WR Yo Murphy, who went from the Vikings to the Bucs in January, is familiar with the division's comings and goings
They call it the 'Black-and-Blue' division, and it's a fitting moniker even during the non-contact months of winter and spring. Right now, those dark hues refer not to on-field bruises, but to the ink used to sign dozens of free agent contracts.
While enjoying the home team's flurry of activity, Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans may not have noticed that most of their division rivals have been just as busy. The NFC Central has been considered one of the league's most competitive divisions over the past decade and, this offseason, that seems to be translating into a race to upgrade as quickly as possible.
Two teams – Tampa Bay and Minnesota – qualified for the playoffs from the NFC Central in 1999, marking the seventh straight season that the division has sent at least two representatives to the postseason. In fact, a Central denizen has been in the conference championship game for five straight years, making the black-and-blue division the only one that can make that claim.
Twice in the past six years, the NFC Central has sent four of its five teams to the postseason, and each of the five has made it in that span. But the cast has rotated quite a bit during that time, and it takes a lot to maintain a foothold at the top of the heap. Green Bay, which advanced to the Super Bowl following the 1996 and 1997 seasons and was 11-5 in 1998, did not make it to the playoffs in 1999. The Bucs went from 8-8 in 1998 to division champs in '99. Detroit has yo-yoed from a playoff 1996 season to 5-11 in '97, back to the playoffs in '98 and back to 5-11 last year.
All of which turns up the heat during the offseason, when marginal contenders can leap back into the race or elite teams can slip. It appears that most of the NFC Central has decided to shoot for the top in 2000.
Of course, you're familiar with Tampa Bay's moves. In addition to revamping the offensive line with C Jeff Christy, G Randall McDaniel and their combined 11 Pro Bowls, the Bucs have re-signed T Jason Odom and QB Eric Zeier and added valuable role players RB Jerry Ellison, WR Yo Murphy and TE Lovett Purnell. Here's what the rest of the division has been doing in the meantime.
Chicago: Signed DE Phillip Daniels from Seattle, CB Thomas Smith from Buffalo and DE Chris Mims from San Diego, and re-signed QB Jim Miller. Much like Tampa Bay, the Bears have focused on the side of the ball that has been most problematic. The Bears ranked fifth in the league in offense last year and developed an explosive passing attack. Unfortunately, those efforts were balanced by the league's 29th-ranked defense. Daniels, Smith and Mims should help. Daniels racked up nine sacks for Seattle, more than any Chicago player managed in 1999, and Smith was considered a top defensive back for the defense that finished first in the NFL in 1999.
Detroit also addressed a specific need with its most prominent move of the offseason, outmaneuvering Cleveland for the aid of RB James Stewart, previously of Jacksonville. Without future Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, the Lions dropped from one of the league's most prolific rushing teams to 28th in the league in ground yards in 1999, averaging just 77.8 per game. Stewart rushed for 931 yards and 13 touchdowns for the Jaguars last year; at 6-1, 226, he is a radical departure from the Lions' Sanders days, but should provide the running game an immediate boost. The Lions also addressed their 18th-ranked defense with another Buffalo product, S Kurt Schulz, and added Steve Stenstrom as a backup to QB Charlie Batch. P John Jett was re-signed.
The Bucs' most prominent division rivals of the past two years, Minnesota and Green Bay, have been less active.
While Minnesota lost Christy and McDaniel to the Buccaneers, the Vikings did retain Pro Bowl punter Mitch Berger and also re-signed TE Carlester Crumpler. Minnesota had an offensive-defensive ranking split similar to the Bears, finishing third in offense but 27th in defense. In response, the Vikings have added LBs Lemanski Hall, late of Dallas, and Craig Sauer from Atlanta, though neither was a starter in 1999.
Green Bay has been the least active of the five NFC Central teams thus far, with DE John Thierry ranking as its most prominent signing. Thierry brings seven sacks to the Packers' 19th-ranked defense, making him Green Bay's top returning sack man since DE Keith McKenzie took his eight sacks to Cleveland.
Of course, there is quite a bit of time left for the Packers and the rest of the NFC Central to get busy before training camps begin in July, and April's draft could provide another kind of immediate help. Still, the free agency period, just three weeks old, has been unusually active in the Bucs' division and that can only mean that the Central plans to remain in the thick of the Super Bowl race in 2000.