NFC North: Brandon Manumaleuna
We'll find out soon whether it was George McCaskey who fired Jerry Angelo on Tuesday or whether the parting was mutual. But make no mistake: One of the NFL's most stable franchises has jumped into uncertain waters for the first time in a decade. The move is a surprise mostly because it came from the Bears. Angelo's 11 seasons are more than most NFL franchises give their general managers.
Angelo has run the Bears' football operations since 2001. He hired coach Lovie Smith in 2004, and together they have one of the longest tenures of any football leadership structure in the NFL. Angelo's departure leaves every aspect of the Bears' program under review, including Smith, and there is no telling where that might lead. Smith signed a contract extension last winter through the 2013 season, but after today he won't be working for the person who hired him. That situation rarely bodes well for a head coach, at least in the long term.
We'll get more into Angelo's time with the Bears as the day progresses. Suffice it to say, it will go down as a mix of on-the-field success and front-office missteps, including a series over the past calendar year that suggested Angelo's regime was lively but disorganized. A botched draft-day trade with the Baltimore Ravens, the failure of free-agent signings Chester Taylor and Brandon Manumaleuna, (which cost the McCaskey family about $12 million for nearly no production) and the arrest of receiver Sam Hurd on federal drug distribution suspicion were the latest examples. Eventually, those things pile up.
More to come.
The contract of new Chicago Bears safety Brandon Meriweather is a prime case in point. We outlined a number of possible explanations for Meriweather's arrival last weekend. But as Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune points out, Meriweather signed a one-year contract that will pay him like a starting player. He received a $1 million signing bonus, has a $2.25 million base salary and is now the Bears' highest-paid safety.
Meriweather's $3.25 million in total compensation is decent market value for a safety with two Pro Bowls on his résumé. It's not the type of money teams typically pay for a player they expect to spend 16 games as a backup and special-teams contributor, even if it's a team like the Bears with a significant salary cap surplus.
A wise guy would note the Bears have committed significant money to part-time players before. Last year, for example, they paid running back Chester Taylor and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna a combined $13 million.
In this case, I see no need for sarcasm. The Bears are expected to start safeties Chris Harris and Major Wright in Sunday's season opener against the Atlanta Falcons, but the finances behind Meriweather's arrival suggest change is on the horizon.
Earlier Monday, you probably heard the news that the Chicago Bears were planning to release tailback Chester Taylor. Agent Ken Sarnoff, in fact, tweeted that coach Lovie Smith had informed Taylor of the news.
But Taylor wasn't among the five players the Bears waived.
The Bears then informed Sarnoff that Taylor had not been released and was expected at practice. He has since been sent home for the day.
- One way or another, Taylor isn't going to be a part of the Bears' offense this season. Veteran Marion Barber, assuming he recovers from a strained calf muscle, is the Bears' No. 2 tailback behind Matt Forte.
- It might be a long shot, but it makes sense for the Bears to hold on to Taylor until they can at least determine whether any NFL team is willing to trade for him. His $1.25 million salary for 2010 is hardly prohibitive.
- As a players’ coach, Smith probably was doing his best to level with Taylor as soon as possible. What Smith said and what Taylor heard might not be the same. In fact, Smith told reporters that he told Taylor that he wasn't in the team's plans for its preseason finale Thursday -- but nothing beyond that.
- The Bears obviously weren't anywhere close to as happy with Taylor's 2010 debut as they pretended to be. Although offensive coordinator Mike Martz has sung his praises, the reality is Taylor produced the lowest per-carry average (2.4 yards) of any post-merger NFL running back who had at least 100 carries. He was not a good fit last season.
- No NFL team runs perfectly, and it's often easy from the outside to make fun of mistakes that occur in the fast-paced world of roster management. That said, the Bears have had enough stumbles over the years to feed a perception they have a disorganized front office. Some of the mistakes have been harmful and have led to the departure of players they wanted to keep, including receiver D'Wayne Bates. Others, like the botched draft-day trade this spring with the Baltimore Ravens, were simply embarrassing. The latest episode likely eliminated any possibility of getting an asset in return for Taylor and won't inspire confidence among other players that they can believe what the team tells them.
- No owner likes to see money wasted, and general manager Jerry Angelo will have to answer for the $7 million in compensation the Bears gave Taylor as well as the $6 million-plus they gave since-departed tight end Brandon Manumaleuna in March 2010. Even Monday's moves included an unforgivable financial faux pas: giving draft bust Vernon Gholston a $250,000 signing bonus for what amounted to a preseason look-see. Gholston was waived Monday.
