Personnel, philosophy has NFC North looking to run

They are the tortoise to the league's hare, the tractor to a fleet of jets. While the rest of the NFL prepares for another pass-happy season, the traditionalists over in the NFC North are focused more than ever on running the ball.

You might point out that this is the golden age of NFL passing. Bah, the NFC North says. League rules heavily favor the aerial game. The reply from the North: So what?

NFL teams combined for 109,725 net passing yards in 2007. It was the most in a single season in league history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Many coaches say it's never been easier to throw the ball -- and never harder to defend against it, considering the restrictions placed on defensive backs and the limitations on quarterback hits.

"The game is officiated to score points," Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. "There's no question about that. That's what our fans want to see. Most of the time, the rules were changed with that in mind."

Tomlin spent a year in the NFC North as the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator, and he remained true to those roots by fielding a strong running game in Pittsburgh last season. Likewise, when training camps open later this month, NFC North teams seem likely to continue down their own (running) path.

The Vikings were the league's top rushing team last season and will ride tailbacks Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor as far as they can go. The Detroit Lions replaced offensive coordinator Mike Martz with line coach Jim Colletto, who favors a zone-blocking run scheme.

The Green Bay Packers plan to rebalance their offense, assuming Brett Favre stays retired and Aaron Rodgers remains the starter. And the Chicago Bears can't have high hopes for their passing game after bidding farewell to their 2007 starting receivers while failing to upgrade the quarterback position.

Emphasizing the pass didn't give teams a clear advantage in 2007; five of the NFL's top-10 rushing offenses made the playoffs, along with five of the top-10 passing offenses. But at a time when NFL rules lend themselves to throwing the ball, the NFC North offers a compelling, if not defiant, alternative.

Each team has its own reasons for the approach, but it's fair to generalize in a few instances.

Among them:


If you had Peterson and Taylor in the backfield -- and a young quarterback behind center -- what would you do? For Minnesota, the answer is easy. The Vikings led the NFL last season with 494 rushing attempts, and it's hard to imagine their straying in 2008 as long as Peterson and/or Taylor remains healthy.

The Packers have strong options, as well. Ryan Grant, who rushed for 929 yards in Green Bay's final 10 games last season, will be a critical part of the offense in 2008, assuming Rodgers makes the transition to the starter's role. The Packers still have strong options in the passing game, having added receiver Jordy Nelson to a group that includes Donald Driver and James Jones, but it stands to reason that Grant -- along with 2007 draft pick Brandon Jackson -- will shoulder more of the load.

As for the Bears, they probably upgraded their personnel by giving up on Cedric Benson and making room for two young players their coaches have high hopes for. Rookie Matt Forte told the NFL Network last week that he expects to gain 1,000 yards this season as Benson's replacement. Considering the limited quarterback duo of Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton, the Bears' backfield group of Forte, veteran Adrian Peterson and second-year player Garrett Wolfe is probably the team's best weapon.

The Lions probably will spend this season realigning their personnel to fit Colletto's scheme, but they'll start with veteran Tatum Bell and also take a long look at promising rookie Kevin Smith.


Yes, the Vikings play in the Metrodome and the Lions reside at Ford Field. Nevertheless, the potential for bad-weather games at the division's other two sites -- Chicago's Soldier Field and Green Bay's Lambeau Field -- compel coaches to gear their teams accordingly.

Even with two teams playing indoors, the division could well be decided on a cold and/or snowy winter day.

The Packers play four homes games in the season's final two months, including Dec. 28 against the Lions. Detroit plays at Soldier Field on Nov. 2, and the Bears will play another four outdoor games in December.

Only the Vikings will escape the weather gods this season; they open the season at Lambeau Field and travel Oct. 19 to Chicago. Their final three outdoor games are at Tampa Bay, Jacksonville and Arizona (assuming the roof at University of Phoenix Stadium is open).

Coaching philosophy

No matter the weather or personnel, Lions coach Rod Marinelli and Bears coach Lovie Smith have always been traditional, tough-guy coaches.

Marinelli's initial hiring of Martz always seemed out of character, and most observers agree Colletto's offense will get the Lions closer to Marinelli's core beliefs. Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo, meanwhile, have demonstrated their faith in the running game by entering camp with underwhelming options in their passing game.

Minnesota's Brad Childress is also a disciple of the running game. He spent eight seasons on Barry Alvarez's staff at the University of Wisconsin, and Childress has incorporated Alvarez's thoughts on power football into one of the few run-first versions of the West Coast offense.

Even Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who has been involved in high-powered passing offenses for much of his career, has stated a desire to rebalance his attack after throwing 578 passes and rushing 388 times in 2007.

Apparently, the NFC North is getting to him.

Kevin Seifert covers the NFL for ESPN.com.