Remember a couple weeks ago, when the pilot of a single-engine plane nearly got himself blown out of the skies over Washington, D.C., as he unwittingly wandered into the no-fly zone surrounding the nation's capital?
Well, if the guy really covets a carefree joyride, wants to practice loop-de-loops without having the Air Force scramble a couple of F-16s or forcing an evacuation below, he might consider plotting a course for any of the four NFC North cities. Because, according to the NFL defensive statistics for 2004, the air space is wide open above those towns. And about the only projectile he might have to dodge is a well-heaved football.
Indeed, the most glaring common denominator among the four NFC North teams last season was deficient pass defense, and, not surprisingly, that has been an area collectively targeted for upgrade during this offseason. Counting veteran free agency and the draft, the four teams have combined for no fewer than 24 moves in the secondary the last three months. Each of those two dozen transactions, it seems, were sorely needed.
There were, for sure, legitimate reasons why overhauling secondaries in the NFC North became a primary offseason priority.
Last year, the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings all statistically rated 23rd or lower in pass defense. The teams surrendered a cumulative 115 touchdown passes, 10 more than the next worse division, an ugly average of 28.75 per club. Every team permitted more touchdown passes than the league average and the NFC North was the lone division in which every team allowed 20-plus touchdown passes. Of the six teams that permitted 30 touchdown passes or more, two (Packers and Vikings) are in the NFC North. Only the Bears (17) topped the NFL average for interceptions and Green Bay (eight) had the second-fewest pickoffs in the NFL.
Little wonder, then, that the NFC North secondary units have experienced an extreme makeover, especially at the safety spots. The Bears will flip positions with safeties Mike Brown (to strong) and Mike Green (to free). Minnesota imported former Packers star Darren Sharper to stabilize the interior of its secondary and the Lions signed free agent Kenoy Kennedy, formerly of Denver, as an enforcer. Green Bay added free agents Earl Little and Arturo Freeman, and both could start.
Of course, the secondaries weren't the only areas addressed since the end of the '04 campaign. So here's a look at how the four clubs stack up so far in the offseason:
• Green Bay Packers
Best move: To be consistently successful in the NFL, a franchise has to be smart, and sometimes it has to be a little lucky as well. Certainly the Packers got a dose of good fortune when quarterback Aaron Rodgers slipped all the way to the No. 24 slot in last month's draft. Green Bay officials were also smart enough, though, to realize you don't look a gift horse, or the eventual successor to Brett Favre, in the mouth. The team has paid lip service in the past to the urgency for locating Favre's heir. But the Packers finally realized that given the current trend toward nine- and 10-year extensions at the quarterback position, you usually don't get a superior prospect unless you draft one. We're not sure how well Rodgers will cope with the elements in Green Bay, since his arm strength doesn't come close to approximating that of Favre, but he should be a good fit for the offense there. His presence alone removes much of the uncertainty on the line of succession when Favre finally retires.
Biggest surprise: The Packers made a great move in hiring former Miami defensive coordinator Jim Bates in the same capacity. But somewhat surprising, even given the salary cap constraints under which Green Bay went into the offseason, is the lack of reinforcement for a suspect defensive front seven. Only eight teams in 2004 had more sacks than the 40 that Green Bay recorded but, beyond end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, the Packers really don't have a consistent pass rush threat. Gbaja-Biamila posted 13½ sacks in '04 but no one else had more than 4½ quarterback put-downs. Unlike his predecessors, Bates is not a high blitz-quota coordinator, preferring instead to generate a rush from his front four. But while the Packers paid plenty of attention to the secondary, they did next to nothing to bolster their defensive line, or the front seven in general. The most notable front seven acquisition, former Arizona linebacker Raynoch Thompson, might not even start. Bates will provide great passion to a unit that statistically ranked 25th in the NFL in 2004. Too bad the Packers haven't done much to provide him more reinforcements.
Bottom line: Green Bay stole off with the last two division titles, in part, because of Vikings collapses. But the Packers also claimed the crowns by doing what Minnesota couldn't, winning in December. The Packers were 7-2 in the final month of the season the past two years, but this is an aging team, and one has to wonder how much it will have left in the tank when the calendar flips over to December. Favre now suffers from errors of judgment, tailback Ahman Green is starting to show some brittleness and an offensive line that ranked among the NFL's premier units the last five seasons has lost its starting guards from last year. Shockingly, the Packers have become somewhat vulnerable at Lambeau Field, where winning once seemed a birthright. While no one can criticize the Packers for investing their first-round choice on Rodgers, the fact remains that a team in need of fresh blood figures to get zero contribution from its top pick for another season or two.
