NFC North: Brad Maynard

Chicago Bears fans understandably are pining for an infusion of free agent offensive linemen. I think that will come in the next day or so. In the meantime, the Bears took care of the roster hole created when they decided to move on from veteran punter Brad Maynard.

Free agent Adam Podlesh, who spent the past four seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, has agreed to terms on a five-year contract, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. There had been heavy speculation that the Bears would pursue the New York Jets' Steve Weatherford, but ultimately Podlesh proved to be their man.

The Jaguars' fourth-round draft pick in 2007, Podlesh was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer known as acinic cell carcinoma in 2009. He returned in 2010 to have the best season of his career, earning Pro Bowl alternate status after averaging 43.8 yards per punt and dropping 26 punts inside opponents' 20-yard line.

Most important to the Bears, Podlesh is 11 years younger than Maynard and presumably will provide stability at the position for years to come.

Recent Bears posts: The team is working offensive line targets. Maynard voiced surprising animosity toward well-respected special-teams coordinator Dave Toub. The Bears have a tough decision on a contract extension for tailback Matt Forte.
In March, we wondered whether the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears were really prepared to part ways with a pair of aging but reliable specialists who appear to have several years remaining in their careers. We've now gotten our answer.

The Bears did indeed inform punter Brad Maynard that he won't return in 2011. And on Wednesday, the Vikings agreed to terms with place-kicker Ryan Longwell on what ESPN's Adam Schefter reported is a four-year contract extension worth $12 million, including $3.5 million guaranteed.

The timing of the deal made sense; earlier in the day, the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers helped set the market for placekickers. The Packers agreed with Mason Crosby on a five-year deal that included $3 million guaranteed, while the Panthers will soon sign Olindo Mare to a four-year deal that includes $4 million guaranteed.

What never made sense was why the Vikings might replace a kicker who has converted 43 of 46 attempts over the past two seasons. Longwell will turn 37 next month, but age is of moderate relevance when it comes to place-kickers. The Vikings clearly agreed, even if it took longer than expected for them to show it.
The departure of longtime Chicago Bears punter Brad Maynard has revealed some previously unknown (at least to me) animosity behind the team's special teams juggernaut and led to a surprising public rebuke of highly-regarded special teams coordinator Dave Toub.

In a series of interviews, most recently with "Waddle & Silvy" on ESPN 1000, Maynard said he and Toub haven't been on the same page for years. The feud apparently began late in the 2009 season, when Toub stripped Maynard's option to determine kick direction. From his ESPN 1000 interview:
"[Toub] always used to let me call the direction of every kick. I'd come up to him on the sidelines and say, 'Hey, let's go left here.' And he would just relay the message to all the guys standing around. Late in the '09 season I ran up there and said, 'Let's go left,' and it was 'No, I'm calling it from now on. We're going right.' It just kind of took me aback a little bit.

"I talked to [long snapper Patrick Mannelly] and [place-kicker] Robbie [Gould] about this from that point on over the next couple years. ... There were times when I literally would say left and he would say right and I would say I can't go right. The wind is blowing right to left, we need to go left. If I hit it right down the middle it's going to carry down the left sideline, and he wouldn't let me do it.

"I've had some teammates say you call the direction and we'll cover it. Just let us know. But I can't do that. I'm not that type of player. I'm not selfish. I'm going to do what my coach asks me to do."

There are obviously two sides to every story, and we haven't yet heard from Toub. Bears coaches aren't scheduled to speak with reporters until Friday.

Gould, for one, seemed to support Maynard's position while talking with Chicago-area reporters Tuesday. This line in particular caught my eye: "He's helped Dave Toub's career tremendously by the fact of having a punter that can do what he did."

I don't think Toub's reputation around the league will be tarnished by this issue, especially if the Bears follow through with their reported plan to sign New York Jets punter Steve Weatherford. Sometimes a coach has to assert himself for the betterment of the team, even if it creates an awkward situation with an individual player. It's just rare that you see dirty laundry of this level aired out in public, and it's been duly noted.

BBAO: Free-agent rules evolving

July, 26, 2011
We're Black and Blue All Over:

It's already clear that NFL team executives will need their heads on a swivel during this unprecedented transition from the lockout. Here's an example:

Monday afternoon, the NFL announced that teams would be eligible to begin negotiating and signing undrafted rookies on Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. But late Monday afternoon, Minnesota Vikings vice president Rick Spielman received a surprise email while waiting his turn at a quick media availability: The instructions had changed. Negotiations with those undrafted rookies were now allowed immediately.

