Work in Sports
NFC Central hot spots
At first glance, everyone's chasing the Buccaneers
Sports Illustrated's Don Banks will offer his insights, opinions and analysis of the NFL this season in "Bank on it," a recurring feature on CNNSI.com. Here, as part of our division-by-division NFL training camp previews, is Banks' take on the state of the NFC Central.
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
The NFC Central is above all a division of survivors. It's not always pretty, but the old Black and Blue Division usually finds a way. Since the start of the 1993 season, no division in the NFL has advanced more teams to the playoffs than the NFC Central's 20, an impressive average of almost three per year in that seven-season span.
What's that prove? That the coaches and players in the NFC Central know how to get it done and get to the postseason. Once there, however, they generally lose their touch. Green Bay has the only Super Bowl title among the five division teams in that span, with the Packers getting upset in their bid for a second championship, and the Vikings and Bucs both failing to deliver in the past two NFC title games.
Tampa Bay is back knocking on the door once again, and many believe this will be the year that the Bucs get enough offense to go with Tony Dungy's stellar defensive talent. Give Tampa Bay credit for sliding all of its chips on this season with the Keyshawn Johnson trade. Big dreams demand bold moves.
The NFC Central could again include three or even four playoff teams. Such a quinela occurred in 1994 and '97, so it would seem on schedule for this season. But given Tampa Bay's dominance, the fight should be for mere wild-card berths.
If there's a shake-up in the division pecking order this season, many are expecting Minnesota and Chicago to flop those 10-6, 6-10 records of a year ago, with Green Bay and Detroit slugging it out in the middle. The Vikings have too much fight left for that, but not near enough to catch the Bucs.
If the Bears had hit on a measly one-third of those 15 field-goal attempts they missed last season, they comfortably make the playoffs at 9-7 instead of straggling home with their last-place 6-10 showing. But no-nonsense coach Dick Jauron doesn't want to hear it, and you have to like his resistance to the whiny if-only alibi.
If there was a preseason most-improved award in the Central, the Bears would win it. But again, that doesn't count for a thing. Here's what does count: Jauron has his Bears buying into his program and believing they're on the cusp of making a run. Offensive coordinator Gary Crowton's offense won't be a gimmick this season and the Bears should be even smoother at running it. And lastly, free agency and the draft have brought a nice, young influx of talent in the past two years.
It's Cade McNown's team at quarterback, but the Bears still have the safety net of Jim Miller and the Shane Matthews. If Curtis Enis gives the Bears a true lead back performance, this is an offense that could hang up 40-point Sundays on some folks.
Chicago wisely addressed every line of its defense, adding free agent Phillip Daniels to the pass rush, No. 1 pick Brian Urlacher to its linebackers and free-agents Thomas Smith and Shawn Wooden to its woeful secondary. Holes still exist on this team, but the Bears won't need to sweat every field goal to get it done this season.
Oh, the resiliency required to call oneself a Lions fan.
Detroit can provide delightful surprises when there's no expectation of success, then crush the most optimistic of believers once people start sitting up and taking notice.
Detroit had no business starting last season 6-2 without Barry Sanders around, raising hopes all around Motown that it finally had a team it could fall in love with. But just when it all looked too good to be true, it was.
That 2-6 finish leveled things out to a nice flat-lining 8-8, and that's about how much pulse the Lions showed at the end of the season, even though they managed to qualify for the playoffs.
With the ghost of Sanders finally exorcised, the Lions should be better off. Or have they lost their galvanizing issue? Running back James Stewart is no Sanders, but he was signed away from Jacksonville as a lead back and will lift the Lions to far beyond last year's 28th-ranked showing on the ground. At quarterback, all Charlie Batch has to prove is that he can stay healthy for an entire season. Easier said than done behind Detroit's line.
On a team with too few defensive stars, the Lions need to settle the franchise-player status of end Robert Porcher before it nears the distraction stage. At cornerback, injuries continue to muddle the outlook.
To his credit, coach Bobby Ross seems to have won this team over with his reaction to the past turbulent year. Ross seems better in a crisis than he is when the winds are calm. Fortunately for the Lions, a crisis always seems to be just around the corner.
