NFC North: Williams Wall

The apparent end of the 2 1/2-year StarCaps legal battle means the Minnesota Vikings could lose defensive tackle Kevin Williams for the first four games of the 2011 season, regardless of any lockout delay.

Fellow defensive Pat Williams will be a free agent and it isn't clear if he will re-sign with the team. His suspension would apply whether he returns to the Vikings or signs elsewhere. He has said he doesn't plan to retire. Neither player was able to overturn discipline for the use of a weight-loss supplement that carried a banned diuretic; they said they were unaware of the ingredient and accused the NFL both of failing to inform them of that fact and also of breaking Minnesota state law in administering its drug testing policy.

Regardless, the Vikings will need to fortify their depth at defensive tackle in anticipation of Kevin Williams' absence. As of Thursday afternoon, he was one of only three defensive tackles under contract. The others are career backups Letroy Guion and Tremaine Johnson. Veteran Fred Evans did not receive a contract tender before the lockout began and thus is a free agent.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

As Leslie Frazier moves through his first full week as the Minnesota Vikings' permanent head coach, one question hangs over more than any other: What will he do about the offense?

Will Frazier change schemes or retain the West Coast system?

Will he want Darrell Bevell to return as the Vikings' offensive coordinator?

Who will he hire to replace running backs coach Eric Bieniemy? Will he wait to solidify the coordinator first?

Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune examines those questions. Frazier's career-long work as a defensive coach, and his hesitancy to discuss many details about his offensive philosophy, have left these questions a mystery. Frazier has said he wants to focus on running the ball but also said he wants to mold the playbook based on existing personnel.

The biggest clue will come when Frazier names an offensive coordinator, whose background should offer a glimpse into the Vikings' long-term intentions.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • The Williams Wall might have played its last game together, notes Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com offers a film review of the Vikings' Week 17 loss to the Detroit Lions.
  • Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette considers the long-term implications of the Green Bay Packers' decision to give linebacker Desmond Bishop a contract extension.
  • Bishop took the deal with the possibility of a work stoppage at the front of many players' minds, notes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
  • The Packers' defense isn't worried about the possibility of its offense shutting down against the Philadelphia Eagles, writes Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com takes a look at the Chicago Bears' possible playoff matchups.
  • David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune writes that Bears quarterback Jay Cutler needs to be calm in the playoffs. Haugh: "A calm Cutler gives the rest of the NFC playoff field anxiety. He can dominate a game when his head is right and his feet are planted. But as we were reminded against the Packers, the more the Bears quarterback lets his emotions get the best of him, the less chance his team might have of getting to the Super Bowl."
  • Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times: "The 10-3 loss to the Packers in the regular-season finale Sunday may have served as the perfect reminder to offensive coordinator Mike Martz that 'balance' remains the key word for offensive success. If Martz had been thinking of passing on a balanced attack, the Bears' three-point afternoon in Green Bay -- as well as the lumps on quarterback Jay Cutler's body -- should prompt him to abandon that game plan."
  • Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com offers season-ending grades for the Detroit Lions.
  • For the first time in a while, the nucleus of the Lions is expected back, writes Tim Twentyman of the Detroit News.
  • Lions defensive end Cliff Avril, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press: "You don't have to be embarrassed to say you played for the Lions this year."

BBAO: Sunday's Metrodome crowd

November, 18, 2010
11/18/10
7:00
AM ET
We're Black and Blue All Over:

During a light moment Wednesday, we threw out a unique possibility on Twitter for Sunday's game at the Metrodome: What if the now-frequent "Fire Childress" chants from Minnesota Vikings fans are replaced by "Keep Childress" chants from Green Bay Packers fans?

I'm always amazed at how many Packers fans find their way into the Metrodome for this rivalry game, and the Vikings' 3-6 record might spur a few more Vikings fans to sell their tickets. Some fans have organized sarcastic online movements to encourage the Vikings to keep Childress as their coach, for obvious reasons, and you never know what could happen.

This all came to mind upon reading Gary D'Amato's story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about Metrodome crowd noise. Packers coach Mike McCarthy compared it to playing in front of "a bad stereo system." But should the Packers fear a hostile environment? Or will it be even more Packers-friendly then usual? Stay tuned.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com traces the development of cornerback Sam Shields. When he first arrived, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said, Shields had "no clue" how to play the position.
  • The Green Bay Press-Gazette looks at the progress of Packers tailback Brandon Jackson.
  • Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times: "At 6-3 after a victory over the Vikings, the Bears are driving a wedge between two factions of their fan base: those who are annoyed by Lovie Smith and unimpressed by Jerry Angelo but will tolerate both if the Bears are a good team; and those who are so annoyed by Smith and so unimpressed by Angelo that they'd rather the Bears lose enough games to cause the firing of both than endure a playoff run that might end up in the Super Bowl but could leave them to suffer the indignity of an unfulfilling conclusion to the season that solidifies Smith and Angelo at Halas Hall."
  • Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune on the Bears' second-half prospects: "[B]uckle up and expect a dip or two if you are riding with the Bears."
  • Some of the improvement Bears right tackle J'Marcus Webb has made can be attributed to the return of veteran Roberto Garza at right guard, writes Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com.
  • Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press: "If I'm healthy I'm going to be out there, that's the way I see it. I don't care if it's [the] first game of the season, last game of the season, doesn't matter to me. I don't care what our record is, if I'm healthy I'm playing."
  • Lions coach Jim Schwartz said the team's record won't influence whether Stafford returns this season, writes Chris McCosky of the Detroit News.
  • Lions defensive end Cliff Avril (thigh) might not play Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, notes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
  • Minnesota Vikings receiver Sidney Rice (hip) said he is not thinking about shutting himself down for the season, writes Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune.
  • A Minnesota appeals court judge heard testimony Wednesday about a permanent injunction on the Williams Wall suspensions. Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press explains.
  • ESPN.com's Elizabeth Merrill takes an insider's view of the Vikings' soap opera. When Merrill interviewed Vikings coach Brad Childress, he was clutching a printout of a story in which nose tackle Pat Williams had defended him.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

As we noted Monday, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is on pace to miss the 12th start of his career because of injury Sunday. In a radio appearance, Stafford addressed his inability to stay on the field since entering the league.
Stafford (via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press): "I don't think anybody's injury prone. I think it happens to some people. It doesn't happen to others for whatever reason. I know that I do everything to prepare my body and get my body ready for every game. For one reason or another, I've had injuries in the last couple of years. I've never missed a game in college or high school due to an injury. I guess it's bound to happen at some point. I hate that it's happening now. It's not something I like, something that I expect to be an issue long-term. ... I hope to make it out of the rest of this year without another one and move on from there and have a bunch of years where I'm playing all 16 games and hopefully more in the playoffs."

Obviously, the Lions hope that's the case. And there have been cases in NFL history of quarterbacks whose careers were delayed by early injuries. One of the most-discussed instances is former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms, who fought through various ailments during the first four years of his career before finally becoming a 16-game starter in his fifth.

Simms played during a more patient era of the NFL, however. These days, highly-drafted quarterbacks are expected to start immediately and excel relatively quickly. Stafford hasn't given himself a chance to do the latter.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com reports that initial tests showed Stafford had a Grade 3 separation of his right shoulder. If further tests prove that to be the case, it's unlikely he'll play again this season.
  • Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News: "Is Stafford injury-prone? By definition, yes he is, so far. Sorry. That's not a knock on his toughness. It's factual, partly the fluky fate of football, and it certainly makes it more difficult for the Lions to count on their promising franchise quarterback."
  • Lions coach Jim Schwartz is taking the blame for a play call that ultimately gave the New York Jets enough time to tie the game in regulation last Sunday, notes Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit News.
  • Chicago Bears cornerback Tim Jennings is displaying a knack for the big play, writes Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • Bears quarterback Jay Cutler reacted well to pressure Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, writes Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com takes a midseason review of the Bears.
  • Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson had this to say about the release of cornerback Al Harris, via Jim Polzin of the Wisconsin State Journal: "It was very difficult. Al's a great guy, a really good teammate and he's done a really good job here. It's not a reflection against Al, it's more of a reflection of the job that our young guys have done. And from a roster standpoint, that's just something we felt like we needed to do."
  • Of the decision, Harris said (via Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel): "I guess they feel I'm not good enough to play on their team. That was shocking. They really caught me off guard with this one."
  • Packers players will have the entire week off from practice ahead of their bye, notes Kareem Copeland of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • Packers safety Nick Collins on his $50,000 fine for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Dallas Cowboys receiver Roy Williams, via ESPNMilwaukee.com: "We’re going to have to adjust. It’s going to be difficult. But we are professionals. It’s not going to be easy. You’ve been taught from high school, college until now, you want to separate your receiver from the ball. You’re not trying to lead with your head, but you’re also taught to hit the guy with your face up. We’re not out there to try to hurt anybody. Unfortunately, people are coming up with these concussions left and right, and it’s a sensitive issue. I just don’t know how this is going to play out."
  • Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com evaluates the tape of the Minnesota Vikings' 27-24 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear the NFL's appeal to the Williams Wall case. Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press details the next step in the legal journey.
  • It's possible that Vikings receiver Sidney Rice (hip) will return to the active roster in time to play Sunday against the Chicago Bears, notes Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune.

