2011 NFC North Previews & Predictions

We are marching toward the 2011 NFL season and the anticipation has gotten to many a football fan. We are no different. As we look forward to an exciting 2011, it’s hard to believe we are just 7 months removed from the most important NFC North game ever. The rumble for the NFC Championship Game between the Chicago Bears, and the Green Bay Packers.

The NFC North, formerly the NFC Central, had it’s first NFL champion in 15 years and ironically both times it was the Green Bay Packers. So how much has changed?? Does this division still hold the NFC’s best two teams?? Did the Chicago Bears let a golden opportunity get away from them by not capitalizing in the 2010 NFC Championship Game??  Will Donovan McNabb solidify the Vikings and give them another chance to get to the Super Bowl as Favre did for them two years ago?? What about the Lions?? Have they made enough of the right moves to chase down their heated rivals in Chicago and Green Bay?? Huh, ….oh and what about the Lions??


Green Bay Packers 13-3*

Detroit Lions   11-5#

Chicago Bears 7-9

Minnesota Vikings 5-11

We were the first to speak of the champion Packers having won the Super Bowl with their second string. Aaron Rodgers ascended to the upper echelon of quarterbacks who are playing this game and at 28 has a ton of time left to become an all time great. Accurate, mobile, and fearless he stands to wrest the mantle of NFL’s best QB from Tom Brady and Peyton Manning with an excellent 2011.  Think about it.  Of the 3 Super Bowl seasons Tom Brady had the best statistically in 2004, where he threw for 3,690 yards 28TDs, and 14 interceptions.  Last year despite missing 2 games with injury, Rodgers threw for 3,922 yards 28 TDs and only 11 interceptions for the Packers. That’s before we get into last year’s magnificent playoff run.

The Packer offense will see some transition with RB James Starks fighting it out with injured incumbent Ryan Grant returning. Jordy Nelson nearly broke Jerry Rice’s Super Bowl record for receiving yards so he will take some time away from aging Donald Driver. As for the defense, gone is longtime Packer Nick Barnett who was admirably replaced by new ILB starter Desmond Bishop. Clay Matthews has entered the realm of NFL super star. He is a complete defender and an excellent pass rusher with 10.5 sacks last year who is only going to get better in his 3rd year.

The new safety tandem is Morgan Burnett and Nick Collins, with Atari Bigby having moved on to  Seattle. The Packers young secondary is still anchored by All Pro Charles Woodson who has had a positive influence on the growth of fellow corners Tramon Williams and Sam Shields.  All told, this secondary was responsible for 24 interceptions (2nd in the NFL) and should improve in 2011. No chance they are unseated as NFC North champion, they are just too well equipped.

Yet there is a storm brewing to Green Bay’s southeast. Dormant for more than an NFL decade, has been the moribund Detroit Lions. Draft busts of the Matt Millen regime behind them, his former Washinton Redskin teammate Martin Mayhew is putting together a championship caliber squad. One that will see great gains this year if Matthew Stafford can stay healthy. Its paramount he matures with his team onfield this season.  The Lions also brought in Titus Young from Boise St. to give them another deep threat alongside Calvin Johnson.

There was a setback when they lost draft pick RB Mikel Leshoure, fomerly of Illinois, for the season. This team still has quick striking Jahvid Best out of the backfield and signed Jerome Harrison and Maurice Morris to pick up the slack.

However it was the selection of DT Nick Fairley in the 1st round that sent shockwaves throughout the league.  He is joining a Motown defensive line that had 44 sacks last year. Fairley should terrorize NFC North quarterbacks with Ndamokung Suh for years to come. He should be fully recovered and ready to roll when the regular season will get under way.  After a four game winning streak to conclude last season, this team was bolstered by a solid beating handed to the Patriots in last week’s pre-season game.  Never underestimate what it means for a team to learn how to win and see themselves as winners.

Sadly, the great Devin Hester (The U)  is being legislated out of the game.

Now lets be fair… the new kickoff moving to the 35 yard line, was a bullshit move by rule makers to negate the special teams advantage the Chicago Bears have enjoyed with Devin Hester. The NFL’s greatest kick returner. It’s backlash for his turning close games into Bear victories over favored opponents.

There is no other way to see it.  There in lies the problem.  It’s not a television show of who’s to be voted off of the island, it’s a sporting endeavor. The Bears play smashmouth, close to the vest  football in cold weather and rely on stout defense and superior special teams. Last year they had improved play from the quarterback position as Cutler trimmed his interception totals and showed more command of the offense.

Team brass finally brought in some help with the signing of Marion Barber and Roy E. Williams, fomerly of Dallas to help with the running game and the receiving corps. With the shortened off season, most teams will struggle to find their offensive rhythm early and the Bears could be one of those offenses. Yet they have drafted several young offensive linemen and should be ready to roll in 2012. Problem is they should have a few growing pains in ’11.

When will the Vikings learn to bite the bullet and develop a quarterback?? They have run retread after retread at this position and haven’t come up with a championship yet. There was magic in the first year with Favre, however reality set in once he was injured and Sage Rosenfels had been released.

