Three of the four NFC North teams missed the playoffs in 2017, so it was not shocking to hear that change was coming this offseason. But this much?
The Detroit Lions are looking for a new head coach. The Green Bay Packers just made sweeping changes to the personnel and coaching staffs. The Chicago Bears just introduced Matt Nagy as head coach.
That all within the first few days of the calendar turning to 2018. Imagine what the coming weeks and months will look like.
The reality is that things actually will slow down pretty precipitously once the key hires are made. And many of the moves that already have been made were done because of the steadiness of the quarterbacks of those three teams.
The Lions are a very attractive opening with Matthew Stafford turning 30 years old soon, and with good resources supporting him.
Aaron Rodgers will be 35 this year, but anyone who thinks his Super Bowl window is closed is nuts. The Packers’ sense of urgency to make changes was because they believe — with good reason — that they still can win it all in the next few seasons. They just felt that it wasn’t as likely to happen without fundamental restructuring in coaching and scouting.
The Packers have pushed their former general manager, Ted Thompson, into more of an emeritus scouting role, giving way to new GM Brian Gutekunst. There also were several coaching changes on both sides of the ball, the biggest being the ouster of longtime defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
Gutekunst and Capers’ replacement, Mike Pettine, will be tasked with rebuilding a defense that has underachieved in recent seasons. Doing that will take time, but the Packers expect to act fast — and perhaps in ways Thompson resisted doing previously
“There’s a substantial amount of work to be done, but it can be done shortly,” Gutekunst said at his opening press conference. “Our foundation is going to be building through the draft, but I think [free agency is] an absolute must.”
The biggest unknown quantity of the above teams at quarterback is Mitch Trubisky, who still has much to prove. But he also was the reason why the Bears went with Nagy, who helped coax a career season out of Alex Smith in Kansas City in 2017 and who spent time simultaneously developing Patrick Mahomes, who was drafted eight slots after Trubisky. Nagy and Trubisky now will be unquestionably linked as they try to learn how to win on the job together.
Of course, the one team that did make the postseason from the NFC North is the one that will have the most turnover at the position. The Minnesota Vikings are in great shape to make a Super Bowl run, but their quarterback plans are equal parts fascinating and unknown.
They have Case Keenum, who took over for an injured Sam Bradford, who took over for an injured Teddy Bridgewater. All three are healthy now. All three are set for free agency after the season. We might never have seen a situation quite like this before at the position.
If Keenum, who has been unexpectedly great after signing a one-year, $2 million deal this offseason as an afterthought, wins it all … he has to be back, right? But then what happens to Bridgewater? After all, head coach Mike Zimmer has spoken openly about his special affinity for the former first-round pick who shredded his knee in August 2016 but made a miraculous comeback in returning to the field in Week 15 this season.
As for Bradford, the tea leaves suggest he’s the most likely of the three to move on. When Bradford was activated to the roster late in the season following the knee injury that knocked him out most of the year after starting in Week 1, Zimmer was asked about Bridgewater. Zimmer’s strong response on his behalf seemed to suggest a clear pecking order: It will be Keenum first, Bridgewater second should trouble arise.
"He’s doing great,” Zimmer said of Bridgewater. “He’s ready to go. Anytime he gets the call, he’s ready to roll. I don’t have any questions about putting him in a game. Or if anything ever happens, he’s going.''
More change could come with the Vikings, considering that offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has interviewed for multiple head-coaching openings, although one of those (the Bears’ job) has been filled already and another (the Lions) might be close to going to New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. Shurmur is, however, considered a possible front-runner for the New York Giants’ job.
No matter how you spin it, the North will be among the divisions that face the most turnover in the offseason. It will be the only one that had multiple head-coaching changes. Although the four starting quarterbacks might all remain on the same rosters in 2018 as they started the 2017 season with, there’s a good chance that there will be an adjustment period for a few of them with new head coaches or coordinators.
The North was actually a very good division, relatively speaking, in 2017. The combined 34 victories of the four teams tied for second-most in the NFL behind the NFC South (37), which placed three teams in the playoffs. The NFC North’s cumulative point differential was a respectable plus-44 — one of only three divisions in the black on that statistic — behind the NFC West (plus-65) and NFC South (plus-149).
That this happened even with Rodgers’ collarbone injury knocking him out for two months makes it even more impressive. The Packers fell from a 4-1 start before Rodgers’ injury to a 7-9 finish, their first losing record in nine seasons as backup Brett Hundley struggled mightily.
In fact, Stafford was the only 16-game starting quarterback in the division. Bradford started two games for the Vikings, with Keenum earning the other 14. The Bears switched from Mike Glennon to Trubisky after four games when their free-agent bridge QB turned the ball over too much. Rodgers returned for a one-game run at the playoffs — a loss to the Carolina Panthers — before being put back on injured reserve for the season.
So it’s possible that amid all this change in the division, even more success could be borne next season. Assuming Rodgers and Stafford (who hasn’t missed a start since 2010) stay healthy, Trubisky develops and takes the next step under Nagy’s guidance and the Vikings can find some kind of continuity offensively if there are changes there, this could still be one of the premier divisions in football in 2018. It might not even be a stretch to suggest that the North, like the NFC South this season, could feature three playoff teams.
After all, three of the six new head coaches to start the 2017 season, two of whom had zero head-coaching experience, made the playoffs this season. Sometimes change is not only a reactionary thing, but something that can bear fruit quickly. Considering the quarterback strength of the division, some other faces might be new, but the North could be in good shape next season.