drawback seems to have dissipated a bit after Sunday's news that Cutler has formally requested a trade. Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, meanwhile, told the Denver Post that "we might lose our star quarterback," a relatively shocking admission of defeat before trade talks begin.
So will Chicago, Detroit or Minnesota become serious players for Cutler? There is little doubt the topic is being discussed in each team headquarters Monday morning -- if it hasn't already been hashed through.
In the meantime, let's do a little hashing ourselves on behalf of those three Black and Blue cities (in alphabetical order, of course):
Current depth chart: Kyle Orton, Caleb Hanie, Brett Basanez
Key quote: "We have to stay focused on the quarterback position. You win because of the quarterback." (General manager Jerry Angelo early in the offseason.)
Cliff's notes: The Bears aren't sure if Orton is their long-term starter, but to this point they appear set to give him another season to prove himself.
Why Cutler makes sense: He was a Bears fan growing up, so it's likely he would accept a trade to Chicago. That's no small accomplishment for a player who appears to have some maintenance issues. Cutler has proved more in three years than Orton has in four and still has more room for improvement. The Bears could also offer the Broncos a short-term solution at the position by including Orton in the deal.
Why it's difficult to imagine: The Bears typically guard their draft picks and cash with equal passion. Is Chicago willing to pay its quarterback a premium salary, which a trade for Cutler would essentially require? For Cutler, you figure it would take upwards of $30 million in guaranteed money to complete a deal.
Current depth chart: Daunte Culpepper, Drew Stanton, Drew Henson
Key quote: "It's probably time to find a replacement for Bobby Layne." (Coach Jim Schwartz during the Lions' interview process.)
Cliff's notes: The Lions were involved in a potential three-way deal that would have netted Cutler late last month. They're facing the difficult decision of whether to draft Georgia's Matthew Stafford with the No. 1 overall pick next month.
Why Cutler makes sense: The Lions have the makings of a decent offense, especially if they use their top pick to solidify the offensive line. Scott Linehan is a quarterback-friendly coordinator, receiver Calvin Johnson is a rising star and tailback Kevin Smith is a reliable runner. A smart, strong-armed passer would bring it all together, and the Lions wouldn't have to pay Cutler much more than Stafford would be in line to receive. Finally, don't underestimate the excitement Cutler would bring to a fan base desperate for good news.
Why it's difficult to imagine: Frankly, it's hard to come up with many reasons to argue against this scenario. It's possible Cutler will want to avoid Detroit's rebuilding process. You also wonder if the Lions would want to give up multiple draft choices when they still have multiple holes to fill, especially on defense. But it's not often a 25-year-old Pro Bowl quarterback becomes available.
Current depth chart: Tarvaris Jackson, Sage Rosenfels, John David Booty
Key quote: "There is also an incredible range of scenarios that none of us could know about right now." (Coach Brad Childress at the combine last month, adding a caveat to plans for Jackson to compete with a veteran for the starting job.)
Cliff's notes: The Vikings acquired Sage Rosenfels to compete with Jackson before the Cutler saga began.
Why Cutler makes sense: The Vikings won the division last season with a talented roster that includes the NFL's best running back and a top 10 defense. Quarterback is one of their few question marks. Cutler succeeded in a West Coast system not unlike the one Minnesota uses, and Vikings owner Zygi Wilf has never been afraid to pay premium cash for top players. Why devote so many resources to other positions and ignore the most important one?
Why it's difficult to imagine: The Vikings, and Childress in particular, have a soft spot for Jackson and want him to succeed as their long-term quarterback. Acquiring Cutler would end that process once and for all. It would also gut their draft for the second consecutive year after the 2008 trade for defensive end Jared Allen. Earlier this month, vice president Rick Spielman said giving up another set of draft choices would "set the franchise back."
Hope everyone had a pleasant weekend. It was decidedly quiet in these parts after Friday's flurry of moves.
Yes, the second tier of NFL free agency has begun. The big names are off the board, and now teams are filling in their depth and shifting gears to the draft. The college Pro Day schedule is kicking into gear, and executives like Minnesota vice president Rick Spielman plan to hit the road Monday.
What's left? You have to imagine that Chicago will address its right tackle position in some way, most likely by re-signing free agent John St. Clair. Green Bay will continue to sift through the rubble for players with experience in the 3-4 defense. They still have interest in free-agent linebacker Kevin Burnett.
Detroit, meanwhile, has indicated an interest in adding to its quarterback depth. Will the Lions help release the logjam of veterans available on the free-agent market, a group that includes Jeff Garcia, Rex Grossman, Byron Leftwich, J.P. Losman and others? And will the Bears join that pursuit or settle in with Caleb Hanie as their No. 2 quarterback? Those are some of the questions we will be following this week.
But first, let's catch up on the highlights of NFC North weekend coverage:
- Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wonders if Packers cornerback Tramon Williams will hold out for a multiyear contract this offseason. Williams is an exclusive rights free agent, which means his contract has expired but he is not eligible to sign with another team. It's the same situation Packers running back Ryan Grant found himself in last offseason.
- Tim Froberg of the Appleton Post-Crescent wants an apology from former Packers offensive lineman Tony Mandarich, who has admitted to steroid use during his playing days.
