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Preseason Power Rankings No. 8: Green Bay Packers

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The Packers have been at or near the top of the NFL for four years running, and there’s every reason to believe that they’ll remain at or near the top of the NFL this year.

That’s the ultimate takeaway from our preseason look at the Packers: They’re the clear favorites to win the NFC North and host at least one playoff game at Lambeau Field, and they’re one of the Top 10 teams in the league.

For Packers fans, however, No. 8 may be disappointing: As long as Aaron Rodgers is in his prime, anything short of the Super Bowl will feel like a letdown. We explore below why our six-person PFT panel thinks the Packers will again get close but fall short.

Strengths.

It all starts with Aaron Rodgers, who is masterful running head coach Mike McCarthy’s offense. In 2011 Rodgers was the league MVP and set an NFL passer rating record. In 2012 he took maybe a tiny step backward, but he led the league in passer rating again. Rodgers is the NFL’s all-time leader in passer rating, at 104.9 for his career, and he has the lowest career interception percentage in NFL history, with just 1.7 percent of his passes getting picked. His career completion rate of 65.7 percent is second all-time, and he’s the post-merger record holder (surpassed only by some old-timers who played in a different era of passing offenses) in career yards per pass and career touchdown percentage. In case you haven’t noticed, Rodgers isn’t just a good quarterback. He’s a quarterback who’s doing things the NFL hasn’t seen before.

Rodgers also has a good trio of wide receivers in Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and James Jones, and Jermichael Finley at tight end gives Rodgers another threat in the passing game. Cobb is a uniquely talented playmaker whom Rodgers has said could catch 100 passes this season. If Cobb gets as involved in the offense as the Packers hope, and if he continues to be Green Bay’s primary punt and kickoff returner, he could threaten Darren Sproles‘ all-time record for all-purpose yards in a season.

The Packers’ defense took a major step forward from 2011 to 2012, and Clay Matthews managed 13 sacks despite missing four games. Green Bay’s defense melted down in the postseason loss to the 49ers, but that appeared to be more a matter of running into the wrong quarterback at the wrong time, as the Packers simply had no answer for Colin Kaepernick. That game was alarming, but one bad game does not mean Green Bay has a bad defense.

Weaknesses.

If there’s a concern on offense, it’s whether Aaron Rodgers can stay upright for 16 games. So far Rodgers has proven himself to be tough and durable, but last year he was sacked an NFL-high 51 times. If you’re hit by 300-pound defensive linemen that often, there’s a very good chance that eventually you’re going to get hurt. And there may not be any team in the league that has a bigger drop-off from its starting quarterback to its backup quarterback than the Packers have from Rodgers to Graham Harrell, who has thrown exactly four passes in his NFL career.

The inability to stop Colin Kaepernick’s running in the playoffs was a disaster, and Packers coach Mike McCarthy sent his defensive staff back to college to study how to stop the read-option. But a bigger concern is that the defense struggled at times to stop running backs. Adrian Peterson was good against everyone, of course, but he was particularly good against the Packers, running for 210 and 199 yards in his two regular-season games against Green Bay. (The Packers did hold Peterson to “only” 99 yards in the playoffs.) Games like the Packers’ loss to the Giants, in which they allowed Ahmad Bradshaw to gain 58 yards on 10 carries and Andre Brown to gain 64 yards on 13 carries, are also alarming for the Packers’ defense.

Changes.

The loss of wide receiver Greg Jennings may sting, but if Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and James Jones all stay healthy, Aaron Rodgers won’t be hurting for wide receivers. Donald Driver’s retirement is also noteworthy, but while he’ll be missed by Packers fans, the offense won’t miss him at all: Driver had a long and honorable career with the Packers, but he really didn’t have much left last year.

The departure of veteran defensive back Charles Woodson got a lot of headlines, but the Packers won’t necessarily miss him a whole lot on the field, either. He missed half the season with a broken collarbone last year, and the Packers feel good about their depth in the secondary. Veteran linebacker Desmond Bishop, who missed all of last season with a torn hamstring, was also let go, but the Packers like their starting linebackers, too.