Under new head coach Ray Sherman, the Packers will be crisper, better prepared and more disciplined than they were in the rocky one-year tenure of former head coach Ray Rhodes. But whether or not they'll better last year's 8-8 finish is another story.
The sloppiness of 1999 may have been a natural outgrowth of all that Mike Holmgren-era success in Green Bay. Gluttony being one of the seven deadly sins and all. Win enough and any team will become inclined to think they can let little things slide here and there. Then again, maybe Holmgren saw the future wasn't as rosy as the past in Titletown and knew it was time to move on.
Sherman seems to have his players' respect walking in the door. That was a luxury apparently not afforded Rhodes. But more importantly, Lambeau Field lost its aura of invincibility last season, and the Packers must have that to be taken seriously in the playoff picture.
Green Bay will always be dangerous on offense as long as it has Brett Favre in the pocket. If Favre is relatively healthy all season, look for him to bounce back from his first shaky season since 1993. With no Mark Chmura to look for any more, Favre better do some quick bonding with first-round pick Bubba Franks.
On defense, LeRoy Butler is the player who has served as a barometer of success. He slipped last season, complained about being used poorly, and was no longer the impact player of years gone by. Butler is excited by Sherman's presence, and we'll see if that rejuvenates his game. If not, look for second-year man Antuan Edwards to push him at safety.
Sherman probably has more than a year to get it done. We think. But then, maybe Rhodes' first mistake was making the same assumption.
The national media has lined up to question coach Dennis Green's sanity this off-season, and you can't really blame them after Green's puzzling tango at the quarterback position. After flirting with every potential scenario except bringing Earl Morrall out of retirement, Green pronounced Daunte Culpepper ready to be a starter and tabbed Bubby Brister as his backup.
Within the organization everybody's now on board and saying all the right things. But until the regular-season bullets start whizzing past Culpepper's earhole, no one, not even Green, will know for sure. This story may not be over by a longshot. Third-team quarterback Todd Bouman has his fans within the organization and if given a legitimate chance, may thrust himself into the picture.
Green does his best work in the underdog role, and struggles in the position of favorite. That much is clear after last season's mostly lost cause. Having weeded out his staff and his locker room of guys he deemed not on board with his program, Green has arrived at what has the makings of his crossroad season in Minnesota. If Culpepper struggles and this team underachieves, there's no one to blame but Green, the lone voice in the organization who pushed for Culpepper over Jevon Kearse in the 1999 draft.
If the Vikings prosper and return to the playoffs for the eighth time in Green's nine seasons, Green will get the latest in his series of last laughs. But Minnesota has more to worry about this season than quarterback. The offensive line lost a pair of Pro Bowl perennials, defensive end remains thin and unproven and the secondary, ranked 30th against the pass last year, is painfully young at cornerback.
Unless you're among the number that believe Shaun King is a very limited version of a big-time starting NFL quarterback, there's not a lot to quibble with this year in Tampa Bay. The Bucs are loaded, they know it, and Year 5 of the Tony Dungy era should be the most successful season in the franchise's mostly sorry 25-year history. There were no problems on defense, so the Bucs didn't try to fix any. Yes, Hardy Nickerson will be missed at middle linebacker. But not as much as you might think since third-year man Jamie Duncan's time has come.
On offense, the line is greatly improved with ex-Vikings Jeff Christy and Randall McDaniel around to lend their Pro Bowl credentials. Keyshawn Johnson brings star power and more big-play capability than the Bucs have ever had under Dungy. He'll make King look better almost immediately and bring some much-needed swagger to Tampa Bay's offense.
After letting Trent Dilfer walk and showing interest in Randall Cunningham, the Bucs stuck with Eric Zeier as their veteran backup. Should King miss any significant time, that's a potential weak spot that could prove costly. For now, the Bucs are preaching patience with King early on, as he learns a new system under first-year coordinator Les Steckel. But that system went to the Super Bowl last year with Tennessee. If that trend holds, once lowly Tampa Bay will become the first team to ever play a Super Bowl in their own stadium.
Don Banks covers pro football for CNNSI.com.
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer.