Chicago Bears: Roy Williams
Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET
Key free agents: Tight end Kellen Davis, running back Matt Forte (franchise), cornerback Corey Graham, quarterback Caleb Hanie, defensive end Israel Idonije, cornerback Tim Jennings, quarterback Josh McCown, safety Brandon Meriweather and receiver Roy Williams.
Where they stand: The Bears will have the most salary-cap space among NFC North teams, upwards of $30 million, and have plenty of potential uses for it. Quarterback Jay Cutler needs more targets in the downfield passing game, whether it's at the receiver or tight end position. And new general manager Phil Emery must start restocking a defense led by four players more than 30 years old: Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, defensive end Julius Peppers and cornerback Charles Tillman.
What to expect: It's widely believed the Bears will be in the running for free-agent receiver Vincent Jackson. But Jackson's price tag could be steep and no one knows if Emery will prove to be a big spender. It seems likely he will re-sign Davis, and Emery should also save some of his cap space to extend Forte's contract. Secondary receiver targets could include Marques Colston. Bears fans are hoping the team will pursue defensive end Mario Williams, but it's hard to imagine the Bears budgeting for Williams two years after breaking their bank on Peppers.
Key free agents: Defensive end Cliff Avril (franchise), left tackle Jeff Backus, safety Chris Harris, quarterback Shaun Hill, linebacker DeAndre Levy (restricted), running back Maurice Morris, running back Kevin Smith, quarterback Drew Stanton, linebacker Stephen Tulloch and cornerback Eric Wright.
Where they stand: The Lions are tight against the salary cap after franchising Avril and aren't likely to be big spenders on the free-agent market. They could relieve the situation by reaching long-term agreements with Avril and/or receiver Calvin Johnson, who has a $22 million cap figure for 2012. Tulloch made a big impact last season after signing a one-year deal, but so far the Lions' attention has turned elsewhere.
What to expect: The Lions' best-case scenario is to keep their 2011 core together without mortgaging their future relative to the salary cap. That would mean getting Tulloch re-signed to preserve the linebacker group they upgraded last season by signing him and veteran Justin Durant, moves that allowed Levy to play on the outside. Hill seems likely to re-sign as Matthew Stafford's backup, while Stanton might test the free-agent waters to see if he has a chance to do better than third on a team's depth chart.
Green Bay Packers
Key free agents: Cornerback Jarrett Bush, quarterback Matt Flynn, running back Ryan Grant and center Scott Wells.
Where they stand: The Packers took care of a big challenge by signing tight end Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract last month. They will let Flynn depart for a possible starting job elsewhere and it appears Grant will test the free-agent market. Discussions with Wells haven't led to an agreement, but the Packers often go to the final moments before reaching a deal. There are no obvious internal replacements for Wells, making his return a priority.
What to expect: The Packers will have some flexibility with the salary cap, but general manager Ted Thompson's aversion to veteran free agency is well known. It's been three years since he signed a veteran unrestricted free agent in the offseason. The Packers have needs at defensive line, outside linebacker and possibly at center if Wells leaves. But let's put it this way: Thompson's strong preference is to find depth and future replacements in the draft, not on other teams' rosters.
Key free agents: Safety Husain Abdullah, receiver Devin Aromashodu, receiver Greg Camarillo, defensive lineman Fred Evans, defensive lineman Letroy Guion, linebacker E.J. Henderson, linebacker Erin Henderson, safety Tyrell Johnson, quarterback Sage Rosenfels, cornerback Benny Sapp and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.
Where they stand: The Vikings seem poised for a major roster overhaul in their first offseason since Rick Spielman was promoted to general manager. Players like Shiancoe, E.J. Henderson, Camarillo and Johnson all seem poised to move on. There aren't many positions on the team that appear secure.
What to expect: If the Vikings don't plan to draft USC left tackle Matt Kalil at No. 3 overall next month, the first clue will be if they pursue a free-agent left tackle. That seems unlikely. But they'll need to combine their draft with at least a few veteran free agents if they intend to compete for a playoff spot in 2012. Cornerback could be a point of focus, where Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan are among those available. Another could be receiver. The Vikings had major interest in Jackson two years ago.
The fantasies recently shared over Twitter between Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and Miami Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall about a possible reunion surely sparked optimism about the club’s future at what’s been an underachieving position in recent years.
But don’t expect Chicago to make a move to land Marshall. That deal might be too difficult for the Bears to swing, but the team still plans this offseason to extend every effort to finally give Cutler -- who will have only one year left on his contract after the upcoming season -- the weapons he needs.
"I will say this: What is going to be targeted [are] good football players, producers, dynamic playmakers that can help this football team grow," new general manager Phil Emery said. "[We want to] help the players that are here, and surround them with more weapons, more people that can make plays, and help this football team in its march towards championships."
Considering the Bears' leader in receptions -- running back Matt Forte -- doesn't play the receiver position, it’s quite clear that’s where the team needs to upgrade with the "dynamic playmakers" that Emery discussed.
The team’s preference is to do that through the draft. But the severe talent deficiency at the position will likely force the Bears to attack the problem from multiple fronts, meaning the NFL draft in April and pro free agency a month before that.
The Bears are well positioned in terms of salary cap space to make moves, and new offensive coordinator Mike Tice has been vocal about the need to add a legitimate No. 1 receiver to properly execute the team’s new system. By adding more targets -- especially a No. 1 that always has to be accounted for in coverage -- the Bears would be able to line up players such as Earl Bennett and Devin Hester in different spots on the field to take advantage of one-on-one matchups.
“We do need a [receiver] that when he gets one-on-one coverage, he has to win way more than he loses,” Tice said. “Moving forward, we’re going to evaluate the guys we have and how we’ve used them in the past. Our scouting department will do a great job -- whether it’s our pro personnel department or college scouting department -- in finding that guy or guys that are going to be able to let us implement this system, this process.”
THE CURRENT ROSTER
Roy Williams: Williams came on toward the end of the season, and two of his three best performances of the year came over the last two games in which he caught a combined 10 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown. Early indications pointed to the Bears bringing Williams -- an unrestricted free agent -- back in 2012 with a cap-friendly contract. But the regime change with Emery now as the GM could change the team’s thinking. Williams believes he deserves at least an opportunity to go to training camp to compete for a spot.
Dane Sanzenbacher: An undrafted rookie, Sanzenbacher started off strong by catching 19 passes over the first seven games for three touchdowns with Earl Bennett out of the lineup. Once Bennett returned, Sanzenbacher played six consecutive games with no catches from Nov. 7 to Dec. 11. Sanzenbacher’s promising rookie start was plagued by dropped passes (5). Depending on what the team does in free agency and the draft, Sanzenbacher could have a hard time making the 2012 roster.
Devin Hester: Nagging injuries limited Hester’s production on offense and in the return game. Over a three-game stretch from Oct. 10-23, Hester caught 14 passes only to finish with one reception over the next four weeks. Scheduled to earn $1.646 million (the salary includes escalators -- that likely haven’t been reached -- worth up to $3.554 million based on his production) Hester hasn’t yet developed into the receiver the Bears had hoped for. But an infusion of new talent at the position might change Hester’s role by putting him in the slot or other spots more, which might increase his production.
Earl Bennett: An internal-body injury suffered on Sept. 18 knocked Bennett out of the lineup for five games. But he returned Nov. 7 to put together three strong performances in Bears' victories (14 catches for 251 yards and a TD). Having developed strong chemistry with Cutler dating all the way back to college, Bennett watched his production dip dramatically after the quarterback suffered a thumb injury that knocked him out of the final six games. Still, Bennett remains the most dangerous of the team’s receiving threats, and was rewarded with a contract extension toward the end of the season.
Max Komar: Added to the Bears active roster on Dec. 19, and played in only one game on special teams against the Green Bay Packers on Christmas. Komar possesses some elusiveness, but could find a difficult time making the roster if he sticks around long enough to go to training camp.
Jonathan Haggerty: Signed to the practice squad on Dec. 20 and is considered a long shot to make the 2012 team.
Kevin Jurovich: Added to the practice squad on Dec. 21, but likely won’t make it to training camp with the team.
Bears free agents: Williams
POTENTIAL FREE AGENT TARGETS
Vincent Jackson, San Diego Chargers, unrestricted
Marques Colston, New Orleans Saints, unrestricted
Robert Meachem, New Orleans Saints, unrestricted
WHY MEACHEM MIGHT MAKE SENSE
Dynamic playmakers such as Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson, Buffalo’s Steve Johnson and Kansas City’s Dwayne Bowe likely won’t see the free agent market because of franchise tags or the sides working out new agreements. And it’s highly unlikely Vincent Jackson or Colston will either.