BBAO: Super Bowl talk in Green Bay

August, 1, 2010
8/01/10
10:40
AM ET
We're Black and Blue All Over:

How seriously are the Green Bay Packers taking the Super Bowl talk surrounding them? According to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, linebacker Nick Barnett is selling a T-shirt with this slogan: Super Bowl or die.
Barnett: "I don't know if we're the favorites or anything like that. But I definitely think we have the talent to do it. That's what we say, 'Super Bowl or die.' It doesn't make any sense why we can't. We're dead serious about it. You never know how many chances you'll get in your life."

I agree with Barnett and am looking forward to my arrival in Green Bay later this week. I have one day remaining with the Chicago Bears, and then I'm scheduled to make a three-day stop in Detroit to see the Lions before continuing on to Lambeau Field.

Hope you're enjoying the camp ride so far. Let's catch up around the division on this Sunday morning:
  • Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette felt the Packers' excitement as well: "For the first time in at least three years, the only dark clouds looming over the Packers entering the start of camp were weather related. There was no quarterback controversy, no contract holdouts and no distractions. That's exactly the way the Packers want it, with all their focus on football. 'It's the best I have seen in a long time,' receiver Donald Driver said of the team's mindset.'
  • A few players weren't happy to be practicing in wet conditions Saturday, writes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
  • The Lions received a standing ovation from fans after their first practice, according to the Detroit Free Press.
  • Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News on the Lions' negotiations with unsigned defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh: "If Suh arrives in the next day or so, and that's certainly possible, no major harm. But if someone is digging in ---[agent Eugene] Parker has a history of protracted negotiations -- and trying to make a statement, stop it."
  • The Minnesota Vikings' quarterbacks are caught in limbo as they await Brett Favre's return, writes Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune.
  • Vikings receiver Percy Harvin returned to practice Saturday night after tweaking his ankle Saturday morning, reports Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.
  • Eight NFL players were pardoned after testing positive for bumetanide, the substance the league ultimately suspended Vikings defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams for. Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press has the story.
  • Former NFL receiver Isaac Bruce is scheduled to arrive at Bears training camp later this week to work with the receiver group, according to the team's web site.
  • Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times wonders why the Bears aren't tackling in camp if they are looking to be more aggressive.
  • Defensive end Julius Peppers should lessen the Bears' need to blitz, writes Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

I suggest we all cut, paste and remember this quote from Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who has spent most of this offseason lavishing sweet nothings on offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Courtesy Jon Greenberg of ESPNChicago.com:
"He makes you want to come to work every day. He's so creative, he's doing fun stuff. He's finding ways to win. That's all you can ask for as a player, to have a coach that loves football and is going to do everything possible to be successful. I think that's what the great coaches are able to do and what Mike's done in the past."

Based on what we've seen of Cutler's personality, I'm going to take a leap and suggest he's not the type to fake such rosy assessments. So I think it's fair to say that as the Bears concluded organized team activities this week, Cutler was sold on Martz's system. Will it remain that way throughout the season? The answer to that question will be a key to the Bears' 2010 season.

Continuing around the NFC North:

I hesitate to tread into the legal analysis necessary to connect (or rule out a connection) between Monday's landmark American Needle case and the ongoing Williams Wall trial in Minnesota. But based on your questions to the mailbag, there is a high level of interest. Josh of New York was among those seeking a general conversation on the topic:
I just read that the Supreme Court ruled today that the NFL is comprised of 32 separate teams, not one "NFL Entity" for antitrust law purposes. Do you think this ruling will have any effect on the Minnesota appellate court review of the Williams' decision? I'm not intimately familiar with the nuts and bolts of the Supreme Court and MN rulings, but as an attorney, I would be chomping at the bit to use the Supreme Court ruling as precedent in the MN case (i.e., as separate teams, perhaps they are subject to separate state labor laws).

