Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
21 Feb 2008
by Ryan Wilson
For the fourth consecutive season, the Bears featured a top-10 defense but for the first time since 2004, it wasn't enough to overcome an offense that will be completely overhauled this off-season.
New defensive coordinator Bob Babich enjoyed success similar to that of his predecessor, Ron Rivera. This isn't surprising, for two reasons. First, Babich and head coach Lovie Smith have been working together since their days with the St. Louis Rams (Babich was Chicago's linebackers coach prior to his most recent promotion). Second, the Bears primarily play a Cover-2, a relatively simple defense that relies more on execution than complex schemes designed to confuse the offense. It's to Babich's credit that he was able to field one of the league's best units despite a steady run of injuries throughout the season.
Interestingly, a year ago, Rivera was considered one of the "next hot coaching candidates," but he saw his stock take a hit after leaving Chicago. He spent last season as the Chargers linebackers coach.
Ron Turner wrapped up his third season as Chicago's offensive coordinator, and for the third consecutive season, the team ranked in the bottom half of the league in offensive efficiency. After soaring to 18th during the 2006 Super Bowl run, the unit fell to 31st last season. Obviously, finding a quarterback is priority No. 1 this off-season, but 1A is wide receiver, 1B is running back, and 1C is getting younger on the offensive line. On the upside, Chicago is set at tight end after rookie first-round pick Greg Olsen and veteran Desmond Clark combined for 83 catches, 936 yards and six touchdowns, or 35 percent of all passing touchdowns thrown by Bears quarterbacks.
Special teams is one area Chicago doesn't have to worry about. Yes, Devin Hester is a national treasure, but kicker Robbie Gould and punter Brad Maynard are also very consistent, and the coverage and return teams, in general, make very few mistakes. If the Bears could somehow figure out a way to make special teams more than one-seventh of the game, they wouldn't have to concern themselves with fixing the offense.
The Bears have 13 unrestricted free agents, and have already released wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, defensive tackle Darwin Walker and offensive tackle Fred Miller.
With Muhammad's release and Bernard Berrian approaching free agency at the end of the month, Chicago has some decisions to make about the wide receiver position. Given that the Cowboys re-signed Patrick Crayton and assuming the Patriots keep Randy Moss, Berrian would be the best available wideout on the market. The former third-round pick had his best season in 2007, hauling in 71 passes for 951 yards and five touchdowns, but he hasn't cracked the top-50 in DVOA during his two years as the Bears No. 2 receiver. If Berrian stays in Chicago, it'll probably come via the franchise tag.
Last off-season, linebacker Lance Briggs said he would never play for the team if he was franchised. He was franchised, and he did play, which just reinforces how little leverage players have when it comes to the designation. In any event, Briggs looks to be headed for free agency this off-season. If the Bears make a late run at Briggs it could be indicative of their long-term concerns about linebacker Brian Urlacher's recent neck surgery.
The team has been noncommittal on quarterback Rex Grossman, and even if he is re-signed, it will almost surely be for backup money and with the understanding that the starting job is wide open.
Perhaps the least talked about but potentially most important player headed for free agency is Brendon Ayanbadejo. He's listed as a linebacker but makes his living on special teams. Ayanbadejo is looking for a big payday, which probably means he won't be back.
(52 players under contract, $19.8 million under the cap)
During the season there were rumors that Chicago might make a play for native son Donovan McNabb, but they proved to be groundless. Derek Anderson was also a popular name, but whether the Browns sign their quarterback to a long(ish)-term deal or tender him a restricted free agent offer, he won't be in the Bears' plans.
Steelers guard Alan Faneca is another name that has been mentioned often. He doesn't exactly meet the "getting younger along the offensive line" criterion, but he is a very good run blocker even if his pass-blocking skills have diminished in recent seasons.
Running back Cedric Benson has been disappointing, and soon-to-be free agent Michael Turner is an attractive option, but like Faneca, he won't come cheap.
