NFC North: Jeremy Bates

We're Black and Blue All Over:

Here's a good news/bad news development for the Detroit Lions. The good news is their coaching staff will manage one of the two Senior Bowl teams for the second time in four seasons. The bad news? Well, it's the same thing. Playoff teams don't coach in the Senior Bowl, and typically priority starts with the NFL's worst team and works its way down until someone accepts. It's not an honor you want more than once.

At the same time, there is unquestionable value in spending extra time with the draft prospects. Last season, for example, the Minnesota Vikings liked Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith so much they decided to draft him after the Senior Bowl and never visited with him again so as to limit evidence of their interest.

The game, which follows a week's worth of practices, is scheduled for Jan. 26 in Mobile, Ala.

Let's take our morning spin around the NFC North:

Free Head Exam: Chicago Bears

December, 10, 2012
12/10/12
3:10
PM ET
After the Chicago Bears' 21-14 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    Quarterback Jay Cutler said during his ESPN 1000 radio show that his stiff neck shouldn't keep him out of next Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers. Cutler allowed the Vikings to set the tone with a pass rush that prevented him from finding a rhythm. He completed only one of eight passes against the Vikings' blitz for eight yards, according to ESPN's Stats & Information. And Sunday might have been one of the few occasions when Cutler has forced the ball too often to receiver Brandon Marshall. Cutler (14) and backup Jason Campbell (one) threw 15 passes to Marshall that traveled at least 10 yards in the air. That was the highest total in one game for a wide receiver in at least the past five years. Cutler completed only two of seven such throws in the second half, one of which was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Vikings safety Harrison Smith, and the Bears couldn't close the gap created by an early deficit.
  2. Running back Michael Bush only got two snaps because of a recurring rib injury that had left him questionable for the game. That is one of an inordinate amount of injuries the Bears are dealing with for their key people. Cutler might miss some practice time this week. Bush obviously had a setback. Receiver Earl Bennett is trying to come back from a concussion. Linebacker Brian Urlacher has a hamstring injury that could keep him off the field for the rest of the regular season. The same goes for cornerback Tim Jennings' shoulder injury. Place-kicker Robbie Gould's calf strain might necessitate reinforcements. Rookie defensive end Shea McClellin suffered a knee injury Sunday that prevented his return. Two of the Bears' best special teams players, Craig Steltz and Sherrick McManis, left Sunday's game because of chest and knee injuries, respectively. That's a long list of ailments for a team that needs to win at least two of its last three games, and perhaps all of them, to make the playoffs.
  3. The Bears rotated Edwin Williams and James Brown at left guard, with Brown actually getting more snaps (42) than Williams (36). Offensive coordinator Mike Tice has spoken highly of Brown since training camp, and you wonder if he is considering using Brown as a starter as Chris Spencer deals with a knee injury. Brown is an undrafted rookie and the Bears have already used five different starting guards this season, but his sudden entrance into the game Sunday was worth noting.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Earlier this season, we noted the Bears hadn't established an offensive identity. Other than Cutler's connection to Marshall, it wasn't easy to come up with a long list of things the Bears do well offensively. After Week 14, that's still the case. They rank No. 18 in the NFL in yards per carry (4.2), No. 27 in passing yards per game and No. 28 in scoring. At the end of this season, whenever that comes, we'll have to ask whether the Bears' preseason plan to mesh their former scheme, Tice's philosophies and the ideas of quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates all into one offense was too complicated a task.