Curly would suggest the Bears are just a victim of "soycamstance." (Oh, you're a wise guy, eh?) I think they've gotten too cute. Taylor's future has been clear from the moment Barber arrived. Why keep three veteran running backs on your roster, especially when the third proved to be a poor fit last season? And if they're worried about Barber's calf strain, do they really think Taylor could be better than he was last season? It's laughable. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.
- Greg Olsen had been traded to the Carolina Panthers for a draft pick and a player to be named, according to a Chicago Tribune report. *Update: The Bears announced they received only a draft pick, not a player, in the trade. The Tribune reports it is a third-rounder in 2012.
- Brandon Manumaleuna had been released.
- Veteran free agent Matt Spaeth has agreed to the terms of a deal.
Many of you would consider the Bears' true offensive problem to be at offensive line, not at tight end. Many of you would be right. But the tight end action was more about timing than priorities. I have to believe the Bears are hard at work on their offensive line and will have some results in the next day or so.
I'm not going to get too worked up about the Manumaleuna-Spaeth swap. The Bears wasted $6.1 million to sign Manumaleuna last year, but it came in an uncapped environment and didn't impact them in any way beyond the McCaskey family's bottom line.
On the other hand, the quick divorce with Olsen is a pretty obvious example of a team valuing scheme over skills.
It's fair to say that Olsen hasn't lived up to the expectations that go with being drafted in the first round. Did he ever get that chance? I'm not sure about that.
Two years ago, I suggested Olsen was the NFC North's next emerging star. He had developed an obvious chemistry with quarterback Jay Cutler and seemed on the verge of breaking through as an annual Pro Bowl player.
He fell short in the 2009 season but still caught 60 passes and a career-high eight touchdowns in a season that ultimately led to the firing of offensive coordinator Ron Turner. His replacement, Mike Martz, either wasn't capable or willing to adjust his scheme to fit in the unique skills of a 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end who can outrun linebackers downfield.
I can only assume the Bears are committed to Martz for the long term. If that's the case, I guess it made sense to get some value for Olsen before he departed in a huff next season as a free agent. But in any other system, Olsen would have been valuable enough to offer a contract extension. A day ago, Olsen seemed to be a foundation player for the Bears. I assumed Martz spent the offseason finding more ways to get Olsen involved, not less.
Today, he is a member of what safety Chris Harris tweeted is a team known as the "Carolina Bears." The Panthers are now coached by former Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera.
Usually, you like to see NFL teams build their scheme around their players -- not the other way around. The Bears went against the grain. We'll see how it works for them.
Recent Bears posts: Today has been a soap opera for Bears tight ends. Why would the Bears part ways with Olsen? Adam Podlesh is the Bears' new punter. The team is working offensive line targets. Former punter Brad Maynard voiced surprising animosity toward well-respected special-teams coordinator Dave Toub. The Bears have a tough decision on a contract extension for tailback Matt Forte.
Item: The Green Bay Packers have informed linebacker Brady Poppinga and defensive tackle Justin Harrell they will be released, according to Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.
Comment: Poppinga was coming off a serious knee injury. Harrell now qualifies as the biggest bust of general manager Ted Thompson's tenure. Drafted with a history of injuries, Harrell couldn't stay on the field for the Packers.
Item: The Minnesota Vikings released safety Madieu Williams.
Comment: Williams was due $5.4 million in 2011, a high price for a player who might not have made the team. He was originally signed on the advice of now-coach Leslie Frazier, but a 2008 neck injury seemed to rob him of some aggressiveness as a tackler. I'm not sure if his replacement is on the roster yet, but Tyrell Johnson might get a chance.
Item: The Detroit Lions will release linebacker Jordon Dizon.
Comment: Dizon was a vestige of Rod Marinelli's Tampa 2 defense and too small to fit into the Lions' current scheme.
Item: The Bears lost out on two free agents they have been reported to have interest in, receiver Brad Smith and offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod.
Comment: They're too busy getting straight at tight end to worry about all that.
The latest: According to the Chicago Tribune, the Bears plan to release tight end Brandon Manumaleuna by the end of the day. That news comes on top of reports the Bears are shopping incumbent Greg Olsen for a trade and have agreed to terms with free agent Matt Spaeth.
I don't know if anyone outside of Halas Hall truly knows what is going on here. We've discussed the likely motivation behind trading Olsen, namely that Mike Martz's offense doesn't place a high value on pass-catching tight ends. But the Bears signed Manumaleuna specifically for this scheme and in large part because of his history with Martz, paying him a contract that guaranteed him $6.1 million.
Manumaleuna is due a roster bonus of $1 million before the start of the regular season. He has struggled with knee injuries and was also fined $22,000 last season for missing team meetings.