Since becoming team president in 2001, the Lions have won 31 games. Thirty-one. By comparison, the Steelers won 15 in a row in 2004, and the Patriots ripped off 21 consecutive wins during the 2003-2004 season and 18 more in 2007.
For the morbidly curious, the wins breakdown thusly: The Lions have beaten division rival Chicago six times. The Cards and Cowboys have each gone down three times, and 14 other teams have been shamed at least once in the last seven years. That means that Detroit is oh-for-Millen against 16 teams, including five other NFC teams: Carolina, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington.
But Detroit won seven games in 2007 after averaging just four wins in the previous five seasons. Of course, the Lions were 6-2 at one point last season before ripping off six straight losses -- even though quarterback Jon Kitna guaranteed 10 victories -- but it's a start. So maybe Matt Millen's philosophy on winning football is finally sinking in.
Head coach Rod Marinelli thinks Detroit is close to making the playoffs, and although he's paid to say that, midway through the season it seemed like a distinct possibility. The Lions' soft schedule had a lot to do with the fast start. As the year progressed and the losses mounted, cracks started to show on both sides of the ball. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz was fired after disavowing the running game and allowing Kitna to take a whopping 51 sacks. Detroit promoted offensive line coach Jim Colleto to replace Martz and, shockingly, one of his first pronouncements was to make it clear that the running game would actually be a part of the offense in 2008.
Last off-season, Marinelli hired son-in-law Joe Barry to run the defense. Barry was previously the linebackers coach in Tampa Bay and was a seemingly perfect candidate to run the Tampa-2 in Detroit. The Lions sported the league's second-worst defense,finishinged ahead of only the Dolphins, but some of that can be blamed on personnel that didn't fit the scheme -- no doubt something the team will address this off-season.
Last spring, Detroit sent cornerback Dre' Bly to Denver for running back Tatum Bell and tackle George Foster. Bly was respectable with the Broncos. Bell played in just five games before spending the rest of the season requesting a trade. Foster struggled at right tackle and was benched at various points during the season; the team probably won't try to re-sign him.
There were reports that former Broncos linebacker Al Wilson had visited the Lions. If completely healthy, Wilson would make Boss Bailey expendable. Despite his athleticism, Bailey was unimpressive as a middle linebacker in the team's Tampa-2 scheme. Wilson is strong in run support, but is also able to patrol the middle of the field in passing situations. Even if Wilson doesn't work out, Bailey probably won't be back next season.
Defensive tackle Shaun Rogers has chronically underachieved during his seven years in Detroit, and the Lions would willingly trade him if the right offer came along.
(42 players under contract, $23.5 million under the cap)
The Lions couldn't go wrong by signing any defensive player. The team ranked 30th against the pass, which could mean that the secondary needs an upgrade, the pass rush needs an upgrade, or both. A middle-of-the-pack Adjusted Sack Rate and bottom-of-the-league DVOA splits against opponents' No. 1 and No. 2 receivers indicate that the defensive backfield was a bigger liability than the front four.
Unfortunately, there isn't much depth at the cornerback position in free agency. On Wednesday, the Seahawks franchised Marcus Trufant and the Raiders did the same to Nnamdi Asomugha, leaving Asante Samuel as the only premier cornerback on the market. He will be looking for "Nate Clements money," which will likely be out of Detroit's price range. A much cheaper alternative could be Samuel's New England teammate, Randall Gay. He's not as athletic as Samuel, but he's smart, physical, and understands zone concepts. The only problem is that the Patriots will probably try to re-sign him.
Most of the defensive linemen scheduled to become free agents have already been tagged -- Jared Allen, Albert Haynesworth, Terrell Suggs -- but the Bengals' Justin Smith should be available. He's not a pure pass rusher and last season he recorded just two sacks, the lowest total of his seven-year career.
The Lions best option might be to address these needs through the draft.
