Black-and-blue no more?

New-look NFC North's best QB is Cutler, scouts say

By Tom Pelissero
tpelisse@greenbaypressgazette.com

The arms have changed, but the game remains the same. Or does it?

This still is the NFC North -- the old NFC Central, the black-and-blue division, where teams long have lived and died with defense and strong running games.

But now, here's Jay Cutler, the new king of Chicago, arriving on a white horse following a trade from the Denver Broncos.

And here's Matthew Stafford, one of college football's brightest stars and the Detroit Lions' No. 1 overall draft pick.

Brett Favre's here, too, back in the division where he made his name, only this time having traded in Green Bay Packers green-and-gold for Minnesota Vikings purple.

And don't forget Favre's successor, Aaron Rodgers, who last season was the division's standout under center amidst the likes of Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman, Jon Kitna and Dan Orlovsky, Tarvaris Jackson and Gus Frerotte.

Favre and the Vikings face the Cleveland Browns today at noon, the same time Stafford and the Lions take on New Orleans. By the time Cutler and Rodgers hold the first of many battles to come in prime time at Lambeau Field, the North will have ushered in an uncommonly quarterback-laden era, replete with everything from intriguing young talent to the division's greatest legend at the position.

But will anything be different?

Is there any reason to believe a division defined by brutal weather, bruising running backs and barbarous defense will tilt on the axis of three impressive new arms?

"Having a good quarterback really is a big part of having success," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said last month. "I think every team in the league is trying to improve their football team, and you never have enough quarterbacks. That part of it I think is obvious.

"But it's no different -- how does it all fit together? Aaron Rodgers has been developed in this offense and he's done very well in his development years and he was able to put together a successful season last year, and we look for him to build off that and take another step forward. Now, how's Cutler and Favre and the other guys in Detroit, how do they fit into their scheme? To me, that's to be seen.

"I don't care how long you've played in the offense or how well you know somebody, you still have to go out and play the game."

To gauge the impact of the new additions, the Green Bay Press-Gazette asked four pro scouts from outside the division to rank the NFC North's starting quarterbacks.

Cutler was the consensus pick as the No. 1 quarterback with three first-place votes to Rodgers' one.

"He's an extremely talented guy," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "The guy's got a quick release, he's got a very strong arm, he's got good movement. I think one of the better things he does is throw the ball well on the move. When you've got the kind of running game that they have, where they can really run downhill in the power running game, then you can pull that ball and be out on the perimeter and throw it 65, 70 yards down the field."

Only one scout ranked Favre ahead of Rodgers, although all four said Favre is an upgrade over the quarterbacks he nudged out of the Vikings' starting competition: Jackson and Sage Rosenfels.

Stafford was on the bottom of all the rankings because he's yet to start a game.

Everyone agreed this is the best group of quarterbacks the division has fielded in recent memory. One scout went so far as to say he'd take the NFC North's quarterbacks against any division's except perhaps the NFC East, which features Dallas' Tony Romo, the New York Giants' Eli Manning, Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb and Washington's Jason Campbell.

"I definitely think the landscape has changed, and it's basically the amount of publicity the quarterbacks in our league and our division will get," Bears coach Lovie Smith said.

"But I still think it's the same division. If you look at the defending champions, Minnesota Vikings, in our division, they had the best running back (Adrian Peterson) in the game. We have a great running back (Matt Forte); the Packers have a great running back (Ryan Grant). Of course, the Lions have one (Kevin Smith). So, I still think defense and the running game will be a big part of our division -- I don't think that will ever change."

If it were going to change, this would seem to be the year.

It's not every day a surefire Pro Football Hall of Famer, a reigning Pro Bowl selection and a No. 1 draft pick get tossed into the same division as an up-and-comer who threw for more than 4,000 yards in his first year as a starter.

"I would say that would probably be as intriguing as any storyline in our division," Capers said. "Starting out the season where you've got new quarterbacks at three of the places and how that's going to impact those teams -- and with some pretty good teams."

But in the past six years, only one team managed to win the North without a top-10 running game or a top-10 defense. That was a 2007 Packers, who went 13-3 behind a No. 2-ranked passing offense directed by Favre -- the division's lone star quarterback for most of his 16 seasons in Green Bay.

Last season, the NFC North finished with the second-fewest passing yards (12,790) of any division. The Vikings statistically had the division's worst passing game, ranking 25th, but they also had the NFL's No. 1 rusher and rush defense. The Packers had the best passing game (ranked eighth) and finished 6-10.

Lovie Smith has made clear the run-first, pass-second philosophy on offense won't change with Cutler under center.

"Jay knew what our philosophy was and is and will be before he came in, and he's embraced that," Smith said. "They can both go hand in hand. We play in the elements most of the time; it's hard to throw the ball 60 times a game. But we'll pass the ball enough for Jay to be happy about being a quarterback."

The same probably goes for Favre in Minnesota, where Peterson and one of the NFL's stingiest run defenses are king.

The Packers are counting on taking major strides with a healthy Grant and a remodeled 3-4 defense under Capers, while the Lions -- well, there's not much the Lions can't improve.

At least at the quarterback position, the one thing that's certain is the talent is there.

"We've got a good group," Cutler said. "When they brought Brett in and Matt got drafted to Detroit and Aaron was already here -- we've got a talented group of quarterbacks, and we've got some really good teams in this division."

