Taking a new era to the air

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

As the story goes, Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler placed a phone call shortly after arriving in the NFC North. Cutler dialed up his counterpart in Green Bay, a friend and now a professional rival, and threw down the gauntlet for a division that might never be the same.

"He said, 'We've got you twice from here on out,'" Aaron Rodgers recalled recently with a smile. "He said, 'It's going to be two wins every year.'" Rodgers, in turn, promised the Packers would have "some stuff for him" when the teams square off Sept. 13 at Lambeau Field.

Just like that, we entered a new era in Black and Blue history -- one so significant it could challenge the validity of the symbolic nickname itself. The weather won't change, and neither will the lore of frozen turf, hard-hitting defense and power running games. But a dramatic influx of young quarterbacks threatens to change our identity in a decidedly modern way.

(Early suggestion for a new nickname: Air and Space.)

We have already begun exploring the JayRod rivalry, as I've decided to call it. Cutler and Rodgers figure to battle for short-term supremacy as the NFC North's best young passer. In the bigger picture, however, we're on the cusp of a sea change that will form one of the central themes of our blog coverage in 2009 and beyond.

The potential of four dynamic quarterback situations is a mind-blowing event in Black and Blue terms. We know we'll have Cutler, a 26-year-old starter who has already played in the Pro Bowl. And in Rodgers, 25, we have a player who surpassed the 4,000-yard plateau and threw twice as many touchdown passes (28) as interceptions (13) in his debut season as a starter last year.

Eventually, Detroit will unveil 21-year-old Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2009 draft, who proved more advanced in spring drills than Lions officials anticipated. And literally at any minute, Minnesota could sign future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre.

Said Rodgers: "Having those guys in the mix, and myself, maybe gives us more of an aerial attack, kind of [a] flashy, attractive division instead of the grind-it-out black and blue division."

We recently offered up that quote for you to debate how the aesthetics of our games might change. Fairly, I think, most of you don't believe the passing game will suddenly consume play calling in this division.

But in some ways it doesn't matter how extensively these quarterbacks change our style of play. The debate itself is one we're simply not used to, not in this division or its earlier incarnations.

At times, we've witnessed explosive passing offenses. Green Bay in 2007, Minnesota in 1998, Chicago in 1999 and Detroit in 1995 all come to mind. But never have we seen the confluence of game-changing passers that could take the field in 2009.

Look at the chart below. Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the four current NFC North teams have produced a combined 10 Pro Bowl quarterbacks. Six have come from Minnesota, leaving two for Green Bay and one apiece for Chicago and Detroit.

In a paradigm performance last season, only one NFC North team ranked among the league's top 20 in passing yards. The Vikings' division-winning team was last among the four at No. 25. Moreover, NFC North teams combined for 12,790 passing yards in 2008, the lowest cumulative total for all but one other division.

The full numbers are below:

It should be noted that only one division combined for more touchdown passes than the NFC North. Among other things, that statistic illustrates the value of power running games when it comes to red zone passing.

As we progress this season, it will be important to draw a distinction between passing success and a team's overall record. As with many statistics, aerial production doesn't always translate into victories. Two of the NFL's top teams last season, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, hail from the one division that produced less passing yardage than the NFC North.

Regardless of the quarterbacks' identity and skills, it's hard to imagine the AFC North changing styles. All four teams play outdoors in at least semi-northern climates. The realistic impact of weather is more limited in the NFC North, however.

The presence of domes in Minnesota and Detroit means the Vikings will play at least 11 games indoors this season. The Lions will play inside 10 times, while the Bears and Packers will be indoors for at least three games. And of the 52 games on the NFC North schedule -- each team plays 10 games out of conference, and there are 12 games within the division -- only nine can be counted on to be in cold or otherwise bad weather.

(For clarity's sake, I'm defining such a game as being played outdoors in December, and in a northern or eastern climate.)

Having almost 85 percent of your games in decent weather certainly opens up possibilities for the passing game. That's the easy part. Now, for the first time in memory, the NFC North might have the hard part covered as well.