Chicago Bears: Marion Barber
Key additions: Running back Michael Bush, linebacker/special teams Blake Costanzo, quarterback Jason Campbell, receiver Brandon Marshall (trade), receiver Devin Thomas, receiver/returner Eric Weems.
Key losses: Running back Marion Barber (retired), cornerback Zack Bowman, cornerback Corey Graham.
Come on back: Lost in the shuffle of the Marshall trade were the return of three free agents who should play key roles in 2012. Tight end Kellen Davis figures to get an expanded role in offensive coordinator Mike Tice's scheme, especially as a receiver. Cornerback Tim Jennings should retain his starting role opposite Charles Tillman, with D.J. Moore in the nickel. And safety Craig Steltz will provide reliable depth at safety and will be one of the Bears' special teams leaders after the departure of Graham and Bowman.
What's next: There is no urgency yet, but the Bears will need to make peace with tailback Matt Forte at some point before the summer. Forte isn't happy that he's been made the Bears' franchise player and briefly lost his public composure when Bush signed a deal that guaranteed him about the same amount of money as the franchise tag will pay Forte. It's not a big deal if Forte skips the Bears' offseason program or even misses a few days of training camp, but the Bears will want to find a way to eliminate this issue by early August. Meanwhile, it wouldn't be surprising if the Bears address their offensive line during the draft.
Key additions: Defensive end Everette Brown, cornerback Jacob Lacey.
Key losses: Cornerback Eric Wright.
All in the family: With the exception of Wright, the Lions were able to retain the core of their 10-6 team. Among those who re-signed: Tackle Jeff Backus, safety Erik Coleman, defensive end Andre Fluellen, quarterback Shaun Hill and linebacker Stephen Tulloch. And don't forget that receiver Calvin Johnson is locked up for perhaps the rest of his career. He signed a new eight-year contract worth $132 million.
What's next: The Lions appear interested in adding competition at safety, having hosted free agent O.J. Atogwe earlier this month. Adding a safety remains a possibility, if not through free agency, then probably through the draft. And while Backus is re-signed for two years, it wouldn't be surprising if the Lions look for a long-term replacement in the draft.
Green Bay Packers
Key additions: Defensive lineman Daniel Muir, center Jeff Saturday, defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.
Key losses: Quarterback Matt Flynn, center Scott Wells.
Shocker: The Packers usually do whatever it takes to keep their own players and avoid having to search the free-agent market for other the castoffs of other teams. They started off that way by re-signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract, but when they were unable to sign center Scott Wells, they quickly targeted veteran Jeff Saturday and made him their first starting-caliber free-agent signee in five years. General manager Ted Thompson also authorized the acquisition of Hargrove and the pursuit of Dave Tollefson.
What's next: It's not out of the question that the Packers will add a veteran pass-rusher, whether at defensive end or linebacker. Then they'll get back into their comfort zone and start preparing for the draft, where it's reasonable to think they'll use at least one of their 12 picks on a center while also continuing to pursue pass-rushers.
Key additions: Cornerback Zack Bowman, tight end John Carlson, running back Jerome Felton and offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz.
Key losses: Nose tackle Remi Ayodele (release), guards Anthony Herrera (release) and Steve Hutchinson (release), tight end Jim Kleinsasser (retire), running back Jerome Felton.
Methodical methodology: The Vikings made one big-money signing, bringing in Carlson as a new weapon for quarterback Christian Ponder, and otherwise have spent their offseason getting younger and signing complementary players. General manager Rick Spielman wants to end a cycle of seeking blue-chip players via free agency and instead count on the drafts for his difference-makers.
What's next: One way or the other, the Vikings need to find a deep threat for Ponder. The draft would seem the most likely place for that will happen. They are also midway through a rebuild of the secondary that could use at least one more cornerback and perhaps two safeties.
The 28-year-old spent six seasons with the Dallas Cowboys before signing with the Bears last season.
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The team held out the foursome, but Bears coach Lovie Smith was optimistic about the group’s chances to play against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
“Hopefully we can get most of those guys back tomorrow,” Smith said.
Smith said the team decided to rest Peppers and added that Urlacher’s knee “is getting better” after the linebacker injured it in a collision with teammate Lance Briggs in Sunday’s loss to the Green Bay Packers.
Receiver Devin Hester (ankle) practiced in a limited capacity along with linebacker Nick Roach (shin), guard Chris Spencer (back) and defensive end Corey Wootton (concussion).
Vikings guard Anthony Herrera missed practice Wednesday with a back injury. Safety Jamarca Sanford (shoulder) was listed with limited participation in practice.
Cornerbacks Asher Allen (shoulder/concussion) and Benny Sapp (shoulder) participated fully along with quarterback Christian Ponder (concussion).
