NFL Nation: Kevin Payne
The Panthers hit the waiver wire hard Sunday, claiming five players at positions of need.
The Panthers claimed wide receiver Seyi Ajirotutu from San Diego, defensive back Stevie Brown from Oakland, nose tackle Marcus Harrison from Chicago, defensive end George Selvie from St. Louis and defensive back Josh Thomas from Dallas.
To make room for them, the Panthers waived defensive end Everette Brown, guard Bryant Browning, receiver David Clowney and defensive end Thomas Keiser. The Panthers also released veteran safety Kevin Payne.
Stay tuned, because it’s likely the Panthers are not done yet. They still have a big need at right guard after losing Geoff Schwartz and Garry Williams to season-ending injuries. They likely are in the market for a veteran at that position.
The Chicago Bears love their safeties. Cal's Chris Conte is the ninth they've drafted since general manager Jerry Angelo took over in 2002.
(Extra credit if you can name all nine. They're at the bottom of this post.)
The Bears have given most of the players on that list a chance to start, and there's no reason to think they have a different plan for Conte. The Bears are targeting 2010 third-rounder Major Wright as a starting safety, and it's only fair to note that his presumed 2011 partner -- veteran Chris Harris -- is entering the final year of his contract. Is Conte the long-term replacement for Harris?
Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said the Bears "spent a lot of time" scouting Conte and noted that his conversion from cornerback means he has some cover skills. Bears defensive backs coach Jon Hoke received a strong recommendation from Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, and Angelo said it's "very, very hard to find free safeties." Call me crazy, but I'm thinking we'll see Conte on the field sooner rather than later.
"Very impressed with what the team has done over the past few drafts.... I might even stop by training camp to see the guys this year..."
The Lions have a distinguished history that predates that disastrous Matt Millen era that many modern-day fans associate them with. The endorsement of one of their best-ever players shouldn't be taken lightly.
Only a few minutes after drafting Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure, Lions coach Jim Schwartz was already facing the question: How will he dole out playing time between Leshoure and incumbent Jahvid Best?
Schwartz said he won't use a "Randy Ratio," the Minnesota Vikings' ill-fated attempt to ration throws to receiver Randy Moss in 2002. (Current Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan was in the same position with the Vikings at the time.) Schwartz said there was "definitely a possibility" of using both in the same backfield, but made clear that the approach could "change from week to week."
Schwartz: "It might change due to injuries and player availability. It might change based on opponent. I think there's a lot of different things that happen in our division. We see a 4-3 team like the Chicago Bears. We see a 3-4 team like the Green Bay Packers. That's a different style of running back. [You] play 3-4 teams that are two-gapping, that are holding on -- you need a big back who can run through some arm tackles. You want to get guys matched up on different teams, you need guys who can match up and beat linebackers and people that want to play man and trick coverage up for a certain player."
A few years ago, we celebrated when the Bears drafted the "pool guy." Defensive lineman Jarron Gilbert had made waves during the pre-draft process by jumping out of a pool and posting the video on YouTube. Unfortunately, Gilbert couldn't play and was waived last summer.
The Green Bay Packers drafted their own pool guy, Arizona defensive end/linebacker Ricky Elmore, but there is reason to believe he has a better future than Gilbert.
True, Elmore has posted videos of him both jumping out of a pool and into a truck on YouTube. But it's also worth noting that Elmore actually had more production last season than his more-famous teammate, defensive end/linebacker Brooks Reed.
Elmore finished last season with 11 sacks and a total of 13 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Reed had six sacks and 10 tackles behind the line. At 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds, I'm eager to see if Elmore's athleticism and college production can translate in the Packers' 3-4 scheme.
Vikings rookie quarterback Christian Ponder is expected to be the starter sooner than later, if not immediately. Assuming that's the case, it's quite possible the Vikings will look for other ways to get Joe Webb onto the field -- possibly in a way that reflects the New York Jets' use of Brad Smith. In either event, it's likely the Vikings will need a veteran backup.
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave endorsed that suggestion, saying over the weekend that it "balances out a position." There continue to be reports, most recently from NFL.com, that the Vikings' most likely target is Washington's Donovan McNabb. If Ponder is going to take over at some point in 2011, that wouldn't make much sense to me.
But what do I know?
The Vikings might be the only NFC North team looking to add to its quarterback depth chart. Angelo strongly indicated that rookie Nathan Enderle will be the Bears' No. 3 quarterback behind Jay Cutler and Caleb Hanie. The Packers seem set with Aaron Rodgers, Matt Flynn and Graham Harrell. And Lions general manager Martin Mayhew has said he plans no changes from the trio of Matthew Stafford, Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton.
South Florida safety Mistral Raymond, drafted by the Vikings with the No. 170 overall pick, has endured an incredible three years. As Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune explains, a group vowing retaliation for a shooting mis-identified Raymond's childhood home in Florida and burned it down using Molotov cocktails. No family members were killed, but one of Raymond's sisters was shot four times and airlifted to a trauma center for emergency surgery.
Then, last month, another sister was murdered. Raymond said over the weekend that he hoped his selection in the draft provided a joyful outlet for his family.
"Just having my family here with me, having them see my name come across the screen and seeing the excitement that it brought them, I think it was a relief for all of us," he said. "It helped me realize what type of position that the Lord has put me in. He has blessed me to be an outlet for my family. For them to have excitement no matter what at any given time of the day. It's just a great feeling for me personally, and I'm very grateful to be in the position I'm in."
And finally, your trivia answer: Bobby Gray (2002), Todd Johnson (2003), Chris Harris (2005), Danieal Manning (2006), Kevin Payne (2007), Craig Steltz (2008), Al Afalava (2009), Major Wright (2010), Chris Conte (2011).
No-brainers: The Rams kept only eight offensive linemen initially because the depth beyond their starters simply wasn't very good. On defense, safety Kevin Payne's injury situation cost him a chance at providing depth while James Butler recovers from a knee injury. Coach Steve Spagnuolo talked up rookie running back Keith Toston a few times, and he has long appreciated Kenneth Darby's toughness. But if the Rams can find upgrades, they should consider their options.
What’s next: The Rams hold the NFL's No. 1 waiver priority following their 1-15 record last season. Expect them to make a few claims in an effort to upgrade their roster. Most teams keep nine offensive linemen. The Rams could be active at that position. They could use a backup for Jackson. And with receiver Donnie Avery on injured reserve, the Rams could explore the trade market.
Rams players cut:
QB Keith Null
RB Chris Ogbonnaya
FB Dennis Morris
WR Danario Alexander
WR Jordan Kent
WR Brandon McRae
TE Darcy Johnson
OL Roger Allen
OL Tim Mattran
OL Ryan McKee
OL Drew Miller
OL Eric Young (IR).
DL Victor Adeyanju
DL Ernest Reid
LB Devin Bishop
LB Bobby Carpenter
LB Cardia Jackson
CB Quincy Butler
CB Marquis Johnson
CB Antoine Thompson
SS Brett Johnson
SS Kevin Payne (IR)
Keith Null, who started four games as a rookie in 2009, will not be the third-stringer behind A.J. Feeley.
Bradford's elevation, announced by coach Steve Spagnuolo, and Null's release brought clarity to the Rams' quarterback picture. The Rams have not announced all their cuts, but with Null out, rookie Thaddeus Lewis becomes the third quarterback heading into the regular season.
Starting Bradford was the most logical decision after the rookie No. 1 overall choice shined during much of the exhibition season, plus training camp. There's no sense in stunting Bradford's development if he appears mentally, emotionally and physically strong enough to dive right in.
Two other Rams moves: Kevin Payne and Eric Young to injured reserve.
On the radar: Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says the Rams could show interest in San Diego Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson. Recently released Seattle Seahawks receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh is also a consideration, but I'm not sure what type of situation Houshmandzadeh might prefer. He's from Southern California, he's a veteran and he's guaranteed $7 million no matter what, so why not target a winning team somewhere relatively close to the West Coast? Just a thought.
- You can say Sam Bradford had a sensational night in his first NFL start, or you can be worried the rookie quarterback of a team that went 1-15 last year had his way against Bill Belichick's defense. The Patriots were undisciplined and seemed a little lost.
- The Rams allowed 44 sacks last year, tied for seventh-most in the NFL. With four-fifths of the same offensive line and a rookie left tackle in front of Bradford, the Patriots' defense sacked him once and generally failed to create pressure.
- New England was credited with three passes defensed. One of them belonged to nose tackle Vince Wilfork.
- St. Louis' second-team offense, led by undrafted rookie quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, did this to New England's first-team defense to open the second half: 76 yards on 15 plays in 9:19. Lewis and Brandon Gibson connected for a 20-yard touchdown.