New Orleans is trying to work out an extension for quarterback Drew Brees, and once that’s done, it’s likely the Saints will turn their attention to Colston. So they’ll ultimately wind up having to part ways with Meachem. But don’t let Meachem’s production in 2011 (40 catches, 620 yards and 6 TDs) fool you. His lack of mega numbers stems in part from New Orleans’ spread-the-wealth system, and the fact he often became the clear-out man to open up things underneath for tight end Jimmy Graham.
Meachem’s explosive deep speed is part of the reason he became somewhat of a decoy. But he possesses the physical attributes to thrive in the right situation.
That leaves 14 players (unrestricted and restricted) set to come out of contract when the new league year and free agency begins at 3 p.m. CT on March 13.
Kahlil Bell, RB, restricted: Bell made a strong push over the final three weeks of the season, rushing for a career-high 121 yards on 23 carries versus the Green Bay Packers on Christmas night. He also fumbled the ball three times in the final two games (he lost one), but overall did a respectable job filling in for the injured Matt Forte and Marion Barber. It's unknown if another team will sign Bell to an offer sheet (which the Bears would have the opportunity to match), so right now it appears as if the running back will be back in Chicago for 2012, probably as the No. 2 tailback behind Forte.
Zack Bowman, CB, unrestricted: Bowman intercepted a team-high six passes in 2009 but never recovered after he lost his starting job early in 2010 to Tim Jennings. The 6-foot-1 defender seems better suited to play more man coverage, rather than in Lovie Smith's Cover 2, and would benefit from a fresh start somewhere else. His struggles versus Green Bay near the end of the regular season were grossly exaggerated. Bowman lined up in the required outside leverage technique the Bears were required to play in the red zone on two of those Packers touchdown receptions. Earlier that evening strong side linebacker Nick Roach was handcuffed the same way when Jermichael Finley ran a quick slant into the end zone. The Bears actually changed their red zone defense the following week at Minnesota to take away those quick slants. But by that point, the damage to Bowman's reputation had already been done.
Kellen Davis, TE, unrestricted: A good run blocker, a below average pass blocker and an average pass catcher who managed to haul in five touchdowns. The Bears got rid of Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark, in part, to allow Davis to flourish in the starting role. It never really happened. The best overall blocking tight end on the roster is Matt Spaeth, so if the Bears want to bring in a better receiving tight end, where does that leave Davis? But Davis is an excellent athlete and former draft choice, which helps his chances of sticking around.
Matt Forte, RB, unrestricted: Forte sounds as if he expects the Bears to stick him with the franchise tag. But the hope is both parties once again attempt to hammer out a long-term deal in the offseason. Forte bet on himself this season and made his first Pro Bowl. He's one of the top all-purpose rushers in the league, and with the Bears committed to running the ball more in 2012, Forte will continue to be a vital part of the offense. Surely given the importance of Forte to the franchise, the two sides can somehow find a way to reach some common ground. If not, it could be an ugly summer.
Corey Graham, CB, unrestricted: Graham tested the market last year and returned to the Bears. He will no doubt do the same this offseason, as the Pro Bowl special teams standout looks for a spot where he can contribute on defense. But money talks. The Bears better plan to make Graham a sweet offer if they expect him to come back. He displayed an ability to make impact plays during his stint at nickel back, and was supposed to play some safety Christmas night and defend Finley, but the Bears pulled the plug on the idea the Friday before the game. That probably doesn't help the situation from the Bears' standpoint.
Caleb Hanie, QB, unrestricted: Hanie is another player who could probably use a change of scenery after going 0-4 in place of the injured Jay Cutler. Perhaps the quarterback can find the right system that highlights his skills as a runner and on-the-move playmaker. But the first step is making sure to find a spot on somebody's training camp roster and then let the chips fall as they may.
Israel Idonije, DE, unrestricted: Although the Bears need to upgrade at defensive end, Idonije is a relatively productive player whom the Bears should make an attempt to re-sign and keep in the mix. There is nothing wrong with having a 5-8 sack a year guy in the rotation. Idonije is well-liked, plays hard and does a lot of good work in the community. Unless the Bears plan to completely overhaul the position (minus Julius Peppers, of course) then Idonije has a fairly good shot of signing yet another contract with the Bears.