Free Head Exam: Chicago Bears

October, 23, 2012
10/23/12
3:15
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After the Chicago Bears' 13-7 victory over the Detroit Lions, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    I thought it was interesting to see defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli beef up his blitz packages against the Lions, who for the most part had been stymied this season by four-man pass rushes and maximum coverage. Marinelli blitzed regularly early in the game and finished with blitzes on 28.8 percent of quarterback Matthew Stafford's dropbacks. The Bears entered the game blitzing on about 20 percent of opposing dropbacks, and Stafford had been facing the blitz on about 12 percent of the time. In the end, the Bears did most of their damage when they sent four pass-rushers. That's how they got two of their three sacks as well as their fourth-quarter interception. But anecdotally, I thought Marinelli's early blitzing prevented Stafford from getting into a rhythm and forced him to leave the pocket far more often than he likes to. Coach Jim Schwartz agreed. "They threw our timing off," he said.
  2. The Bears did as good of a job on receiver Calvin Johnson as any team in recent memory. Monday night was only the third time Johnson has been held under three receptions in his past 24 games dating back to 2010, and it wasn't for lack of trying. Stafford targeted him on 11 passes, but cornerback Charles Tillman made the connections difficult. Tillman finished with two tipped passes, in some ways proving that the best way to defend big receivers is with big cornerbacks. "It's hard for Detroit to win games without him being productive," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "That’s why you need a guy like Charles Tillman that can match up on him and it made them go and look at other ways to get the ball down the field. That's going to lead us to a win most of the time if we can get that effort out of Charles."
  3. After watching the Lions struggle to get the ball to Johnson, Bears fans should have an appreciation for the way offensive coordinator Mike Tice, quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates and quarterback Jay Cutler have found ways to get the ball to Marshall consistently. He caught six of the team's 16 completions Monday, including three when the Bears got him matched up about new Lions nickel back Alphonso Smith. On the season, Marshall has caught 38.7 percent of the Bears' completions, the highest rate in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He is also the only receiver this season who has accounted for at least 40 percent of his team's receiving yards. Opponents aren't dumb. They are gameplanning to stop Marshall as their top priority in the Bears' passing game. But with the exception of the Week 2 loss to the Green Bay Packers, the Bears have been one step ahead.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Is Marshall speaking for a silent majority in the Bears locker room, or only as fiercely loyal friend, in repeated suggestions that Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh crossed a line with his second-quarter sack of Cutler, which bruised the quarterback's ribs? We've already noted Marshall's late-night tweets on the topic. Tuesday morning, he told ESPN's First Take that the play was "dirty" and "not clean." Publicly, anyway, no one else from the Bears has backed him up. Smith and Cutler both referred to it as an acceptable, if painful, football play. If more players and coaches secretly feel the way Marshall does, we could have a pretty interesting rematch in the season finale at Ford Field.

Previewing preseason Week 1

August, 9, 2012
8/09/12
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In which we look ahead to NFC North preseason football over the next two days. (A separate post on the Green Bay Packers' Thursday night turn on ESPN is right here.)

Chicago Bears
Opponent: Denver Broncos
Location:
Soldier Field
Day/Time:
Thursday/8:30 p.m. ET
Personnel notes:
Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher (knee) is among those who won't play in a game most of the NFL will watch to see the return of Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. Urlacher has missed a week of practice because of soreness in his knee and then personal reasons, and it's possible the mystery surrounding his absence could be cleared up if he is in attendance at Soldier Field. Nick Roach will start in his place. … Defensive end Alex Brown signed a 1-year contract and will retire in an on-field ceremony before the game. … It's also worth noting that quarterback Jay Cutler, receiver Brandon Marshall and quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates will be facing the team that began breaking up their nucleus in 2009.
Focal point: All eyes will be on left tackle J'Marcus Webb, who has a big lead in the competition for the starting job but still hasn't earned the full trust of offensive coordinator Mike Tice. Webb can either settle concerns with a solid performance or send the Bears back to the drawing board when camp resumes next week.

Detroit Lions
Opponent: Cleveland Browns
Location: Ford Field
Day/Time: Friday/7:30 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: The Lions' defensive secondary will have three starters who emerged in the past few days. Rookie cornerback Dwight Bentley has done well during stints with the first team in recent days and is expected to start opposite Chris Houston. The Lions' safeties likely will be Erik Coleman and John Wendling. Louis Delmas had knee surgery this week and it appears Amari Spievey hasn't had a great camp. … Expect tailback Kevin Smith to start but there should be plenty of work for Joique Bell and Keiland Williams, among others.
Focal point: This will be the first time when we'll see a completely healthy Nick Fairley on an NFL field, and the Lions are eager to see what he can do. Fairley broke his foot during training camp last summer and was clearly limited in the 10 games he did play in. The preseason should give us a better idea if Fairley is destined to be a dominant difference-maker, as the Lions hoped when they drafted him, or if he will simply be a member of defensive rotation.

Minnesota Vikings
Opponent: San Francisco 49ers
Location: Candlestick Park
Day/Time: Friday/9 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Tight end John Carlson (knee), running back Jordan Todman (ankle) and cornerback Josh Robinson (hamstring) are among the players who won't participate. Starters should see a few series, although coach Leslie Frazier implied that an early scoring drive could make it a short night for the first-team offense. … The defense could see more action in its first game environment under new defensive coordinator Alan Williams. … Rookie Blair Walsh is the only place-kicker in camp, so he will get all of the kicks this preseason. We'll see if he gets the opportunity to demonstrate the strong leg he has displayed this summer.
Focal point: The Vikings have more than a half-dozen new starters, but from now through the foreseeable future, all eyes will be on quarterback Christian Ponder to gauge the level of his progress from a rocky rookie season. Preseason performance isn't always an indicator of true development, but we have found that to be the case with other young quarterbacks in this division.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave comes across as your classic mild-mannered schemer, the kind whose brief and measured conversation suggests a man whose mind is always focused on the next play call. But it sounds as if Musgrave and his offensive assistants turned up a verbal assault Monday night on the Vikings' offense, disappointed in its sloppy training camp performance earlier in the day and demanding a better one Tuesday.

By most accounts, Musgrave got what he wanted.

