The New Parents’ Guide to the 2021 NFL Season – NFC North

Chicago Bears

If you’re a Bears fan, these are the good times. I’m serious! This period, from the time of Justin Fields’ drafting until the time he is named undisputed starter, is the period in which he can serve as a cipher onto whom the fans may project their future hopes with impunity. Once Fields is starting games and begins accruing actual professional experience, his ability to be all things to all Bears fans necessarily becomes limited. Even if Fields does develop into a legitimate franchise guy, he will have particular sets of strengths and weakness, as all quarterbacks do, and the sports punditry will examine those weaknesses under a microscope after every high-profile loss, as is their wont and disposition. This is the honeymoon period. Enjoy it while it lasts, because we all know that Fields is screwed. These are the Bears we’re talking about, here; I refuse to believe that they can successfully develop a quarterback before I see it happen.

But, in the spirit of charity that is my guiding ethos, let us assume for a brief moment that Fields turns out to be the Bears’ decades-awaited answer at the accursed position. Why in the hell would you want him to start this year? Even granting that a struggling rookie provides the team with a higher ceiling than the 2021 version of Andy Dalton, I am appalled at the suggestion that Fields’ development can be helped by starting for this offense this year. The offensive line is a complete disaster. Allen Robinson is the only good receiver on the roster, and while that’s one more good receiver than the Bears typically have on hand it’s hardly enough talent to inspire confidence. There is almost no reason to believe any quarterback could prevail under these conditions, let alone a rookie.

And, assuming that Fields is named the starting quarterback at some point during the season and leads the Bears’ offense to immediate success, what then? With an ownership group this checked out, you can be certain that so much as a Wild Card appearance (and quite possibly less than that) would save the jobs of both Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace, both of whom would have been dismissed after last season in a world even slightly more just than our own. (That press conference was hilarious though, wasn’t it? Stay the course!) In this context, I see no long-term upside to forcing Fields out on the field under pretext of hope. Hope that preserves Pace and Nagy’s jobs is no hope at all.

I don’t believe in tanking, but the short-term prospects for this team are dim at best, and I see no sense in maximizing them. The offense is a tire fire and the defense is getting old, Roquan Smith excepted. While I can envision the Bears winning the division, the chances of them doing so are witheringly slim, and their chances of emerging as legitimate Super Bowl contenders are functionally non-existent. Really, that’s more of an indictment on the division itself than any sort of Bears endorsement. Let Fields wait until next year, when he might actually have the benefit of a real coaching staff and a real supporting cast. His future, and by extension the hope of Bears fans everywhere, from Palatine to Arlington Heights, depends on it.

Max Points: 6

Predicted Finish: 3rd

Detroit Lions

While this isn’t the first time I’ve made this complaint, I am a bit annoyed that my emotionally sensible decision to eschew writing about football until shortly before the season has frozen me out of making easy, obvious jokes. Now it’s time for me to write about the Lions, and all of the kneecap-biting jokes made after Dan Campbell’s uhm…intriguing introductory press conference have been made and rehashed a thousand times over in the months since. The related comedy potential is a carcass that has been picked entirely clean, all the way down to the patella. Haha, got ’em!

Of course, the real reason I wish there were fresh, new-in-box Dan Campbell jokes left to make is that I need something to talk about with this team. As with the Jets, there sort of isn’t much to say about a team that is at the very start of what promises to be a long rebuild, and is therefore all but guaranteed to stink. You would think that Jared Goff, being a former first overall pick and all that, at least provides some degree of intrigue by his presence at quarterback, but by the end of his time in L.A. Goff couldn’t succeed even with his football dad making all of the pre-snap reads for him. If memory serves, the Rams also had actual, pro-caliber receivers; these Lions have no time for such petty indulgences. It is therefore, shall we say, unlikely that Goff proves to be the Lions’ long-term solution under center.

While the Lions’ immediate prospects are dim indeed, the team and its fans have the most cause for optimism they’ve had in years. The offensive line looks shockingly great, and should remain in place for some time. Again, I don’t believe tanking is ever the answer, but the Lions should lose enough games that they’ll either be in position to draft a quarterback or trade up for one with relative ease. Now that his development is no longer tied to the prodigious anti-coaching skills of Matt Patricia, Jeff Okudah might turn out OK; the same is true of most of the rest of the defense.

