NFC North: Robert Smith
Over the past few years, we've seen countless stories of former NFL players suffering from debilitating pain and depression they attribute to the violence of their careers. So I appreciated the approach ESPN's Kelly Naqi took in this "Outside the Lines" profile of retired running back Leroy Hoard, who played the final four seasons of his 10-year career with the Minnesota Vikings.
The piece focuses more on how Hoard, 45, is living with his ailments. Hoard admits to memory loss and that he spends hours at a time in a dark bathroom, but he recognizes the events over the past decade that have prevented him from joining a growing list of former players who have committed suicide.
Hoard cites his recent marriage, along with his friendships with ex-teammates Robert Smith and Keith Byars for maintaining his quality of life. At the same time, he regularly writes down the names of three contemporaries -- Andre Waters, Dave Duerson and Junior Seau -- who have killed themselves. He doesn't want to forget what happened to them.
Check it out.
No team can win consistently without a good quarterback. That's a given. So we remove that position from the equation for an exercise designed to identify other players whose play is inextricably linked to their team's success.
The way the 2010 season is shaping up, I don't see NFC North teams winning without elite efforts from the following:
CHICAGO BEARS: LANCE BRIGGS
National observers have hashed out the arrival of defensive end Julius Peppers, the return of middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and the installation of Mike Martz's offense. But let's be clear: Briggs plays the key playmaking role in the Bears' defensive scheme and has been their best player over the past several years. He's held together the injury-riddled and aging back seven of this once-proud defense, maintaining an elite level even as the play around him has deteriorated. While Peppers offers a new level of pass rush and Urlacher calls all of the defensive signals, the Bears' hopes for a defensive resurgence this season would be crushed if Briggs weren't on the field. That makes him indispensable in my book.
DETROIT LIONS: CALVIN JOHNSON
It's true. Two of Johnson's three seasons have been limited by injury. He's never made the Pro Bowl and is known more for his freakish athletic skills than elite production. But those skills are what scare opponents into making rare adjustments and innovating exotic coverages to defend him. Consistent double coverage, with the occasional triple-bracket, is something most offenses dream of. A good coach can find all sorts of ways to capitalize on the corresponding mismatches elsewhere on the field. Without Johnson, you could defend the Lions traditionally and with modest fear. With him on the field, everything changes.
New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, who championed cornerback Darrelle Revis' candidacy for the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year award that Woodson eventually won, put it best: "Woodson would be a better safety and a better linebacker, but he's not a better corner than Darrelle Revis." Indeed, the Packers revealed Woodson's full array of skills last season in Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme, using him just as effectively as a blitzer, a quasi-safety in run support and a cornerback they trusted in single coverage against an opponent's top receiver. Capers' scheme is based on putting the same players in different looks and sub packages, and no one does that better than Woodson. Without him, the Packers would have had to delete a substantial percentage of the schemes they used last season.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: ADRIAN PETERSON
A summer of personnel uncertainty has given tailback Adrian Peterson renewed relevance in the team's offense. Receiver Sidney Rice (hip) could miss half of the season. Slot man Percy Harvin has been sidelined most of the summer by migraines. Quarterback Brett Favre didn't arrive until last week. Peterson himself missed more than a week of training camp practices because of a hamstring injury, but he will enter the regular season as the Vikings' top offensive threat. Favre still has targets in Bernard Berrian and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, but it will be difficult for the Vikings to repeat their passing success of a year ago. That once again makes Peterson front and center in the team's offense.
We spent most of our postgame time in Chicago's locker room Monday night, but Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel hit on a Green Bay point I was wondering about during the game.
Namely: Why, after attacking the Bears all evening with their passing game, did the Packers use three consecutive running plays prior to Mason Crosby's ill-fated 38-yard field goal in the fourth quarter?
The plays netted four yards, moving the ball from the Bears' 24-yard line to the 20. It was another example of late-game caution from the Packers' otherwise aggressive coach, Mike McCarthy. After watching Crosby botch a 46-yarder earlier in the game, how comfortable could McCarthy have been with a 38-yard attempt?
Silverstein questions whether McCarthy went conservative or lost faith in quarterback Aaron Rodgers. McCarthy responded that he has "full confidence" in Rodgers and added:
"I have no problem calling any pass play. I think it was evident from the way we threw the ball down the field. I thought we played aggressive. I thought we played to win."
If anything, I think McCarthy is guilty of underestimating the degree of difficulty on field goals. Last month, he played for a 52-yard attempt against Minnesota. Crosby missed that long-distance kick, which would have given the Packers a last-second victory. Monday night's conditions at Soldier Field, meanwhile, dictated that no distance was a sure bet.
We'll touch on this topic later Tuesday. For now, let's take a morning spin around the division:
- Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: "Of all the gut-wrenching losses the Packers have endured in a pitiful 5-10 season, their 20-17 overtime loss to the Chicago Bears Monday night at Soldier Field might be the most repulsive and bitter of them all."
- Greg Couch of the Chicago Sun-Times: "I'm still not even sure what [the Bears] just did. But they're not done."
- Minnesota coaches preach ball security in every practice, writes Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune. The team still fumbled seven times in Sunday's 24-17 loss to Atlanta.
- Former Vikings tailback Robert Smith's evaluation of tailback Adrian Peterson, who has fumbled eight times this season: "He just wasn't holding it tight." Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press explains.
- In case you missed it Monday, New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin won't reveal his plans for playing starters in Sunday's game against the Vikings.
- John Niyo of the Detroit News looks at the blessing and curse of having the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, which the Lions have clinched.
PHOENIX -- With the dust settled Monday morning, we can now take a look at the playoff scenarios for the NFC North's two eligible teams.
At 9-5, Minnesota's situation is unchanged from what we discussed Sunday night:
- The Vikings' magic number is one. That means they will clinch the NFC North with their next victory or the Chicago Bears' next loss.
- In case you're wondering, I've talked to some people who crunched the numbers on the Vikings' wild-card possibilities should they lose their final two games and cede the division to the Bears. We'll spare you all the details, but suffice it to say, the Vikings would have no realistic shot of a wild-card berth at 9-7.
At 8-6, Chicago's playoff scenarios are more complicated. Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times lays out the Bears' situation here.
- In order to win the NFC North, the Bears need to win their final two games while the Vikings lose their final two games. The Vikings win a tiebreaker at 10-6 or 9-7.
- As for the wild card, it's difficult but not impossible. First, the Bears would need to win their final two games to finish 10-6. They would also need Tampa Bay, Dallas and Atlanta to lose their final two games. Philadelphia would have to lose once. There is a slight chance that the Bears could beat Dallas in a tiebreaker if both finish team finish 10-6, but that category -- strength of schedule -- can't be determined until the end of the regular season.
Whew. That's a lot of possibilities. But that's where things stand with two games remaining in the regular season.
We've got some traveling ahead of us later Monday morning, but for now let's take a spin around the division:
- Green Bay displayed some jarring internal division during Sunday's 20-16 loss to Jacksonville. Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette has details on a near-fight between linebacker Brady Poppinga and cornerback Al Harris, along with some angry words from quarterback Aaron Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy regarding rookie tight end Jermichael Finley.
- Packers veteran Charles Woodson on the state of the team: "We're just not very good right now. I mean, you can point to a lot of different things, but bottom line, we're not a very good team." Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel agrees.
- Tom Silverstein of the Journal Sentinel writes that the Harris-Poppinga incident was typical, not unusual, for a defense that was in full dysfunction Sunday.
- Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson caught a career-high nine passes in the Lions' 31-21 loss at Indianapolis on Sunday. Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press chronicles Johnson's day.
- With his team two losses from 0-16, Lions coach Rod Marinelli isn't changing anything, according to John Niyo of the Detroit News. Marinelli: "I'm gonna ask you a question: What should I do differently? ... If I could do anything differently to get a win -- first game or 50th game -- I'd do it. I mean, it's common sense for me. ... I'm not a guy who's gonna go, 'Oh, we gotta change this, this, this [and] this. It's panic time.' No, I'm not gonna do that. I'm just gonna do what I do."
- Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson broke Robert Smith's record for most rushing yards in a season Sunday against Arizona. Peterson's 165 yards gives him 1,581 yards in 14 games, according to this Star Tribune notebook.
- Tom Powers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "Somebody grab my tongue, I think I'm having a seizure. They finally played 60 minutes of dominating football just in time to get the folks back home all twitchy and excited about the playoffs."