Overall, the changes the Packers made this offseason are the changes they’ve always made: They held the line by declining to pay a lot of money to aging veterans, kept the nucleus of their team in place, and added a lot of talent (11 picks) in the draft, highlighted by first-round defensive end Datone Jones. That formula has worked well in Green Bay.

Camp Battles.

With Charles Woodson out, M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian will compete to start at safety alongside Morgan Burnett. Packers safeties coach Darren Perry has said neither of them has separated himself so far, so that’s a competition that bears watching during training camp.

The kicking job will come down to a competition between Mason Crosby and Giorgio Tavecchio. Crosby was very shaky last season, so Packers fans have to hope that Tavecchio will prove he’s up to the task, and that Crosby can be sent packing.

The Packers also hope last year’s mediocre running attack can be bolstered by their two running back draft picks, Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin. In a five-way competition, Lacy, Franklin, DuJuan Harris, Alex Green and James Starks will all get the opportunity to prove themselves. Lacy would seem to enter camp as the favorite, but that competition is wide open.

Prospects.

The Packers are a good football team, the clear favorites to win the NFC North and a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. The presence of Aaron Rodgers virtually guarantees that they’re going to have an elite offense. There’s a lot to be optimistic about in Green Bay.

But the Packers probably haven’t closed the gap with the 49ers and Falcons in the NFC, and they also have a good Seahawks team to contend with in the conference. Green Bay looks like a good playoff team, but not a Super Bowl team.

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49ers players react to “unfortunate” Ray McDonald situation

Ray McDonald AP

The 49ers released defensive end Ray McDonald on Wednesday in the wake of news that he’s the subject of a sexual assault investigation that comes a short time after McDonald was investigated, but not charged, in a domestic violence case.

McDonald hasn’t been arrested and the 49ers stuck with McDonald through the first allegations by making frequent arguments in support of his right to due process, but they’re not going down that road this time. General Manager Trent Baalke cited a pattern of poor decision making when making the announcement that McDonald was gone from the team.

On Wednesday, quarterback Colin Kaepernick said he supported the team’s decision while also hoping McDonald is cleared of any wrongdoing.

“It’s very unfortunate. I understand why the team did what it did. Outside of that, it’s not my business,” Kaepernick said, via Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. “He’s a good friend to a lot people on this team. No one around him ever thought bad of him. So hopefully it’s just a misunderstanding.”

Another player who didn’t want to be identified also spoke to Inman and was critical of the team handling things differently this time.

“If the organization wanted to save face, they should have done this [release of McDonald] the first time, and not now when we’re playing for nothing,” the player said.

Saving face may be part of the idea, but it’s a tough sell since releasing McDonald now makes it look like the team only cares about due process when there’s something for them to gain and that’s not a good look for the organization in any circumstances.

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C.J. Spiller’s limited, but hoping to play Sunday

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There are a number of things Bills running back C.J. Spiller’s going to have to get used to in a hurry, if he’s going to play this week.

Namely, shoulder pads.

Spiller took his off midway through Bills practice yesterday, his first since coming back from a broken collarbone.

“Yeah, I was just getting used to [wearing them] again,” Spiller said, via Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News. “It’s been two months since I’ve had them on so I just wanted to see what it felt like to put them back.”

Spiller was listed as limited in practice Wednesday, his first since injuring his shoulder Oct. 19. But the Bills seem inclined to activate him for Sunday’s game against the Raiders. The roster spot they need is waiting for him after fullback Frank Summers was released.

“He looked good,” coach Doug Marrone said. “But he’s still working his way back into the football part of it.”

Spiller said he felt “good” after practice, and when asked what would decide whether he’d play, he replied: “How I feel.”

So it stands to reason that they’ll activate him sometime before Saturday at 4 p.m., and give him a chance to give them a boost toward an unexpected playoff push.

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Rex Ryan blanches at the words he heard from Tom Brady

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Jets coach Rex Ryan was trying to watch a television copy of the Patriots to prepare for this week’s game, when the words he heard offended his delicate ears.

Specifically, the F-bombs dropped by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady caught him by surprise.

“I even take the TV copies of the games and I watch them, but to be honest with you, I couldn’t watch all of the game. I was offended by the language I saw,” Ryan said, via Seth Walder of the New York Daily News. “I was like, ‘Wow.’ “I’m thinking, ‘Boy, that fine’s got to really be hefty because that’s one, two, three, four, five, of those bad boys I think.’”

Of course, Ryan was just poking fun at Brady, since he has his own colorful way with the language, and some background with the censors in charge.

Ryan was docked $100,000 earlier this year for swearing at a ref, which is different from just having a regular potty mouth like Brady.

Of course, it’s all our fault that the world knows the Patriots quarterback talks like a sailor, so perhaps we should apologize.

Or, they can all go f-ine themselves.

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Chip Kelly: If we win 11 games and miss playoffs, shame on us

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The NFL changes a lot from year to year, something that the Eagles could learn the hard way this season.

In 2013, the Eagles won 10 games and that was enough to make them NFC East champions and hosts of a home game in the playoffs. This year, the Eagles could wind up with 11 wins and get nothing for their efforts but the chance to start the offseason before 2015 gets underway. Should that happen, coach Chip Kelly won’t be chalking it up to bad luck or the breaks of the game.

“Right now, we’ve only got nine wins,” Kelly said, via ESPN.com. “I mean, for us to think of questions like that, that doesn’t help us beat Washington. So I don’t really think about it. If we win 11 games and it’s not good enough to get in, shame on us because we didn’t win the right games. That’s the bottom line. That’s what this whole deal is all about and we know it going in.”

Kelly’s right on the money when it comes to losing the wrong games. The Eagles have lost five games in the NFC, including matchups with the Cardinals, Seahawks and Packers that could result in their elimination from the playoffs via a head-to-head tiebreaker. Throw in last week’s loss to the Cowboys and that would make four losses to teams in the NFC playoff field, which is a couple too many for a real hard luck argument.

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Falcons not biting on Saints “funeral” trash talk

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Getty Images

The Saints are ready to bury the Falcons once and for all.

But the Falcons aren’t biting on a eulogy offered by Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis.

Via Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com, Lewis was talking about not letting the Falcons pass for 500 yards against them when he said: “We’re definitely gonna give them their funeral.”

To his credit, Falcons wide receiver Roddy White didn’t pay it a whole lot of mind.

“Nope,” White said. “May we rest in peace until Sunday.”

The 6-8 Saints, leaders of a miserable division, can eliminate the 5-9 Falcons from the playoffs Sunday.

“It is what it is because you play the game on the field,” Douglas said. “I’ve never seen anybody play the game talking. All we’ve got to do is play the type of football we have to play, and the rest will take care of itself.

“Lewis is a great player. He’s a competitor. But it boils down to New Orleans vs. Atlanta. We don’t like them, and they don’t like us. You leave it all out there on Sunday. That’s when I’m going to play the game: on Sunday. I can’t play the game on Wednesday.”

The Falcons beat the Saints in the opener, and the Saints have been historically bad at home this year, so the possibility of the NFC pillowfight going down to the last week still exists.

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Russell Okung not ruled out, Max Unger has chance to play against Cardinals

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Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said left tackle Russell Okung has yet to be ruled out for this week’s game against the Arizona Cardinals.

“He’s still in the mix,” Carroll said. “He’s going to have some stuff done tomorrow that will let us know where he sits and all that. He’s not out of the plan yet.”

Carroll said Monday that Okung would likely miss 1-2 weeks due to a bruised lung suffered against the San Francisco 49ers. Okung was replaced by Alvin Bailey for the remainder of the game after Okung was injured on the final play of the first half.

Center Max Unger did not practice on Wednesday as Carroll said Unger was struggling to recover from the workload he went through in practice last Friday.

“He had a tough recovery from last Friday’s practice so he’s gonna be not going today, so we’ll see how he is tomorrow,” Carroll said. “We’re taking it one day at a time now. It’s close enough where we have a chance [to get him back].”

Unger has missed the last four games for Seattle after suffered a sprained ankle and knee injuries against the Kansas City Chiefs. Lemuel Jeanpierre and Patrick Lewis have started in Unger’s absence the last several weeks.

