It took longer than expected. Preliminary decisions were questioned. Debates extended into the wee hours. We went through a first draft, then a second and even a third. Countless observers were consulted. It wasn't until I had a full week to mull the 2011 All-NFC North team that I was prepared to make the big reveal.
Via Twitter, @jpberthiaume asked: "Do people really care about these 'teams?'" I guess it's a fair point. I doubt few, if any, of the players listed in the chart wrote a fifth-grade essay about their plans to one day make the All-NFC North team on ESPN.com, even if it was only because the NFC North hadn't yet been formed in those days and ESPN.com was operating out of a Bristol-based closet.
So I'll let you be the judge. This is annually a fun exercise, even if it doesn't lead to a deep understanding of the human condition or even reveal any breakthroughs about the just-completed season. If nothing else, it offers us a blank template to recognize the best-performing players in the division without the hindrance of the politics and reputation.
Some notes on some of the tight decisions, for which I seriously received input from multiple angles:
One of the fiercest debates came at wide receiver. Everyone agreed that the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson deserved one spot, but there was a split about the other two. Did the Green Bay Packers' Greg Jennings, who missed three games because of a knee injury, deserve an automatic bid? And if he did, should the Packers' Jordy Nelson or the Minnesota Vikings' Percy Harvin get the third spot? I thought Jennings' 67 receptions, 949 yards and nine touchdowns in 13 games merited a spot. And ultimately I chose Nelson over Harvin. I realize Harvin caught 87 passes in a punchless offense and added 345 rushing yards to his total, but in the end I couldn't overlook a player who scored more touchdowns (15) than all but four players in the NFL this season. Plus, as Hatterbot pointed out: "Rushing yards don't count in the WR category."
I went with the Lions' Rob Sims at left guard in part on the advice of John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information, who noted that Sims was the only NFC North left guard to play the position for 16 games this season. Sims also had the best pass-sack ratio (19.7 passes per sack) of the group, based on video study.
There is no doubt that the Lions' Brandon Pettigrew (83 catches) had a more productive season than the Packers' Jermichael Finley (55). But the Lions often used Pettigrew as a substitute for their punchless running game, and that's why his per-catch average of 9.4 yards was lower than any other tight end with at least 30 catches. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the average pass to Pettigrew this season traveled 6.5 yards in the air. The average pass to Finley traveled 11.4 yards. Finley caught five passes of at least 30 yards. Pettigrew's longest was 27. Both players had their share of drops, combining for a total of 15, but I thought Finley made a bigger impact on his catches than Pettigrew did.
I really debated the Bears' Julius Peppers and the Lions' Cliff Avril at defensive end. Avril (11.5) had a half-sack more than Peppers (11) and forced twice as many fumbles. But one of the advantages we have on this team is investigating beyond the conventional numbers. Our friends at Pro Football Focus (PFF) credited Peppers with 53 quarterback pressures, the second-highest total in the NFL. Avril ranked No. 8 with 37, but in a close race I chose the maximum number of plays impacted over Avril's slight edge in "playmaking" statistics.
I used a similar approach in choosing the Vikings' Kevin Williams and the Lions' Ndamukong Suh as my defensive tackles. It's true that the Bears' Henry Melton led the NFC North's defensive tackles with seven pressures, but PFF had Suh with 27 quarterback pressures, an NFL high for an interior lineman. Williams tied for No. 3 with 25. Melton wasn't that far behind at 23, but I also took into account that the Bears nearly benched him for inconsistency at one point in the season. (Coach Lovie Smith in November: "He hasn't showed up as much. Whether teams have adjusted to him or whatever, we need to get more production from him because he's capable of it.") Meanwhile, I thought Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji took a step backward in 2011. PFF credited him with only 10 stops (the cumulative number of plays made that constitute an offensive failure) in 842 snaps.
If you want to say I chickened out at linebacker, go ahead. I originally left open the middle and one of the outside spots, but in the end I went with our division standbys: Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. For starters, Briggs was one of six non-offensive linemen to play 100 percent of his team's snaps in the NFL this season. There's something to be said for being available to your team. And while I do think that the Packers' Desmond Bishop and the Lions' Stephen Tulloch had good seasons, I couldn't find a statistic or an opinion that convinced me they were better than Urlacher. Someday, there will be turnover among NFC North linebackers. But it didn't happen this season.
Safety play was poor throughout the NFC North, so I'm not at all ashamed to have chosen a third cornerback to replace one of the safeties on this team. It came down to the Lions' Chris Houston and the Packers' Tramon Williams. Both had their ups and downs in coverage. Houston had five interceptions and two touchdowns in 14 games, while Williams had four interceptions and one touchdown in 15 games. In the end, I chose Williams because I think it was pretty clear he was pushing through a really limiting shoulder injury for much of the first half of the season.
I chose the Packers' specialists, kicker Mason Crosby and punter Tim Masthay. Crosby converted 24 of 28 kicks, including a 58-yarder, and ranked third in the NFL with 49 touchbacks. Masthay downed a division-high 23 punts inside the 20-yard line despite a division-low 55 punts.
I mistakenly left off a coverage specialist from our original post. There should be no debating that the Bears' Corey Graham deserves that spot.
Go ahead. Rip away....
Coming later this week: Some supplementary NFC North awards, including our top coordinators.