- First-round draft pick Devin McCourty started at left cornerback and had a rough night. He struggled on run support and was beaten deep by Donnie Avery for 32 yards on the Rams' first drive. McCourty got scorched on what should have been a 27-yard Laurent Robinson touchdown at the end of the second quarter, but Bradford's throw carried Robinson out of bounds.
- A bright spot for the defense was defensive lineman Ron Brace with seven tackles and a sack. He left the field with an undisclosed leg injury in the second half.
- Rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski is going to be a fan favorite if he can A) stay healthy, and B) keep making the kinds of plays he made against the Rams. He caught three passes for 66 yards and two scores. On his 14-yard touchdown in the second quarter, he dragged James Laurinaitis the final 5 yards and lunged at the goal line. Gronkowski capped a long drive at the start of the fourth quarter by leaping to snare a Tom Brady dart from 20 yards away.
- Wes Welker's return from reconstructive knee surgery took another positive step. He had two catches, one going for 39 yards to seemingly wake up the sleepwalking offense. But the psychological part of his recovery shouldn't be overlooked. Welker showed concern when Avery suffered a serious knee injury in the second quarter. Reminders are everywhere.
- Flat is one thing, undisciplined is another. The Patriots committed nine penalties (two were declined) for 72 yards. The defense was culpable for most. Three Patriots were flagged for roughing the passer: Tully Banta-Cain, Brandon Spikes and Marques Murrell.
- How did the Patriots score 35 points while maintaining possession for only 16:14? Brandon Tate returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown followed by four straight possessions with a combined one first-down conversion. Then they scored touchdowns on each of their next three series, totaling 20 plays.
- That's why Brady and the first-teamers played into the fourth quarter. He finished 18 of 22 for 273 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.
- Brady's 65-yard bomb to Randy Moss sure looked pretty and got the Gillette Stadium crowd into the game, but you have to wonder if the Patriots' offense would have been better served with a drive. I don't think Belichick went into Thursday night with "Get Moss behind second-string safety Kevin Payne" on the Patriots' to-do list.
- So here's what happened on the next series: At the end of the third quarter and into the fourth, New England went no huddle and traveled 98 yards on 10 plays, gaining five first downs before Brady found Gronkowski for a 20-yard touchdown. And it took them just 2:45.
- Not sure what to make of running back Laurence Maroney not playing a down for the second straight game. Hard to say for sure, but looks like Belichick has booked him at Chateau Bow Wow. Belichick said it was related to time of possession. Regardless of the reason, no action two straight games is a bad sign for the fifth-year pro.
- Sam Aiken is one of the most underappreciated players in the division. He's an adequate receiver who can help out the offense in a pinch, but he's a consistently solid special-teams performer, the kind of player every good team needs. He eliminated a Rams player on Tate's touchdown return and went across the middle for a 5-yard touchdown pass from Brian Hoyer in the fourth quarter.
- The Patriots' offense probably would've had the ball longer if Belichick opted to go for it on fourth-and-inches from the 50-yard line midway through the first quarter. The TV showed Brady playfully mocking Belichick for punting. Against the Indianapolis Colts on "Sunday Night Football" is one thing. I guess Thursday night wasn't the right moment to be a renegade.
- Forbes estimates the Patriots are worth $1.367 billion. Time to give the Gillette Stadium field some new paint. An on-the-spot official thought Rams tight end Fendi Onobun stepped out of bounds on what should have been a touchdown because the faded white sideline was undefined.
The San Francisco 49ers' veterans report a day later and they won't be on the practice field together until Aug. 2, a reflection of coach Mike Singletary's belief in holding additional meetings to make sure players know their responsibilities ahead of time.
The NFC West had more high first-round draft choices than any other division. Signing all of those high picks in time for the start of camp could be a challenge.
FOUR BIG QUESTIONS
Arizona Cardinals: Will Matt Leinart look the part?
The Cardinals won't know for sure whether Leinart is their man until they see him perform in multiple regular-season games. They should have a better feel for how he's trending after only a couple weeks of training camp.
How Leinart performs at camp -- what he says, the way he commands the huddle, how he interacts with teammates -- will be important and instructive. This is his fourth year in coach Ken Whisenhunt's offense. No excuses.
St. Louis Rams: When does Sam Bradford take over?
Bradford's presence at camp becomes the overriding storyline the minute he signs his contract and steps onto the practice field. The Rams, a team eager to reconnect with disillusioned fans, become a much more compelling story once they install Bradford as the starting quarterback.