With Seattle giving up seven sacks to the Cardinals the last time they placed four weeks ago, the Seahawks could use Okung and Unger healthy and in the lineup. The game will either give the Cardinals the NFC West and home field advantage throughout the playoffs or put the Seahawks in the driver’s seat to accomplish both feats heading into the final week of the regular season.

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Lions claim Josh Thomas off waivers from the Jets

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Cornerback Josh Thomas was released by the New York Jets on Tuesday after having his playbook and passport stolen.

However, Thomas wasn’t out of work long as he was claimed off waivers by the Detroit Lions on Wednesday.

Thomas played in one game for the Jets and appeared in three games for the Seattle Seahawks earlier this season. He spent the previous three years with the Carolina Panthers. He recorded two tackles and two passes defended.

To make room on the roster, the Lions placed tackle LaAdrian Waddle on injured reserve. Waddle started 10 games for the Lions this season before suffering a knee injury last week against the Minnesota Vikings.

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Russell Wilson moves on from Bus Cook

Russell AP

As quarterback Russell Wilson closes in on the payday for which he becomes eligible the day after Week 17 ends, he’ll have a new agent to help him.

Per Adam Schefter of ESPN, Wilson has parted ways with Bus Cook, who has represented Wilson since he was drafted in 2012.  And as further proof of the carefully-manicured Russell Wilson image, the leak to Schefter came with an obvious request that the move be characterized as something other than what it really is.

“A source close to Wilson said Cook was not fired, but simply the quarterback was making a change,” Schefter wrote on Facebook.

Sure, Wilson was making a change.  He was making a change by firing Cook.

You can’t change an agent without firing the agent.  Unless Cook resigned or retired (and he didn’t), Wilson initiated the process of changing agents; Wilson fired Cook.

(Why would Schefter push something so obviously not true, you may ask?  Bookmark this page for when Schefter breaks the news that Wilson has signed a new mega-contract with a Seahawks.)

Wilson eventually will hire Mark Rodgers, a baseball-certified agent who currently has no active NFL clients, according to the NFLPA website.  Eventually, Rodgers will have a fairly big one — and his first order of business will be to negotiate a contract that cuts against the recent trend of paying young quarterbacks on a year-to-year basis.

But, hey, at least Rodgers won’t have to worry about getting fired if Wilson’s next contract is lacking.

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Bears may be protecting Cutler against injury

Cutler Getty Images

Question:  What team benches a quarterback who signed a contract that pays him $22.5 million in 2014 and another fully-guaranteed $15.5 million in 2015?

Answer:  A team that doesn’t want an injury to derail a plan to trade or cut the quarterback.

Yes, Cutler will get $2.8125 million to not play in the final two weeks of the season.  It’s an obvious effort to keep Cutler healthy, so that he can be dangled in the offseason to a team that would be willing to assume Cutler’s contract.

The cap hit for trading Cutler would be fairly small, given that his 2014 pay started as a fully-guaranteed base salary.  In March, $5 million was converted to a signing bonus, clearing $4 million in cap space that assisted with the signing of defensive end Jared Allen.  That $4 million would hit the 2015 cap if Cutler is traded, but it would clear $11.5 million in total cap space for the next season.  And it would get the Bears off the hook for $15.5 million that they owe Cutler whether he’s on the team or not.

So while the decision to bench Cutler is a message to the player and the fans that poor performances won’t be tolerated, it’s actually a message to every other team in the league.  Cutler is available.

Who would possibly trade for Cutler?  That’ll be the subject of another post.

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Michigan reportedly makes run at Jim Harbaugh

Harbaugh Getty Images

When it first became obvious Brady Hoke wouldn’t be back next year as head coach of the Michigan Wolverines, a report suggested that the folks at Ann Arbor were more interested in John Harbaugh (who didn’t go to Michigan) than Jim (who did).

Now, Michigan apparently has a keen interest in the soon-to-be-former 49ers coach.

Per multiple reports, Michigan has offered Harbaugh the job.  The package leaked to the media would pay Harbaugh $8 million per year over six years.

