- Mark Potash provides an interesting comment for the Chicago Sun-Times on the always tenuous hold head coach Lovie Smith has on his job:
“Measuring progress is subjective. If the McCaskeys like you, progress could be defined as winning the last game of a losing season. Finally, Peggy Kusinski of Channel 5 asked the key question regarding Smith’s future: Is it possible for the Bears to be making progress toward their goal and still not make the playoffs?” In other words, can Lovie keep his job without making the playoffs?
“The answer is yes, [general manager Phil] Emery said, pending the circumstances.”
“’It’s possible [the Bears could still be making progress without making the playoffs], because it depends on the health of the team, what’s happened in the season, what’s happening in the rest of the NFL,’ Emery said. ‘I was with the Chiefs last year and everybody counted us out. It came down to getting a blocked kick against Oakland in the last game and we would’ve made the playoffs.’”
- Meanwhile Potash asks the same questions that are on my mind as he continues his examination of the state of the Bears:
“This training camp opener had a different feel to it. Lovie Smith’s optimism at a training camp press conference usually evaporates into the heat-heavy air almost as soon as the words are out of his mouth. But not this time.
“Almost everybody’s on board this train. And none of us has any idea where its headed. Hard to believe that less than a year ago, it looked like the Packers and Lions were pulling away from the Bears in the NFC North. Yet even after another playoff-less season, Emery was basically being asked if ‘all the pieces are in place’ for the Bears to make a Super Bowl run.”
“How does this happen? The Bears lost their best receiver (Johnny Knox) to injury. Brian Urlacher is coming off a knee injury at 34. Matt Forte is coming off a knee injury and is no longer fighting for a long-term contract. Gabe Carimi still hasn’t proven he’s healthy. Mike Tice‘s biggest attribute as an offensive coordinator is that he’s not Mike Martz. And Jay Cutler, while 20-9 in his last 29 starts for the Bears, still has never beaten a winning team in the postseason. If Brandon Marshall is that much of a difference maker, why has he never played in a playoff game?
“But those very legitimate reservations are currently being trumped by some almost-as-legit expectations. If the stars align, this team could be as good as it’s cracked up to be. And why not? All we have to risk is disappointment.”
Potash makes a good point. Disappointment is, indeed, all we have to risk. As fans.
But I’ll say this. Don’t doubt that if that’s what you are feeling at the end of the year, the hammer is likely to come down on Lovie Smith’s head. My gut feeling is that Smith is being set up to fail with high expectations for a team that may not warrant them.
- But none of that seems to worry Smith as he sounded like he was in a really good mood as he clocked in for his first day of training camp. From Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune:
“Asked how he’s getting along with new general manager Phil Emery, Smith laughed.
“‘That’s a heck of a question,’ he said. ‘How is my relationship going with Phil? Real good. How’s that? Did you expect something else? Phil and I don’t get along or something like that?’”
- Biggs thinks Emery is having his effect on his first training camp with the Bears:
“Emery’s stamp: Looking for an imprint from new general manager Phil Emery during training camp? It could be the conditioning tests players had to take Wednesday afternoon in 99-degree heat.
“It’s the first time in nine summers under coach Lovie Smith the Bears have had a mandatory running test at the start of camp. Emery was a strength and conditioning coach in college before he became a pro scout. No word yet if every player received a passing grade.”
- Dan Pompei at the Chicago Tribune had some nice things to say about Bears cornerback Tim Jennings:
“At 5 feet 8, he always will have limitations. But Jennings doesn’t back down from anything or anyone. He approaches the game as if he is the biggest, baddest dude on the field. There is more heart in this one little cornerback than there is in some entire secondaries.”
- Vaughn McClure at the Chicago Tribune reports that the offense had a rough first day of camp:
“Bears receivers coach Darryl Drake refused to sugarcoat the dropped passes by Brandon Marshall during Thursday’s first day of training camp.
“’He’s still trying to get used to it, but he understands and knows that that’s something that we’ve got to work on,’ Drake said. ‘We can’t drop the football. I expect him to make those non-routine catches. And he expects to make him. I’m going to be tough on him when he doesn’t.’”
Drake couldn’t have said anything to make me happier. Dropped passes cost more yards than penalties. It sounds like Marshall has been catered to in the past and this has been an aspect of his game that previous position coaches have let slide because of his immense talent. Here’s hoping Drake screws his head on straight and gets him to concentrate.
- Former NFL safety Matt Bowen, also at the Chicago Tribune, gives us ten things to watch for from the Bears:
“Tight end from a scheme perspective in offensive coordinator Mike Tice’s offense will be interesting to watch. Look at matchups here between the numbers with Kellen Davis and don’t forget about rookie Evan Rodriguez when the Bears use their Ace personnel (two receivers, two tight ends, one back). Rodriguez played with much more speed Thursday than I saw in minicamp and his conditioning has improved.”
- Biggs explains why the tight end will be much more important to the offense this year as he reviews state of the position:
“It’s fair to expect the offense to incorporate the tight ends more in the passing game. Davis and [Matt] Spaeth no longer will be given such restricted roles and should find themselves in pass patterns more often. Tice, a tight end during his long playing career, puts a premium on versatility at the position. Both Davis and Spaeth block effectively.
“Tice was seeking an ‘F-tight end,’ which is typically a smaller player who can block on the edges and excel as a receiver and that is what led the team to select Evan Rodriguez in the draft’s fourth round from Temple.
“Tice refers to the ‘F’ as the ‘move’ tight end and the Bears likened Rodriguez to a poor man’s Aaron Hernandez. If he can become two-thirds of what Hernandez is for the Patriots, he will be a welcome new weapon. Rodriguez runs well and provides a dimension that has been missing. How he adjusts to the NFL remains to be seen.”
“It can’t get worse in terms of pass-catching production. This is one of the most injured positions in the game and the depth chart could be thinned out quickly. That could be a problem given the overall lack of experience.”
- Brandon Marshall talks to Pompei about his chemistry with quarterback Jay Cutler:
“I wouldn’t say it’s once in a lifetime, but you don’t see it too often. You can put a really good quarterback with a really good receiver and the connection is not there. They don’t see the field the same way. Jay and I, I don’t know why, but we see the field the same way.”
- From McClure we have Marshall on Cutler telling him where to park his car at the training camp dorm:
“He tells me what to do on a lot of things. He thinks he’s my father.”
Sounds to me like Marshall needs one.
- Biggs puts his finger on the problem at linebacker:
“Urlacher was lucky the knee sprain he suffered came in Week 17 or he surely would have missed extended time. Injuries could create major problems because the Bears just aren’t very deep. All eyes will be on Urlacher and how he’s moving. When players begin to fade it’s often a quick process.”
“On the other hand, if [middle linebacker Brian] Urlacher struggles and rookie Shea McClellin shows signs of being able to replace him sometime in the future, this could be Urlacher’s final year in Chicago.”
I really doubts that McClellin is going to show enough signs that he’ll be a good middle linebacker from the defensive end position to make anyone comfortable with him replacing Urlacher any time soon. He’s going to be a defensive lineman. Accept it and let it go, man.
- Bowen isn’t buying the “McClellin just has to be decent this year” line in this interview with Biggs:
Biggs: “Julius Peppers was pretty much a one-man pass rushing threat last season, with Henry Melton flashing from time to time. Will the defense be in a bind if first-round pick Shea McClellin isn’t an impact performer?”
Bowen: “I think so. In order to beat Aaron Rodgers, if you want to play Cover-2 you’ve got to be able to have four guys that can rush and you have to have two guys that can bring pressure off the edge. Peppers is an elite pass rusher, but it’s going to take McClellin to be a factor to really help this defense. Eight to 10 sacks for him is what they need. He has to be a factor. If you can only get pressure from one side, they’re going to put the tight end over there and they’re going to chip on Peppers, and I don’t care how well the secondary is playing, if Rodgers has time, he’ll beat you. It’s about a rush opposite Peppers.”
I think Bowen is right. Most people are basing their hopes for additional pass rush upon improvement from Henry Melton at tackle. Unfortunately I’ve seen very little from Melton that indicates to me he will make that kind of a jump. It seems optimitsic at best to expect it.
In any case, I’m not sure McClellin is going to provide the extra pass rush either. It sounds to me like he needs a year lifting weights before he’ll really be ready to be a threat opposite Peppers. So I’m bracing myself for another year of constant Peppers double teams.
- Sean Jensen at the Chicago Sun-Times on chemistry building along the offensive line:
“The Bears traditionally have very high attendance for offseason workouts at Halas Hall. But those sessions run Monday through Thursday, allowing players — if they choose — to spend a long weekend outside Chicago. [Center Roberto] Garza invited his fellow linemen to join him for workouts on Fridays at TCBOOST, a specialized training facility in Northbrook headed by Tommy and Bob Christian.”
“This offseason, TCBOOST regularly led Garza, Chris Williams, Lance Louis, Chris Spencer and Ricky Henry through Friday exercises focused on explosive movements and a handful of position-specific drills.
“Left tackle J’Marcus Webb sometimes joined them, and right tackle Gabe Carimi came often after he was cleared to work out by Bears trainers.”
- Brad Biggs also reviews the state of the special teams unit:
“[Special teams coordinator Dave] Toub got some recognition around the NFL as the Dolphins interviewed him for their head-coaching position that eventually went to former Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin.
“It’s a difficult hurdle for special teams coaches to clear to get into the mix for top jobs but Toub has done it now. The Bears rewarded him with a contract extension that makes him one of the highest-paid special teams coordinators in the NFL and if he continues to find success, perhaps his name will surface in future coaching searches.”
- Biggs profiles Mike Tice:
“One of the best lessons he picked up was from John Levra, a longtime defensive line coach who worked for the Bears under Mike Ditka and eventually was on Dennis Green‘s staff in Minnesota with Tice. After a game in the ’90s that the Vikings won, Tice wasn’t fuming in the parking lot but he was agitated. He can’t recall specifically what set him off, but offensive coordinator Brian Billick had sparked a little fury.
“‘I’ll never forget an old, great coach who is still a dear friend, John Levra, coming over to me and saying, ‘Son, any victory in the National Football League is hard to come by. It’s hard to win a game in the National Football League. You need to learn to enjoy the victories,’ ‘ Tice said. ‘That never left me. I’ve always learned when you win a game, no matter what the stats look like, you have to enjoy the victories because they are hard to come by.'”
- Biggs interviews former Bear offensive lineman Tom Thayer:
Biggs: “Some believe the biggest reason for improvement on the line will be the switch from Mike Martz to Mike Tice at offensive coordinator. Do you buy into this explanation and if so to what degree?”
Thayer: “Yeah, I do. After you call the play in the huddle and you know the protection, if your guys are going to the line of scrimmage with peace of mind and understanding after the ball is snapped there is no exposed weakness in the protection. … I think Martz allowed that to happen at different instances throughout his time here. I don’t think the offensive line, the running backs and the quarterback are going to go to the line of scrimmage with the belief that there is an exposed weakness that could get somebody in trouble now. I think the direction of the protection, the understanding how one guy helps the next, I think there is a chance for there to be a much more guided sense of protection on the front.”
I’m not sure how much I buy this. Thayer talks about weaknesses in protection but there were no weaknesses in the overall offensive scheme if everyone did their job. Basically the failures in protection last year were due to lack of execution and ability of the players. The extent to which Martz was to blame for that is debatable.
- Thayer makes another interesting point via Biggs:
Biggs: “When you look at this defense, so many of the core players are past 30, guys like Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and Charles Tillman. How much longer can this defense remain together playing at a high level?
Thayer: “As long as they have sustained time of possession by the offense, I think you are still going to get these guys playing at a really high level. If you go out there and they have to struggle because the offense has 20 minutes, 21 minutes or 22 minutes of possession, then you’re going to see the above-30 crowd struggle. But the way championship football is built is you sustain time of possession and score on offense and allow your guys to freshen up on the sideline and then sic ’em. I think this defense can be one of the top defenses in the league as long as it is complemented by the offense.”
