NFC North: Olin Kreutz

If nothing else, two relatively minor decisions this week serve as an important reminder that the Chicago Bears never replaced center Olin Kreutz after his final season with them in 2010.

Former guard Roberto Garza has done his best to make it work at the position, but most people would agree that guard is his best position. (Pro Football Focus has made him one of their lowest-ranked centers in each of the past two seasons). He is also 34 and entering the final year of his contract.

So it's worth noting, at least, that the Bears signed free agent center Taylor Boggs on Tuesday and are hosting California guard/center Brian Schwenke on a visit Wednesday. The Bears don't necessarily need to find a new center for 2013, but much like their short-term transition at middle linebacker from Brian Urlacher to D.J. Williams, it is time to construct a longer-term plan.

In this case, of course, the Bears have some flexibility. If they find in training camp that they have another starting-caliber center on the roster -- be it Boggs, a draft pick or another free agent -- Garza could conceivably move back to guard. The Bears signed free agent Matt Slauson presumably to replace the departed Lance Louis, but there is still one guard position without an obvious starter.

As we've discussed before, the best time to initiate a transition is before it's immediately necessary. It appears the Bears are looking to take that intermediary step now.
Some necessary ingredients must be in place for a team even to consider signing receiver Randy Moss in 2012. It needs a strong and established coaching staff. A rifle-armed quarterback, with experience in handling high-maintenance receivers, is a must. And it needs a personal advocate who knows Moss, understands him and can serve as an internal facilitator/translator.

Moss
There is an NFC North team that fits every aspect of that description, and the minimal chance of a deal highlights how difficult it will be for Moss to get a job for 2012, as he said Monday he wants to do. And that assumes Moss, now 35, can still play at a reasonably high level.

Lovie Smith is one of the NFL's longest-tenured coaches and his locker rooms rarely, if ever, display the type of discord Moss has caused in his various stops. Quarterback Jay Cutler throws one of the NFL's best deep balls, and his long-standing friendship with receiver Brandon Marshall is an example of his social flexibility.

And offensive coordinator Mike Tice was Moss' coach for three seasons when both were with the Minnesota Vikings. Tice lived through the best and worst Moss has to offer, coaxing 217 receptions and 24 touchdowns in their first two seasons together while also dealing with Moss' arrest for nudging a traffic officer with his car and his decision to leave the field early in the 2004 regular-season finale, among other episodes.

So in the Bears, you have a team with an established head coach, a quarterback who could handle Moss on the field and off, a longtime connection in Tice and a clear need for a downfield receiver. So are the Bears a front-runner for Moss' services?

Here's what I know: The same reasons that make Chicago a logical landing point also suggest the Bears won't pursue him.

One of the reasons Smith's locker room has been peaceful is the type of people he has brought into it. You don't have to worry about Brian Urlacher loafing on a play or Olin Kreutz insulting his teammates or Lance Briggs publicly questioning coaching decisions.

Cutler's connection with Marshall is based in part on the receiver's well-known work ethic. Marshall has demonstrated some unstable personality traits, but his effort on the field has never been questioned. A quarterback can count on Marshall's doing his best.

And it's only fair to point out that Tice shed no public tears when the Vikings traded Moss to the Oakland Raiders in April 2005. Too much of Tice's tenure had been devoted to Moss and his ancillary issues.

In short, the Bears are in a good position to understand what Moss is -- and what he probably isn't. For lack of a better term, Moss has been a pathological contrarian for his entire NFL career. He has undermined every coach he's played for, and to think otherwise now would be to suggest he has made a 180-degree personality change.

And as Cutler and anyone else associated with the Bears could attest by watching film, Moss took an obvious step back on the field in 2010 and was a shell of his former self. Defenses still devoted extra attention to him, but that attribute wasn't enough for three different teams to give up on him that season.