In the Needle case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the NFL is made up of 32 competing businesses and therefore can't always make league-wide business deals because it inhibits competition. On first glance, at least, I'm not sure that the ruling will impact the eligibility of Minnesota Vikings defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams.

As you recall, Hennepin County district court Judge Gary Larson actually ruled that NFL's anti-doping testing policy violated Minnesota state laws. He agreed with the players that their legal employer is the NFL, but he upheld their four-game suspension because he said they were not harmed by the violation.

So if the American Needle case somehow made the Vikings their legal employer, it would only weaken their position. It wouldn't impact the legal analysis of whether the players were harmed by the violation.

Those with an opinion, legal or otherwise, feel free to chime in. It's always possible that a connection could develop, but what I've been led to believe at this point is there won't be a substantive one that could somehow reverse the players' suspensions. Put better: If the players do get their suspensions permanently lifted, it won't be because of the American Needle case.
Early analysis on Friday's Williams Wall ruling indicates that Minnesota Vikings defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams are almost certain to remain eligible for the entire 2010 season.

In our earlier post, we noted that the players would have to exhaust their legal options this summer in order for their four-game suspensions to apply to the start of the regular season. But Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports that appellate cases in Minnesota take an average of nine months to one year for resolution. Assuming that the upcoming appeal follows a similar timetable, the earliest a ruling would come down is February 2011.

That would be more than two years after Kevin Williams and Pat Williams were originally suspended for violating the NFL's anti-doping policy. The original test occurred in August 2008. Freedom and justice for all.
Pat Williams/Kevin WilliamsTom Dahlin/Getty ImagesA Minnesota judge says he will keep the suspensions of Pat Williams, left, and Kevin Williams on hold if they follow through on their plan to appeal the punishment for violating the NFL's anti-drug policy.
The Williams Wall will remain standing for as long as it pursues its lawsuit against the NFL. That's the upshot of Friday's ruling from Hennepin County (Minnesota) Judge Gary Larson, who granted an injunction to lift their four-game suspensions while they appeal their most recent legal defeat.

This ruling is more about timing than whether or not Kevin Williams and Pat Williams will ultimately serve their suspensions. The larger case has lingered for 18 months and it would be impossible to predict its shelf life. All we know is that it will move to the Minnesota state court of appeals. If the players can't overturn the case there, the next (and perhaps final?) step would be the United States Supreme Court.

With the injunction in place, the players are protected until they either win or run out of legal options. Can that all happen in the four months leading up to the regular season? I doubt anyone can predict that timing, especially if the Supreme Court becomes part of the equation. *Update See this updated post, which explains why it's almost certain both players will be eligible to play the entire 2010 season.)

In preparation for the possibility of Larson rejecting the players' injunction request, I had a chart all ready to go. It illustrates the 2009 frequency and success of middle runs by the first four teams the Vikings will play this season.

Because there is at least a possibility the Williams Wall will be absent for those games, I'll let you chew on the chart now. (*Update: That possibility is remote, but that's never stopped us before.) You'll notice the Miami Dolphins were one of the NFL's most frequent up-the-middle runners, while Detroit and New Orleans attempted it relatively rarely. Teams can change their approach from one year to the next, but all four of those opponents have returned the same offensive coordinator for 2010.

For a Friday in May, today is shaping up to be pretty busy in the NFC North.

For starters, the Chicago Bears will kick off their veteran minicamp with the first of five practices at 9:30 a.m. ET. About 90 minutes later, a Minnesota judge is expected to release a key ruling in the Williams Wall legal case. If the suspensions of Minnesota Vikings defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams are upheld, I think we can start having a serious conversation about their looming absence for the first time since this saga started in December 2008.

Meanwhile, we'll have an army of ESPNChicago.com reporters on the ground at Halas Hall to bring you the micro details of every Bears practice. I'll pass along their information when I can and then come back early next week with some perspective on where the Bears stand.