Moments later, ESPN's John Clayton confirmed the news. After answering questions from reporters, Spielman hustled up to a meeting room where personnel staffers had set up a make-shift phone bank to begin the recruiting process.

I'm guessing there will be a few more curveballs along the way. But barring any immediate changes, NFL teams can formally sign those undrafted rookies starting at 10 a.m. ET Tuesday and can also begin negotiations with draft picks, their free agents and undrafted free agents. Be prepared for a wild few days of news.

Unless that changes, of course.

Here's a quick roundup of news and notes from around the NFC North:
  • The Chicago Bears are moving Chris Harris back to his more natural strong safety position, opening up the free safety spot for Major Wright. Danieal Manning, a free agent, isn't expected to return. Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune has more.
  • Michael C. Wright of has an early look at the undrafted rookies the Bears are pursuing.
  • Dan Pompei of the Tribune considers possible veteran free agents for the Bears, including Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl of the Atlanta Falcons.
  • Former Bears punter Brad Maynard, speaking to Neil Hayes of the Chicago Sun-Times after learning he would not return to the team, implied that he did not get along with special teams coordinator Dave Toub. Maynard: "I'm not surprised at all. There was one person there, and he and I didn't see eye to eye. I did the best I could with what I was asked to do. There were times I was asked to do things where I told myself, 'There's no way I can do this,' but I kept my mouth shut and did the best I could."
  • Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press: "We've got a plan that we have laid out for quite some time now about how we want to build this team, and that was a philosophy that we communicated to you guys back a couple years ago. That philosophy is shared by [general manager Martin Mayhew] and [coach Jim Schwartz] and myself, and we're going to stick to that philosophy about how you build the nucleus of this team and how we have built the nucleus of the team."
  • John Niyo of the Detroit News expects the Lions to be active in the trade market.
  • The Lions will have meetings and a conditioning test for players Thursday, notes Tom Kowalski of
  • Most of the Green Bay Packers' training camp practices will be scheduled during the evening, according to Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Pete Dougherty of the Press-Gazette wonders if the Packers will move Bryan Bulaga to left guard.
  • The Packers are hoping to visit the White House to meet President Barack Obama sometime this month, writes Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Packers running back John Kuhn plans to test the free-agent market, writes Tyler Dunne of the Journal Sentinel.
  • Bob Sansevere of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wants the Vikings to sign veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
  • It hadn't been rumored to be an issue, but Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said tailback Adrian Peterson will report to training camp on time, notes Tom Pelissero of Peterson is in the final year of his contract.
  • The Vikings will add about 30 players over the next week, notes the Star Tribune.
We're only a few hours into the NFL's post-lockout world, but we're already getting answers to some key personnel questions we spent the offseason discussing.

Here is one of the first. cousin Jeff Dickerson has confirmed the Chicago Bears won't re-sign free agent Brad Maynard, their punter for the past 10 seasons. The team informed Maynard of the decision late Monday afternoon in a story first reported by the Chicago Tribune.

This move isn't entirely unexpected, but it's still a bit jarring to see a core member of a special teams juggernaut cast aside. Maynard is 37 and his performance dipped a bit in 2010, but age is relative when it comes to punters and place-kickers in the NFL. A reliable specialist is one of the most underrated comforts in football.

A snippet from our original discussion in March:
It's true that Maynard's 35.2-yard net average ranked 30th among NFL punters last season, but he did drop 24 punts inside the 20-yard line. Veteran savvy and experience are as valuable to kicking specialists as any position on the game, and Maynard's career total of 407 punts downed inside the 20 are the second-most in the NFL over the past 35 seasons.

Still, the Bears have made the decision to move on and assuredly have a priority list for replacements. They have longtime camp leg Richmond McGee on their roster, and offers three veteran possibilities: Sam Koch, Adam Podlesh and Steve Weatherford. Negotiations can begin Tuesday at 10 a.m. ET. Stay tuned.

