NFC North: Remi Ayodele

You might have heard that retired NFL linebacker Barrett Green has filed a lawsuit against the Washington Redskins, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and former Redskins player Robert Royal for a career-ending injury he claims was caused by a bounty program allegedly run by Williams in 2004.

Green's lawsuit brought to mind a question I've long wondered: Would retired quarterback Brett Favre sue Williams and/or the New Orleans Saints for what the NFL ruled later was an illegal hit during the 2009 NFC North Championship Game? Favre suffered a nasty ankle injury on that hit, applied by defensive end Bobby McCray and defensive tackle Remi Ayodele, and was still dealing with ankle issues when he returned for the 2010 -- his final -- season.

At one point, the NFL claimed that Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma offered a $35,000 bounty to knock Favre out of the game.

With that said, Favre has consistently downplayed and tried to move on from the bounty story. He said last year that he was "indifferent" to the story and added: "My feeling, and I mean this wholeheartedly, is that I really don't care. What bothers me is we didn't win the game. And they didn't take me out of the game. They came close, but a lot of people have come close."

Frankly, I'm surprised there haven't been more individual lawsuits filed since the bounty story ended. A bounty by definition is an intent to injure. NFL players sign up for a violent work environment, but not one in which they are specifically targeted for injury. Favre, however, has never appeared bothered enough by the issue to pursue one.
video
If you caught Sunday's "Outside the Lines" episode, you saw a 30-minute discussion about the performance of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in anticipation of Don Van Natta Jr.'s profile in this week's ESPN The Magazine.

For our purposes, it's worth noting that former New Orleans Saints (and Green Bay Packers) defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove advanced a story we spent plenty of time discussing last offseason as part of the investigation into the Saints' alleged bounty program.

For the first time to my knowledge, Hargrove said the voice in a much-discussed NFL Films video used as evidence against him is that of Saints teammate Remi Ayodele. As you might recall, the NFL initially said Hargrove spoke the words, "Bobby, give me my money," and used the accusation to suggest Hargrove was seeking a bounty payment for a hit on Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC Championship Game.

As we pointed out at the time, Hargrove wasn't involved in the play that injured Favre's ankle; Ayodele and defensive end Bobby McCray were. Hargrove said last summer that a voice recognition analysis confirmed it was not his voice, and Goodell eventually acknowledged he was "prepared to assume" it was not Hargrove. In the small-world department, Ayodele signed with the Vikings as a free agent the following year and was teammates with Favre in 2010. Last year, his agent told NFL.com that Ayodele doesn't recall hearing the statement. Via his verified Twitter account, Ayodele lashed out at Hargrove for naming him and added: "I said NOTHING nobody on the team did I'm still trying to figure out this bounty what's he talking bout?"

The incident was one of many questionable accusations against Hargrove and the other players involved in the investigation. On appeal, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue -- acting as a third-party arbitrator -- vacated their suspensions.

In the video, Hargrove implies he won't play again in the NFL but makes clear that the fight to clear his name has just begun.

Note: The Ayodele discussion is not in this clip, presumably because of online rights issues involved with the NFL Films video.
At any moment, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's ruling on the appeal of Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove and three other players in the New Orleans Saints bounty investigation. While we wait, I wanted to bring to your attention an important revelation that further calls into question what the NFL has claimed as evidence against Hargrove, thus meriting an eight-game suspension.

Last week, NFLPA outside counsel Richard Smith revealed to the New York Times that a voice recognition analyst concluded that Hargrove's voice was not the one recorded saying "Bobby, give me my money" in an NFL Films video used as evidence that Hargrove knew about and participated in the bounty program.

Here's the relevant portion of the Times article:
"Smith hired a voice recognition expert to review and analyze the sentence. Smith said the expert had concluded that the harmonics of Hargrove’s voice did not match the voice on the tape, that Hargrove’s lips had not been visible and that the first word was not "Bobby" but instead the result of a player and coach talking at once.

"No one can say beyond doubt that it’s Anthony Hargrove speaking," Smith said.

We've been through this issue on several occasions, and Hargrove himself stated last month: "It is not my voice. Anyone who knows me well knows that it is not me."

As we've discussed, there would be no credible reason for Hargrove to ask Saints defensive end Bobby McCray to pay him money for a hit he was not involved in. When you watch the video -- link here with an arrow added for emphasis -- Hargrove's lips are obscured and can't be seen when the words are audible. At the same time, you see defensive tackle Remi Ayodele -- who was involved in the hit against Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre -- turning to teammate Will Smith. (Ayodele's agent told NFL.com that he "doesn't recall hearing that statement.")

We've acknowledged that the NFL mischaracterized Hargrove's official declaration, suggesting he confirmed his knowledge and participation when in fact he acknowledged only that Saints coaches requested he "play dumb" when asked about the bounty by NFL investigators.

Meanwhile, a former Saints practice squad player, who was standing near Hargrove at that moment on the sideline, told CBSSports.com that Hargrove wasn't the one speaking in the video.

I realize the NFL's discipline program does not require the same standards for evidence as a court of law might. But again, it's worth asking whether anything the NFL has cited against Hargrove has credible merit.

We'll keep you posted.
I mentioned earlier I would bring to your attention any additional evidence the NFL released about the role of Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove in the New Orleans Saints bounty case, and so here you go.

As noted by Sports Illustrated's Peter King and several other reporters who were present for an afternoon briefing by the league, the league has an NFL Films video that purportedly shows Hargrove telling Saints defensive end Bobby McCray to "give me my money" after a third-quarter hit that injured Favre's ankle. (NFL.com video here.)

The statement comes moments after Saints assistant coach Joe Vitt told the defense that Favre had been knocked out of the game. The quote would presumably stand as significant evidence both of a bounty scheme and Hargrove's participation; the NFL has alleged there was at least a $35,000 bounty on Favre in the game.

Here is my only concern with that conclusion: Why would Hargrove expect payment for a hit that he wasn't involved in? As you recall, the third-quarter hit that injured Favre's ankle came at the hands of McCray and defensive tackle Remi Ayodele. In the second quarter, Hargrove received an unnecessary roughness penalty for a hit on Favre, but Favre suffered no documented injury.

The timing doesn't make sense, but we'll have to see if anything comes of it.

NFC North free-agency assessment

March, 30, 2012
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AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Chicago Bears

Key additions: Running back Michael Bush, linebacker/special teams Blake Costanzo, quarterback Jason Campbell, receiver Brandon Marshall (trade), receiver Devin Thomas, receiver/returner Eric Weems.

Key losses: Running back Marion Barber (retired), cornerback Zack Bowman, cornerback Corey Graham.

Come on back: Lost in the shuffle of the Marshall trade were the return of three free agents who should play key roles in 2012. Tight end Kellen Davis figures to get an expanded role in offensive coordinator Mike Tice's scheme, especially as a receiver. Cornerback Tim Jennings should retain his starting role opposite Charles Tillman, with D.J. Moore in the nickel. And safety Craig Steltz will provide reliable depth at safety and will be one of the Bears' special teams leaders after the departure of Graham and Bowman.

What's next: There is no urgency yet, but the Bears will need to make peace with tailback Matt Forte at some point before the summer. Forte isn't happy that he's been made the Bears' franchise player and briefly lost his public composure when Bush signed a deal that guaranteed him about the same amount of money as the franchise tag will pay Forte. It's not a big deal if Forte skips the Bears' offseason program or even misses a few days of training camp, but the Bears will want to find a way to eliminate this issue by early August. Meanwhile, it wouldn't be surprising if the Bears address their offensive line during the draft.

Detroit Lions

Key additions: Defensive end Everette Brown, cornerback Jacob Lacey.

Key losses: Cornerback Eric Wright.

All in the family: With the exception of Wright, the Lions were able to retain the core of their 10-6 team. Among those who re-signed: Tackle Jeff Backus, safety Erik Coleman, defensive end Andre Fluellen, quarterback Shaun Hill and linebacker Stephen Tulloch. And don't forget that receiver Calvin Johnson is locked up for perhaps the rest of his career. He signed a new eight-year contract worth $132 million.

What's next: The Lions appear interested in adding competition at safety, having hosted free agent O.J. Atogwe earlier this month. Adding a safety remains a possibility, if not through free agency, then probably through the draft. And while Backus is re-signed for two years, it wouldn't be surprising if the Lions look for a long-term replacement in the draft.

Green Bay Packers

Key additions: Defensive lineman Daniel Muir, center Jeff Saturday, defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.

Key losses: Quarterback Matt Flynn, center Scott Wells.

Shocker: The Packers usually do whatever it takes to keep their own players and avoid having to search the free-agent market for other the castoffs of other teams. They started off that way by re-signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract, but when they were unable to sign center Scott Wells, they quickly targeted veteran Jeff Saturday and made him their first starting-caliber free-agent signee in five years. General manager Ted Thompson also authorized the acquisition of Hargrove and the pursuit of Dave Tollefson.

What's next: It's not out of the question that the Packers will add a veteran pass-rusher, whether at defensive end or linebacker. Then they'll get back into their comfort zone and start preparing for the draft, where it's reasonable to think they'll use at least one of their 12 picks on a center while also continuing to pursue pass-rushers.

Minnesota Vikings

Key additions: Cornerback Zack Bowman, tight end John Carlson, running back Jerome Felton and offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz.

Key losses: Nose tackle Remi Ayodele (release), guards Anthony Herrera (release) and Steve Hutchinson (release), tight end Jim Kleinsasser (retire), running back Jerome Felton.

Methodical methodology: The Vikings made one big-money signing, bringing in Carlson as a new weapon for quarterback Christian Ponder, and otherwise have spent their offseason getting younger and signing complementary players. General manager Rick Spielman wants to end a cycle of seeking blue-chip players via free agency and instead count on the drafts for his difference-makers.

What's next: One way or the other, the Vikings need to find a deep threat for Ponder. The draft would seem the most likely place for that will happen. They are also midway through a rebuild of the secondary that could use at least one more cornerback and perhaps two safeties.

Vikings: A new defensive gut

March, 28, 2012
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PALM BEACH, Fla. -- If the nose tackle and middle linebacker represent the gut of a defense, then it's safe to say the Minnesota Vikings have signed themselves up for plastic surgery this season.

(Too much? I liked it. Come on. Lighten up.)

The takeaway from my time with Vikings coach Leslie Frazier on Wednesday morning was that he will have a new starting nose tackle in 2012 and is close to deciding on his next middle linebacker. Fifth-year player Letroy Guion will replace the released Remi Ayodele at nose tackle, while Frazier indicated that Jasper Brinkley is his top choice to start at middle linebacker.

Both players are longtime backups and draft choices of newly promoted general manager Rick Spielman, and their anticipated ascension is a reasonable illustration of how Spielman hopes to run the franchise.

Guion was a fifth-round pick in 2008 and has started three games over four seasons since then. His newly-prominent role became clear when the Vikings signed him to a three-year contract earlier this month that will pay him $2.5 million. Ayodele was subsequently released.

"We want him to be the starting nose tackle," Frazier said.

Brinkley, meanwhile, was a fifth-round pick a year after the Vikings selected Guion. He was the backup to starter E.J. Henderson in 2009 and 2010, starting six games after Henderson's broken leg in 2009, but missed all of 2011 because of a hip injury.

"We believe he is healthy now," Frazier said. "And he has started for us when E.J. was injured in the past. We think he is capable of doing it. We just haven't had him do it for 16 weeks. But we think he's about ready to take that role. We'll determine that in the weeks and months to come."

Doctors have cleared Brinkley for all football activities, and if there was any hesitation in Frazier's response, it should be attributed to the universal NFL caveat at this time of year. The Vikings have 10 draft picks, including seven of the top 138, and a starting-caliber middle linebacker could be a target.

Absent that event, however, the chances seem high that Brinkley will team with Erin Henderson and Chad Greenway to form the Vikings' 2012 trio of linebackers. During that 2009 stretch, Brinkley proved to be a physical run-stopper who is most likely not going to be on the field in nickel situations.

Again, everything could change after the draft. But regardless of the ingredients, it seems likely the Vikings will have a new defensive gut in 2012.
PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Green Bay Packers have received the maximum number of extra draft picks available to teams through the NFL's compensatory draft program, while the Minnesota Vikings have received two.

That's our local upshot of Monday's always-anticipated announcement of compensatory draft picks. The Packers got four extra picks and will now have 12 in next month's draft, while the Vikings will have a total of 10. Neither the Chicago Bears nor the Detroit Lions were expected to receive a compensatory pick.

The NFL doesn't reveal its exact formula for determining the extra picks, but in essence it's based on the difference in value between the free agents a team loses and the ones it signs the previous year. In 2011, the Packers bid farewell to free agents Daryn Colledge, Brandon Jackson and Cullen Jenkins, among others, and did not sign a significant free agent of their own.

The formula granted the Packers two fourth-round picks and two additional seventh-rounders. The Packers' total of 12 picks includes three in the fourth round and four in the seventh.

Meanwhile, the Vikings received two fourth-round picks, No. 33 and No. 39 in the round, after losing receiver Sidney Rice, quarterback Tarvaris Jackson and defensive end Ray Edwards in 2011. They signed nose tackle Remi Ayodele, but he made little impact.

BBAO: #FreeStanton gains steam

March, 22, 2012
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

We had some fun Wednesday afternoon when the #FreeStanton hashtag started on Twitter. As you recall, former Detroit Lions quarterback Drew Stanton spent only a few days as the New York Jets' No. 2 before the acquisition of Tim Tebow via trade.

It's a harsh business, and Stanton might just have to deal with the turn of events. But the NFL Network's Jason La Canfora reported Wednesday night that he wouldn't be surprised if Stanton asks for a trade or a release.

Stanton "was promised team not looking at" adding additional quarterbacks this offseason, according to La Canfora.

Best of luck to Drew on that one.

#FreeStanton.

Continuing around the NFC North:
By now, we all know that the 2009 NFC Championship Game is one of the most visible examples of the New Orleans Saints' three-year bounty program. But there has been a secondary connection between the bounty story and the Minnesota Vikings: One of the Saints' defensive starters in that game signed a free agent contract with the Vikings last season.

Ayodele
Ayodele
Nose tackle Remi Ayodele, in fact, was the second player involved in a high-low hit that caused Vikings quarterback Brett Favre to suffer an ankle injury and throw an interception. Ayodele hit Favre high, while defensive end Bobby McCray grabbed Favre's ankle. The NFL later fined McCray and said a penalty should have been called.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is still mulling player discipline related to the bounty system, so we don't know if Ayodele is in line to be suspended. For now we'll just consider it a coincidence that the Vikings released Ayodele hours after the league announced unprecedented punishment against the Saints' organization and leadership staff.

What we do know: Ayodele made almost no impact after signing a three-year, $9 million deal a year ago. He started 13 games but played sparingly (23.6 percent of the Vikings' snaps) and managed only four official solo tackles.

And in recent days, the Vikings had re-signed veterans Fred Evans and Letroy Guion, both of whom can play nose tackle. Evans' deal was official Wednesday.

The Vikings would be justified in releasing Ayodele for either reason: The fear of a looming suspension or ineffectiveness. Take your pick, as far as I'm concerned.

NFC North Quick Hits: Tuesday

March, 13, 2012
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While we have a moment, let's post another edition of, uh, quick-hitting Quick Hits. I'm not sure if this will be our last post of the evening, but it will catch us up on some secondary news items that arose during the initial frenzy of the NFL's 2012 free agent and trade period.

Item: Chicago Bears tight end Kellen Davis is visiting the Dallas Cowboys, according to Jason LaCanfora of the NFL Network.
Comment: Bears coach Lovie Smith has spoken highly of Davis, and it's been assumed he would return. But there was no deal when the free-agent period began, so it was off to the races.

Item: Brad Biggs' analysis of receiver Brandon Marshall's contract for the Chicago Tribune suggests there is no guaranteed money remaining in the deal.
Comment: That gives the Bears exceptional flexibility given Marshall's checkered history off-the-field.

Item: The Minnesota Vikings have agreed to terms on a three-year contract with reserve defensive tackle Letroy Guion, accoring to Tim Yotter of Scout.com.
Comment: Who says the Vikings weren't doing anything Tuesday? The deal suggests the Vikings might give Guion an opportunity to compete with starting nose tackle Remi Ayodele, who had a disappointing first season with the Vikings in 2011.

Item: Detroit Lions cornerback Eric Wright has received interest from the San Francisco 49ers, Washington Redskins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Comment: The Lions shaved more than $15 million in cap space just to comply with the NFL's cap limit of $120.6 million. I'm not sure if they have the space to complete a significant contract with Wright if a market develops around him.

Item: The Lions have a visit set for Friday with free agent offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
Comment: Schwartz was a full-time starter for the Carolina Panthers in 2010, but a hip injury forced him to miss 2011. Regardless, he wouldn't be in line for a big contract given the Lions' cap situation.

Item: Already flush with about $25 million in cap space, the Vikings have deferred the $1.6 million in extra space the NFL disseminated after taking it from the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins, according to Schefter.
Comment: The Vikings will get that $1.6 million credit in 2013. The Lions, Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers all took it this year.

Item: Former Packers quarterback Matt Flynn has been contacted by the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins, according to Omar Kelly of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.
Comment: From this point, the Flynn story matters to us only in the sense that his contract value will impact the compensatory draft pick the Packers receive for his departure.

Item: Lions quarterback Drew Stanton has drawn interest from the New York Jets, according to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News.
Comment: It would make sense for Stanton to seek opportunities to be a No. 2 quarterback, given he is likely to be the Lions' No. 3 quarterback if he returns.
Titus YoungTim Fuller/US PresswireThe Vikings have struggled in pass coverage this season, giving up huge plays including a 56-yard touchdown to Lions receiver Titus Young last Sunday.
After taking permanent control of the Minnesota Vikings' coaching job, Leslie Frazier laid out a traditional and conventional vision for winning football games. His teams would run the ball and stop the run, a time-honored approach that sounds good in the locker room but is as outdated as the single wing.

If there were ever a season that could crush that theory, it's the one the Vikings are enduring in 2011. They rank among the NFL's top 10 in rushing yards and rush defense, but their punchless passing attack and tattered pass defense has driven the worst 13-game start in franchise history. At 2-11, the Vikings are obviously and glaringly swimming upstream in the pass-happy NFL.

Speaking generally last week, Frazier said he has reminded himself that this season is "a journey" and "part of what we have to go through to get to where we want eventually." He said he doesn't "foresee us forever being in this situation" and added: "I really believe that we will look back on it in time and say, 'OK, this is what happened in 2011 and this is why we are better in 2012, because of what happened in 2011.'"

Quite frankly, that will take some adjustment in vision.

Frazier built his hopes on offense around tailback Adrian Peterson, who averaged 94 yards and more than one touchdown per game before suffering an ankle injury in Week 11. Development from quarterback Christian Ponder would lead to a more balanced offense over time, but the Vikings' 2011 plan was either deeply flawed or a gross example of misplaced priorities. Both the quarterback (Donovan McNabb) and No. 1 receiver (Bernard Berrian) they opened the season with have already been waived. Neither has signed with a new team.

Their failures, and other reasons, have left Vikings quarterbacks with a combined 77.0 passer rating this season, ranking them in the bottom third of the NFL.

Peterson's presence, not to mention a $100 million contract extension, demands a strong commitment to the running game. So I don't think the Vikings need, say, the Packers' passing offense to be championship contenders. But there is no reasonable explanation to justify how the Vikings organized and executed a pass defense that is on pace to produce one of the worst seasons in NFL history.

Defensive end Jared Allen leads the NFL with 17.5 sacks, but even with his presence, the Vikings have allowed opponents to compile a 107.1 passer rating this season. As the first chart shows, that puts them on pace for one of the five-worst pass defenses -- based on opponent's passer rating -- since at least the 1970 merger. As the second chart shows, the Vikings have allowed more touchdown passes, intercepted the fewest passes and allowed the second-highest completion percentage in the NFL this season. Last Sunday, the Vikings did limit the yardage piled up by Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. But even though he threw for a modest 229 yards, Stafford still completed 69 percent of his passes for two touchdowns and didn't have a turnover.

Their inability to slow down opposing pass offenses has all but negated a relatively strong run defense that ranks No. 9 overall in total yards allowed. And it's not as if teams aren't trying to run against the Vikings. Opponents have 352 rushing attempts against them, good for No. 17 in the NFL.

As with their pass offense, the Vikings didn't appear to make their pass defense a high priority entering the season. Their only starting-level addition was nose tackle Remi Ayodele, a run-stopper. And it's possible that none of the defensive backs considered starters in Week 1 will return in 2012.

Frazier has already admitted that cornerback Cedric Griffin wouldn't be playing if he had any better options. Fellow cornerback Antoine Winfield will be 35 in 2012, just had a playing-time clause reduce his salary by more than 50 percent and might not be a full-time player anymore. The careers of cornerback Chris Cook (off-field) and free safety Husain Abdullah (concussion) are in doubt, and a season-long rotation of strong safeties Jamarca Sanford and Tyrell Johnson revealed neither is up for the job.

Did the Vikings think they could cover themselves with their run defense? I hope not. These days, the best gauge for measuring the top teams is the differential between their passer rating (or QBR) and the passer rating (or QBR) allowed by their defenses.

Here are the teams with the top five QBR differentials through 13 games, according to ESPN Stats & Information:

  1. Green Bay Packers (13-0)
  2. New Orleans Saints (10-3)
  3. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3)
  4. Baltimore Ravens (10-3)
  5. Houston Texans (10-3)

And here are the teams with the five worst differentials:

  1. Indianapolis Colts (0-13)
  2. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9)
  3. St. Louis Rams (2-11)
  4. Vikings (2-11)
  5. Arizona Cardinals (6-7)

It would be fine if the Vikings continue running the ball well and can stop the run. But that can't be it. They won't compete in the NFC North, much less this league, until they rebuild their pass offense and reassemble a competent secondary. Until the NFL veers away from its love affair with the passing game, the Vikings have no choice but to shift their vision.

BBAO: Race and Jordy Nelson's success

November, 17, 2011
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

Why is Green Bay Packers receiver Jordy Nelson having a breakout season? He knows the Packers' offense backwards and forwards. He has a good relationship with quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He's big enough to outmuscle many defensive backs. He's cut back on the drops and fumbles that plagued him in earlier years. He's fast.

Oh, and he's white.

That final attribute was one that Packers receiver Greg Jennings and others expounded on in this story from Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com. Here's how Jennings put it:
"They underestimate him. And honestly, he uses that to his advantage. Seriously … a lot of it has to do with the fact that guys look at him and say, 'OK, he's the white guy, he can't be that good.' Well, he is that good. He's proven to be that good and it's because of the work and the time that he’s put in -- not only on the field but in his preparation off the field."

Defenders have at times allowed Nelson's speed to catch them off guard. He has two of the five longest receptions in the NFL this season, touchdowns of 93 and 84 yards, and overall is averaging 18.6 yards per catch.

Were they simply beat by a good player? Or was their approach to defending Nelson somehow influenced by long-held stereotypes about speed and race? Whoa. That's too heavy of an issue to get into before 8 a.m. ET on a Thursday. But I can tell you this: Jennings is a thoughtful and relatively drama-free person. If he brought up the topic, it wasn't to make a splash. He truly believes it, and he's closer to it than us.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers: "It has almost become rote for Rodgers to do what so many other quarterbacks can't, and it speaks directly to the success the Packers have had offensively this season."
  • The Packers are still hurting from a 2009 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, notes Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • The Chicago Bears will find out how much progress offensive lineman Edwin Williams has made since last year, writes Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times. Williams will replace injured starter Chris Williams (wrist) at left guard.
  • David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune reviews Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher's late-career renaissance.
  • Neither Bears quarterback Jay Cutler nor San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers had much to say about their personal relationship Wednesday, writes a disappointed Jon Greenberg of ESPNChicago.com.
  • Carolina Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble could provide a challenge for Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson this weekend, writes Justin Rogers of Mlive.com.
  • The Lions were encouraged to have running back Jahvid Best (concussion) back on the sideline during practice, according to Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Lions backup quarterback Shaun Hill on Bears cornerback D.J. Moore's charge at Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford: "I think he got his feelings hurt more than anything. He got his feelings hurt that he got dish-ragged by a quarterback." John Niyo of the Detroit News has more.
  • Mark Craig of the Star Tribune: "Vikings coach Leslie Frazer essentially issued a public challenge to all defensive players not named Jared Allen to start making some head-turning plays."
  • Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "It is hard to remain invisible when one stands 6 feet 2 and weighs 318 pounds, but it has been difficult to detect Vikings nose tackle Remi Ayodele on the field this season either through production or deployment."
  • The Vikings re-signed cornerback Benny Sapp, whom they traded to the Miami Dolphins last season. Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com has more.

Free Head Exam: Minnesota Vikings

November, 15, 2011
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After the Minnesota Vikings' 45-7 loss to the Green Bay Packers, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertFollowing their loss to the Packers, the Vikings take a seat in the examination room.
    The Vikings talked big last week about ending the Packers' run at an undefeated season. Instead, they produced their most lethargic performance of the year. Defensive end Jared Allen called it "disgusting" and fellow defensive end Brian Robison felt compelled to say via Twitter: "We have not quit." When a team lays that kind of egg on national television, public discussion naturally turns to the effectiveness of the head coach. I'm not ready to go there yet with Leslie Frazier. He took over a complicated situation and is trying to navigate a roster transition while still prodding the remaining veterans. As an organization, the Vikings are approaching their situation as a remodel rather than a rebuild. They might have underestimated the work ahead of them.
  2. There is a line of thought in the NFL that you don't play rookies and/or backups just to play them, or in the blind hope that they will provide an upgrade over the status quo. But the Vikings have enough low-functioning players to justify it at several positions. I see no reason why rookie defensive tackle Christian Ballard shouldn't continue to start ahead of Remi Ayodele. It's worth seeing whether rookie safety Mistral Raymond is any better than Tyrell Johnson, Jamarca Sanford or Husain Abdullah. In basketball terms, at 2-7 and after displaying the kind of lethargy we saw Monday night, the Vikings need to empty the bench. If nothing else, it's a method for holding players accountable. No one has tenure in the NFL.
  3. Amid it all, we should note that Allen continues to bring it hard on every play this season. He was in the face of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers all game, finishing with seven tackles, including three for a loss, and one sack to bring his season total to 13.5. I would imagine his NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidacy will be negatively impacted by the Vikings' poor team performance, but that's too bad. One of this generation's best pass-rushers is having the best season of his career. Allen's production and energy level have never been higher. He's setting an example that, quite frankly, isn't being noticed by enough of his teammates.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
What does the future hold for cornerback Antoine Winfield, whose season is probably over after fracturing his collarbone Monday night? He will be 35 when the 2012 season begins and has been limited by injuries in two of the past three seasons. The Vikings have uncertainty across the board at cornerback, from fellow starter Cedric Griffin to second-year player Chris Cook, who is inactive because of legal issues. And it's worth nothing that the Vikings negotiated a de-escalator into Winfield's most recent contract, one that would pay him $7 million if he is a starter but about $3 million if he is a nickelback. Winfield is part of an old guard of Vikings defenders who eventually will be phased out. Will it be this offseason?

NFC North Stock Watch

October, 4, 2011
10/04/11
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Bernard Berrian, Minnesota Vikings receiver: Berrian took to Twitter on Sunday to note that he has been "open" for the past four years. I don't really care that one of his antagonists was a Minnesota state representative, one who happens to be a co-author of owner Zygi Wilf's stadium financing bill. No matter who he was speaking to, Berrian was wrong to imply that getting open means he has been doing his job. There are multiple reasons why he has been so unproductive in recent years, and they include some factors (such as quarterback accuracy) that are beyond Berrian's control. I'll have more on this topic later in the week, but for now understand that Vikings quarterbacks have targeted him on 67 passes over the past 20 games. Berrian has caught 30 of them. Berrian would be well-advised to evaluate what he does, or doesn't do, to fight for the ball before drawing attention to his production.

2. Insanity in Chicago: We've hammered Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz pretty well in recent weeks for his play calling. So we should note that the Bears came to their senses in several ways Sunday. First, they swapped receivers Roy Williams and Johnny Knox, returning Knox to his starting role. While Knox has own issues to work through, Williams needed to be held accountable for his lack of productivity. Martz called only 19 passes compared to 30 running plays. The reality is the Bears aren't in position to generate a ton of scoring on their own. Martz smartly and safely capitalized on the boost he got from the Bears' defense (one touchdown) and special teams (one touchdown, another set up and a blocked field goal).

3. Remi Ayodele, Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle: The Vikings’ new nose tackle has started four games and doesn’t have a single tackle. Nose tackles don’t typically pile up tackles, and Ayodele’s top job is to occupy multiple blockers. But you would think a nose tackle would fall on a running back at some point during a four-game stretch. Ayodele doesn’t play in the nickel, and according to Pro Football Focus, he has been on the field for only 76 of the Vikings' 259 defensive snaps. That in itself is an indictment of his contribution so far. But still ….

RISING

[+] EnlargeGunther Cunningham
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioGunther Cunningham has adapted his defensive game plan, blitzing less and allowing his back seven to drop back and make plays.
1. Gunther Cunningham, Detroit Lions defensive coordinator: I have no idea how long Cunningham is planning to coach. He's 65 and has been coaching for 42 years. But it's nice to see him having success as his career inevitably moves into its twilight. Lost in the publicity of the Lions' offensive explosion has been a defense that Cunningham has smartly tweaked to fit his personnel. When he arrived in 2009, Cunningham estimated he would blitz on 40 percent of his defensive snaps. Now armed with one of the NFL's best defensive lines, Cunningham almost never blitzes and instead allows his back seven to drop into coverage and make plays. All three of the Lions' interceptions Sunday of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo came against a standard four-man rush. Overall, Cunningham blitzed on 10.9 percent of the Cowboys’ offensive snaps. Good coaches never get old. They adapt.

2. Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers receiver: In his past 10 games, dating back to last season and including playoffs, Nelson has caught 42 passes for 741 yards and six touchdowns. He has effectively emerged as the Packers' No. 2 receiver, regardless of who starts, and absolutely earned the three-year contract extension he signed over the weekend. The Packers' top draft pick in 2008, Nelson is yet another example of a homegrown talent who worked his way through the Packers' in-house minor leagues to become a top contributor.

3. Matt Forte, Bears tailback: There are three players in Bears history to surpass 200 rushing yards in a game. One is Gale Sayers. One is Walter Payton. The other is Forte, who finished with 205 yards Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. Through four games, Forte has been the Bears' best player. He is obviously their rushing leader, but he also has more than twice as many receptions as his next-closest teammate. Overall, Forte has touched the ball on 37.7 percent of the Bears’ snaps and has accounted for more than half of their total yards. Rarely do you see a player in a contract year make a better case for himself.
We’re Black and Blue Al Over:

Why are the Green Bay Packers giving up so many passing yards this season? Opponents are averaging 335.8 yards per game against them through four games, a number that has been mitigated by their red zone defense and otherwise overlooked during a rollicking 4-0 start.

Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel takes a stab at explaining the reasons and attaching significance. Rather than pass rush, it appears Packers coaches are focused on solidifying their secondary. Here’s what defensive coordinator Dom Capers said:

"To me, that's the biggest area we have to improve in. You'll hear me say this all year: If you want to keep people out of your end zone, you have to keep them from getting yardage in big chunks."

That seems to be a reference to the Packers' transition at safety after the loss of Pro Bowler Nick Collins. Morgan Burnett made several mistakes Sunday against the Denver Broncos, and veteran Charlie Peprah is settling into his new role as a starter as well.

Continuing around the NFC North:

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Thursday, 9/4
Sunday, 9/7
Monday, 9/8