In the meantime, let's preview the minicamp and see what else is happening around the division:

  • Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune: "The Bears have a six-horse race at wide receiver and the starting gate will be lifted Friday morning."
  • Bears defensive end Israel Idonije is looking forward to his second year under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, writes Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com.
  • Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times looks at the relationship between Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz and quarterback Jay Cutler.
  • Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald: "Despite the free-agency windfall that brought Julius Peppers, Chester Taylor and Brandon Manumaleuna, or perhaps because of it, the Bears have a lot of questions to answer when their full-team minicamp begins Friday."
  • The Bears have signed all but one of their draft choices after inking sixth-round quarterback Dan LeFevour to a four-year contract Thursday.
  • Detroit Lions right tackle Gosder Cherilus is making progress in his recovery from right knee surgery, writes Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com: "One of the more interesting aspects to the Detroit Lions defense this season is the casual acceptance that a third-round draft pick going into his second season -- DeAndre Levy -- will be able to fill the starting middle linebacker spot without problems."
  • Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News: "The Lions showed unflinching faith in Matthew Stafford last year, entrusting him with the starting job right from the opener. Now, not so quietly, they're ready to take the next important step, and actually give him a better chance to do the job."
  • Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette is anticipating a training camp battle between Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz at left guard.
  • New Minnesota Vikings cornerback Lito Sheppard is trying to put behind him a disappointing season with the New York Jets, according to the Star Tribune.
  • Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com profiles rookie Vikings tight end Mickey Shuler.
In the interest of planning out your Friday mid-morning coffee break, I just wanted to make sure everyone is on the same page regarding the next installment of the Williams Wall legal case.

At 11 a.m. ET Friday morning, Hennepin County (Minn.) Judge Gary Larson is scheduled to issue a key ruling. In essence, it will determine whether Minnesota Vikings defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams can play while they appeal their recent legal defeat.

If Larson denies the injunction request, the players will need to win their appeal before the start of the regular season. Otherwise, their four-game suspensions will begin the first full week of September.

Let's gather here Friday to hash it all out. I take lots of milk and no sugar.
The position swap between Green Bay Packers defensive linemen B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett wasn't the only newsworthy change visible at Wednesday's organized team activity. As Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette notes, the Packers have also moved Will Blackmon from cornerback to safety.

Blackmon is rehabilitating a torn anterior cruciate ligament and above all else is considered a kickoff and punt returner. But the move is interesting in the sense that Blackmon had been thought to be among the group of players the Packers were counting on for cornerback depth after struggling with that in the second half of last season.

At this point, the Packers have Charles Woodson at one cornerback position. Fellow starter Al Harris is also working back from a knee injury, and Tramon Williams is not participating in OTAs. Depth behind Williams includes Jarrett Bush, Pat Lee and Brandon Underwood. Bush worked with the first team Wednesday, according to Demovsky.

Continuing around the NFC North:

  • Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said he was "shocked" that college teammate Brian Cushing was suspended four games for violating the NFL's anti-doping policy. Greg A. Bedard of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has more.
  • A rarity: oft-injured Green Bay defensive lineman Justin Harrell was practicing Wednesday, writes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
  • Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher on his surgically-repaired wrist "I'm pretty confident it's going to hurt for a while, until I get all the movement back. But it's better than I thought it would be.'' Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune has more.
  • The Bears will bring in former Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Brian Iwuh for a workout Friday, according to Michael Wright of ESPNChicago.com.
  • Bob Sansevere of the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "Here's some advice for Vikings owner Zygi Wilf: Don't threaten the people of Minnesota, people who have been as loyal to your franchise as any collection of fans anywhere in the nation. All it does is alienate them."
  • Minnesota Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson on his gut feeling of Brett Favre's intentions: "I'm not going to share it. But I think everybody has their feeling. And I think everybody is pretty much on the same page." Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune has more of Jackson's interview.
  • The next installment of the Williams Wall legal affair will be announced Friday morning. Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com explains.
  • Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press: "At the Lions' charity bocce tournament Tuesday, coach Jim Schwartz sat down for a few minutes with Red Wings Hall of Famer Ted Lindsay."
  • The Lions believe rookie cornerback Amari Spievey can add a physical nature to their secondary, writes Tim Twentyman of the Detroit News.
FROM A BRISTOL CUBICLE DURING A BREAK IN HIGH-LEVEL MEETINGS -- Hope everyone is enjoying their Thursday. Just checking in to make sure you saw the latest chapter of the Williams Wall legal saga.