NFC North free-agency breakdown

July, 25, 2011
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each NFC North team:

Chicago Bears
  1. Assemble a starting offensive line: As we've noted many times, the Bears have held off any public discussion about their five linemen pending the results of free agency. Well, we're here. It's time for the dominoes to start falling. The first will be whether center Olin Kreutz re-signs. It's generally expected, but nothing is guaranteed. Then, the Bears need to decide whether to pursue any starting-caliber guards or tackles. You would think they'll seek at least one new starter. Will they raid the Atlanta Falcons' glut of linemen? Might they take a flier on Robert Gallery? We'll know soon enough.
  2. Establish a strongside linebacker: The position has largely been held by Pisa Tinoisamoa and Nick Roach over the past two years, but both have expiring contracts. It makes sense to re-sign at least one given the lack of offseason work for a presumptive new starter, and Roach is the younger of the two. If the Bears have another player on the roster they've targeted for this job, it's not readily apparent. While they're at it, the Bears should seek depth at defensive tackle following the release of Tommie Harris. They did draft Stephen Paea, but the Bears might pursue Seattle Seahawks free agent Brandon Mebane, as well.
  3. Sift through receivers: From a media perspective, at least, there has been more offseason talk than ever suggesting the Bears will/should/might pursue a free-agent receiver. This year's class is deep, from Sidney Rice to Santonio Holmes to Randy Moss, and a number of other veterans could be available via trade. Coach Lovie Smith has said he wouldn't mind a receiver bigger than his current trio of sub 6-footers, and Devin Hester has lobbied publicly to sign Santana Moss. I think the increased discussion is largely a product of lockout boredom, but it wouldn't hurt the Bears to add depth so that Hester can be used more efficiently.
Top five free agents: Center Olin Kreutz, safety Danieal Manning, punter Brad Maynard, linebacker Nick Roach, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.

Detroit Lions
  1. Sign a starting cornerback: The Lions' top cornerbacks under contract are Alphonso Smith and Nate Vasher. Chris Houston, who started 15 games last season, is a free agent, so it's possible the Lions will bring Houston back. Or they could seek an outside upgrade, be it Nnamdi Asomugha or Ike Taylor or Johnathan Joseph. Lions Fever would spike if they can land Asomugha, but they would have to use most of their salary-cap space to do it. For several reasons, the odds are against it.
  2. Sort out the linebacker position: DeAndre Levy is the only linebacker assured a 2011 starting job, but even Levy can't be totally sure if he will play outside or in the middle. That answer will come only after the Lions sift through the available free agents. They could pursue one with a background in the middle, perhaps Stephen Tulloch. Or they could seek an outside linebacker to replace the released Julian Peterson. One of their outside positions is likely to be decided by a training camp competition among incumbents.
  3. Evaluate right tackles: Early indications have been that Gosder Cherilus has made progress from microfracture surgery on his knee. If there is any question, however, the Lions might want to bolster their depth. Corey Hilliard did a decent job as Cherilus' replacement late last season. But keeping quarterback Matthew Stafford healthy is at a premium this season. Do the Lions want to face the possibility of opening the year with a backup plan at right tackle?
Top five free agents: Linebacker Bobby Carpenter, cornerback Chris Houston, linebacker Landon Johnson, quarterback Drew Stanton, safety John Wendling.

Green Bay Packers
  1. Stay the course: It's been well-documented that general manager Ted Thompson hasn't participated much in free agency over the past few years, and it's hard to imagine his changing tack dramatically this summer. Thompson's most important decisions will be deciding which of his pending free agents to re-sign and which ones he should allow to depart.
  2. Re-sign place-kicker Mason Crosby: Thompson gave Crosby a second-round tender in February in the event Crosby wound up as a restricted free agent. That move suggested Crosby is in the Packers' future plans and makes re-signing him one of the first orders of business now that he is an unrestricted free agent. Crosby has had some difficulties over the years, but kicking in Green Bay is difficult given the weather and he has made some important adjustments. Concerns about his kickoffs should be minimized by the NFL's decision to move them up 5 yards.
  3. Think twice: The Packers appear set to let defensive end Cullen Jenkins depart. They can do so knowing they have a number of intriguing young players to compete for that job, from Mike Neal to C.J. Wilson to Jarius Wynn. But another player the Packers might lose, Daryn Colledge, doesn't have an obvious replacement. Would the Packers shift T.J. Lang from backup tackle to guard? Would first-round draft pick Derek Sherrod, their projected left tackle of the future, get a crash course on step down? It's something to think about and, given the lack of an offseason, might spur further discussion about re-signing Colledge.
Top five free agents: Guard Daryn Colledge, place-kicker Mason Crosby, defensive end Cullen Jenkins, receiver James Jones, running backs John Kuhn/Brandon Jackson.

