NFC North: NFL

Jay Cutler can take the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl, according to future Hall of Famer Brett Favre, who believes the enigmatic quarterback might now be hitting his prime.

Favre
Cutler
Asked on ESPN 1000’s “Carmen and Jurko” show on Monday whether Chicago could advance to the Super Bowl with Cutler under center, Favre said “I think they can,” adding that it appears the Bears are finally starting to put enough talent around the quarterback after focusing for so many years on the defense.

“It goes without saying that Jay has all the tools it takes to be a great quarterback,” Favre said. “And I think the pieces are beginning to be in place. For years their defense had just been so dominating, and it’s time for their offense to really prove their worth. I think Jay can be that guy.”

Chicago’s brass does, too, considering the organization rewarded Cutler back in January with a contract extension worth $126 million. Cutler celebrated his 31st birthday back in April, and although players’ physical skills often start to diminish after the age of 30, Favre pointed to a pair of former MVPs in making a case for the Chicago quarterback.

Asked if Cutler could become a great quarterback after the age of 30, Favre didn’t hesitate.

“Rich Gannon did it. Steve Young did it. Sure,” Favre said. “I think you become a lot wiser as you kind of lose some of your physical abilities. I think at 30 for a quarterback, really, you’re just kind of hitting your prime.”

Perhaps one component of the growing wisdom Favre anticipates from Cutler will manifest itself in decision making. In part, because of supreme confidence in his arm strength, Cutler has gained a reputation for forcing throws into tight windows, which often leads to interceptions.

Favre had the same reputation during his 20-year NFL career, and called his arm strength “a blessing and a curse.” Favre holds the NFL record for career interceptions (336).

“What I mean by that, I had an arm that I felt was as good if not better than anyone,” Favre said. “I wasn’t as fast. I wasn’t as tall. I wasn’t as smart. But I knew I could make the throws no one else could make. I would attempt throws I knew I could get away with. Would it come back to haunt me sometimes? Sure it would. But I played 20 years and sometimes it bit me in the butt. Most of the time, I got away with it. I think had my arm not been as strong, I wouldn’t have attempted those. You get away with it more times than not, but occasionally it gets you. I think that’s just the way really any player plays throughout the league; knowing your imitations, and sometimes, it gets the better of you.”
Tim JenningsAP Photo/Nam Y. HuhTim Jennings, left, expects to be rushing the quarterback more often this season.
We caught up with Chicago Bears cornerback Tim Jennings recently to discuss a variety of topics, ranging from his work with martial arts expert Joe Kim to what he thought of the changes last season made by coach Marc Trestman.

As training camp approaches, here’s something to whet your appetite for Bears football:

Since you’re playing nickel some and you’re expected to do some blitzing, tell us what are you doing with Joe Kim?

Tim Jennings: Joe Kim, he’s supposed to be like a master of kung fu or whatnot. So he works a lot with our defensive line on their pass-rush moves. So I work with Joe Kim now that I’m playing the nickel position. I think I’m going to be blitzing a lot more. So I need to kind of work on some pass-rush moves, man, because I can’t beat everybody with the quickness and strength. So I want to put some more in my repertoire.

With the scheme changing up front, how much do things change for you guys on the back end?

Jennings: It doesn’t really change too much. [Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker] just wants us to be in the position to do our jobs. Really, our success comes from that defensive front, and I think that’s why he’s doing a lot more things to try to create the freedom for those guys to get to the quarterback and create pressure; just let me, Charles [Tillman], and now Kyle Fuller just do our thing.

With all the things this team did with the front this offseason, how much easier will it make your job on the back end?

Jennings: Of course, that’s exactly what I expect. On the back end we just have to do our job, be where we need to be and then the plays will start coming because of the pressure that we’re putting on the quarterback. The throws won’t be as perfect. Then, we could start getting a feel for some things to where we can be there a little bit quicker, where the field starts to shrink. Then, we can start to anticipate things a lot more. I think that’s just the approach that Coach Tucker has taken. Me and Charles, we’re taking that same approach. We just need to do our jobs, be where we need to be, do what we’ve been doing for the past couple of years that we’ve been playing together. With the pressure on the quarterback, if we’re getting to the quarterback, a lot more plays will come for us on the back end. It will work hand in hand. So if we’re where we need to be, we can take some throws away from the quarterback, make him hold it longer. We’ll get a lot more snaps.

Throughout the offseason, you’ve worked some at nickel while Fuller has gone to your spot outside. With camp coming up, do you anticipate any packages where maybe Fuller goes inside to nickel while you stay outside?

Jennings: Right now, I do not anticipate that. I think I’m that guy to move inside. Just the fact that we’re looking at our division, guys we’re going to face and stuff, matchups that we’ll have. We want to make sure the matchup is to where we’ve got the best advantage, where we can be equal with those guys. Maybe if we’re playing Detroit and they move Calvin Johnson inside at the slot, of course we’re going to have Charles Tillman follow him around. We feel like that’s a better matchup. It gives us the best chance to win. So we’re going to move guys around and we’re going to match up. I think that’s why we drafted Kyle Fuller. It was a good move.

Last year, you guys didn’t get the repetitions at practice that you had been used to getting in the past, and we saw what happened. Do you see this team making some changes or tweaks in terms of how you do things at practice this upcoming season?

Jennings: Well, I don’t think we’re going to change that. One thing about coach [Marc] Trestman is he’s big on competition. So he’s going to line up his ones against his ones. He wants to get the best out of both teams, offense, defense and special teams. So the structure I don’t think is going to change. As far as us not practicing [last year], I wouldn’t say all that. I think the reps that we get are quality reps because we compete so much. When I am out there, it’s against our ones. It’s against Brandon [Marshall]. It’s against Alshon [Jeffery]. It’s a way for us to get better. But he’s being smart about the reps knowing that it’s a long, long, long season. It’s big to make sure guys are healthy and ready to go on Sunday. It took me some getting used to when he first got here last year, to really realize what’s going on, why we’re doing things this way. But it’s making sense to me right now in seeing the structure he does things in and the competition he wants from this group is meaningful.
Examining the Chicago Bears' roster:

QUARTERBACKS (3)

Despite recently signing, Jimmy Clausen quickly gained ground on Jordan Palmer at the club's veteran minicamp and appears poised to unseat the latter for the No. 2 job behind Cutler. The team likes Fales' long-term potential, and it will look to keep him on the roster as a developmental prospect to groom in Marc Trestman's scheme.


