Camp Confidential: Chicago Bears

August, 11, 2011
8/11/11
1:00
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BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- More than any other NFC North team, the Chicago Bears reported to training camp amid a chaotic firestorm of roster upheaval and personnel decisions.

They unexpectedly parted ways with locker room Buddha Olin Kreutz, made quick work of tight end Greg Olsen's trade request and ended years of debate by finally signing a big receiver in Roy Williams. They failed to find much veteran reinforcement for their offensive line but did snag a younger punter (Adam Podlesh) and curiously added a third veteran running back in Marion Barber.

By the time I arrived at Olivet Nazarene University this week, most of the initial shock of that news cycle had subsided. But the Bears were still encountering obstacles to finding their usual training camp routine. The forced cancelation of their annual practice at Soldier Field renewed concerns about the condition of their game-day playing surface. A lightning storm cut short a full-pads practice after 90 minutes; a second look at the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement required a number of last-minute adjustments to daily schedules; and a power outage Wednesday night forced the Bears to move practice to a local high school.

The NFL lockout and the subsequent late-July, free-agent frenzy guided most teams into an unsettled training camp. It's fair to put the Bears at the top of that list, a fact coach Lovie Smith has attempted to cultivate as a teaching moment.

"We're going to ask our players to do a lot," Smith said. "We're going to London [for a Week 7 game]. Going into the preseason, we had the Hall of Fame game [canceled]. So we're going to ask them to get out of their routine a little bit. As a professional, you have to be able to handle adversity. ... A veteran crew should be able to handle situations like that."

Will the tumult make the Bears stronger or does it foreshadow a fall for last season's NFC North champions? We'll know soon enough.

THREE BIG ISSUES

1. Coaching pressure: Three years ago, the Bears hired one of the NFL's top defensive line gurus in Rod Marinelli, now their defensive coordinator. Last year, they added a similarly respected offensive line coach in Mike Tice. Both are being asked to develop cohesive groups from a bag of untested ingredients.

Tice has identified five offensive linemen he hopes to start this season, and it's worth noting that only one of them -- left guard Chris Williams -- finished the 2010 season in that role. Tice will need to teach guard Roberto Garza how to play center, where he is in line to replace Kreutz. He'll have to hope that J'Marcus Webb, who had his moments as a right tackle in 2010, can adjust to the more difficult left tackle spot. And he'll have to do it with a mission of cleaning up last season's 56-sack season.

For what it's worth, Tice said, "We're light-years ahead of where we were at last year. Last year we were moving guys around trying to figure out who should be at what position. This year we're getting great work, we have the same five guys in there and we're getting better every day."

[+] EnlargeChicago's Marion Barber
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesNewly acquired Bears running back Marion Barber has been running hard in practice.
Marinelli, meanwhile, has an anchor in defensive end Julius Peppers and a veteran defensive end in Israel Idonije. But he'll be asked to develop a number of young defensive tackles into playmakers, including Henry Melton and rookie Stephen Paea. We'll employ the usual refrain: It's a tough task, but if anyone is up to it, it's Marinelli.

2. Backfield rotation: An intriguing drama is playing out in the Bears backfield, where starter Matt Forte is angling for a new contract, backup Chester Taylor is trying to rebound from a statistically horrendous season and Barber is angrily running over defenders in hopes of extending his NFL career.

Forte considered holding out from camp and has expressed concern about playing in preseason games, but he reported to training camp in phenomenal shape. He has never missed a game in three seasons, and so it's hard to know whether the Bears really need two veteran runners behind him.

Conventional wisdom suggests the Bears would be better off keeping all three, considering their offense ran much better last season after offensive coordinator Mike Martz rebalanced the offense to favor the running game. But do Taylor, 31, and Barber, 28, have much left in the tank? I'm not drawing any conclusions based on someone running hard during a training camp practice.

3. Leadership void: I usually think that locker room leadership is overvalued because players come and go so frequently in the modern age of football. Leadership can, and must, be a year-to-year proposition.

But Kreutz's unexpected exit left a lingering issue with the Bears. On most successful teams, the quarterback fills the leadership role in the locker room. But in the absence of long-term answers at that position, Kreutz assumed it by default.

The Bears still don't have a quarterback who has proven he can handle that job. You can debate whether Jay Cutler was treated fairly following his knee injury in the NFC Championship Game. And you can point out leaders don't have to be "rah-rah" types like Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints. But even if you define a leader as someone other players can look to and emulate, it's hard to put Cutler in that category.

Coaches can only do so much. During times of difficulty this season, who will keep players together and focused on their jobs? If it's Cutler, it will represent a dramatic personality turnaround. Otherwise, the Bears have to hope linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, or possibly safety Chris Harris, can step up.

ROOKIE ADJUSTMENT

Rookie offensive lineman Gabe Carimi played as a left tackle at Wisconsin, and many of us thought he would be the Bears' best short-term answer at the position in 2011, even if he ultimately projected as a right tackle in the future.

Instead, the Bears have decided to put Carimi on the right side from the start. They think his strengths as a run-blocker will benefit them most there while also giving him a less competitive environment for developing his pass-blocking skills.

"I'm a pretty good run-blocker," Carimi said, having lost none of the bravado he displayed at the February scouting combine. "That is my forte. All I really have to do is keep on working on my pass pro. I'll get there -- to where I'll be an elite pass protector, too."

But Carimi also noted he has been a right tackle for "about 10 days" and said months of offseason work split equally between the left and right side still left him at square one when training camp opened.

"There is nothing you can do other than doing it every day in practice," Carimi said. "You're not going to get those good reps until you go against actual defensive ends with pads on."

[+] EnlargeChicago's Olin Kreutz
Mike DiNovo/US PRESSWIREThe Bears will move Roberto Garza to center following the departure of Olin Kreutz.
VETERAN ADJUSTMENT

At first, Roberto Garza wasn't thrilled when the Bears asked him to open camp at center.

"I thought Olin was coming back," he said. "I didn't think that was going to be even an issue. We've had to move on. ... If that's the role I'm going to perform, I've got to go out there and do it to the best of my ability."

By all appearances, Garza is a competent center who won't have Kreutz's savvy at the position but will find a way to get by. He'll stay right at center unless the Bears have a problem with one of their guards, in which case he will move over and Chris Spencer will take over at center.

After 10 years in relative obscurity, however, it appears Garza is about to step into a role that will prove critical to the Bears' 2011 success.

"At guard, I was spoiled," Garza said. "Olin made everything. Now everything is on my shoulders to go out there and get everybody squared away. It's a learning process as well. I have to go out there and do some things playing center that I didn't do as a guard."

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Much of the attention has gone to the arrival of Williams, but those at Bears camp say Devin Hester has had an outstanding summer. After a full season in Martz's system, Hester is running routes more confidently and catching everything thrown his way.
  • There were two early camp storylines as they related to Cutler: That he had improved his footwork in the pocket and had lost weight. Absent a confirmation on the weight, I can attest that Cutler certainly looked slimmer. As for footwork, I can't possibly speculate. I don't think he has ever had a problem getting away from center. If anything, he just has never had to set his feet and position his body like most quarterbacks must to get heat on his passes. But if that's what Cutler worked on this offseason, he deserves credit for addressing an issue that most quarterbacks in their late 20s have either mastered or give up on.
  • Another consequence of the Bears' roster upheaval: Kellen Davis is atop the Bears' depth chart at tight end. Davis an athletic 6-foot-7, and the Bears presumably trust him as a blocker. Some of you have asked if he is a potential breakout star in 2011, but let's remember he has 11 receptions in his career. If anything, I think his ascendance reflects the limited value that Martz places on pass-catching tight ends.
  • The inadvertent quote award for Bears camp goes to Peppers, who was asked about his relatively modest total of eight sacks last season. "I don't like to put a number on stats," Peppers said. He went on to add: "Like I always say, it's an indicator. It doesn't really tell the full story of how a player should be evaluated." In all seriousness, Peppers' All-Pro status was fully warranted last season, no matter where his sack totals ended up.
  • Many fans have been interested in receiver Andy Fantuz, a 6-foot-4 former CFL player. But the new receiver who has caught the eye of many camp-goers is Dane Sanzenbacher, an undrafted rookie from Ohio State who seems well-suited for the slot position in Martz's offense.

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