MMQB Mail: New power division, Favre facing fine, more notes
Vikings, Bears, Packers all capable of winning 12 games this season
Well-attended offseason program could be catalyst for Packers
Mailbag questions on Big Ben, Jay Cutler, Hall of Fame and more
HOUSTON -- This is the thought that went through my mind near the end of the first quarter Monday night at Reliant Stadium, after seeing Brett Favre move around and throw enough to think he's still some semblance of himself, after seeing Adrian Peterson toy with another defense, Jared Allen torment another quarterback, and the best run defense in the NFL wall off Steve Slaton: It's possible that I'm witnessing the third-best team in the NFC North.
Now, that's not a knock on the Vikings. It simply an acknowledgement that if we're to believe anything about the preseason (and that is a dubious practice right there, taking anything from practice games), it's possible Chicago and Green Bay are on Minnesota's level, and we've got a new power division in the NFL.
As far as division kingpins go, most everyone agrees the NFC East is king heading into the 2009 season. From one through four, the East is better than any division playing. But I think as the season dawns, Chicago-Minnesota-Green Bay is better than New York-Philadelphia-Dallas.
"I saw the Bears [Sunday] night,'' tight end Visanthe Shiancoe said Monday night, "and they're really good. The Packers are going up and down the field on everyone. I think we're the division to beat.''
I don't know what that means, but I think any one of three teams in the North could win 12 games.
If the Green Bay Packers make the ascension from 6-10 last year to the playoffs this year -- and it's not beyond the realm of possibility given the play of their first units on offense and defense in the preseason -- I've got an unlikely primary reason: the offseason program.
You hear the merits of great attendance at teams' offseason conditioning and workout programs debated every year. But a couple of years ago, when I was around the Cleveland Browns during the spring and summer, I was surprised that so many players, including purported team leaders like Willie McGinest, Derek Anderson and Braylon Edwards, were not in full attendance for the 40 offseason workouts south of Cleveland. Romeo Crennel, then the coach, told me he made it a point of emphasis, but he couldn't force players to commit to the program when they lived in different parts of the country.
I thought that was a major weakness of the Browns. And though I think these programs have spiraled into full-time offseason gigs, the problem with saying you're not making them semi-mandatory is that other teams are. So if you're the Browns and you've got, say, 60 percent attendance, and the Ravens have, for example, 85 percent attendance, doesn't it stand to reason that the Ravens are probably going to come to training camp in better shape and more in tune with what the coaches have planned for them in camp?
That's probably too long a preface, but back to the Packers. Their 2009 offseason attendance, according to coach Mike McCarthy, was 97 percent. That takes into account the number of veteran players who attended and how many workouts each player attended. A team with 50 veteran players, for example, attending 40 workouts apiece, would be 100 percent. I've got to think 97 percent is close to best in the league.
In Green Bay, Wisc.? In March and April and May?
"When I took the job,'' said McCarthy, who was named coach on Jan. 12, 2006, "there was a mindset around this team that you can't have an offseason program in Green Bay, Wisc. And I thought that was absolutely ridiculous. The offseason is when you get better, and the attendance at our program in the last couple of years showed, I think, the maturation of this football team. What I told the team is attendance in the offseason program has to count for something.''
Or, in the words of Bill Parcells, this is where the job is. And you want one of these jobs, you'd better be here in the offseason. If you're not, we'll find someone who is.
McCarthy credited the offseason program before the 2007 playoff season with molding the skills of safety Atari Bigby, who became an important contributor to a good secondary. This season, Cullen Jenkins, coming off a torn pectoral muscle in Week 4 that had much to do with the Green Bay defensive failures in 2008, was a regular participant in the program for the first time.
While the Green Bay offense has been noted for its terrific preseason, Jenkins and the defensive line has brought the kind of pressure the new 3-4 scheme must have. New defensive coordinator Dom Capers has Jenkins and Johnny Jolly at the ends and Ryan Pickett at nose tackle in the base defense, with first-round pick B.J. Raji training at end in the base, at one of the two inside rushers in the sub packages and at nose to back up Pickett. Raji should play at least half the snaps this year. "They're taking to the defense really well, and Dom has been able to implement the new scheme pretty painlessly,'' McCarthy said.
I'd expect Brett Favre to get a league fine for his crackback block on Houston safety Eugene Wilson on Monday night. More significantly, he's going to feel very sore because he cracked back on Wilson by throwing his midsection into a sprinting Wilson's knee, which will certainly exacerbate his sore rib or ribs. "It doesn't feel great,'' Favre said of his midsection, "but I think I'll be fine. I don't know what good it would do to get an X-ray. Say it shows a crack. There's nothing you can do about it anyway. But I'm sure that block didn't help it much.''
I don't think you're going to see a continuation of the cold war between Giants defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan and defensive end Osi Umenyiora. The two men met Monday night for some time at Giants' headquarters and whatever caused Umenyiora to stage a wildcat strike of practice is over. It's not a serious matter, I'm told, and not contract-related.
Umenyiora hasn't been his 2007 terrific self coming back from knee surgery that caused him to miss last season, and I think his absence might have been part frustration over how he's playing, part missing Steve Spagnuolo, and part oil-and-water with Sheridan. I don't see that it's a matter of much concern.
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