Black and Blue Again?
[size=9px]Author: Mike Trudell[/size]
Let's get this truth out of the way up front: preseason predictions in the NFL carry about as much weight as He-Man in a political debate. However, that won't stop a plethora of media saturation in the prognosis arena, this in a game both marked by parity and traditionally much less predictable than its fellow major sports. Alas, we're here to feed the beast another meal.
Don't sleep on the NFC North in 2006.
National attention has centered on the power divisions of 2005, including the NFC East and AFC North. Based on last year's records and the retaining of talent, this is not unfair. Yet several publications, including Minnesota's own Pioneer Press, have suggested that the Vikings, Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers have three of the league's four easiest schedules in 2006. This relying heavily upon the fact that the NFC North plays the NFC West this season, and of course, that each team plays twice within their respective divisions. Both divisions have been called relatively weak.
Not so fast.
"The NFC North is always a tough division," said Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who spent his previous six seasons coaching the Green Bay Packers. "It's the black and blue division where the teams always beat each other up and knock each other around pretty well. When other teams leave, they're beat up."
"It's funny how people are underrating the NFC North," said Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson, 7-2 as Minnesota's starter last season. "I think it's one of the tougher divisions."
Break it down for us, Brad...
The Pack: "Green Bay had a disappointing year, but they had won three division titles before that, and lost six games by three points or less last year," explained Johnson. "They made a few moves defensively, especially bringing in (cornerback) Charles Woodson, and (quarterback) Brett Favre will come back with vengeance this year."
Da Bears: "Chicago should be just as good as they were last year. That defense is still very strong."
The Lions: "They brought in (head coach) Rod Marinelli, who was a defensive coach for us when I was in Tampa Bay, and he is going to put his stamp on that team. Also, they brought in Mike Martz at offensive coordinator."
The Vikes: "We made a lot of moves, from coaching changes to our scheme, to bringing in a lot of different players. Offensively with the skill position guys it's the same at receiver, but you bring in (running back) Chester Taylor, and three new lineman with (center) Matt Birk having a year off, (left guard) Steve Hutchinson coming in from Seattle, and (right guard) Artis Hicks coming in from Philadelphia. Our guys are coming together, and we have some proven players. I feel great going into it."
Thanks Brad, that's a good start. Let's dig deeper. Numbers, anyone?
Look how last year's divisions stacked up in terms of records:
t1) NFC East/AFC West (36-28)
2) AFC North (34-30)
3) NFC South (33-31)
4) AFC South (32-32)
5) NFC North (29-35)
t6) NFC West/AFC East (28-36)
Again, here's from where the strength of schedule predictions for 2006 come. Yet, last year's best division and this year's popular choice for top dog, the NFC East, was 31-33 in 2004. In addition, 2004's top division, the AFC East (37-27), finished tied with the worst record in 2005.
The worst division in football in the last two years has been the aforementioned, pass-oriented NFC West, with a combined 53 wins to 75 losses. Minnesota's newly acquired defensive tackle Ross Kolodziej spent his last two seasons in the NFC West, totaling 44 tackles and four sacks for the Arizona Cardinals. He said he much prefers the hard nosed, grinding North to the pass-heavy West.
"It's going to be a tough, tough division this year, no question," said Kolodziej. "You have the Bears on top, and the conference championship goes through Chicago. But you have to factor in the other teams as well, because Green Bay is going to be much improved.
"Detroit has a stable of talent in there, and Marinelli brings them instant credibility. He's a hard-nosed coach, and I think that's what he's going to try and get going over there. It's going to be a grind, week in and week out."
The North has a solid stable of talent both new and old for the 2006 campaign: Charles Woodson is a former Heisman trophy winner; Brian Urlacher was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2005; Roy Williams has a rare combination of speed and power; Steve Hutchinson is probably the best guard in the NFL.
Though with a touch of hyperbole, Brett Favre declared his team the most talented he has seen in Green Bay. But ESPN's John Clayton confirmed the improved crop of players in cheese land after spending time at Packers training camp. The Bears return all 11 starters to one of the NFL's best defenses in 2005, have a healthy starting quarterback in Rex Grossman, and one of the league's top backup signal callers, Brian Griese. On paper, the Vikings are among the NFL's best on both sides of the trenches.
"The NFC North is about an old school, power running game with ball control and stingy defense," said Kolodziej. "That's really the roots of football, the cradle of where the game originated. This is a division that's true to the roots of the game, where you have to bring your hard hat for some power football."
Furthermore, it certainly isn't easy to march into an NFC North stadium and get a road victory.
"Guys play hard, and there are some tough venues to play in, like the Metrodome, Lambeau Field, and Soldier Field," said Bevell. "There are great traditions at each place, so it's a tough division."
While it can be readily acknowledged that this is yet another flotation device in the sea of predictions, it at least supports the opinions of a former Super Bowl-winning quarterback witnessing his 15th NFL preseason.
Mr. Johnson, a conclusion please:
"Our division is probably not getting a lot of attention, but I expect it to be one of the better divisions in football."