In most situations, the Moss-Bears connection would make a whole lot of sense. But this is an entirely unique scenario. Moss is one of a kind. And if it doesn't make sense for the Bears, who would it make sense for?

NFC North Stock Watch

December, 13, 2011
12/13/11
1:00
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Certainty in the short term, Chicago Bears: Their season derailed by injuries to quarterback Jay Cutler and tailback Matt Forte, you wonder if the Bears are approaching the end of days for their nucleus of the past eight years or so. Already, they have bid farewell to center Olin Kreutz, tight end Desmond Clark, tight end Greg Olsen and defensive tackle Tommie Harris. Linebacker Lance Briggs asked for a trade last summer. Will the Bears oblige him this winter? Will they start over on offense (again) by replacing offensive coordinator Mike Martz? And is there any chance that general manager Jerry Angelo, 62, will retire this winter, as rumored? Those questions are at least fair game at this point.

2. Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings quarterback: Sunday's turnover-riddled performance was one of the worst for an NFL quarterback in the last four seasons, according to the Total Quarterback Rating system. Above all else, Ponder carried with him into the draft a reputation for smart play and solid decision-making. There are typically a combination of factors that go into a stretch of turnovers, and that includes a lack of playmakers surrounding the quarterback. But there is no defending some of the mistakes Ponder has made. He was dealing with a hip pointer last week, but for his sake I hope he is able to play Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. The Vikings need to see him bounce back from the inevitable adversity rookie quarterbacks face.

3. Left tackle confidence, Green Bay Packers: The decision to rotate Marshall Newhouse and rookie Derek Sherrod makes me nervous. Perhaps it was too much to expect Newhouse, the final pick of the fifth round in the 2010 draft, to be able to hold down the position indefinitely while starter Chad Clifton recovered from a hamstring injury. Newhouse doesn't fit the pedigree of an NFL left tackle. He's 6-foot-4, and fair or not, starting-quality left tackles aren't usually available late in the fifth round. Sherrod, on the other hand, is of classic left tackle size and was the Packers' first-round pick in 2011. If anyone projects as Clifton's long-term replacement, it's Sherrod. But I hate seeing a playoff team's left tackle position unsettled in Week 15. That's asking for trouble.

RISING

[+] EnlargeNdamukong Suh and Cliff Avril.
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiWhile a lot of the attention goes to teammate Ndamukong Suh, left, defensive end Cliff Avril, left, actually leads the Lions in sacks.
1. Cliff Avril, Detroit Lions defensive end: I wonder how many people outside the NFC North realize that Avril -- and not Kyle Vanden Bosch or Ndamukong Suh -- leads the Lions in sacks. Avril added two more to his season total Sunday against the Vikings and now has a career-high nine through 13 games. Avril has also forced six fumbles, a figure that is tied with Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs for the NFL lead. As we discussed Monday, Avril has made himself some money this season. The only question is whether the Lions will be the ones writing the check next year.

2. Moment of truth for Packers receiver Jordy Nelson: The caveat has followed Nelson this season, even as he has caught 51 passes for average of 18.8 yards and scored a team-high 10 touchdowns. He has been beating favorable coverage, the theory goes, after opponents prioritize receiver Greg Jennings and tight end Jermichael Finley. That might have been the case for some of Nelson's big plays this season, but now we'll get an opportunity to see what Nelson can do against what figures to be more attention from opponents as Jennings recovers from a sprained knee. The guess here is that Nelson won't miss a beat.

3. Detroit Lions: They have absorbed more than their share of national criticism this year, but the Lions are also deserving of some significant big-picture praise. Sunday's victory over the Minnesota Vikings, as nail-biting as it was, ensured the franchise its first non-losing season in a decade. Their next victory would be their first winning season since they finished 9-7 in 2000. In all reality, 9-7 represents the high point of what most national observers thought possible for this team. For as hard a time as I've given coach Jim Schwartz this season, he would deserve a special award -- Coach of the Past Three Years -- for turning out a winning record so quickly after the 0-16 disaster of 2008.

Free Head Exam: Chicago Bears

November, 8, 2011
11/08/11
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After the Chicago Bears' 30-24 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertFollowing their Monday night win against the Eagles, the Bears take a seat in the examination room.
    Last week, we noted that Bears quarterback Jay Cutler had dramatically reduced his sack totals amid continuing pressure from opponents. We saw another installment of that trend Monday night. The Eagles were in the pocket often but couldn't sack him; Cutler has now been sacked a modest 10 times in his past six games. Here's the most amazing part: Cutler avoided a sack Monday night even as coordinator Mike Martz called seven-step drops on 18 of his 32 throws. The Bears ran five-step drops on another 11 passes and had only three passes where Cutler took a quick three-step drop. It's worth noting that both of Cutler's touchdown passes came on three-step drops. The Bears gave the Eagles a chance, but Cutler's mix of shovel passes, sidearm tosses and nifty footwork saved them.
  2. It's nice to see the Bears reward center Roberto Garza with a two-year contract extension, a deal they wrapped up Monday and announced Tuesday. As we discussed during the Bears' bye week, Garza deserves credit for making a significant transition as quietly as possible. Few players are eager to make a position change in a contract year, considering the potential for failure and thus lowering their value. But Garza replaced Olin Kreutz without complaint, and the smooth changeover is one of the reasons the Bears are in position to make a playoff run.
  3. We noted linebacker Brian Urlacher's play earlier Tuesday in our Stock Watch post. So let's also note that linebacker Lance Briggs played an inspired game, totaling five solo tackles and creating the interception that safety Major Wright ultimately caught. All you had to do was watch Briggs sprint some 40 yards to catch Eagles quarterback Michael Vick at the sideline to realize Briggs came to play Monday night. It was a reminder, for a national television audience, that Briggs remains one of the NFL's better 4-3 outside linebackers.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
After watching another solid game from right guard Chris Spencer and right tackle Lance Louis, especially as run blockers, you have to wonder what the Bears will do when rookie Gabe Carimi (knee) is ready to return. Carimi might answer that question himself. Last week, it appeared he needed some additional recovery time, and at some point you wonder about the value of bringing back an offensive linemen who now hasn't played in nearly two months. But both Spencer and Louis seem to be handling themselves more than adequately. Monday night, tailback Matt Forte gained 7.9 yards per carry on runs to the right side and this season, he has an NFL-high 7.3-yard average on runs to that direction.
Chris Harris is 29 years old. Last season, the Associated Press named him a second-team All-Pro. So how could it be that Harris made it through only seven games for the Chicago Bears this season before his surprise release Thursday morning?

A couple of factors are in play here, not the least of which is the Bears' pathological compulsion to swap out players at the safety position. Since taking over as coach in 2004, Lovie Smith has made 29 changes to his lineup at safety. When the Bears return from their bye next week, they'll be looking for a new starter to pair next to the sudden anchor of the position, rookie Chris Conte, who has started two games in his NFL career.

It's fair to say that Harris struggled some in coverage this season, most recently when receiver Dezmon Briscoe beat him for a touchdown in last Sundays' 24-18 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But I think even Harris would admit he is best used near the line of scrimmage as a run enforcer. A starting safety must be able to function in pass coverage, but the Bears could have protected Harris more if they had a better option to play alongside him. Wright, Conte and newcomer Brandon Meriweather -- who has been a healthy scratch the past two weeks -- all have similar run-first styles.

Finally, I think it's impossible to ignore the systematic breakup the Bears are engineering of their long-held core of veterans. Since the end of last season, they have bid farewell to defensive tackle Tommie Harris, center Olin Kreutz, tight end Desmond Clark and now Harris. (You wonder if linebacker Lance Briggs, who requested a trade last summer, will be the next to go.)

The Bears had justifiable football reasons for parting ways with each of those veterans. If Smith was ready to bench Harris permanently, there was no sense keeping him as a backup/special-teams player. NFL teams routinely make harsh decisions about key players, but the Bears have made a number of them in short order. So it goes.

News that center Olin Kreutz has left the New Orleans Saints brings the obvious question: Are the Chicago Bears now justified in taking a hard-line stance in contract negotiations with him over the summer?

Kreutz
Kreutz
It's a convenient explanation, but I'm not sure it's the complete one.

To review: Kreutz's performance slipped noticeably in recent seasons. The Bears offered him a one-year contract worth $4 million when the NFL lockout ended in July, but they would not negotiate beyond that. Kreutz rejected the offer. The Bears signed free agent Chris Spencer, moved right guard Roberto Garza to center and watched as Kreutz signed with the Saints.

Agent Mark Bartelstein told ESPN that Kreutz had lost his passion for the game. Would that have happened if he had remained with the Bears? I'm guessing not. Kreutz played 13 seasons in Chicago and wanted to finish his career there. His pride took a hit when he sensed the Bears' ambivalence. Not all players are prepared for or interested in changing teams in the twilight of their career, especially when their identity is as intertwined with the franchise as Kreutz's was with the Bears.

It's also worth noting that Kreutz hadn't exactly experienced a career renaissance in New Orleans. Pro Football Focus, which evaluates offensive linemen based on their per-play blocking effectiveness, has Kreutz ranked as its second-worst center this season.

This summer, I suggested the Bears had made the right move at the wrong time in jettisoning Kreutz. The opposite was true for Kreutz. He made a mistake in turning down the Bears' offer, even though it was probably the right time for him to end his career.

BBAO: Frazier staying with McNabb

September, 26, 2011
9/26/11
8:30
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

We spent Sunday evening discussing the NFC North's new world order and the craziest trick play no one saw. That leaves plenty of fodder for the coming days, and we'll start with what the Minnesota Vikings insist is the absence of a quarterback controversy.

After Sunday's 26-23 overtime loss to the Detroit Lions, coach Leslie Frazier said: "I don't think the quarterback position is our problem right now. No. We're not thinking about anything at the quarterback position." (Via Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.)