That’s far more than Harbaugh currently makes in San Francisco, and far more than the 49ers had offered in failed negotiations on a new deal.  The impasse arose, as one source with knowledge of the talks previously told PFT, because Harbaugh wanted to be paid like a Super Bowl-winning coach without, you know, winning a Super Bowl.

If the offer from Michigan, where it’s easy to finance a large coaching salary since the players get jack squat and free snacks, is real, he’d be paid like a Super Bowl-winning coach without winning a Super Bowl and without ever competing for one for as long as he’s at Michigan.

The leak and its origin suggest that Harbaugh’s agent hopes to use the offer as leverage in talks with interested NFL teams.  If Michigan will pay $8 million per year, how much will the Raiders, Dolphins, or other interested team fork over?  With the talent gap among teams as narrow as ever, a great coach can be the difference between mediocrity and a championship; great coaches at the NFL are worth far more than they currently get.

The possibility that Harbaugh will leave for Michigan also pressures Jed York and company to be very reasonable in any trade talks regarding Harbaugh.  If he chooses to go back to college, the 49ers get nothing.

Then again, the 49ers may prefer that outcome, since they wouldn’t have to worry about Harbaugh finishing with another franchise that which he started in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, some have suggested that Harbaugh wouldn’t use his alma mater as leverage for a better NFL job.  Why shouldn’t he?  Harbaugh played football there at a high level.  In return he got jack squat, without the free snacks.

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Bears bench Jay Cutler, start Jimmy Clausen

Jimmy Clausen, Micheal Spurlock AP

The Bears’ collapse has reached epic proportions, as Jay Cutler has lost his job as Chicago’s starting quarterback.

Cutler has been benched and Jimmy Clausen will start on Sunday against the Lions, Adam Schefter of ESPN reports.

For Cutler to get benched after playing just 14 games into the enormous contract he signed this offseason demonstrates just how big the mess in Chicago is. That contract may cost both Bears G.M. Phil Emery and Bears coach Marc Trestman their jobs.

And Cutler’s play has already cost him his job. Whether Cutler has any future in Chicago or anywhere else in the NFL remains to be seen, and the Bears owe Cutler a guaranteed salary of $15.5 million next season whether he’s on their team or not.

But at the present, Cutler is out, and Clausen is the Bears’ starting quarterback.

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Hot stove alert: Free agency begins March 10

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Dislike your favorite team’s roster? Take heart: By St. Patrick’s Day, it could be much, much different.

The 2015 NFL league year will begin Tuesday, March 10, the NFL disclosed Wednesday as it released the opening portion of its annual calendar.

With the new league year comes the start of unrestricted free agency, one of the primary ways for clubs to procure talent. Even then, at the outset, the market will be somewhat thinned; teams must declare their transition and franchise free agents by Monday, March 2. The fight for the remaining free agents will begin in earnest on Saturday, March 7, with teams allowed to begin negotiating with agents.

Then, at 4 p.m. Eastern on the 10th, the market will open, and deals will quickly be announced.

By March 17 — three months from today — things will have cooled down. Some deals will remain undone, but the big ones will be in the books. A nation of football fans will wear more green than usual and ponder which of the pre-draft chatter is legit and which is junk.

About the 2015 NFL Draft: it kicks off Thursday, April 30 in Chicago. By the time it wraps up on Saturday, May 2, we will have a very good idea of where these teams stand.

At least we’ll think we know. The good news? Rookie minicamps begin the next week. Already you will be tired of the offseason, and the sight of 7-on-7 drills will take your mind off the fact you’re wearing more pastels than usual this spring.

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Manziel says Browns were “a little off” on Sunday

Manziel AP

It’s getting fairly late in the calender for the “Understatements of the Year,” but Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel has offered up an impressive entry for belated consideration.

“I think we were just a little off on Sunday,” Manziel told reporters on Wednesday regarding the zero-point, 107-yard output at home against the Bengals on Sunday.

Manziel then offered up a little Lion King-style philosophizing.

“Last week is last week, and last week is in the past,” Manziel said.  “It’s not about anything having to do with last week.  That’s in the past.  Now, it’s just how do we come out and have a good game this week and how do we come out and be efficient. It all starts with today and starts with getting our game plan in and going out and running it well on our first day of practice.  I felt like we had a good day today. It’s a start for us this week, and now we continue to build on that and work off that throughout the week.”

