'Twas a year ago when we first celebrated the arrival of a new era in the NFC North, one ushered in by an influx of elite quarterbacks and filled with promise for a new aesthetic in the erstwhile Black and Blue division. Overnight, we upgraded to Air and Space status -- and when it was over, we had sent two quarterbacks to the Pro Bowl, thrown more collective passes than any NFL division and increased our yardage totals by 15 percent over 2008.
In these parts, 2009 was a magical year. So what could we do for an encore?
How about some damage control?
That's right. As you see in the chart below, last season's NFC North finish directly mirrored each team's passing efficiency. Conversely, three of our teams ranked among the NFL's worst seven passing defenses. (And the fourth, the Green Bay Packers, bowed out of the playoffs after giving up 379 passing yards and five touchdowns to Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner.)
In many ways, the past five months have represented a group response to the seismic shift we saw on the field in 2009. With training camp just a few days away, it seems fair to suggest that the 2010 season will hinge on the relative effectiveness of each NFC North team's plan to exist in this new world. In a nutshell:
The Minnesota Vikings signed two veteran cornerbacks and made a third cornerback, Chris Cook, their top draft pick. Coach Brad Childress, meanwhile, has taken every step imaginable to ensure the return of quarterback Brett Favre for another season.
The Packers upgraded their depth along the offensive line, minimizing the potential for pass protection woes, and have rearranged their practice schedule to place more emphasis on their pass defense. After reviewing film of all 50 sacks his team gave up last season, coach Mike McCarthy said: "I think as I sit here today we'll be much better in that area. We better be. I can't go through 50 sacks again."
The Chicago Bears made the free-agent splash of the offseason, signing defensive end Julius Peppers while also overhauling their safety position. Just as important, they identified and hired Mike Martz as the best available candidate to elevate quarterback Jay Cutler's performance. Speaking even before the draft, Bears coach Lovie Smith said: "It's safe to say we've improved more than any team in our division. That's all you can do at this point in time."
And perhaps the most aggressive team was the Detroit Lions, who will enter camp with as many as eight new defensive starters, including three high-profile defensive linemen. Offensively, they have given quarterback Matthew Stafford three additional weapons in running back Jahvid Best, receiver Nate Burleson and tight end Tony Scheffler.
So what does it all mean? Training camp will mark the start of a fascinating intra-divisional battle of offseason decisions. Can the Packers slow down Favre enough to overtake the Vikings? Could Cutler and Martz click quickly enough to overwhelm defenses in Minnesota and Green Bay? Will Detroit's defensive newcomers spearhead enough improvement to support what promises to be an explosive offense?
To me, the answers to those questions will decide the NFC North this season. I don't want to suggest that the running game has been rendered obsolete, or that an All-Pro like Adrian Peterson or a 1,200-yard rusher like Ryan Grant won't make game-changing impacts. They will. Indeed, it might take some time for everyone to fully embrace this trend.
"We're aware of certain teams' abilities to throw the ball," Packers general manager Ted Thompson said. "But you still go about your business the way you go about your business. More teams are throwing the ball, but at the end of the day, I still think the real teams that have a chance to win the thing have to be able to run the ball and have to be able to defend the run."
Perhaps, but simply put, the numbers suggest that running the ball and defending the run won't be the most important factors in winning the NFC North.
"I have a great affinity for the run," Childress said. "I think somewhere you've got to be able to exert your will. And the run is a great way to do it. ... With that said, we are passing the ball more, so I think you've got to utilize [running backs in other ways]. You've got to find ways to put the ball in his hand in the air."
And that's exactly what I'll be looking for when our annual training camp tour begins Friday. I'll be watching for signs of maintenance in the passing game, but more important will be the evidence of each team's reaction to 2009.
I want to know if Peppers will be a 10-sack player or a monster who can change the outcome of division games. I need to see if the Vikings have enough to carry them through the final stages of cornerback Cedric Griffin's knee rehabilitation, and whether safeties Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson are better prepared to defend elite passers.
We need to find out if the Lions can slow down opposing offenses. And it will be important to judge whether the Packers have developed enough depth at cornerback to withstand the number of injuries that led to their playoff ouster last year.
I'm ready. How about you?