- Pompei answers your questions:
“Why are the Bears so averse to hiring former players like Jeff Fisher, Ron Rivera, Leslie Frazier, Mike Singletary and Doug Plank to coaching positions? Seems they could instill Bear pride and tradition into the team.
“John H., Fort Worth, Texas
“This is a good question, and one I’ve wondered about myself. The answer, I believe, is the Bears are not averse to bringing back their former players to coach. But they are cautious about it. I would say the best way to put it is they have not prioritized it. They brought back Richard Dent and Rivera. They have had several other opportunities and decided against bringing back names that would have resonated with fans. There were different reasons for each decision. The bottom line is whoever is doing the hiring has to feel comfortable with the person working for him, otherwise it’s not a good hire. But there undoubtedly would be benefits to see some of the old Bears brought back.”
- Mike Florio at profootballtalk.com takes a close look at the Forte contract.
- When it comes to Dick Butkus you can always count on former Bear teammate Doug Buffone for a good line. From Pompei:
“I guarantee if he took steroids, they would have had to put him in a cage and have an animal master there with a whip.”
- It doesn’t seem like there’s as much benefit to being the boss as people think. Via Potash:
“The last time Emery was at Olivet Nazarene was in 2004, when he was an area scout under former general manager Jerry Angelo. Now he’s in charge.
‘‘’The one big difference was now I have furniture in my room,’ Emery said. ‘I have a couch and an easy chair, which I did not get to enjoy as an area scout.’’’
Maybe they’re to blame for the Robert Pattinson – Kristen Stewart break up, too.
- Dave Birkett at the Detroit Free Press wonders if the Lions cap problems will lead them to make Matthew Stafford the next QB to hit a big contract.
- Dolphins center Mike Pouncy seems to think that David Garrard is finally going to be the answer at quarterback. From Barry Jackson at the Miami Herald.
“Garrard has been great, has been the main guy running with the first team. He brings leadership. Matt Moore did a good job last year but when Garrard is in, it’s a whole different tempo.”
Nevertheless, past history tells me not to hold my breath on Garrard.
- Girls Football Fight! From The Sports Pickle.
And The Sports Pickle also gives you the 15 Most Ridiculous Sports Gadgets:
- And, of course, there’s probably some truth to this astute observation from them too.
- And finally, its Sports Pickle week here as it seems the NFL is buying up ad space on NBA jerseys for the coming season.
“Do I think the jerseys ads or anything else will raise our visibility any more or win us any additional fans?” said Goodell. “Probably not. But that’s the point of doing this — reminding the other sports leagues that we’re so much more rich and powerful than they are that we can just throw money away for fun. I just bought the Stanley Cup off of Gary Bettman for 300 grand cash. I’m going to make it an award for punters.”
One Final Thought
Dan Pompei rounds out this entry with an excellent point for a fan writing in with this question:
“I would like to know your take on the tell-all book about Walter Payton. Are the stories true in your opinion? This man has been my hero since I first saw him play and an inspiration to achieve personal goals in my life. I know he was human like the rest of us but I cannot condone adultery. Any insight you can provide would be appreciated. Ever since the book has come out I cannot look at the man in the same light.
“John K., Lockport
“I have not heard of anyone questioning the veracity of the stories in the book ‘Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton.’ There were no stories I could dispute either, though author Jeff Pearlman presented a lot of information I had not previously heard about. Look, I knew Payton and liked him personally. I know he did a lot of good things, touched a lot of people in a positive way. But I didn’t make him out to be a god. And I didn’t stand in judgment of him. He had flaws. Like me. Like you. My advice to you and all sports fans would be to admire athletes for what they do on the field. Don’t make them out to be saints because they can carry a football or hit a baseball. Athletes aren’t heroes. People who make them out to be heroes are making a mistake in my opinion.”