The offseason is nearly over. NFL vacations are under way, and we're going to follow suit here on the NFC North blog next week. We've got a few things to get to first, and we'll start with a look at the road we've traveled over the past five months.
There are any number of ways we can examine it, but I'm going to place 10 key offseason decisions into two categories: "smart" and "questionable." (Very creative, I know.) The final tally was just a nice round number, but I do think we can safely say it will take at least 10 victories for any NFC North team to make the 2010 playoffs.
So let's get to it:
The Detroit Lions gave quarterback Matthew Stafford some tools. Receiver Nate Burleson, tight end Tony Scheffler, running back Jahvid Best are all independent playmakers who are threats to score anytime they touch the ball. New left guard Rob Sims should help stabilize the offensive line. From the outside, this infusion gives the Lions the beginnings of a personality. A number of questions remain on defense, but the Lions should be able to match the explosiveness of most opposing offenses. For the first time in several years, we at least have an idea of how the Lions plan to win games.
In searching for a new offensive coordinator, the Chicago Bears did the best they could under the circumstances. Team president Ted Phillips has left little doubt that substantial improvement will be necessary this season for coach Lovie Smith to keep his job, an ultimatum that considerably limited the candidates for this job. Mike Martz has his faults, but he also has the ideal résumé for this situation: Experience, a scheme that has always scored points and a hit-the-ground sprinting mentality that should have the Bears improved from Week 1. Under its current circumstances, this team couldn't afford to take a chance on an unproven coordinator.
The Green Bay Packers recognized their age and depth issues along the offensive line and took appropriate steps to remedy them. They re-signed tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher but have also identified successors for both. Coach Mike McCarthy said rookie Bryan Bulaga will continue practicing behind Clifton at left tackle, so far resisting the urge to insert him into the competition at left guard. Meanwhile, T.J. Lang will be focused on the right side behind Tauscher. The combination gives the Packers a layer of competence followed by a layer of depth, two dynamics that were lacking when they opened the 2009 season.
The Minnesota Vikings played ball with quarterback Brett Favre. You might be tempted to ask if they had any other option, but we should still recognize the non-traditional approach Vikings coach Brad Childress openly took in dealing with his 40-year-old quarterback. Childress knows he has a much better chance to win the Super Bowl with Favre than without him, so he has given Favre the space to call his own shots. That freedom likely will include an excused absence from training camp. You might consider Childress hamstrung in this regard, but not every coach would openly admit to a separate set of standards among players. Had he pressured Favre at all, he would be looking at the likelihood of Tarvaris Jackson as his 2010 starter.
NFC North teams recognized the division's substantive shift to the passing game and reacted accordingly. The Bears spent lavishly to sign pass-rusher Julius Peppers. Detroit coach Jim Schwartz was on the doorstep of defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch when the free-agent market opened, part of a massive overhaul of the Lions' defensive line. The Packers shifted B.J. Raji to nose tackle, the most natural position for him in a 3-4 scheme, in hopes of increasing their interior push on first and second downs. And the Vikings issued defensive end Ray Edwards a first-round tender as a restricted free agent, a move that ensured no one would sign him to an offer sheet.
In focusing on their defensive line this offseason, the Lions left their linebacking and secondary exposed. I'm not yet convinced this was the wrong approach, and I'm glad the Lions didn't feel compelled to sign another layer of veteran "bridge" players who are either past their primes or never had one. But the bottom line is we can reasonably expect new, inexperienced starters at two linebacker spots, along with cornerback, nickelback and safety. The Lions have decided to take the plunge and trust their draft and development systems. It might work out, but there is measurable risk involved.
The Bears wanted Perry Fewell to join them as defensive coordinator, but Fewell spurned them to join the New York Giants instead. Left with few other options, the Bears promoted defensive line coach Rod Marinelli to the job. Marinelli initially was hesitant about the job; he has never been an NFL coordinator and now will have a whole new set of responsibilities on game day. Marinelli's close relationship with Smith suggests more status quo and less tweaking. Are those the appropriate ingredients for a defense that has been slipping slowly for three years?
Green Bay safety Atari Bigby, legitimately handed a tough situation by changes to the NFL's offseason rules, skipped the entire offseason -- including mandatory minicamp. Much of his absence came after the Packers traded up to draft safety Morgan Burnett in what should have been a clear message to Bigby. Burnett performed well enough in spring practices to create the possibility he could displace Bigby entirely with a strong training camp. If Bigby wanted out of Green Bay all along, he's done everything right. But if he envisions a long-term career with the Packers, he probably should have returned at least for minicamp.
The Vikings allowed another offseason to pass without making an effort to identify a long-term starter to succeed Favre (someday). Sage Rosenfels appears on the way out. Jackson was issued a low tender and still received no interest on the restricted free-agent market. Rookie Joe Webb wasn't considered a quarterback prospect by most teams before the draft, including the Vikings. This wasn't the best year for drafting quarterbacks, and the Vikings were buried with the No. 30 overall pick. But if rookies are going to have as hard of a time making this team as the Vikings say they are, why not package a few picks to take a chance with Tim Tebow? Or use a second- or third-round pick to take a Jimmy Clausen or Colt McCoy? The only thing worse than missing is not taking a swing at all.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, the Vikings and tailback Adrian Peterson appear to have developed a disconnect. Peterson trained on his own in Houston, was unable to break away from a hometown parade that conflicted with veteran minicamp and was the subject of an uncomfortable NFL Network video in which running backs coach Eric Bieniemy tore apart his 2009 performance. Does Peterson want a new contract? Has he suddenly transformed into a diva? Is he chafing at Bieniemy's tough love? No one has confirmed or denied anything, but the team needs to ensure it is on common ground with Peterson before training camp opens.