Spaeth is mostly known as a blocking tight end and would presumably replace Manumaleuna in that role. Does that mean Olsen will remain with the Bears this season? I don't think Spaeth's arrival changes that question one way or the other. The issue is whether the Bears want to pay market value for a tight end whose skills don't totally fit their system. If they were shopping Olsen this week, chances are they have made up their mind on that question. Stay tuned.
Recent Bears posts: Why would the Bears part ways with Olsen? Adam Podlesh is the Bears' new punter. The team is working offensive line targets. Former punter Brad Maynard voiced surprising animosity toward well-respected special-teams coordinator Dave Toub. The Bears have a tough decision on a contract extension for tailback Matt Forte.
As we've noted a few times, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has been quietly leading players-only workouts for offensive skill positions this spring in the north Chicago suburbs. According to those present, Cutler has shown no signs of the sprained knee that forced him to leave the NFC Championship Game five months ago.
Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune spoke to several Bears who have participated. Receiver Rashied Davis said Cutler looks "healthy," and running back Kahlil Bell said he has been "fantastic."
Those anecdotal reports mesh with the information dispensed in January, when Cutler was diagnosed with a second-degree sprain of his medial collateral ligament. No surgery was required, and Cutler has rehabilitated on his own during the lockout.
Meanwhile, according to McClure, two prominent skill-position players haven't been participating in Cutler's workouts: Tight end Brandon Manumaleuna and tailback Chester Taylor. For what it's worth, Taylor has traditionally worked out on his own in Houston during the offseason throughout his career.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Rookie quarterback Nathan Enderle has not been present at the Bears' workouts, notes Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com.
- We'll let WLS-Ch. 7 handle this one: "National Football League attorneys are investigating a porn event advertisement that features several NFL players including a prominent member of the Chicago Bears and a top draft pick from the University of Illinois, according to a league official Tuesday evening." Bears safety Major Wright is billed as a party host and appears in a photograph with his Bears uniform.
- Former Bears defensive end Alex Brown is looking forward to playing the Bears in Week 2 with the New Orleans Saints, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune.
- Don't forget that cornerback Jack Williams is still on the Detroit Lions' roster, writes Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
- The Lions need big years from their draft class of 2009, writes Tim Twentyman of the Detroit News.
- Gil Brandt of NFL.com had this observation of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford after seeing him work out in Dallas: "From the waist up, Stafford looked like an offensive lineman. From the waist down, he had the legs of a wide receiver. In other words, not only is he fully recovered from the shoulder injury that sidelined him much of the 2010 season, but he also has gotten himself into phenomenal shape."
- Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com examines whether Green Bay Packers receiver Donald Driver will have a chance to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
- The Minnesota Vikings will let the city of Mankato, Minn., know by July 18 if they will hold training camp there this summer, according to Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune. If so, camp would begin July 31.
- Vikings coach Leslie Frazier spoke with receiver Sidney Rice during the one-day lockout respite in April, notes Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.
- Vikings owner Zygi Wilf and other team officials met with Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and other state leaders for 90 minutes on the stadium issue Tuesday. The sides are hoping to have an agreement on how to pay for road improvements by the end of the week, according to Rochelle Olson of the Star Tribune.
- Quarterback Brett Favre on whether he wants to play in 2011: "I don't want to put my body through that anymore," he said. "I've been beat up enough." The Sun-Herald has more.
Mike Martz doesn’t use the tight end a lot in his offense. Even though the Bears' wide receivers are not a stellar group and Jay Cutler has proved to have a strong liking for Greg Olsen near the goal line, Olsen still is well down the ladder in this passing game. Olsen, a finesse tight end all the way, could be a star receiving threat if Chicago were to trade him to a better fitting offensive scheme.
Brandon Manumaleuna is a king-sized tight end who you would think might serve as an extra offensive tackle. But like the Bears’ entire offensive line, Manumaleuna was in over his head blocking last year. As a pass-catcher, he offers very little.
Kellen Davis is an interesting player whose role could grow. Although he's not a quick-twitch athlete, Davis does move pretty well and has some power and excellent size. Considering Manumaleuna’s shortcomings last season, Davis could be in line to step up.
Desmond Clark is 34 years old and didn’t play a snap last season. He is an unrestricted free agent. He may or may not be back, but certainly will not be a top priority at this stage of his career.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.
If Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy's new contract is worth $5 million annually when it is finalized, as reported by Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, then Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith can't expect much of a raise in his impending extension.
That's the conclusion drawn by Neil Hayes of the Chicago Sun-Times, who notes Smith is already earning about that total in his current deal, which expires next year. Hayes: "How can Smith claim he is worth more than the coach of the defending Super Bowl champions?"
Coaching salaries are a pretty well-kept secret around the NFL. But according to a recent Forbes.com report, the NFL's highest-paid coaches are Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots and Mike Shanahan of the Washington Redskins, both of whom are at about $7 million annually. Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks is third, at a little over $6 million per year, and Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles is fourth at $5.5 million per year.
It's been more than three weeks since the Bears' season ended with general manager Jerry Angelo confirming he planned to offer Smith an extension. There is no rush on those negotiations, but if Smith is looking for a significant raise, the discussions could take some time.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Bears tight end Brandon Manumaleuna is scheduled for arthroscopic surgery on his right knee soon, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune.
- Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette wonders if the Packers will assign the franchise tag to any of their impending free agents. Place-kicker Mason Crosby is one possibility.
- Packers running back James Starks was back in his home state Wednesday and discussed his climb up the depth chart and winning the Super Bowl.
- Minnesota Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, via Frank Tadych of NFL.com: "I feel like the window is still open. It's definitely getting smaller to me, before the rebuilding process [starts]. We have so many veterans and elite players right now on our team. A roster full of great players. ... Offensively, we have all the skill positions [filled]. It's an offensive coordinator's dream. Those are weapons that are definite mismatches if put in the right position."
- Sid Hartman of the Star Tribune suggests the Vikings will use their franchise tag on linebacker Chad Greenway.
- Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reviews the Vikings' 2010 draft.
- Elliot Harrison of NFL.com offers five questions about the Detroit Lions' future.
(No, it wasn't Ndamukong Suh.)
The two exchanged awkward pleasantries, a 69-year-old activist and 27-year-old quarterback united by three words.
Keep hope alive.
(Sorry. Couldn't resist. I'll be available for flogging Monday morning.)
Tortured connections aside, I really do think Jackson's signature phrase appropriately describes what Cutler did in the Bears' 24-20 victory Sunday against the Detroit Lions. It demonstrated Cutler's tremendous progress this season and helps explain why he is on a winning team for the first time since his senior year in high school.
That's right. After leading Heritage Hill (Ind.) High School to a 15-0 record in 2001, Cutler has played on eight consecutive teams that have finished .500 or worse: four at Vanderbilt, three with the Denver Broncos and one with the Bears.
A reasonable football fan could have watched the entire game Sunday and not noticed a single thing Cutler did. But he was a winner in every sense of the word, most notably when it came time to awaken his team from a three-quarter slumber and elevate it above the self-destructing Lions.
"You need your special players to be special," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "I really thought today he stepped up."
More than anything, winners make sure their team wins. No player has more control over the outcome than a quarterback, and it's precisely what Cutler did after the Bears took over with 11 minutes, 55 seconds remaining. The Lions, hoping to seal their first NFC North victory in four years, had just failed to convert a fourth-down play and thus given up the ball at the Bears' 40-yard line.
It was that key fulcrum point that presents itself in most games. In this case, you sensed the Bears would either grab control or doom themselves to a damaging December upset. Cutler kept hope alive. Here's what he did on a six-play, 60-yard drive that won the game:
Play 1: A quick-hitting 20-yard pass to tailback Matt Forte.
Play 2: (A rushing play by tailback Chester Taylor that gained no yards.)
Play 3: A 6-yard pass to Taylor
Play 4: A 12-yard pass to receiver Earl Bennett, converting a third-and-4
Play 5: An 8-yard scramble, followed by a unnecessary roughness penalty on the Lions
Play 6: A 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Brandon Manumaleuna
Cutler completed all four of his passes for 45 yards on the drive and accounted for 88.3 percent of the Bears' yardage. Then, after the Lions punted with 5:31 remaining, Cutler completed his next four passes -- incuding a 16-yarder to Manumaleuna on second-and-11 to seal the game. In total, Culter completed eight of eight passes in the fourth quarter in bringing the Bears from a 20-17 deficit to a 24-20 victory.
You might not view that performance as anything to write home (or an entire blog post) about. But clearly, it's the kind of thing -- making the plays in important situations -- that Cutler hasn't done enough of over the past decade. No matter what mitigating factors were involved, it's hard to go nine years without a winning season simply by chance.
Getting the Bears to nine victories marked a seminal point in Cutler's career, and afterward I asked him how big it was to him.
"It's huge," Cutler said. "With all of the turmoil we went through this summer, learning a new offense. Everyone was discouraged with it early on and we stuck it through. And we're starting to get some dividends now. We've just got to keep getting better. We can't be satisfied with where we are at now."
Cutler is smart but not particularly introspective in public settings, so I didn't think he would have an emotional breakdown while addressing the issue. But for some reason he made me think of a story about former NBA player Christian Laettner, whose boorish personality could be compared to Cutler's in his worst moments.
Laettner was particularly frustrated with a stretch of games while playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves. During a postgame interview session, he began pointing to the lockers of each teammate.
"Loser," he said about the first one.
"Loser," he said about the second, and so on, until he reached his own locker.
"Winner," Laettner said, espousing his career as a college player at Duke.
It was the kind of outburst I could imagine once coming from Cutler, based on what I observed of him as recently as last season. But at the risk of being too dramatic, it sure seems that something has clicked for him in 2010.
Cutler has finished each of the Bears' past two games with a passer rating of over 100. On Sunday, not a single of his 26 throws appeared forced or otherwise directed toward a player who wasn't open. His only mistake came when two Lions defensive linemen converged on him early in the third quarter, forcing a fumble that the Lions converted into a field goal.
I'm not sure if Cutler has found maturity or a new comfort zone in Mike Martz's offense or whether he has simply had a long stretch of really good games. But since his disastrous four-interception game against the Washington Redskins on Oct. 24, Cutler has thrown 10 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. Most importantly, the Bears have won five consecutive contests with him at quarterback.
He hasn't so much as broken the 250-yard barrier in any of those games, and Sunday his longest pass was Bennett's 33-yard catch-and-run. The Bears haven't asked him to be the 4,000-yard passer they once hoped he would be. All they've asked him to do is keep hope alive. This year, at least, Jay Cutler is a winner.
Those developments lead to a convenient explanation: With his job/career/reputation on the line, Smith has dropped all loyalties and will stop at nothing to produce a season good enough to ensure self-preservation. That was my thought Monday night after Smith made underperforming defensive tackle Tommie Harris a healthy scratch and brushed aside questions about doing the same for receiver Devin Aromashodu. During a 20-17 victory over the Green Bay Packers, Smith also replaced cornerback Zack Bowman with dime back Tim Jennings.
But how much of that answer is true? Has Smith really overhauled his approach on the way to a 3-0 start?
The reality is that, if anything, Smith has amplified his traditional and core beliefs this season. The biggest change is that Smith appears to be more forcefully demanding adherence.
Let's take a look at this issue from three perspectives -- personnel, offense and defense -- to see what we come up with.
Accountability with personnel
The Bears reacquired safety Chris Harris this spring to settle a position that has been troubled since Harris originally departed in 2007. But his injury-plagued training camp led to an admittedly horrible preseason, and by early September, rumors were already circulating that Smith was angling to push rookie Major Wright into Harris' spot. They rotated in the Sept. 12 game against the Detroit Lions, and Wright's likely ascension was halted only by a hamstring injury the following week.
The same goes for Tommie Harris, whose underperformance the Bears have been trying to address for three years. He has been deactivated for one game in each of the past two seasons, and this year, Smith forced him to abandon a partial practice plan aimed at preserving his knees. But after Harris managed one tackle in the first two games, Smith moved quickly to give two other players -- Matt Toeaina and Marcus Harrison -- an opportunity. The move came on the dramatic stage of "Monday Night Football," but it wasn't out of line with previous approaches. It was just a bit more aggressive.
Meanwhile, angst over Aromashodu's plight seems a bit inflated to me. It's true that he caught a team-high five passes in a Week 1 victory over the Lions, but he also dropped a touchdown pass and is hardly one of the Bears' most indispensable players. And the reality is Bowman's mediocre tackling skills weren't a good matchup for a Packers offense that shifted to a short passing game in the second quarter.
Aromashodu told reporters this week that players "walking on egg shells" won't be productive and added that coaches need to realize "you're not going to be perfect on every play." He has a point, but it's one Smith probably doesn't see much upside to. Smith has long been described as a player's coach, and while quick hooks don't go over well with the player involved, they can actually build credibility with the rest of the locker room because appropriate consequences are being applied.
That's how I would classify the decision to fine tight end Brandon Manumaleuna $22,000 over what appeared to be a misunderstanding of the Bears' regular-season meeting schedule. Similar fines occur more often than you might think, but they are usually kept private. Only an excellent job of reporting from ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson brought this one to light.
For his part, Smith told reporters this week that his philosophy has never wavered.
"We hold the players accountable on the football field," he said. "We look at what they do on the field, and we play the guys that give us the best opportunity to win. Go back over the video. That's what I've said from the start, that's what we're saying right now. Players realize that, too."
Offensive staying power
At first blush, you look at an offense coordinated by Mike Martz and quarterbacked by Jay Cutler -- the NFL's third highest-rated passer -- and marvel at the shift from Smith's affinity for the running game. Except, when you look at the numbers, you see it is actually Martz who has made a shift.
While their passing game has far outperformed their running game, it hasn't been for lack of trying. As the first chart shows, the Bears are throwing on 56.6 percent of their plays this season. That's actually a significant drop-off from last season under coordinator Ron Turner and not that much different than the two years prior to that.
It's true that the Bears were closer to a 50-50 split during their Super Bowl season of 2006, but I wonder if that ratio would have been different if they had a 2010 version of Cutler behind center.
(For the purposes of that chart, I put half of quarterback runs into the passing category in an unscientific attempt to include scrambles as passing plays.)
What's more, Martz has found a way to get the tight end involved in the passing game, another mainstay of Smith's previous teams. In fact, Greg Olsen has 10 receptions and two touchdowns already. At that pace, he'll finish with a respectable 50-catch, 10-touchdown season.
Back to the future on defense
Take a look at the second chart. After signing free-agent defensive end Julius Peppers and putting longtime Tampa-2 disciple Rod Marinelli in charge of game-day calls, the Bears have returned to the core tenet of that scheme. For the most part, they are depending on their defensive line to provide pass rush and using their other seven players in coverage.
According to ESPN's Stats & Information, the Bears are using an extra rusher on 24 percent of their defensive snaps, cutting their blitzes by about half of their frequency over the past two seasons. And while they have managed only one sack with their four-man rush, you can't argue with the results from a big-picture perspective. Quarterbacks have a 73.6 passer rating when the Bears don't blitz, the ninth lowest in the league, and have scored only one touchdown in those situations.
The Bears are 3-0 for many reasons. One of them, I think, has been Smith's adherence to his core values -- and not the discovery of a new approach.
The Bears fined Manumaleuna $22,000 last Saturday for missing mandatory team meetings the day before a season-opening 19-14 victory against the Detroit Lions, reports Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com. Manumaleuna did not start but did play in the game.
According to Dickerson, Manumaleuna was confused about the Bears' pre-game meeting schedule. Clearly, the Bears didn't buy that excuse. Every team has slightly different fine schedules, but generally speaking, $22,000 is a high number for missing one day's worth of meetings.
Manumaleuna is a longtime favorite of offensive coordinator Mike Martz and will earn $6.1 million this season, so he's not going anywhere. But clearly, favoritism has its limits.
I can't in good conscience hype up any of them, but I do think we can glean at least some pertinent information. So with that in mind, let's sketch out preseason Week 1 in the NFC North, all of which will take place Saturday night.
Opponent: San Diego Chargers
Location: Qualcomm Stadium
Time: 9 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Starters could play as much as two quarters. Tight end Brandon Manumaleuna (knee) and wide receiver Earl Bennett (hamstring) might not play.
My focus point: Cohesion of an offensive line that began taking shape this week. Do we see obvious missed assignments and clogged running lanes? Or does the line protect quarterback Jay Cutler and provide room for running backs Matt Forte and Chester Taylor?
Opponent: Pittsburgh Steelers
Location: Heinz Field
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Running back Kevin Smith (knee), tight end Brandon Pettigrew (knee), safety Louis Delmas (groin), place-kicker Jason Hanson (knee), linebacker DeAndre Levy (back) and defensive end Jared DeVries (leg) are among those who have been ruled out.
My focus point: Will quarterback Matthew Stafford take his sharp practices into a game situation?
Green Bay Packers
Opponent: Cleveland Browns
Location: Lambeau Field
Time: 8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Starters will get about 20 plays of action. Prominent scratches could include linebacker Nick Barnett, safety Will Blackmon (knee), linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring) and guard/center Jason Spitz.
My focus point: Does rookie safety Morgan Burnett, who might have to open the season in place of Atari Bigby, know what he's doing?
Opponent: St. Louis Rams
Location: Edward Jones Dome
Time: 8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Starters will play a couple series at best. Prominent scratches could include receivers Sidney Rice (hip) and Percy Harvin (migraines), center John Sullivan (calf), tailback Adrian Peterson(hamstring), cornerback Cedric Griffin (knee) and linebacker E.J. Henderson (leg).
My focus point:The performance of right cornerback candidates Lito Sheppard, Chris Cook and Asher Allen.
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears have returned to the pastoral campus of Olivet Nazarene University, a sleepy college setting for the methodical and slow pace of an NFL training camp. But make no mistake. Despite outside appearances, the Bears are in a desperate race against the clock to straighten themselves out on both sides of the ball this summer.
Operating under a win-or-else mandate from team president Ted Phillips, the Bears urgently are installing a new offensive scheme while blending in as many as six players into different positions on defense. The team with the most unknowns in the NFC North is the one that can least afford them.
Yet coach Lovie Smith opened camp with an optimism that bordered on fantasy, suggesting that not only will the Bears smooth out all of the edges this summer but that they are legitimate Super Bowl candidates.