And, perhaps most importantly, in Sheila Ford Hamp the Lions have an owner visibly capable of feeling shame for the first time in living memory. Newly equipped with the power of shame, the Lions have most vital component of a team turnaround. Who knows, perhaps they’ll not only improve the Lions’ fortunes on the field, but off the field, too; maybe even Barry and Megatron will stop treating the franchise like it causes lymphoma. With shame, all things are possible! The team might not be any good whatsoever until next year (or the year after that, or uhm…ever), but that’s better than nothing, arguably!

Max Points: 2

Predicted Finish: 4th

Green Bay Packers

Surely I can’t be the only person who finds Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams invoking The Last Dance hilarious, right? Presumably both of them realize that they’re missing something that the 1997-98 Bulls did not want for, no? I must confess I only saw the first two parts of the documentary, so perhaps it’s rash for me to draw conclusions about the series as a whole, but I am nonetheless quite certain it didn’t examine the trials and tribulations of the late 90’s Indiana Pacers. The Packers, in the past couple of seasons, haven’t even been successful enough for me to compare them to the Utah Jazz in this scenario. The Packers fell short of losing in the Super Bowl by losing in the NFC Championship Game not one, but twice. The first loss was a blowout and the second loss came down to the wire, but both losses were united in being totally hilarious.

I assume that everyone reading this is already aware of these events. I recount them here only to rub the failure in the Packers’ stupid faces, because I am a petty, joyless man.

Of course, I am reduced to debasing myself so because, after a summer of hand-wringing and subtweeting and holdout threatening and baffling trades for Randall Cobb, both Rodgers and Adams reported to training camp and are most certainly going to be playing for the Packers this season. Yes, Cobb might be the closest thing to a second wide receiver on the team, and yes, second cornerback and NFC title game goat Kevin King is back for reason that remain mostly unclear (I say mostly only because if I’ve learned anything about actual roster building in the past few years, it’s that a team’s cornerback situation could always get worse). However, the Packers nonetheless have the second-most complete roster in the conference, behind only the defending champs. Since the Bears and Cikings can be best describes as fucking around and the Lions can be best described as finding out, the Packers should easily romp to their third straight division title.

Of course, since Rodgers does not intend to play for Green Bay next year, a third straight division title is insufficient. The Packers are in full-blown Super Bowl Or Bust mode, more so than any other team in the league, really. Tampa just won, so even with a massive salary cap reckoning incoming it’s probably not the end of the world if they fall short. The Saints shot their shot and missed. The NFC West teams all have glaring flaws, and also seem like they’re gonna keep destroying each other indefinitely. Calling the Cowboys contenders is giving them far too much credit. Kansas City, Baltimore, and Buffalo should remain relevant for years. Miami and the Chargers aren’t there yet, and I don’t think Cleveland is, either. Pittsburgh is pushing all their chips into the center of the table, too, but their odds of actually winning it all are much, much longer. Anything less than a second title for Rodgers on his way out the door will register as an abject failure, and understandably so.

And this is what fascinates me most about Rodgers’ time with the Packers since winning the Super Bowl after the 2010 season. I feel as though I’ve listened to lots of people openly wonder what’s wrong with the Packers. How were able to employ the best quarterback in the sport for over a decade and only come away with on Lombardi Trophy to show for it? But this is the wrong question. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – the Lombardi Trophy is not a door prize for having an elite quarterback. If every team that was “supposed to” win the Super Bowl every year did, it’s because they had six of them for some odd reason. Winning one Super Bowl is hard, and winning more than one is even harder; there is no medieval alchemical formula that turns teams (which, as a quick reminder, of comprised of human beings with strengths and weakness not unlike your own) into titles. Don’t let your 13 consecutive Retro Bowl Championships convince you otherwise.

Does this answer bore you? Does it leave you unsatisfied? If so, good. Reality is boring and unsatisfying, and even though professional football players often appear to bend reality to their will, they are nonetheless bound by it. To claim that a team that failed to win a Super Bowl somehow deserved to do so is counterfactual and entitled.

I got a bit off track, here. Do I think the Packers have a realistic shot at winning the Super Bowl this year? Absolutely. Do I think the Packers will win the Super Bowl this year? Not really. Especially after last season’s field goal fiasco, I have real trouble seeing them making it through three or four playoff games without something dumb happening. But what is certain is that the Packers will put themselves in excellent playoff position by wiping the floor with the schmucks in their division, even if it ends up being for the last time.