It's hardly a given that Bradford will make that happen during training camp. Coach Steve Spagnuolo doesn't like handing anything to rookies. The team brought along 2009 first-rounder Jason Smith slowly, but when the regular season rolled around, Smith was in the lineup.
Bradford has a chance to follow a similar timetable. It's not as though he has to beat out an all-time great to win the starting job, either. Veteran A.J. Feeley was signed as a mentor and potential interim starter, but there's no question Bradford should appear more talented right away.
San Francisco 49ers: Does Nate Clements bounce back strong?
That's why I've singled out Clements' status as a key question for training camp.
Clements struggled last season and didn't seem like himself. It was almost a relief when an injury ended his season. Clements trained on his own this offseason, so the 49ers can't be certain what they'll get from him upon his return. The secondary, already a potential weakness on a team without many glaring holes, needs Clements to regain top form.
Seattle Seahawks: Who starts at running back?
With the quarterback situation settled for now -- sorry, Charlie Whitehurst, but this is still Matt Hasselbeck's show heading into the season -- every practice and exhibition game becomes a tryout at running back.
Justin Forsett and Julius Jones are the favorites to start. Both are good all-around backs with a nose for pass protection. Jones lacks panache. Forsett became the more appealing runner last season and I suspect his talents and running style will continue to grow on coach Pete Carroll.
Leon Washington will push for playing time if his surgically repaired leg heals sufficiently. Even Quinton Ganther has a chance to get some carries. This position is pretty wide open.
Cardinals: Leinart. Whisenhunt has proved he'll make changes at the most important position. There is no unconditional love at quarterback in Arizona. Even Warner had to play a certain way before Whisenhunt would go with him over Leinart as the starter heading into the 2008 season. Whisenhunt has expressed confidence and support for Leinart this offseason. Leinart must hold up his end to keep the job.
Rams: Feeley. It's only a matter of time before Bradford becomes the starter. Everyone knows what's up. That's why I'll also mention veteran strong safety James Butler in this spot. The team acquired Kevin Payne from the Chicago Bears, and Craig Dahl seemed to play pretty well last season. I'm not sure where Butler stands or how the strong safety position will shake out.
Seahawks: Deion Branch. On the surface, this was a tough call between Branch, who has had problems staying healthy, and linebacker Leroy Hill, who has had problems staying healthy and out of trouble. Both are scheduled to earn fat salaries this season, but only Hill's deal features guaranteed money. Seattle needs Branch, so he's safe as long as he's healthy, but can he stay healthy enough to be a factor?
Seahawks RB Leon Washington. The 49ers' Ginn might have been a candidate here as well, but Washington is more intriguing because he was a better player before suffering a ghastly leg injury while with the New York Jets last season. Washington is scheduled to make his Seahawks practice debut at training camp. If the leg heals correctly, Washington could become a player defenses must worry about.
Washington is a rarity among running backs in that he realizes he isn't an every-down back. He will not require 20 or 25 touches to get into a rhythm. He'll be fine getting limited touches.
Carroll is known to covet gadget players. Washington is more than that when healthy, but he does fill a specific role. He's definitely a secret weapon at this point because no one, including the Seahawks, can be sure what he'll offer this season. He could become a home-run threat or he might not make it out of camp.
Two of the teams with defensive-minded head coaches -- the 49ers and St. Louis Rams -- held more physical camps last summer. Former Seahawks coach Jim Mora held a grueling camp from a conditioning standpoint. And while it was misleading to suggest the lone offensive-minded coach in the division ran an easier camp, I think it's fair to say Whisenhunt sometimes seemed more concerned with keeping players healthy.
Spagnuolo promoted live tackling even against prized running back Steven Jackson. Spagnuolo said he needed to get an immediate feel for the team in his first season as head coach, and that was true. But with Jackson now coming off back surgery and Spagnuolo entering his second season, the Rams might be wise to scale back the amount of contact this summer.
Singletary's famous "nutcracker" drill is expected to remain a fixture at 49ers camp even though Patrick Willis, David Baas, Michael Robinson and Tarell Brown missed time after competing in the primal exercises pitting teammate against teammate.
Players are going to get hurt no matter how coaches run their camps. That's just football. But if coaches promote additional hitting and tackling, they'll hear about it when they suffer casualties.
NFC West teams have acquired 10 veteran players by trade this offseason. Which one will have the greatest impact in 2010?
Let's define impact first.