Tim Jennings, CB, unrestricted: Jennings is looking for a significant raise from the $1.9 million base he earned in 2011. Keep that in mind. The Bears probably are looking to pay much more, but Jennings is a good player, especially in this scheme. Sure, he lacks height and drops way too many interceptions. But Jennings solidified one of the cornerback spots the last two years and is an aggressive tackler. For those reasons, the Bears might be inclined to make Jennings an offer. Whether the cornerback deems the offer acceptable is another story.
Amobi Okoye, DT, unrestricted: Okoye showed enough flashes to warrant another one- or two-year deal at moderate pay. He's still young and might be even better next year after a full offseason of working with defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. But the Bears will need more than four sacks from Okoye next season.
Chris Massey, LS, unrestricted: Massey walked into a tough spot after Patrick Mannelly was lost for the year due to a torn ACL. He did OK. He didn't botch any snaps. But There won't be a need for Massey if Mannelly is 100 percent by the start of training camp, but it would be wise for the Bears to hang on to the veteran's phone number just in case.
Josh McCown, QB, unrestricted: McCown did enough in the final two games of the year to receive another one-year deal. He should enter training camp as the team's No. 3 quarterback, at the very least. He made the most of the opportunities given to him and should be commended. A good guy who fits in well inside the Bears locker room.
Brandon Meriweather, S, unrestricted: The former Patriot was an expensive mistake to the tune of $3.25 million total this season. The coaches don't seem to trust him. Unless something drastically changes between now and March, Meriweather's odds of returning for a second season in Chicago appear to be remote.
Craig Steltz, S, unrestricted: One of the pleasant surprises of the second half of the season. Despite being buried on the bench for much of the season, Steltz finished with 48 tackles, three tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles, one sacks and was fourth on the team with 12 special teams stops. Steltz would like to remain in Chicago. The Bears should honor that request and give him a new deal. He earned it.
Roy Williams, WR, unrestricted: The mere notion Williams feels he "did enough" or "made enough plays" when the team failed to make the playoffs is insulting. The only real chemistry Williams showed was with McCown late in the year. News flash: Jay Cutler is going to be the Bears starting quarterback in 2012, not McCown. Williams isn't horrible, but he's not good enough to be guaranteed a roster spot or playing time. The Bears tried that last year and it backfired.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The disappointment of unrealized potential thrusts the Chicago Bears into thoughts of 2012 despite one game -- which the team calls the beginning of next season -- still remaining on the schedule Sunday at Minnesota.
“We’ve already put up our goals of course for the 2012 season,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “We want to be 1-0 for it.”
Despite the team's recent five-game skid after a winning streak of the same magnitude, the Bears insist they’re not far off from seriously competing for a title even though they’ve missed the postseason now in four of the last five seasons. Sweeping changes might be on the horizon. But the players think such moves -- outside of the normal transactions associated with roster turnover -- could possibly do more harm than good.
"It’s not going to solve anything if you get rid of all the folks who put this team together,” Bears linebacker Lance Briggs said. “This year was unfortunate for us all, and even though we didn’t get in the playoffs, we are still a championship-caliber team. We’ll get there. It’s just not going to happen in the year of 11.”
It's legitimate to ponder whether it’ll ever occur. The recurring factor in the last two seasons -- which both came to disappointing ends -- was an injury to quarterback Jay Cutler. Although the team refused to make that an excuse for this year’s late-season collapse, the prevailing thought within the locker room is that a quarterback of Cutler’s caliber is irreplaceable regardless of the talent of the backup waiting in the wings.
Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher admitted as much. It’s also worth noting that in addition to Cutler, the Bears lost four other starters -- right tackle Gabe Carimi, running back Matt Forte, receiver Johnny Knox and left guard Chris Williams -- to season-ending injuries. Cutler’s favorite target, Earl Bennett, missed five games.
In all, 10 players -- including seven starters on offense, defense and special teams -- are currently on the injured reserve.
“[Injuries] have a lot to do with it,” Urlacher said. Everyone has that issue, though. We’ve had some pretty good players go down at bad times during the season. They’re hard to replace. Jay, you’re not going to replace, Jay, obviously. Jay’s an elite player. Matt [Forte], obviously, [is elite] running-back wise as well.”