It's true that Donovan McNabb isn't really at the top of the list of underperforming Vikings. But does it make sense for an 0-3 team to play a 34-year-old quarterback in what will be an exceedingly difficult push for a playoff spot, all while your quarterback of the future (Christian Ponder) stands on the sideline? The quarterback might not be an acute Vikings problem at the moment, but the looming transition from McNabb to Ponder -- whenever it happens -- might be the most important event remaining for this franchise in 2011.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Jim Souhan of the Star Tribune is advocating change: "McNabb is not solely responsible for the Vikings' woes, but he is the only member of the organization whose demotion could prove beneficial. You can't fire a head coach or coordinator three games into their tenures, and changing left tackles has never inspired a team or changed the direction of a franchise."
  • Frazier just isn't ready to throw in the towel on the 2011 season, writes Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.
  • Frazier on the decision to give the ball to backup running back Toby Gerhart on a key fourth down in the fourth quarter: "We were confident that we had a good play that would get us the first down." Kent Youngblood of the Star Tribune has more.
  • The Chicago Bears "don't appear to know who they are or, worse, what they want to be," writes David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune.
  • The Bears' offensive performance Sunday was "pathetic," according to Dan Pompei of the Chicago Tribune.
  • Michael Wilbon of ESPNChicago.com: "Last week GM Jerry Angelo said no team did more to improve its offensive line play than the Bears, which is very funny ... except Angelo appeared to be dead serious. Angelo backed that argument by pointing to the fact he brought in someone with NFL experience, but former Seahawks center Chris Spencer -- who was brought in to replace Olin Kreutz -- is starting at right guard because of Lance Louis' injury. The left tackle, J'Marcus Webb, played much of last year at right tackle. The center, Roberto Garza, is really a right guard. The right tackle, Gabe Carimi, is a rookie. This is not an upgrade from last season, which is what the Bears needed to stay in the hunt with the likes of the Patriots and Packers."
  • The Bears' running game has taken "a major step back," tailback Matt Forte said, via Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com.
  • Quarterback Jay Cutler on Forte's lack of touches, via Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times: "We've just got to find ways to get him the ball, get him rushes, get him touches, get him going because he's an explosive, explosive player. I feel bad for him right now. He wants the ball. He wants to help out, and we're not giving him a lot of opportunities."
  • Lions coach Jim Schwartz's postgame fist pump will go down "like the iconic fist pump the late Payne Stewart made after winning the U.S. Open golf tournament in 1999," writes Mike O'Hara for the Detroit News.
  • Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News: Sometimes you stamp a mark that lasts for a while, and this was one of those biggies."
  • Lions left tackle Jeff Backus, via Michael Rosenberg of the Detroit Free Press: "Big-picture-wise, it feels great. But we've gotta play better. I've gotta play better. Offensive line's gotta play better. It's great to be 3-0, but we have a lot of stuff to clean up."
  • Tight end Brandon Pettigrew stepped up nicely Sunday for the Lions, according to Justin Rogers of Mlive.com.
  • Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette on the three-touchdown game of Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley: "Many around the NFL knew the Green Bay Packers had a budding star in their fourth-year tight end. Everyone knows now."
  • Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "The Packers finally played defense worthy of a champion."
  • Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the victory over the Bears, via Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com: "I think there's a feeling of, 'We could have played a little bit better.' It's fun to be 3-0, it's exciting coming to work with these guys. And we've got, I think, our best football is still in front of us."

BBAO: A thrilling start to 2011

September, 9, 2011
9/09/11
10:15
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We're Black and Blue All Over:

NOT FAR FROM GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Well. Our 2011 regular season got off to a bang Thursday night, didn't it? In a few hours, I'll post our weekly Free Head Exam post to review the Green Bay Packers' 42-34 victory against the New Orleans Saints, discussing among other things quarterback Aaron Rodgers' uncharacteristic postgame expression of vengeance.

My plans for Friday also include a Final Word on the rest of Sunday's games, which obviously and unavoidably have gotten the short shrift here this week. At some point, I also need to make it back to NFC North blog headquarters. But while we have a moment, let's catch some reaction to the game from around the country and also spin ourselves around the division:

BBAO: Bring on the 2011 season

September, 8, 2011
9/08/11
10:10
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NEAR GREEN BAY, Wis. -- I'm holed up in an undisclosed and secure location to conduct final preparations for ... THE START OF THE 2011 SEASON!!

That's right. We're hours away from the Green Bay Packers' kickoff game Thursday night against the New Orleans Saints. I'll warn you in advance this blog will be pretty Packers-centric here for the next 24 hours or so. I'll of course account for any breaking news around the division, but a kickoff game only happens once a year. (Or so I'm told.)

For those looking to make last-minute bets, and I'm sure no one would consider it, keep this in mind: The defending Super Bowl champion has won its season opener in each of the past 11 seasons, most recently the Saints last season against the Minnesota Vikings.

Let's take a quick spin around the division while we have a moment:
  • Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reviews the team-building philosophy of Packers general manager Ted Thompson through the lens of the recent availability of free-agent guard Brian Waters.
  • Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette: "It would be preposterous to think a Packers player would entertain this thought for even a second: "Now that I have a Super Bowl ring, I'm going to kick back and take it easy."
  • Jason Wilde's Q&A with Packers coach Mike McCarthy at ESPNMilwakee.com covers some very un-McCarthy like topics, including his take on the makeup he wore for a recent NFL Films interview. McCarthy: "I look like an idiot. I hated it. It was terrible."
  • David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune on Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler: "To provide the type of security elite quarterbacks enjoy, Cutler needs the type of year he hasn't had yet. He needs a 3,800-yard, 30-touchdown, 12-interception season to remove doubt and enter the next echelon. He needs to blend his obvious talent and not-so-obvious intangibles to make everybody around him better."
  • Bears receiver Roy Williams, via Jon Greenberg of ESPNChicago.com: "We like the Detroit Lions being [picked ahead of the Bears], everybody talking about the Lions. I mean, they deserve it. They're an up-and-coming team, but the Bears aren't going anywhere."
  • Former Bears center Olin Kreutz believes new center Roberto Garza, recently elected a Bears captain, has always been a team leader. Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times has more.
  • Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh on his job, via DetroitLions.com: "I'm here to cause you problems and meet your quarterback."
  • Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News: "You don't have to be drunk or delusional to suggest this is the year the Lions return to that strange, mythical place known as the playoffs. Lots of people more respected than me have suggested it."
  • Lions defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch missed practice Wednesday because of a "non-injury" reason, notes Philip Zaroo of Mlive.com.
  • Patrick Reusse of the Star Tribune introduces you to new Minnesota Vikings nose tackle Remi Ayodele.
  • Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe might need some time to gain chemistry with quarterback Donovan McNabb after missing the preseason with a hamstring injury, notes Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.
  • The Vikings' cornerback trio of Antoine Winfield, Cedric Griffin and Chris Cook played only one game together last season, writes Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Chicago Bears cutdown analysis

September, 3, 2011
9/03/11
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Check here for a complete list of the Chicago Bears' roster moves.

Surprise move: The Bears have now bid farewell to three locker room stalwarts: Center Olin Kreutz, receiver Rashied Davis and now tight end Desmond Clark. The Bears released Clark as part of Saturday's roster cutdown, deciding to keep undrafted rookie Kyle Adams instead. Clark said via Twitter that "I played my butt off but sometimes it's more about the business." The Bears indicated that he was released with an injury. Regardless, intentionally or otherwise, the Bears have at least temporarily created a player leadership void.

No-brainers: After last week's communication fiasco, there was little doubt that running back Chester Taylor would be part of this cutdown. The Bears need only two tailbacks behind starter Matt Forte, and those roles will be filled by Marion Barber and Kahlil Bell. They also kept fullback Will Ta'ufo'ou. I don't know if the Bears entered training camp planning to keep undrafted rookie receiver Dane Sanzenbacher, but his quick ascension as a slot receiver was obvious by the midpoint of the preseason. Quarterback Jay Cutler loves throwing to him.

What's next: The Bears' depth at linebacker is a little scary. They kept only five at the position, with Brian Iwuh and undrafted rookie Dom DeCicco as the reserves behind Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher and Nick Roach. You would think the Bears would at least scan the waiver wire for additional depth, especially with Briggs nursing a knee injury. And with Barber and Bell having suffered preseason injuries, the Bears might check out emergency running back depth as well.
There were a number of takeaway thoughts from Jerry Angelo's 22-minute appearance Friday on ESPN 1000's "The Waddle & Silvy Show." But for me, the most notable quotes from the Chicago Bears general manager came on the state of tailback Matt Forte's contract negotiations.

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireMatt Forte is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
As you know, Forte is entering the final year of a rookie deal that will pay him $550,000 this season. He considered holding out from training camp until Angelo pledged to get a deal done. But the sides don't appear close on an agreement, and when asked if he hoped a deal happens sooner than later, Angelo said: "It's got to happen sooner. I don't like to necessarily go into training camp and negotiate with players. We like to do that in the offseason. Unfortunately, we didn't have the ability to do that, but again we want to do the right thing by Matt so we are talking. We're hopeful, but at some point we have to draw a line in the sand and just now focus on the season."

I guess there are several ways to interpret that statement, but whenever I hear "line in the sand" in regards to a contract negotiation, I tend to raise an eyebrow. You would be well within your rights to think Angelo was suggesting the discussions are close to a "take it or leave it" stage.

If Forte "leaves it," he would at least start the season with a contract set to expire this winter. It doesn't mean the sides couldn't come to an agreement by the end of the season, and it would be smart from a salary-cap perspective to do just that. But if you were hoping for an imminent resolution, Angelo's comment suggested one might not be coming.

Angelo spoke on a wide variety of subjects, including:

  • The condition of the playing surface at Soldier Field. Angelo admitted he has "always been in favor of a fast track" that goes along with an artificial surface, but is on board with the organizational decision to maintain a grass field for safety reasons.
  • The offensive line. Specifically, Angelo said he isn't concerned that the presumptive replacement for center Olin Kreutz, free agent acquisition Chris Spencer, is working with the second team while guard Roberto Garza handles the first-team center duties. "Roberto had ... familiarity with the offense," Angelo said. "How it is eventually going to unfold, the coaches and the players always determine that."
  • Offensive coordinator Mike Martz's contract. Martz has had substantial sway in personnel decisions over the past two years but his contract is set to expire after this season. It wouldn't make sense to part ways with him after basing so many moves on his scheme, and Angelo said: "Historically we've always dealt with our coaches in the offseason and we'll continue to follow that protocol. ... It's not a big deal. Mike gets it. It's part of doing business. Not a story."
  • The Bears' linebacker depth. Angelo admitted: "We've had better depth over the years, but this year is probably the least amount of depth that we've had." He noted that the Nos. 4, 5 and 6 linebackers will all be mostly special-teams players, but that leaves an obvious hole should a starter get sidelined.
  • His draft-day failure to complete a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. Angelo said he reached out to Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who had accused the Bears of intentionally botching the trade, and "we cleared the air." Angelo said he thinks he will be able to conduct normal business with the Ravens moving forward.

Previewing preseason Week 1

August, 12, 2011
8/12/11
11:10
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Are you ready for some (sloppy, backup-filled preseason) football?

Chicago Bears
Opponent:
Buffalo Bills
Location: Soldier Field
Date/time: Saturday at 8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Coach Lovie Smith has given various indications about his intentions for starters' playing time, but the best bet is a couple of series at the most. Tailback Matt Forte has suggested he might sit out preseason games until he has a contract extension, but team president Ted Phillips said this week he expected Forte to play. It's doubtful Smith would put Forte through a rigorous night no matter what the circumstances are. Defensive tackle Anthony Adams (calf) is among the players who aren't expected to see action Saturday night.
Focal point: All eyes will be on the Bears' newly configured offensive line -- especially, in my opinion, center Roberto Garza and left tackle J'Marcus Webb. The Bears need to ensure a smooth transition from center Olin Kreutz, which would help stabilize the entire line. But they also need some reassurance that Webb is ready to protect quarterback Jay Cutler's blind side. Meanwhile, the Bears say that the grass playing surface at Soldier Field will be game-ready after exposed seams in the sod forced cancellation of a practice last week. We'll see.

Detroit Lions
Opponent:
Cincinnati Bengals
Location: Ford Field
Date/time: Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Coach Jim Schwartz plans to get starters a taste of game action but wouldn't reveal his exact plans. Don't expect much more than a quarter of action, though. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew (ankle) is among the veterans who won't play. That list also includes rookie receiver Titus Young (hamstring) and running back Maurice Morris (hand). Receiver Calvin Johnson (ankle) will be a game-time decision. Quarterback Matthew Stafford will see his first game action since undergoing surgery in January to repair his throwing shoulder. The Lions will also begin what could be a summer-long competition at both place-kicker and punter.
Focal point: You're probably not going to see the starters for very long, but it'll be interesting to watch two developments. First, who will be the initial running back off the bench to replace starter Jahvid Best? The Lions planned for that player to be rookie Mikel LeShoure, who ruptured his Achilles tendon Monday. This week, it could be veteran Aaron Brown. Ultimately, though, it might end up being newcomer Jerome Harrison. Second, keep an eye on how the Lions employ their new linebackers. It's expected that Stephen Tulloch will open in the middle, but Schwartz indicated he would like to get his linebackers action at multiple positions during the preseason