Seahawks running back Leon Washington and 49ers receiver Ted Ginn Jr. have the best chance to make an electrifying play or two, perhaps swinging a game in their team's favor. Washington first must overcome a broken leg. Ginn scored two touchdowns on kickoff returns for the Dolphins last season. He had a 53-yard TD reception last season and a 40-yard scoring run in 2008.
Charlie Whitehurst, the quarterback Seattle acquired from San Diego, could make the greatest impact -- positive or negative -- based on the nature of his position. Early returns suggest Matt Hasselbeck will hold off Whitehurst for the starting job, but injuries have slowed Hasselbeck over the past two seasons. If Hasselbeck is banged up again, the Seahawks will presumably turn to Whitehurst.
A quick look at the veteran players NFC West teams have added and subtracted this offseason:
Arizona: added Rhodes; subtracted receiver Anquan Boldin.
St. Louis: added linebacker Bobby Carpenter and safety Kevin Payne; subtracted tackle Alex Barron and defensive lineman Adam Carriker.
49ers: added Ginn; subtracted quarterback Shaun Hill.
Seahawks: added Whitehurst, Washington, running back LenDale White, defensive end Chris Clemons, defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson and defensive end Robert Henderson; subtracted guard Rob Sims, defensive end Darryl Tapp and quarterback Seneca Wallace.
Seattle has been the busiest NFC West team in the trade market this offseason. I think that is because the Seahawks are the only team in the division with a new coaching staff and new general manager. They wanted to shake up the roster.
There wasn't going to be an opportunity to play strong safety this year after the re-acquisition of Chris Harris. That the Bears got any compensation for Payne, even if it was only a conditional seventh-round pick, was unexpected.
As we discussed Tuesday, Harris and rookie Major Wright appear the strongest candidates to open the season as the Bears' starters. ESPNChicago.com's Michael C. Wright suggests that Danieal Manning could figure as the nickel back. If you're curious where the Bears' safety depth stands after this week's shakeup, take a look at the chart above.
We discussed last week the possibility of Minnesota limiting cornerback Antoine Winfield’s exposure given the clear impact his sprained foot continues to have. Winfield told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols that he will play in short yardage and nickel situations only. If that’s the case, Benny Sapp will be the Vikings’ starter at cornerback alongside Cedric Griffin.
Over in Detroit, the Lions confirmed that quarterback Daunte Culpepper will start against Chicago. The Bears will start Nate Vasher in place of injured cornerback Charles Tillman. Their starting safeties will be Craig Steltz and Kevin Payne.
With three months left until training camp, we have two full-fledged quarterback competitions in the NFC North. Well, maybe 1 1/2.
Detroit general manger Martin Mayhew gave strong indications Sunday that veteran Daunte Culpepper will open the season as the starter over rookie Matthew Stafford. That move has been expected and comes despite what was reported to be a strong performance by Stafford during the Lions' rookie minicamp over the weekend.
Unless something changes, that will leave us with Minnesota's battle between Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels (and, maybe, some guy named Favre) as the division's only quarterback competition in training camp.
Here's what Mayhew said Sunday, according to Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press:
"He's a pro, and I trust Daunte. He's got a lot of ability, and I anticipate that if we had something to do today, Daunte would be the guy today. But we've got a lot of time to work, and we'll see how it goes."
Mayhew is an old-school ex-player, and it would have been surprising to hear him effusively praise a rookie. But I continue to believe that the Lions prefer to give Stafford at least some development time on the bench if they can.
Let's continue around the division after a weekend of rookie minicamps:
- Lions coach Jim Schwartz said he didn't realize how well Stafford was throwing until he watched film of practice Friday and Saturday, according to John Niyo of the Detroit News. Stafford: "I felt like I threw most of 'em pretty good."
- One of Stafford's few mistakes was an interception to second-round pick Louis Delmas -- a safety who had the best camp of any rookie, writes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
- Mayhew said he is "actively looking" for a veteran backup quarterback to add to the roster, according to David Birkett of the Oakland Press. That doesn't bode well for local hero Drew Stanton.
- Chicago coach Lovie Smith indicated that both of his safety positions could be in flux this summer, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times. One likely starter, Kevin Payne, is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
- David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune profiles rookie cornerback D.J. Moore of Vanderbilt. Moore, listed at 5-foot-9 in draft guides, actually measured in at 5-8. Moore: "Doesn't bother me. Some guys can't jump. You might be 6 feet with a 30-inch vertical. Well, I'm 5-9 with a 39 1/2-inch vertical. I might play a little taller than those guys."