The Donovan McNabb experience should only be one year, unless he has an outstanding season. Which is the two fold problem. When do you take the reigns from an elder quarterback and take the lumps with a young and growing one?? From Sean Salisbury to Jim McMahon, to Warren Moon, to Randall Cunningham, to Jeff George…they’ve been doing this since 1992 at the expense of developing a young signal caller. The one exception was to allow Daunte Culpepper to develop and he gave the Vikings some great seasons.  So if the season goes well, McNabb could retard Christian Ponder’s growth.

With McNabb, we see a quarterback going through the motions, not one with a chip on his shoulder to prove himself. That won’t bode well for the Vikings if they look to him for leadership. They have a strong running game in Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart yet are suspect at receiver. Right now the strength of this team would be to run the football and keep their aging defense off the field.

If it doesn’t go well this year, be ready to move in another direction and build with your young quarterbacks. At this point we see a fading legend hanging on with a mediocre receiving corp and a defense that last year started to give up  yards on the ground toward the end of the season. Donovan takes a look at the tapes of last year’s offensive line performance and the hits on Favre, he may audible to all rollouts. Add to that LT Bryant McKinnie (The U) gets cut for coming into camp out of shape?? Donovan could be in for a long year. As Donovan goes, so go the Vikings. A tough year indeed

Dumb NFL Kickoff Rule Change

Devin Hester on one of his electrifying returns against Kansas City

The NFL is blowing it with this with this new rule change. A good kick return raises the hair on the back of your neck when it gets to that point where the returner is on the verge of breaking one. What is interesting is this rule reverses the 1994 decision to move kickoffs from the 35 to the 30 yard line to generate more excitement. Over these 17 years there have been many dynamic returnmen. From San Diego’s Andre Coleman to today’s Devin Hester (the U), you made sure your ass was back from the refrigerator to catch the kickoff. Now take the extra few minutes, you’re only going to miss a bunch of touchbacks.

In 1993 league brass responded when they heard fans explain why they liked the college game better. It was more exciting with the wide open offenses, kick returns, the two point conversion, the 1 point if the conversion was returned against you. Every element of the game had to be watched and lends an excitement when thinking ‘what is your team going to do in a given situation’. The NFL in contrast had a majority of their kickoffs flying out of the endzone having drafted all the top legs from the collegiate ranks. Where most teams have specialists just to return kicks, back in 1993 teams had specialist kickers just to kickoff!! Remember Brad Daluiso?? He made a career out of the fact he could boom the ball 70 yards on kickoffs http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/D/daluibra01.htm. Notice his early career numbers for actual field goals. In the 1993 finale between the New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys, made famous for Emmitt Smith’s playing with a separated shoulder. The Giants had come from behind to cut the score to 13-10. Then on the ensuing kickoff Daluiso’s kickoff was so extreme that Cowboy kick returners Brock Marion and Kevin Williams (The U) stood in the middle of the endzone, as the kick was still 40 feet over their heads and hit the Meadowlands wall. The NFL wants that back??

So the NFL adopted the 2 point conversion and moved the kickoffs back from the 35 back to the 30 yard line with the sole purpose of generating excitement. What a noble concept?? What is the reversal of that going to do??

We here at Taylor Blitz Times are all about player safety but at some point you can’t take away the spirit of the game. Its still a collision sport!! Rules have been modified over the last two years to eliminate wedges on kickoffs. Moving down to just two people running interference before a kick returner in a tight formation instead of five. Therefore this eliminated the wedge buster, the kamikaze player whose sole purpose on returns was to violently throw himself at the chain of blockers in an attempt to strip the returner of his interference. We saw horrific injuries like Kevin Everett’s of Buffalo a few years back and that rule change was a good one. We saw less injuries on kickoffs over the last few years with more one on one area blocking on special teams.

This is a knee jerk reaction to the concussion epidemic and player safety awareness that is permeating the league right now.  Rules need to be enforced where players aren’t leading with their heads (spearing) as they collide with another player. Ejections and fines for doing so will straighten that out right away. Yet eliminating the kickoff from the pro game is what will happen. Look at the advancements in workout regimens and body building supplements over the last 17-20 years. You don’t think kickers have gotten stronger?? If they were booting them out of the endzone in 1993 which precipitated the rule changes of 1994, what do you think will happen now??

Devin Hester

Between Super Bowls I and XXVIII (1-28 for the roman numeral impaired) there were only 2 kickoff for touchdowns, where from XXIX-XLI (sigh…29-41) there were five. Who could forget the back to back kickoff returns in Super Bowl XXXV between the Ravens and the Giants?? That was the most exciting point of that game. Or the electrifying start to Super Bowl XLI when Devin Hester blew by Adam Vinatieri and the Colts special teams on the opening kickoff?? Speaking of Hester, many pundits and experts believe that this is a rule change to limit Hester’s effectiveness for the Bears. We believe it as well. This eliminates the edge that the Bears had on their NFC brethren in special teams which could be born of their unexpected run to the NFC Championship last year.

The NFL needs to change this rule back to the one that was altered to add excitement to the game, not eliminate it. Vince Lombardi said that “football is a game of blocking and tackling.” So tackle the kick returner, don’t legislate his effectiveness into watching him down the ball on 50 % of his opportunities. Wake up!!