Wednesday, July 15, 2009

NFC Norris is a Three Team Race

Is it football season yet? Can we pretend it is? Good lord July is a looooooooonnnnnnggggggg month, especially when the weather is less than stellar as it has been. So much for the "much warmer than average" summer we were supposed to get that would offset our "colder than average longer than hell" winter we just had. Thanks again weatherpeeps for that awesomely wrong prognostication. What other job can you be wrong more than 50% of the time (actually WAY more than 50%) and still keep it? Or just generally be terrible at your job and still have job security? I give you the following:
- politician
- VP of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves
- corporate higher-ups for AIG and Goldman Sachs (both made record profits last month, by the way. Your tax dollars hard at work!!)
- GM of the Clippers
- most auto mechanics (except my future father-in-law. He's very good and very honest)
- owner of a professional sports team
- Isiah Thomas doing anything related to basketball since he retired as a player

There's probably more, but that's what I come up with off the top of my head. ANYWAY, we're getting way off track here. I wanted to talk to you today about the NFC Norris race for 2009. As a Vikings fan, I would LOVE to agree with the national folks who tell you this is the Vikings division to lose now that Brett Favre will eventually be the starting QB. I'd love to tell you that, but I can't. It's not because I don't think Favre will help make the Vikes better- I do. I think they COULD be as good as a 12 win team this year if everything goes well.

But I think the Bears and Pack will also be very, very good. I probably don't have to convince you much about Da Bears, who if you haven't heard for the 2,182nd time have a new QB in Jay Cutler, who according to Bears fans is like a cross between Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, and Jesus- IF Jesus had a laser rocket arm and a pretty-boy haircut. Sure, Cutler will be an upgrade over Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman, but that's like saying a sprained ankle is better than a broken ankle- isn't just about ANYTHING better than a broken ankle? Cutler has more ability and a better resume than the other two, but he has to run an offense he's never run, and there's still this minor little problem of him having no one to throw to but RB Matt Forte and TE Greg Olsen.

Seriously, the Bears had probably the worst group of wide receivers in the league last year (wait, now that I think about it...yep, they DEFINITELY had the worst group of wide receivers last year, maybe the worst of the decade), and do you know what they did to upgrade the position in the offseason? Drafted Juaquin "Don't call me Julio or Enrique- Especially Enrique" Iglesias in the 3rd round Earl Bennett back from injury!! YES! Problem solved! Crisis averted! Wait...who's Earl Bennett again?

Yeah so the Bears took their position of greatest weakness (unless we're counting "general manager" as a position) and decided to do nothing about it, which is a pretty good strategy - unless it's your position of greatest weakness. But hey, at least GM Jerry Angelo didn't also decide to kick the offense while it was down and not allow Devin Hester to return kicks and punts. Hester's only arguably the best in the history of the league at returns, so it would make zero sense to take away what Hester gave you there- which at worst was good field position because most teams were scared $&%^less to punt to him so they'd kick it 30 yards out of bounds or at best a touchdown when they did kick to him- and try to start him at wideout, where he was never even good enough to play wideout for his COLLEGE team let alone in the NFL. Good thing...what's that? Angelo did exaclty that? Probably not a shock he also thinks the receiving corps are just peachy, thanks.

Still in spite of Angelo, the Bears still went 9-7 last year, missing the playoffs by a game. I guess if I'm going to kill Angelo for some his bad moves, I have to praise him for taking the unheralded Forte in the second round, who had a monster rookie season (only averaged 3.9 ypc, but ran for 1,218 yards and eight TD's and caught 63 passes- which led the team- for another 477 yards and four more scores). Besides the big addition of Cutler, Angelo also inked former perenial all-pro OT Orlando Pace, who should be an upgrade over what they had there last year.

Defensively the Bears are always tough, and I don't see the departure of FS Mike Brown to Kansas City being much of a loss. Yes, he's very talented, and yes he played almost a full season last year- but that was his first season he was even remotely healthy since 2003, and for a guy as brittle as he's been (from 2004-2008 he played in a TOTAL of just 21 games- an average of just five a year), I wouldn't trust him to stay healthy again for long.