- Bears general manager Jerry Angelo on the possibility of Brett Favre returning to the game: "I'm just reading the newspapers like everyone else. He says he wants to stay retired, and I hope that is what he does. We have great memories of him. We wish him well." Read more in the Sun-Times.
- Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune breaks down the likelihood of Favre returning to play for the Vikings. One tidbit in an accompanying blog item: Favre has spoken recently with Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, one of his former quarterbacks coach in Green Bay.
- Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press profiles hard-hitting linebacker Jasper Brinkley, the Vikings' fifth-round draft pick.
- Packers coach Mike McCarthy said it's likely he won't add a fourth quarterback to his current depth chart for training camp. Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette looks at Aaron Rodgers, Matt Flynn and Brian Brohm.
- Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel profiles Packers first-round pick B.J. Raji. Nickel: "Size, speed, skill -- those who know Raji best said he has it all, which was why he was taken ninth overall last weekend in the first place. However, what became clear upon meeting Raji in person this weekend was how easily he seems to have embraced his new team and the surreal expectations that come with being a top draft pick in Green Bay."
- Raji won't be the starter at nose tackle, writes Greg A. Bedard of the Journal Sentinel. Ryan Pickett will start there, with a rotation to be determined thereafter. I envision that changing over time.
- Safety Nick Collins, who wants the Packers to begin negotiations on a contract extension, ended his boycott of the offseason program and participated in some meetings last week. McCarthy revealed that Sunday, according to the Press-Gazette.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Please, just be in the right spot.
That thought looped through Gus Frerotte's head Sunday night during that seemingly interminable period in the second quarter. Frerotte was waiting to find out if a once-in-a-career pass would succeed or fall to the ground. The defensive alignment was ideal, the safety took a pump fake, the cornerback picked his poison and Minnesota's top receiver was open for a momentum-changing, 99-yard touchdown.
|AP Photo/Tom Olmscheid|
|Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Bernard Berrian heads for the end zone on a 99-yard touchdown catch.|
All Frerotte had to do was get it there.
"All the years that I have played, you get those calls a lot," Frerotte said. "You're throwing the ball out of the end zone. We're trying to go deep, but if it's not there, you check it down. But it was just one of those things. ... I'm just saying to myself, please just be in the right spot. You let it go and put some air on it. It ends up being perfect."
Indeed. Frerotte and receiver Bernard Berrian hooked up for the 11th 99-yard pass in NFL history, a well-called and perfectly executed play against a defense stacked for a running play. The score gave Minnesota a lead it never relinquished in 34-14 victory over Chicago, a game that left the Vikings in sole possession of first place in the NFC North.
How did the Vikings' big-play receiver get so open in that situation? Here's a look at the most interesting play of the NFL weekend, based on interviews with the participants:
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- We arrived here Saturday night amid a few snow flurries, but Sunday morning it's mostly sunny with temperatures around 30 degrees. The wind chill is dipping to about 20 degrees, which means this should be a pretty typical November day Lambeau Field.
We'll update you on all the news once we get in place at the stadium, most importantly to ensure that Chicago still plans to start quarterback Kyle Orton against the Packers. For now, however, let's take a spin around the division:
- Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal examines whether quarterback Aaron Rodgers has regressed in midseason. Rodgers has a 113 passer rating in the Packers' four victories and a 79.6 rating in their five losses.
- Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette contrasts the divergent ways Chicago and Green Bay have traditionally built their teams. Quarterback is an afterthought in the Bears' blueprint, while it's the centerpiece for the Packers.
- David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune contacted all nine of the Bears' opponents this season to solicit opinions on middle linebacker Brian Urlacher's play. Haugh's conclusion: "Their comments reinforced the opinion here that a bigger problem could lie with a defensive scheme that fails to maximize Urlacher's skills more than a real drop-off in those skills."
- Although Kevin Payne is not a true free safety, the Bears need him to play like one Sunday against Rodgers and the Packers. That observation and more in matchups from Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times.
- Minnesota tailback Chester Taylor insists he has accepted his subordinate role in the Vikings offense -- especially since he has been so productive as a third-down back, writes Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune. Taylor: "I'm a team player, and I just want to win. People probably think [I'm upset] because when they first brought me here I was running the ball, and I started the whole year. Then they brought Adrian [Peterson] in so people figure any running back who's gone from first string to second string is going to be upset. But Adrian has earned his spot. It's not like he's doing bad. He's helping our team win and that's all that matters now."