Our Four Downs panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: The Bears would have won at least two games with McCown starting after Cutler’s injury.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. That’s impossible to say for sure. How can we know if McCown would have been ready to start before the Packers game? He was coaching high school football until late November. Plus, McCown did not fare well in practice prior to the week of the Packers game, so I don’t blame the coaching staff for sticking with Caleb Hanie until Sunday. If McCown would have played the kind of football he did against Green Bay in those contests versus Kansas City or Denver, then sure, the Bears win. But there is no guarantee it would have happened.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. If you saw McCown shortly after his arrival with the Bears, you would have wondered what he was doing on an NFL roster. It looked that bad at practice, and several players confirmed McCown had been struggling. So I won't question the coaching staff's timing as to when they decided to make McCown the guy. It took McCown some time to get acclimated to playing in the NFL again, and reacquainted with Mike Martz's scheme. Had the Bears gone with McCown sooner, the results would likely have been as disastrous as what we all saw with Hanie under center.
Melissa Isaacson Fiction. Hate these questions! Yes, I said with Donovan McNabb they could have won one or more but wasn’t willing to go any further than one. So am I willing to say McCown would have led the Bears to two victories against the Raiders, Chiefs, Broncos or Seahawks? In the final analysis, it’s not all on the quarterback, which we saw clearly against the Packers. So no, the Bears needed and need more.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. There’s something about a backup performing at a mediocre clip that turns Chicagoans into dreamers. I’m not saying he wouldn’t have been better than Hanie, but it’s not like McCown lit the world on fire against Green Bay. He just wasn’t awful. Maybe the Bears win a couple games with him, but I’m not convinced.
Fact or Fiction: The blame for another season missing the playoffs falls more on the front office than the coaching staff.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Teams win as an organization, and they lose as an organization. It’s just like blaming Hanie for the Bears failing to miss the playoffs. It’s not just the responsibility of one player, one coach or one front office member. Everybody needs to do their job better in 2012, from the top on down. The front office needs to sign and draft better players, the coaches need to put the players in a better situation to win and the players need to execute better. Blaming just one aspect of the organization is the easy way out. The Bears need to show significant improvement on all fronts. Otherwise, the club will be forced to make radical changes after the 2012 campaign.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. The injuries definitely don't fall on the coaching staff. But the ability to evaluate and acquire quality replacements is the responsibility of the front office, which failed on that front with the backup quarterback situation. The front office seemed to be so hung up on acquiring a player with knowledge and experience in Martz's offense that it reduced the talent pool of potential quarterbacks. You could also look at the contributions of the team's free agent acquisitions in assessing the job done by the front office.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Though it's not all on the quarterback, GM Jerry Angelo and his staff simply did not leave the Bears with an adequate backup plan. And they did Jay Cutler no favors with a sub-par receiving corps and offensive line, which was painfully obvious after he was sidelined. The coaching staff is certainly not blameless (someone should have reminded Marion Barber to stay inbounds, for example) but the front office is ultimately where the buck stops.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I think the blame should be equally dispersed between the two camps. The front office deserves blame for not improving the offensive line and adding a better wide receiver. The coaches deserve blame for not adequately preparing a game plan to put Hanie in the right situations. And if Hanie wasn’t capable of running an NFL team, then the coaches should have made sure Angelo understood that.
Fact or Fiction: Kahlil Bell has shown enough to be the No. 2 running back in 2012.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Bell plays like a winner. He runs hard, shows good vision and can help out on special teams. He is far more valuable than injury-prone Marion Barber. I’m not sure how comfortable I’d feel entering the season with Barber as the No. 1 in the event Matt Forte is traded or holds out, but as a complement to Forte, Bell is ideal. Another good game Sunday versus the Vikings will no doubt hammer home the point to any Bears fans still on the fence.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. In two starts Bell has performed with significant workloads. But what's also promising is the fact he's so similar to Forte in terms of what he brings to the offense. Like Forte, Bell can be somewhat of a slasher who can also contribute as a threat in the passing game. Bell has also shown he can be an inside runner that can move the pile in short-yardage situations.
Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. Love what Bell has shown so far, but have we not learned enough about backups in meaningful positions to at least have some healthy competition in training camp? Yes, Bell has looked promising and it will be fun to see him in another starting role against the Vikings, but don’t get too carried away with his 121 yards (on 23 carries) against the Packers either as the Bears media guide is full of guys like Brock Forsey, who in 2003 rushed for 134 yards (on 27 carries).
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Bell is fast and Bell is hungry. He could be a No. 1 back in the right system (think Denver during Mike Shanahan’s run), and he easily could be a factor for the Bears next season. And I guarantee you this, Bell will talk to the media after the game.
Fact or Fiction: Barber and Roy Williams won’t be back in 2012.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Williams is gone. Let’s move the drill. But I can’t totally write off Barber until I know what is going on with Forte. Barber performed at a decent level before the meltdown in the Mile High City, and even in that game he rushed for 108 yards. If Forte gets a new deal, I immediately kick Barber to the curb and draft another running back or perhaps take a closer look at Armando Allen. However, as long as Forte is hanging in limbo, I probably keep Barber and his $1.9 million base salary in 2012.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. My head tells me both won't be back, but my gut says the Bears may try to re-sign Williams as insurance. Williams played his best game as a Bear against the Packers, and really he's been a fairly decent third-down receiver. If the Bears decide to totally revamp the receiving corps, I don't think Williams will be back. But my guess is the Bears won't be willing to spend the money it takes to do that. So if the club adds one or two more receiving threats, it might be a good idea to keep Williams if the front office can get him to agree to a veteran minimum type of deal. As for Barber, I think Bears coach Lovie Smith pretty much said good-bye to him on Monday without actually saying it. He's missed too much time because of injuries, cost the team two games with bone-headed plays, and has been outplayed by Bell, who will wind up being a cheaper option for the team.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. If Williams is back, then the entire front office needs to go, and I’d be a little worried about Angelo. Williams is an easy call as he was a relatively small ($1.5 million), one-year investment and the experiment obviously did not pay off. As for Barber, the Bears owe him approximately $2 million next season and the Bears will be in for a $2.875 million cap hit. But the injury-riddled Barber has missed four games with a bad calf and had as many negative moments as positives (with the mental gaffes against Kansas City and Denver enough to get a lot of players cut on the spot). There’s not a Bears fan around who wouldn’t say that it’s worth it to eat the $2 million and get rid of two more ex-Cowboys in one fell swoop.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. I don’t see any reason to bring both back. Mental gaffes aside, Barber has been solid, but I think Bell can back up Forte. Williams, a great postgame quote, hasn’t done much to elicit a return. I think the Bears can finish 8-8 without these two. And why wasn’t Sam Hurd included in this question?
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Bears head coach Lovie Smith hardly gave running back Marion Barber a ringing endorsement after a the seven-year veteran missed his fourth game of the season with a calf injury.
A bad calf also forced Barber to sit out three games for the Dallas Cowboys in 2010.
Barber's inability to stay healthy, coupled with costly mental and physical mistakes in critical losses to Kansas City and Denver, has opened the door for Kahlil Bell to supplant the veteran as the Bears No. 2 running back next season.
In 11 games for the Bears, Barber has rushed for 422 yards and six touchdowns.
Smith was asked Monday if Barber's chronically banged up calf will factor into the organization's plans in the offseason.
"It's a concern, always, when a player has missed time," Smith said. "And not just one year...he's been a player who's been injured quite a bit. We always look at the history, so that is a factor in determining if a player is on your roster, what position he has, all of that. But it's just one of things you use to evaluate."
Barber signed a two-year contract with the Bears that paid him a base salary in 2011 of $2 million, plus a $500,000 roster bonus. He is scheduled to earn a base salary of $1.9 million next season and could pocket a $100,000 workout bonus if the Bears decide to keep him on the roster.
It's unclear if Barber will suit up for the Bears' season finale on Sunday in Minnesota.
Five nuggets of knowledge on Week 16:
Busted rivalry: When the NFL released its schedule this spring, many of us had high expectations for a late-December matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. Instead, an injury-devastated Bears team will limp north as a (deserved) 13-point underdog. It's possible the Packers will have clinched home-field advantage even before taking the field Sunday night, if the San Francisco 49ers lose Saturday at the Seattle Seahawks. If not, the Packers will attempt to secure it against a team playing without quarterback Jay Cutler, running backs Matt Forte and Marion Barber, and receiver Johnny Knox. Third-string running back Kahlil Bell is expected to start, pairing with third-string quarterback Josh McCown -- who has a history of helping the Packers' playoff positioning. (See: Noooooooooooooooo!) One other interesting bit of history: The Packers are one of five teams in NFL history to open a season 13-0 and then lose in their 14th game. All four of the other teams lost their 15th game, too. That list includes the 2009 and 2005 Indianapolis Colts, the 2009 New Orleans Saints and the 1998 Denver Broncos.
Detroit's challenge: The Detroit Lions will clinch a playoff spot Saturday if they beat the San Diego Chargers in what will likely be a raucous atmosphere at Ford Field. (There are also several scenarios to clinch this weekend even if they lose. They're noted in this post.) Hopefully everyone knows the Chargers are on one of their annual December rolls. They've won three consecutive games after a six-game losing streak. Since Norv Turner took the head coaching job in 2007, the Chargers are 20-2 in December. This will be no cakewalk.
Big targets: Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers struggled earlier this season, but he has been the NFL's most efficient quarterback over the past three weeks based on Total Quarterback Rating. Rivers has hit a groove with a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers that will pose significant matchup problems for the Lions. Malcom Floyd has 11 receptions for 233 yards and two touchdowns over the past two games, while Vincent Jackson has caught 12 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown. Jackson has been sidelined in practice this week by a groin injury. Lions cornerback Chris Houston (knee) clearly wasn't 100 percent last week against the Oakland Raiders, and the team re-signed Brandon McDonald this week for extra depth. Safety Louis Delmas (knee) also remains sidelined, and backup Chris Harris was cleared Thursday to practice following a concussion.
Make it stop: If you're a big-picture observer, you see ample motivation for the Minnesota Vikings to lose Sunday at the Washington Redskins. One more victory by the Indianapolis Colts, in conjunction with two more Vikings defeats, would give the Vikings an excellent chance to secure the No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 draft. A loss to the Redskins would extend the Vikings' losing streak to seven games, tying a franchise record set in their expansion season of 1961. But I'm not sure what would be worse: tying that record or extending their NFL record of games without an interception, which stands at nine. Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman has thrown at least one interception in his past 10 starts, and he is tied for the second-most interceptions in the NFL (18) despite missing three games this season. Something's got to give.
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"At 7-6, we're on the outside looking in," Smith said. "You lose three games in a row this time of year, you're normally not in a great position. But we are in position, and that's what we have to keep in mind."
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DENVER -- Here are Five Things We Learned following the Bears' 13-10 overtime loss in Denver:
1. The Bears gave it away: There was plenty to like from Marion Barber, who ran for 108 yards and scored a touchdown against the Broncos. But all of that got overshadowed due to a pair of epic blunders near the end of the game. Barber's lack of awareness and failure to stay in bounds during a run right after the two-minute warning was staggering for a seven-year NFL veteran. With the Broncos out of timeouts, all Barber had to do was fall down in bounds and milk crucial extra seconds off the clock. That mistake was actually worse than Barber's overtime fumble, because coughing up the football can be chalked up to physical error, which everybody in the league makes from time to time. But for the second straight week, Barber cost his team dearly due to a lack of football intelligence -- he lined up illegally on a play against Kansas City that took a Bears touchdown off the board. Barber's silly career stance to boycott the media further complicates the issue. What kind of veteran messes up so royally then high tails it out of the locker room and forces his teammates to account for his actions? Not a veteran I want on my team.
3. Playoff hopes are fading: Dropping three straight this late in the season is not a good sign. Victories on Sunday by Detroit and Atlanta puts the Bears in a hole I'm not sure they'll be able to dig themselves out of. Lovie Smith's team is finding ways to lose games, which is not the sign of a playoff-caliber organization. It figures to be an interesting offseason if the Bears continue this collapse. With Green Bay looming on the horizon, it's over if they can't beat the Seahawks at Soldier Field.
4. Caleb Hanie made some progress: The numbers weren't very pretty, but at least Hanie protected the football and gave the Bears a shot to win for the third straight week. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz realized the limitations of the group without Jay Cutler and Matt Forte, and authored a smart, conservative game plan. Hanie missed a few throws, but he connected on 12 of 19 passes and posted a respectable quarterback rating of 79.9. As Lance Briggs said after the game, 10 points was enough to win. Hanie didn't play great, but you can't pin the loss on the QB. Expect Hanie to start Sunday at home against Seattle, then the Bears will re-evaluate the status of Cutler moving forward over the final two weeks of the regular season.
5. Craig Steltz rose to the occasion: This was a perfect matchup for Steltz, who thrives when asked to tackle in the box. Steltz forced a critical turnover when he stripped Tebow of the football, and was credited in the press box with five total tackles, plus one stop for a loss. When the Bears face Green Bay in two weeks, Major Wright might be a better option because of his athleticism. But when it comes to playing against ground-orientated teams like Denver and Seattle, Steltz is the best option at strong safety. A game like he played in Denver will only help his chances as a free agent after this season.
DENVER -- The first quarter at Sports Authority Field on Sunday was a scoreless affair.
Offense for the Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos was at a minimum, to say the least.
Tim Tebow went 3-for-7 for 45 yards, buying time with his feet for one 23-yard completion to Matt Willis. But he also threw an interception -- his first in six games -- to Charles Tillman along the Broncos sideline. Willis McGahee couldn’t get going, picking up seven yards on seven carries.
Caleb Hanie couldn’t do much either, going 3-for-4 for 10 yards. Marion Barber looked capable of moving the Bears down the field, picking up 38 yards on eight carries, mostly up the middle. Hanie was sacked once for an eight-yard loss on second-and-10.
The Bears went 0-for-3 on third down. They went 0-11 in last week’s 10-3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.