Minnesota Vikings
  1. Address receivers: Are the Vikings about to bid farewell to receiver Sidney Rice, a 24-year-old who is one year removed from an 83-catch Pro Bowl season? There is nothing they can do to stop it at this point, and Rice seems intent on at least testing his value on the open market. The Vikings spent most of last season searching for a suitable replacement when Rice was injured, and that job will intensify this summer. They have added an additional pass-catching threat in rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph. But if they lose Rice, the Vikings must either sign or trade for an established veteran to join Percy Harvin and Bernard Berrian (if he makes the team).
  2. Find a kicker: The Vikings made no known effort before the lockout to re-sign veteran Ryan Longwell, who has converted 43 of 46 kicks over the past two seasons. It's possible they'll make their move now. But they did not draft a kicker, and if Longwell signs elsewhere, the Vikings will have to scour the always-murky free-agent market. I'm guessing they already have a plan on this issue, but we haven't smoked it out yet.
  3. Establish QB depth: We all know that rookie Christian Ponder eventually will assume the starting job. But are the Vikings comfortable with Joe Webb and Rhett Bomar as their only alternatives if Ponder needs some development time? I'm not sure about that. I also wonder if making Webb the No. 2 quarterback would limit his opportunities to contribute in other ways, perhaps as a receiver or a kick returner. For that reason, it would make sense for the Vikings to seek a quarterback with more experience to pair with Ponder.
Top five free agents: Defensive end Ray Edwards, linebacker Ben Leber, place-kicker Ryan Longwell, receiver Sidney Rice, nose tackle Pat Williams.

Bears back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Chicago Bears have been playing the same defensive scheme, with some of the same key players, since coach Lovie Smith arrived in 2004. That familiarity is an important mitigating factor for the loss of offseason workouts, and players expect that consistency to give the Bears an early-season advantage. The Bears could have used another offseason to fine-tune their offense under coordinator Mike Martz, especially to give them a head-start on retooling their offensive line, but such is life. Quarterback Jay Cutler did his part by running skill-player workouts this spring in the Chicago suburbs.

Biggest challenge: You thought offensive line coach Mike Tice had a tough job last season patching together a starting lineup? He'll have to do it again this season, and with less time. The Bears hope to find a permanent solution earlier than they did in 2010, but as of today, none of the five positions has an obvious starter. Free agency will affect Tice's decisions, as will the development of rookie tackle Gabe Carimi. Where will former first-round pick Chris Williams play? Will center Olin Kreutz be re-signed? These questions must be answered -- and soon.

Just for kicks: The Bears have a decision to make at punter, a position occupied by Brad Maynard for the past 10 seasons. It didn't appear the Bears were eager to resign Maynard, 37, before the lockout. That could change given the quick turnaround between now and training camp, but it's also possible the Bears have their eye on his targeted successor. Maynard was a big part of the Bears' special-teams machine over the past decade and would be difficult to replace.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Quarterback Caleb Hanie, center Olin Kreutz, safety Danieal Manning, punter Brad Maynard, linebacker Nick Roach, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Many of you have asked if Green Bay Packers cornerback Al Harris, who was released midway through last season, would receive a Super Bowl ring. The answer, according to president/CEO Mark Murphy, is yes.

During a Tailgate Tour on Thursday, a fan asked Murphy directly. (Citizen journalism!) According to Kareem Copeland of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Murphy said yes. He also added that the team has tentatively scheduled a June 16 ceremony to give out rings. That could change, obviously, based on the lockout.

Harris suffered a severe knee injury in November 2009 and opened the 2010 season on the physically unable to perform list. He practiced with the Packers for three weeks before the team decided to release him Nov. 8 rather than add him to the active roster. He eventually signed with the Miami Dolphins, where he played three games before a hamstring injury sidelined him for the season.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn about rumors he could be traded, via the Press-Gazette: "I don't know. I really haven't been paying too much attention to it. The whole labor issues, just kind of been focusing on that. Who knows what the deal is. I love being a Packer and I'll be here as long as they want me. It's all kind of speculation right now, of what people want to write or whatever they want to say. You can't say that anybody wants me or doesn't want me. We'll see what happens. I just like where I am right now."
  • An active campaign is underway to keep the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis despite their recent site agreement with Ramsey County, according to the Star Tribune.
  • Tom Pelissero of examines the value of new Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph.
  • Health care is a big part of the lockout, Detroit Lions defensive end Cliff Avril told Adam Biggers of
  • NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will speak with Lions season-ticket holders on Thursday via conference call, according to the Detroit Free Press.
  • Chicago Bears backup quarterback Caleb Hanie said that Bears players have held no quarterback-receiver team workouts, via ESPN 1000.
  • Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune speaks with punter Richmond McGee, who signed a futures contract with the team and is a candidate to replace veteran Brad Maynard.

