Nfccentral

September 01, 2000

Chicago Bears

Last season: 6-10, fifth.

Coach: Dick Jauron (6-10), second season with Bears.

Strength of schedule: tie for 11th.

Starting quarterback: Cade McNown (2-5).

Best move: Offensive coordinator Gary Crowton opened up an attack that had become ridiculously conservative, and with the emergence of McNown and WR Marcus Robinson, Bears have become a quick-strike group.

Missing piece: Third-year RB Curtis Enis is not a good fit, especially for this offense. He is injury-prone, doesn't hit holes quickly enough, and the Bears are stuck with an expensive plodder they don't need.

Pressure's on: DE Philip Daniels must play up to his price-five years at $24 million, including an $8 million signing bonus. Daniels must give a sagging pass rush an immediate spark.

Biggest question: Will the addition of Daniels and top draft pick LB Brian Urlacher be enough to revive a defense that allowed more yards than any other unit besides Cleveland?

Key statistic: The kicking game can't get much worse. In 1999, the Bears failed on 15 of 34 field goal attempts, then said goodbye to veteran Chris Boniol.

Ticket to Tampa: Just get back to the elusive .500 mark, then start dreaming from there.

Detroit Lions

Last season: 8-8, tie for third.

Coach: Bobby Ross (69-59), fourth season with Lions, ninth in NFL.

Strength of schedule: tie for 11th.

Starting quarterback: Charlie Batch (11-11).

Best move: Re-signing DE Robert Porcher to a long-term contract. Porcher had 15 sacks last year and led a pass rush that was tied for fourth-best in that area. Now if only the Lions' high-priced cornerbacks would cover people.

Missing piece: Protection for the injury-prone Batch. The line allowed a league-high 64 sacks, and the Lions are depending on converted DT Stockar McDougle at RG, while last year's top draft pick, OT Aaron Gibson, spent the season on injured reserve.

Pressure's on: Ross can't use the loss of Barry Sanders as an excuse anymore. He has to put this team on a winning course and keep it there.

Biggest question: A capable replacement had to be found for the retired Sanders, but was workhorse RB James Stewart worth $25 million over five years. He has never carried an offense before.

Key statistic: Although the defense was fifth in the NFL with 50 sacks, cornerbacks Terry Fair, Bryant Westbrook and Kevin Abrams were injured, horrible or both. The Lions ranked 27th in pass defense.

Ticket to Tampa: Forget about it. But if Stewart proves to be an answer and the secondary clamps down on opposing receivers, a wild-card run is realistic.

Green Bay Packers

Last season: 8-8, tie for third.

Coach: Mike Sherman (0-0), first season with Packers.

Strength of schedule: tie for eighth.

Starting quarterback: Brett Favre (82-43).

Best move: Firing Ray Rhodes had to be done. Besides a hand injury to Favre, the offense lacked fire and imagination, and the Packers were surprisingly sloppy and ill-prepared on both sides of the ball.

Missing piece: A big bopper in their interior defensive line, where Gilbert Brown briefly made a name for himself. Signing Russell Maryland was a stopgap solution, since his best years are behind him.

Pressure's on: WR Antonio Freeman sat out the 1999 training camp in a contract dispute, and the layoff affected him during a frustrating season. Although he went over the 1,000-yard receiving mark, he disappeared at some key times.

Biggest question: Have the aging Packers started a pronounced decline, or was last year an aberration fueled by Rhodes' ineptitude and Favre's hand injury?

Key statistic: The Packers recorded only 30 sacks, third-lowest in the NFL. And Keith McKenzie, last year's team leader, is now with Cleveland.

Ticket to Tampa: A phenomenal season from Favre, always a possibility, makes all things possible. But even Favre can't take this team deep into January.

Minnesota Vikings

Last season: 10-6, second, lost to St. Louis in divisional playoffs, 49-37.

Coach: Dennis Green (81-47), ninth season with Vikings.

Starting quarterback: Daunte Culpepper (0-0).

Best move: Building for the future by selecting three DL in the draft made good sense. Rookie DTs Chris Hovan and Fred Robbins, the first two picks, will be integral parts of the rotation and should toughen up a weakened area.

Missing piece: By allowing C Jeff Christy and G Randall McDaniel to leave-for rival Tampa Bay, no less-the Vikings have exposed themselves to big trouble in the interior. C Matt Birk and G Corbin Lacina may pan out, but they could backfire in the short term.

Pressure's on: Culpepper went from the clipboard carrier to a starter in one year, after the team did not bring back either Randall Cunningham or Jeff George, each of whom took Minnesota to the playoffs. This is one bold move that could blow up in Green's face.

Biggest question: One on each side of the ball. Can RB Robert Smith finally make it through a season unscathed after failing in seven previous years? And can DE/OLB Bryce Paup revive his fading career?

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