• Minnesota Vikings
One can point to the extreme makeover in personnel of the Minnesota defense, which figures to field at least five new starters in 2005, as the most notable move the Vikings enacted in the offseason. In truth, however, the best move was actually the philosophical epiphany that took place within the organization. After too many years of ignoring the defense, from both a personnel and salary cap standpoint, the Minnesota brain trust finally concluded that you can't win championships in the NFL by trying to outscore opponents every week. In the past two seasons, when they squandered big leads in the division, the Vikings lost six contests in which they scored 27 points or more, and three in which they scored 30-plus points. Giving defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell quicker players and better playmakers should reduce the number of shootouts in which the Vikings are involved. And it helps, too, that coach Mike Tice has publicly suggested his team needs to get back to the power running game it abandoned too easily last year. That, too, should pay benefits for the defense. Looking for a singular best move? Try the addition of Fred Smoot, who with Antoine Winfield gives the Vikings a cornerback duet that ranks among the NFL's top three tandems.
Biggest surprise: Even when the whispers grew louder, when it became more than just a fantasy football-type notion the Vikings might deal Randy Moss, it was still shocking when the electrifying wide receiver was shipped off to the Oakland Raiders. But that was hardly the end of the surprises at wide receiver. Minnesota officials actually compounded the gotcha factor at the position when they chose South Carolina standout Troy Williamson, and not Mike Williams of Southern California, in the first round of the draft. No doubt, Williamson was a fast-riser on draft boards league wide, but the consensus still was the Vikings would opt for the Trojans star. Williams figures to be a star in the NFL, but Williamson will give the Vikings some of the vertical dimension that departed in the Moss trade. He can definitely stretch the secondary and, with the emerging Nate Burleson, Marcus Robinson and free agent signee Travis Taylor, should help keep the Minnesota passing game among the NFL's most potent.
Bottom line: Outside of the season-long suspension pending against tailback Onterrio Smith, an enigmatic talent of whom the Vikings had grown suspect anyway, Minnesota has enjoyed a terrific offseason. On paper, at least, the defense is better. And the club enjoyed another strong draft, netting a big-play receiver and a legitimate sack threat in the first round. The pundits seem to feel the aggregate moves have pushed the Vikings ahead of the Packers and into the favorite's role in the division. Hard to really argue with that assessment. In fact, even minus Moss, there is a sense that Minnesota is now poised to advance deep into the playoffs. Whether the execution measures up to the expectation, of course, remains to be seen. But the guess here is if the Vikings don't deliver, this team that is soon to have a new owner will have a new coach in 2006.
• Detroit Lions
Best move: Nothing against guys like Mike McMahon or Rick Mirer but, seriously, do you believe that starting quarterback Joey Harrington ever really felt threatened by those nondescript backups? Think he ever sensed an urgency to deliver for fear that he might be replaced? OK, so maybe Harrington won't exactly play in 2005 with his head on a swivel, either. But with the Lions signing veteran Jeff Garcia, a three-time Pro Bowl performer who is well-steeped in coach Steve Mariucci's spin-off of the West Coast offense, Harrington might at least feel some hot breath on his neck. Adding Garcia, who chose Detroit over several other suitors, immediately fanned speculation that Harrington was riding a slippery slope. But the Lions added Garcia more to push Harrington to the kind of consistency he has lacked in three seasons than to nudge him out of the starter's job. And should Harrington fail to accept the challenge, and to raise his game, Detroit now has better options than it has enjoyed at any time during his tenure. There are no more excuses left for Harrington, who is surrounded by pretty nice weaponry now, and no alibis will be accepted in 2005. Backstopping their starter with a guy who is just a couple seasons removed from a 3,300-yard performance, and whose play in Cleveland last year was an aberration, was a pretty nifty maneuver, indeed. If the starter flounders, there is now a proven commodity in the bull pen.
Biggest surprise: For a third straight spring, team president Matt Millen used a top-10 draft pick on a wide receiver, snatching Mike Williams of Southern California after having grabbed Roy Williams in 2004 and Charles Rogers in 2003. The unusual move sparked lots of talk that Rogers, whose first two NFL seasons were cut short by fractured collarbones, might never sufficiently recover to live up to his press clippings. Truth be told, the surprise choice of Mike Williams was more a factor of loading up with a good thing, and the reality that the defensive options available to Detroit with the 10th slot in the 2005 draft weren't particularly attractive ones. Most projections had the Lions taking Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson, but Detroit already has a similar defender in Boss Bailey, expected to be full strength this season after being sidelined all of 2004 by a knee injury. Plus, the top three cornerbacks, all of whom would have been considered by Millen, were all off the board. Mariucci is a Bill Walsh disciple, and that means he likes big, physical wide receivers. He's got three of them now and, if he aligns Mike Williams on the weak side, should be able to create favorable matchups.
Bottom line: For all the criticism Millen has taken, he has now assembled a young and talented team, one capable of contending for the Lions' first playoff berth since 1999. The Lions were a chic choice in 2004. There is actually more reason, though, this season to feel they can get back to respectability and perhaps beyond. Millen and Mariucci have demonstrated great patience with Harrington, all but acknowledging he is the kind of quarterback who has to be surrounded with playmakers, rather than one capable of carrying a club on his own. So their focus over the past three years has been to upgrade the arsenal, and it certainly appears they have done so. If it doesn't work, perhaps it's time to begin questioning Harrington's viability. If he doesn't work, Millen and Mooch are going to have to answer a lot of questions as well.
• Chicago Bears
Best move: Some have suggested the top offseason gambit of general manager Jerry Angelo was the addition of Muhsin Muhammad, a move that finally provides the Bears a big-time, go-to receiver. No argument in this quarter that moving quickly on Muhammad, signing him less than 24 hours after he was released by Carolina, should help accelerate the learning curve for young starting quarterback Rex Grossman. But when the wind begins howling off Lake Michigan, and the Bears spend two quarters of every home game trying to throw into a gale, you have to be able to run the ball to succeed. So we love the choice of Texas tailback Cedric Benson with the fourth overall selection in the draft. No disrespect intended toward incumbent tailback Thomas Jones, who played well in his first season in Chicago, and who has become a far better all-around back than most observers felt he might be. But the Bears need a guy who can pound the ball into the line 20 times a game and Benson is such a runner. All the talk before the draft centered on the Auburn tailback tandem of Ronnie Brown and Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, and a lot of teams felt Benson didn't quite measure up to them. But of the so-called "big three" backs in the 2005 draft, Benson was the only one to do it every season, and his résumé was clearly the most impressive. He rushed for 1,000 yards four straight seasons, logged more than 200 carries every year, proved to be a durable and dependable workhorse. The addition of Muhammad aside, the best thing the Bears can do for Grossman, coming off a knee injury that limited him to just three starts in 2004, is provide a solid running game that takes the pressure off him. By taking Benson, who should team with Jones to give Chicago a nifty complementary tandem, Angelo has done just that.
Biggest surprise: It's difficult to identity any really major surprises for the Bears. Even when club officials kept maintaining that offensive tackle John Tait would not move to the left side, most people expected he would, once Chicago found a viable right tackle. So when the Bears signed Fred Miller as a free agent, the Tait switch was inevitable. Having the starting safeties swap spots, with Mike Brown going to strong and Mike Green to free, wasn't exactly earth-shattering stuff. Even when Angelo chose Benson in the first round over a wide receiver, it wasn't an upset. So, stretching a bit here, maybe the only surprise, albeit a fairly benign one, is that Chicago hasn't moved yet to add another veteran linebacker. The Bears have an established star (Brian Urlacher) in the middle and an emerging player (Lance Briggs) at the weak-side spot, and had had been seeking a veteran strong-side 'backer. But none of the free-agent candidates with whom the Bears have met seems to be any better than what is already in place, and so it looks like Hunter Hillenmeyer will go to camp as the starter.
Bottom line: Since winning 13 games in 2001, and capturing the team's first division title since 1990, Chicago has averaged just 5.3 victories per season. Indeed, making progress in 2005 won't be easy. But there is no reason, if Grossman is recovered and learns to play within himself, that the Bears can't be competitive. In 2004, his rookie season, head coach Lovie Smith installed an excellent defensive scheme, and Chicago was far better than its No. 21 statistical ranking. There is a solid young nucleus on that side of the ball and the group figures to grow under the direction of Smith and rising defensive chief Ron Rivera, a guy with head coach potential. The biggest questions remain on offense, where Smith will have his second coordinator in two years, and where new boss Ron Turner must find a way to get Grossman into a comfort zone. Grossman might never develop into a franchise-type quarterback. But he is a natural leader, a feisty guy around whom players will rally, if he can stay healthy. Chicago needs to play to his strengths.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.