The NFL season, if you can believe this, begins a week from Thursday. We are nine days away from official kickoff, with the Kansas City Chiefs traveling to take on the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Thus, every Tuesday and Friday until kickoff, I'll be previewing the whole NFL, division-by-division.
I've drawn on all sorts of resources in these previews, but like anyone who writes about football and wants to get it right, I've weighed heavily on Football Outsiders and their Football Outsiders Annual, which you should purchase if you really want to know what's going on.
4. Chicago Bears (Projected Record: 4-12)
The thing about the Bears' weird quarterback decisions this year is that neither of them was inherently stupid, individually. The Bears have a solid offensive line, average receivers and a stud back in Jordan Howard, who had a fantastic rookie season, rushing for more yards than Matt Forte did in all but one of his seasons in Chicago. That's the sort of offense that it makes some sense to add an up-and-coming quarterback with some experience, the sort of guy who has played in the league but has upside potential. You might not necessarily want a rookie who has to relearn everything in that situation. Enter Mike Glennon.
But the Bears, like everybody else in the sport, also need a stud quarterback who can potentially take care of the position for the next 10 years. The Bears saw only one of those guys in this draft, and they had the pieces to trade up and get him. If you believe that you've got a future quarterback star, or at least someone you can build around so you don't have to worry about quarterback for a decade, you owe it to yourself to go after him. Enter Mitch Trubisky.
The problem, of course, is that the Bears did both. That was the stupid part. Now they went from having no quarterback -- well, Jay Cutler, who, uh, may actually be better than both of these guys this year -- to having a quarterback controversy of their own making. The Bears tried to take two paths at the same time, and it might just sink their season, and John Fox. The sad thing is that Trubisky has actually looked pretty good this preseason. Wouldn't it be nice if that were the only story?
3. Detroit Lions (Projected Record: 6-10)
The Lions and Matthew Stafford have always been a little unappreciated. (Well, Stafford might not be unappreciated financially. But you know what I mean.) Stafford has led his team to the playoffs three of the past six seasons, which is something that, say, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees or Carson Palmer can't claim. Sure, they haven't won any of those playoff games, and last year's team might have been the least inspiring playoff entrant in a generation, but Stafford plays every week and plays well enough to get his team to the playoffs half the time over a six-season stretch. That's not nothing.
The problem is that last year was almost certainly a best-case scenario. The Lions just broke the all-time NFL record with eight fourth-quarter comebacks, and while that's impressive, good for them, it's a bad sign when your team is in fact behind eight times in the fourth quarter, and all those comebacks are unlikely to fall your way two years in a row. (To say the least.) And the Lions' schedule is set up that they're going to play a lot of teams better than them in the first half of the season. Will they still believe they're going to come back if they're down in the fourth quarter Week 1 against Arizona? Or Monday night in Week 2 against the Giants? Or hosting the Falcons in Week 3? There's a very real possibility that the Lions start 0-5.
If that happens, do you think this team is going to feel inspired by its incredible good fortune in the fourth quarter last season? The Lions are such an obvious regression candidate that it's almost no fun to pick them; it feels like you're being churlish. But the Lions are more likely to finish last in this division than make the playoffs again.
2. Minnesota Vikings (Projected Record: 7-9)
The Vikings should get a half-decade of good will from the league, and its fans, and really all of us, for what happened to Teddy Bridgewater. Here is the UPI preview for the Vikings, exactly one month before the nightmare injury in training camp last year:
The third-year quarterback has exhibited the personality, character and work ethic needed to grow as a player, a professional athlete and a team leader. He organized private workouts with receivers and tight ends. He has gone out of his way to embrace every new player on the team while not overstepping the veterans who are much older than his 24 years. He clearly was dedicated in the weight room and with his nutrition intake. And he has attended the whole offseason program and put forth the work that has earned him team-wide respect.
He sounds like Tom Brady crossed with Joe Montana there. That's a little rose-colored -- Bridgewater had struggled in the playoffs and still hadn't figured out the deep ball -- but clearly, Bridgewater was set to be the Vikings' star for the next decade. The Vikings had taken care of the single most important aspect of running an NFL team. Everything else was to be built around that.
And then ... that happened. Next thing you know, the Vikings are trading away a first-round pick for Sam Bradford, having all sorts of internal feuds and the whole thing's falling apart. The dolls' heads are falling off. The defense, good last year, should be even better, and Bradford is a league-average quarterback, which you can win with. (And the Vikings are hoping to have Bridgewater back on the field by the end of the year. We'll see.) Either way: This franchise is still recovering. Your franchise would still be recovering too.
1. Green Bay Packers (Projected Record: 10-6)
I know I've been quoting Football Outsiders a lot in these previews, and with good reason: They're incredibly smart. (Seriously, buy the book. Football Outsiders Annual.) But I can't resist pointing out what they say about the Packers, because it's so precisely right . The Packers have Aaron Rodgers, one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, in the absolutely prime of his career, and they have decided not to give him the help that he requires. They help out a little, sure, but they also act as if having a Hall of Fame quarterback is just a regular thing in the NFL, that when you have one of those guys, you don't have to do anything special: You just have that guy now, so go ahead and put together the rest of your roster like normal.
The Packers don't have a normal quarterback: They have a legend. So you go get the legend what he wants. Tom Brady was already a multiple-Super Bowl-winning quarterback, and the Patriots got him a Randy Moss. Rodgers performs magic on a regular basis, but he shouldn't have to: Your job is to make it easier on him so that he can do even more than he's doing now, without having to jump through so many hoops.
The Packers will be the best team in the NFC North this year and a Super Bowl contender. But you still can't help but imagine that they could be more, that they could have the definitive Super Bowl slam dunk team that Rodgers deserves. Rodgers may force the Packers into the Super Bowl this year by sure force of will. But wouldn't it be nice if one year, it didn't have to be so hard?
Friday: AFC East
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