It's safe to say that Mike McCarthy wasn't the most popular hire when the Packers named him to succeed Mike Sherman two years ago. It wasn't that people hated the pick, it's just we didn't know much about him. Plus, he had served as the 49ers offensive coordinator in 2005, a unit that was dead last in DVOA (32nd in passing, but hey, 30th in rushing!). It's tough for anybody to get excited about that.
After an 8-8 rookie season, the Packers won 13 games last season, and apparently, McCarthy had a lot to do with it -- he signed a new five-year deal earlier this month.
Much of the team's success lies with quarterback Brett Favre. In 2006, he completed 56 percent of his passes and tossed just as many touchdowns as interceptions (18). Last season, Favre raised his completion percentage nearly 11 points and had 13 more touchdowns (28) than interceptions.
Donald Driver was still Favre's most reliable option, catching 82 passes, including two touchdowns. But second-year wideout Greg Jennings was Favre's big-play target. Jennings had 29 fewer catches than Driver but almost five more yards per reception (17.4 to 12.8) and 10 more touchdowns.
The emergence of Ryan Grant was also a pleasant surprise and took the Packers running game into the DVOA top ten by midseason.
The defense actually was better in 2006 (sixth overall), but last year's 15th-ranked unit was much improved against the run (ranking sixth, up from 21st the season before). That success was partly due to strong safety Atari Bigby. Bigby caught some deserved early-season grief for his play, mostly in passing situations, but he has been strong in run support. He also improved in coverage late in the year, particularly during the postseason.
Favre is currently going through the annual process of deciding whether to retire, but even if he returns, the Packers are one of the youngest teams in the league, which bodes well for the immediate future.
Green Bay entered the off-season with seven unrestricted free agents, and the only big name in the bunch was defensive tackle Corey Williams. The Packers franchised Williams on Wednesday, ensuring he wasn't going anywhere
Tight end Ryan Krause only had two receptions after a practice-squad promotion, but he will likely remain in Green Bay now that the team has released Bubba Franks.
Vernand Morency is a restricted free agent, but he's unlikely to draw interest from other teams despite the Packers' tender offer. Morency missed the preseason with an injury and only managed 29 carries during the year, fourth among Green Bay running backs.
And then there's Favre, who for the third year in a row is contemplating retirement. Immediately after the NFC Championship loss to the Giants, general manager Ted Thompson said he didn't think the 17-year veteran would retire because of one costly overtime interception.
Favre initially said he would make a decision in two weeks, but two weeks has turned into more than a month. If Favre does choose to call it a career, the Packers are in good shape with Aaron Rodgers, the player McCarthy and the 49ers passed up in 2005 to take Alex Smith. Rodgers has played sparingly during his three-year career, but was impressive during the preseason and a short Thanksgiving Day stint against the Cowboys.
(48 players under contract, $18.4 million under the cap)
Al Harris finally made his first Pro Bowl appearance, but he's 33 years old, and teammate Charles Woodson is 31. Still, Packers cornerbacks were fifth against opponents' No. 1 receivers and 17th against No. 2 wideouts. Against No. 3 receivers, however, Green Bay was 31st. There isn't much available via free agency, but again, Randall Gay could be a cheap alternative, or perhaps San Diego's Drayton Florence, who lost his job to Antonio Cromartie and will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the month.
Franks' release leaves Donald Lee as the only tight end on the roster with any experience. Alge Crumpler would seem like a good fit, but his price could be prohibitive, and the Seahawks and Buccaneers seem to have the inside track for his services. The Titans' Ben Troupe should also be available, but he has been inconsistent for much of his four-year career. Marcus Pollard, Jermaine Wiggins and Eric Johnson are also options, but like Franks, they are on the downside of their careers.
Generally, taking running backs early in the first round is a dicey proposition. It's arguably the most fungible position on the field, and success in the running game is largely dependent on an effective offensive line and a competent passing attack. Minnesota's line was above average; the quarterback was not. In any event, using the seventh-overall pick on Adrian Peterson proved to be the right move. He ranked fifth in DPAR, rushed for 1,341 yards, averaged 5.6 yards per carry, and scored 12 touchdowns. Peterson also ran for more than 200 yards in a game twice, although he struggled the final month of the season.