NFC North weekend mailbag

March, 12, 2011
Here's our Vince Lombardism after another week of NFL labor uncertainty: "Success demands singleness of purpose."

Find me through the mailbag, Facebook or Twitter.


Kevin of St. Paul noted that Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams has given up his legal challenge to a four-game suspension originally levied in 2008 for violating the NFL's policy on banned substances. How will that decision impact the 2011 season?

Kevin Seifert: The easy answer would be that Williams will be suspended for the next four games the NFL plays, whether or not any games are canceled by a work stoppage. But this case has been so unprecedented from the start that you wonder if it could ultimately be wrapped into the eventual collective bargaining agreement.

The NFL would have to be careful here, because shortening Williams' suspension could serve as a tacit confirmation that not all was kosher in the original proceedings. Vikings nose tackle Pat Williams, who is not expected to re-sign with the team, hasn't yet dropped his legal case and thus will be affected by whatever the NFL decides with Kevin Williams.

If Kevin Williams is required to serve all four games, he would stand to lose $1.42 million of his $6 million base salary in 2011. It's worth noting that Williams would have lost far less money in 2009 ($23,429) or 2010 ($53,505) because his contract called for significantly lower base salaries in those seasons.

It's also worth noting that the Vikings could open the 2011 season with three new starters on their defensive line. Pat Williams is expected to sign elsewhere, Kevin Williams could be suspended and Ray Edwards is expected to move on as a free agent. Only right end Jared Allen would return from a group that has been among the NFL's best in recent seasons.

Via Twitter, @JohnWayne506th expressed disappointment that I didn't mention Detroit Lions place-kicker Jason Hanson among aging NFL kickers who are still, uh, kicking at a high level: "He is old and still good."

Kevin Seifert: No doubt about it, although I actually decided against including Hanson in that list because I'm not sure he'll be the Lions' kicker in 2011. Dave Rayner made 13 of 16 field goals after Hanson's knee injury last season, including two from 50 or more yards. There is no reason to believe Hanson can't continue his career, but if you're going to replace an aging kicker, it makes sense to do it with someone you've already battled-tested in your own uniform.

Many of you resorted to counting the paragraphs of the Ryan Longwell-Brad Maynard post to find blogger bias. In the comments section, hanse838 wrote: Started off as a story which included a team not named the Vikings, didn't last however. Where's the analysis on Maynard?

Kevin Seifert: Ah, we've returned to familiar territory once again. It's true. There were more words written about Longwell because I think that allowing him to depart is less defensible than parting ways with Maynard.

I can't come up with any on-field reason to believe Longwell is headed for a significant performance dropoff. Maynard has been reliable at his craft in recent seasons, but as I pointed out, his net average did drop last season and ranked 30th among NFL punters last season.

So there would be some statistical backing for the Bears if they decide to move on. What I wish I had emphasized in the post is that a moderately distilled Brad Maynard might still be more reliable and a better bet than an untested group of candidates the Bears might feel compelled to choose from.

I don't get the Longwell situation at all. As for Maynard, I can see why the Bears would consider their options. I'm just suggesting it might be hard to find a better one.

Andy of Fort Collins, Colo., writes: I like all of your work, but am just wondering what your obsession with the word "moot" is? You seem to be one of the only writers I read using the word and it shows up often in your work. Don't get me wrong, I think its a great word and I like when you use it, I'm just wondering if there is a reason for its frequent use.

Kevin Seifert: I just Googled "Kevin Seifert" and "ESPN" and "moot." There were only 3,610 hits. That's nothing. Try Googling "Kevin Seifert" and "ESPN" and "Favre." It's ridiculous.

Seriously, "moot" is a great, direct and definitive word. But like any other writing construct, it loses effectiveness if it's used too much. Point taken.

Ken of Chanhassen, Minn., noted our post on the future of Green Bay Packers receiver James Jones and writes: You forgot to note one thing about the Packers receivers. They will be better with Jermichael Finley even if James Jones leaves. he will most often be the 4th guy in their 4 wideout sets even though he is a tight end.

Kevin Seifert: Duly noted. You might say he would render Jones' departure moot!

In all honesty, I can think of many more reasons to let Jones leave than to sign him. The two biggest reasons for keeping him are to maintain the ability:
  1. To put four speedy wide receivers on the field in four-receiver sets
  2. Depth in the event of injury.