***

NFC North QBs: How they rate

This past week, the Press-Gazette asked four pro personnel people from outside the NFC North to rank the division's starting quarterbacks. Chicago's Jay Cutler received three first-place votes, while Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers received the other. Only one scout ranked Minnesota's Brett Favre ahead of Rodgers, and all four scouts put Detroit rookie Matthew Stafford last because he's yet to start a game. Here's a breakdown of the group:

1. JAY CUTLER, Bears

4th year; 6-foot-3, 233 pounds; 26 years old

2008 (with Denver): 16 starts, 384-for-616 passing (62.3 percent) for 4,526 yards, 25 TDs, 18 INTs, 86.0 rating.

Career: 37 starts, 762-for-1,220 (62.5 percent) for 9,024 yards, 54 TDs, 37 INTs, 87.1 rating.

Upside: Elite arm strength. Can extend plays with his legs. Uses play fakes to his advantage and throws accurately on the run when he gets outside the pocket. Makes tough, tight throws. Competitive. Has 2 1/2 years as a starter under his belt. "He's not (Peyton) Manning or (Tom) Brady or (Drew) Brees quite yet," said an AFC personnel man who ranked Cutler as by far the division's best QB. "But he's in probably the next level down of guys, because he's been productive, and he's got plenty of talent. He's a guy that's on the come, so I don't see him in that upper echelon, but he's in the next level down."

Downside: Sometimes fails to play within the scheme. Takes too many chances and might get exposed with inferior receivers in Chicago. Perceived by some as having a me-first attitude. "I think with Cutler you've got a little bit more arm strength," a pro scout for an NFC team said, "but on the downside, flipside, you've also got a little bit more of that gunslinger mentality."

2. AARON RODGERS, Packers

5th year; 6-2, 220; 25 years old

2008: 16 starts, 341-for-536 passing (63.6 percent) for 4,038 yards, 28 TDs, 13 INTs, 93.8 rating.

Career: 16 starts, 376-for-595 (63.2 percent) for 4,367 yards, 29 TDs, 14 INTs, 91.8 rating.

Upside: Good arm strength, mobility and overall physical tools. Accurate passer. Matured during three seasons backing up Brett Favre. Knows offense inside and out. Solid work ethic. Grades out highly for decision-making and doesn't take many dumb chances. "What I've been able to see in Rodgers is the development I think of some of the intangibles you want at the quarterback position," said the AFC personnel man who ranked Rodgers No. 1. "Leadership, the moxie, the savvy, approach, command of the offense."

Downside: Team finished 6-10 in his only season as starter. Sometimes erratic early in games. Failed in seven chances to win a game with the ball and less than 5 minutes to go. "It's a learning experience, really," another NFC pro scout said. "In reality, the guy was a rookie last year -- his first go-round and having the whole thing in front of him, and he was the guy. I don't put (the close losses) all on him by any means."

3. BRETT FAVRE, Vikings

19th year; 6-2, 222; 39 years old

2008 (with N.Y. Jets): 16 starts, 343-for-522 passing (65.7 percent) for 3,472 yards, 22 TDs, 22 INTs, 81.0 rating.

Career: 269 starts, 5,720-for-9,280 (61.6 percent) for 65,127 yards, 464 TDs, 310 INTs, 85.4 rating.

Upside: Brings loads of intangibles. Off-the-charts football smarts. Can read defenses as well as anyone. Will benefit from Vikings' exceptional running game. All four scouts said he's an upgrade over Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels, if only for one year. "When (Favre) came in, those guys said it's just a whole 'nother speed level that the ball takes on in terms of speed, velocity and those things," an AFC personnel man said. "He's still got the juice. Obviously, it isn't what it (was) back in the late-90s, when he was hitting on all cylinders. But he can still zip the football."

Downside: Has declined markedly down the stretch each of the past five seasons. Skipped the entire offseason program and three weeks of training camp before signing. Coming off surgery to repair a partially torn biceps tendon in his throwing shoulder. Turns 40 on Oct. 10. Legendarily resilient body might be breaking down. "Heck, I just watched the first game he played (in the preseason against Kansas City) -- he got his (butt) beat," an NFC scout said. "You just talk about the amount of shots you have left, and again, you don't ever want to count the guy out or say (he's done), but it's just a matter of time. The body can only take so many hits."

4. MATTHEW STAFFORD, Lions

Rookie; 6-3, 232; 21 years old

2008 at University of Georgia: 235-for-383 passing (61.4 percent) for 3,459 yards, 25 TDs, 10 INTs, 153.5 rating.

College career: 564-for-987 (57.1 percent) for 7,731 yards, 51 TDs, 33 INTs.

Upside: Has the physical tools to be an effective pocket passer. Strong arm. Similar skill set to Cutler's coming out, except Stafford played more within the system. Intelligent. Can run a huddle. Had best college season as a junior and declared early. Beat out veteran Daunte Culpepper for the starting job with a strong camp. "That's a kid with physical talent and upside," an AFC personnel man said. "I think what's going to help him make that significant jump, is going to be the intangibles that come with the position. It's just smarts, decision-making, command of the offense, leadership -- those things obviously are important to play this position."

Downside: Hasn't started an NFL game. Needs time to mature and get full grasp of the offense. Plays for a franchise where top draft picks have been known to fail. Preseason numbers (30-for-55 passing, 1 TD, 4 INTs, 52.8 rating) were uninspiring. Has an elite playmaker in WR Calvin Johnson but not a lot else to work with. "I have seen Detroit play, and I'm still concerned that they're going to have some issues up front," an NFC scout said. "It's going to be a struggle, but again, 81 (Johnson) is special. Maybe they just take two steps back and just chuck it and just hope for the best."