Max Points: 15

Predicted Finish: 1st

Minnesota Vikings

About a month and a half ago, I was having a phone conversation with my younger brother. It was a Sunday afternoon, and he was several hours deep into a drive from a wedding in the suburban Twin Cities to back home, outside Grand Rapids. Should you attempt this drive yourself, know that you’re looking at a good 12 hours in the car if everything goes right. My brother had work the next day, making it imperative that he make it home in one shot, which in turn necessitated shoving off at 7 AM Central. By the time he called me, it was somewhere around 2 or 3 Eastern. He was approaching Madison, Wisconsin, and was in desperate need of someone to talk at him and keep him awake for a while.

We chatted for well over an hour, and since the goal was to keep my brother engaged enough that he didn’t careen off of I-90/94 and into a ditch, it was imperative that I keep cycling topics when the current one was running out of steam. Thus, I ended up mentioning that from where I was sitting, my beloved Minnesota Vikings had a pretty good outlook for the 2021 season, all of a sudden. My brother, who defected from Vikings fandom to root for, of all the other teams he could’ve picked, the Lions*, took a beat before politely but also bluntly asking “Uhhhh….why?”

(*Obviously, actively choosing to become a Lions fan is, shall we say, not a decision most people would make. In my brother’s defense, our parents both grew up in Michigan and our whole extended family is Lions fans, and there are far worse things to do than choose to commiserate with family. That said, he defected while still living in Minnesota, and I’ve always had real trouble viewing this choice as something other than a bizarre self-flagellation exercise. At least the Vikings have winning seasons now and again, you know? My brother, for his part, insists it’s not.)

At the time, my reasoning was simple. Aaron Rodgers was still locked in a standoff with the Packers, Davante Adams had just joined Rodgers in voicing his discontent, and I figured, on what in hindsight proved to be a deeply stupid and naive set of assumptions, that both superstars were 100% done with the team. With the Vikings’ defensive reload from injury returns and free agent signings, plus a general sense that neither the Bears nor Lions were in position to capitalize on this, I figured the division was theirs for the taking.

What a difference six weeks makes, huh?

First came the early training camp revelation that the Vikings had the absolute lowest vaccination rate of all 32 teams in the league. (Actually, I guess Rodgers and Adams went back to the Packers first, but you already knew that.) That situation immediately went nuclear, as unvaccinated rookie quarterback Kellen Mond tested positive for COVID, requiring that unvaccinated starting quarterback Kirk Cousins stay the fuck out of camp for a week and a half due to his close contact with Mond. When Cousins returned from his stint actively hampering the training camp of team he ostensibly leads, he all but said he had no intention of getting vaccinated but had every intention of pursuing every option available to keep himself and the team safe, except the easiest, safest, and best one.

Despite Mike Zimmer’s protestations, the team’s vaccination rate has remained pathetic. So that was and is a great fucking situation all around. This set the table for an August chock full of bad vibes and bad news. Star linebacker Anthony Barr, who suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2 of last season, mostly didn’t practice in camp and may or may not start in Week 1. On its own, that would suck, but what was most infuriating about Barr’s status was the lack of transparency. Last season, star edge rusher Danielle Hunter was held out of camp with what was consistently described as a “tweak” – implying that this issue was minor and Hunter would be back as soon as the situation resolved itself – but turned out to be a season-erasing neck injury. The constant dithering about Barr’s status reminded me all too much of Hunter’s shit saga last year, which left me with no trust whatsoever that Zimmer or GM Rick Spielman will ever speak plainly about a player’s injury status. I am therefore forced to assume Barr has actual, biblical leprosy until I see him actually playing snaps.

Speaking of injuries, first-round rookie Christian Darrisaw was brought in to be the team’s left tackle of the future. And then, he didn’t practice at the start of camp because whoopsie! It turns out he needed groin surgery back in January (again with this fucking asshole team not telling anyone about injuries to key players!), and he needed more surgery this month to fix lingering, related issues. He might be able to see the field eventually, but again, I refuse to believe that until I see it. The good news is that, since he’s an offensive lineman that Rick Spielman drafted, he’s certain to suck anyway. Better to pretend Darrisaw will provide a boost if and when he does start than see him eat shit repeatedly starting from Week 1 of his rookie year.

While trying to read too much into preseason games is a fool’s errand, the Vikings’ various second-through-fourth stringers looked so abjectly fucking miserable in all three of their exhibition tilts that it became clear that any injury to any key player would leave the team in colossally deep shit. That’s a real fucking problem! Consider the following list, which shows every position group on the Vikings’ roster that has at least some semblance of depth:

  • Interior Defensive Line
  • Running Back
  • That’s it. That’s the list.

The process of damning injury erosion has already begun, as tight end Irv Smith Jr. – one of the few Vikings who looked great in camp, and someone who was certain to play a key receiving role – is almost certainly out for the season with a meniscus injury. In a panic, and perhaps to assuage Zimmer’s knuckle-headed, reflexive disgust at the thought of rostering a third wide receiver worth a shit, the team lay prostrate and let themselves get fleeced to the tune of a fourth round pick for tight end Chris Herndon, a player with so much upside that the talent-deficient Jets (the JETS~!) decided they would be just fine without. There is no third receiver on this team, and if you were willing to wager that Adam Thielen, one of the two receivers worth a damn, is also unvaccinated, you are correct. Congratulations! I award you no points, and fuck you for bringing it up.

But wait, it gets worse! The Vikings also extended Harrison Smith, who is 32 years old. Smith is still productive, but he’s also visibly in decline, and he’s also unvaccinated, because of course he fucking is. This would be tolerable if his extension were a modestly priced sunset contract for a fan favorite looking to finish his career with the only team he’s ever known. So naturally, it’s a massive new deal that makes him the second-highest paid safety in the league. I’ve been a huge fan of Harrison Smith from his rookie year all the way up to when I learned he’s not vaccinated. Perhaps I could tolerate overpaying to keep him around if the Vikings had cap space to spend, but next season Kirk Cousins has a cap hit of 45 million fucking American dollars.

As you can imagine, I think this is a baffling amount to be paying Kirk Cousins. I’ve never liked him much, and I’m resentful the Vikings’ chose him to be their quarterback. His end-of-season stats always look acceptable in a way that hides his many deficiencies, so allow me to share the horrible truth of this idiot’s game with anyone who has assumed Cousins is basically alright. Kirk Cousins will completely shit the bed at least twice a year. Kirk Cousins takes a straight dropback like a nervous 15-year-old driving on their learner’s permit for the first time. Kirk Cousins can only succeed if and only if he is placed in a perfect situation, which behind this offensive line is almost never. His contract is an albatross that has both cemented this team’s ceiling well short of Super Bowl contention simply by virtue of entrenching him as the starter, and furthermore has made it all but impossible to build an even modestly deep team around him.

The Vikings could’ve let Cousins walk after this season, but instead chose to extend him prior to last year in order to keep open a championship window that everyone in and around the league knows had already conclusively slammed shut. That is, of course, everyone except Zimmer and Spielman, both of whom are probably going to be shown the door if the Vikings miss the playoffs. And, given that the team has spent the entire month of August imploding in slow motion, I have a tough time imagining they’re going to pull it off. My feelings on Zimmer and Spielman’s respective tenures are complicated. For as miserable as they both have me feeling about this team right now, there have certainly been some good times during this regime, too. I’m tempted to eulogize their Vikings careers preemptively, but I’ve decided to wait until they’re actually dismissed.

And who knows, maybe they can still pull of a Wild Card. You’ll notice that I have them marked for one, despite all the mean things I have to say. That’s mostly because I made my decisions about who will and will not make the playoffs at the start of August, before I actually started writing this series, and before all of…[gestures broadly]…this happened. But even I don’t really believe myself at this point. You may have noticed I organized my other write-ups in this division around the theme of hope. The Packers have hope for the immediate season. The Bears have reasonable hopes that they’ll turn things around shorty. The Lions might even have actual cause for hope that this rebuild will be the one that finally takes.

But when it comes to the Vikings, I see no cause for hope, whether they sneak into the playoffs this year or not. Their veterans are aging and, in many cases, their cap hits are such that they’ll be around next year no matter what. The young talent on the team is not developing (Justin Jefferson is practically the exception that proves the rule, here), and is no position to replace the expensive vets. The future of this team is anchored to Spielman’s colossal overestimation in evaluating its present, meaning they will be unable to begin a proper rebuild until the 2023 season, at the earliest.

A seventh-seeded Wild Card exit or fluke advance to the Divisional Round won’t change this. In order for any real hope to return to this team, they’ll need to actually reset instead of kicking the can further down the line, and it’s all but impossible to see that happening as long as Zimmer and Spielman stick around. And, when the next rebuild does finally start, there’s no guarantee it will even work. The Vikings are looking at a lot of losing, both this year and in the years to come. They are doomed, both in the long term and in the short. Get vaccinated, everyone! And fuck Kirk Cousins.

Max Points: 9

Predicted Finish: 2nd (Wild Card…?)

AFC South / NFC South / AFC East / NFC East / AFC West / NFC West / AFC North

9 thoughts on “The New Parents’ Guide to the 2021 NFL Season – NFC North

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