RUNNING BACKS (4)

Forte's role in the offense is expected to evolve somewhat, and the team added an interesting between-the-tackles grinder in Carey, who is arguably the most physical back of the entire 2014 class. Fiammetta will stay in his role as fullback, and Ford will contribute mostly on special teams if he can't claim the primary backup role behind Forte.

RECEIVERS (5)

Marshall and Jeffery will get an opportunity to prove they're the league's best duo at the position in 2014. Wilson comes into the season with high hopes and the expectation that he'll grow into the No. 3 role. Morgan and Weems will be pushed by all the young prospects at camp, but their experience and reliability will win out.

TIGHT ENDS (2)

This is a position where it might make sense to add a third player. Bennett clearly is the team's best all-around tight end, while Mulligan excels as an in-line blocker. Zach Miller is more of a receiving tight end than all-around blocker, but if the Bears go with three tight ends, either he or Dante Rosario could get the call.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (10)

The case could be made that offensive line is one of the team's strongest position groups, which is somewhat strange given all the struggles the Bears have experienced in recent years there. The starting five from 2013 return for 2014, and the Bears also have some prime candidates should they decide to reload up front, as Britton and De La Puente are capable of starting.

DEFENSIVE LINE (10)

Look for veterans at the bottom of the roster such as Scott, Lane and Collins to be pushed tremendously by several of the youngsters at training camp. Injuries in 2013 made this position group a weakness, but the Bears made sure to load up on the defensive line through the draft and free agency.

LINEBACKERS (6)

The Bears will have difficult decisions to make here, and we believe Jones, an undrafted rookie, is talented enough to make the team. Khaseem Greene has improved, but it will likely come down to him and Senn for that final linebacker spot, which Senn might win because of his abilities as a special-teamer.

CORNERBACKS (5)

The depth chart here is pretty set in stone, but first-rounder Fuller will definitely see plenty of time on the field.

SAFETIES (4)

Both starting spots are up for grabs, but Conte probably won't be ready for the start of camp. If he doesn't recover quickly, he could wind up losing his roster spot. We've got Wilson making the cut, but his odds are long; he has to prove he's still got something left in the tank.

SPECIALISTS (4)

Williams is the only question mark among the specialists, and he's being pushed hard by Micheal Spurlock, Armanti Edwards and Josh Bellamy.

Camp preview: Chicago Bears

July, 17, 2014
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NFL Nation's Michael C. Wright examines the three biggest issues facing the Chicago Bears heading into training camp.

Cutler after the big-money contract: Lost in all the anticipation for the upcoming season seems to be an undercurrent of skepticism regarding whether quarterback Jay Cutler is worth -- or whether he’ll eventually prove he’s worth -- the seven-year deal signed in January worth $126.7 million. The verdict remains out, and even the team made sure to structure an escape hatch into the Cutler deal. Essentially, Cutler signed a three-year deal worth $54 million that contains rolling club options from now until 2016. If the Bears decide to release Cutler after the 2016 season, they can do so with no salary-cap repercussions because he didn’t receive a signing bonus, which means no proration.

Cutler took a major step in his first season working with head coach Marc Trestman, quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. But will Cutler continue to trend in that direction?

In four seasons with the Bears prior to 2013, Cutler had generated a passer rating of 81.9. But last year, the quarterback produced a career-high passer rating of 89.2, his best since his rookie season (2006). The coaching staff and front office believe they made a wise investment in Cutler. What’s more is the players in that locker room believe in Cutler, too.

Safety play: Unrest at the safety positions seems synonymous with the Bears in recent years, and the team goes into camp with both spots up for grabs. The Bears drafted Brock Vereen, and signed M.D. Jennings, Danny McCray, Ryan Mundy and Adrian Wilson to battle it out for the top spots. Mundy has taken repetitions with the first group as have Vereen and Jennings, but the picture won’t start to clear up until the Bears play some preseason games.

“The simple fact [that] we’ve rotated him in with the ones is a clear indication we think he can compete,” Trestman said of Vereen, a fourth-round pick. “We’re not going to anoint him yet. You’ve got to be very careful with young players. They get in shorts and they’re doing well, and then you put on the pads and you’ve got to see how they are in pads. There’s no reason to think he can’t put himself in position to compete for one of those jobs, but it’s way, way too early.”

Chris Conte is the only returning starter at the safety position, but it’s unclear whether he’ll be fully healthy for the start of camp after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, which forced him to miss organized team activities and minicamp.

Can Shea play LB? That’s been the question regarding former first-round pick Shea McClellin since the team announced it would be moving him to linebacker from defensive end. While McClellin certainly doesn’t appear to be out of place at his new position, we still haven’t seen him in live game situations. So it’s unclear whether the Bears will be able to salvage the first pick of Phil Emery’s tenure as general manager.

“He’s going to be a typical 4-3 linebacker for us,” Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. “I see him as probably more of a blitzer than maybe a four-down rusher. But he will have some edge-rush opportunities.”

McClellin is competing with Jon Bostic for the starting spot at Sam linebacker, and it’s likely Bostic will win the job. That could relegate McClellin to more of a role as a pass-rushing specialist. McClellin is also taking repetitions at middle linebacker, but he’s not likely to beat out incumbent D.J. Williams or Bostic.

McClellin deserves credit for transforming his body during the offseason in preparation for the new role. Now he has to prove he’s capable of performing consistently in the new gig.
Cutler
Former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb, who is a Chicago native, summed things up succinctly when asked about Chicago Bears QB Jay Cutler's new contract, which pays $126.7 million over seven years.

"Are you serious?" McNabb asked on 87.7 The Game's "Jarrett, Harry and Spike" show.

"Jay might be the luckiest dude in Chicago, to be honest with you, with the contract he received for what we haven't seen thus far. I think the sky's the limit for him. But for what we've seen in Chicago, when you didn't finish the NFC Championship [Game], which was due to injury. Even with that, you haven't been able to get past that hump. One game to get into the playoffs, you couldn't get it done. Caleb Hanie comes in to play. Josh McCown comes in to play, and then the contract comes up and you get paid like a top-three, top-four quarterback. Are you serious? For what we've seen? If he doesn't do it this year, it's going to end up being a mistake."

That's precisely why Cutler's performance and continued development remain the most important key to success over the next three seasons for this team. Essentially, the Bears are handcuffed to Cutler at least until 2016, which more or less makes his new contract a three-year, $54 million deal. The contract contains rolling options from now until then, with no cap repercussions if the team releases Cutler after 2016 because he didn't receive a signing bonus, meaning there's no proration to account for.

Cutler showed tremendous growth in 2013 during coach Marc Trestman's first year in Chicago. In four seasons with the Bears prior to 2013, Cutler had generated a passer rating of 81.9. Cutler produced a career-high passer rating of 89.2 in 2013, his best since 2006.

Such positive trends need to continue with Cutler for the Bears to sustain any level of success over the next few seasons.
Walter PaytonTony Tomsic/Getty Images
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We’re chronicling the third of three plays nominated as the most memorable in Chicago Bears franchise history. We’ve looked at Devin Hester’s 92-yard kickoff return to open Super Bowl XLI, and William “Refrigerator” Perry’s 1-yard touchdown in Super Bowl XX during a 46-10 shellacking of the New England Patriots.

Make sure to vote for your choice as the Bears’ most memorable play.

Score: Bears 28, Chiefs 27
Date: Nov. 13, 1977 Site: Soldier Field

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Elusiveness, explosion, speed, and violence, Walter Payton showed it all in this 18-yard run, which is likely the greatest of a storied career that produced hundreds of breathtaking moments.

The play certainly put Hall of Famer Jim Brown on notice, and definitely should be included in the discussion of the single greatest plays in NFL history.

“I don’t know the game, but I can tell you what moment,” said Brown, who was watching Payton on television for the first time. “I didn’t know who he was, and I saw him make this one run. He fought for every inch. He must have twisted, knocked three or four guys over, spun around, accelerated. I said, ‘Oh my goodness [laughing], what kind of animal is this? What kind of guy is this?’ All those moves, and the strength and tenacity; that was it, I didn’t have to see anymore. I knew this was a great runner.”

Taking a handoff on a sweep right, Payton spun away from linebacker Willie Lanier, cut back left, made three Chiefs miss, in addition to trucking two others before being dragged down from behind at the Kansas City 4. In all, Payton broke six tackles. When he took the handoff, the Chiefs led 17-0. Surely the momentum from such an eye-popping run helped to spark Chicago’s eventual 28-27 comeback victory.

Payton rushed for three second-half TDs to lead the rally, and the victory marked the club’s first of six in a row to end the season as the Bears earned their first trip to the postseason since winning the NFL championship in 1963.

Nearly seven years later, Payton would break Brown’s record to become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. In classic Payton fashion, he downplayed the achievement, declaring Brown still the king of all NFL runners.

“I don’t believe I ever broke Jim Brown’s record,” he’d say later. “I think it’s still standing. I don’t think the record books need to be rewritten. I didn’t do it in the amount of time that Jim Brown did. If you can’t do it in nine years and eight games, then you didn’t break his record. I had more games and I played longer, so I didn’t break it.”

William PerryAP Photo/Amy Sancetta
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Today, we run down the second of three plays nominated as the most memorable in Chicago Bears franchise history. We’ve chronicled Devin Hester’s 92-yard kickoff return to open Super Bowl XLI, and we’ll also break down how Walter Payton displayed his signature strength and speed in breaking tackles during a run against the Chiefs. It was the run Jim Brown said convinced him of Payton’s greatness.

Please vote for your choice as the Bears’ most memorable play.

Score: Bears 46, Patriots 10
Date: Jan. 26, 1986 Site: Louisiana Superdome

Call this play in Bears history a bittersweet one.

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On one hand, William “Refrigerator” Perry’s 1-yard touchdown in the third quarter of a 46-10 rout of the Patriots in Super Bowl XX -- otherwise known as “The Plunge” -- certainly gave fans a nice moment of entertainment. But on the other, the team’s choice to call on Perry for the score instead of Payton, the team’s heart and soul, goes down as one of the major regrets about that game still harbored by former coach Mike Ditka.

Keyed on all day by New England’s defense, Payton -- the game’s all-time leading rusher at the time -- finished without a touchdown despite the club having multiple opportunities near the goal line to get him into the end zone for a score on the game’s biggest stage.

“That was probably the most disturbing thing in my career,” Ditka later said in the book “Payton.” “That killed me. If I had one thing to do all over again, I would make sure Payton took the ball into the end zone. I loved him; I had great respect for him. The only thing that ever really hurt me was when he didn’t score in the Super Bowl.”

Perry’s TD came on a call from Ditka, but quarterback Jim McMahon had a reputation for changing plays when he wanted to. Besides, allowing a defensive lineman in Perry to score a TD instead of the game’s best player at the time seemed as if Ditka was taunting New England. After all, Perry’s run made the score 44-3. It’s a shame Perry scored a TD in the Super Bowl and Payton didn’t.

Ditka has explained that the call was an option play in which McMahon could have pitched the ball to Payton, who later said, “I knew I was going to be a decoy today.” On McMahon’s first touchdown, which came after a fake to Perry, the quarterback also could have pitched it to Payton.

“On the touchdown that I scored, it was a play designed for Walter,” McMahon later said. “But the truth is I don’t think anyone recognized it during the game. I know I didn’t.”

 
video
Here’s the second part of our interview with Brandon Marshall as part of ESPN The Magazine’s Comeback Issue, which dropped on July 7 with a story about the Chicago Bears receiver.

Marshall spent time with us at his home in Chicago discussing a variety of topics, with most focused on some of the things he’s doing to promote mental health awareness. Our entire interview didn’t make it into the magazine story or the video clip above. So I decided to pull it together in its entirety:

Michael C. Wright: You’ve called the trade from Miami to Chicago a “career-saving trade,” a “life-saving trade.” Did you really feel your life was in jeopardy?

Brandon Marshall: No, I think a lot of people took that out of context. What I meant by that was when you look at the career side, it’s like, to be honest, I think I played with five or six different quarterbacks. You see how my production dropped and people were looking at me like, "He used to be a top-five receiver. It’s him. He’s dropping all these balls. He’s the issue. He’s the problem." Those people in Miami, they wanted my head for a year or two. But then I come to Chicago and you see me continue to produce at a high level. I had Jay Cutler. I was in a system I was familiar with. So it was career-saving. Now, the life-saving thing we’re talking about, I don’t know if the cameras can see it [Marshall looks around], but look at this beautiful city. You know what I mean? I say that it wasn’t a life-or-death thing. But a lot of us go through life doing things that we don’t love. We’re doing it for the wrong reasons, and we die freaking chasing money or chasing something to pay bills or we’re not happy. But for me, every single day, I walk outside my door and I smell the city air. I look at these tall buildings. I see people wearing Bulls hats, Blackhawks hats, Bears shirts. It’s fulfilling. It’s stimulating. The love and joy that we receive on a daily basis, it sometimes is too much. So that’s what I mean when I say life-saving. It’s like a dream. It’s the perfect situation, not only doing what I love, but doing it in a place where I can say I love, that’s now home for me. I don’t think you could buy that.

[+] EnlargeDavone Bess
AP Photo/David RichardDavone Bess, who was arrested in January, is "one of those guys that's walking with me," says former teammate Brandon Marshall.
You’ve taken on somewhat of a role as a mentor. What are you doing with your former teammate Davone Bess?

Marshall: I wouldn’t say that’s a mentorship, that’s more of, I think in every man’s life they need ... the perfect illustration is you have yourself here, you have a mentor above you. Then you have men you can walk with, and then there’s a mentee. So Davone Bess is one of those guys that’s walking with me, a guy that when I fall, he can pick me up and vice versa. It’s an interesting story because when we were playing together in Miami, we used to sit on the plane and talk about the same stuff. Our situations aren’t unique. Every guy deals with it at this level. We would compare text messages from family and friends asking us for money, or cussing us out because we said no, or threats, legal issues. And what you saw is, you saw a break in me early, and then a couple of years later, you see a break in Davone Bess’ health and stability. So it’s like it was always there, but it presented itself at different times. So good thing that I’ve been through it, someone that he can trust and believes in, and now I can say, "Bro, this is what I did and it worked for me."

You said that 2013 was the first year in your career that you were not selfish. Can you explain what you meant?

Marshall: I’m a believer in Christ. That’s my Lord and savior, and when you read the Bible, one of the biggest things that jumps out to me is his ability to serve others. So I always tell guys, if you want to be Muslim, be Muslim. You know, I have my beliefs. I’m not forcing that on you. But if you say you’re a Christian, then it’s either you’re all-in or you’re all-out. One of the teachings is being a servant, and you can’t be a selfish servant. I don’t think those two relate. It’s a contradiction. Last year I grew spiritually, and that was the first time I was able to step outside myself on this spiritual journey and be able to say, "You know what, I don’t know what’s gonna happen. But I’m gonna serve Alshon Jeffery. I’m gonna serve Martellus Bennett." Because I know there’s something bigger. I’m a part of something greater. I can’t wait to see what it is. But I know if I just continue to pour into those young men’s lives, we will be great together.

How confident are you that you can continue on this track? As we’ve discussed before, you’ve got a past. Can you honestly say that none of the things that have haunted your past will creep back into your life?

Marshall: That’s interesting because I never really read my Twitter mentions, because one day it’s gonna go from a ton of mentions and a ton of retweets to nothing when I’m not relevant anymore, when I’m not catching any more touchdowns. I’m preparing for that. I don’t really read too many stories. I will look at stats, but I won’t read stories. I did read your story the other day where you said, "Let’s see if he can keep it up," or something along those lines.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Marshall
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesBrandon Marshall is confident his problems are behind him.
I didn’t write that. I wrote that you needed to keep it up.

Marshall: I found that interesting. I found that interesting that there is a thought about me reverting back. But I always tell people that’s just part of the journey, especially for a young man given so much freedom, so much fame, so much fortune. That’s part of the journey, to make mistakes. But the problem is, you make your mistakes in the public’s eye. People look at me like, "Is this an act?" I know you believe in me, but some people will say, "Is it an act?" Or "It’s only going to last for so long." But I’m actually growing, every single day. This is the new me. This is who I am. So there isn’t any reverting back. But I do make mistakes. I’m pretty much still in the same exact situation. I just look at life differently and my approach is different. There’s some things out there I still need to work on.

Last thing. Can you finish this sentence for me? I would describe my comeback as...

Marshall: Inspirational.
Devin HesterJoe Rimkus Jr./Miami Herald/MCT
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

We’re running down the three most memorable plays in Chicago Bears franchise history, and today marks the first of the plays nominated. Over the next two days we’ll feature: How Walter Payton displayed his signature strength and speed in breaking tackles during a run against the Kansas City Chiefs. It was the run which Jim Brown said convinced him of Payton’s greatness. And William “Refrigerator” Perry’s 1-yard touchdown in Chicago’s drubbing of New England in Super Bowl XX that robbed Payton of the opportunity to score a touchdown on the game’s biggest stage.

