2009 was a lost year in the Windy City, with the Bears seemingly confused about their identity. The trade for Jay Cutler was another in a long, decades long, quest by Chicago to find a franchise quarterback. Ever since Jim McMahon and even during his tenure, the Bears haven’t had a guy under center they could trust in crunch time. The acquiring of Cutler carried the hope that search was over. Unfortunately with the addition of the cannon-armed Denver ex-pat, the Bears got lost, forgot how to run the ball, didn’t have the pieces around Cutler to help him succeed, and stumbled through to the end of the season. Add to that to the injuring of the great Brian Urlacher in the first game of the season and the Bears season was done before they could even get going. But it’s a new season, Urlacher is back with a vengeance, and the fabled Bears defense is looking to retake its place at the top of the league. Somehow Lovie Smith is still employed there, and the management brought in Mike Martz to inject some flavor into a vanilla offense, so there are tools there to give Cutler a boost. A recommitting to the running game that is the engine of Bears football should help that swagger come back to Soldier Field, but the dearth of wide receivers is going to continue to plague Cutler’s completion percentage. He’s a strong guy, as the experts say “Can make all the throws”, but he doesn’t have anyone to catch the ball. Johnny Knox had a great rookie campaign last season, and if he can improve on that there could be some nice chemistry there between him and Cutler. Other than that though, Devin Hester continues to underwhelm at wideout despite his breakaway speed, and while Juaquin Iglesias is talented, he isn’t game tested at all and could be either boom or bust. The Bears traded all their draft picks for Cutler in ’09, so their talent infusion came by way of free agency. Julius Peppers is in Chicago now and could either be a furious force or MIA, depending on how motivated he is. His time in Carolina proved this, so hopefully Coach Smith can motivate him. Other pickups include tight end Brandon Manumaleuna from San Diego. He’s a classic blocking tight end who will probably catch about 10 balls all year, and that’s a stretch. But he should give young Matt Forte a hand when it comes to rushing and take some pressure off an offensive line that continues to have questions raised about age and ability. Chester Taylor was signed, and if his time in Minnesota is any indication he will be a dangerous second back. Like Michael Turner was in San Diego, Taylor is a number one back on many teams but will be stuck playing second fiddle here again. Team-wise that’s not a problem, and he is a consummate team player as well as fresh despite his veteran status. The secondary still has problems, but the Bears have never had a lock down corner or a Polamalu-type safety, using the front seven to pressure QBs and beat them that way. The important thing is that Urlacher is back and aching to hit somebody. The Bears aren’t going anywhere in a very tough NFC North, but they will win their share and maybe play the spoiler. Prediction : 8-8.
Green Bay Packers
Barring the (probable) return of a certain number 4 in Minnesota, the Packers are the class of this division. QB Aaron Rodgers proved his status as an elite QB last year, dragging a team that struggled defensively early on to the playoffs where they lost on a fluke. Rogers continues to be comfortable in an offense growing in complexity, and in his third year is in a place to maximize his success. Coach Mike McCarthy noted there are some new wrinkles and concepts in a recent interview with ESPN, so opposing defenses tape study is going to get a little more frustrating. Though wide receivers Donald Driver and Greg Jennings are a year older, Driver in particular is getting up there, they are one of the best WR tandems in the game. Add to that Jermichael Finley’s emergence last year at tight end and the targets just keep coming for Mr. Rodgers. An offensive line that allowed Rogers to get knocked around last season was bolstered in the draft with Brian Bulaga out of Iowa (if anyone looks like a Packer, this guy does) and Marshall Newhouse out of TCU, though the last time an Iowa product was picked that high was Robert Gallery by the Raiders, so hopefully its not something in the water. The addition to the line will help Ryan Grant at halfback, who after a breakout postseason on 2007 has struggled in an offense that was supposed to enhance the running game. A retooled line and added focus on Rodgers should take some pressure off him though so he can at least contribute solidly. The defense returns from a fantastic year particularly against the run, but the loss of DT Jonny Jolly in training camp due to injury laid a damper on that a bit. ’09 first rounder B.J. Raji is being moved to take his place and if he lives up to the level of potential he has could be a force up the middle. The linebackers are a great bunch, with Clay Matthews having a fantastic rookie campaign. Offenses will key on him more so former first rounder A.J. Hawk should be freed up a bit to dominate the way he should. Al Harris, CB, is still out from surgery, so opposing teams will be aiming in that direction and away from defensive player of the year Charles Woodson. From what various outlets have reported it is a good competition on that side of the field, which makes for good news in Green Bay. The safeties are a question mark for another season, but year two of the switch to the increasingly popular 3-4 defense should make them less integral and more complementary for the D. One of my roommates last year said the 3-4 would make the Packers great defensively, and I told him to shut it. Apparently I was wrong. Anyhow, this is a very good team, and should challenge for the North crown and a Lombardi Trophy. It’s always nice when it comes back home. Prediction : 12-4, playoffs.
