Chicago Bears: CampTour'12

CampTour'12: What we learned

August, 14, 2012
8/14/12
3:15
PM ET
Marshall-Ponder-YoungGetty ImagesFinal training camp thoughts: Chicago is excited about Brandon Marshall, Christian Ponder has started to embrace his role as a leader, and Titus Young has been a training camp star.
We came, we saw, we conquered. Veni, vidi, vici and all that stuff. Yes, CampTour'12 wrapped up late last week, ending a stretch of spending 11 days at four NFC North training camps over a 15-day period. I took three flights, logged 938 miles on the NFC North blogmobile and limited my Jimmy John's/Chipotle intake to an average of one ingestion per day.

You can find everything I produced on location through this handy one-stop link, and the four Camp Confidential posts are all grouped here.

This division looks every bit as tough as we thought it was before the tour began, and I figure it's going to take 12 regular-season victories (or more) to win it. With that in mind, let's wrap up CampTour'12 with, well, 12, final thoughts and semi-behind-the-scenes observations from my time abroad.

1. The Chicago Bears' risk-reward: Our pre-camp discussion centered around the Bears' improvement and possible eclipse of the Detroit Lions in the standings. After seeing them in camp and in the context of the rest of the division, I still think the Bears are a really good team. But I also think they run the biggest risk of imploding among our top three teams. Already, two offseason decisions to stand part have left them vulnerable. Left tackle J'Marcus Webb has not yet demonstrated the progress expected of him, and middle linebacker Brian Urlacher's now surgically-repaired knee has drawn genuine concerns about his health over a 16-game season. Those are two huge positions on this team, and neither have a credible alternative at this point.

2. Genuine excitement: It was fascinating to watch longtime Bears employees and observers during receiver Brandon Marshall's first full-pads practice Aug. 1. Marshall made the kinds of plays that only a true No. 1 receiver makes, including some fancy sideline footwork at the end of a 35-yard pass from Jay Cutler. Several people gushed that Marshall will prove the team's best skill-position player since Walter Payton. A glance at recent Bears history suggests that's a sound judgment by default. I didn't see Marshall do anything that we haven't seen, say, Calvin Johnson do in this division. But it's been forever since the Bears have had someone do it in their uniform.

[+] EnlargeMike Tice
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhMike Tice seems more relaxed with the Bears than when he was at the helm in Minnesota.
3. Tice games: I told Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice that he seemed less frantic and more chill than he was during his time as the Minnesota Vikings' head coach. "I still have my moments," Tice said in words that proved prophetic. Since then, he has reached deep into his bag of tricks to cajole better play from Webb, putting him in a yo-yo personnel rotation and playing him for almost all of the preseason opener. When he was the Vikings' coach, Tice once pulled fans into a non-contact drill to demonstrate mistakes to starting linemen. On another occasion, he required linemen to practice with their hands tied together to emphasize footwork. Sometimes those tactics work. Sometimes they don't.

4. Concussion impact: I wouldn't be surprised if we look back at this summer as the moment concussion treatment -- not just concussions themselves -- began impacting the game. Already, we've seen the Lions and Green Bay Packers acknowledge they are taking a much more deliberate approach to putting players back on the field after they've been concussed or if they are even suspected to have suffered a concussion. Front-line players including Greg Jennings, Marshall Newhouse and Amari Spievey missed the preseason opener because of them.

5. Traffic nightmare: Would you believe that the worst traffic in the NFC North is in the NFL's smallest market? Some of the key roads surrounding Lambeau Field have been torn up for months, including Oneida St. and Hwy. 41 near Lombardi Ave.. I pray to the construction gods that everything is finished by next month. Based on the amount of holes, gravel roads and lane closures I saw, I'm not optimistic. All I can say is to arrive early and often.

6. Camp routine: Because of the new collective bargaining agreement, players were on the field once a day in three of our locales. The only team coming close to two-a-day practices were the Vikings, whose first workout was a 60-minute, half-speed walk-through. Veterans like the Packers' Jeff Saturday were thrilled with the reduced wear-and-tear. Privately, others noted that coaches filled the time once set aside for a second practice with additional meetings. "Some really tedious days," one player said. Said another: "Sometimes the grass is not always greener, you know?"

7. Imagination movers: The Packers lead the division with unique drills and sideline gizmos. For years, they've had sideline speakers set up to broadcast the ravings of special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum. This year, they added a set of red and green lights that flash exactly 2.5 seconds after the ball is snapped in team drills. In essence, they are designed to simulate the quarterback's head clock. I also saw offensive linemen catching passes from a JUGS machine and tight ends doing a basketball-like drill where they weaved the ball around their ankles and through their legs.