As always, Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press explains it better than I could. Essentially, the NFL is appealing an earlier decision to send the case to Minnesota state court. The league ultimately prevailed over Vikings defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams in the trial. But sending the case to state court in the first place was a precedent the league wants reversed.

The appeal would be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, we're still waiting to hear if the players will be granted a temporary injunction to hold their four-game suspensions at bay while they appeal their loss in state court.

Confused? Don't worry. As we've noted before, many stages of legal maneuvering remain before this case concludes.
In the midst of rehabilitating torn anterior cruciate ligaments, two key Detroit players made appearances Thursday at an organized team activity. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew and tailback Kevin Smith only participated in individual drills, but both expressed confidence they will be fully recovered by the start of the season -- if not when training camp begins in late July.

According to Tim Twentyman of the Detroit News, Smith was asked if he would be ready in time for camp. His response: "Is my name Kevin Smith? There's your answer."

Smith certainly has motivation to accelerate his recovery after the Lions drafted tailback Jahvid Best in the first round last month. The Lions also have added reinforcements to Pettigrew's position by trading for tight end Tony Scheffler.

I'm not sure what Smith's future with the team will be, but Pettigrew will resume his role as a central building block whenever he returns.

Continuing around the NFC North:

  • New Lions receiver Nate Burleson believes the Lions can compete with any team in the division, writes Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press.
  • An NFL spokesman wouldn't address whether the league would consider staggering potential four-game suspensions for Minnesota defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, according to Tom Pelissero of ESPN1500.com. Such a move would generate considerable angst.
  • Tom Powers of the St. Paul Pioneer Press: "Pat Williams and Kevin Williams deserve four-game suspensions if for no other reason than being na´ve enough to think they could out-litigate the NFL."
  • Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune takes a look at the four opponents the Vikings might have to face without the Williams Wall.
  • Chicago might end up keeping four tight ends on its active roster, writes Michael Wright of ESPNChicago.com.
  • Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune: "If the Bears can convince Marc Bulger to sign a one-year deal on the cheap, having a veteran backup quarterback is a grand idea. Otherwise, going to camp with Caleb Hanie, Brett Basanez and Dan LeFevour may be their best option."
  • Dave Heller of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel speaks with rookie Green Bay receiver Shawn Gore, a native of Canada who signed after a tryout during rookie minicamp.
What's next in the Williams Wall case, now that a Hennepin County judge has sided with the NFL and upheld its suspensions of Vikings defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams?

Technically, nothing has changed. The suspensions apply to the regular season only, so both players are free to participate in the Vikings' offseason program. And plenty will happen in this case before we get to September.

As we discussed earlier this week, both players will appeal the decision. Judge Gary Larson ruled the NFL did in fact violate Minnesota labor laws, but said the players were not harmed by the violations. Given the yes-no nature of that decision, both players have asked for a temporary injunction that would delay their suspensions until the appeals process is exhausted.*

I think we would have been in for a longer fight if Larson had ruled against the NFL, given the bigger ramifications on drug testing throughout sports if he would have allowed state law to trump federal law. But it appears the players will at least seek a reversal of Larson's decision.

For football fans, the question becomes how long the appeals process will take and whether it could possibly be resolved before the 2010 regular season. If it is, the Vikings will have to tap an 18-month-old contingency plan to replace the heart of their defensive line for a quarter of the season.

If you remember, the team signed free agent Jimmy Kennedy shortly after the suspensions were originally announced in December 2008.

Kennedy re-signed for the 2009 season, had three sacks in limited playing time, and then signed a two-year deal over the winter. Between Kennedy, Fred Evans and 2008 draft pick Letroy Guion, the Vikings consider themselves covered.

"We have pretty good depth there," vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman said after the draft last month. Scott Studwell, director of college scouting, said a potential suspension wasn't discussed in the week leading up to the draft.

"That's been an ongoing issue that we're almost immune to," Studwell said. "I know it's ongoing, and it's certainly a concern. But we've got a lot of depth in our defensive tackle group right now."

As always, stay tuned.

*Update: According to Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Larson told attorneys on both sides to submit briefs on the injunction matter and said he would rule on it in two weeks. If he grants the injunction, both players will be available for games until the appeals process is exhausted. If he denies it, they will have to hope they can win an appeal before the start of the 2010 regular season.

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