The Vikings had a sharper practice Tuesday and quarterback Christian Ponder offered a glimpse of Musgrave's speech. Via Dan Wiederer of the Star Tribune: "He had a great metaphor of lighting a fire. He finds some unique ways of motivating us. But it works. I'm not going to go into details. It might get some people in trouble. … Let's just say it involved a bucket of water, some leaves and some sticks. It was interesting."

It wouldn't be the first time a coach lit into players during a training camp practice, but it's also a fact that the Vikings are under enormous pressure to improve from their dismal 2011 offensive performance. Sometimes, that can lead to, ahem, a fiery mix.

Continuing around the NFC North:

Camp Confidential: Chicago Bears

July, 30, 2012
7/30/12
10:00
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BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Summer visitors to Olivet Nazarene University are greeted by navy blue banners promoting the Chicago Bears' training camp. Bears logos are plastered all around town. Marquees invite the hungry and thirsty to patronize local establishments.

In 2012, there was a notable addition to the welcoming committee. Emboldened by a newly fortified offense and a veteran defense that hasn't gotten old yet, the Bears opened training camp with the highest of expectations.

Overt talk of a Super Bowl run hits you from every angle. You see it on a championship prediction posted outside an elementary school near campus. You hear it chanted from 12,000 fans attending practice. You notice the Bears' normally mild-mannered place-kicker drawing powerful conclusions.

"There's no doubt that this year by far is our best chance to win a Super Bowl," kicker Robbie Gould said on the eve of camp Listen. "We have the talent. Yeah, we do have to earn it on the field, but when it comes to putting the pieces together, this is definitely the year that we have the pieces. … I think everyone understands that this is an opportunity and that we might only get that one chance to make it to the Super Bowl and win it."

Indeed, the long-term future of this team is murky, with linebacker Brian Urlacher entering the final year of his contract and five other starters -- including quarterback Jay Cutler, linebacker Lance Briggs, receiver Devin Hester and Gould -- facing a 2013 expiration. But for the short term, the Bears couldn't be more enthused.

"I'm definitely excited about how stacked we are at each position," cornerback Charles Tillman said.

The pieces are in place, and nothing in the early days of training camp suggests otherwise.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeMike Tice
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhWith several new weapons, Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice is optimistic that his "Duh offense" won't be a dud.
1. Adding explosion to offense: I lost track of how many people used a form of the word "explosion" to describe the Bears' hope for their new offense. Offensive coordinator Mike Tice said he wants to be explosive in both the running and passing games, adding, "We have too many athletes not to be able to."

The key to explosive plays -- usually defined as runs of 12 or more yards and passes of at least 16 yards -- is getting those athletes into empty space. Tice has a simple approach to doing that, one he began preaching in the spring and continued during the early days of camp. He affectionately calls it the "Duh offense."

In essence, Tice will give Cutler the responsibility of changing plays at the line of scrimmage based on the "number count" of the defense. If a defense is aligned against the pass, Cutler can call a run. If it is stacked at the line of scrimmage, Cutler will have the ability to switch to a pass. The approach requires the type of balanced personnel the Bears have and produces volume mismatches at the point of attack.

2. Play calling: Tice's experience in developing successful offenses is unquestioned, as is his expertise in matching a scheme with the capability of an offensive line. The one thing Tice hasn't done in 30-plus years in the NFL is be a team's primary playcaller over the course of a season, a task he is preparing for in training camp.

Quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates will relay the call to Cutler during games, but the calls will originate with Tice.

"It's all about rhythm," Tice said. "It's all about good installation. It's about the right balance and making sure you understand what your opponent is trying to do in certain situations. It'll be fine."

3. Defensive assumptions: Optimism about the Bears has been generated mostly by additions they made to their offense, such as receiver Brandon Marshall, running back Michael Bush and Bates. It has been assumed that the Bears' special teams will maintain its annual strength and that an aging defense has at least one more top-level season in it.

Urlacher (34) looked like his usual self after rehabilitating a knee injury all offseason. Defensive end Julius Peppers (32), Briggs (31) and Tillman (31) all appear to be in excellent shape.

"I don't feel like it's my 10th year," Tillman said. "My body doesn't feel like it. My mind doesn't feel like it. I feel good -- mind, spiritually."

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

No one is going to confuse Cutler with Alvin Wong, aka "the happiest man in the world," but Cutler arrived at camp and moved through its first few days with the buoyancy of a man who has been placed squarely in position to succeed.

"This is the most comfortable I think I've been going into a camp with the offense and what we are doing scheme-wise and the talent around me," Cutler said.

Those who know him best agree.

"He looks a lot more comfortable," said receiver Earl Bennett, Cutler's longtime teammate dating to their Vanderbilt days. "He just looks ready to go. He's excited about the new toys he has on offense and the guys surrounding him, and he's just excited about the season."

Arriving at training camp, Cutler said, "was like Christmas."

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

[+] EnlargeJ'Marcus Webb
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesCan the Bears count on J'Marcus Webb to consistently protect the blind side of QB Jay Cutler?
Left tackle is one of the most important positions on a team, and it is one of the Bears' few legitimate question marks. A competition between J'Marcus Webb and Chris Williams is probably Webb's to lose, but at the very least, it's nerve-wracking to launch a Super Bowl run without an established starter to protect a quarterback's blind side.

Webb and Williams alternated with the first team during the practices I watched, and it's clear that Webb has the physical tools to play the position. Williams, on the other hand, hasn't played left tackle in two years and might be a fallback if Webb can't eliminate the mental and technique mistakes that plagued him in 2011.

"We'll turn the heat on both of them," Tice said. "We want to see who is going to block our good pass-rushers."

Competition isn't a bad thing, but the Bears need a winner to emerge, rather than being left to select the less-damaging option.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • We've discussed the likelihood of Bush serving as the Bears' short-yardage and goal-line back. At 245 pounds, Bush is better suited and has had more career success in that role than starter Matt Forte. But Bush made clear he would rather not be pigeon-holed in that manner. "That's the role I've been stuck with because of my size," Bush said. "If that's what I've got to do, then that's what I've got to do. … No one likes to be a battering ram. It just happens that way." Regardless, it makes too much sense not to give that arrangement a long look.
  • Cutler and Marshall arrived for lunch together on the first day of practice. They broke open a new critical-thinking board game at night, which Marshall referred to as "Q." (Cutler won the first two games.) Marshall said the pair's much-discussed friendship is "not always fun." He added: "In any relationship, when you take two people from two different places and you put them together, you butt heads. Because sometimes we try to impose our own wills on each other. But sometimes you understand there is no right and wrong. It's just two different people. I think that's when the relationship gets better. With Jay and I, it's always some work."
  • Perhaps their friendship made expectations unreasonably high, but I was surprised by how many miscommunications Cutler and Marshall had in their first few practices. On Day 1, I counted five passes that either hit the ground or were intercepted because Cutler threw one way and Marshall ran another. We found out in the third practice how little that mattered. Cutler and Marshall put on a show in full pads, wowing fans and players who can't remember the last time the Bears had a true No. 1 receiver.
  • Tice will undoubtedly use tight ends more in the passing game than predecessor Mike Martz, and the Bears have accumulated an interesting group to deal with. Kellen Davis figures to be the starter, with Matt Spaeth as the top blocker. But it's worth pointing out that rookie Evan Rodriguez, a fourth-round draft pick from Temple, appeared in much better shape than he was reported to be in this spring and seemed to have a knack for turning upfield quickly after the catch. "This game is about explosion," Rodriguez said. (There's that word again.) He added: "Everybody in this league is so fast. You've really got to push to get that five yards, and then after that, it's every inch that matters."
  • Rookie safety Brandon Hardin is getting work on all four special teams, including a role as the personal protector on punts. And when free safety Chris Conte briefly left practice Saturday night, it was Hardin who stepped in with the first team. "I'm looking forward to helping the team in that special-teams aspect until I get on the field as a safety," Hardin said.
  • Although there is uncertainty at left tackle, the return of 2011 draft choice Gabe Carimi has added a level of stability to the right side. Carimi reported to training camp in excellent condition, having dropped his weight to 308 pounds and lowered his body fat from 26 percent to 19 percent by changing his diet. "The goal was to have more muscle mass," he said.
  • The Bears' immediate plans are to use rookie defensive end Shea McClellin as a situational pass- rusher. In that scenario, Israel Idonije would hold a starting spot opposite Peppers. I didn't see any examples of it early in camp, but you wonder if the Bears would be tempted to use Idonije as an inside pass-rusher, with McClellin on the edge, on passing downs. Another candidate to be an inside pass-rusher is newcomer Brian Price.

CampTour'12: Bears Day 2

July, 27, 2012
7/27/12
7:09
PM ET
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Let's roll through some thoughts and observations after watching the Chicago Bears' second training-camp practice:

  • One of the prettiest plays in 1-on-1 drills came when receiver Earl Bennett hauled in a long pass down the right sideline from quarterback Jay Cutler. Bennett used some crafty veteran contact with his left arm to keep cornerback Kelvin Hayden at bay.
  • After fans cheered Bennett's catch, cornerback Tim Jennings turned to the crowd and said: "Hey, we [cornerbacks] play for you guys, too." Jennings drew a laugh.
  • The Bears' three-receiver set has been pretty consistent: Brandon Marshall, Devin Hester and Bennett usually in the slot. When Hester was shaken up briefly during team drills, rookie Alshon Jeffery replaced him on the outside. So that gives you a clear sense of the depth chart as it stands now. If the Bears keep veterans Devin Thomas and Eric Weems for special-teams purposes, and that is quite possible, it will be difficult for 2011 slot receiver Dane Sanzenbacher to make the team.
  • Special-teams coordinator Dave Toub put out some interesting lineups during kickoff-return drills. Bennett was among those manning a front-line position. Two others were rookies, safety Brandon Hardin and tight end Evan Rodriguez. Historically, it's fair to make assumptions about a young player's chances to make the team based on his standing on special teams. In other words, it's looking good very early for Rodriguez, especially. Hardin was already a lock to make the team.
  • We didn't see new defensive tackle Brian Price on Friday, a day after the Bears acquired him in a trade from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, because his physical was not complete. The Bears indicated that should happen Saturday. According to the collective bargaining agreement, however, Price must ease into training camp with three unpadded practices before he can join the team fully. So it will be a bit of time before Price is up to speed.
  • For those interested in such things, during team drills, it was quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates who relayed plays via radio to Cutler. Bates stood next to offensive coordinator Mike Tice during the process.
  • In person, running back Michael Bush proved to be a much bigger dude than I thought he was. The Bears list him at 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds, but when you see him in a T-shirt on rather than a jersey, you could easily mistake him for a linebacker or even a small defensive end.
  • The Bears' first full-pads practice is scheduled for Saturday night. I won't miss it.
Mike Tice Jerry Lai/US PresswireMike Tice may have more of a role as an offensive "manager" than that of a traditional coordinator.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how will it all work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bears Camp Watch

July, 24, 2012
7/24/12
11:00
AM ET
NFC Camp Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Dates

Three thoughts as training camps open around the NFL:

One thing I'm certain of: Quarterback Jay Cutler will demonstrate that he is the Bears' quasi-offensive coordinator. And that's not a bad thing.

After three years of surrounding him with ill-fitting talent, the Bears catered to Cutler this offseason and put him in position for his best season with the team. He has his favorite receiver (Brandon Marshall), a position coach he greatly respects (Jeremy Bates) and an offensive coordinator in Mike Tice who actively sought his input in developing the playbook.

Tice will call plays and make final decisions. But Cutler will appropriately have his hands all over the offense, and we should see evidence of that in practice drills and even interviews. That's the best way to get the most out of a talented veteran quarterback in his prime.

One thing that might happen: The Bears might find out they don't have a legitimate left tackle on the roster, the one flaw in efforts to fortify themselves around Cutler. Chris Williams and J'Marcus Webb will compete for the starting job. But to adjust an old saying: If you have two left tackles, you have none.

In an emergency, the Bears conceivably could move 2011 first-round draft pick Gabe Carimi from right tackle, but it's obviously not their preference. Both Williams and Webb have been starting left tackles in winning efforts, but as camp begins it's unclear if either has a long-term future at the position.

One thing we won't see: You never know with these things, but it's hard to imagine anyone complaining about their contract situations now that tailback Matt Forte and linebacker Lance Briggs have received new deals. Briggs requested a trade during training camp last summer, and Forte's disappointment with his status was clear as well.

Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is entering the final year of his contract but is set to make $7.5 million and has expressed no concerns. Again, sometimes contract disputes rise from nowhere, but for the moment, the Bears' financial dealings appear to be in a happy place.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com culled an interesting nugget this week: Minnesota Vikings coaches have told third-year player Everson Griffen that he will be a linebacker when training camp opens later this month.

I get more questions about Griffen than perhaps any other backup player in this division, mostly because he appears to have elite athletic ability and some good pass rush skills but is buried on the depth chart behind defensive ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison. He has never played linebacker, and at this point his 263 pounds is heavy for a 4-3 linebacker, but the Vikings are smart to try to find alternative ways to get him on the field.

Perhaps Griffen will be of particular use in nickel and special packages when the Vikings are using only three down linemen. Or perhaps he could perform well as a roving standup defensive end. Whatever form it takes, there's nothing wrong with trying to get your best athletes onto the field.

Continuing around the NFC North:
SportsCenter's divisional analysis moves to the NFC North on Tuesday night (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET). We've already discussed our most versatile players as well as potential breakout players, so let's give our television pals a pre-show primer on the biggest improvement (and regression) each division team made this offseason:

Chicago Bears: Enhanced comfort zone for quarterback Jay Cutler
In detail:
The Bears fully committed to Cutler three years after acquiring him from the Denver Broncos. They finally gave him a full complement of promising receivers, most notably his all-time favorite in Brandon Marshall. Cutler will have his choice of big downfield threats, be it Marshall or rookie Alshon Jeffery, and Devin Hester has drawn rave reviews for his work within the team's new concepts. Coach Lovie Smith hired one of Cutler's favorite former coaches, Jeremy Bates, as quarterbacks coach, and offensive coordinator Mike Tice has liberally assimilated thoughts from Bates and Cutler into his scheme. For the first time the Bears feel like Cutler's team.
Biggest regression:
The Bears' top four defensive players -- linebacker Brian Urlacher, defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman -- all got a year older without the team acquiring a potential heir at any of their positions. (Rookie defensive end Shea McClellin is projected to fill the Bears' spot opposite of Peppers.)