8. Ponder charisma: Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder seems to have made some strides as a pocket passer. But I can say without a shred of doubt that Ponder has mastered the more ethereal parts of NFL quarterbacking. He has taken ownership of a young roster and moves easily between the inevitable cliques that develop. He is just as likely to share a laugh with fellow second-year player Kyle Rudoph as he is veteran receiver Jerome Simpson, a newly-signed free agent. I watched him call team staffers by name and treat them with genuine respect. Ponder has some work to do on the field, but he has the makings of a franchise pillar off of it.

9. Defensive dilemma: Much of the camp discussion surrounding the Vikings has centered around Ponder and the changes they've made to the offense. But the Vikings have just as much, if not more, work to do on defense. There are at least four positions -- nose tackle, middle linebacker and both safety spots -- where the presumed starter remains completely unproven. The San Francisco 49ers gashed them for 260 rushing yards in the preseason opener.

10. Eye-opening: Someone asked me along the trail to name the best NFC North player no one has heard of. The first two names to come to mind are both on the Lions' roster. You've no doubt heard of receiver Titus Young, but probably for the wrong reasons after his offseason fight with safety Louis Delmas. Young has been a training camp star, twisting and turning over defensive backs in every drill I watched. From a physical standpoint, Young can be a star. The other was defensive end Willie Young, who got elevated reps because of Cliff Avril's holdout and Kyle Vanden Bosch's knee injury. Willie Young is a high-energy, full-effort pass-rusher who has to get on the field more substantially this season.

11. Redshirt season?: Perhaps the most notable sign of the Lions' roster strength is that their top two draft picks might get a quasi-redshirt season, assuming the players in front of them stay healthy. Offensive lineman Riley Reiff isn't going to beat out left tackle Jeff Backus and probably not right tackle Gosder Cherilus, either. And receiver Ryan Broyles has been limited all summer because of residual soreness from knee surgery. At best, he will be the Lions' No. 4 receiver when he does get on the field.

12. Serious bid'niss: I realized how serious this NFC North race would be shortly after returning from CampTour'12. Check out this photo tweeted by Chris Jenkins of The Associated Press. It shows Saturday, Cedric Benson and Reggie Wells in Packers uniforms. These three are the kind of veteran free agents the Packers turned away from for years under general manager Ted Thompson. This season, Thompson has loaded up on a relative scale. In this division, this year, there is no time to wait for development. Answers are needed now.
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Let's roll through some thoughts and observations after watching the Chicago Bears' opening practice:

  • It wasn't surprising to see the Bears use a seventh-round draft pick to acquire defensive tackle Brian Price from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a move that was announced during practice. Matt Toeaina was working with the first team, opposite Henry Melton, even with a rather hefty cast around a broken right hand. Stephen Paea, the Bears' second-round draft pick in 2011, also got onto the field. But the Bears seemed thinner than they would like to be at the position.
  • Price is actually a pretty good player who needed a fresh start. Once he gets comfortable, I would consider him a candidate for substantial playing time, if not a starting job.
  • The Bears' passing offense looked more discombobulated than I expected it would. Quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Brandon Marshall crossed each other up on three passes that I saw, resulting in two incompletions and one interception. To be fair, the offense was operating on a month of rust. Offensive coordinator Mike Tice, however, made clear: "We're going to have a higher bar than that."
  • The other possibility is that the Bears' defense was exceptionally sharp for an opening practice of camp. I will say that the secondary aggressively pursued pass break-ups, beginning with D.J. Moore's interception of Cutler on a sideline pass intended for rookie Alshon Jeffery.
  • Linebacker Brian Urlacher practiced for the first time since spraining his knee in the 2011 season finale against the Minnesota Vikings. It's worth noting that Urlacher was wearing a brace, presumably as a precaution.
  • Jeffery might have played too heavy in college, but Thursday he appeared to be a typical gangly rookie. He certainly passed the eyeball test and also looked good on a deep slant, a route that will be particularly difficult to defend with his 6-foot-3 frame.
  • Rookie tight end Evan Rodriguez is a load. He is listed at 239 pounds, but he looked pretty imposing running seam routes during offensive drills and caught my eye with aggressive post-catch runs. We'll keep an eye on him.

CampTour'12: Mike Tice as O-manager

July, 27, 2012
7/27/12
12:49
PM ET
Mike Tice Jerry Lai/US PresswireMike Tice may have more of a role as an offensive "manager" than that of a traditional coordinator.

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- It shouldn't be this difficult. Finding Mike Tice on a football field should be easy. Just look up and listen.

Tice stands 6-foot-8 and has a deep voice he employs liberally during practices. It's hard to miss. So on the opening day of the Chicago Bears' training camp, I looked over to the spot where you normally find an NFL offensive coordinator. But as the Bears' quarterbacks warmed up, there was no Mike Tice.

I checked the receiver group. Couldn't see or hear him. Tight ends? Nope.

It wasn't until I located the offensive line that I caught a glimpse of him, my first clue that the Bears have crafted a unique -- but, I think, appropriate -- arrangement to operate their offense this season.

More than ever, NFL offensive coordinators rise from a quarterback background, developed as a player or an assistant coach or both. In the NFC North, for example, we have the Detroit Lions' Scott Linehan (college quarterback, quarterbacks coach) and the Minnesota Vikings' Bill Musgrave (NFL quarterback and quarterbacks coach). It's not a requirement for the job, but consider it a nod toward the increased importance of quarterbacks at this level.

Tice, on the other hand, will run the Bears' offense through the line -- a dream of many offensive line coaches that rarely comes to fruition. The idea, after the Bears spent two years struggling to meld their scheme with personnel, is to build an offense around quarterback Jay Cutler but operate it within the context of what the offensive line can handle.

It was an idea that initially sounded unappealing to Tice, who settled into a position coach's life over the past seven years after a rocky end to his tenure as the Minnesota Vikings' head coach. But given the opportunity to fashion the job to his strengths and expertise, Tice reconsidered.

"The more I thought about it," he said, "I thought, 'Who knows the offense we have better than I do? Who knows the line? Who knows how to protect the line better than I do? Who knows how to hide their flaws better than I do?' I've got a great relationship with the quarterback, [Devin] Hester, the tight ends, Why not?"

Based on Thursday's initial practice, and a subsequent interview, it's safe to assume Tice will spend a majority of his time with the offensive line. During practice, he'll break away only for seven-on-seven drills, leaving offensive line coach Tim Holt to run one-on-one blocking drills, and he'll spend about half of his total meeting time in the line's room. Meanwhile, newcomer Jeremy Bates will be Cutler's position coach and a key conduit of the passing game.

It would be easy to conclude, as I was prepared to, that in reality Tice is the Bears' blocking and running coordinator while Bates is the passing game coordinator. Tice, however, insisted that will not happen and said it is important "to be involved in the passing game and all facets and not just have a situation where I handle the runs and protection and someone else handles the passing game."

So how will it all work?

From what I can gather, Tice has crafted an offense that blends the power running game he learned from longtime NFL coach Joe Gibbs, elements of the West Coast passing game culled from Bates' career path and a downfield portion Tice used with the Vikings. Tice will call plays from the sideline, but he'll leave an important segment to Cutler -- who will get a pass-run option based on defensive alignments. (Tice once famously dubbed this element his "Duh offense" because it asks quarterbacks to audible to a pass when defenses are aligned against the run and vice versa.)

"We want to be able to do everything," Tice said. "We want to be able to catch and run. We want to be able to throw it deep. We want to be able to play-action, we want to be able to move the pocket. We want to be able to run the ball explosively. It's really not that different than what we did in Minnesota.

"I think Jeremy Bates has done a nice job of putting in his version of the West Coast scheme, which is nice. We melded that with the long stuff that we used to do in Minnesota and we kept our run game intact. Now we have the run game that you'll recognize. The quarterback has a lot to manage on the line of scrimmage, just like [Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper]. And we'll see what happens."

Without knowing the details, it's reasonable to be skeptical of an arrangement that shifts a longtime offensive line coach to the coordinator's role. But in this instance, I think it can work, especially if you consider Tice in the role of offensive "manager" rather than a traditional coordinator.

He'll make liberal use of Bates, an intense film rat who is best suited in a role of scheming by candlelight in his office. He'll rely heavily on Cutler, a veteran with strong opinions on what best suits his skills. And Tice will most assuredly do one thing that hasn't happened for at least two years in Chicago: He'll take into account the strengths and weaknesses of the offensive line when developing a game plan.

Is it unconventional? Sure. Does it have risks? Of course. But for this team at this time, it makes sense.

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