In a shocking bit of business that nobody would have predicted this time one year ago, the NFC North has become the soap opera division of the NFL (supplanting the NFC East). Detroit is coming off the first 0-16 season in history with a rookie starting QB and a new regime for the first time since Matt Millen was hired in 2001. Green Bay is switching to a 3-4, while Chicago is welcoming the story of the offseason, Jay Cutler. To top it all, of course, is Brett Favre starting for Minnesota, which is like Michael Jordan coming back in 1995 to play for the Knicks. Sunday, November 1 is circled on every calendar in Wisconsin, as it should be across the country. Favre vs. Lambeau and Green Bay should be EPIC.
ORDER OF FINISH
y-Green Bay Packers 11-5
x-Chicago Bears 10-6
Minnesota Vikings 10-6
Detroit Lions 4-12
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota
In two NFL seasons, Peterson has rushed for 3,101 yards, which is pretty impressive. Per carry, Peterson has gained 5.2 yards, which is amazing, especially when you consider he has carried the ball 601 times. It is hard to think of a better pure running back in the NFL right now, and by pure running back I mean a guy who isn't going to mess around with any of that sissy passing stuff (40 career receptions) but is just going to run the ball right down a defense's throat. The big concern, of course, is how much longer can Peterson continue to be his generation's answer to Earl Campbell. At Oklahoma, he was hurt every season, and he is coming off a 363 carry year, only seven touches away from the dreaded 370. In terms of style, Peterson reminds me of Eddie George, who rumbled through the league at an elite level for five seasons before things started falling apart, so perhaps Peterson will be able to keep this up. Remember, though, that the last back to carry the load as much as ADP has in his first two seasons--Edgerrin James--tore his ACL in year 3. While James did have 125 receptions to go along with his 756 carries*, I'm still scared to death that my #1 fantasy pick is going to be requiring a dead 44-year-old's tendon very soon.
*During the 1999 and 2000 seasons, how did the Colts have enough offensive plays to give James the ball 881 times and still connect with Marvin Harrison 217 times? Well, in 1999 only four Colts not named Edge James carried the ball, with Peyton Manning leading the way with 34 and Harrison and Terrence Wilkins chipping in one apiece (Keith Elias, of the Sports Bureau, had 13 carries, as well). And while Harrison had 115 receptions and James had 62 in '99, Wilkins (the third leading receiver) had only 42. Clearly, in only his second season, Manning had not yet developed trust with any other receiver than 88 (although if you put Ken Dilger and Marcus Pollard together--a combined 74 receptions, 853 yards, and 6 TDS--you get a pretty good imitation Dallas Clark). 2000 was more of the same: 3 other non-Edge running backs--including former Brown great Karim Abdul-Jabbar (who should have changed his name to Roger Murdock after the "real" Kareem Abdul-Jabaar (LEW ALCINDOR!) sued him)--combined for 6 carries, while James and Harrison combined for 165 of Manning's 357 completions (46%). The fact that Indianapolis finished third and fourth in scoring those two seasons on the back of essentially a three-man offense (plus the linemen, of course) shows just how great Manning, James, and Harrison were (or in Manning's case, are).
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota
Allen put up an impressive 14.5 sacks in his debut season for the Vikes, all while playing most of the season with a separated shoulder. Of course, it helps that Minnesota's defensive line is anchored in the middle with the Williamses (Venus & Serena...no, Kevin & Pat). To truly get perspective on how great Allen is, consider that in 2007, he registered 15.5 sacks for the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that would go on to set an NFL all-time low mark with 10 sacks in 2008. Allen is a freak, and his liveliness adds a bit of personality to a team that too often takes the personality of its coach (pictured below).
BEST COACH: Lovie Smith, Chicago
While an argument can be made for Mike McCarthy, I just can't go with the coach of a team that loses so many close games. If the Packers do what I think they can this year, then McCarthy's my man, but until then, I have to go with Lovie. After a 5-11 debut season, Smith got things going, winning two division titles and appearing in a Super Bowl. Since the loss to the Colts in Super Bowl XLI, though, the Bears have been out of the playoffs, falling to 7-9 in 2007 before bouncing back somewhat with a 9-7 mark. Lovie seems to have the respect of his players, even during the tougher times of the past two seasons, and with the addition of Cutler, his biggest distraction--who will be starting at QB--is gone. If the Bears are going to bounce back and make another run during the Urlacher era, this is the season to do it.
1. Is Brett Favre the most unpopular player in the NFL right now?
I think so, if only because I'm having trouble coming up with a second most unpopular player (Shawn Merriman?). Favre is like one of those WWE wrestlers that Vince McMahon decided needs to be pushed as a face (good guy), even though the guy gets booed mercilessly in every arena he performs. ESPN and the rest of the sports media are like Jim Ross and the King, desperately trying to sell you on the guy's popularity despite the loud boos (and the fact that the pushers themselves know it's all a sham). So how can Favre restore his legacy? He can pull a Rock. When the Rock first entered the WWF, he was called Rocky Maivia, and his gimmick was that he was the goody-too-shoes son and grandson of former pro wrestlers. Even though he was sold as a popular face, fans chanted "Rocky sucks!" throughout the entirety of his matches. So, to save his career, the Rock became a self-obsessed dick, and started insulting the fans and fighting dirty. He became a heel (bad guy), and in the process, one of the most popular pro wrestlers of all-time. This is what Favre should do. He should start talking mad smack about Green Bay, and continually play up how he's going to shut Lambeau up. In order for this to work, the Vikings need to be good, of course, and to ensure this, Favre should start playing dirty (like this). To really push things over the top, he should start using HGH, and even leak that he's using out through unreliable sources, just so there is a whisper of abuse. Finally, in accordance with one of my favorite heel maneuvers, Favre should bow out of the starting lineup just before kickoff of the November 1 game, ending his consecutive games played streak, and leaving the Lambeau crowd completely dissatisfied. His legacy in Green Bay will forever be tarnished, but how much more tarnished could it get? And while he may never be able to go back to Wisconsin, Favre will now be the cool bad boy of the NFL to a generation of fans who are too young to remember the Brett Favre that was "just having fun out there."
2. Is Matthew Stafford the savior the Lions need?
No. Matthew Stafford is a hyped up version of Derek Anderson. He throws every pass 100 mph, and lacks touch and accuracy in the short-to-mid-range areas. The biggest problem is that he is starting right away. Very rare is the rookie who can start from Day One and be successful (I know there were two last year, but let's consider them outliers), and that isn't even taking into account the fact that he will be starting for a team that went 0-16. Nothing I saw from him in preseason led me to believe he's ready to play. If he had been given a season to develop his technique a bit more, I'd be more optimistic. As it is now, I see the next David Carr, not Matt Ryan. (Also, it appears Stafford hasn't exactly won the Detroit locker room, either.)
3. Will Green Bay's defense be good enough to hold the leads their offense gives them?
Yes. I know the Packers are switching to a 3-4, but it appears they already have the key personnel in place. At nose tackle is rookie B.J. Raji, at middle linebacker is A.J. Hawk, and bringing the pass rush is Aaron Kampman, who has been improving his already outstanding technique with coach Kevin Greene. Dom Capers is leading the switch, and there are only a handful of men* better equipped to handle the transition from a four-man front to a three-man front. If the secondary can stay healthy (a fairly big if with Al Harris and Charles Woodson getting older everyday), the defense can actually be a strength. Put it together with a dangerous offense (led by Aaron Rodgers, who is right there with Philip Rivers atop the second tier of NFL QBs) and you have a bonafide Super Bowl contender.
*Dick LeBeau, Bill Belichick