Flashback to the eve of the 2008 NFL season and take a look at the NFC North's starting quarterbacks.
Packers: Aaron Rodgers, unproven and replacing the legend of Brett Favre.
Vikings: Tarvaris Jackson, a player whom Minnesota was pinning its future on.
Bears: Kyle Orton, a locker-room favorite who didn't exactly scare opponents.
Lions: Jon Kitna, capable of putting up big numbers with his high-octane style.
Now, back to today and the eve of the 2009 season:
Packers: Aaron Rodgers, fresh off a 4,000-yard season and a dark horse candidate to be MVP.
Vikings: Brett Favre, didn't he just retire?
Bears: Jay Cutler, one of the best young gunslingers in the NFL.
Lions: Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft.
The NFC North is definitely a quarterback-driven division this year, which makes it one of the most intriguing divisions in the NFL and has added plenty of spice to rivalries that weren't necessarily looking for the added heat.
So, here is a breakdown of what to expect from the Four Horsemen this year:
There is no substitute for game experience and with a season under his belt, Rodgers figures only to improve upon the numbers he put up last year. The Califonia kid completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 4,083 yards, resulting in 28 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
So how does Rodgers improve? The Packers went 6-10 last year, losing seven games by four points or less. The problem is that Rodgers picked inopportune times to throw picks, thwarting any comeback opportunities or giving the foe a prime shot at a late score.
Rodgers has perhaps the best receiving corps in the NFL (Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, Jordy Nelson) and a better grasp of the offense, a year of decision-making and anticipation under his belt, which is why Packer Nation is dreaming of Miami in February.
He has been the subject of many jokes and much criticism. But he is still Brett Favre. Now, he isn't the Favre of the mid-1990s, when he led the Packers to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, not in the least. But on the verge of turning 40, he still has enough in the tank to make a difference for a contender with a missing link.
For all the great seasons Favre had with the Packers, his best may have been his last, when in 2007 he completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 4,155 yards, 28 TDs and 15 picks. That is because Favre bought into coach Mike McCarthy's ball-control methods and took the safe route rather than gamble.
Now, Favre is in Minnesota and has the NFL's best running back in Adrian Peterson. He also has a great defense to stifle opponents. Favre's receivers, however, aren't top shelf. Bernard Berrian is fast, but yet to prove himself. Percy Harvin is intriguing, but he is a rookie and might not hold up against the physical NFC North defenses. The best weapon for Favre is likely to be tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.
The one question for the NFL's version of Cal Ripken Jr. is whether he can make it through a 16-game schedule. Favre underwent a couple of procedures on his shoulder and elbow during the summer, but seems to have his fastball back. Having only a few weeks of practice, the chemistry isn't there yet, so the early going may be a bit of a struggle.
People will focus on Cutler forcing his way out of Denver, but that is old news. Finally, after years of quarterbacks seemingly more suited for the XFL than the NFL, the Bears have a legitimate threat under center.
Cutler may have a reputation as being a little bit of a problem in the locker room, but all of the criticism thrown his way following the Denver fiasco may have knocked some sense into him. After all, when he returned to the Mile High City for an exhibition game, he said all the right things and kept his emotions in check while carving up the Broncos' defense.
There is no doubting Cutler's talent. He has a strong arm and utilized his weapons in Denver very well. But those weapons are lacking in Chicago, where converted defensive back Devin Hester is still learning to become a serviceable receiver, yet he is the No. 1 guy at that spot. Look for tight end Greg Olsen to become his best friend until someone emerges as a viable threat.
The No. 1 overall pick out of Georgia inherits a 17-game losing streak with the daunting task of winning — one game, any game. Please. The Lions were the laughingstock of the league last year, highlighted by Dan Orlovsky unknowingly running out of the back of the end zone for a safety while rolling out for a pass.
Stafford has embraced the challenge and played well in the preseason. Some thought the rookie might take a backseat to Daunte Culpepper early on, but a freak foot injury late in the preseason made the first-year coach Jim Schwartz's opinion moot, forcing Stafford onto the field for Week 1.
It will take time for Stafford to establish himself. He won't be this year's version of Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco, rookie QBs a year ago who led their teams to the playoffs. Stafford's quick development will only make this division even more exciting to watch this year … and for years to come.
Depending on whether Brett Favre comes back.
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Written by Steve Drumwright