Detroit Lions: Insurance and a long-term plan at left tackle
In detail:
The Lions mostly stood pat this offseason, making it their top priority to keep together a nucleus that earned a playoff spot three years after the franchise bottomed out at 0-16. They accomplished that goal by reaching contract agreements with receiver Calvin Johnson and linebacker Stephen Tulloch while franchising defensive end Cliff Avril. Retaining young players with room for growth counts as an improvement, but most notably, the Lions hatched a legitimate plan for the end of left tackle Jeff Backus' career. First-round draft choice Riley Reiff could replace Backus this season if necessary but could also get a year to develop. Regardless, it's a rare luxury for a team to have a legitimate succession plan in place at left tackle.
Biggest regression: It might not qualify as a step back, but the Lions didn't do much to improve a secondary that struggled for large portions of the 2011 season. Nickel back Aaron Berry will compete with free agent acquisition Jacob Lacey to start opposite Chris Houston, and the Lions appear set to give safety Amari Spievey one more chance to lock down a long-term job.

Green Bay Packers: Adding juice to their defensive front
In detail:
As we discussed in May, the Packers devoted a large portion of their offseason to elevating the energy and competition along their defensive line. They hope to manage the playing time of nose tackle B.J. Raji more efficiently by calling on rookies Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, along with eventual contributions from Anthony Hargrove (eight-game suspension) and Mike Neal (four-game suspension). The Packers have also signed Phillip Merling, a former second-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins, and veteran Daniel Muir.
Biggest regression:
The Packers had near-ideal insurance at quarterback when Matt Flynn was their backup quarterback. Presumptive replacement Graham Harrell has extensive experience in the Packers' system and has been widely praised by coaches this offseason, but no one has suggested he is the equivalent of Flynn just yet.

Minnesota Vikings: A better situation for a young quarterback
In detail:
Quarterback Christian Ponder will have a blue-chip left tackle in rookie Matt Kalil protecting his backside and two proven pass-catchers for mid-range passing in tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson. The Vikings have also added a receiver who can stretch the field in Jerome Simpson, who will be eligible to play in Week 4 after an NFL suspension, and might have unearthed a draft steal if Arkansas' Greg Childs is healthy. The offense is far from a finished product, but it is staffed much better at multiple positions than it was in 2011.
Biggest regression: The Vikings appear to have cast aside E.J. Henderson, their middle linebacker for most of the past decade. For now, that means they are hoping to make fourth-year player Jasper Brinkley their new starter. Brinkley played decently when he started four games as a rookie in 2009, but he missed all of 2011 because of a hamstring injury and coaches are waiting for him to turn it loose this spring.
As promised, let's take a stab at answering the questions we posed earlier this week in advance of mandatory minicamps for three NFC North teams. (Original post here.)

Chicago Bears: State of the offense and the progress of rookie defensive end Shea McClellin.

Our curiosity about the offense was adequately addressed. By all accounts, it will closely resemble the scheme that quarterback Jay Cutler and quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates ran with the Denver Broncos from 2006-08. Offensive coordinator Mike Tice will apply some of his own tweaks, especially as it relates to the running game, but Tice has appropriately allowed Cutler and Bates to take substantial roles in the scheme's development.

"It's stuff that I do well," Cutler said. "It's stuff that I know. As a quarterback you want to be in the same offense over and over and over and over again so you can get a good feel for it and so you know all the nuances. This offense, I was in it three years in Denver, so this is my fourth year in it. I'm very comfortable with it.' … A lot of carryover [from Denver], a lot of stuff we did last couple years. It's kind of a mixture of some stuff Mike had done in his past, stuff Jeremy has, and he learned even more in Seattle, so it's a mixture of a lot of different things."

Meanwhile, McClellin didn't see much if any action with the first team at defensive end, and for now Israel Idonije is the starter at left end opposite Julius Peppers. There is an expectation that McClellin will eventually start, but it might not be in Week 1. Here's what defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli told reporters: " He can move well. He's got really good movement. He's got really good speed. He's got nice range. His size is fine. He's a real hungry guy and he's very smart. I know he's tough. We'll get the pads on him. That determines everything. I believe he'll come out and do a very nice job, but the movement, all the things you look for, it's there."

Detroit Lions: Comfort level in the secondary and the immediate role of rookie offensive lineman Riley Reiff.

In the early going at least, the Lions are working Aaron Berry and Chris Houston as their top two cornerbacks, with newcomer Jacob Lacey covering the slot receiver in nickel situations. My sense is the Lions feel more than comfortable with Berry as long as he remains healthy.

It was worth noting, however, that coach Jim Schwartz suggested it was time for safety Amari Spievey to even out his game. It appears to be a now-or-never year for the 2009 third-round draft pick.

Reiff continued working exclusively at left and right tackle, but the Lions haven't ruled out possible work at guard during training camp. If he is going to start in Week 1, however, the best guess is that it will come after beating out right tackle Gosder Cherilus. It's reasonable to think that left tackle Jeff Backus has at least one more year in him.

Green Bay Packers: Questions on the defense, linebacker Nick Perry, the safeties, quarterback Graham Harrell and left tackle Marshall Newhouse.

We've already spent some time discussing Perry, who sure looks like a big-time NFL linebacker but is still in the process of learning how to play the position. My sense is the Packers could use Charles Woodson in a safety-like role in the base defense and then mix-and-match when they are in nickel. There is definitely some hope that rookie Jerron McMillian, or even M.D. Jennings, could pose significant competition for Charlie Peprah in training camp.

Here's part of what coach Mike McCarthy said when I asked about his comfort level in Newhouse: "Marshall is at that point in his career, I think every player goes through it, the people in the building have a lot more confidence in him than maybe the people outside. I just don't think people know much about him. He's progressed so much and you see the ability, especially the athletic ability. I think Marshall is going to be a good player for us."

Finally, I saw no evidence to suggest the Packers will do anything other than make Harrell their No. 2 quarterback this season. Quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo: "A lot has been written about him not having great physical tools. Usually the people writing that have not seen him play or practice within the last three years. His arm has come alive. He's physically playing the game faster."
We're Black and Blue All Over:

The Chicago Bears' re-creation of the Denver Broncos' 2008 offense includes the quarterback (Jay Cutler), the primary receiver (Brandon Marshall) and one of the key assistant coaches (Jeremy Bates). But who will play the role of Eddie Royal, the slot receiver who caught 91 passes for the Broncos that season?

Here's an idea, courtesy Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com: Earl Bennett. In fact, Bennett has already reached out to Royal via phone and discussed the possibilities. Here's how Bennett recounted the conversation following a Bears minicamp practice this week:
"I picked his brain about this offense and the role of the slot guy and also playing outside. Both of us play the position pretty much the same way. We both have the same fundamentals, get in and out our routes the same way and have good body control. Eddie is probably a little quicker than I am but there are definitely similarities between the two of us. He's one of the guys I call and ask about the plays and he helps me out with that.' We watch tape and I see what Eddie did right and what Eddie did wrong in the offense when he played. I just want to come out, stay focused, make plays and learn from what he and Brandon Stokley did in this offense."

Bennett predicted the Bears could have "three or four" receivers exceed the 1,000-yard mark this season, an accomplishment that not even that 2008 Broncos offense achieved. But in the middle of June, at least, anything and everything seems possible. Why not?

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • ESPNChicago.com offers observations of the second day of Bears minicamp.
  • Rookie safety Brandon Hardin is standing out in Bears spring practices, writes Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune. Hardin's 6-foot-3 frame is largely responsible for that.
  • New Bears cornerback Kelvin Hayden is pursuing a starting job, writes Neil Hayes of the Chicago Sun-Times.
  • Detroit Lions receiver Titus Young has had "a good run" since returning to spring practices, coach Jim Schwartz said via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Lions general manager Martin Mayhew on defensive tackle Nick Fairley, via Anwar S. Richardson of Mlive.com: "He's had an outstanding offseason out here on-the-field. Not so good off-the-field, but he's been outstanding in practice here. He's worked his butt off. He's in great condition. He's done some things on tape just out here running around that make you run the tape back and go, 'Who was that?' He has a tremendous, tremendous talent level, and hopefully he can fulfill that."
  • Mayhew is starting to talk championships, writes John Niyo of the Detroit News.
  • Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy on taking his team clay shooting Wednesday, via Mike Spofford of Packers.com: "It's definitely an event that generates a lot of testosterone. We just wanted to change it up. We have a number of guys who are avid hunters, and we have guys who have never shot a gun. We just wanted to do something different to get them away from Lambeau."
  • Packers receiver Diondre Borel has been turning heads this spring, reports Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • The NFL has approved the use of Adderall by Packers defensive end Mike Neal, according to Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com. Neal said that his unapproved use of the drug led to his four-game suspension to open this season.
  • Minnesota Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson is ready to move out of his brother's shadow, writes Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph via the Pioneer Press: "I want to be the best tight end in the league, not just an emerging tight end. I come out here every day with that mindset."
  • New Vikings guard Geoff Schwartz is working on conditioning as the final step in recovery from hip surgery, according to Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.

Bears: The Jay Cutler offense

June, 12, 2012
6/12/12
9:30
PM ET
Our friends at ESPNChicago.com spent a good part of Tuesday inspecting the nature and progress of the Chicago Bears' new offense. A few things to point out:

The Bears haven't spent much time this offseason on their running game, given the NFL's strict rules on offseason contact and, presumably, the absence of tailback Matt Forte. (As expected, Forte did not show up Tuesday for the first day of minicamp.)

Columnist Jon Greenberg was jarred by the harmony displayed by quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Brandon Marshall. Greenberg: "Late in the 2 1/2-hour practice, away from the action, there was Cutler gesticulating proper body position on a route to Marshall. And the receiver, who knows a thing or two about how to catch a football, was listening. After all the trouble Marshall's been through, on and off the field, he's not only found a new family, but he's reunited with the best quarterback he's ever had."

During a radio appearance Tuesday on 1500 ESPN, my friend Judd Zulgad asked me what the Mike Tice offense would look like, referring to the Bears offensive coordinator. I corrected Judd and suggested Tice would administrate the Jay Cutler offense, and Cutler appeared to endorse that idea. Here's an excerpt from Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com:
"[The offense is] stuff that I do well," Cutler said. "It's stuff that I know. As a quarterback you want to be in the same offense over and over and over and over again so you can get a good feel for it and so you know all the nuances. This offense, I was in it three years in Denver, so this is my fourth year in it. I'm very comfortable with it.'

"A lot of carryover [from my time in Denver], a lot of stuff we did last couple years. It's kind of a mixture of some stuff Mike had done in his past, stuff Jeremy [Bates] has, and he learned even more in Seattle, so it's a mixture of a lot of different things."

Tice stressed the importance of taking input from Cutler as the team continues to grow in the new offense.

"Well, right now he's throwing every ball well, so it's hard to figure out what he's comfortable at," Tice said. "It looks like he's comfortable with everything that we've installed.

"But there are some things. The communication between the coaches and the players has been phenomenal. I've always found that sometimes the players have great thoughts, especially when they're very focused like our players are right now. They're trying to win. They're trying to play fast and explosive, play smart. So we're going to make sure that we put our players in positions to do well and not ask them to do things that we don't believe in as coaches or their body language is telling us that they don't like."

The quarterback is now even permitted to audible at the line of scrimmage, a practice that was taboo under the old Martz regime.

"That's the word [that I can audible]," Cutler said. "We did some [audible] stuff [on Tuesday], we've had a lot of OTAs. If we're going to look at stuff, now is the time to look at it and see if we like it and throw some stuff at the defense and throw some stuff at the wall and if it sticks we'll keep it. If not, we'll keep going."

Makes perfect sense to me. Give Cutler full investment in the scheme and see what he can do with it.

Have a pleasant evening.

Busy news day at Bears OTA

May, 23, 2012
5/23/12
6:15
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Dozens of reporters descended Wednesday on the Chicago Bears' practice field for the first open organized team activity (OTA) of the 2012 offseason. Quarterback Jay Cutler was among those who spoke afterwards, and I thought I would run through a number of newsbits and offer some pithy but insightful comments to go with it.

Item: Receiver Johnny Knox, watching from the sidelines, revealed he lost 30 pounds during his recovery from spinal fusion surgery and remains 20 pounds below his playing weight.
Comment: Knox couldn't say whether he would play in 2012, but it's easy to see him sitting out the year. Everyone knows he suffered a serious injury, but given his gaunt appearance Wednesday, few us probably know the full extent. In February, don't forget, Knox said people wouldn't "be able to sleep" if they knew how close he was to never walking again.

Item: Cutler said the Bears' offensive situation is "a breath of fresh air" with longtime confidant Jeremy Bates serving as quarterbacks coach and Mike Tice now the offensive coordinator.
Comment: Cutler seemed to be referring to a healthy exchange of ideas between players and coaches on what will work in this offense and what won't. He has a decent track record in that regard, as we discussed last season, the Tice-Bates regime is clearly doing everything possible to meet Cutler's vision for the offense.

Item: The Bears' first-team offensive line included Chris Spencer at left guard, Lance Louis at right guard and a rotation of J'Marcus Webb and Chris Williams at left tackle. Presumed right tackle Gabe Carimi (knee) wasn't practicing.
Comment: There's noting scarier than a left tackle competition between a player who was moved away from the position two years ago (Williams) and one who probably shouldn't have been there in the first place (Webb). The reality is the Bears have only one position locked down: Roberto Garza at center.

Item: Cutler said that receiver Devin Hester "is having the best camp of all the receivers" and disagreed with suggestions that Hester's playing time should be limited.
Comment: I have to assume there is some kind of "get-Hester-confident" conspiracy going on at Halas Hall. Receiver Brandon Marshall has expressed similar sentiments. Unless, of course, the receiver light has suddenly turned on for Hester.

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