NFC North: Jonathan Vilma


ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Stephen Tulloch was hopeful Sunday afternoon, even if the early evidence showed otherwise.

Tulloch injured his left knee celebrating a sack of Aaron Rodgers, a player he has faced multiple times in his career and has a tremendous amount of respect for. In doing so, he'll watch the rest of the Detroit Lions' season from the sidelines after injuring the ACL in his left knee.

It'll be the first time Tulloch will miss games in his NFL career and for him, for the Lions, the injury couldn't have come at a worse time. Detroit's defense was starting to show signs of being a really strong unit this season with Tulloch in the middle backing up the defensive line.

The way new Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin was scheming, too, fit Tulloch's game so well. In three games, Tulloch already had two sacks -- inching closer to his career-high of 3.5 set last season. He was able to blitz more than he had in the past and was provided with open rush lanes because of Detroit's defensive front.

He was a major asset next to emerging star DeAndre Levy at linebacker, a consistent player who never got hurt and had five straight seasons of 110-plus tackles in the middle of the Tennessee and Detroit defenses.

Now, with one celebration, his 131-games played streak is over. His 100-plus tackles streak is over. And the Lions have a massive hole to fill in the middle of their defense, a defense that has already had to deal with season-ending injuries to two cornerbacks.

Tulloch can't even know how his body will respond to this because he hasn't been injured on the professional level before. He doesn't know what it is like to watch from the sidelines -- something he was frustrated with even after Detroit's win Sunday.

This is going to be an adjustment for him.

It'll be a shift for the Lions, too.

Detroit coach Jim Caldwell didn't indicate how the team will replace Tulloch in the middle, but the immediate option would seem to be sliding Levy over to the middle to handle setting the defense, something he did after Tulloch's injury Sunday.

Levy is exemplary in his preparation each week, so making that shift shouldn't be a huge deal for him, but it will take some getting used to. Theoretically, though, it might take some coverage responsibilities away from Levy if they made the move. That could be problematic for the Lions because Levy is one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL -- proven again Sunday when he broke up a fourth-down pass in the end zone while covering Green Bay receiver Jordy Nelson.

Another option would be Tahir Whitehead, who backed up Tulloch intermittently during the preseason and spring workouts. Moving him to the middle would allow Levy to stay where he might fit the defense the best and it still keeps the Lions' top two available linebackers on the field.

Ashlee Palmer would then likely slide into Whitehead's spot in Detroit's base 4-3 defense, at least until Kyle Van Noy returns from abdominal surgery.

The third option for the Lions is to try and sign a veteran linebacker off the street, although there aren't a ton of options available. Pat Angerer is a middle linebacker who has experience with Caldwell from their time in Indianapolis together and he was released from Atlanta during the preseason. Former Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma is also a free agent.

Detroit recently signed linebacker Jerrell Harris to its practice squad and released Brandon Hepburn, who landed on Philadelphia's practice squad.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Here's what we know: Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher suffered what initially looked like a catastrophic left knee injury in the 2011 season finale against the Minnesota Vikings. The injury was later announced as sprained medial collateral and posterior collateral ligaments, requiring no surgery.

Urlacher didn't participate in the team's on-field work during the offseason, and when he resumed practicing at the start of training camp, he was wearing a brace on the knee. Now Urlacher has missed four consecutive days because of soreness in the knee, and it's possible he won't play in the Bears' preseason opener against the Denver Broncos.

Here's what we don't know: Are the Bears merely being cautious with a veteran who really doesn't need every practice repetition in camp? Or is this an indication that Urlacher hasn't fully recovered from the original injury and could be limited when the regular season begins?

Coach Lovie Smith didn't seem concerned when speaking with reporters Sunday, and in the short term the Bears can move outside linebacker Nick Roach to Urlacher's spot in the middle. But the Bears don't have anything close to an heir apparent on their roster, as they found out when Urlacher dislocated his wrist and missed 15 games in 2009. Their defense is much different when he is not on the field.