But you're right. Finley can certainly make up for Jones in those situations and provide a size-based matchup problem that wouldn't exist if Jones were on the field.

You might feel more comfortable going into the season with Jones on the front end, but I bet by the end of the season that Finley, Jordy Nelson and whatever young receiver the Packers acquire for depth will have grabbed firm control of the situation.

Via Facebook, Andrew asks: What is the likelihood of the Packers letting Mason Crosby's contract expire without resigning him before the draft and using a late rounder to pick up someone such as Nebraska's Alex Henery?

Kevin Seifert: I don't think the chances are high.

It's true that Crosby's 78.1 percent conversion rate since his career began in 2007 ranks No. 19 among NFL kickers over that span. Statistically speaking, that means Crosby hasn't been in the upper half of NFL kickers during his tenure.

But my sense is the Packers grade on a curve given the relative difficulty of kicking at Lambeau Field in the winter weather. I could be way off on this, but I think coach Mike McCarthy trusts him and doesn't necessarily believe that the proverbial grass will be greener on the other side. Dropping a college kicker into the NFC North is a risky move.
In the hustle and bustle of last week's labor-related drama, we failed to note two NFC North teams have each positioned themselves to part ways with a long-time specialist who could be more difficult to replace than you might realize.

This much we can say for sure: Whenever NFL owners and players agree on a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), Minnesota Vikings place-kicker Ryan Longwell and Chicago Bears punter Brad Maynard will be unrestricted free agents. Nothing would prevent them from re-signing at that point, but typically NFL teams get their priority players under contract before the market opens.

There have been no reports of negotiations with Longwell or Maynard, let alone the framework of an agreement, as we discussed in Tuesday's SportsNation chat. Read into that what you will.

Maynard is 37 and Longwell will turn 37 in August, but gray hair at their positions just as often connotes aptitude as it does failing ability. It's true that Maynard's 35.2-yard net average ranked 30th among NFL punters last season, but he did drop 24 punts inside the 20-yard line. Veteran savvy and experience are as valuable to kicking specialists as any position on the game, and Maynard's career total of 407 punts downed inside the 20 are the second-most in the NFL over the past 35 seasons.

If you're the Bears, you might be able to make a statistical argument to consider additional options. Will they find someone they can trust as much as Maynard? I'm not sure. But in Longwell's case, you can't even make a statistical case for his ouster.

Longwell, in fact, is coming off two of the best seasons of his career. He converted 26 of 28 field goal attempts in 2009 and 17 of 18 last season, a combined conversion percentage of 93.4. Thanks to the database, we can put those numbers in context: Longwell has two of the 24 best seasons by an NFL place kicker, based on conversion percentage of 15 or more attempts, since the 1970 merger.

In terms of field-goal kicking, at least, there has been nothing to suggest Longwell is close to the end of his career. So why would the Vikings replace him?

Again, I'm not certain they intend to. But it's possible they want better kickoffs, a concern that led to an ill-fated decision to sign kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd. Perhaps they have identified another free agent, or a potential draft pick, that could make them younger at the position.

But anyone who watched the Vikings during the gap between Gary Anderson's final season in 2002 and Longwell's arrival in 2006 know how difficult it is to identify and develop a reliable place-kicker. Game management changes dramatically when you know your kicker is nearly automatic from inside 50 yards, which Longwell has been in recent seasons.

Some day, the Vikings will have to replace Longwell. Perhaps they'll time it, albeit arbitrarily, to his age and now-expired contract. But it should be pointed out that some of the NFL's best place-kickers are about the same age as Longwell, from David Akers (36) to Adam Vinatieri (38) to John Kasay (41) to Jay Feely (34).

I realize the Vikings have some significant decisions to make this offseason. Vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman has talked about fielding a younger team in 2011. But parting ways with a 90-percent field goal kicker just because he is 37? Not sure about that one -- especially when an heir apparent isn't yet, uh, apparent.

It's franchise tag day -- sort of

February, 10, 2011
Officially, Thursday is the first day NFL teams can place a franchise tag on players whose contracts are expiring and would otherwise be eligible for unrestricted free agency.

But in one of many twists we can expect in the structure of the 2011 offseason, the NFL Players Association has declared the franchise tag to be irrelevant until a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is reached.

The existing CBA will expire March 3, and the reality is no players will be changing teams this offseason -- whether they are franchised or not -- until the league reaches a labor resolution.