- It's pretty clear Minnesota has no interest in re-signing safety Darren Sharper. Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune wonders where Sharper will end up.
- As it turns out, tight end L.J. Smith did visit Detroit last week. Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press reports Smith hasn't ruled out signing with the Lions.
- Jerry Green of the Detroit News debunks, once and for all, the "curse" of Bobby Layne.
- Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press on former Lions defense end Corey Smith: "I have been more stung by the thought that someone I met -- not a friend, not a close associate, just someone I spoke with a few times -- suddenly could be whisked away, not even a body to confirm the death. He's here. Then he's gone?"
- Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times is confident the Bears will soon sign St. Clair.
INDIANAPOLIS -- We warned you last week. If you're looking for guesses about specific teams drafting particular players, you're reading the wrong NFC North blog on the ESPN blog network. But with Detroit positioned at the No. 1 overall in the April draft, it's only fair that we take a look at what we learned about the top of the draft this week at the annual scouting combine.
|AP Photo/Darron Cummings|
|Matthew Stafford did not throw during his workout at the combine.|
(Just for kicks, we'll bring you three questions with a player often associated with the Green Bay Packers' slot at No. 9. But don't get used to it. I have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA -- yet -- if the Packers want to draft Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins.)
With that said, let's try to handicap the Lions' possibilities at the end of this important week -- while knowing there are many more important weeks yet to come before the draft. I compiled the list below in order of the most to the least likely target, an order we'll revisit and update regularly as the draft approaches:
1. Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford
Why he's the guy: The Lions paid an awful lot of attention to him at the combine, more than any other individual prospect. Nothing happened to suggest he has fallen from the perch as the top quarterback available, which always makes a player a top candidate for the No. 1 overall pick. And you can't deny the karma: Stafford attended the same high school (Highland Park in Dallas) as former Lions quarterback Bobby Layne.
Why he isn't: Stafford's decision not to throw at the combine means the Lions' evaluation of him can't be complete. It also means NFL teams haven't had a chance to evaluate his accuracy after a college career in which he completed 57.1 percent of his passes.
2. Baylor offensive lineman Jason Smith
Why he's the guy: Smith put up the best combine numbers of the top left tackles in the draft. His 33 repetitions on the bench press and 5.22 time in the 40-yard dash both ranked in the top 10 of all offensive linemen. It seems clear he could step in as an immediate starter at one of the game's most important positions.
|Get to know Baylor tackle Jason Smith.|
Why he isn't: The tackle position in this draft is said to be exceptionally deep, and it's possible the Lions could get an immediate starter either with the No. 20 or No. 33 overall pick. Smith might well emerge as the top tackle in the draft, but is he a player worthy of the No. 1 pick overall? That hasn't been determined.
3. Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry
Why he's the guy: Nothing injects life into a moribund defense more than a big-time playmaker, and Curry has the capacity to step in right away at a key position of need: Strongside linebacker. Coach Jim Schwartz has noted the Lions have a deeper personnel deficit on defense than offense, and spoke glowingly of Curry at the combine.
Why he isn't: Curry is built like a middle linebacker but has never played there, and it's difficult to imagine the Lions would move Ernie Sims out of the weakside position. The linebacker position isn't often considered crucial enough to merit a No. 1 overall pick, especially for a 4-3 team.
4. Virginia offensive lineman Eugene Monroe
Why he's the guy: The Lions indicated a heavy level of interest prior to the combine. He is probably more athletic than Smith and has more room to grow. Like Smith, there are no character flaws.
Why he isn't: We downgraded Monroe a bit after a less-impressive combine performance that included 22 repetitions on the bench press. At the moment, Smith is stronger and better prepared to step in right away. This comparison, of course, could change over the next few months.
The Chicago Bears are hoping right tackle John Tait will reconsider his plans to retire and went to the length Tuesday of posting a story about his situation on the team's Web site. Here's the statement that Bears general manager Jerry Angelo provided:
"John informed us a few weeks ago that he was considering retirement. He has been a great player and representative of our team since joining us in 2004. We would like to have him back for another season, but certainly respect his decision if he chooses to retire."
This marks the team's first public statement on the issue since reports emerged last weekend. The Bears aren't exactly deep at the position; presumptive left tackle Chris Williams will be their only tackle on the roster when free agency begins. Tait's skills are declining, but he might provide a better option in 2009 than anyone the team could scrounge up on the free-agent market.
Expect the Bears to scout the right tackle position heavily when the annual scouting combine begins this week. Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times takes a look at the looming process.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Pending free agent quarterback Chris Simms didn't downplay the possibility of signing with the Bears in an interview with Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune. Said Simms: "Who wouldn't be interested or thinking about the Chicago Bears?"
- Get this: Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford went to the same high school as former Detroit quarterback Bobby Layne. Here's a feature on Stafford from Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press.
- Minnesota special teams captain Heath Farwell, who missed the 2008 season because of a knee injury, plans to test the free-agent market, according to Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The Vikings have attempted to re-sign him, but Farwell would like an opportunity to play linebacker as well as special teams.
- Greg A. Bedard of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sets up the combine with facts and figures.