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There is something about a quarterback controversy that draws interest from even the most casual football fans. Here in the NFC North we have a gen-u-ine, honest-to-goodness battle: When the Chicago Bears report Tuesday for training camp, they will begin the process of deciding whether Rex Grossman (hiss!) or Kyle Orton (uhhhh...) will take the first meaningful snap of the regular season.
The Grossman-Orton competition, however, is only the most prominent example of uncertainty in a division stocked with questions at the game's most important position. The NFC North also includes a chaotic transition in Green Bay, an ongoing project in Minnesota and a looming decision in Detroit.
Can the Packers' Aaron Rodgers survive in the post-Favre era? Will Tarvaris Jackson make enough progress to merit the Vikings' continuing faith? What plans, if any, do the Lions have to replace Jon Kitna, who turns 36 in September? Such are the questions facing the NFC North's four teams as they open training camps this week.
Chicago: Door No. 1 or Door No. 2?
The Bears have invested their time, money and patience in Grossman, the No. 22 overall pick of the 2003 draft. He has returned the favor by teasing them with superstar-caliber throws while haunting them with head-scratching interceptions. The Bears reached the Super Bowl in Grossman's only full season as starter, but after five inconsistent years he is down to his last chance.
From the outside, however, it appears the Bears want him to win the job. Otherwise, logic suggests they would have at least sought out more competition during the offseason, if not replaced him altogether. Instead, they pit him against Orton -- a nondescript game manager who spent most of the past two seasons as a reserve.
The Bears' strength remains on defense and special teams, so the No. 1 criteria for their quarterback is to minimize mistakes. Grossman will have to steady his performance considerably or, based on that standard, Orton could emerge as the surprise winner of this derby.
Is either player a long-term answer? Very likely, no. But for 2008, at least, the Bears have given themselves only two doors to choose from.
Green Bay: What's so good about Aaron Rodgers?
|AP Photo/Matt Ludtke|
|Aaron Rodgers has been the heir apparent since he was drafted.|
That inquiry has been one of the most-asked questions during the month-long standoff between the Packers and Brett Favre. Although circumstances could change, the team has thus far turned down Favre's request to postpone retirement and has committed to Rodgers, a skilled but untested fourth-year player.
Rodgers has been Favre's heir apparent since general manager Ted Thompson selected him in the first round of the 2005 draft. But Favre's durability, not to mention several of his own injuries, has limited Rodgers to a total of 59 passes in seven NFL appearances. The upside, however, has been that Rodgers received rare training on the professional level, spending three seasons watching a Hall of Fame quarterback perform.
The Packers believe Rodgers is ready, but more importantly they have determined now is the time for a transition. Favre was going to end his career sometime, and the Packers have chosen to make the shift now. Rodgers will take over a playoff-caliber team with a roster deep enough to absorb the growing pains of a young quarterback.
Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy has adjusted Rodgers' throwing motion, one of the few knocks against him in college. Speaking earlier this summer, before Favre's intentions were made public, McCarthy said: "He's really prepared himself for this opportunity." McCarthy added: "He clearly understands the pressures that are put upon him, of being the starting quarterback, of the legacy of Brett that was in front of him. Those are things he cannot concern himself with. He just needs to stay focused on playing quarterback and being himself."
|AP Photo/Andy King|
|Tarvaris Jackson compiled an 82.9 passer rating during the second half of last season.|
Minnesota: Is the project complete?
Jackson was the rawest of prospects in 2006 when the Vikings moved up in the second round of the 2006 draft to select him out of Division I-AA Alabama State. Midway through 2007, it appeared Jackson was in far over his head.
But in compiling an 82.9 passer rating during the second half of the season, Jackson convinced coach Brad Childress he was on the right path. In fact, Childress is so confident in Jackson that he and personnel director Rick Spielman surrounded him with a highly-paid veteran team that seems otherwise primed for a deep playoff run.
"The equity he has built in this building with his teammates really speaks for itself," Childress said.
Unlike last season, however, Childress hedged his bet by signing free agent backup Gus Frerotte and drafting former USC quarterback John David Booty. Neither is a threat to unseat Jackson in training camp, but Frerotte is more than capable of bridging the Vikings to 2009 if Jackson falters.
Detroit: When is the right time to look ahead?
After compiling a 10-22 record in his first two seasons as Lions coach, Rod Marinelli can't afford to look too far into the future. Marinelli believes strongly in veteran quarterbacks, but eventually the franchise will have to glance beyond Kitna and determine a succession
The favored scenario might well involve Drew Stanton, a second-round draft pick in 2007. Officially, Stanton is competing with Dan Orlovsky for the No. 2 position, but the Lions would love to see Stanton develop into a legitimate option for the 2009 season.
Already the debate in Detroit is whether the Lions should find a way to get Stanton playing time in 2008 if/when the Lions' season goes sour. (Pessimists!) After all, it's never too early for a quarterback controversy.