NFL training camps begin in just under two weeks and no doubt, the story lines will pick up as position battles take shape and budding stars emerge. But what about the story lines up until now? Let’s take a look around the NFC North and the biggest question each team is facing as they prepare for the 2013 season.
Can Matthew Stafford live up to his new contract extension?
After making a playoff appearance in 2011, the Lions took a huge step backwards in 2012, finishing 4-12 and in last place in the NFC North. Muted by the team’s dismal record last year was a record-setting performance by wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Johnson broke Jerry Rice’s record for total receiving yards in a season. Johnson will, of course, be back in 2013 and will be a key piece to Detroit’s success.
The team also returns head coach Jim Schwartz despite the team’s regression last season, but the biggest story out of Detroit during the offseason and preseason is the recent contract extension the team gave to quarterback Matthew Stafford. The deal is for the next five seasons and worth $76.5 million. That makes Stafford one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL.
It’s no secret that the quarterback position is most important to a team’s ability to succeed, and especially in today’s NFL. The Green Bay Packers clearly agree and rewarded quarterback Aaron Rodgers with his own extension this off season. But more questions will surround Stafford and on the heels of his new deal because there are more questions about the Lions as a team. How will they respond to last season? Are their core players ready to take another step forward? Or will it be another year of the same old Lions?
The quick answer is that as Stafford goes, so go the Lions. The debate over whether he deserves the kind of money the Lions gave him is another argument altogether, but the Lions have at least taken a stand and are going “all in” on the face of their franchise. Now, all eyes and expectations will be squarely on Stafford. He has been able to respond to pressure in the past but the microscope just got a bit bigger.
Will new head coach Marc Trestman finally get the most out of Jay Cutler?
The clear and biggest story out of Chicago was the firing of head coach Lovie Smith and the hiring of Marc Trestman. Smith was a defensive mind who often lacked the offensive firepower to keep up in the North and the NFC. In Trestman, the Bears are hopeful that their offense can take a leap forward and make life more difficult for the defending champion Packers and cross-town rival Minnesota Vikings.
Trestman spent much of the 90’s with various NFL teams as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. His specialty is quarterbacks and the Bears are counting on a big season from their signal caller in Jay Cutler. Cutler seemed to have some issues with his previous offensive coordinators in Mike Martz and Mike Tice but the hope is that Trestman can solidfy Cutler’s belief and trust in the team’s offensive system. Cutler has received much criticism from fans and media over the perception that he is aloof or doesn’t get along with this coaches and teammates. The fact is, he needs Trestman and Trestman needs him. There won’t be many excuses left if it’s another season of “Jay being Jay”.
Perhaps a second question in Chicago is the Bears’ defense. They have some aging vets who have been able to contribute in recent years, but they will need some of their young guys to step up. Future Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher was released and later retired. Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman will return, but both are a year longer in the tooth. Look for the Bears to take a long look at draft picks Jonathan Bostic and Khaseem Greene to take the reins at linebacker during training camp.
Can Christian Ponder be a franchise quarterback?
Ponder enters his third season as Vikings quarterback. During his first season, the team finished last in the division. Last season, Ponder played well enough, in a supporting role to running back Adrian Peterson and the out-of-this-world year he had, to get the Vikings back into the playoffs. Unfortunately Ponder had an elbow injury and didn’t play in that playoff game, a loss to the Packers in Green Bay.
The Vikings brought in two more receiving threats in that of free agent receiver Greg Jennings, formerly of the Packers, and first-round draft pick Cordarrelle Patterson. With Peterson expected to be a focal point of the offense, and defensive coordinators alike, Ponder will need to make a leap in his efficiency and play-making this season.
With former Vikings receiver Percy Harvin having missed much of last season due to injury, Ponder was still able to have success with tight end Kyle Rudolph as his one and only top target. The Vikings logged victories over the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers, proving that their success was not just a function of having a last-place schedule. Still, Ponder has many doubters and he will need to build on last season’s success in order to gain the team’s and fans’ trust and quiet his critics
Will the Green Bay Packers actually run the ball?
The interesting thing about this question is that the Packers did run the ball in 2012. It never seemed like it because of how efficient Rodgers and their passing game were, but the Packers ran the ball on 44% of their offensive snaps last year. The other thing skewing that number is that the Packers averaged just 3.9 yards a carry and had only seven rushing touchdowns from running backs last season. Not many of those runs stand out or will be showing up on a 2012 highlight reel, and those that were memorable came mostly at the end of the season.
The Packers drafted running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin in this past draft. The team still belongs to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers will favor the pass this season, but it is clear that they are committed to a more productive running game. 2012 marked the third regular season in a row that the team did not have a single back gain 100 yards in a game.
Last season, the team battled injuries and disappointment in the offensive backfield. James Starks had a disappointing training camp and prompted the team to sign free agent veteran Cedric Benson. Alex Green was slow to return from a knee injury that cost him much of his 2011 rookie season and he never really got going. Late in the season and needing a spark, the Packers signed DuJuan Harris, who had a few nifty runs down the stretch and in the playoffs. The team even brought back Ryan Grant for a little insurance.
Lacy and Franklin will likely do battle with Green, Harris and Starks in training camp. John Kuhn figures to compete for a spot, but he may find himself a casualty if both rookies impress enough. Lacy is a big back, something the Packers have not had for quite some time. The team will be looking for the run game to shorten the field on passing downs and punch it into the end zone from the goal line, something Kuhn has not been able to do.
If the team gets the kind of production that they are hoping for, the Packers will not only be the favorites to win the NFC North, but they should be back in contention in the NFC as a whole.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: