Chicago Bears: Lovie Smith

Training camp is coming, and you've got questions. So we figured it would be absolutely worth it to try to knock out a Bears mailbag before the start of training camp Thursday at Olivet Nazarene University. Thanks everyone for participating. @mikecwright: I have. He's a very engaging fellow whom I think has a chance to contribute significantly as a rookie. Back in May during the rookie minicamp, we had the opportunity to speak with him and ask him about what it was like to finally put on a Bears uniform. Here's what he said: "A dream come true. It's like when you come from the first year in high school, you're a little puppy, you're trying to learn; first year of college, it's the same thing. So I'm just trying to soak everything in and learn from the vets. It's definitely unreal right now. I still wake up every morning thinking this is a dream. But at the end of the day, I'm here man. And I'm happy to be here." What I liked about Ferguson is the fact he wasn't quick to pat himself on the back in terms of his physical skill set. He prefers to prove his worth on the field, which is refreshing. "I can't tell you what I can bring until I get on the field," Ferguson said. @mikecwright: It would be easy for me to tell you right here, but I prefer you take a minute to look at my projected 53-man roster, which ran Friday. You can find the answer you seek here. @mikecwright: It's too early to say whether he'll make the team, but in my mind that player is linebacker Christian Jones, who was a big-time standout at Florida State but wasn't drafted. At FSU, Jones played all over the place and started games at every linebacker spot for the Seminoles, in addition to defensive end. He was expected to be picked as high as the second round, yet his name went uncalled during the draft. At rookie minicamp back in May, Jones admitted that a diluted drug test at the NFL combine in February likely resulted in teams shying away from him. Here's an interesting note about Jones: His father, Willie Jones Sr., played at Florida State with Bears linebackers coach Reggie Herring, which is part of the reason the rookie chose to sign with Chicago. "I knew I'd get some good coaching from [Herring] and I know about the Bears history, winning nine championships," Jones said. "It's a great organization and I just wanted to be a part of it. It's a lot of motivation [to go undrafted]. It's the competitive side. You see guys getting drafted above you. Everybody thinks they're better than somebody. But that's how it is. It's going to help fuel me, and I believe things happen for a reason. I really feel like I belong here, and I'm just making the best of the opportunity." I'd say keep an eye out for Jones because he's a player. @mikecwright: Absolutely he does. Remember, when Jeremiah Ratliff joined the Bears he was coming off an injury, and the Bears more or less just let him take his time going through the healing process. That was a huge positive for Ratliff and the Bears because he's 100 percent ready to go. Your question reminds me of a text I received from a member of the Bears organization shortly after the club re-signed Ratliff. So I dug through my phone to find it. It said: "It helps that we signed Rat. He's a soldier if healthy!" Well, now Ratliff is fully healthy, and the Bears are expecting him to be a steady and disruptive force up front this season. Ratliff will be 33 once the season starts, but I don't see his age being a major concern. @mikecwright: I do, but not necessarily for the reasons you'd think. First off, what the Bears did in terms of reloading up front will be huge in helping the secondary. If the front four can consistently put pressure on the opposing quarterback, obviously the secondary doesn't have to stay in coverage as long, and that's huge. So that's the No. 1 reason the secondary will be improved. Here's No. 2. When the Bears revamped the coaching staff last season, it took away a ton of the continuity the club had established with the former coaching staff under Lovie Smith. Under Smith, Jon Hoke worked with the cornerbacks. Smith's son, Mikal, worked with the nickel corners, and Gill Byrd spent his time with Chicago's safeties. When the new staff came aboard last season the players weren't able to get as much individualized coaching because Byrd and Smith obviously left, leaving Hoke to try to work with both the cornerbacks and the safeties. Ultimately, defensive quality control assistant Chris Harris ended up working with the safeties, and although he's got tons of knowledge as a former player, you have to keep in mind that 2013 was his first season as a coach. I think this season there will be more continuity with the coaching staff, and Hoke will return to working with the cornerbacks, while defensive coordinator Mel Tucker will start spending more time working with the safeties. I didn't even get into the new additions, which obviously should help. But I think the moves with the front four and the coaching staff changing the way it does things will be the two biggest contributors to improved play in the secondary. 
Thanks everyone for participating in our weekly Twitter mailbag. This week, we’ll start off with an interesting question regarding whether the Chicago Bears should try to trade for Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

Enjoy the weekend.

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Former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher weighed in Thursday on the team’s decision to part ways with return man Devin Hester.

Hester played eight seasons with the Bears, but on Wednesday was informed the club was looking to “go a different way with me,” he said on NFL Network. Urlacher told FoxSports.com he was “really surprised” to hear his former teammate would no longer be a Bear.

“You think of Devin returning all those punts and kicks as a Bear,” said Urlacher, now an NFL analyst for Fox Sports 1. “He’s going to break the record on another team, probably. It’s crazy to think he won’t be in a Bears uniform doing that. It’s frustrating as an ex-Bear and a player to see that happen.”

Especially when you’ve got firsthand experience with the business side of the NFL as Urlacher suffered a similar fate offseason when he and the Bears couldn’t come to agreement on a new deal.

Although Hester turns 32 in November, he led the NFL last season with a career-high 1,436 kick return yards on a league-high 52 tries, and returned five kickoffs for a team-record 249 yards against Minnesota in Week 2 of last season..

With Hester focusing primarily on returns in 2013, it’s likely the team held expectations that he would return to greatness on a more consistent basis.

But in 123 games (46 starts) over eight seasons (2006-13), Hester’s 3,241 punt return yards are eighth most in NFL history and his 12.3 punt return average ranks No. 5. Hester is the club’s all-time leader in total return touchdowns, punt return touchdowns, punt return yards, kickoff return yards (5,504), total kick return yards (8,745) and second in all-purpose yards (11,632).

“Look at what the Steelers have done the last couple days signing Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller, some older guys to a couple more years just so they can retire as Steelers,” Urlacher said. “The Bears could do that with Devin. He should retire a Bear. He set all those records in a Bears uniform and his number 23 should be retired one day in Chicago.

“It’s just the loyalty factor,” he added. “It’s just not there. He should be a guy that retires as a Bear.”

Despite Hester expecting to play for another team in 2014, he would like to retire a Chicago Bear when his playing career comes to a close. In the meantime, Hester would like to reunite with former Bears coach Lovie Smith, who is now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"I look at Lovie as my number one coach right now because he's the one that took a chance on me coming out of the draft," Hester said. "He has all my respect so if he's a guy that is going to shoot at me and want me to come play with him again, my arms are open."

Urlacher believes a potential reunion with Smith would “be a great move” for Hester.

“He had great success from when Lovie was with Chicago,” Urlacher said. “All those returns were when he was his head coach. Anyone leaving Chicago and joining Lovie is a great move. He’s a great head coach and guys know what it’s like playing for him. He has been successful in the league and he’ll be successful down there, as well. I think Tampa would be a great fit for Devin.”

The Bears fired Smith on Dec. 31, 2012, before hiring Marc Trestman as his replacement.
While Chicago's decision to part ways with Devin Hester underscores the sentiment of almost every player out there that the NFL is a tough business, don't feel sorry for him because he's still got plenty of gasp-inducing returns to dazzle you with.

It's just we no longer get the audio gold dug up when Chicago Bears play-by-play man Jeff Joniak calls Hester “ridiculous.”

We no longer have to listen to that ridiculous song “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy)” when Hester lines up to field a punt or kickoff.