For the Green Bay Packers, the Cheeseheads, the Drunken Sconies...well it kills me to say this. It really, really does, but they were a much better team last season than their 6-10 record indicated, and I think they're heading for a HUGE bounce-back year. In 2008 a whopping seven of their 10 losses were by four points or less, and they outscored their opponents on the season 419-380. The 419 points were fifth highest in the league in 2008 behind only New Orleans (463), San Diego (439), Arizona (427), and the New York Football Giants (427). A high-scoring offense does not guarantee you a trip to the playoffs, of course, but it sure helps. The only real question with the offense is whether a patchwork offensive line can keep Rodgers in one piece and open some holes for Ryan Grant, who played really well down the stretch after an awful start. Ryan Grant played well down the stretch and the Cheeseheads might have the best receiving corps in football.

Defense is where the Pack struggled last year, and just to make sure they could spread the blame evenly they couldn't stop the run for the first half of the year, and then the pass the second half. The run game suffered from the start because monstrous (wait what's a bigger word than monstrous? Gi-nor-monstrous? Let's go with that) DT Grady Jackson, whose weight fluctuated somewhere between 400 pounds and the weight of all the dairy cows in Wisconsin (which he could probably eat in one sitting), was let go as a free agent, and just as gi-nor-monstrously disappointing DT Justin Harrell couldn't even begin to fill the void. Then all-pro middle linebacker Nick Barnett was lost for the season with a knee injury in the MInnesota game in week 10, followed by Atari Bigby with a shoulder injury in week 13 (who had already missed five games earlier in the year) and that was it for the pass defense.

Green Bay went hard after defensive help with their two first round picks taking DT BJ Raji at 9th overall (let's hope he works out better than Harrell has, Cheeseheads), and OLB Clay Matthews (did you know Matthews was a walk-on at USC? Did you know his dad played pro football? Did you? DID YOU?!? It's a great story- especially when we've already heard it 9,476 times before opening day even comes. He's an over-achiever. We get it, thanks. Loud and clear), and both could and should start in the opener at Lambeau agains the Bears. Add free agent FS Anthony Smith, and the Pack defense should have more depth and be much improved for 2009.

So as you can see, all three teams should be very good, and I don't see much separating them other than unpredictable injuries. Even the schedule doesn't really give an advantage, as 14 of their 16 games are against common opponents: six divisional games, and eight against the NFC West and AFC North. Their two remaining games:
Chicago: @ Atlanta, Philadelphia
Green Bay: @ Tampa, Dallas
Minnesota: @ Carolina, NY Giants

Chicago definitely gets the toughest draw, as I'm picking both Atlanta and Philly to win their divisions in 2009, and at the least both should be wild card contenders. Green Bay then gets the nod ahead of Minnesota as Tampa shouldn't be very good and the Cowboys are, well, they're the Cowboys- could be good but most likely will be overrated and very, very overhyped. I see Carolina falling off a little bit but will still be tough, as will the Giants.

Do I like the Vikes chances for 2009 with Favre? Nope, I LOVE their chances- this could be the best team the Purple's had since the 1998 team (NFL Network had an "America's Game" marathon on during the July 4th weekend, including their "Missing Rings" series about the five best teams who didn't win the Super Bowl. Of course the Vikes were on there twice- for the 1969 squad and the fabled and infamous 1998 team. Watching the hour long story on the 1998 team, I am reminded how much I LOVED that team- even Denny Green. But man it hurts when it gets to the end and we're once again reminded that a) Gary Anderson missed a chip shot and b) Denny Green decided to take a knee heading into halftime, leaving the most potent offense in the history of the sport- at least until the 2007 Patriots came along- on the sidelines. I miss Randy Moss, but I do not miss Denny Green. Thanks Denny. Keep taking that high road), but if they do win the division it's going to be much tougher than most folks seem to think.

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