So the lost season of 2011, Briggs said, wasn’t about “a bad team that need[s] to rebuild,” because “this team is very capable.”
“Every year, something is changed,” Williams said. “There’s no football team that keeps the same 53, nowhere in the league. There are going to be rookies coming in. They’re going to have a first rounder, second rounder. I mean, it’s going to be a new team. But I think we’re going to play well next year.”
Perhaps that’s why the team is already in the planning stages for 2012 despite being in the midst of 2011. Urlacher doesn’t expect the inevitable roster turnover to purge the team of core players.
“There will be some guys gone that are here now, obviously, and just like every year there will be a lot of turnover,” Urlacher said. “But I don’t think we’re far away. You’ve seen when we’re healthy what we can do. We’re pretty close to being one of the better teams in the NFL. We’ve just got to stay together and keep playing hard. I think the consensus around the locker room is we’re pretty close to where we want to be.”
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Six stops over nine seasons in the NFL and a stint in the United Football League instilled a perspective in Chicago Bears quarterback Josh McCown that he will carry into Sunday’s season finale against the Minnesota Vikings.
Instead of fretting about the future and what might amount to an audition Sunday for the 2012 season, McCown wants to embrace yet another opportunity to play. Should he take care of business, the quarterback understands business will eventually take care of him, too.
“In the past at some of my stops, you’re always kind of planning for the next thing,” McCown said, “and you lose sight of what’s in front of you and really enjoying how fun that moment can be. You’ve got an opportunity to go out, compete and play a game. Whether it’s a playoff game, whatever it is, if you’re a competitor you just want to win. You don’t care. So that’s my goal. Generally, especially at this position, if you play well you put your team in a position to win. All the other stuff takes care of itself. So that’s my goal, just to focus on beating Minnesota.”
Having worked with receiver Roy Williams in Detroit, McCown established an almost instant chemistry with him. Williams finished with a season high in catches (six) and yardage (81).
“He just trusts me, and he threw it,” Williams said. “He was throwing it before I even came out of my breaks.”
Trust, McCown said, is one of the fundamental tenets of the club’s offense.
“All offense is trust-related, but especially with this deal and the way [offensive coordinator] Mike [Martz] works the passing game. You have to trust not only what he’s calling and telling you to do, but you have to trust your receivers to be there, and you have to cut some balls loose,” McCown said. "You can work on it, get timing down and how you would like it to happen in practice. But not until you get in a game, cut it loose and you connect do you really start to build confidence. So [with] every rep, you start to feel a little better about it.”
In 10 total drives against the Packers, McCown -- starting his first game since 2007 -- led the Bears to two touchdowns, and two field goals, in addition to two punts, and a pair of interceptions. By comparison, Caleb Hanie led 55 Bears drives, yielding four TDs, four field goals and 29 punts, to go with nine interceptions. The team’s scoring efficiency with Hanie was 29 percent, 7 percent, 12 percent and 7 percent over four games for 40 points.
McCown engineered 40 percent scoring efficiency and 21 points in only one start.
“The performance Josh put in [against the Packers] was impressive,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “That’s why we can get so much done this week [in what might seem like a meaningless game]. We want to see him have an opportunity to come back and play again this coming week. You normally can find a spot for a player who played the way he did.”
Not that McCown is worried about where he stands. After all, a little more than two months ago, McCown was coaching high school football. Although he’d like to stick to continue playing in the NFL, McCown says right now “he’s just having a lot of fun.”
Still, that doesn’t mean he’s overly relaxed.
“Honestly, my prayer is that I don’t get relaxed. There’s a comfort level from just having done it; the unknown is gone,” McCown said. “But there’s an edge that all the anxiety produces that I think is good. I’m hoping I keep that.”
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?
CHICAGO -- Chicago Bears receiver Devin Hester wrestled to pull on a white t-shirt in an attempt to make a quick exit from the Soldier Field locker room on the heels of a shocking 38-14 beating Sunday from the Seattle Seahawks.
For a quick two-count, Hester -- with his back turned -- paused to ponder where the team had been more than a month ago.