Head coach Brad Childress explained that Peterson needs to work on improving his reads at the line of scrimmage, but there aren't many Hall of Fame backs who would succeed against eight- and nine-man fronts over a 16-game schedule.
Which allows us to not-so-subtlety segue to quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. Childress has preached patience with the first-year starter, but if Jackson doesn't show noticeable improvement in 2008, the Vikings will have to consider a change. Childress told the AP that the job is currently Jackson's to lose, but also pointed out that unrestricted free agents Quinn Gray, Cleo Lemon and Craig Nall don't get him "jumping up and down." The implication: It's better to go with what you got than start over with a player who could potentially make the team worse.
The Vikings' defense fell from fourth in 2006 under defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin to 22nd under Leslie Frazier, but remained stout against the run, finishing second in 2007 after a first-place finish the year before. Defensive tackles Pat and Kevin Williams can take much of the credit for controlling the line of scrimmage; Minnesota was second in Adjusted Line Yards (3.39) in 2007 and first in 2006 (2.95)
There was speculation that the Vikings would release 2005 first-round pick Troy Williamson. After catching just 79 passes and three touchdowns in three seasons, it's fair to say he probably qualifies for bust status. Wide receivers coach George Stewart would love to see Williamson return next season which could bode well for his future in Minnesota.
Robert Ferguson was the team's second-leading receiver, but only managed 32 receptions and one touchdown. He excelled as a blocker, something the team will need as it continues to fashion its offense around Peterson. He's an unrestricted free agent, but could be re-signed on the cheap.
Safety Mike Doss spent much of last season on the bench backing up Darren Sharper and Dwight Smith. He's fully recovered from an ACL injury that prematurely ended his 2006 season, but his contract expires next week and the Vikings won't make an effort to keep him.
With Peterson and Chester Taylor occupying the top of the running back depth chart, situational rusher Mewelde Moore will look for steadier work with another team. Tony Richardson would like to return, but with Childress suggesting that he would like to see Peterson and Taylor on the field together more often, it's not clear there will be much need for a full-time fullback.
(49 players under contract, $14.9 million under the cap)
Whatever Williamson's fate, the Vikings -- and Jackson -- need a No. 1 wide receiver. Off-season acquisition Bobby Wade and rookie Sidney Rice were pleasant surprises, but neither posed much of a deep threat.
Again, assuming the Patriots keep Randy Moss, there isn't a legitimate No. 1 receiver in free agency. However, if New England doesn't sign Donte' Stallworth to a re-worked contract, he's available. Stallworth was usually the third option in New England's pass-happy offense, but he had some success as the Eagles' top receiver in 2006. And he would immediately have that role should he end up in Minnesota. There is also Larry Fitzgerald -- who is from Minnesota -- but despite his hefty salary he will probably stay in Arizona.
The unfortunate news that Kenechi Udeze was recently diagnosed with leukemia means that Minnesota could look to add depth at defensive end. Cincinnati's Justin Smith will be expensive, but current Viking Darrion Scott is an attractive option. He was injured for most of last year but had nine sacks the previous two seasons. He will also be a free agent, but will be much more affordable than Smith.
Like the Packers cornerbacks, the Vikings safeties are old. Also like the Packers' Al Harris, the Vikings' Darren Sharper was a Pro Bowler in 2007. While there may not be an immediate need to upgrade the position (although Dwight Smith's off-field troubles could hasten a change), Minnesota could look to add depth. Eugene Wilson fell out of favor in New England but played well in recent seasons. Cincinnati's Madieu Williams could be another possibility, although he would be looking to start. Ken Hamlin had a strong season with the Cowboys but he will likely be in Dallas next season, either via the franchise tag or a new contract.
*All projected cap numbers courtesy of www.askthecommish.com. These numbers are "ballpark" and are subject to change. The intention is to give an approximate idea of each team's available resources before free agency and the draft begin.
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