[+] EnlargeDevin Hester
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastThe Bears tried to find a place for Devin Hester at wide receiver and defensive back, but it didn't work out.
In the lead-up to free agency, neither general manager Phil Emery nor head coach Marc Trestman ever gave any strong indication the Bears wanted to bring back Hester for a ninth year in Chicago. So the move Wednesday and the corresponding statement of appreciation from the organization on Thursday didn't come as a surprise.

Clearly, Hester isn't the return man he once was. But he's still better than at least 95 percent of his return-specialist peers around the league, which is why some team -- perhaps even Tampa Bay under former Bears coach Lovie Smith -- is sure to snatch up Hester as soon as free agency hits on March 11. In fact, his agent, Eugene Parker, should be waiting by the phone when the negotiation window opens March 8 because he should get plenty of calls looking to add some pop to their return games.

Hester averaged 27.6 yards on kickoff returns last season, and took a punt 81 yards to the house against Washington. In fact, Hester ripped off runs of 20 yards or more on four of his 18 punt returns last season. So clearly, he's still got it. The Bears just didn't want it because of the associated cost paired with the lack of versatility.

A Bears source said on Thursday that Hester is loved and respected within the organization and that “things would be different” for his chances in Chicago if he had a true position on offense or defense. The club tried on numerous occasions over the years to give Hester opportunities to find roles on offense and defense.

Hester was unable to capitalize and counted $2.94 million against the club's cap in 2013, which is too much for a return specialist, regardless of his Hall of Fame résumé.

That shouldn't diminish Hester's legacy, as he's almost a lock to add to it with his next team.

Chalk the situation up to it being one of the harsh realities permeating the business side of the NFL.

Interestingly, Hester's story in Chicago comes almost full circle in a weird way. When the team was in the draft room discussing whether to select Hester in the second round back in 2007, the club's personnel men, like the rest of the league, were hesitant to take a chance on the return man because he wasn't a proven commodity at any set position on offense and defense.

Throughout that process, Smith was open-minded and receptive, which is part of the reason Hester landed in Chicago in the first place.

Perhaps it'll be Smith that gives Hester his next job.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith spoke with local media at the NFL combine on Thursday for the first time since the team fired him, and displayed a sense of humor when grilled about his termination.

“I strongly recommend if you get fired, take the year off like I did and it will help you an awful lot,” Smith jokingly said.

After spending the entire 2013 season out of football, Smith, in January became the head coach at Tampa Bay. Since coming into the new job, Smith said he hasn’t run into any surprises, and credits the experience gained in Chicago, where he served nine years as head coach of the Bears.

[+] EnlargeLovie Smith
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsFormer Bears coach Lovie Smith led Chicago to two NFC title games and a Super Bowl in nine seasons. He became Tampa Bay's head coach in January.
Smith led the Bears to the playoffs three times during his tenure, and the club appeared in two NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl, but failed to reach the postseason in five of his last six years.

“Whenever you’ve had a chance to be somewhere for nine years, the next place should be easier,” Smith said. “There hasn’t really been anything that’s caught me off guard or anything like that. Having the year off helped. [I] had a chance to evaluate everything I believe in, I came to some of the conclusions that I thought.”

Obviously one of those was to remain classy. Smith refused to go into his personal thoughts about being fired in Chicago. Asked if he received a fair shake with the Bears, who fired him on Dec. 31 of 2012 as the club came off a 10-6 season, Smith quickly said, “It’s a Bucs life for me now; my focus is definitely on that.”

“I’ve worked at a lot of different places in the past. If you’d like to talk about Big Sandy [Texas] High School, I used to work there, too,” Smith added. “Great experience there. I’m excited about Tampa and what we’re doing. I’ve had the opportunity to work at a lot of great places. Chicago was one of them.”

With Smith out of football, his former defense in Chicago fell on hard times. Last season, the Bears gave up the most yards (6,313), points (478), and rushing yards (2,583) in franchise history. During Smith’s tenure, Chicago’s defense consistently performed among the league’s best in most statistical categories.

Smith couldn’t point out anything specifically that explained Chicago’s defensive demise in 2013, but the coach expressed confidence in the group bouncing back this upcoming season. The Bears host Smith and the Buccaneers in 2014.

“Every year is a different year. That group of guys have played pretty good defense in the past, and I don’t know exactly what happened this year,” Smith said. “But sometimes you have bad years for whatever reason. I know there are some warriors on that team that I’m sure will come back hard this year.”
Free-agent cornerback Charles Tillman acknowledged recently that he has had "some dialogue" with the Chicago Bears about a new contract, but former Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher believes Tillman could be a casualty of what Urlacher sees as a purging of players from former coach Lovie Smith's tenure.

Tillman
"What I'm thinking is the new guy that came in there, he's just trying to get rid of all of Lovie's players, is the way I feel about it," Urlacher, now an analyst at Fox Sports 1, said during Tuesday's "Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN Radio 1000. "I think there's gonna be other guys around there that are gone as well that have been really good players for that team for a long time. You get older, that's what happens."

Urlacher apparently knows firsthand after he and the team couldn't come to agreement on a new contract last March, shortly after Marc Trestman took over as the club's head coach. The Bears offered Urlacher a one-year deal worth $2 million, but the linebacker submitted a counteroffer of $3.5 million. Eventually, the Bears announced through a press release they would be parting ways with Urlacher.

The difference in this case, however, is that Tillman still appears to be a productive player, while Urlacher was clearly on the downside of his storied career in 2012.

Tillman was a Pro Bowler in 2011 and 2012, but he played in only eight games last season before suffering a torn triceps that forced the Bears to place him on injured reserve on Nov. 11. Tillman picked off three passes in 2013, and he ranks No. 3 in franchise history with 36 picks in 154 games. He forced six turnovers in 2013, taking into account the three fumbles he forced.

"If I'm in the front office, I'm trying to give my team the best chance to win. For me as a front-office guy, he gives my team the best chance to win at left or right corner, wherever he is," Urlacher said. "If I was a GM and I had a chance to sign Charles Tillman before anybody else could sign him, I would love to sign him. Especially if he was with my team for 11 years, I would be happy to keep him on my team with the type of teammate he is and leader. But maybe there are different opinions about that in Chicago. You think about Charles Tillman, you think about a Bear, a guy who pretty much led the Bears through takeaways. When you think about the fumbles and stuff, he's the guy you think about."

Drafted by Chicago in the second round in the 2003 draft, Tillman has played his entire career with the Bears.

Since coming into the league in '03, Tillman ranks in the top 10 in the NFL in interceptions (tied for fifth with 36), interception return yards (fifth with 675 yards), interception return touchdowns (tied for second with eight), forced fumbles (second with 42) and pass breakups (fifth with 133).

Tillman's contract paid $7.5 million in 2013, and given the team's salary-cap constraints, it's unlikely moving forward that he'll receive a similar deal from the Bears.

"I think I'm OK with it," Tillman said in December as the team cleaned out its lockers. "I think it's the first time in my life I've had to make decisions like this. But I don't know. I'm just kind of waiting to see how it plays out. I'm not stressing. I'm not worried about it. Whatever happens is going to happen. Whatever happens is going to be for the good."

One scenario Urlacher could see playing out is a reunion between Tillman and Smith, now the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who also brought aboard former Bears assistant Gill Byrd to coach the secondary.

"That would not shock me one bit," Urlacher said. "Imagine that corner tandem [of Tillman and Darrelle Revis] right there. I would not be surprised if that happened. But I just don't see them letting him get away in Chicago. He's been too good of a player there for too long to let him get away for nothing."

Bucs lucky to land Smith

January, 1, 2014
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Lovie SmithDilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesConsidering Lovie Smith's success and professionalism, it's about time a team gave him another chance.


The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Lovie Smith on Wednesday as their next head coach, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter and Jay Glazer of Fox.

My reaction to the news: About time somebody snatched him up. Smith should've gone into the 2013 NFL season as a head coach. But after a couple of interviews, he emerged as a potential coordinator instead of leader of men, and a coordinator position was something he wasn't interested in accepting. So, good for Smith he waited for a head coaching gig instead of settling for a job as a coordinator.

Ask any of Smith's holdovers on Chicago's roster and they'll tell you Smith is more than deserving of a second chance as a head coach in the NFL.

Smith spent nine seasons as the head coach for the Chicago Bears before being fired at the end of 2012's 10-6 season. During his tenure in Chicago, Smith posted a record of 84-66, in addition to winning three division titles and leading the Bears to an appearance in Super Bowl XLI.

Given what's transpired in Chicago (the demise of the once vaunted defense), several hypothetical scenarios involving Smith have been mentioned. But for one minute, let's forget about those and salute Smith for his latest accomplishment. Having spent five years with the Bucs before leaving to become the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams in 2001, Smith has familiarity with Tampa Bay's organization.

But more than that, Smith paid his dues toiling as an assistant all those years before actually proving himself as a winner and galvanizing force with the Bears.

Smith didn't return calls seeking comment about his latest move, likely because that's just not his style.

Smith is a results-oriented coach, who ultimately understood he didn't get it done in Chicago to the organization's standards and accepted his fate as gracefully as one could. That's why Smith never made salacious headlines, why he never talked about the current state of the Chicago Bears or why he never gave his side about being fired despite putting up a 10-6 record in his final season.

What stands out the most about Smith is how his players reacted to him. During training camp going into the 2012 season, three players in a restaurant one night gave distinctive accounts about what made Smith stand apart. Every one of those players spoke about Smith's calm demeanor, how he never became overly emotional no matter how dire the situation.

But what stuck out is how each of those players never wanted to disappoint Smith. One player talked about making a mistake in a game and getting "the look" from Smith that made him feel as if he disappointed his own father. It was enough to make that player vow to never do it again, and that conversation took place a few years after that player committed the original transgression. That's the type of power Smith carried, and it was one of the most underrated of Smith's attributes in the public eye.

Either way, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers scored big with the hiring of Smith, who served as the franchise's linebackers coach from 1996 to 2000. With Smith in control of Chicago's defense, the Bears surrendered just 1.4 points per drive, which ranked as third-best during his time as the team's head coach.

Perhaps former Tampa Bay head coach Tony Dungy summed it up best on Twitter when he said, "I think they made a very good choice in hiring Lovie Smith. Now I'm excited about watching the Bucs next year!"

Despite being way up here in frozen Chicago, I feel the same way. Bucs ownership will, too, with Smith at the controls.

Year in review: Best and worst of 2013

December, 30, 2013
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Josh McCownBrian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/MCTJosh McCown passed for 348 yards and four touchdowns in leading the Bears to a 45-28 rout of the Cowboys on Dec. 9.
This was a year of transition for the Chicago Bears.

The firing of former head coach Lovie Smith, who led the Bears to three division titles in nine years, signaled a changing of the guard philosophically at Halas Hall. No longer was defense king. New coach Marc Trestman brought with him impressive offensive credentials, and the theme of free agency centered around improving that side of the ball with the signings of left tackle Jermon Bushrod and tight end Martellus Bennett, while the Bears spent their first-round pick (No. 20 overall) on right guard Kyle Long.

These additions, coupled with the 2012 acquisitions of wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, gave quarterback Jay Cutler the best assortment of offensive talent to work with since he arrived in Chicago in 2009 via a trade with the Denver Broncos.

With speculation about Cutler's soon-to-be expired contract swirling from the moment the Bears reported to training camp -- general manager Phil Emery said on the eve of camp that no contracts would be extended during the season -- the quarterback had moments of brilliance in 2013, coupled with stretches of frustration. Cutler missed five games due to injury as veteran backup Josh McCown filled in admirably, raising the idea by many in town that McCown deserves to be the Bears' quarterback of the future.

But for all the progress on offense, the defense fell apart. The unit was barely recognizable from their glory days under Smith. Injuries and overall ineffective play were too much to overcome.

Somehow, the Bears emerged as legitimate playoff contenders late in the year. But with significant changes to the roster expected to take place in the offseason, the Bears figure to have a completely new look when they report to camp in the summer of 2014.

BEST MOMENTS


5. Bears upset Packers at Lambeau: Few believed the banged-up Bears had a shot of knocking off the Packers in Green Bay, but Shea McClellin's sack of Aaron Rodgers on the game's opening drive altered the course of the NFC North race. McClellin's hit on Rodgers resulted in the Pro Bowl quarterback fracturing his collarbone. Rodgers' replacement, Seneca Wallace, proved to be ineffective. McCown passed for 272 yards and two touchdowns while Matt Forte rushed for 125 yards and one score in the Bears' 27-20 victory, the club's first in Green Bay since 2007.

4. Back-to-back comeback wins to kick off season: Cutler's 2013 campaign started off on a high note when the quarterback guided the Bears to consecutive comeback victories to open the regular season. In Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Bears rallied from a 21-10 third-quarter deficit and eventually won the game 24-21 after Cutler hit Marshall for a 19-yard touchdown with 7:58 left on the clock. The next week, Cutler connected with Bennett for the game-winning 16-yard touchdown pass with just 10 seconds remaining to push the Bears past the Minnesota Vikings 31-30.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesAlshon Jeffery emerged as a record-breaking star in his second season, teaming with Brandon Marshall to form the most productive receiver duo in the NFL this season.
3. Bears tab Trestman to replace Lovie: The Bears ushered in a new era of offense when Emery, following an exhaustive search, hired Trestman on Jan. 16. While Trestman seemed like an unusual choice given he spent the previous five years as the head coach of the CFL's Montreal Alouettes, the veteran coach instantly transformed the Bears' offense into one of the better units in the NFL. Even with Cutler injured for much of the season, the Bears consistently ranked in the top 10 in points scored, total offense and passing offense.

2. Jeffery rewrites record book: In just his second NFL season, Jeffery set a Bears' franchise record for single-game receiving yards with 218 in a Week 5 loss to the New Orleans Saints. But Jeffery wasn't done. He later broke his own record when he hauled in 12 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns on Dec. 1 in Minnesota. Jeffery is the first Bears player to record a pair of 200-yard receiving games in the same season.

1. McCown torches Dallas on Ditka night: The Bears rolled out the red carpet to celebrate Ditka's career as both a Hall of Fame player and Super Bowl-winning head coach. Ditka delivered a heartfelt halftime speech at midfield to energize the home crowd, but it was McCown who sent the Soldier Field fans into a frenzy. McCown completed 27-of-36 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns for a quarterback rating of 141.9. He also ran for a score. McCown took home the NFC Offensive Player of the Week award for the performance, but returned to the bench the following week.

WORST MOMENTS


5. Rams run wild: The Bears' run defense could best be described as miserable for most of the season, but allowing the Rams to rush for 258 yards on 29 attempts on Nov. 24 qualified as rock bottom. St. Louis exposed the Bears in a 42-21 win that featured Tavon Austin scorching the defense for a 65-yard touchdown run on the Rams' third play from scrimmage. St. Louis scored touchdowns on their first three possessions and led the Bears 21-7 at the end of the first quarter. The Bears' confusion level reached an all-time high that afternoon in the Edward Jones Dome.