Manziel also said he thought they had a good week last week, so his assessment of whether it’s going well has proven to be a bad barometer of whether the Browns can avoid being a bad team with the rookie under center on Sunday against the Panthers.  And Manziel knows he needs to do something the next two week to show he’s the answer for 2015 and beyond.

“Play better,” Manziel said.  “Plain and simple.  This position here is about results, and it’s about getting the job done.  You’ve got to do that to be on the field in this league.  For me, that was a first start, and that’s something I’ll remember forever.  Unfortunately, it leaves a sour taste in my mouth, but at the same time, I’ve had bad games in college.  I’ve had bad games in the past, and it’s part of football.  You can’t go out and play perfect every week.  That’s a proven fact.”

It’s a proven fact that Manziel was the opposite of perfect against the Bengals.  He’ll need to be better than that soon or that homeless dude who advocated Manziel being picked to the owner will be giving Jimmy Haslam far different advice in 2015.

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Mike Pettine on Bernie Kosar’s comments: They were a little dramatic

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Former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar ripped the organization this week for having a culture that is “a complete recipe for disaster” when it comes to developing the team’s first long-term answer at quarterback since Kosar was turfed by Bill Belichick more than 20 years ago.

Tim Couch, one of the fallen would-be saviors, agreed with Kosar, which all but guaranteed that questions about their comments would pop up during coach Mike Pettine’s meetings with the media this week. Pettine faced some on Wednesday and defended the organization’s commitment to building a winner the right way.

“I think that’s a little dramatic. I know I talked about this before when sometimes guys will make comments that are a little bit over the top,” Pettine said, via the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “I have a lot of respect for Bernie. He was one of my favorite guys growing up, heck of a quarterback. He’s entitled to his opinion, but being here on the inside of it and seeing what we’re building … We’re in the society of instant gratification. Everybody wants it to happen now, and as much as we want that to happen, it is a process. When you build a house you’ve got to build it from the foundation. You’ve got to build the right way and make sure it’s rock solid. We’re in the middle of that. I get people are going to have their opinions and say what they say, but a lot more of that happens when you’ve lost three in a row. I didn’t hear a lot of that when we had just gotten our seventh win.”

Clearly there’s been something wrong on the organizational level in Cleveland for the team to fail as regularly as they’ve failed since re-entering the league in 1999 and anything that goes badly at this point gets chalked up as being the same old story told in a slightly different way. That’s not fair to Pettine, Johnny Manziel or anyone else who just got to town, relatively speaking, but it’s going to be a reality of life in Cleveland until the Browns are consistent winners.

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Marc Trestman: It’s evident I haven’t gotten best from Jay Cutler

New Orleans Saints v Chicago Bears Getty Images

For the second straight week, Bears coach Marc Trestman is getting questions about benching quarterback Jay Cutler in favor of Jimmy Clausen.

Trestman resisted any temptation to make a change last week and he’s doing the same this week, although he stuck with Cutler while admitting something that’s been apparent to everyone who has watched the Bears on offense this season. Trestman said that he thinks “it’s been evident” that he’s failed to get the best out of Cutler during the 2014 season.

“I haven’t been able [to get the best from Cutler] and we haven’t been able to do the things that we want to get done,” Trestman said, via ESPNChicago.com. “We’re working towards that. But the answer to that is obvious. I’m trying to give you the most truthful answer and that is, we’ve seen moments of it, but it’s not where we need to go. It’s not where we need to be. But it’s not all about Jay. It’s about our entire offense, working together to get it done.”

The question lingering over the Bears right now is whether Trestman will get more time to work with Cutler and the entire offense or if they’ll fire him after a second season as coach that has gone wrong in a wide variety of ways. The failure to get more out of the offense is as damning as anything for Trestman because his offensive acumen is what got him the job in the first place, although it remains hard to believe that Trestman or anyone else is going to find a way to turn Cutler into a radically different quarterback than the one he’s been over the first nine years of his career.

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