It is possible, however, that players who are franchised now could be grandfathered into the next CBA. So it's at least worth discussing who might be candidates here in the NFC North. The exact salary levels, as well as the number of years required for unrestricted free agency, are yet to be determined. Below we've included players with at least four years of experience.

Team: Chicago Bears
Prominent players with expiring contracts: Defensive tackle Anthony Adams, tight end Desmond Clark, cornerback Corey Graham, quarterback Caleb Hanie, center Olin Kreutz, safety Danieal Manning, punter Brad Maynard, linebacker Nick Roach and linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.
Comment: Kreutz probably doesn't need to be protected with a tag. Hanie could garner interest around the league but would you guarantee him franchise money to stay?

Team: Detroit Lions
Prominent players with expiring contracts: Safety C.C. Brown, cornerback Chris Houston, defensive end Turk McBride and quarterback Drew Stanton.
Comment: Tom Kowalski of reports the Lions won't use the tag.

Team: Green Bay Packers
Prominent players with expiring contracts:
Safety Jarrett Bush, left guard Daryn Colledge, running back Brandon Jackson, receiver James Jones, defensive end Cullen Jenkins and running back John Kuhn.
Comment: Jenkins is a possibility, although the Packers have a young player in Mike Neal who might be ready to take over his spot next season. Colledge's status is uncertain.

Team: Minnesota Vikings
Prominent players with expiring contracts:
Defensive end Ray Edwards, linebacker Chad Greenway, linebacker Ben Leber, receiver Sidney Rice, defensive end Brian Robison and nose tackle Pat Williams.
Comment: Greenway and Rice are young players the Vikings would hate to part ways with. They have seemed cooler on Edwards' status.

Final Word: Seahawks at Bears

January, 14, 2011
Divisional Final Word: Ravens-Steelers | Jets-Patriots | Packers-Falcons | Seahawks-Bears

Three nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's Seahawks-Bears divisional game at Soldier Field:

Big favorites: The Chicago Bears are 9.5-point favorites to beat the Seattle Seahawks and advance to play for the right to go to the Super Bowl. We discussed some of the reasons during the week, and that coverage is all available through the "Bears and Hawks" filter. In the big picture, observers see a Seahawks team that is now 8-9, including 2-6 away from Qwest Field, and has only one road playoff victory in franchise history. Overall, the Bears are 11-7 in the playoffs at home. Stranger things have happened, but there aren't many people predicting a Bears loss this weekend.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhBears quarterback Jay Cutler will be making his first postseason start Sunday against Seattle.
Many knowledge nuggets: The Bears are in the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, but their veteran roster nevertheless provides a wealth of playoff experience. A total of 27 Bears players have appeared in 114 playoff games over their careers. That number includes 17 starters when you count punter Brad Maynard and place-kicker Robbie Gould. Quarterback Jay Cutler is the notable exception. As we noted this week, Cutler hasn't played in a postseason game since his senior year of high school. Regardless, this is a team that should handle the emotional rigors of a playoff atmosphere.

Dollars and sense: A victory Sunday should lock up a contract extension for coach Lovie Smith, if that hasn't already happened. It's hard to imagine a coach who takes his team to the NFC Championship Game not having at least a few years added to his deal when in Smith's situation. Otherwise, Smith would enter 2011 in the final year of his contract. To the surprise of everyone, Smith guided his team to a legitimate accomplishment this year as NFC North champions. A playoff victory should be all it takes for the McCaskey family to break open their bank.

Your 2009 All-NFC North team

January, 29, 2010
Your response to our initial All-NFC North team was overwhelming, quite literally. At one point, it was impossible to post comments on the original post. I can only assume the cause: Black and Blue readers jamming up the lines, old-school style.

Seriously, I got more than 1,200 offers for help on the 15 positions I left open. Most related to the Brett Favre-Aaron Rodgers choice at quarterback, and I took many of them into account in compiling the final list. I did so with a clear conscience, knowing (or at least, strongly assuming) that no NFC North player has a bonus written into his contract for making this team.

(There’s always next year, though!)