I am glad I’m not a Vikings fan. A guy by the name of Brett Favre is spending his second summer jerking the poor people of Minnesota around after crushing them last January. Should he return, they are the team to beat in the Black and Blue, if not its all about Sage Rosenfels or Tavaris Jackson. I’m still confused why John David Booty isn’t given more face time, but that’s neither here nor there. Brad Childress is probably as pissed as any Vikings fans at Favre’s see-sawing, and the team is suffering because of it. Although he did skip training camp and some preseason and went on to have his best statitistical year ever last year, so there’s not much argument to be made there. Other than Favre this is a talented team, and the Packers only real competition for the division. Adrian Peterson is going to continue his destructive campaign through the league, obliterating linebackers and safeties whenever he can. And if he’s learned to hold onto the football then whoa Nelly, we got an MVP candidate here. Or rather would, if it weren’t for CJ in Tennessee and the dominance of QBs in the league. The departure of Chester Taylor is going to put more pressure on AP, but if anything that could be a boon for the team as long as it doesn’t wear him down too horribly, hitting holes on third down. Rookie Percy Harvin had an electric season despite migraines, and Visanthe Shiancoe came out and blew some people away. How much of that was Favre for the both of them is a good question, one that could be answered, but either way they are very, very good. Sidney Rice is a fantastic number 2 wideout and will cause trouble for corners around the league. Defensively the Williams Wall is still there despite being busted for PEDs in some way or other, and super-redneck Jared Allen will continue to be a tornado of hell off the end. That guy is amazing, probably the best end in the league, which only makes the rest of the line better. Other than that front four though, the defense is kind of lacking. Names like E.J. Henderson and Chad Greenway aren’t scaring anyone, but much like the Giants the front four gets this defense going. Cornerback Cedric Griffin is on the PUP list so keep an eye on that, because though he’s no Revis, he’s still the best player in their secondary. The whole season really does hinge on the decision of a middle-aged Mississippian and his ankle, so until he makes his decision, we’re going with him not being there. Prediction : 10-6 without Favre, 13-3 playoffs with. The Packers are going to be pissed if he shows up.
The biggest move of the last five years, maybe decade, in Detroit was the removing of Matt Millen from GM duties. Owner William Clay Ford probably loved Millen, he seemed like a nice enough guy and he can talk, but build a team he cannot. There is a sense of cautious optimism coming from the Motor City, what with Matthew Stafford taking the reins of the team and Calvin Johnson, the most overlooked wide receiver in the game, finally having someone to throw him the ball. Kevin Smith at running back has been almost good, but Javid Best was picked in the first round to boost the running game. Best is a talent, in the Chris Johnson “home run hitter” mold and should add some fire to the offense that despite promise was rather vanilla last season. Second year coach Jim Schwartz is in a great position because if he succeeds he further entrenches himself and if not, well, its the Lions, what do you expect. Some people thought they should build on the offensive line in the draft, but the team could score just fine last year, they just let up a ton of points. So Ndamakung Suh is now in the Silver and Blue and the Lions are rather jazzed about it to say the least. Suh, the all-everything do everything defensive tackle, absolutely dominated at Nebraska in a defense that was designed so he picked up blocks to free up linebackers. With that in mind, he had four and a half sacks in the Big 12 title game alone, half of the Cornhuskers total for the game. If he works out, and all indications are he will, then the Lions have a cornerstone the size of the GM Renaissance Center to build a defense around. Sadly, besides Suh the defense is pretty ugly, and not the Big Ugly kind. The secondary continues to be ineffective and with the QBs that now populate the NFC North, particularly if Favre returns, that will spell doom for Detroit. The selection of Amari Spievey out of Iowa in the draft adds some attitude to the secondary and some competition to the vets from last season, a good thing on a bad team. The linebackers are equally nonexistent, Larry Foote being the only name that might ring a bell in that squad. The Lions aren’t a good team, far from a contender, but at the very least they look to be a challenge for their opponents and maybe win a game in divisional play. The Lions are on the way back, but that road is not brief, and there are no shortcuts. The key in Detroit is to eliminate a very dense culture of losing but with the unloading of Millen and a team that seems to be entirely under the age of 26, that is working out quite well. Prediction : 6-10.