The toughest division in the NFL this season has nothing to do with 2008, and everything to do with 2009. An influx of talent, and necessary culture of change for the better, must be unmatched in any other division. With the topsy-turvy “what have you done lately” nature of the NFL, the secret to forecasting the toughest division in the NFL lies with the division with the most untapped potential. That division, without question, is the NFC North.
Rather than rookies peppering the new talent landscape in the NFC North, the new players come with tremendous experience and physical ability. Taking that into consideration, along with the fact that we are naming the TOUGHEST division, how can anyone argue against a division that includes premier linebackers Brian Urlacher and A.J. Hawk? The NFC North is synonymous with toughness, and 2009 is no exception.
The Chicago Bears focused their offseason on a single position, and vastly improved their outlook for 2009 by remaking the quarterback position. Jay Cutler offers control (as he exhibited in the third preseason game IN Denver), talent, and leadership. General manager Jerry Angelo also brought in future hall of fame left tackle Orlando Pace to protect Cutler’s blind side and also get more push on the left side in goal line situations. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner has also tailored the offense to Cutler’s liking, giving him plenty of long ball opportunities (to avoid the desire to force one) while also creating excellent check downs to running backs Matt Forte and Kevin Jones. The Bears have great special teams, too. Oh, then there’s the defense. While they were riddled with injuries in 2008, the entire defense returns healthy. Perhaps most importantly, the Bears are avoiding indecision and transition now. Eliminating former quarterbacks Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman are big helps, but also getting rid of perpetually injured strong safety Mike Brown was important. Certainty and consistent are the friends of winning teams.
Speaking of which, perhaps the team with the most upside and potential for 2009 is the team with the least movement in the 2008-2009 offseason. The Green Bay Packers got better by playing together and getting more comfortable on both the offensive and defensive sides. They have needed no big offseason acquisitions, no splashy trades, no tough losses to free agency. They were steady from a personnel standpoint. Normally this brings words like “plateau” and “status quo” to mind. But the Packers will improve. They have quarterback Aaron Rodgers, in my opinion the best draft pick from 2005 draft. All he did was throw for over 4,000 yards last season with strong and steady wide receivers Donald Driver and Greg Jennings. The running back position is more solid for 2009, too, with five capable running backs on the roster. Starter Ryan Grant is now a proven force in the league, but Brandon Jackson proved he is an excellent third down back and running option. Youngsters Kregg Lumpkin and rookie Tyrell Sutton are a good potential thunder and lightning type combination, and DeShawn Wynn has the type of balance and explosiveness all general manager’s seek.
The Minnesota Vikings were already strong on defense and special teams last season (how is this the first season where special teams coordinator is regarded as an “official” coordinator??). The offense needed to improve and become more consistent. It has, thanks to the late preseason acquisition of quarterback Brett Favre. Though some in the clubhouse have not welcomed Favre with open arms, his style and success will change all of that. Once open receivers are hit, along with the balance of running back Adrian Peterson, a good offense becomes a potentially big play offense. Playmaker Percy Harvin adds excitement to the mix, as well, improving the overall team speed and explosiveness. The defense was good last year and will remain good, frustrating good running games with the Williams brothers in the middle and creating havoc in the passing game with pass rush specialist Jared Allen.
And then there is the Detroit Lions. I will not insult anyone by saying they will be tough. But, three top notch teams in a division is pretty darn good. At year’s end, they will be better than any other division – this season’s version of the AFC East.
You may have read this entire article and still ask yourself, “How in the world can this moron pick a division that contained a 0-16 team as the toughest?” Simple – momentum. How can the Lions get any worse? That cannot. And there is a good chance they will be good. New coaches, fresh perspective, easy schedule, and low expectations. It is a good formula for surprising in the NFL. They will just have to get past the rest of their division, and that will be no easy task.
The reality and parity of the NFL dictates that it is impossible to forecast or predict anything. Making an unconventional, bold pick is the surest way to be labeled a moron in the preseason, and get forgotten when it actually happens. As I have pointed out before, bold is my middle name. I do not shy away from making a courageous proclamation. Especially when I feel I am right.