Nobody in that somber locker room did. Riding a five-game winning streak from Oct. 16 to Nov. 20, the Bears held a 7-3 record, the No. 5 seed in the NFC wild-card standings, and controlled their own destiny for the postseason.
But in the club's last win, a 31-20 decision over the San Diego Chargers, quarterback Jay Cutler suffered a broken right thumb that more or less signified the beginning of the end for the team and its quest for a second consecutive berth in the postseason. The Bears won't make excuses for what's transpired: The rash of injuries, Caleb Hanie's inconsistent play in Cutler's place, or the distractions caused by Sam Hurd's recent arrest on federal drug charges.
But explanations for the slide seem as elusive as victories have been.
"It's tough, that's all you can say. We were 7-3, riding the high horse," receiver Roy Williams said. "We were doing everything on offense; running it, throwing it. We went from just doing almost whatever we wanted to these last four weeks. All of a sudden, you're 7-7 in the blink of an eye. The ball just hasn't bounced our way, and it's not just the quarterback. I had my potential tie, and other players [had opportunities to make plays]. I just don't know what's happened."
What hasn't occurred for the Bears -- at least yet -- is mathematical elimination from the playoffs. At 7-7, the Bears are tied with both the New York Giants and Seahawks, and the best mark they can attain is 9-7. Despite the teams having identical 7-7 records, the Bears sit behind the Seahawks at eighth in the NFC standings because the Seahawks own the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of Sunday's win. The Bears are ahead of the Giants based on conference records.
The Bears entered Sunday's contest a game behind the Detroit Lions (8-5) in the wild-card hunt. Even if Chicago found a way to defeat the Seahawks and Detroit lost, the Lions would still hold the tiebreaker because of the teams' division records (the Lions are 3-2 in the NFC North, and the Bears are 2-2).
So Chicago's remaining outings against divisional foes Green Bay and Minnesota and Detroit's last game with the Packers remain important for tie-breaking purposes. Basically, the Bears need to win their last two at Green Bay and Minnesota, and they need Detroit and Atlanta to lose out, and they need the Seahawks to lose one game for a shot at the postseason.
In addition, the Bears would need Detroit to lose both of its remaining games to edge the Lions in the conference-record tiebreaker. Even more scenarios come into play if the 9-5 Atlanta Falcons manage to lose their final two games.
"When Jay went down, I thought we were missing a key piece of our football team," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "But if you look back we had some opportunities. To go on a four-game losing streak, no, that wasn't part of my mind set. We're better than that."
Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher expressed frustration over what's looking more and more like a squandered opportunity, but refused to blame injuries or extenuating circumstances.
"Hell yeah, I'm mad," Urlacher said. "This is not our team. This is not how we're supposed to play. I don't know what happened to us. We'd been in all these football games with chances to win, pretty much all of them."
Asked what the team has left to play for, defensive end Julius Peppers said, "pride." But Peppers didn't want to revisit the team's 7-3 record, it's five-game winning streak, or how its fortunes have gradually dwindled.
"That's gone. We were in a good position several weeks ago. Now we're not there," Peppers said. "So we're not concerned with what happened four or five weeks ago. We've got to be concerned with the present. Right now, we're just trying to see if we can get a win."
Instead, Williams bobbled the pass from Caleb Hanie, and Chiefs safety Jon McGraw came up with the interception that sealed the Chiefs' 10-3 win.
"It's my fault," Williams told reporters. "You have to make those plays. Did that lose the game? No. There are a lot of things that happened before that that we could have stacked on.
"But in my mind, yes it (did lose the game). In the fans' mind, yes it does. So it's on me. Put it on me. That's fine."
Hanie, who threw three picks on the day, wasn't putting the blame on Williams.
"Yeah, those things are going to happen," Hanie said. "People like to focus on one play in particular that makes or breaks the game, but there's a lot of different plays you can point at that we should have done better on. It's just one of those tough breaks right there."
McGraw was in the right place at the right time.
"I saw him throw it, and my eyes went to the receiver and then I saw a whole bunch of guys," McGraw said. "Then it squired through, and I got it just in time before it hit the ground. It was going to the ground fast, but fortunately I was able to make the play."
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The huddle often broke, and as Chicago Bears receiver Roy Williams trotted toward the line of scrimmage surveying the defense, inevitably, he’d direct the increasingly frustrating question to quarterback Jay Cutler.
“What I got?” he’d say.