Continuing around the NFC North:
In the union’s continuing attempt to take the bounty appeals decision out from under the auspices of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFLPA has filed a federal lawsuit in the Eastern District of Louisiana. This suit is on behalf of three of the four suspended players -- Scott Fujita, Will Smith and Anthony Hargrove. Jonathan Vilma has asked for similar relief in two lawsuits; the first of which -- his defamation lawsuit against Goodell -- Goodell moved to dismiss Thursday. The following is the essence of Thursday’s filing by the NFLPA:

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Hargrove
Fujita
Fujita
The suit is an application to overturn the suspensions issued by Goodell based on what the NFLPA claims to be inherent and unfair bias by Goodell and all others involved in the process. It states in part: “The investigation and arbitration process that the Commissioner’s public relations machinery touted as 'thorough and fair' has, in reality, been a sham."

Further, the NFLPA argues:
(1) The NFL violated the CBA by refusing to provide the players with access to critical documents or witnesses;
(2) Goodell launched a vast public relations campaign defending the punishments he intended to arbitrate, rendering him incurably and “evidently biased”; and
(3) Goodell lacked proper jurisdiction to rule on this case, as the system arbitrator -- law professor Stephen Burbank -- has exclusive jurisdiction to arbitrate the “pay-for-performance” conduct here.

The latter argument -- that this matter is a cap issue rather than a conduct issue -- was brought before Burbank last month and denied. It currently is on appeal to the NFL appeals panel, a group of three arbitrators still not formally constituted a year after its creation in the new collective bargaining agreement. Now, in addition to the appealing Burbank’s ruling, the union argues Goodell may not seize Burbank’s exclusive jurisdiction merely by labeling the matter "conduct detrimental."

The NFLPA claims it is not asking the court to "second guess" Goodell on the sufficiency of the NFL's evidence; rather, it is asking it to vacate the suspensions based on the "sham process from which it was born."

The suit’s basic argument states: "It becomes more apparent with each passing day … that the NFL’s objective was not to follow the CBA and provide a fair process, but to validate a biased investigation and to deprive the Players of any meaningful ability to defend themselves against a preordained result."

As I have discussed and written about here, my sense is this will be an uphill battle for the players. Goodell’s power over player conduct -- both the NFL and the system arbitrator have determined this to be conduct -- is well-established and secure in the new CBA. The issue of “fairness” is a relative one; it is the court of Goodell, not a court of law. Federal labor policy favors employers and especially employers resolving differences through a collectively bargained agreement rather than going outside that process into a court.

I admire the creativity and persistence of the NFLPA and its increasingly busy legal team -- the enduring theme of football this offseason is billable hours -- but ultimately they are trying to circumvent a process that they agreed to in the swirl of negotiations to achieve other gains in the CBA.

And here come the lawyers.

That's my guess, anyway, now that NFL commissioner has upheld the eight-game suspension of Green Bay Packers defensive end Anthony Hargrove and three other players in the New Orleans Saints bounty case. Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma is already pursuing his legal options, and it wouldn't be surprising if Hargrove joined Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita and/or Saints defensive end Will Smith in considering legal alternatives as well to reverse the suspensions.

I don't think any final decisions about a lawsuit have been made. The NFL Players Association said in a statement that it would consider "all options." But if you look at excerpts of Goodell's appeals letter to the players, you can see the beginnings of a legal strategy on both sides.

*UPDATE: ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that Hargrove, Fujita and Smith plan to file a temporary restraining order next week to have their suspensions lifted, presumably while further legal action takes place. All three players are eligible to participate in training camp and preseason games. Their suspensions aren't scheduled to begin until Week 1 of the regular season.

Goodell noted that none of the players mounted a defense in the appeals process. No one called a witness or testified or asked investigators a question during the hearing, according to Goodell. If any player reconsiders that approach, Goodell said, he would meet with them and consider changes if new facts are brought forth. That falls in line with the league's position that everything within the bounty investigation falls under the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and is not for a court to decide.

The players, however, were in a tough position in the appeals process. If they defended themselves, they would have essentially been acknowledging Goodell's right to judge them in a matter they felt he was unlikely to change his mind on. While counterintuitive, such an attempt would have worked against them should they argue in court that Goodell has overstepped his CBA bounds in this case. Indeed, in its statement, the NFLPA noted it had concerns about the "lack of the jurisdictional authority to impose discipline under the collective bargaining agreement."

We've been through the NFL's flimsy case against Hargrove a number of times. But today's action means it will take a court ruling or a similar development to get him on the field before midway through the 2012 season.
As we noted in the preceding post, the NFL gathered 12 NFL reporters -- including ESPN's Adam Schefter -- to present further evidence of the New Orleans Saints' bounty program. One newsbit has already emerged with interest to NFC North blog readers.

The bounty on Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC Championship Game was at least $35,000; initially the NFL alleged only that linebacker Jonathan Vilma offered $10,000. According to USA Today's Jarrett Bell, those who contributed to the $35,000 pot included Vilma, defensive lineman Charles Grant, current Saints interim coach Joe Vitt and Mike Ornstein, a marketing official with ties to coach Sean Payton.

Favre suffered an ankle injury in the game but did not miss a snap.

I don't have much to add here. We discussed the Favre bounty extensively in the spring. In March, Vikings center John Sullivan and punter Chris Kluwe called for lifetime bans of the Saints players involved. In May, we noted the precarious balance the NFL Players Association faced in defending both the suspended players and those who might have been targets of the bounty program.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Lost in a busy Wednesday of Minnesota Vikings stadium news and Adrian Peterson's impromptu workout was the first public statement from Green Bay Packers defensive end Anthony Hargrove since a declaration he signed about the New Orleans Saints' bounty program was leaked. Here's the full statement:
"I'm disappointed that 'the Declaration' was leaked. The intent of 'the Declaration' was to let the NFL know exactly what happened in March of 2010. Call me naive, but I did not expect them to publicize the fact that I had sent them 'the Declaration.' But since they did, and because they grossly mischaracterized my words, it obviously became a hot item and subsequently was leaked by someone. I do not know who leaked it, but I would have preferred for it to remain private between the NFL and me."

The key words in the statement, as far as I'm concerned, are "grossly mischaracterized." As we have noted, Hargrove revealed in the original declaration only that he was instructed by Saints assistant coaches to deny the existence of a bounty program. The NFL's announcement on Hargrove claimed the declaration "established not only the existence of the program at the Saints, but also that he knew about and participated in it."

I think that leap -- taking an admission of denying existence to mean a confirmation of participation -- is what Hargrove is referring to by "grossly mischaracterized." Hargrove, along with the three other suspended players, are appealing the discipline.

Continuing around the NFC North:
Wow. We all knew that new Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove was a member of the New Orleans Saints during the time when the NFL says the Saints' well-discussed bounty program was in place. But I'm not sure any of us expected Hargrove to receive the second-harshest penalty among Saints players as a result of the investigation.

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But that's the upshot of Hargrove's eight-game suspension, announced Wednesday by the NFL. Only linebacker Jonathan Vilma, whom the NFL says put up a $10,000 bounty on Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC Championship Game, received a longer suspension. Let me pass along two bits of information for you to digest before we start getting into analysis and implications.

First, here is the full NFL statement on Hargrove's role: "Defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove (now with the Green Bay Packers) is suspended without pay for the first eight games of the 2012 regular season. Hargrove actively participated in the program while a member of the Saints. Hargrove submitted a signed declaration to the league that established not only the existence of the program at the Saints, but also that he knew about and participated in it. The evidence showed that Hargrove told at least one player on another team that Vikings quarterback Brett Favre was a target of a large bounty during the NFC Championship Game in January of 2010. Hargrove also actively obstructed the league’s 2010 investigation into the program by being untruthful to investigators."

In March, Hargrove provided us with an extensive statement about his role, or lack thereof, in the bounty program. I've posted it verbatim below. We'll be back in a bit.

ANTHONY HARGROVE STATEMENT FROM MARCH 2012

"First of all, the purpose of this statement is simply to address the comments that have been made about me in the media. I will not address anything to do with anyone else but myself.

"In regards to the hit I made on Brett Favre that has been talked about: it was one of about five times I got to him and the only one that was late. I agree it was a late hit, but in the heat of the moment I was simply trying to make a play. I can assure you that when I got up, I was thinking two things, one, that I cost my team, and two, that I might have just cost myself some money if the NFL fined me.

"To put things in perspective, I received a game ball for my play that day and yet got fined while receiving nothing and expecting to receive nothing for the play some keep referencing. Kudos to Brett, he even asked me if that was all I had! Gotta love him.

"And in regards to my comments that have been talked about where I say that Favre is done, I readily agree that it sounds bad in retrospect. A lot of things look bad when we look back and realize how they sound. Trust me, I've said much, much worse. Heck, I probably say worse every day.

"But did I personally want Favre INJURED? Absolutely and categorically NO! Did I feel like we, the Saints, had a better chance of being in the Super Bowl with Favre on the sideline? Of course. Would the Patriots and their fans have probably been excited to see Eli [Manning] on the bench with his foot up whispering that he was done [in Super Bowl XLVI]? Would players on the sideline have made comments to that effect? Right or wrong, I'm guessing yes.

"Probably every Saints fan, player and coach got an adrenaline rush when thinking Minnesota might be in trouble. I said what many people were probably thinking, though maybe I said it in a way that sounded a bit too excited. Those who know me best know that I lean toward the animated side a bit. Okay, a lot! It's who God made me. I do regret saying it, though.

"I have made many mistakes in my life and have paid dearly for some of them, and the late hit and the comments were both mistakes, in my opinion. But players all over the league do the same thing every Sunday, make late hits and say stupid things. But I can say with absolute certainty that neither the late hit nor the comment have anything whatsoever to do with the issue being so hotly discussed in the media."
We noted Thursday that Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe wants the NFL to ban New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma for life after his reported role in the team's bounty program prior to the 2009 NFC Championship Game. Kluwe is no stranger to bold public statements, but he has now been joined by a far more conservative teammate.

[+] EnlargeBrett Favre
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesVikings center John Sullivan, shown helping QB Brett Favre to his feet in the second half of the NFC title game Jan. 24, 2010, in New Orleans, ripped the Saints for their tactics in that game.
Center John Sullivan, who was a first-year starter on that 2009 team, told KFAN-1130 that he agreed with Kluwe's assessment and also wants to see the NFL penalize two other former Saints: Safety Darren Sharper and defensive end Bobby McCray. In an impassioned but nuanced argument, Sullivan questioned the meat behind the in-season suspension of Saints general manager Mickey Loomis -- "seems like it would be more effective as a punishment during the draft," he said -- and broached the sensitive topic of how the NFL Players Association should proceed.

Most importantly, Sullivan made clear he thinks the Saints were playing to hurt quarterback Brett Favre in that game.

"If you want to offer money to knock somebody out of a game on a clean hit, fine," Sullivan said. "But the guys that went after it in the wrong way, that's the exact opposite of sportsmanship. It's just disgusting. To think that you're going to take money to hit someone illegally and hurt them out of the game, I can't even fathom that somebody would do that."

Sullivan cited a number of instances, starting with McCray's hit on Favre after a second-quarter handoff. McCray was penalized 15 yards and ultimately fined $25,000 by the NFL. He implied that at least one of Sharper's two hits on Favre were illegal and said that, although neither Sharper nor McCray are in the NFL anymore, they can still be disciplined in a meaningful way.

"I really think if you go back and look at that game, anybody who took a shot at Brett illegally and you can see with the intention of trying to injury him [should be banned]," Sullivan said. "And the big two that come to mind are Sharper and Bobby McCray. They've got to do something to those guys, too, whether it's no Hall of Fame [or] you're not allowed to be associated with the NFL anymore. I have a hard time talking about it. It just disgusts me that you would go out there and try to hurt somebody and take away their livelihood. It' s just gross."

The NFL's investigation has dredged up some obvious animosity from Vikings players who participated in the game. We know now that team officials complained to the league days after the game, and whether or not there was a bounty, there has obviously been a feeling for some time that the Saints crossed the line many times. McCray grabbed Favre's ankle during a high-low hit that caused both an interception and an injury, and defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove was also called for a 15-yard penalty following a hit on Favre.

(Hargrove has denied his hit was motivated by a bounty).

Clearly, those who remain from that game are repulsed by the backdrop of the Saints' bounty system. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is working with the NFL Players Association to determine a punishment for the players involved, and Sullivan threw down the gauntlet Friday should union officials be conflicted.

"As a union member, I'll be very upset if we come to the defense of these acts," he said. "They're indefensible. You can't defend them. It's despicable, has no place in the sport."

Will the strong sentiments of Sullivan and Kluwe sway Goodell one way or the other? It's doubtful. But this unprecedented story has brought us a rarely, if ever, seen development: Multiple NFL players calling for the ouster from their brethren. Strange days indeed.

Draft Watch: NFC North

April, 7, 2011
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: history in that spot.

Chicago Bears

The Bears' top pick is No. 29 overall. Here are the past seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: Cornerback Kyle Wilson (New York Jets)

2009: Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (New York Giants)

2008: Defensive end Kentwan Balmer (San Francisco 49ers)

2007: Offensive guard Ben Grubbs (Baltimore Ravens)

2006: Center Nick Mangold (New York Jets)

2005: Defensive back Marlin Jackson (Indianapolis Colts)

2004: Wide receiver Michael Jenkins (Atlanta Falcons)

ANALYSIS: The bottom of the first round is a great place to find starting-caliber guards and centers. The top tackles are usually off the board. Fortunately for the Bears, they could use a guard or center just as much as a tackle. While coach Lovie Smith wants to bring back veteran center Olin Kreutz, a free agent, he will have to be replaced someday. And more depth at guard could allow the Bears to move 2008 first-round draft pick Chris Williams back to left tackle.

Detroit Lions

The Lions' top pick is No. 13 overall. Here are the past seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: Defensive end Brandon Graham (Philadelphia Eagles)

2009: Defensive end Brian Orakpo (Washington Redskins)

2008: Running back Jonathan Stewart (Carolina Panthers)

2007: Defensive lineman Adam Carriker (St. Louis Rams)

2006: Linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (Cleveland Browns)

2005: Offensive lineman Jammal Brown (New Orleans Saints)

2004: Receiver Lee Evans (Buffalo Bills)

ANALYSIS: Unfortunately for the Lions, this isn't a great spot to get an elite cornerback. Those types of players are usually drafted in the top seven or eight picks. (The Lions are hoping that Nebraska's Prince Amukamara somehow slips through the cracks.) This is a nice area to draft a second-tier defensive lineman, and this year, the Lions will probably have their pick of offensive tackles as well.

Green Bay Packers

The Packers' top pick is No. 32 overall. Here are the past seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: Cornerback Patrick Robinson (New Orleans Saints)

2009: Defensive tackle Ziggy Hood (Pittsburgh Steelers)

2008: Defensive end Phillip Merling (Miami Dolphins)*

2007: Receiver Anthony Gonzalez (Indianapolis Colts)

2006: Defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka (New York Giants)

2005: Offensive guard Logan Mankins (New England Patriots)

2004: Tight end Benjamin Watson (New England Patriots)

*First pick of second round.

ANALYSIS: There are some awfully productive players on this list. Part of the reason is that the previous year's most successful organization was in that spot and thus was more likely to make a good scouting decision. But it also tells us the Packers should have an opportunity to select a player who can make an immediate impact as long as they don't limit themselves to certain positions.

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings' top pick is No. 12 overall. Here are the past seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: Running back Ryan Mathews (San Diego Chargers)

2009: Running back Knowshon Moreno (Denver Broncos)

2008: Offensive tackle Ryan Clady (Denver Broncos)

2007: Running back Marshawn Lynch (Buffalo Bills)

2006: Defensive lineman Haloti Ngata (Baltimore Ravens)

2005: Linebacker Shawne Merriman (San Diego Chargers)

2004: Linebacker Jonathan Vilma (New York Jets)

ANALYSIS: This list tells us what we knew already: You can get a blue-chip, impact player here if you exercise good judgment. The Vikings' decision, of course, will be complicated by their need for a quarterback. What will they do if they have, say, a potentially elite pass-rusher like North Carolina's Robert Quinn available to them? Take Quinn and look for a quarterback later? Or prioritize the quarterback?
Mercifully, none of us have felt compelled to spend much time with Sunday's abomination of a Pro Bowl. But in response to a few of your questions, I do want to address why Minnesota Vikings linebacker E.J. Henderson was on the sideline but did not play in the NFC's 55-41 "victory."

Henderson, as you might recall, was added to the NFC roster late Thursday as a replacement for New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who withdrew because of personal reasons. But as Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune first reported, the NFL ran into an uncomfortable situation when Vilma came back and said he could play after all.

Vilma started and had two tackles. With roster limits in place, however, the NFL ultimately "deactivated" Henderson for the game. He will be paid the winner's share of $45,000. None of that should take away from the fact that Henderson make a remarkable comeback last season from a devastating leg injury. But this was a by-product of the deterioration of the Pro Bowl. With so many players withdrawing or otherwise unable to play, the NFL ended up with some crossed wires and one too many players in Hawaii.

And now, back to the real games ...

Minnesota's offense needs work -- now

September, 10, 2010
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Brett FavreDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireBrett Favre completed just four passes to his wide receivers in the 14-9 loss to New Orleans.
NEW ORLEANS -- For followers of the Minnesota Vikings, Thursday night was a litmus test. Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Do you see potential and get excited? Or do you see too many loose ends and wonder if the magic is gone?

That's the fence I'm sitting on after the Vikings' 14-9 loss to the New Orleans Saints. Being the cynic I like to be, much of me wants to spew what seems to be obvious: The Vikings' once-explosive offense appeared neutered and in many ways out of synch in what turned out to be a highly winnable game at the Superdome.

After all, before Thursday night, the Saints had never scored so few points in a victory under coach Sean Payton. The output was testament to what was a powerful and inspiring performance by the Vikings' defense. Had the Vikings approached anything close to their 2009 offensive production, they could have won Thursday night in a rout. But what we saw should be concerning to anyone who fears a season-crushing slow start by an offense that spent the summer in flux.

Quarterback Brett Favre uncharacteristically missed open receivers Greg Lewis and Percy Harvin on key third-down plays in the second half. Erstwhile No. 1 receiver Bernard Berrian appeared blanketed by a surprise Cover 2 scheme and finished with a single 3-yard catch. Tailback Adrian Peterson ran for 87 bruising yards but never busted anything longer than 14.

In all, the Vikings went three-and-out on five of their 10 possessions. They managed only three plays of longer than 15 yards. Their 253 yards and 12 first downs would have qualified as their second-worst outing last season.

Favre insisted the offense "can be really good this year," but he didn't dispute my primary point. While they offered some glimpses of elite play, the Vikings aren't yet good enough to face a schedule that includes matchups against the Saints, Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets before the middle of October.

"I can't say we're hitting on all cylinders like we did in the NFC Championship Game," Favre said. "I'd be lying if I said that. People can attribute that to whatever they want. They can call it rusty. People are going to have their own opinions. I know we're better than what we showed. ... If we were not any good, it would be obvious."

I don't dispute the Vikings can be better than they were Thursday night. But if you're a pessimist, this was your fear all along. You wondered if Favre's late arrival, combined with Harvin's bout with migraines and Sidney Rice's hip surgery, would conspire to stymie the offense. A few more outings like Thursday night's could bury this team before the NFC North race even starts.

I didn't see an incompetent offense Thursday night, but it was definitely still under construction. The Vikings got away with a transition phase in 2009, taking care of inferior opponents in Cleveland and Detroit. But this year, they might not have that luxury.

"I missed on some of those throws," said Favre, who completed 15 of 27 passes for 171 yards. "Everything felt fine, but I just threw it a little bit behind a couple of times. The reads that I made or didn't make, you can say in a couple of weeks that will come back or whatever. But this first game means a lot. You have to be ready for the first game. I came in as prepared as I could be. It's obvious we can get a lot better. It's obvious."

On top of their own struggles, the Vikings seemed thrown for a loop by the Saints' decision to limit their normal pressure packages and play a zone Cover 2 defense. Favre estimated the Saints used their maximum blitz package on "two or three plays, tops" and Berrian said the zone defense appeared "way more than anticipated."

"Their defense disrupted our timing a little bit," Berrian said. "I just think the looks that they gave us, we really couldn't adjust to them. I thought they would definitely blitz a lot more in this game."

Said coach Brad Childress: "I have to take my hat off to them. It was set up as a big blitz game. The blitz was very, very infrequent. So they did a nice job with that. There were not a lot of throws to be made far down the field."

Remember, the Vikings morphed into a passing offense last season because teams were ganging up on Peterson and the running game. That means they should have been able to run the ball more effectively and explosively Thursday night. But in a close game, the Vikings still threw more times (27) than they ran (23).

"Probably in some instances we can be a little bit more patient," Childress said. "We like to be able to run the ball."

More than anything, the Vikings don't look like they know what they want to be offensively. Peterson was a workhorse Thursday night, but he really didn't impact the game despite some favorable defensive fronts. Ultimately, I think the Vikings must find some combination in the passing game to find their explosive offensive plays. Thursday night, Favre found tight end Visanthe Shiancoe for consecutive passes of 33 and 20 yards to take a 9-7 halftime lead, but Shiancoe had only two passes thrown his way thereafter and didn't catch a pass in the second half.

Childress suggested that Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma was holding Shiancoe for much of the game -- "When he didn't maul him, [Shiancoe] ran down the middle for a touchdown," Childress said -- but more generally, what I saw was an offense still finding its way.

That's how the Vikings' offensive development played out after Favre's late 2009 arrival, and it wasn't unexpected this season. But I'm not sure if the Vikings can get away with it for a second consecutive year.

"This is nothing we're going to panic on or get distraught on," Shiancoe said.

I would agree -- if the Vikings had more margin for error. This year, they might not have it.video

Adjusting the Saints defense

February, 2, 2010
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MIAMI -- There’s been plenty of discussion about Minnesota’s penalty for 12 men on the field near the end of regulation in the NFC Championship Game. But the intrigue extended to the next play, where New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter's interception ended the Vikings’ chance of breaking the tie before overtime.

The interception came only after a last-second adjustment by the Saints defense. Hall of Fame safety Rod Woodson -- appearing Tuesday at Super Bowl media day as part of the NFL Network contingent -- picked it up right away.

“If you go back and look at that play, you see [Saints linebacker Jonathan] Vilma make a check to bring Porter to the other side,” Woodson said. “And what happens? Porter gets the pick.”

Indeed, the Saints changed from a man-to-man to a cover-2 look that proved advantageous on the play. Coach Brad Childress said last month that Favre’s first read was receiver Bernard Berrian, but the coverage dictated he move to his third read, which was Rice.

Woodson made the observation as a way to illustrate how Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has empowered his players to make on-field adjustments.

“That’s the sign of a great defensive coordinator,” Woodson said. “He’s not going to limit what his players can do. He allows his players to make plays for him.”

Dirty Laundry: Pereira analyzes calls

January, 28, 2010
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At the risk of opening old wounds, I’d like to bring you the NFL’s response to several key officiating calls in Minnesota’s 31-28 loss at New Orleans in the NFC Championship Game.

[+] EnlargeBrett Favre
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyA penalty for hitting Brett Favre below the knees would have nullified a Saints interception.
Appearing Wednesday night on both the NFL Network and NFL.com, vice president of officiating Mike Pereira admitted there should have been a 15-yard penalty on the third-quarter play where Vikings quarterback Brett Favre suffered a left ankle injury. We questioned the no-call on Monday, and Pereira said: “We just missed it.”

On the play, Saints defensive end Bobby McCray hit Favre in what Pereira called “pretty much a direct shot into the back of the legs.” That contact violated an NFL rule prohibiting low hits on quarterbacks.

“It’s the type of hit that we don’t want,” Pereira said, “… because clearly we’re trying to protect the knees and we need to focus on this to make sure we don’t miss [them].”

Had the penalty been called, Jonathan Vilma's interception would have been nullified and the Vikings would have re-gained possession with a first down at the Saints’ 19-yard line.

Pereira was less direct about two instances involving instant replay during overtime, both of which went in the Saints’ favor. I agree that both fell in a gray area, as Pereira explained.

On the first, a 9-yard reception by receiver Devery Henderson, Pereira admitted the ball touched the ground. “But the issue is not whether it hit the ground or not,” he said. “The issue is whether he had control [of the ball before and after it hit the ground]” On that question, Pereira agreed with referee Peter Morelli: Replays didn’t show enough to reverse the original call.

“I think if we had called it incomplete on the field,” Pereira said, “it stays incomplete” after a review.

The same premise applied to the next play, Pierre Thomas's 2-yard run on fourth-and-1. There has been some discussion about where Thomas’ forward progress should have been marked, especially after Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway appeared to have knocked the ball loose.

“One of those situations where it’s so hard to tell [on replay]” Pereira said. “Did he lose possession? Hard to say. Was he short of the line to gain? Equally hard to say.”

If Pereira addressed a third controversial call in overtime, a 12-yard pass interference penalty against Vikings linebacker Ben Leber, I didn’t see it.

I know these comments won’t satisfy everyone. NFC North readers react more emotionally to officiating than just about any other topic, and that’s why we tried to address it weekly through our Dirty Laundry feature.

In the end, of course, there is nothing you can do about erroneous calls -- admitted or otherwise -- after the game is over. Officiating imperfection is part of sports at all levels, and ultimately -- although unscientifically -- I believe they even out over time. If anything, I give Pereira credit for speaking to some of the bigger questions on a weekly basis.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Chicago nabbed a small victory of sorts Saturday night, as Baltimore pulled out a 33-24 victory over Dallas.

That result kept alive the Bears' long odds of clinching an NFC wild-card berth. But from what I can tell, the Bears will either be eliminated Sunday from the wild-card chase or the NFC North division race. UPDATE: Technically, the Bears will NOT be eliminated from the wild-card by a Falcons victory in itself. There are a couple of scenarios in which they could remain alive. 

In order to remain in contention for the division title, the Bears need Atlanta to defeat Minnesota at the Metrodome. But a Falcons LOSS is one of several scenarios the Bears might need to stay in the wild-card race. In wild-card terms, they also need:

  • A Tampa Bay loss to San Diego at home.
  • A Philadelphia loss at Washington.

To secure a wild-card berth, the Bears would also need to win their final two games and get losses from the Buccaneers, Cowboys and Falcons next week as well.

So, as everyone has pointed out all along, the Bears' best postseason chance remains overtaking the Vikings for the division title. If you're a Bears fan Sunday, you're saying, "GO FALCONS."

Continuing our morning dance around the division:

  • Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times takes a broad look at how the Bears found themselves needing so much hope to get into the playoffs. One reason: Three come-from-ahead losses to NFC South powerhouses Carolina, Tampa Bay and Atlanta.
  • New Green Bay punter Jeremy Kapinos has been briefed on the troubles encountered by former Packers punter Jon Ryan last season at Soldier Field, writes Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Packers offensive lineman Daryn Colledge on his feelings toward quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre: "We're all more emotionally involved with Aaron than we were with Brett. The fact is, Aaron's a friend. I think I'm more emotionally invested in our relationship than I ever was with Brett." Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal asked the question.
  • Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press picks the Lions to upset New Orleans at Ford Field.
  • The Lions wanted to acquire free agent linebacker Jonathan Vilma during the offseason, writes John Niyo of the Detroit News. But the Saints beat them to it.

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