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.
Now for your e-mail:
• THERE WAS A BETTER PRESEASON GAME THAN SUNDAY NIGHT'S. MUCH BETTER. From Harvey Greene, senior vice president/media relations, Miami Dolphins: "No denying the Bears-Broncos game was intense, but it certainly wasn't the preseason game with the biggest regular season feel about it. I can take you back to a sold-out Yale Bowl on Aug. 17, 1969, in the first-ever battle between the Jets and the Giants.
"The Jets were coming off their Super Bowl win, yet they still felt they didn't have the respect of the long-established Giants. Similarly, the Giants wanted to prove they still were the aristocracy among the city's football teams and didn't want to lose to the upstarts from Queens. I was at that game, and think both teams played their starters almost the entire contest. When Mike Battle hurdled a Giants defender en route to a punt-return touchdown, he became an instant legend among Jets fans. The Jets won that game 37-14, finally giving their Super Bowl win a few months earlier legitimacy in many people's eyes.
"In fact, if you remember the first year the NFL and AFL teams played preseason games against each other, the AFL teams looked at those games as holy wars, trying to build their own sense of respect among the more established NFL teams after being dissed the first few years of the merger as not being worthy of inclusion into the old guard league. My family had Jets season tickets back then and I remember how big that game was. The trip up to New Haven on I-95 was a slow crawl, packed with cars of Jets and Giants fans honking and yelling at each other the entire drive. The Giant fans were pretty quiet on the way back.''
Great point, Harvey. I was 12 then, living in Connecticut, and vaguely remember watching the game on TV. Don't have a great memory of the game, but you've just given me one.
• GOOD QUESTION RE VICK/BIG BEN. From James Frye of Minneapolis: "Wouldn't Ben Roethlisberger's legal problems give the Steelers more of a reason to go after Michael Vick, not less?''
I think what Mike Tomlin told Bob Costas on Sunday night has been misinterpreted by quite a few people in the past 36 hours. Tomlin talked about his closeness to Vick because they're from the same area, and Tomlin said he feels for Vick and visited him this year to tell him he had his support. Tomlin never said the Steelers certainly would have signed Vick. He did say the fact that Roethlisberger is going through a lawsuit with a woman in Nevada definitely steered him away from it, because he felt the Steelers needed to throw total support behind Roethlisberger.
What was left unsaid is that Roethlisberger, at a time when he needed the backing of his team and his front office, might well have felt jilted if the Steelers were spending time every day acclimating Vick to the new offense, his new team, and his new city. I've had a few people tell me, in essence, that I'm crazy, and the Steelers could never bring a dog-torturer onto the team. All I can tell you, with due respect, is that you're wrong. I'm not saying it certainly would have happened. I am saying they would have strongly considered it were it not for Roethlisberger's problems.
• DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN. From Scott of Toledo: "I find it hilarious that so many Broncos fans are calling Jay Cutler a crybaby because he demanded a trade that basically let him know he was not wanted, especially given the fact that the player Broncos fans hold most dear -- John Elway -- whined and cried his way out of being drafted by the Colts. Karma, meet Broncos fans. Broncos fans, this is Karma.''
That's all good, with one proviso. The Broncos never let Cutler know he was not wanted. Cutler found out Josh McDaniels inquired about dealing for his 2008 quarterback in New England, Matt Cassel, and then went on a wildcat strike of the team. Once Cassel was out of the picture, the Broncos had no intention of trading Cutler. Might they have traded him at some point in the future? Maybe, but probably not.
• NOT EVERYONE IN THE NEW COWBOYS STADIUM IS HAPPY. From Robert Brown of Austin, Texas: "As a Cowboys season ticket holder, I have to agree with you on the Cowboys video board. The interesting thing is that the only 'beautiful sight lines' in the stadium are of the video board. That's why they don't want to move it. The seats are so far away from the field that you almost have to watch the video board. When you visit the stadium, make sure to trek to the upper deck. Just bring a Sherpa, three days of supplies, and give yourself a couple of days to spend at the altitude acclimation points. Without a doubt, the new Cowboys Stadium is the worst stadium I have ever been in, and I grew up near Philadelphia going to the Vet.''
I'm surprised to hear you say that. Nearly everyone I've heard quoted on the new stadium is pleased with it. Maybe I need to go up to your section to see what you're seeing.
• THE PATRIOTS HAVE TAKEN SOME HITS. From Paul Phillips of Cape Elizabeth, Maine: "Has any team lost four potential Hall of Famers from one year to the next? The Patriots no longer have Tedy Bruschi (retired), Rodney Harrison (retired), Junior Seau (unsigned) and Mike Vrabel (traded). What's scary is that their defense might be better than last year. Your thoughts?''
First, and not to quibble, the words "potential Hall of Famer'' might be the most overused four words in our football vocabulary. I'd say Seau has a good chance to make the Hall, and the rest will have a tough climb. And last year Harrison and Seau played a combined eight games for the Pats; Harrison wasn't even around the team for much of the last couple of months, preferring to rehab near his Atlanta home.
But your point is a very good one -- the braintrust and locker-room leadership on defense has taken a beating. Given the fact that two more guys their mates look up to -- Vince Wilfork and Richard Seymour -- are potential free-agents after the season, and you've got a team that is almost starting from scratch in the leadership area. That's why I might have encouraged Bruschi to hang around one more year with a diminished role. We'll see how much it affects the team, but I believe it'll have some impact.
• TWEETS OF THE WEEK. From a Tweeter in Columbia, S.C.: "Your take on Floyd Little is quite limited. Consider his O-line, yards receiving, and more rush yards than O.J. in his career. Four seasons of 1,000 yards rushing/receiving, and no Pro Bowl linemen. Remember: only 14 games back then.''
All good points, except for the 14-game thing. In a 14-game season, a back needs to average 71.4 yards a game to gain 1,000. O.J. Simpson rushed for 2,003 yards in a 14-game season in 1973. Clearly there are far more 1,000-yard rushing season now, but between 1971 and 1975, there were 33 1,000-yard seasons in the NFL. Otis Armstrong, who succeeded Little -- though he played on better teams -- twice had 1,000-yard rushing seasons in 14-game seasons.
I've made three points to quite a few people over the years, about players who play positions that can be measured by statistics and are being discussed by the Hall selection committee:
a. We can all make stats of very good players say pretty much anything we'd like them to say. If I didn't tell you the name of the running back, but said we were seriously considering enshrining a running back with one career 1,000-yard season, a 3.9-yard career rushing average and an average of 54 rushing yards per game, there's a good chance you'd go back and tell me to go do some more homework on the man. Which is a good thing to say, because the men on the Hall's Seniors Committee are voters I respect very much -- veteran scribes like John Czarnecki, Rick Gosselin, Ira Miller and Dave Goldberg, all of whom have covered the game longer than I have. In the case of Little, I think the extra homework is important, because going into this, I'd have thought there was no way he was a Hall of Famer. But I'll have an open mind on him.
b. You cannot take only numbers into consideration. But you can't forget them either, and you can't assume what a player would have done in a different place. We have to look at the talent around candidates, which makes the vetting process even harder. Do we deduct points from Emmitt Smith's case because he always played with a good offensive line and a passing game that took pressure off him, and a coach who allowed him to pad his rushing stats in blowouts? One of the arguments about Little, surely, will be: If he switched places with (pick a player -- Leroy Kelly, O.J. Simpson, whoever) and played behind a better offensive line, he'd be in the Hall and the other guy might be on the outside looking in.
What if I gave you this argument: Bill Walsh wanted to take Phil Simms with his first pick in the 1979 draft, but Simms was already gone, and Walsh waited 'til round three to take another quarterback he liked, Joe Montana. Simms had a very good pro career. What if Simms had gone to the 49ers? I have no doubt he'd have won multiple Super Bowls too. But should we put him in the Hall because maybe he played for a team that didn't win as much as San Francisco? (I happen to think Simms is a very good candidate, but that's not the issue here.) It's one of those iffy things that I think is dangerous to take to the nth degree.
c. This applies to all candidates. Remember that the hue and cry for most candidates is localized. I don't recall ever getting a passionate e-mail or letter about Art Monk from Walla Walla, or one about Bob Kuechenberg from Des Moines. You're from South Carolina, which I find gives your Little argument more merit. I've heard from quite a few Coloradoans about his case.
• TED KENNEDY, CON. From R. Harp of Trout Run, Pa.: "I get steamed when your left-leaning drivel bleeds through. As you lament the passing of Ted Kennedy, try to keep in mind he was responsible for the death of a young woman and lacked the courage to even report what he had done, which could have possibly saved her life.''
Duly noted. Thanks for writing.
• TED KENNEDY, PRO. From John Kaye of Weston, Fla.: "I love football and I love your column. But thank you for the dose of reality with that last excerpt from Ted Kennedy Jr. Thank you for showing what's really important in life. I hope Brandon Marshall reads it.''
Also noted. Thanks for writing.