Please vote for your choice as the Bears’ most memorable play.

Score: Colts 29, Bears 17
Date: Feb. 4, 2007 Site: Dolphin Stadium

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If setting an NFL record as a rookie by taking six kick returns to the house for touchdowns didn’t cement Devin Hester’s nickname as the Windy City Flyer, his exploits to start off Super Bowl XLI against the Indianapolis Colts certainly did.

Seven players previously returned kickoffs for touchdowns, but Hester became the first in the game’s history to take the opening kickoff back for a score. Hester did it with a breathtaking 92-yard return that gave Chicago the start it needed. Unfortunately for the Bears, they couldn’t maintain that momentum in what would become a 29-17 loss.

“We knew we were capable of returning one,” Hester said afterward. “Once we got a chance to get our hands on it, we knew we had a great chance to get into the end zone. It was a right return and it was set up the way [former Bears special-teams coordinator] Dave Toub planned it. It was just being patient, and trusting your teammates that they’re going to be there to set up the blocks. That’s what happened.”

Hester fielded Adam Vinatieri’s kickoff near the left sideline, and worked his way back toward the middle of the field. In the process, Hester faked left to make a few Colts defenders miss in the middle of the field, and then turned on the jets down the right hash mark as he headed toward the right sideline. Near the 35-yard line, Vinatieri dove at Hester’s feet. But the return man was too far away. It was off to the races.

Interestingly, near the end of the run Hester could be seen watching himself on the stadium’s video board as he crossed the goal line.

The play took 14 seconds off the clock, and given Indianapolis’ struggles covering kickoffs that season, the Colts never should have kicked to Hester in the first place.

Hester currently is tied with Deion Sanders for the most combined return touchdowns (19), but his return TD in Super Bowl XLI isn’t included because it occurred in the postseason. The Bears decided not to bring back Hester after the 2013 season, and in March he signed with the Atlanta Falcons.

Pre-camp check: Safety

July, 5, 2014
Jul 5
9:00
AM ET
With veteran minicamp coming to a close on June 19, the Chicago Bears receive a much-needed break to recharge before the start of training camp in July at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois.

During the team’s time of inactivity, we’ll take a position-by-position look at some of the expected training camp battles and dark horses to make the team:

[+] EnlargeChris Conte
AP Photo/Scott BoehmSafety Chris Conte, who has missed all of the Bears' 2014 offseason work so far, hopes to return healthy and in time for training camp in late July.
Overview: Inconsistency brought on by injuries along the front seven played a role in shoddy play in 2013 by safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte.

Wright bolted for Tampa Bay in free agency, but Conte remains on the roster; sidelined by an offseason shoulder surgery that could land him on the physically unable to perform list for the start of training camp. Either way, the brass deemed it necessary to upgrade the talent at the position.

Did they do it? That’s unclear right now because offseason workouts don’t provide enough evidence about how the new additions might perform in game situations.

In addition to drafting Brock Vereen, the Bears signed M.D. Jennings, Danny McCray, Ryan Mundy and 14-year veteran Adrian Wilson. So between all the new faces combined with players such as Conte and Craig Steltz, the Bears should be able to find a couple of safeties in 2014 capable of getting the job done.

Battle to watch: Every spot on the safety depth chart registers as a battle to watch because right now every position -- including the starting jobs -- is up for grabs. Provided Conte regains his confidence in 2014, he certainly possesses the skill set to finish training camp as one of the starters. But how long will he be on the shelf? Conte was unable to practice throughout organized team activities and minicamps, which puts him somewhat behind in the competition for one of the starting spots.

“We’ll see,” Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. “I’ll wait until camp rolls around and I’ll get a report, and they’ll let us know who’s available and how much they can do. Whenever he’s available, we’ll start working him in and get him up to speed, get him the reps. He’s been in the meetings. So he knows what we’re doing. We’re going to start over pretty much in training camp with our installation. So a lot of it will be review, and then we’ll add some things as we go that we didn’t cover in OTAs and the coaches’ sessions. He’s gotten the mental work in, in the class room. So it’ll just be getting the physical reps. When he’s ready, he’s ready. We’ll work him in.”

Mundy has taken reps with the starters, as have Vereen and Jennings. The Bears added a wrinkle to the competition at safety in late June with the signing of Wilson, a five-time Pro Bowler, who missed all of 2013 due to a torn Achilles.

Dark horse: Despite his decorated past and Pro Bowl pedigree, Wilson comes into the derby for one of the safety spots without the benefit of learning the system by participating in the team’s offseason program. Wilson is one of 13 players in NFL history to pick off at least 20 passes in addition to posting 20 sacks. But the truth is the coaching staff really doesn’t know what Wilson, who will be 35 this season, has left in the tank. Wilson is also still trying to work back from undergoing surgery last fall on his Achilles.

If Wilson manages to stick, he could be a valuable asset for the team’s young safeties in teaching them the intricacies of the game.

Who makes the cut: The Bears will have some tough decisions to make here because it appears the current group is talented, but the roster spots are limited. Conte (if he regains health), Mundy, Vereen and Steltz will likely make the roster, and if the Bears decide to go with five safeties, Jennings would likely make the cut over McCray. If Wilson shows he’s back to form during camp, Steltz could become a victim of the numbers game at the position.
With veteran minicamp coming to a close on June 19, the Chicago Bears receive a much-needed break to recharge before the start of training camp in July at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois.

During the team’s time of inactivity, we’ll take a position-by-position look at some of the expected training camp battles and dark horses to make the team:

[+] EnlargeKyle Fuller
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhThe Chicago Bears will lean on cornerback Kyle Fuller, their 2014 first-round pick, to contribute during his rookie season.
Overview: From top to bottom cornerback remains one of the team’s strongest positions groups, and that was bolstered by the re-signings of Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, in addition to the club acquiring Kyle Fuller out of Virginia Tech with a first-round draft pick.

All three of those players should see time on the field together, but the Bears still feel they need capable reinforcements.

