Packers' NFC North reign under siege

Pete Dougherty
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The Green Bay Packers’ hold on the NFC North is facing its biggest threat of at least the last half-decade.

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Mike Zimmer of the Minnesota Vikings speaks to the media after being introduced as the new head coach during a press conference on Jan. 17, 2013, at Winter Park in Eden Prairie, Minn.
The Vikings? Mike Zimmer brings an extroverted and hard edge to coaching.
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EDEN PRAIRIE, MN - JANUARY 17: Mike Zimmer of the Minnesota Vikings speaks to the media after being introduced as the new head coach during a press conference on January 17, 2013 at Winter Park in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

The Packers have won four straight division titles and can make it five with a win or tie against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

But regardless of the outcome, the Packers’ division rivals are changing quickly, and for the better, at the same time that the Packers are showing vulnerability.

The Vikings, who will be division champs with a win Sunday, have a coach in Mike Zimmer who has turned the team around in two seasons. If he’s as good as the early signs suggest, it bodes well for the Vikings' future near and long term.

The Chicago Bears upgraded in that department as well this year with new coach John Fox. Under Fox’s first-year coaching staff, Jay Cutler is looking like a viable quarterback.

And even Detroit has recovered from its disastrous 1-7 start to win five of its last seven games. Owner Martha Ford is hiring a new general manager who likely will bring in a new coach, too. If she's as committed to finally turning around one of the league’s worst franchise’s as she has said, this year's team at least has shown a decent talent base and, depending on the coaching, a potentially winning quarterback in Matthew Stafford. That’s not a bad starting point for a new front-office regime.

The Packers have dominated the NFC North lately mainly because of the gap between Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the division’s quarterbacks. But the Packers also have been a better-run organization with uncommon stability at the top with general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy, and a good roster year in and year out.

Their four consecutive division titles tell only part of the story. Going back to the first of those, in 2011, the Packers’ .776 winning percentage in division games (22-6-1) dwarfs their rivals, all of whom are under .500. Detroit is second at .483 (14-15), followed by Minnesota at .391 (11-17-1) and Chicago at .345 (10-19).

Those numbers hold up going back to Rodgers’ first season as starter, 2008, with the Packers at .734 and everyone else below .500. And to 2006, which was Thompson’s and McCarthy’s first season together, with the Packers at .737 and everyone else still below .500.

In the time McCarthy and Thompson have run the Packers, Chicago is on its third GM (Ryan Pace after Phil Emery and Jerry Angelo) and third coach (Fox after Lovie Smith and Mark Trestman); Minnesota is on its third coach (Zimmer after Brad Childress and Leslie Frazier), and in 2012 named Rick Spielman the franchise’s first GM since the 1980s; and Detroit is on its third coach (Jim Caldwell after Rod Marinelli and Jim Schwartz) and soon will have its third GM (following Matt Millen and recently fired Martin Mayhew).

The early signs suggest the Vikings made the best recent hire of all in Zimmer. He’s only in his second season, so there’s still much to prove. But he’s beginning to look like a defensive version of Arizona’s Bruce Arians.

Both Arians and Zimmer were highly respected, long-time NFL assistants who were passed over for head-coaching jobs because they probably were a little too gruff, direct and impolitic for the teams that interviewed them.

Arians, 63, was an NFL assistant for 20 years, including nine as an offensive coordinator, before Arizona hired him as head coach in 2013. Zimmer, 59, also had worked in the league 20 years, including 14 as a defensive coordinator, before the Vikings gave him his first shot as a head coach last year.

All the franchises that failed to recognize the substance of those two coaches are getting what they deserve.

Arians already probably ranks as the best coach in the league other than Bill Belichick. Zimmer, who went 7-9 in his first season, is 10-5 heading into Sunday’s de facto division title game. He has given the Vikings an identity of toughness and competence, and his defense ranks No. 6 in points allowed just two seasons after it finished last in that category

Much of the Vikings’ future rests on how second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater pans out. He recently has played the best football of his young career – six touchdown passes and no interceptions in the last three games. His 90.6 passer rating ranks No. 21 in the league.

I talked to two scouts with NFC teams this week about Bridgewater, and they rated his intangibles – namely intelligence, poise and history of winning – as first rate. He’s a good athlete. His arm talent is decent.

To this point the Vikings haven’t put too much of their offense’s success on him, and they likely will have the luxury of only slowly adding to his responsibilities because of halfback Adrian Peterson. Though Peterson is 30, he’s running nearly as well as ever and very well might have another two strong seasons in him.

“He’s the best (running back) I’ve ever seen,” one scout said. “I’m not betting against him.”

So this looks like a team on the rise.

The Bears have new life with Fox, in part because offensive coordinator Adam Gase has coached Cutler to his best season. Cutler has a career-high rating (92.8) and career-low interceptions percentage (1.7) with only one game to play.

The Bears are 6-9, but they were a rebuilding project coming in and played all season without rookie receiver Kevin White, the No. 7 pick overall, because of a stress fracture in his shin. The Bears were good enough to beat the Packers at Lambeau Field 17-13 on Thanksgiving.

Maybe the biggest issue with the Bears is whether Gase returns for a second season as coordinator. He could be one of the hot head-coaching candidates in the offseason because of his work with Cutler, and with Peyton Manning in Denver before that. His departure could undo some of Cutler's progress.

One of his possible landing spots is Detroit, where the next GM might see Gase as the quarterback whisperer who can get the most out of Stafford. Stafford, like Cutler, has exceptional arm talent but is prone to forcing throws and abandoning good mechanics when under pressure.

Detroit’s new GM will determine the direction of the franchise, which since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 has the league’s second-worst winning percentage (.414). The hire could become even more important in the balance of power in the NFC North if it’s Eliot Wolf.

Wolf, the Packers’ director of player personnel, is Thompson’s top-ranking adviser. If hired this year at age 32, he’d be the league’s youngest GM by a lot. The Bears’ Pace currently holds that honor at 38.

When Lions consultant Ernie Accorsi talked to about the GM job this week, it sure sounded like the Lions are thinking of hiring someone such as Wolf, the son of Pro Football Hall of Fame GM Ron Wolf.

“Don’t think the person has to be experienced or safe or respectable and that’s it,” Accorsi said. “No. You hire someone you think has greatness in them.”

Wolf, though, could be at the top of Packers CEO Mark Murphy’s list for whenever Thompson retires from the Packers, though when that will be is anybody’s guess. Thompson turns 63 later this month.

If the Lions try to hire Wolf, it’s not a given he’d accept the job. There’s always the chance he’d find something undesirable about the setup, or that he’d prefer to wait in hopes that he’ll succeed Thompson in a coveted job that provides a GM with all the freedom and resources he could hope for in building a team.

If the Lions call, the Packers also might try to convince Wolf to stay by improving his contract with the likelihood (or perhaps even an agreement) that he’ll be their next GM.

But if Wolf were to go to the Lions, he’d take his vast institutional knowledge to a division rival. And if he proved to be a good GM, he’d have upgraded the Lions’ front office while at the same time weakening the Packers’.

Either way, the Packers’ reign in the NFC North is under siege. Things change fast in this league, as the Packers have seen with the collapse of their receiving and tight ends corps this season. And now the competition looks like it’s getting better.

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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