"We've had success before," Smith said. "We know what a Super Bowl football team looks like. So this part of the season, all teams can do is talk about the potential they have for their football team and see if there are any glaring weaknesses. We just don't see that. We see guys in positions with an opportunity to really excel and take a big step forward. Before now it was about getting personnel, getting a lot of outside things set. Now, it's down to just the coaches and the players with football and we feel good about that."
Smith has instituted a "Monsters of the Midway" theme even as national attention has focused on the installation of Mike Martz's pass-focused offense. Smith is looking for something -- anything -- to hook on to after missing the playoffs for three consecutive seasons. "We just want to be an aggressive, tough football team," he said.
Competing in a division with two other Super Bowl contenders, they have no choice.
THREE HOT ISSUES
Why? The Bears' first five games include a pair of divisional games at home, against Detroit and Green Bay, and three tough road games at Dallas, the New York Giants and Carolina. That schedule is tough enough as it is. If a still-developing offense contributes to, say, a 1-4 or 2-3 start, it won't matter how good the offense eventually becomes. The die will be cast.
It's almost unfair to grade an offense on that kind of curve, but every high throw and missed hole -- and there were a fair share of both during the practices I watched -- must be noted. It was interesting to hear quarterback Jay Cutler's description of the scheme in an interview with ESPN's Adam Schefter.
"Very complicated," Cutler said. "You see some of the stuff on film and you hear stories from different quarterbacks, how hard it is to learn, how difficult it is. But once you grasp it, it is very dynamic and you can be very successful in it. But I've heard that there is a lot of speed bumps in it."
Unfortunately for Cutler and the Bears, this situation is too urgent to be slowed by speed bumps.
2. Are the Bears going to be better at safety? Smith identified the position as a critical area of need this offseason, and general manager Jerry Angelo complied by re-acquiring veteran Chris Harris and making Major Wright his top draft choice. Smith believed it was critical to have Harris because "you need some veterans around that have been through it that know how to play."
But Harris, who sat out some spring drills to freshen up his legs, didn't make it past the second practice of camp before being sidelined by a strained back. The Bears have high hopes for Wright, but don't think he's ready to step in to the starting lineup so early in camp. So when the Bears lined up for their first full-pads practice of the summer, their first-team safeties were holdovers Danieal Manning and Craig Steltz.
Nothing against either player, but they represent the status quo. By definition, that's no upgrade. During 11-on-11 drills in Saturday night's full-pads practice, Bears receivers had their way with the secondary. Their first-team secondary did not manage an interception, and cornerback Zack Bowman dropped the only real opportunity.
During early practices this summer, Forte and Taylor both got extensive work with the first team at roughly a 50-50 split. That won't necessarily continue into regular-season games, but it would represent the best way to utilize both players' skills while keeping them fresh for a 16-game season.
Both are solid inside runners and above-average receivers, making them good fits for Martz's attack.
"You look at all the success that Marshall Faulk had in this offense and know it can happen," Forte said. "As for carries and all that, it'll be up to the offensive coordinator. He'll make that call game-to-game."
We've noted that Cutler favored receiver Johnny Knox during early practices, while Devin Hester, Earl Bennett and Devin Aromashodu played secondary roles. But the bigger surprise was how frequently -- and, probably, deliberately -- the Bears threw to their tight ends in the first practice of the summer. Backup tight end Desmond Clark caught at least eight passes during team drills, and of the first 29 passes Cutler threw in those drills, eight went toward tight ends. That might not sound like a high number, but keep in mind that no tight end has caught more than 38 passes over the course of a season in Martz's offense. "I have heard an awful lot about the tight end not being involved in our offense," Smith said. "... Well, you saw that the tight ends will be a big part of our offense."
Pass defense is equal parts rush and coverage, and while the Bears took steps to improve both this offseason, the fruits weren't immediately clear in training camp. That was particularly true in coverage, where Harris was immediately sidelined by the injury and Bowman and Charles Tillman were laboring to smooth out their new positions on opposite sides of the field. It's really too early to call the Bears' pass defense a disappointment, but it was an element I wasn't able to get a good feel for during the opening days of camp.
- As promised, defensive end Julius Peppers was working on both sides of the line during early practices. His matchups against right tackle Frank Omiyale were particularly entertaining. The excitement over Martz's offense took some of the spotlight off Peppers' arrival, but he knows how much the Bears are counting on him when the season begins. "I've been in that position my entire career," he said. "I know what that's like and I'm fine with it."
- Clark's future has been in question since the Bears signed free-agent tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, presumably to pair with Greg Olsen on the first team. But it's hard to imagine the Bears parting ways with Clark, who at 33 is determined to prove he can make it in a pass-oriented offense. "I'm trying to establish a role right now," Clark said. "That's all I can do right now is try to show and prove that I can play in the offense, and leave it up to the coaches to create a role for me."
- Smith created a mini-stir on the opening day of camp by declaring that Peppers' presence could lead to more blitzing than last season. Two quick points here. Peppers' individual pass-rushing skills should lessen the need to blitz, lifting pressure on the back end of the defense. Second, the Bears blitzed more than all but four teams last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They can't blitz much more than that. What I think Smith was trying to say: His secondary will do a better job in man-to-man defense, allowing more flexibility from a play-calling standpoint.
- It's pretty clear that Tillman isn't thrilled with the move from left cornerback to right cornerback, which symbolically equates to a demotion from the No. 1 cornerback role to No. 2. Tillman said he had "no idea" why the change was made and said the adjustment to playing on the opposite side is not insignificant. But it was the right decision for the Bears. Bowman, the new "No. 1," is a ball hawk of the first degree.
- Martz hired Shane Day as his quarterbacks coach this offseason, but during the first few days of camp, Martz worked almost exclusively with the quarterbacks himself and was rarely more than a few feet away from Cutler. Both men know how important the other is to their collective success this season. As a result, Martz's early practice plan has featured Cutler and backup Caleb Hanie getting all of the snaps in team drills. Teams usually find some snaps for the No. 3 and/or No. 4 quarterbacks, but the Bears' situation is too urgent this summer.
- Defensive tackle Tommie Harris routinely sat out selected practices in recent years to rest his aching knee. So it was worth noting that he participated fully in two practices Saturday, including the evening session in full pads, while several other veterans -- center Olin Kreutz and linebacker Brian Urlacher among them -- did not.
- Kreutz, who had Achilles surgery last winter and sat out most of the offseason program, seems to have fully recovered. He had a jump in his step during practice and said: "I'm ready to go."
- For what it's worth, the Bears' roster includes the biggest safety I've ever seen. Rookie Quentin Scott, an undrafted free agent out of Northern Iowa, is listed at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. Both figures might be understatements. I have no idea if he can play, but, I mean, wow.
That's right. The veteran tight end was the standout player of the two-hour affair, beginning with a spectacular one-handed catch during individual drills and extending into 11-on-11 drills in which he caught everything thrown his way. I was busy tracking another portion of practice -- more on that in a bit -- but conservatively speaking, I would say Clark caught at least eight downfield passes from quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Caleb Hanie.
Clark said afterwards that he couldn't remember a practice in his 12-year-career that included so many downfield receptions. Not only did it come in an offense that has historically ignored tight ends, but it came for a player whose position on the team appears far from secure.
If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would wonder if new coordinator Mike Martz intentionally orchestrated the practice to send a public message after months of discussion of tight end's role in his offense -- past, present and future. But I'm not. So I won't. I'm sure he didn't. No way.
"Hopefully we just keep it going," Clark said. "Not only me, but hopefully all the tight ends can make plays down the field. Hopefully it can build the confidence of our offense that we can make those plays down the field all season."
During most of practice, the Bears used two tight ends with their first-team group: Greg Olsen and newcomer Brandon Manumaleuna. Clark remains a strong locker room presence, however, and after Friday's showing, I think it's pretty clear he can still get it done on the field as well.
Some other observations from Day 1 at Olivet Nazarene University:
- I tracked the first 29 plays that featured Cutler during team drills, be it 7-on-7 or 11-on-11. I wanted to see who Cutler might be favoring, if anyone, at the start of camp. By my count, Cutler threw more passes to receiver Johnny Knox (nine) than anyone else. I saw one interception, by cornerback Zack Bowman on a lazy pass down the right sideline for receiver Earl Bennett. I don't think we should draw any conclusions yet, other than the fact that coaches entered training camp hoping Knox would grow into a featured role. No surprise there.
- I almost didn't recognize defensive lineman Israel Idonije, who has lost 20-plus pounds in order to focus his energies at defensive end. Idonije is about 265 pounds, which when spread over his 6-foot-6 frame, actually makes him look thin. He worked with the second team behind starting defensive ends Julius Peppers and Mark Anderson.
- Johan Asiata got the first repetitions at left guard, but the Bears rolled in Josh Beekman with the first team as well. I'm betting the Bears give Asiata every chance to win the job.
- In other position news, Nick Roach was working with the first team at strong-side linebacker. Pisa Tinoisamoa was with the second team.
- For what it's worth, reserve quarterback Mike Teel has a nice arm -- one that appeared stronger than rookie Dan LeFevour's on Friday. Don't tell that to any of the legions of LeFevour fans in Illinois, however.
- Players were in shorts and shells Friday, but they will be in full pads for Saturday night's practice, coach Lovie Smith said.
- The weather couldn't have been more perfect for a training camp practice. Temperatures were in the low 70's, clouds kept the sun away and we had only the briefest of rain showers.