“You need to have multiple corners,” Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. “A lot of the defenses we have to play, that we’re required to play nowadays in the National Football League, are sub packages with three corners or corner types in the game. Typically, at least half of the snaps you’ll play in the season will be with five defensive backs in the game. And sometimes, you’ll go into game weeks or games and almost every single snap will be in sub personnel. So there are ample opportunities for guys to show what they can do and become a contributor to a productive rotation. A third corner is like a starter. A third corner plays as much if not more than your third linebacker in a 4-3."

That means Fuller and Jennings will spend plenty of time shuffling on and off the field, depending on the situation. During organized team activities and minicamps, Jennings played opposite Tillman in the starting lineup. But when the team went into sub packages on passing downs, Fuller moved out opposite Tillman and Jennings kicked inside to the nickel spot. More than likely, that look isn’t yet set in stone as OTAs and minicamps are the time to experiment. What is clear, though, is the Bears expect Fuller to contribute immediately as a rookie.

Battle to watch: The Bears finished last season with five corners, and it appears right now the top four spots could be locked up with Tillman, Jennings, Fuller, and Kelvin Hayden with the fifth spot up for grabs. Isaiah Frey would seem to be the most likely candidate to win that fifth spot considering he spent the entire 2013 season as the nickel, with six starts, and played out the year with a broken hand. Frey contributed 47 tackles and broke up a pair of passes. But the Bears wanted turnovers from the nickel spot, and Frey was unable to deliver.

Frey will have to hold off players such as Demontre Hurst, Al Louis-Jean, Derricus Purdy, C.J. Wilson and Sherrick McManis, a star on special teams, who shows plenty of potential at corner. Although Hayden appears to be a frontrunner for that fourth corner spot, it’s worth nothing he missed all of last season due to a severe hamstring injury. Hayden's health is a concern.

Dark horse: An undrafted rookie, Louis-Jean declared for the NFL draft after his sophomore season at Boston College. Louis-Jean played 10 games as a freshman in 2011 and started two of them, contributing 15 tackles, three pass breakups a forced fumble and an interception. But Louis-Jean lost the entire 2012 season due to a fractured bone in his left foot. He came back last season to post 21 tackles, break up a pass and force a fumble in 11 games, but was suspended for the season opener against Villanova and the AdvoCare V100 Bowl for violating team rules.

Louis-Jean attended Chicago’s rookie minicamp on a tryout basis and caught the staff’s eye enough for the team to take him to training camp.

If the former four-star recruit pans out, the Bears will have come away with somewhat of a steal. At the same time, Louis-Jean could find difficulty flashing his ability in such a crowded race at a well-stocked position.

Who makes the cut: If the Bears stick with five corners, they’ll likely wind up with Tillman, Jennings, Fuller, Hayden and Frey at the conclusion of camp. But they’ll probably wind up keeping McManis as a contributor on special teams.
Jared AllenAP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJared Allen was acquired to bring additional toughness to the Chicago defense.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- At the newly renovated Halas Hall, which now teems with security, coach Marc Trestman often invites visitors to speak to his players about what they should already know.

Mike Singletary told them. Mike Ditka did, too. Otis Wilson and Gale Sayers also spoke to Trestman’s club about what it means to be a Chicago Bear.

“The one thing we’ve done this year, we’ve tried to bring, tried to do a little bit more -- because we’ve got so many new faces -- [is to bring in former players to explain] what being a Bear is all about, you know?” Trestman said. “Being a Bear starts on the defensive side of the ball, and with the mentality of what a Bears defense plays like. We just want to reinforce that. We’ve got a lot of new guys and understanding what it is to play for the Bears means play[ing] tough defense.”

For a variety reasons during Trestman’s first year with the club, the Bears drifted away from that. During former coach Lovie Smith’s tenure (2004-2012), the Bears ranked in the top three in 10 -- yes, 10 -- statistical categories. First in takeaways (310), second in interceptions (181), first in fumble recoveries (129), three-and-outs forced (485), third-down conversion percentage (34.1) and opponent red zone scoring efficiency (79.3 percent).

It all vanished when the organization ushered Smith out the door and hired Trestman.

In Trestman’s first season, the Bears allowed the most points (478) in franchise history, the most total yards (6,313) and rushing yards. But injuries did cost the defense a total of 55 games last season, and that’s not taking into account losing defensive lineman Turk McBride to a ruptured Achilles and Sedrick Ellis, who retired on the eve of training camp.

No Bears opponent scored less than 20 points last season. But injuries, inexperienced backups and ineffective coaching at some positions played a role, as did other factors such as limited practice repetitions for the defense. According to multiple sources, Chicago’s defensive players over the course of a week of preparation for an opponent typically received approximately half the practice repetitions they had normally taken under Smith’s staff as offensive preparation had become a premium with the new regime.

After last year’s 8-8 season, general manager Phil Emery, Trestman and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker huddled to look at possible solutions. By March at the NFL combine, Trestman and Emery -- in discussing the team’s plans for free agency and the draft -- were already starting to use the word “tough” to describe the types of players they wanted to add on defense. In fact, for some in the organization, toughness trumped star power.

“We weren’t the tough team we wanted to be for a lot of different reasons,” Trestman said. “We want to accentuate it this year.”

To do that, the Bears brought in reputed tough guys such as Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston to add to the defensive line, in addition to re-signing Jeremiah Ratliff. They fired three defensive coaches and brought in another trio with reputations for being hard-nosed personalities with the ability to teach.

“We’re a team that wants to play -- even offensively -- with a defensive mentality,” Trestman said. “There’s a way to play football in Chicago, and that’s to be tough and physical, set a vertical edge, violent shed and run to the football. We’ve got to practice that way every day to be that team we want to be. We’re not there yet. We know that. We’re trying to get there because that’s the way every team plays in the National Football League. The best defenses play tough and physical. There’s a lot of different ways to win, but you seldom win a game [in which] you don’t win the line of scrimmage. There’s seldom a game you win where you can’t at least somewhat run the ball effectively and stop the run.”

Trestman pointed out that the whole “toughness” storyline can be overblown, correctly stating that the attribute is a prerequisite for any player or team in the NFL. “So to start writing stories, I think is just over-exaggerating,” Trestman said.

It is. But breaking down the importance of knowing what it takes to play Chicago’s brand of football is not. Of Chicago’s league-high 27 Hall of Famers, nine of them played defense. Since the first Bears players started earning Pro Bowl recognition in 1951, 119 of the club’s 226 selections have been defenders.

The Monsters of the Midway nickname came about due to dominant teams from the ’40s, which featured rough and tumble defenses. In Chicago, its defenses have always maintained a certain identity.

So while it’s certainly refreshing to see Chicago’s offense finally blossom under Trestman, the coach is correct in his attempt to make sure the club doesn’t stray from its roots.

“We need to be tough in our front, in our front seven and throughout our football team, throughout our defense,” Tucker said. “We preach that every day and they seem to want to be like that.”

Whether they will be, we’ll soon know.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Jay Cutler senses he has changed since joining the Chicago Bears in 2009. And the new coaching staff, having worked with him for just a year, sees it too.

Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer likened it from moving from a freshman-level college course to a more advanced curriculum, which means the realistic expectation for Cutler in Year 2 in the team's system is for the quarterback to take a major step in his progression.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP PhotoCan Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler progress, as well as succeed, in Year 2 of coach Marc Trestman's system?
"As we move on, [Cutler] might take it to 201 and be able to ready the play a little bit more in-depth," Kromer said. "That's where we're getting to with a lot of our football right now."

Having recently signed a seven-year extension with the Bears, Cutler attributed his change to "a lot of factors," admitting that in "my younger days in Denver, and even when I first got here, you do some things that are foolish and you regret." He said the organization's hiring of general manager Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman "kind of forces you to grow up."

"If you don't want to grow up, you're probably not going to last," Cutler said. "They're going to find somebody else."

Before letting that happen, Cutler buckled down in 2013, working in "just a conducive environment to be a football player as a quarterback" put together by Emery, and it led to one of his best seasons as a pro in the first year of a new system under a new coaching staff led by Trestman. Cutler completed 63.1 percent of his passes in 2013 for a career-best passer rating of 89.2. But he missed five games due to groin and ankle injuries.

Cutler called the injuries "freak" occurrences, and doesn't anticipate durability being an issue moving forward. Still, it's noteworthy that Cutler hasn't played an entire 16-game season since his first year in Chicago. A major contributor to that were offensive lines featuring forgettable players such as Frank Omiyale and J'Marcus Webb.

When the Bears finally committed to dramatically strengthening protection in 2013, Cutler produced. He'll play behind that same offensive line this season with the same group of weapons at the skill positions, which is a reason for optimism from the quarterback and the staff.

"I was straight [in terms of durability] until I really got here," Cutler said. "For a while, it was a hit parade back there. It takes its toll from time to time. I think with the offensive line we've got here, the guys are doing everything possible." The staff also incorporated a system that calls for Cutler to get rid of the ball quickly, which in turn, diminishes the punishment he absorbs.

"Once you start getting hit a lot, you start taking your eyes off the secondary," Cutler explained. "You lose a lot of trust up front and it gets difficult to play quarterback that way. You can look across the league and you see guys that are getting hit a lot. They're probably not going to be doing very well. The guys who stay pretty clean are in offenses year in and year out and get a feel for the guys, those guys are going to be the ones who are in the top of the league every year. So we'll see how it goes. I think Trest does a great job of emphasizing getting rid of the ball. Protection first, and that's how everything is designed here."

Chicago quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh says he has "seen incredible progress" in the year he's worked with Cutler.

"When we got in here last year and evaluated him, we had a real good conversation with him about certain things we think every quarterback should do," Cavanaugh said. "'And Jay, it might not be natural to you, but we want you to try it.' And he did. To his credit, he's taken every bit of suggestion we've given, and he's embraced it. Everything from how he holds the ball, to how he lines up in the gun pre-snap, to how he drops back, to his throwing base, to his follow-through. Every fundamental we have considered talking to him about, he's embraced. He's worked real hard at it, so I think it is night and day."

Trestman believes Cutler possesses the "it" factor needed for a quarterback to play at a high level on a consistent basis. Add that to Cutler's growth within the system, not to mention the fact he has finally got stability in terms of the staff, the system and teammates, and it's easy to see why the quarterback and the organization carry such high hopes for the season.

The stability, according to Trestman "can allow him to enjoy more flexibility at the line of scrimmage, and understand what we're trying to get to. Each of these plays we have, there's a lot of different answers against a lot of different types of looks and coverages. I think he's at a place now, because he's had so much experience on these plays, he can utilize the entire play to find the right answers. Obviously, 'it' factor combined with understanding the offense, people around you, good protection … I don't think there's any quarterback in the National Football League that without their intangibles they would have a chance to play at a high level. I think Jay's one of those guys who can do that and has that 'it' factor."
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Quarterback Jordan Palmer finally revealed the reasoning behind his lack of participation in team drills during Bears organized team activities Wednesday, saying he suffered a right shoulder strain that isn’t considered serious.

The Bears wrapped up the ninth of 10 OTA workouts inside the Walter Payton Center, and although Palmer participated during individual drills, he’s been held out of team work during recent practice sessions open to the media this offseason. Palmer expects to participate from June 17-19 during the club’s mandatory minicamp.

“It’s frustrating having to sit out a week or two, but it’ll be ready to go for the minicamp; just rehabbing, getting back into it,” Palmer said. “It’s a nothing deal, just frustrating. I’ve kind of had to back off for a week or two and rest my shoulder, getting it ready for minicamp.”

[+] EnlargeJordan Palmer
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJordan Palmer said his strained throwing shoulder should be ready for the Bears' minicamp next week.
During Palmer’s inactivity, Chicago brought aboard former Carolina Panther and Notre Dame standout Jimmy Clausen last week, signing him to a one-year contract worth $645,000 to compete for the role of Jay Cutler’s primary backup. Prior to the club making the signing, Bears coach Marc Trestman pulled Palmer aside for a talk.

The coach told Palmer “really just to worry about my shoulder, getting myself back and to not get caught in anything else that’s going on,” he said. “That’s 100 percent of my focus right now, and everything else is stuff I can’t control. So I’m not focused on that.”

It’s not as if Palmer automatically fell behind in the competition for the No. 2 job.

Clausen visited the Bears at Halas Hall last Thursday and put together an impressive workout, personal interview and X’s and O’s session on the board for the coaches, which prompted the club to sign him. Still, as Palmer mentioned “he’s been in the system for 72 hours,” a fact Clausen admits is a little different than what he’s accustomed to.

“Competition brings out the best in people, and I’m looking forward to competing,” Clausen said. “The only way I can compete is if I learn the offense. So I’ve just got to keep speeding that up. It’s definitely exciting. It’s a great opportunity.”

As it stands now, Chicago’s roster at the quarterback position includes Cutler, Clausen, Palmer, Jerrod Johnson and David Fales, a rookie. Despite missing time recently, Palmer remains the front-runner for the No. 2 job. But the addition of Clausen raises the stakes for everyone involved in the derby; provided the quarterback gets up to speed quickly enough to make a mark.

The Bears plan to keep at least five quarterbacks on the roster through the end of minicamp, but afterward there’s a good chance the club starts to whittle down the position.

The team believes Clausen is fully healthy after undergoing surgery last September to repair a torn right labrum suffered during the 2013 preseason finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers. In addition, the Bears are impressed with Clausen’s football smarts, mechanics and mental toughness; not to mention the fact he’s experienced despite being just 26.

A second-round pick by the Panthers, Clausen started 10 games as a rookie, but tossed just three touchdown passes and nine interceptions in 13 total contests. The next year, the Panthers used the No. 1 pick in the draft to select Cam Newton, and Clausen never took another regular-season snap in Carolina.

The Bears believe the way Clausen dealt with such adversity as a rookie, the shoulder injury, and Carolina’s selection of Newton improved the quarterback’s mental toughness.

“I think that’s how everything works in life: right place at the right time,” Clausen said. “Everything is about timing and opportunities, and when you get that opportunity you’ve got to flourish. So I’ve been working hard, trying to get my shoulder 100 percent and wait for my opportunity. I have it now.”

Clausen said he brings some lessons from his time in Carolina to the current situation in Chicago.

“The biggest thing is knowledge. Obviously, I had a rough rookie year,” Clausen said. “Just coming back my second and third year just to learn and watch the game from the sidelines, I did that at Notre Dame as well, and it just helped me grow and learn different things. They helped me out a lot, whether it was Cam, whether it was Derek Anderson or Coach [Mike] Shula, there was a lot of knowledge in that room. It helped me a lot because we would bounce things off each other. I learned a lot of knowledge, especially defensively [in the way teams defend offenses].”

Palmer, meanwhile, refuses to put much thought into the recent setback with his shoulder and how the addition of Clausen might affect his chances at winning the job as Cutler’s backup. In fact, Palmer says he’s been a Clausen fan “for a long time” because “we grew up in the same area.”

“In my position, I’ve had to compete every single year since I was in high school. I’ve had to compete for a job,” Palmer said. “I’ve had to beat somebody out or had to compete to keep my job. So whatever the situation is and how everybody looks at it, I’m just focused on each day. Regardless of how many guys [are] in the room, I’m in the same position. I need to go out here, and move the team when I’m in there, make good decisions, and everything will shake out here at the end of camp.”
Colleague Rich Campbell over at the Chicago Tribune pointed out a recent interview with Marc Trestman in which the Bears coach indicates quarterback Jay Cutler is beefing up in an attempt to play through an entire 16-game season for just the second time during his Chicago tenure.

Trestman made the remarks last week in an interview with Sirius XM NFL Radio.

[+] EnlargeCutler
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesBears QB Jay Cutler missed five games last season due to injuries.
“Jay has really worked hard in the offseason, and he has always been a hard worker in his condition and his training,” Trestman said. “But he has really amped it up. He's bigger, he's stronger than a year ago, and he has really focused on staying physically well for the entire season. That's No. 1: We've got to keep him standing, keep him safe. We see the improvements he's made in working on different issues in his mechanics, and I think he's feeling very comfortable back there in Year 2.”

Based on the sessions of organized team activities (OTAs) open to the media, Cutler doesn't appear to have bulked up. During workouts, however, Cutler typically wears long sleeves under his shoulder pads, which would make it difficult to see whether he's actually added weight in his effort to last an entire season for the first time since 2009.

Cutler missed five games in 2013 and came out of two other contests because of injuries, but he suffered the fewest sacks of his entire tenure with the Bears. Trestman, per Campbell, still wants the team to improve in the protection department, and should have a better chance of accomplishing that goal by bringing back the club's entire revamped offensive line for the second year in a row.

The only concern regarding the offensive line headed into the season is Jordan Mills' recovery from surgery to repair a fractured metatarsal in his left foot. But Mills is expected to be fully healthy by the start of training camp.

Cutler suffered a torn muscle in his groin taking a sack last Oct. at Washington, which forced him out of one game. A sprained ankle less than a month later against Detroit led to Cutler missing four more games.

“I thought we took pretty darn good care of [Cutler],” Trestman told Sirius XM NFL Radio. “I think he would agree. We're going to try to do better this time around, but we're trying to get rid of those things. I can't speak for the past. I can only speak for the past as recent as last year. It was a really unique, awkward [groin] injury that he had. Hopefully we can get him through safe and get him to play a 16-game season. I know that's predominant on his mind. If we can keep him safe and healthy, we feel like we can be in every game.”

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