4. Injury bug repeatedly bites Bears: The Bears' rash of injuries deserves special mention. The list of key players to miss at least three games due to injury in 2013 includes: Cutler, Charles Tillman (injured reserve), Lance Briggs, Henry Melton (injured reserve), Stephen Paea, Nate Collins (injured reserve), Kelvin Hayden (injured reserve) and D.J. Williams (injured reserve). The most damaging injury was to Briggs. The Bears' defense ranked near the bottom in most categories, but would have benefitted from the seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker's presence during the rocky times in the middle of the season.

3. Meltdown in Metrodome: The Bears let a 20-10 fourth-quarter lead slip away and failed to capitalize on countless chances to finish off the Vikings in a 23-20 overtime loss on Dec. 1. The game will be remembered for Trestman's decision to have Robbie Gould attempt a game-winning 47-yard field goal on second down, instead of allowing the offense to remain on the field and run another play to potentially shorten the distance of Gould's kick. Gould's attempt sailed wide right and the Bears never recovered. Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson rushed for 211 yards and the Vikings racked up 496 yards of total offense.

2. Bears obliterated in Philly: The Bears had every motivation possible to defeat the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 16. With a victory, the Bears would have clinched the NFC North title after both Green Bay and Detroit lost earlier in the day. Instead, the Bears acted as if they were playing a preseason game. The Eagles demolished the Bears, scoring 54 points and racking up over 500 yards of total offense. The Bears said after the game they planned to burn the tape and move on to the regular-season finale against the Packers. That's a wise decision. Not even the most diehard Bears fan could stomach watching that game for a second time. That disaster easily ranks as one of the worst Bears' losses in the past 15 years.

1. Fourth-down fizzle: Needing a stop on fourth down with 46 seconds left to win the NFC North in the season finale on Sunday, the Bears defense suffered one final breakdown. After converting twice on fourth down earlier in the drive, the Packers took advantage of what appeared to be busted coverage by the Bears when Aaron Rodgers found a wide open Randall Cobb for a 48-yard touchdown pass for a 33-28 lead and the NFC North crown.

Mailbag: Tillman's future a big question

December, 20, 2013
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Here is this week's mailbag:

1. Huge Bears fan! We are upset that Charles Tillman is out for the year. Please tell me the Bears are bringing Peanut back next year. I have the Peanut Punch t-shirt and everything! -- Maria C., Mundelein, Ill.

Dickerson: Maria, I’ve responded to several Tillman questions this year in the mailbag. I refuse to budge on my belief that Tillman is the greatest defensive back in Bears history. Since entering the league in 2003, Tillman is tied for fifth in the NFL in interceptions (36), tied for second in interception returns (8), second in forced fumbles (42) and fifth in passes defended (133). But I can definitely envision Tillman leaving the organization in the offseason. We’ve covered much of this before; Tillman is earning slightly over $8 million in 2013. What does he expect to make in a new deal? Are the Bears willing to pay that? What will the market be for Tillman in free agency?

As for my personal opinion: I’m pessimistic that Tillman will return. I predict he gets a better deal someplace else. It’s a real shame that Tillman is not returning for the playoffs, if the Bears make it that far. He deserved a better send off, if in fact, this is the end. But heading into free agency health is important for any free agent, especially a cornerback who turns 33 years old in February. I don’t blame Tillman for seeking a second opinion on his torn triceps and the course of action that subsequently followed.

2. JD, I know you’re a Lovie Smith supporter; does Lovie get an NFL head coaching job next year? Lovie doesn’t know offense; therefore he would never get a job in my book. What do you think is going to happen? Regards. Peter, Lake Bluff, Ill.

Dickerson: Not sure I’ve ever been labeled a “Lovie Smith supporter,” Peter, but I do respect Smith’s body of work in Chicago. In nine seasons, Smith had an overall record of 84-66, won three NFC North titles and led the Bears to Super Bowl XLI. He is the third winningest coach in Bears history behind only Hall of Famers George Halas and Mike Ditka. Smith has faults, we all do, but he deserves another shot to coach an NFL team. Remember, the Bears finished 10-6 in his final year, so it’s not like Smith left the organization in shambles. Smith has reportedly already interviewed for the Houston Texans’ vacancy, and I would expect Smith to receive strong looks in Tampa Bay, Detroit and Dallas if those jobs open up. I’m not close enough to Smith to know who he plans to pitch as his offensive coordinator when he interviews with these teams, but if Smith can convince ownership that he is capable of making the correct hire on the offensive side of the ball; I believe it’s a no-brainer that he is patrolling an NFL sideline in 2014.

3. Are any of Marc Trestman’s assistant coaches in line for promotions either at Halas Hall or around the league? Keep up the good work. Bunch of my friends are traveling to Philadelphia. Any tips? -- Dev, Chicago

Dickerson: Dev, I hesitate to offer up tips on Philadelphia because I’ve only traveled to the city three times. I did enjoy a Philly Cheesesteak sandwich at the Redding Terminal two years ago, so I might try and hit that spot Sunday around lunchtime. Philadelphia sports fans are intense. So keep your wits about you Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.

As for this group of Bears assistant coaches: I read Peter King’s report that the NFL is pushing minority candidates, including Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, for head coaching jobs. I predict that Tucker will one day be either an NFL or high-level collegiate head coach. However, Tucker is likely a tough sell this year because the Bears rank No. 27 in total defense, No. 28 in points allowed and No. 32 in rushing defense. But let’s see how Tucker fares next year with a revamped defense. His stock could be on the rise in 2014.

Quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh stands out to me for the work he has done with Jay Cutler and Josh McCown. But Cavanaugh can’t move in the Bears organization because Aaron Kromer, another assistant who deserves praise, has the title of offensive coordinator, and Joe DeCamillis is the assistant head coach/special-teams coordinator. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if teams ask permission to speak with Cavanaugh in regards to offensive coordinator positions in the offseason. It’s a job Cavanaugh has held before in the NFL, including during his first stint with the Bears from 1997-98.

Defensive backs coach Jon Hoke was rumored to be in the running for the Bears’ defensive coordinator post last offseason before Tucker was hired. Hoke is a solid coach. He’s been in the league since 2002 and also spent time in the collegiate ranks as the Florida Gators defensive coordinator.

Obviously, I can’t predict the future, but there are coaches on this staff who could be attractive to other teams in the future.

4. Jeff, is there an unsung hero on the Bears roster that nobody is talking much about? I spent time searching for the under-the-radar guys. I know, I need to get a life! Help me! -- Clark S., Atlanta

Dickerson: Bears kicker Robbie Gould this week on our radio show (shameless plug) described punter Adam Podlesh as one of those under-the-radar types. Podlesh was under pressure to keep his job after an uncharacteristically rough performance versus the Detroit Lions on Sep. 29. But Podlesh recovered and is close to his career averages in yards per kick (41.4), net average (38.5) and kicks dropped inside the 20 (24).

Other candidates include: wide receiver Earl Bennett, safety Craig Steltz, defensive lineman Corey Wootton and left guard Matt Slauson.

5. Jeff, talk me off the ledge. I’m down on Martellus Bennett. I thought the Bears were going get a lot more bang for their buck. Has Bennett been worth the money? Happy Holidays to you and your family. -- Steven H., Orland Park, Ill.

Dickerson: Thank you, Steven, for the holiday wishes. The same to you and your family. Bennett has 59 receptions for 659 yards and five touchdowns through 14 games. Let’s compare those numbers to Kellen Davis’ production for the entire 2012 season: 19 catches for 229 yards, two touchdowns and countless drops. Bennett signed a four-year deal worth $20.4 million with $9.215 million in guarantees. He will earn $5.315 million in 2013. I realize Bennett fumbled last week in Cleveland, but for the majority of the season, he has been a sure-handed weapon in the passing game and a sturdy blocker. Tight end became a black hole for the Bears after they traded Greg Olsen to the Carolina Panthers in 2011 and released Desmond Clark. Bennett is the first legitimate threat at the position since Olsen and Clark left town. I doubt the Bears are experiencing buyer’s remorse.

Double Coverage: Bears at Packers

November, 1, 2013
11/01/13
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On the day former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith got the job, he said that one of his priorities was to beat the Green Bay Packers.

First-year Bears coach Marc Trestman made no such promises about this rivalry, but it goes without saying that he's eager to end Chicago's six-game losing streak to the Packers.

The last time Chicago beat Green Bay was on Sept. 27, 2010, on "Monday Night Football." The teams meet again in prime time Monday night at Lambeau Field.

ESPN.com's Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Bears reporter Michael C. Wright break down the matchup.

Rob Demovsky: We all know how much Smith wanted to beat the Packers. He stated as much the day he got the head coaching job. What has Trestman's approach to this rivalry been like?

Wright: Rob, my man, you know that rivalries have to cut both ways in terms of wins and losses for it to be truly considered a rivalry. Counting the postseason, the Bears have lost six in a row and nine of the last 11. So, if anything, this is more Green Bay dominance than a rivalry. But the interesting thing about Trestman is he's a guy who likes to compartmentalize everything. He looks at today rather than the past or the future. So while it sounds cliché, Trestman is looking at the Packers as just another opponent on the schedule. That's just the way Trestman likes to operate, and I think for him it sort of makes things easier.

I keep looking at Green Bay's sack numbers, and I'm a little surprised the club is still in the top 10 in sacks with Clay Matthews out the last three games and other key members of the defense missing time. What is Dom Capers doing over there schematically to keep up the production?

Demovsky: I figured when Matthews broke his thumb, Capers would have to blitz like crazy. Now, he's picked his spots, but he hasn't gone blitz-happy like I thought he might. However, he has been sending different pass-rushers to keep offenses off guard. One game, against the Baltimore Ravens, linebacker A.J. Hawk came a bunch and sacked Joe Flacco three times. Also, they've finally found a defensive lineman with some rush ability in second-year pro Mike Daniels. Three of his team-leading four sacks have come in the past two games.

As long as we're on the topic of quarterbacks, in 2011, backup Josh McCown played a halfway decent game against the Packers on Christmas at Lambeau Field, but he threw a couple of interceptions. What do you expect from him this time around as he starts in place of the injured Jay Cutler?

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall
Rob Grabowski/USA TODAY SportsThe Packers have limited Brandon Marshall to 8 catches for 80 yards in their past two meetings.
Wright: Believe it or not, I expect little to no drop-off from McCown in this game. The biggest difference between now and then is that in 2011, McCown joined the team in November, fresh from a stint as a high school football coach in North Carolina, and four weeks later became the starter. So he basically came in cold and still played relatively well. This time around, McCown has become immersed in the offense from the ground level, when Trestman first came on board, and even had some input as the team constructed the scheme. In fact, during the offseason, McCown was holding film sessions with all the club's new additions to teach everyone the new offense. So he's got complete mastery of the offense just like Cutler, which is why McCown came in against the Redskins and the offense didn't miss a beat. Obviously, McCown doesn't possess Cutler's arm strength. But he'll make up for that deficiency with anticipation. I'm quite sure the Bears won't scale down the offense to accommodate McCown at all, because they don't need to. So I expect McCown to play well. I'm just not sure Chicago's offense can keep up with Green Bay's in what I expect to be a high-scoring game.

Speaking of high scoring, the Packers put up 44 points on the Minnesota Vikings. How is Green Bay handling the preparation process for the Bears?

Demovsky: Well, they certainly don't have as much time as the Bears do, considering the Bears are coming off their bye week. But the Packers have gotten themselves into a rhythm. They've won four in a row after their 1-2 start and look like a different team than they did the first three weeks of the season. Mike McCarthy probably doesn't get enough credit nationally, but show me another coach who has stared injuries in the face and hasn't blinked. What other team could lose playmakers like Randall Cobb, James Jones, Jermichael Finley and Matthews and still keep winning? That's a testament to the program he has established here. You can argue with some of his in-game coaching decisions, but you can do that with every coach. What you can't question, though, is the team's preparation.

The Bears, obviously, have had their share of injuries, too, losing Cutler and linebacker Lance Briggs. What's a bigger loss -- Cutler to the offense or Briggs to the defense?

Wright: Well, Cutler's replacement is a veteran in McCown who has plenty of experience and a ton of weapons surrounding him on offense, while rookie Khaseem Greene will likely fill in for Briggs on a bad defense that will also feature rookie Jon Bostic in the middle. From my vantage point, losing Briggs is much more significant. The Bears have already proved to be horrible against the run (ranked 25th), and that issue certainly won't improve with two rookies at linebacker and a defensive line decimated by injury. It's also worth noting that Briggs made all the defensive calls and served as somewhat of a coach on the field for Bostic. Given that Green Bay seems to be running the ball so well, the current situation with Chicago's front seven could be devastating.

Now that the Packers are running the ball so well, how has that changed the way the offense is called? It seems Green Bay runs well regardless of which running back they line up in the backfield.

Demovsky: It's remarkable -- and even a bit stunning -- to see Aaron Rodgers check out of a pass play and in to a run play at the line of scrimmage. That kind of thing hasn't happened around here in a long, long time -- probably not since Ahman Green was piling up 1,000-yard seasons nearly a decade ago. Teams no longer can sit back in a Cover-2 look and dare the Packers to run. Because guess what? The Packers can finally do it. It also has given the receivers more one-on-one opportunities, so it's helped the passing game, too. Right now, this offense almost looks unstoppable.

If the Packers keep playing like this, they might be tough to catch in the NFC North. What are the Bears' prospects for staying in the NFC North race until Cutler and Briggs return?

Wright: To me, this game is the measuring stick for making that determination. But I'm not really confident about Chicago's chances, and that has more to do with the team's struggling defense than Cutler's absence. There have been conflicting statements made about Cutler's recovery time frame. Some teammates think he'll be ready to return by the time the Bears face Detroit on Nov. 4, while Trestman said the plan is to stick to the minimum four-week time frame prescribed by the doctors. Either way, if the Bears lose to the Lions you can kiss their prospects for the playoffs goodbye. The Bears might be able to afford a loss to the Packers because they'll face them again on Dec. 29. But a sweep by the Lions kills Chicago's chances to me because just from what we've seen so far, it appears one of the wild cards will come out of the NFC North with the other coming from the NFC West. Obviously it's too early to predict that, but that's the way things seem to be shaking out.

Without two of his top receivers and tight end Finley, Rogers still hit 83 percent of his passes against the Vikings. Is that success a product of the system, a bad Minnesota defense, or is Rodgers just that good at this point?

Demovsky: The more I see other quarterbacks play, the more I'm convinced it's Rodgers. For example, seldom-used receiver Jarrett Boykin makes his first NFL start two weeks ago against the Cleveland Browns, and he ends up with eight catches for 103 yards and a touchdown. How many catches do you think he would have had if he were playing for the Browns that day? Their quarterback, Brandon Weeden, completed only 17-of-42 passes. That's not to minimize what Boykin did or what players like Jordy Nelson do week in and week out, but Rodgers is special, and special players elevate the play of those around them. Look at what Greg Jennings has done since he left for the Vikings. Now tell me the quarterback doesn't make the receiver, not vice versa.

Speaking of receivers, other than Anquan Boldin, who lit up the Packers in the opener at San Francisco, they've done a solid job shutting down other team's No. 1 receivers -- most recently Jennings and Cincinnati's A.J. Green. How do you think the Bears will try to get Brandon Marshall involved against what has been a pretty good Packers secondary?

Wright: This question brings me back to the 2012 massacre at Lambeau Field on Sept. 13. The Packers bracketed Marshall with two-man coverage, and the Bears struggled tremendously. Shoot, cornerback Tramon Williams caught as many of Cutler's passes as Marshall, who finished the game with two grabs for 24 yards. Obviously, this offensive coaching staff is a lot different than last year's group. So the Bears will go into this game with a lot more answers for that coverage. I definitely see McCown leaning on Marshall and trying to get him involved as early as possible, but the only way he'll be able to do that is for the Bears to establish the rushing attack with Matt Forte so the quarterback can operate off play action. When the Bears go to Marshall early, expect to see a lot of short passes that will enable the receiver to gain some yardage after the catch.

Over the years, Green Bay has been pretty successful at limiting the impact of return man Devin Hester. So I was a little shocked to see the Packers give up a kickoff return for a touchdown to Cordarrelle Patterson. As you probably know, Hester is coming off a pretty strong return game against the Redskins. Do you think the Packers fix the problems they encountered last week, and minimize Hester's impact?

Demovsky: Part of the Packers' problem on special teams has been that all the injuries have created a trickle-down effect. Here's what I mean: On the kickoff coverage until they gave up the 109-yard return to Patterson, they lined up six rookies, two of whom weren't even on the opening day roster. The Packers always have feared Hester, as they should, and in various games in recent years have shown they'd almost rather kick the ball out of bounds than give him any return opportunities. He's one of those special players who make rivalry games so entertaining.

Let’s start our Bears Essentials with what I thought was a fantastic long-form piece on former coach Lovie Smith, whom MMQB writer Andrew Lawrence calls “a man who loves football more than he lets on.”

Lawrence’s story captures Smith in a way I thought fans locally didn’t get the chance to see enough of while he coached the Bears. A very guarded man, Smith never gave the media a real glimpse into what he is outside of the confines of the sideline, practice field and news conferences. But on the rare occasions he opened up to me from his office at Halas Hall, I quickly learned he was way smarter, much more thoughtful and articulate -- not to mention fun-loving and humorous -- than the canned responses he gave during interviews. Way more passionate about the game, the organization, his players and people in general, than the emotionless face you saw many Sundays on your TV screen.

Those rare moments always made me understand exactly why Smith’s players would run through a brick wall for him on game days. I’d tell him he should let people see more of the real Lovie. Then he’d laugh and go on to the next subject. His interest wasn’t in pleasing the media. It was about his family, the organization and the players. I always respected that.

“I loved my time here,” Smith told MMQB. “I cannot wait for this next opportunity. Chicago was just a learning experience. I’m so much more of a good football coach now than I was back then.”

Whether Smith actually is won’t ever be determined until an organization finally gives him another shot. But he’s certainly deserving of one, and from what Lawrence writes, preparing intensely for it, too.

-- ESPNChicago.com’s Melissa Isaacson has a nice feature on Bears middle linebacker Jonathan Bostic, who has learned from his father, John, a former Detroit Lions defensive back, to make the most of his chances in the NFL. Interestingly, both of Bostic’s parents have doctoral degrees. So diagnosing plays from the middle of Chicago’s defense on Sunday shouldn’t be too difficult for him, right?

-- Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times suggests that maybe Shea McClellin is in need of a confidence-boosting game. The Bears have started utilizing McClellin as a pass-rusher in some of the spinner packages they’ve been practicing since the offseason. The package originally didn’t feature McClellin in that role, but injuries along the defensive line have forced the staff to be more creative.

-- ESPNChicago.com’s Jeff Dickerson takes readers’ questions in his weekly mailbag.

Mailbag: Adding up Jay Cutler's stats

October, 17, 2013
10/17/13
12:57
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Here is this week's installment of the Bears mailbag:

1. Can you find out exactly where Jay Cutler’s statistics rank in franchise history? Thank you for taking the time to answer my question. -- Albert, Bourbonnais, Ill.

Dickerson: Albert, Cutler is the Bears’ all-time leader in passer rating (83.4), completions (1,177), attempts (1,952) and passing yards per game (224.5). He ranks second in franchise history in completion percentage (60.3), yards (13,922) and touchdowns (94). He is also tied for first with nine 300-yard passing games. Cutler will hold all of the Bears’ passing records if he signs a contract extension in the offseason, or even if he just receives the franchise tag in 2014.




2. When are you going to recognize that Matt Forte is overrated? He doesn’t have a single 100-yard rushing game this year. What a waste of money! – Peter, Topeka, Kan.

Dickerson: Factually speaking, Forte hasn’t topped 100 yards rushing in a single game this year, although he’s been over 87 yards rushing on three separate occasions in the first six weeks. But Forte’s real value stems from his versatility. Forte currently is tied for first in the NFL among running backs with 33 receptions. He is fourth in the league with 686 yards from scrimmage, and is the seventh-leading rusher in the league with 442 yards. If my memory serves me correctly, Forte has compiled 1,400 yards from scrimmage in each of his first five NFL seasons, and is on pace for 1,829 yards from scrimmage in 2013. We can argue about how much a running back should be paid based on the shelf life of the position, but I think Forte more than pulls his weight in the Bears offense.




3. Jeff, what are the weights of Shea McClellin and David Bass? I thought that McClellin was supposed to have picked up some muscle, he looked like a strong safety to me in the game against the Saints. Bass looked quick off the ball and showed good rush skills in his short stint in the game. – Craig, Visalia, Calif.

Dickerson: McClellin did gain weight in the offseason, but he lost it. The Bears list McClellin at 260 pounds, but that doesn’t mean he actually weighs 260 pounds. Regardless of McClellin’s actual weight, he doesn’t seem to be built to be a full-time defensive end in the Bears’ 4-3 defense. But there aren’t many other options. Bass is even lighter than McClellin. He is listed at 6-foot-4, 256 pounds. Bass had two tackles versus the Giants and seems to have potential. But it’s impossible to judge a player after only two games.




4. What is considered a successful season in the NFL? I ask this because Lovie Smith got fired, despite winning 10 games and having one of the best defenses in the league. – Kenny Hale, Nashville, Tenn.
Smith


Dickerson: Kenny, Lovie Smith was fired for two reasons. First, he failed to guide the Bears to the playoffs in five of his final six years. That’s an eternity in the NFL. Second, Smith was never able to put the right coaching staff together on offense. Smith went through three different offensive coordinators since 2009 --Ron Turner, Mike Martz and Mike Tice. That lack of continuity hurt the entire team, especially Cutler, who wasn’t exactly a joy to work with over the last four years. So, if a head coach makes the playoffs, he’s safe. If he misses the playoffs multiple times, he better have a firm grasp on the offense, because that is where the league is trending toward.




5. I feel pretty bad for D.J Williams. He looked like he was going to turn his career around in Chicago and get back to form when he was a playmaker on defense in Denver. I know it's still early in the season and we have yet to see how Jonathon Bostic will perform, but what does this mean for Williams' future in Chicago? -- Hubert, Champaign, Ill.

Dickerson: That’s a great question, Hubert. Williams seemed to be in a groove before he suffered the pectoral injury last Thursday night. But injuries are part of the game. The problem for Williams is that he signed only a one-year deal with the Bears, meaning he’ll be a free agent next offseason coming off an injury. At 30 years old, Williams will likely have to sign another one-year contract for around the league minimum. If Bostic turns out to be a good player, do the Bears need Williams on the roster next year? And wouldn’t Williams rather go someplace where he can compete for a starting job? Now, I hesitate to close the door entirely on Williams because I know the Bears were very pleased with his play before he got hurt. But with Bostic and Khaseem Greene being groomed to be future starting linebackers, there might not be a spot for Williams in 2014, unless James Anderson leaves via free agency or the Bears don’t feel comfortable long-term with Bostic and Greene, which seems a tad unlikely.

Urlacher: Smith should be head coach again

September, 3, 2013
9/03/13
4:48
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Former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher “would be shocked” if former head coach Lovie Smith isn’t leading a new team in 2014.

Smith
Urlacher ate lunch with Smith a couple of weeks ago, and told the “Waddle & Silvy Show” on ESPN 1000 that the coach isn’t as far removed from the game as some might think.

Fired in January with a year left on his contract after the Bears finished with a 10-6 record and missed the playoffs, Smith is still being paid by the organization.

“He’s not away from the game,” said Urlacher, now an analyst with Fox. “He’s still doing some stuff. He’s still preparing like he always has been. He’s watching film. He’s watching all the games just to try and stay (up) with what’s going on in the NFL, and trying to keep one leg up on those offenses with all the way they’re changing and stuff."

Why? Because Smith is expecting to make a return to the sidelines as a head coach at some point. During the offseason, a source told ESPN.com that Smith wasn’t interested in taking any jobs as a coordinator. But with the inevitable coaching vacancies that typically come up during the offseason, Smith could be looking to be a head coach again.

Urlacher thinks Smith should be the favorite for whatever openings arise.

“I would be shocked because he’s too good of a head coach to not be coaching a football team,” Urlacher said. “There’s always vacancies. Every year, people get fired. If he’s not at the top of the list, I’d be very surprised.”
Brandon Marshall and his agent, Kennard McGuire, summed up my suspicions about the receiver’s recent revelations of frustration with his recovery process and the indication the organization might be rushing him back from offseason hip surgery before he’s fully ready.

Marshall
“Brandon is accustomed to executing and playing at a high level, and being the perfectionist that he is, his expectations of himself are very high,” McGuire told ESPN. “Anything less than elite is unacceptable to him.”

A day after Marshall expressed concern that he “may be [being] rushed a little bit, and some people might think I need to be farther on than where I am,” the receiver missed practice to attend to a personal matter, which according to a source was an examination on the hip that was scheduled in January just after the surgery was performed.

Marshall explained the situation Wednesday to ESPN.com as “just that eight years in the NFL coming off these surgeries, and it’s been frustrating trying to get back to 100 percent,” adding “I woke up a couple days really sore when camp first started. I’m really much better now, but it’s not where you want to be at this time, which has been a little frustrating. From an ability standpoint, I’m right where I need to be. I’m not at midseason form, but that’s OK.”

But really for Marshall, it isn’t.

As one of the game’s elite players, Marshall wants to replicate his record-setting production of 2012 (118 catches for 1,508 yards) in 2013 or surpass it. At this point, his body isn’t in the right place physically for him to do that. A lack of conditioning from all the days off given by the coaching staff is a part of it. The truth of the matter, however, is that Marshall probably wants even more time off for his hip to sufficiently heal.

New Bears coach Marc Trestman isn’t like former coach Lovie Smith, who routinely gave veteran players days off to keep their bodies fresh. Trestman wants all his players constantly working. But such an approach might not be conducive to Marshall’s healing process. Remember, he's coming off his third hip surgery.

Although Marshall looked perfectly fine throughout training camp and in preseason games, he often said how he felt physically belied the appearance on the field. At the time, it seemed Marshall might have been overexaggerating, but it’s apparent now that he wasn’t.

Does Marshall feel better than he did at the start of camp? Yes. Is this a major issue that will keep him out of the regular-season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals? Absolutely not.

That’s why quarterback Jay Cutler brushed off any suggestion of that by saying Marshall will “snap out of it, and he’ll be the guy we need next week. He knows where he needs to be.” Which for Marshall is as the elite receiver he’s been for the majority of his NFL career.

Since 2006, Marshall ranks No. 4 in the NFL in receptions (612) and is one of just two receivers to catch 80 balls or more in each of the past six seasons. You don’t put up those numbers unless you’re elite.

Right now, because of the hip, Marshall doesn’t feel that way, but he told ESPN.com, “My hip’s gonna be great," because eventually, he'll get there.

“As far as him not being there [at practice Wednesday], this has been planned with the Bears and Brandon long before yesterday,” McGuire said. “Any other suggestion, thought or implication are all unfair to Brandon and the Bears organization.”

Camp Confidential: Chicago Bears

August, 3, 2013
8/03/13
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BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- One year after taking over for Jerry Angelo as general manager of the Chicago Bears, Phil Emery put his stamp on the organization by firing longtime head coach Lovie Smith, despite a 10-6 finish to the 2012 regular season -- the fourth time in nine seasons that Smith reached the 10-win plateau.

Emery took a rather unconventional route when hiring a new head coach, bypassing 2012 NFL coach of the year Bruce Arians in favor of Marc Trestman, who spent the previous five seasons enjoying success as the head coach of the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes. But Trestman is no stranger to NFL circles, having spent the bulk of his career coaching quarterbacks and calling plays for the likes of the Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins.

While Smith’s strength was defense, Trestman’s strong suit is the offensive side of the ball, where the Bears typically struggled under the former regime. The most noticeable change in training camp has been the emphasis placed on reinventing the offense, while the defensive scheme has undergone little change under new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.

Trestman’s greatest challenge: maximizing the talent of quarterback Jay Cutler before it’s too late. Cutler’s four seasons in Chicago can be best described as inconsistent -- with the quarterback, coaching staff and substandard personnel all sharing the blame for the team’s mediocre offensive output.

However, in the final year of his contract, Cutler is now surrounded by the most offensive talent during his tenure with the team, and by a head coach determined to make it work.

"I think on every level I’ve enjoyed the process with Jay, the interaction in our meetings, the level of content in our football discussions and his assimilation of the system based on the fact that he’s been in so many of them over the last four or five years," Trestman said. "Jay’s been all-in."

If that trend continues, the Bears have a legitimate chance to compete in the NFC North and earn just their second playoff berth in seven years. If not, the Bears would be expected to rebuild the roster heading into 2014.

HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJay Cutler has to hurry up and learn new coach Marc Trestman's offense in more ways than one.
1. Cutler’s grasp of the offense: This marks the fifth different offense for Cutler in the last six years, dating back to his time in Denver under Mike Shanahan. After installing the offense approximately three times over the course of the offseason program and the first week of camp, the quarterback said he is still in the process of mastering Trestman’s West Coast system.

"It’s been going well," Cutler said. "There have been ups and downs. That’s any training camp. Guys are learning the offense and we’re moving along. Just the verbiage is the most difficult aspect. Any time you go to a new offense guys are going to be in similar positions on the field. It’s just learning the verbiage and being able to spit it out."

Trestman is constantly pressuring Cutler and the offense to get plays off in 16 seconds or less. This "controlled chaos" is a stark departure from the Smith era, when there wasn’t such an emphasis placed on running plays in such a timely fashion.

"Practice has been chaotic, and that’s the way coach Trestman wants it," center Roberto Garza said. "He wants it upbeat. He wants it competitive and as close to real game speed as possible so you do get those reactions to come out faster. He’s doing it so there’s not a big difference between practice and the game ... that’s his big emphasis."

2. Finding a complement to Brandon Marshall: Marshall joked before the start of camp that his offseason hip surgery was a result of the amount of times he was targeted by Cutler last season. Maybe he was telling the truth. Marshall was targeted a team-high 194 times in 2012. The next highest targets by a wide receiver? Earl Bennett with 49.

The Bears tried to address the problem in free agency by signing tight end Martellus Bennett to a four-year deal. Bennett had 55 receptions last season for the New York Giants, and should be a major upgrade over former Bears tight end Kellen Davis, who had a difficult time catching the football.

"I am [looking forward to having more weapons]," Marshall told ESPNChicago.com. "It was tough sledding last year. I think that's why I had to have the surgery. I had two or three guys on me every single play, but bringing in big boy Martellus, I don't think the league really knows how good he is. I didn't know, and that was one of my great friends in the league. So I'm excited to see him; he's going to be awesome this year for us."

Alshon Jeffery, a second-round draft choice in 2012, is also being counted on to take pressure off Marshall. After hand and hip injuries forced Jeffery to miss six games during his rookie season, the former South Carolina All-American is playing with a sense of purpose in camp, and has clearly established himself as the No. 2 wide receiver on the roster, with Bennett doing his work primarily in the slot.

3. The leadership void left by Brian Urlacher: Although Urlacher’s performance on the field last season may have suffered, his leadership and influence in the Bears’ locker room was as strong as ever. The future Hall of Famer is now retired, having been replaced in the middle of the Bears’ defense by veteran D.J. Williams and rookie second-rounder Jon Bostic.

Urlacher’s close friend Lance Briggs has assumed the role of calling the defensive plays from his weakside linebacker spot, a duty Urlacher handled with ease in Chicago for over a decade.

If Briggs' comments during the first week of camp are any indication, Urlacher might be gone, but he isn’t forgotten.

"It’s tough [without Urlacher]," Briggs said. "But we’re all grown men. We have to move on."

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Four Pro Bowlers (cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, defensive end Julius Peppers and defensive tackle Henry Melton) return to a defense that scored nine touchdowns and generated 44 takeaways last season. If the core veteran group -- which includes seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Briggs -- manages to stay healthy, there is no reason the Bears cannot once again boast one of the top defenses in the league, even with the departure of Smith and respected defensive coordinator/defensive-line guru Rod Marinelli.

On offense, the Bears can’t get much worse than they were in 2012 under former offensive coordinator Mike Tice. Trestman is their first offensive-minded head coach since Mike Ditka, and while it’s fair to question how he’ll handle the nuances of running an NFL team, his credentials on offense are legit. With the offseason upgrades made at tight end and on the offensive line, the Bears should have enough talent for Trestman to successfully implement his offense. And if Cutler continues to buy in and respect the new head coach, the Bears should, at the very least, be respectable on offense and not have to lean so heavily on their defense.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Emery fired a head coach coming off a 10-6 season with 84 career wins -- the third-highest total in franchise history -- three division titles and a Super Bowl appearance. Why?

Most veterans are saying all the right things publicly about Trestman and the new regime, but the writing seems to be on the wall. Unless the Bears have a successful season, there figures to be a massive roster turnover heading into 2014, especially since 43 players on the training camp roster have contracts set to expire after the season.

Emery made it clear he does not anticipate awarding contract extensions until after the season, citing salary-cap concerns. But players don’t care about the salary cap; that’s a management issue. So if the Bears get off to a bad start, will the team rally for Trestman like it did so many times for Smith over the years?

With a difficult schedule that opens with home games against 2012 playoff teams Cincinnati and Minnesota, followed by a trip to Pittsburgh, the fear is that players will be looking to jump ship if the waters get rough. That never happened under Smith. But this is the calculated risk Emery took by firing a popular head coach and failing to extend contracts in the offseason.

OBSERVATION DECK

[+] EnlargeKyle Long
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsDespite missing the team's offseason program, Kyle Long, the Bears' top pick in the 2013 draft, is on track to open the season as the starting right guard.
" The fact that guard Kyle Long made just five career starts at Oregon didn’t deter the Bears from selecting him No. 20 overall in April’s NFL draft. Long is raw and is bound to make his share of rookie mistakes, but his strength is undeniable. From a physical standpoint, Long can hang in there against experienced defenders. But it’s the mental aspect of his game that needs work after he was forced to miss the Bears’ entire offseason program due to NCAA rules. Despite Long’s steep learning curve, he is on track to open the regular season as the Bears’ starting right guard.

" The loss of Williams for at least a week due to a right calf injury gives Bostic an opportunity to work extensively with the first unit at middle linebacker. But not being responsible for calling the defensive signals, a task held by Briggs, is an adjustment for Bostic and has led him to commit a handful of mental errors. "I kind of feel like when you’re talking loud and calling the plays it kind of helps you in what you are doing," Bostic said. "At the same time, we have this thing called loud and wrong. If you’re talking loud everyone can hear you. But if you’re wrong, everyone can hear you and tell you you’re wrong." Bostic has been in charge of calling signals for the No. 2 defense since OTAs kicked off in May.

" The Bears already boast two Pro Bowlers on their defensive line in Peppers and Melton, but two other projected starters are turning in some of the best efforts so far in camp: defensive end Corey Wootton and defensive tackle Stephen Paea. Wootton sacked the quarterback seven times last season, and entering the final year of his contract he could be in line for a sizeable bump in salary if he recovers from a hip injury suffered in practice last Thursday. Paea is the heaviest he’s ever been (295 pounds) and the fastest since the Bears moved up in the second round to take him in 2011. “I’m doing something right,” Paea said.

" Trestman has been especially high on running back Matt Forte, who besides rushing for 5,327 yards in five NFL seasons is also an accomplished receiver out of the backfield. But for reasons unknown, the Bears failed to utilize Forte much last season in the passing game -- he caught a career-low 44 passes for 340 yards. That is expected to change under Trestman.

" The verdict remains out on 2012 first-round pick Shea McClellin after he posted 2.5 sacks as a rookie in a limited role as a situational pass rusher. However, the offseason departure of veteran defensive end Israel Idonije opens the door for McClellin to receive more playing time in a three-man end rotation with Peppers and Wootton. McClellin gained weight in the offseason but promptly lost it, raising more questions about whether he truly is suited to be a 4-3, hand-on-the-ground defensive end. "My expectation for Shea is simply to get better," Tucker said. "That’s the expectation I have for every player on the defense. He just needs to get better." The likely scenario for McClellin this season is to move around on defense and line up in different spots along the line of scrimmage in both a two-point and three-point stance. McClellin also has the speed and agility to drop back into coverage every now and again.

" Devin Hester seems content in his new role as strictly a return man. Hester has not taken a single rep at wide receiver since Trestman was hired, spending time at practice either with the other specialists or on a side field catching punts from the JUGS machine. "I feel great," Hester said. "I haven’t felt like this in a while. I’m very excited for the season, what’s at stake this year. I do feel like we do have a great chance to make a run for the playoffs as well as the Super Bowl. I’m more excited than a lot of guys this year coming in and hopefully having fun out there on the field." Hester is in the final year of his contract and set to earn a base salary of $1.857 million if he makes the 53-man roster.

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