Quickly, that got old for Cutler, Williams now admits.
Slowly Williams seems to be getting everything down, which has resulted in his numbers going up over the past two games. After catching a combined two balls in outings against Green Bay, Carolina and Detroit, Williams has hauled in seven passes for 109 yards and a touchdown in Bears' wins over Minnesota and Tampa Bay, headed into Monday night's showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Coming out of the bye, having spent the week off learning even more about the new offense, Williams knows now more than ever that the less he knows about the scheme, the fewer balls Cutler throws his way. Armed with a better feel for his responsibilities in the offense, the plan for Williams now is to finally stop asking questions.
“I can’t get detailed on [what happened before], but it’s just certain pass routes [where] I’m like, ‘What I got?’ He’d be like, ‘You’ve got the such and such.’ [Then], I’m like: ‘Alright, my bad.”
Did the situation frustrate Cutler?
“Yeah, I’d get frustrated, too,” Williams said. “This is Week 7, 8, you know. You shouldn’t be asking those questions. So if I was the quarterback, I’d [be like]: ‘Nah, I’m not throwing him the ball.’ I can’t ask him [anymore], ‘What do I got?’ I’ve got to be a pro and do what I need to do to get the ball.”
Williams cited a specific example of the chemistry he hopes to develop with Cutler. Late in the team’s 24-18 win over the Buccaneers in London, the Bears held possession at the Tampa Bay 6 when Williams looked up and noticed a linebacker covering him.
Both Cutler and Williams noticed Tampa Bay’s mistake, but before the duo could make it pay, the Buccaneers called a timeout.
“Jay was looking at me like, ‘What are you going to do?’ I’m like, ‘Just snap the ball.’ If we had that connection, it would have been, ‘Down, set, hut’ throw the ball,” Williams said. “So it’s just little things like that. When I see a linebacker on me in the red zone within 5 yards of me, it shouldn’t be [us] looking and trying to get eye contact. It should be just, ‘Down, set, hut’ throw the ball. That kind of takes years to get going.”
Obviously, the Bears don’t own the luxury of that type of time table. But for his part, Cutler echoes his receiver’s sentiments that the chemistry between them continues to grow with each outing.
Cutler said, he wasn’t “gonna single out Roy against anybody [else]” in the receiving corps, adding that “all those guys are gonna be important. They’ve all got to play at a certain level.”
One major component of that requires knowing what to do on a given play.
Williams said there’s no explanation or method for increasing the chemistry between a quarterback and receiver, and pointed out Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison as a duo that “set the bar with that.”
“When you get to that point, that’s magical,” Williams said. “A lot of people can get there. It just takes time. [But] with Jay [the chemistry] is slowly going up. It’s not going to go down. It’s gonna go up.”
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Roy Williams is betting on the speed of Chicago Bears wide receivers to win out over the seven combined Pro Bowl selections of Philadelphia Eagles cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Asante Samuel.
"They're pretty good corners. Big-name guys, big-time players, All-Pro guys," Williams said Thursday. "They're good. One thing this group (Bears receivers) has is speed. I hope they can run. [I know] they see it every day with DeSean [Jackson] and [Jeremy] Maclin and those guys, but I think Johnny [Knox] and Devin [Hester] have a little bit different speed."
Knox and Hester were both able to hit Philadelphia's defense for big plays in last year's 31-26 Bears win at Soldier Field. However, Samuel was inactive that day due to a knee injury, while the Eagles' other starting cornerback Ellis Hobbs went on injured reserve prior the game with a neck injury.
When healthy, Samuel and Asomugha are considered two of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. They have combined for 56 regular season interceptions, 43 of those belonging to Samuel, mainly because teams stopped throwing the ball to Asomugha's side his final five years in Oakland.
But it sounds like Williams believes the return of receiver Earl Bennett might also tip the scales in the Bears' favor on Monday night. Bennett, inactive since suffering a torso injury in Week 2, caught a pair of touchdown passes against Philadelphia last season. While not as quick as Knox or Hester, Bennett is a much stronger and well-rounded receiver who could give the Eagles trouble working out of the slot.
"Best receiver that we have," Williams said. "Best receiver that we have on the team. Most consistent guy. Knows every position. Might even play quarterback if you put him back there. It's great to have him back. He's good. Very underrated."