My final choices are in the chart to your right. Below, I’ve offered my reasoning for some of the more difficult decisions. We start with the toughest:
  • In the big picture, Favre and Rodgers’ passing statistics are a wash. Rodgers led the NFL in rushing for a quarterback, but he was also sacked an NFL-high 50 times. (And yes, Rodgers shares in the responsibility for that.) Ultimately, I gave Favre the nod because he was the quarterback of the team that went to overtime in the NFC Championship Game. Wins and losses aren’t the only thing quarterbacks should be judged by, but they can certainly break a tie.
  • Based on what I’ve written previously, you might be surprised to see Dominic Raiola as the NFC North’s top center. Here’s where I came from: Chicago’s Olin Kreutz had a tough year by everyone’s standards, and Thursday we learned it was because of a bone spur was causing irritation on one of his Achilles tendons. Green Bay used two centers this season, Jason Spitz and Scott Wells. Minnesota’s John Sullivan was in his first year as a starter and had the expected ups and downs. Start to finish, Raiola might have been the division’s steadiest, if not most talented, center. Here’s the way Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan put it: “He's always there and doesn't miss anything, and that's what you've got to have in your center.”
  • Tight end was by far the most difficult choice, even after using my TE/WR option to add a second. I went with Greg Olsen and Visanthe Shiancoe, and bypassed Jermichael Finley, for several reasons. Olsen had 60 receptions and eight touchdowns in an offense that struggled for a good part of the season -- while facing coverage commensurate with a No. 1 receiver. Shiancoe led the NFL with 11 touchdowns by a tight end. Finley’s final statistics were close to both players, but he missed three games and had the fewest touchdowns among the three. You couldn’t go wrong with any of this trio.
  • Some of you went bonkers when I left running back open to argument rather than immediately tap Adrian Peterson. I wanted to see if anyone could make a convincing argument for Ryan Grant. I didn’t see one.
  • Green Bay’s Cullen Jenkins had 4.5 sacks as a defensive end, not a bad total in a 3-4 scheme. More important, I thought Jenkins adapted well to his new role in the second half of the season and was a big part of the Packers’ No. 1-ranked run defense. He also forced three fumbles and is well-suited for this scheme.
  • The Packers’ Nick Barnett got the nod at “middle” linebacker because he was the steadiest throughout the season. The Vikings lost E.J. Henderson in early December. Chicago’s Brian Urlacher made only one start, and Detroit’s Larry Foote couldn’t finish the season.
  • Chicago’s Charles Tillman got the second cornerback spot because he led all NFL defensive backs with six forced fumbles. He’s the best at stripping the ball in the league.
  • At punter, Minnesota’s Chris Kluwe and Chicago’s Brad Maynard were close throughout the season. I gave the nod to Maynard because he had a bit more control over his kicks. He had two touchbacks versus Kluwe’s nine. He also kicked the ball out of bounds 17 times as opposed to Kluwe’s nine. Both statistics are good measures of field position gained.
  • I realize that Minnesota’s Heath Farwell was named to the Pro Bowl as the NFC’s coverage man. He is top-notch, but he’s actually had better seasons. Chicago’s Tim Shaw might have had the best cover season of anyone in the NFL. Among other things, he led the league in special teams tackles and, according to the Bears’ unofficial statistics, was involved in a team-record 30 stops in 15 games.

Bears sign emergency punter

December, 28, 2009
CHICAGO -- With punter Brad Maynard nursing a sore groin, the Bears signed punter Richmond McGee on Monday after an emergency tryout session. Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune has the story.

McGee spent time with the Bears in training camp this summer, but it’s not a lock that he will punt Monday night against Minnesota. The Bears plan to put Maynard through a series of tests during pregame warmups and will use him if they can.

The deadline for signing a replacement is 4 p.m. ET, so with an 8:30 p.m. kickoff, they needed to make a move before Maynard’s workout. They'll need to create a roster spot for McGee regardless. According to the team's Twitter feed, the Bears will place defensive end Adewale Ogunleye on injured reserve.

Black and Blue all over: Cold and fog

December, 27, 2009
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The snow has stopped in Green Bay, and now it’s just cold … and foggy. That’s right. The highly credible temperature gauge here at the Oneida St. Walgreens read 14 degrees at about 9 a.m. this morning. And as I sit in the Lambeau Field press box, the fog is keeping me from seeing much further than the Don Hutson practice center, located about two blocks from where I sit.

Lambeau Field
Kevin Seifert/ESPN.comThe view Sunday morning from the Lambeau Field press box.
The fog is expected to lift as the morning progresses.

Workers were just completing a final snow sweep of the field when I arrived. If you’re going to be in the stands, expect to be sitting among an inch or two of snow. It’ll be a double whammy for the Seahawks, who will not only be playing in nasty conditions but also kicking off at 10 a.m. PT. If you have an hour or two someday, ask my NFC West colleague Mike Sando what he thinks of that arrangement.

Let’s take a quick spin around the division, 50 percent of which won’t play until Monday night: