NFC North: Matt Birk
As we subsequently noted, animosity between the two largely cooled in the eight years since they were teammates. Sunday night, Birk told reporters that winning a championship in his 15th season was "unreal at this point" and said he hoped that some Vikings fans would find joy in the moment.
"I'm a Minnesotan," said Birk, a St. Paul native. "I grew up with the Vikings and was blessed to have played for them for 11 years. I hope I'm still in the Viking family. I want to be. I do hope being from Minnesota. I hope they take some pride in this and I hope they share this."
Birk, 36, said he hasn't decided whether he will retire. Moss, 35, has said he wants to play in 2013 but he is a pending free agent.
If Moss spoke to the media, there is no immediate record of it; the NFL didn't post quotes from him on its extensive media website. Moss, of course, had created one of the top storylines of the week by declaring himself the best receiver in NFL history, but his two-catch performance didn't do much to support that claim.
In fact, Moss displayed on a national stage the kind of nonchalant body language that has so often generated criticism in his career, the kind that falls short of loafing but doesn't appear from the outside to exemplify maximum effort. The most glaring example came on Ravens safety Ed Reed's second-quarter interception on a ball that quarterback Colin Kaepernick sailed far over Moss' head.
Moss had no chance to catch the ball, but his failure to so much as raise his arms for it drew the ire of former NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski --- and to a lesser extent Dwight Clark -- during a postgame analysis on Comcast Sports Net in the Bay Area.
The video is here. Romanowski said: "What happened is Randy Moss, he alligator-armed it. He didn't go up for the ball. He said he was the best receiver in the damn world. OK, you hear me? Oh god, that [ticks] me off. … You're playing in the Super Bowl, guys. The Super Bowl!"
Clark countered: "He didn't alligator-arm it. He didn't even reach for it. … He watched it sail over his head… Yes it was high … but make some kind of movement toward the ball. Get your hands in front the defender's eyes or something. Maybe he drops it. I saw the same thing."
To be fair, Romanowski and Clark have personal ties to the 49ers and were no doubt emotionally impacted by the loss. And those of us who have seen large portions of Moss' career have seen similar instances before. To bend over backwards to be fair, we should note that reaching for the ball almost certainly would have been wasted energy.
Any one play along those lines is understandable. But a career's worth of decisions not to waste energy creates an indelible storyline. And you could argue that in the winner-take-all Super Bowl, no effort is wasted. If Moss had a 1 percent chance to disrupting Reed's line of sight, it would have been worth a jump with out-stretched arms. Take that for what it's worth.
Sando spent time Tuesday with Moss during the San Francisco 49ers' turn at media day and with Birk once the Baltimore Ravens took the stage. Their personal differences hit their apex eight years ago, and so it's not surprising that both appear to have moved on.
"I don't really want to get into that," Moss said. "Matt Birk is his own player. He does what he does. I'm my own player. I do what I do. I don't know where he stands but me and Matt Birk came in [to the league] together. I still have respect for him as a player and I'm glad to see he's here playing in his first Super Bowl."
Many 49ers players have lauded Moss for his leadership this season, a topic Sando asked Birk about given their histories.
"Randy had a couple incidents that were public when I was with him in Minnesota," Birk said. "But behind the scenes, in the locker room, he was a great teammate. He was a lot of fun. He worked extremely hard. He was a great competitor and he performed at a very high level. All those things make for a good leader. I'm sure that being his teammate you have a different perspective than the public on the outside. Most of our time together, it was pretty good."
So there you go….
The Detroit Lions' decision to hire respected veteran coach Jim Washburn, confirmed this week by coach Jim Schwartz, is a creative way to adjust their defensive coaching staff without firing anyone.
The Lions have replaced three offensive assistants, all of whose contracts had expired. They retained defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham and his staff, but Washburn will take on an unspecified role that will include partnering with current defensive line coach Kris Kocurek.
"The more eyes on those guys the better," Schwartz told reporters Wednesday, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. "That can help with technique, that can help with scheme, it can help with the game plan, it can help with game day. There's a lot of positives there. He's very familiar with our scheme. He's had a lot of production."
Washburn, 63, has been an NFL defensive line coach for 14 seasons and coached Kocurek when both were with the Tennessee Titans. Washburn's role with the Lions is relatively unique on NFL coaching staffs, but in the end the Lions added a good coach without rocking the boat.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Schwartz said that receiver Titus Young's rant on Twitter earlier this week was "a pretty good example of a not-so-good idea." Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News has more.
- Schwartz isn't worried about defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh's participation in a celebrity diving television show, notes Justin Rogers of Mlive.com. Schwartz: "Celebrity ice skating, that might be a little bit different. A lot of players did that celebrity dancing thing, even a big man like Warren Sapp. There's a high incidence of injury in all those things -- cheerleading, dancing -- a lot of foot injuries and stuff like that, but I don't think we have a lot to worry about with celebrity diving."
- Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel examines the Green Bay Packers' salary-cap situation.
- It's not clear which of the Packers' 2012 running backs will return in 2013, writes Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- Former NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski, who played for new Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman when both were with the Oakland Raiders, thinks Trestman can earn the Bears' respect by improving quarterback Jay Cutler. More from ESPNChicago.com.
- Bears offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Aaron Kromer has shown a knack for improving offensive linemen, writes Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times.
- Offensive lineman prospects look good at the Senior Bowl, reports Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune.
- Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune speaks with Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk, a former Minnesota Vikings player and St. Paul native, about reaching the Super Bowl.
In 1998, the Vikings drafted receiver Randy Moss (No. 21 overall) and center Matt Birk (No. 173). In 2004, their differences surfaced publicly and helped explain the Vikings' decision to trade Moss to the Oakland Raiders. Eight years later, one of them will be a first-time Super Bowl champion.
The last documented time they spoke was in the visitor's locker room at FedEx Field on Jan. 2, 2005. Frustrated with an impending loss to the Washington Redskins, one that left the Vikings needing help to back into the playoffs, Moss stalked off the field with two seconds remaining as the Vikings lined up for an onside kick. Enraged, Birk confronted Moss in the locker room.
In interviews later, Birk said his tirade could be repeated only with "a lot of bleeps" and made clear: "I didn't like it. I made sure to get to the locker room quick to talk to him about it. And hopefully, it won't happen again."
It never did, but that was because Moss had only two games remaining in his first stint with the franchise. About an hour after the Vikings were knocked out of the playoffs by the Philadelphia Eagles, a few reporters were loitering in the Vikings' locker room. Birk approached Moss and said, "Do you have a minute?" Moss looked away, put his headphones over his ears and walked out of the locker room.
"Guess not," Birk said.
A few months later, then-owner Red McCombs ordered Moss traded. That day, I spoke with Birk about the move. He agreed it would be difficult to replace Moss' play-making skills but hoped the locker room would be less chaotic. Birk had heard enough from Moss' caretakers, who believed he would mature over time, and as we spoke, he quoted a line from a magazine he was reading:
"You can stroke a dog's ear the wrong way all you want, but ultimately it just goes back to the way it was meant to be."
I asked Birk if Moss was the "dog" in that quote. He said he had just happened to see it as we spoke. Birk is a Harvard graduate and not prone to random thoughts, so I guess we can all draw our own conclusions on that one.
Look, I don't think the Moss-Birk storyline will rank among the top 10 that reporters pursue in the next two weeks. It shouldn't be. The Vikings didn't trade Randy Moss because of Matt Birk. More simply, Birk was a public representative of those in the organization who had grown weary of his act. And by all accounts, Moss has toned down his act considerably with the 49ers.
Frankly, what's most notable about their inclusion in Super Bowl XLVII is that both are still in the league at all.
Moss, 35, was out of the game last year before returning in a part-time role with the 49ers. Birk, 36, seemed to be taking years off his career as he played with multiple sports hernias that forced surgery on both hips. He missed four starts in 2004 and all of 2005 as a result, but he has started 112 consecutive regular-season games since.
I'm guessing that bygones are bygones for this pair. Their histories, however, will provide a layer to the Super Bowl that's worth noting. And so we have.
Our job is to figure out where to place the Chicago Bears' ostensible competition at left tackle, a position important enough to scuttle the Bears' Super Bowl hopes if they make a bad decision. J'Marcus Webb opened the Bears' first training camp practice with the first team, and my strong impression after spending some time here Thursday is that he is the favorite for the job.
Offensive coordinator Mike Tice strongly disputed that notion after practice, saying that Webb and Chris Williams will split time with the first team throughout training camp. Tice said it will be a "dogfight" and added: "I'm not going to put up with any crap from those two guys as far as turning guys free and having them hit the quarterback."
If I had to guess, I would say Williams' role in this competition is to ensure Webb does not take the position for granted. Tice didn't tell me that or even hint at it, but it's worth noting what he said when I asked him why he is working so closely with the offensive line even in his new role.
After spending two years as the Bears' offensive line coach, Tice said: "I've always been under the impression that the third year is the key year for an offensive lineman. If you look at it … Lance Louis in his third year. [Louis did not play in his rookie year of 2009.] J'Marcus Webb is in his third year. All of a sudden you've got these guys that should blossom, if we've done it right and we are right. I want to be a part of that."
Webb won't start at left tackle if he makes the volume of mistakes he did in 2011, whether it was 15 accepted penalties or a series of mental errors that led to sacks. But sometimes the threat of losing a job, real or perceived, is all that's required to level out a player's performance.
If things go the way the Bears seemingly envision it, Webb will respond positively to the competition and become a long-term building block of the Bears' offense.
"No pressure, right?" Webb said, laughing. "It's definitely a big year. It'll be my third year, and my third year with coach Tice. We're definitely looking forward to it."
I won't try to evaluate how Webb performed Thursday, especially on a day when players where wearing shorts and the entire offense was shaking off a clear layer of offseason rust. It might not be Webb's job to lose, but I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he were the starter when the Bears open the season Sept. 9 against the Indianapolis Colts.
You might think I've mis-categorized this competition. I suppose you could argue that having two presumably evenly-matched left tackles, one of the game's most difficult positions, means the Bears don't have anyone who could be an effective starter.
I can't rule out the possibility. The Bears can't afford for that to be the case, not after standing pat at the position this offseason. But there was a reason they didn't acquire a left tackle. Webb is their guy. I think.
On the morning of Super Bowl XLVI, someone finally got around to asking NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about the quality of the Jan. 29 Pro Bowl, which Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers brought attention to by saying that some players "embarrassed themselves" with their lack of effort.
Goodell told ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" that he was also upset about how the game was played. Goodell said the Pro Bowl will either be improved, the structure changed or the game eliminated all together.
Goodell: "I really didn't think that was the kind of football that we want to be demonstrating for our fans. And you heard it from the fans. The fans were actively booing in the stands. They didn't like what they were seeing. … We're either going to have to improve the quality of what we're doing in the Pro Bowl or consider other changes or even considering eliminating the game if that's the kind of quality game we're going to provide."
The NFL Players Association issued a statement in support of maintaining the Pro Bowl, which brings winning players an additional $50,000 and losers $25,000. But I'll be interested to see if the NFL can find a way to convince players to go harder in a meaningless all-star game, or if they will eliminate the game and replace it with something interesting but less dangerous. Regardless, kudos to Goodell for acknowledging a disappointing but obvious development.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Michael Hunt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Rodgers' MVP Award: "The only troubling thing is how Rodgers ended his season. He not only struggled against the Giants' pass rush, he looked as bad and unsure as he did during his earlier days as [Brett] Favre's understudy. Whether that one game was an anomaly or a preview of things to come when a season is on the line for the Packers is a question that still needs to be answered."
- The Minnesota Vikings are continuing to work on a plan to build a stadium next door to the Metrodome to prevent the need for a three-year stay at TCF Bank Stadium, according to Mike Kaszuba of the Star Tribune.
- Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com concludes his postseason grades for the Vikings.
- Re-signing receiver Calvin Johnson is going to be tricky for the Detroit Lions, writes Chris McCosky of the Detroit News.
- The Lions could be competing in the Super Bowl next season, according to Philip Zaroo of Mlive.com.
- The Super Bowl wasn't the same for President Barack Obama without the Chicago Bears in it, according to a tweet to Obama's official Twitter page.
- Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk beat out Bears cornerback Charles Tillman for the NFL Man of the Year Award. More from AFC North colleague Jamison Hensley.
Urlacher added a star element to the story, which mostly focused on long-term health issues that could result from repeated Toradol use. But whenever the pain-killer issue arises publicly, I'm always surprised by reactions that illustrate how many fans don't realize (or ignore) how routine the use of pain-killers are in the NFL.
Here's how Detroit Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy reacted on Twitter: "*gasp* Urlacher gets injections of Toradol before every game?! HBO sports is really breaking ground. Sometimes I forget how little people on the 'outside' actually know what goes on in this profession."
HBO's "Real Sports" story was important because it advanced the story of long-term Toradol side affects. Hopefully it also raises awareness in public about the measures players take to stay on the field in a violent game. Players have discussed these issues publicly before, but I'm pretty sure it's an out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing for many of us. I'm not sure how many people are willing to accept how often the game they love watching is supported not just by raw toughness but also by chemically masking agents.
I recall, for instance, then-Minnesota Vikings center Matt Birk acknowledging he took several pain-killing injections during the 2004 season to push through 12 games with a painful sports hernia injury that eventually required surgery and contributed to a torn hip labrum that cost him the 2005 season.
You might think a pain-killer is no big deal. But you should understand that pain is our body's natural warning sign to pull back and give injuries time to heal. Pain-killers override that instinct but run counter to the body's healing process.
In the video below, former NFL players Damien Woody and Jerome Bettis acknowledge the use of pain-killers is prevalent because players want to be on the field for their teammates. But I would suggest there is also an economic element in play as well.
There is a saying in the NFL that you "can't make the club in a tub." Players know their financial future depends on their ability to answer the bell and stay on the field -- by any (legal) means necessary.
Topping the list was a surprising number of you who thought the Detroit Lions operated from miscalculated priorities during the draft. We also hit the Minnesota Vikings' quarterback situation, the Chicago Bears' plans for their offensive line and the Green Bay Packers' future returner.
We'll move through the issues one team at a time, adding a few extra smart-aleck comments and commentaries along the way.
Everyone loves the Lions pick of [Nick[ Fairley in the first round. I don't. [Anthony] Castonzo and [Prince] Amukamara were still on the board. The Lions won't be able to afford to pay both [Ndamukong] Suh and Fairley in a few years. I think they blew it. Am I way off base?
Kevin Seifert (2:03 PM)
Well, I wouldn't assume they wouldn't be able to pay both of those guys. Even if there is a cap at that point, your management of it is strategic. You put your money in your priorities. The Lions have clearly prioritized their defensive line. And regardless, they should have at least four years of both guys signed to their rookie deals. Four years is about as far ahead as anyone in the NFL looks. I'm fine with them passing on Castonzo and Amukamara as long as they continue to address their needs in free agency. But I do agree it's a risk.
Andy (Arlington, VA)
Kev, Detroit is getting way too much love for their draft. They took their best position on defense, and bolstered it. They left their dreadful LB corps and secondary intact. I realize media types get all drooly thinking about Suh and Fairley together, but don't you think Mike McCarthy might have an idea how to gameplan that?
Kevin Seifert (2:26 PM)
Well, it's hard to gameplan to get around two monsters in the middle. That's why they're so valuable. They're the closest to the quarterback and the first opportunity to disrupt the play.
Further comment: At some point, the Lions are going to have to address an offensive line that has a 33-year-old left tackle in Jeff Backus and a 32-year-old center in Dominic Raiola. But it's clear the Lions' consternation doesn't equal that of some fans. As for cornerback, the Lions might be prepared to make a significant financial investment in free agency. Don't forget they were willing, according to reports, to give up first-, second- and fourth-round draft picks to trade up for LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson.
The Vikings have taken a lot of heat for there first round pick. I am old school and Bud Grant once told me the closer the player is to the ball the smarter he has to be, center and quarterback is what he is talking about and if you look a Matt Birk and some of the elite quarterbacks they are a lot smarter then they are physical specimens. If you buy into that in which I do ( think we may have the steal of the draft. What am I missing?
Kevin Seifert (2:16 PM)
Well, Ponder has the first part taken care of. There's no doubt he's a book-smart kid. He'll be able to learn the plays and know the reads without a doubt. But does that mean he can play? Two different issues. A smart quarterback can still get rattled in the pocket and can still make poor decisions. Difference between smarts and instincts.
Elliot (Toronto, ON)
Kevin, you may be no [Rick] Spielman, but if you were, would you have traded the 2nd-round pick to Dallas to get Blaine Gabbert? Getting [Kyle] Rudolph was important, but who'd you rather have, him and Ponder or Gabbert?
Kevin Seifert (2:24 PM)
I would have looked at it this way: Is the difference between Gabbert and Ponder worth a second-round pick? I think that's questionable. But if I felt it were, absolutely I would have done it. Drafting a quarterback in the first round should be a once-in-decade thing. You should do everything you need to do to get it right.
Further comment: Ponder's intelligence is particularly important when you realize he'll be asked to absorb the Vikings' playbook after little to no offseason work and, the team hopes, win the starting job out of training camp. As for whether Gabbert is a second-round pick better than Ponder, I think that's questionable at best.
What do you think of [Gabe] Carimi? Does he hold down LT for ten years or will he be shifted over to RT as a nasty run blocker?
Kevin Seifert (2:45 PM)
I'm thinking right tackle, especially this season. But it's incumbent on them finding someone to play left tackle. I wonder if that will be J'Marcus Webb.
I read a draft analysis on Yahoo! that said Carimi is overrated... thoughts?
Kevin Seifert (2:28 PM)
As always, it depends on who you talk to. Seems like a mean, tough guy. The Bears could use some more of that, even if he ends up on right tackle. Other than Olin Kreutz, a lot of the linemen they played last year were pretty passive.
Further comment: When people say Carimi is a "Mike Tice" kind of offensive lineman, referring to the Bears' offensive line coach, they mean he is a blue-collar mountain mover who is strong enough to overpower opponents and thick-skinned enough to absorb Tice's barbs constructively. If he is who we think he is, Carimi will help set an important attitude tone for this line.
Green Bay Packers
Does Randall Cobb instantly become the Packers best option to return punts and Kicks?
Kevin Seifert (2:49 PM)
I would think so, yes. Let's get Tramon Williams as far away from punt returns as possible.
Further comment: The question isn't whether Cobb becomes the Packers' returner. It's the extent to which McCarthy can find an immediate role for him in the offense. Cobb has the potential to be a game-changer.
Peter (Atlanta, GA)
Is Rashard Mendenhall the dumbest athlete on the planet right now?
Kevin Seifert (2:46 PM)
I would say yes. Resoundingly.
Further comment: Is any necessary? More than an intelligence issue, Mendenhall has a judgment issue. Free speech is great. Factual distortion, on the other hand, is not guaranteed by the First Amendment.
His message to players that week emphasized the need to toughen up and push through their struggles by getting back to the fundamentals of football. That’s what they needed, Tice said, to win a game in Chicago. Tice repeated that message in every media interview he did, famously calling Chicago a “tough-guy town” that needed to be met strength-on-strength. He made no secret of his intention to run the ball down the throat of the Bears’ defense.
Tice is 6-foot-8, has a deep voice and once told me that his “size-14 foot” would play a big role in player discipline. He always advocated the power running game, but it wasn’t clear if his gameplan was based on a schematic philosophy or the otherwise irrelevant history of the city his team was scheduled to play in. Smith ran for 148 yards in the game, but the Bears still won, 13-10 -- in part because the approach shortened the game for the Vikings’ mistake-prone offense, leaving them fewer possessions to score.
Tice soon realized the irrational nature of his game plan, however, and admitted it through a self-deprecating set of appearances on the Vikings’ radio flagship. He recorded himself saying the names of most cities in Minnesota, and the station edited those names in front of his “tough-guy” quote. Throughout the offseason and the following summer, you could hear Tice saying:
“Minneapolis? Tough-guy town.”
“St. Cloud? Tough-guy town.”
“Stillwater? Tough-guy town.”
To be clear, Tice was an emotional, tough-nosed advocate of power running who was always willing to admit and laugh at his mistakes. But make no mistake about this: He is a perfect offensive line coach for the Bears under Lovie Smith.
Before he was the Vikings’ head coach, Tice was their excellent offensive line coach. He played a big role in the Pro Bowl status of center Matt Birk and right tackle Korey Stringer. Have you ever seen a center wave one of his hands to make a last-second line call? Tice developed that approach, and it’s now copied around the league.
I have no doubt he’ll continue Chris Williams’ development and that he’ll find a position and approach that will make Frank Omiyale a serviceable player. Although the Bears still don’t have an offensive coordinator, they got better Friday by adding Tice.
The tough-guy coach finally landed in the tough-guy town. Just don’t tell him that.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert
We spent plenty of time last week discussing the issue of how long Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers holds the ball. So before putting a ribbon on that story and shipping it out, let’s give Rodgers a chance to provide his own assessment.
As reported by Greg A. Bedard of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Rodgers doesn’t feel his timing has been a detriment on the way to 20 sacks this season. Here’s what he said Wednesday:
"I did hold the ball probably a couple times too long. But I'm playing quarterback the way that I know how to play quarterback instinctually, trusting my feet, trusting my time clock and that's going to happen at some point. I'm going to hold the ball too long, maybe feeling like I'm not under pressure, not seeing the pressure. But I'm not going to change."
Indeed, Rodgers said he threw too quickly during the Packers’ game at Minnesota last season and was doubly determined to go through his progressions Oct. 5 at the Metrodome. Eight sacks later, he has no regrets.
Rodgers: “We need to all do our jobs, myself included, and I'm going to do better and get the ball out of my hands as quickly as I can. But we need to protect a little better as well."
My informed speculation hasn’t changed: Everything always starts up front. If Rodgers were getting better protection, none of this would be an issue. Usually quarterbacks are praised for giving receivers as long as possible to break open.
When you get pasted repeatedly early in a season, it’s going to affect your rhythm and time clock. Rodgers gets sacked too much, but in my opinion it’s difficult to assign him more than tangential responsibility.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Jason Wilde of ESPN Milwaukee breaks down an interesting week on Twitter for Packers tight end Jermichael Finley.
- It appears the Packers will get back safety Atari Bigby (knee) this week, writes Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune is amused by all the talk in Chicago about receiver Terrell Owens, quarterback Kyle Orton and tailback Cedric Benson: “Reality check: Heading into a pivotal road game that may require five touchdowns to win, the Bears offense is better equipped with the players they have than the ones they don't who generated more discussion this week.”
- The Bears are going to have to account for Falcons defensive end John Abraham in Sunday night’s game, writes Jeff Dickerson of ESPN Chicago.
- Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times looks at the chemistry between quarterback Jay Cutler and tight end Greg Olsen.
- The Lions continue benching starting players mid-game, writes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com. The latest victim was cornerback Anthony Henry.
- There will be a huge void if Lions receiver Calvin Johnson can’t play Sunday at Green Bay, notes Tim Twentyman of the Detroit News.
- Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said he could feel his dislocated kneecap “a bit” during Wednesday’s practice, writes Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press.
- This is about the most you’ll get from Minnesota nose tackle Pat Williams on a center. Asked about former Vikings center Matt Birk, who now plays for Baltimore, Williams said: “He’s all right.” Mark Craig of the Star Tribune has the story.
- Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press looks at the odd hours Brett Favre watches film at the team’s practice facility.
Minnesota players are attending training camp meetings as we speak (or, at least, write). Green Bay's players are moving into their dorm rooms, Chicago's are heading down I-57 and Detroit's will start showing up Friday.
On the brink of Camp '09, we should continue establishing our season-long storylines in the NFC North. We started Tuesday by noting our relatively historic collection of young and potentially elite quarterbacks, and wondering how they will impact the aesthetics of the Black and Blue division.
Today, let's identify some players whose teams are counting on them to establish a high level of performance in training camp. You can call this a "Hot Seat," but I prefer "Pressure Cooker" because these players are being counted on to succeed -- in some cases based on hope rather than previous production -- in order to meet their short- and long-term goals.
Enough with the mumbo-jumbo. On to the list:
Chicago receiver Earl Bennett
The task: Earn and maintain a starting job after a rookie year that netted zero receptions.
The skinny: Jay Cutler was Bennett's college quarterback at Vanderbilt, and his arrival can only help ease this transition. But it's still a huge leap to expect Bennett to provide starting-caliber production after such a quiet rookie year. The Bears haven't given themselves many other options.
Chicago defensive tackle Tommie Harris
The task: Re-establish himself as a pass-rushing force to meet the needs of a Tampa-2 defense.
The skinny: There were all kinds of offseason warning signs about the condition of Harris' knee, and at 26, he might already be permanently limited. But the Bears are hoping he will be fresh for games if they can get him enough rest during the week. They are also hoping new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli can work some magic this summer.
Detroit quarterback Daunte Culpepper
The task: Revive his skills and win the starting job so the Lions don't have to throw Matthew Stafford to the wolves.
The skinny: If the stars were ever aligned for Culpepper's resurgence, it's now. He is in excellent shape, will be playing for his favorite offensive coordinator (Scott Linehan) and has one of the league's best receivers in Calvin Johnson. Getting 10-plus starts from Culpepper will help Stafford's development in the long run.
Detroit defensive end Cliff Avril
The task: Develop into a credible, three-down starting defensive end.
The skinny: That doesn't sound like a huge challenge, but the Lions' defensive line was terrible last season and they made only one notable offseason move (signing free-agent nose tackle Grady Jackson) to address it. It appears they're trusting Avril to make a big leap in his second season after showing a few flashes last year.
Green Bay safety Atari Bigby
The task: Put aside a year's worth of injuries and bring his physical presence back to the Packers' secondary.
The skinny: Bigby sat out offseason workouts to let his body heal but will open camp as a starter. The Packers signed free agent Anthony Smith as insurance, but they know Bigby has a much bigger upside. At his best, Bigby can be a hard-hitting threat against the run and also make plays in the passing game.
Green Bay linebacker Aaron Kampman
The task: Learn a new position in the 3-4 scheme after seven seasons as a 4-3 defensive end.
The skinny: Kampman showed some signs of competence during a late-June minicamp, but there's little doubt he's uncomfortable with the transition. The last thing the Packers want to do is develop a defense that doesn't have a place for the top pass-rushing threat.
Minnesota safety Tyrell Johnson
The task: Replace Darren Sharper as the starting strong safety.
The skinny: The Vikings traded up to draft Johnson in the second round last year with this job in mind. He actually started seven games while free safety Madieu Williams recovered from a neck injury, but his impact was minimal from a big-play standpoint. Johnson will have to demonstrate progress quickly or opponents will target him.
Minnesota center John Sullivan
The task: Replace perennial Pro Bowl center Matt Birk after a year of seasoning on the bench.
The skinny: The Vikings like Sullivan's intelligence and his background in Charlie Weis' pro-style offense at Notre Dame. But he still has a big leap to make, especially from an athletic standpoint, to match up against NFL defensive tackles who have both size and quickness. Luckily, he'll have help from All-Pro left guard Steve Hutchinson.
Make sure you check out the second installment of ESPN.com's all-decade team here. Tuesday's post revolves around the offensive team, which includes two NFC North representatives.
(Hey, it's progress. The Black and Blue eked out only one spot on Monday's defensive team.)
Hutchinson has been widely considered the best guard in the game since Seattle drafted him in 2001, and has been to six Pro Bowls. Kreutz, meanwhile, beat out Kevin Mawae and Matt Birk for the honor because more personnel evaluators mentioned him in interviews than his primary competitors. ("You look at a guy like Kreutz and you really appreciate his consistency," San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith said. "He is an all-decade-type player.")
This team is notable as much for who is missing than who is on it. Receiver Randy Moss, who played seven years in Minnesota, did not make the cut. Neither did left tackle Orlando Pace, who signed with Chicago in the offseason.
In case you're keeping track, and I know you are, here are the NFC North team representatives thus far on the ESPN.com all-decade team:
Chicago: Linebacker Brian Urlacher, center Olin Kreutz
Green Bay: None
Minnesota: Guard Steve Hutchinson
Special teams will come Wednesday courtesy yours truly. Tune in then.
A look at the key loss and his replacement for each team in the division:
Who's out: John Tait, right tackle (Retired unexpectedly)
Who's in: Chris Williams (2008 first-round draft pick)
Outlook: The Bears originally expected Williams to start at left tackle, and he still projects there in the long-term. But the fallout from Tait's unexpected retirement, as well as the free agent departure of John St. Clair, left Chicago scrambling.
As it turned out, veteran free agent Orlando Pace was the best option. Rather than shifting Pace out of his longtime spot on the left side, the Bears decided to let Williams break into the NFL at what is generally considered a less challenging position.
This seems to be a reasonable arrangement and a good response to Tait's decision. All things equal, new quarterback Jay Cutler would surely prefer backside protection from Pace rather than an untested player. Williams will get a chance to learn the NFL game without that pressure.
Outlook: The Lions didn't lose anyone they had hoped to retain, but the quarterback transition is the biggest item on their agenda this summer.
his career. The pieces are in place for him to have at least short-term success, most notably offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and receiver Calvin Johnson.
Unless Stafford proves to be the rarest of talents, it's likely Culpepper will open the season as the Lions' starter. If he can achieve modest success, he will give Stafford the long-term gift of a full season of development on the bench.
Who's out: Mark Tauscher, right tackle (Currently a free agent as he rehabilitates a torn anterior cruciate ligament)
Outlook: The Packers almost certainly would have brought back Tauscher were it not for the injury, and it's always possible he could return at midseason if and when he fully recovers. Until then, however, the Packers will have to determine if anyone on their current depth chart can handle the job.
Barbre will get the first chance. He's seen reserve action in 15 games over the past two seasons, mostly at guard, but has a mean streak that could serve him well in a primary run-blocking position of the offensive line. Some consider Lang, a fourth-round pick in 2009, a potential long-term answer.
Who's out: Matt Birk, center (Signed with Baltimore as free agent)
Who's in: John Sullivan (Sixth-round pick, 2008)
Outlook: The Vikings made a late run at trying to sign Birk but all along seemed prepared to pass the torch to Sullivan, a Notre Dame project who was one of the first players to report for offseason training this winter.
Sullivan doesn't have Birk's size, and it will be interesting to see if he can keep some of the game's top defensive tackles out of the Vikings' backfield. But from a mental standpoint, no one expects any difficulty with Sullivan's line calls or his capacity to otherwise handle the position.
Posted by ESPN.com staff
- Jay Cutler took the field for the first time Wednesday and he left many talking about his "Identified Flying Object."
- ESPN Chicago's Jeff Dickerson writes that Corey Graham practicing at safety with the second unit was the "most noticeable defensive tweak" during the team's workout.
- While Cutler becomes the face of the franchise, he knows establishing himself as a team leader is a delicate process.
- Lions rookie linebacker Zack Follett has found out there is a lot to learn in making the jump to the NFL. Follett: "An NFL defense compared to a college defense is nowhere near -- complexity, the little details. If you turn your head at the wrong time for a split-second, the coaches are on you pretty tough."
- Will expanding the regular season hurt the appeal of the NFL? Terry Foster of The Detroit News ponders the possibility.
Green Bay Packers
- Former Packers center Frank Winters has been hired as a coaching intern with the Indianapolis Colts.
- In his position-by-position breakdown, the Green Bay Press-Gazette's Tom Pelissero takes a look at the Packers' wide receivers.
- Adrian Peterson has cut back on his off-the-field endeavors to focus on becoming a better all-around football player. Peterson: "Through the past two or three years, I've had the experience of doing too much and not really being able to dedicate the time I would like to working out and preparing myself. I've really cut back a lot this year. I have more time to study film and really just focus on the most important things that make those things possible off the field. Get my body prepared."
- Vikings center John Sullivan knows nothing is going to be handed to him as he tries to replace the departed Matt Birk.
Thank for you Friday submissions to the mailbag, which allowed us to spice things up with a better variety of topics. Let's get to it. As always, look for Part II soon, possibly as early as Sunday.
Matt of Minneapolis writes: A lot has been made about the Packers defense being the team's biggest question mark. I feel like the defense has enough talent to succeed if they put it all together. I feel like the Packers' biggest question mark will be their offensive line. Who do you expect to come out on top with each position battle?
Kevin Seifert: Good question. I guess I would feel comfortable saying that Daryn Colledge will be the left guard and Chad Clifton will start at left tackle. Coach Mike McCarthy was pretty adamant in March that Colledge would end up at left guard, rather than right tackle, and there really isn't anyone on the roster prepared to challenge Clifton at left tackle. Beyond that, however, it's anybody's guess.
At center, McCarthy is going to give Jason Spitz a chance to beat out incumbent Scott Wells. Spitz also will compete with Josh Sitton at right guard. Changing centers is a big deal, and I know the Packers like the way Wells handles the game from a mental standpoint. On the other hand, McCarthy has talked about getting bigger along the entire line. Spitz has a bigger body frame than Wells, even though their listed weights are almost identical.
You figure either Spitz or Sitton will start at right guard. I'm guessing it will be Sitton, but that's just a guess. Spitz is a more valuable swing reserve than Sitton because he can play guard and center. If Wells is playing center and gets hurt, you end up disrupting two positions if Spitz is not only your backup center but also your starting right guard. Just a thought.
The right tackle position remains wide open, which isn't necessarily a good thing. It looks like the Packers are giving Mark Tauscher a chance to rehabilitate his ACL before making a final decision on his status. They certainly haven't replaced him yet. Rob Reischel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sees it as a five-player race headed by second-year player Breno Giacomini. Let's just say it's a wide-open competition at this point.
Jayme of Wausau, Wis., writes: With this being such a slow time for football, do you ever wish you could cover other sports rather than just trying to find a new way to spin the same old stories?
Kevin Seifert: Ah, irony. I love it. Once upon a time, mid-May was in fact a slow time in the NFL. As recently as 10 years ago, there was almost no news and little to cover between the draft and training camp. Even minicamp was an afterthought.
But the league has managed to make itself a year-round story. Yes, many of the same themes arise. Players come. Players go. Sometimes, the same players come and go every year. Sometimes, their names rhyme with Drett Larve. Anyway....
I covered baseball before switching over to football in 1999. You want to talk about the same old story? I love baseball, but there's only so many ways to write a game story. (And you've got at least 162 of them each year, plus spring training and the postseason.) As far as variety and news, you can't beat the NFL, in my opinion. More players, more coaches, more teams, more personalities, more possibilities.
Tom of Albert Lea, Minn., writes: Other than the Favre frenzy at Winter Park what's holding up Antoine Winfield's contract extension? Could he be on the way out like Darren Sharper and Marcus Robinson were because he questioned Brad Childress' offensive scheme?
Kevin Seifert: I've gotten this question a number of times in the past two weeks. It's a fair concern, given what we've seen in the cases of a number of veteran Minnesota players who have moved on. (Sharper, Robinson, Matt Birk and Brad Johnson among them.)
That said, I think we have a different situation here. The Vikings never really entered negotiations with the players who ultimately departed. In March, Childress said the Vikings were deep into talks with Winfield. That means the Vikings want Winfield back, and Winfield wants to come back. You couldn't say that about both parties in the case of the other players.
Contract negotiations can ebb and flow. There is no rush to get something done at this point in the offseason. Typically, the Vikings have wrapped up these kind of deals by the end of the preseason. So if you're a Winfield fan, I think you should be four months away from hitting the panic button. I wouldn't get worried unless Winfield enters the 2009 season without an agreement.