- Here's an unfortunate statistic: The Vikings have 22 sacks at home and three on the road, according to Rick Alonzo of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Too bad they play Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
- Detroit receiver Mike Furrey (concussion) didn't make the trip to Carolina and won't play Sunday, writes John Niyo of the Detroit News.
- Drew Sharp of the Detroit Free Press wonders if the city will lose one of its sports franchises to attrition, mentioning the Lions as a possibility.
APPLETON, Wis. - This town got off to a rousing start Monday morning. We're headquartered in Appleton, about 30 miles away from Green Bay and the home of most visiting teams for Packers games.
So it was pretty easy to connect the dots of intention when a truck cruised down College Ave., slowed down considerably in front of the Minnesota Vikings' hotel, and started laying on the horn like there was no tomorrow. Not sure what time the Vikings' wakeup call was Monday morning, but we're doubt anyone slept past 7 a.m. CT. Gametime: 11 hours.
We'll be heading up to Green Bay in a few hours and should be in Lambeau Field by early afternoon, where the blogging will commence in earnest. In the meantime, here are extended posts I wrote on the Vikings-Packers rivalry and the teams' running games.
We've brought you our "Black and Blue all over" feature since the ESPN blog network launched in July, with a goal of distilling the volume of NFC North-related stories. We hope this will be an especially valuable service on Monday mornings, considering the thousands of words most newspapers still devote to Sunday games.
Monday night's matchup between the Packers and Vikings left us with only two games Sunday, and like most people, we were surprised by the outcome of both. The Detroit Lions looked nothing like the calm and crisp team that sailed through preseason, while the Chicago Bears were able to turn the switch in time to post an improbably dominant victory at Indianapolis.
Looking at the highlights of Monday's coverage:
- Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times noted the Bears' impressive victory. But, as only a Chicago media member can, Mulligan pointed out the Bears caught the Colts at the right time. Peyton Manning missed the preseason because of a knee injury. The interior of the Colts' offensive line was new. Lucas Oil Stadium robbed the Colts of their hometown crowd weapon. And they're an easy team to run against. Otherwise, it was a great win.
- The Bears made two personnel changes official: Kevin Payne is the new starting safety while Dusty Dvoracek unseated Anthony Adams at nose tackle.
- Bears defensive end Adewale Ogunleye had a dominating night, as the Chicago Tribune writes. Three of Ogunleye's six tackles were behind the line of scrimmage, including a safety.
- Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press puts the Lions' opener in perspective: "When the Atlanta Falcons put a whupping on you, it's time to close shop."
- Lions quarterback Jon Kitna was trying to stop the confidence bleed afterwards. "You cannot allow yourself to get in the mindset of, it's the same old thing," Kitna said, according to the Free Press.
- Kitna was part of a sideline dispute with several Lions assistant coaches, but downplayed it afterwards.
- Speaking of the same old thing: Receiver Roy Williams had one acrobatic touchdown reception, but he admitted to making the wrong adjustment on another play, leading to a third-quarter interception.
- Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com writes the Lions' poor tackling Sunday is a reflection of a basic lack of talent, not a lapse in coaching.
- Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune and Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal touch on the rivalry between the teams they cover. Wilde asked coach Mike McCarthy if he disliked the Vikings more than any other NFL team. McCarthy responded with a broad smile that lasted for 15 seconds before Wilde realized that was his (non-) answer.
- Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes that its time for the Packers' offensive line to come of age, even with injuries that have forced lineup changes at three positions: "Either play up to the standards of a real NFL offensive line -- starting tonight against the Minnesota Vikings -- or step aside for someone else."
There is beginning to be some reasonable concern about the short-term future, at least, of Green Bay Packers pass-rush specialist Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila.
Gbaja-Biamila had been sidelined with residual soreness in his right knee following offseason surgery, and his return to practice Monday did not go well. He sat out Tuesday's practice and it's not clear when he will return. The Packers have an extra day to prepare for their regular-season opener against Minnesota, which is a Monday night game, but it's not known whether that will make any difference for Gbaja-Biamila.
After Tuesday's practice, coach Mike McCarthy told Wisconsin reporters that the knee "didn't respond very well" to the previous day's work. He did not elaborate on Gbaja-Biamila's timetable. Every team takes its own approach to rehabilitation, but never is it a good sign when an injured player unexpectedly sits out the day after returning to practice.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel points out that four of Gbaja-Biamila's 9 1/2 sacks last season came against Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie. (Of course, McKinnie might not be eligible for that game if the NFL suspends him for violating its personal conduct policy). The Journal Sentinel suggests the Packers would use Jason Hunter in Gbaja-Biamila's role as the right end in passing situations.
Gbaja-Biamila has a $6.15 million base salary this season and a $7.7 million cap number for 2008, prompting some suggestions that his roster spot could be vulnerable if he does not recover soon. But given how effective he was as recently as last season when healthy, it's hard to imagine the Packers jettisoning him any time soon.
Elsewhere around the NFC North:
- Packers running back Ryan Grant will get about 10 snaps in Thursday's preseason finale against Tennessee, the same number as most of the rest of the team's starters. It will be Grant's first game action of the summer.
- The Chicago Bears were busy Tuesday. In addition to terminating the contract of defensive back Ricky Manning Jr., they decided to remove Danieal Manning as the primary nickel back, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Brandon McGowan is the likely replacement, with Kevin Payne taking over at strong safety. Chicago also is awaiting a decision from veteran offensive lineman Fred Miller on its recent contract offer.
- The Chicago Tribune projects the Bears will attempt to get rookie quarterback Caleb Hanie, a fan favorite, through waivers and put him on their practice squad.
- The Detroit Lions' only notable cut was kicker Dave Rayner, who was let go because incumbent Jason Hanson has recovered from a hip injury.
- Newly-signed quarterback Drew Henson is expected to play at least a quarter of the Lions' preseason finale Thursday at Buffalo.
- Minnesota linebacker Chad Greenway, two years removed from surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee, has had an exceptional summer. "I think I'm playing at a level where I haven't been before," Greenway told the Star Tribune.
|AP Photo/Jack Dempsey|
|Aaron Rodgers silenced the doubters for at least one night.|
Rodgers completed 18 of 22 passes for 197 yards and a touchdown in the Packers' 27-24 victory over the Broncos, and in all Green Bay gained 217 yards and 15 first downs when he was in the game. Coming in the most critical of preseason games, the performance eased concerns about his rusty outings in the previous two games.
"I thought Aaron had a very good night," coach Mike McCarthy told reporters in Denver. "I thought he was sharp. I thought he managed the offense, the tempo, was smart with the football, was very good on third down. I thought it was important for our offense to come out and establish some tempo and have some productivity early in the game. We were able to do that and continue it for four quarters."
Rodgers threw a 35-yard pass to tight end Tory Humphrey on the Packers' first play from scrimmage and it was off to the races from there. The Packers also benefited from the return of receiver Greg Jennings, who had four catches for 42 yards.
The night wasn't a total success at the quarterback position, however. In limited time, backup Brian Brohm did not complete any of his four passes. McCarthy indicated Brohm and No. 3 quarterback Matt Flynn will get extended playing time next Thursday against Tennessee.
Elsewhere around the NFC North:
- The Detroit Lions' key offensive players probably will see only 20-25 snaps Saturday against Cleveland. "Injuries are such a significant part in these preseason games," offensive coordinator Jim Colletto told the Detroit Free Press. "And we can't afford to get anybody hurt."
- Minnesota Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson (sprained right knee) did not participate in any 11-on-11 drills during practice this week. He is not expected to play in Saturday's preseason game against Pittsburgh.
- Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith is vowing to hold some competitive practices in the wake of his team's defensive breakdown Thursday night against San Francisco. Brandon McGowan and Kevin Payne will continue to compete for the starting strong-safety job.
- 49ers running back Frank Gore was asked how long it had been since his team's offense had felt as good as it did against the Bears: "A long time," Gore said. "A long time. A long time."
Final Atlanta 24 Jacksonville 14 Final Detroit 23 Buffalo 0 Final Indianapolis 7 Cincinnati 35 Final New York 7 Philadelphia 37 Final St. Louis 13 Miami 14 Final Kansas City 14 Green Bay 34 Final Carolina 10 Pittsburgh 0 Final New England 13 New York 16 Final Washington 24 Tampa Bay 10 Final Baltimore 22 New Orleans 13 Final Chicago 13 Cleveland 33 Final San Francisco 40 Houston 13 Final Minnesota 19 Tennessee 3 Final Denver 27 Dallas 3 Final Arizona 9 San Diego 12 Final Seattle 31 Oakland 41