Green Bay Packers
Opponent:
Cleveland Browns
Location: Cleveland Browns Stadium
Date/time: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Coach Mike McCarthy plans to mix and match starters and backups in this game, so it's difficult to say exactly how long each starter will play. A number of starters and prominent players are uncertain to play because of injury situations, including cornerback Sam Shields, tight end Jermichael Finley, nose tackle B.J. Raji and running back Alex Green. It's also unlikely that cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams will play.
Focal point: Many fans will be interested to watch the debut of rookie receiver/kick returner Randall Cobb, who has opened eyes since the start of training camp. These are the types of games where playmakers can shine. It will also be interesting to see how rookie left guard Derek Sherrod fares in his first game action.

Minnesota Vikings
Opponent: Tennessee Titans
Location: LP Field
Date/time: Saturday at 8 p.m. ET
Personnel notes: Starters could play a few series depending on how the game goes. Cornerback Cedric Griffin and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe are among those who will sit out. It's likely that quarterback Joe Webb will follow starter Donovan McNabb, with rookie Christian Ponder finishing the game.
Focal point: A few weeks ago, I would have suggested that all eyes will be on McNabb. Now, I think it's fair to say that everyone -- including McNabb -- will have their eyes on left tackle Charlie Johnson. He's had an understandably tough adjustment to his new team and offense, but the Vikings can't afford to put their quarterback's blind side at risk.

BBAO: Brian Urlacher on leadership

August, 12, 2011
8/12/11
8:15
AM ET
We're Black and Blue All Over:

In Thursday's Camp Confidential on the Chicago Bears, we discussed the leadership void following the departure of center Olin Kreutz. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher seemed like the most logical candidate to fill it, and Urlacher discussed that subject with Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune.

Urlacher doesn't expect to be more vocal than he normally is, but will continue to make players accountable for mistakes.

"We don't need a guy to go yell at everybody,'' Urlacher told the Tribune. "Our guys, they don't act like [dummies]. They follow rules. They practice hard. They lead by example.''

It's not necessary to have a rah-rah motivator screaming all day long. What the Bears need is a veteran player who others can watch and emulate. Urlacher has the capacity to be that player.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • Jon Greenberg of ESPNChicago.com examines the Bears' defense through the eyes of coordinator Rod Marinelli.
  • Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times isn't sure if the Bears and tailback Matt Forte are in "the same zip code" in contract negotiations.
  • Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy switched his upcoming night practices to daytime for two reasons, writes Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com. First, he wants their "body clocks" on regular-season time. Second, night practices were making for some long days.
  • Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes that Packers defensive back Jarrett Bush is playing cornerback "with far more confidence and aplomb than he ever has. His one-on-one coverage has been better than it's ever been and his mistakes fewer and far between."
  • The Packers have already inserted Morgan Burnett into the starting strong safety job ahead of veteran Charlie Peprah, writes Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
  • It's difficult to see what direction the Minnesota Vikings are headed, writes Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com.
  • Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb and receiver Bernard Berrian are both looking to put 2010 behind them, writes Jeremy Fowler of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • McNabb is not fazed by the fact that he's on a one-year contract, notes the Star Tribune.
  • Detroit Lions starters will see action for about a quarter in Friday night's preseason opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, notes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
  • Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham has been quieter than normal during training camp practices, writes Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
  • Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News: "The Lions line is an enigma wrapped in bandages these days, and I'm certainly not here to tell you it's great. You'd pelt me with over-ripe zucchini if I did. I always think it could use an upgrade. But I am here to say it might be better than we think, and each side -- pro-line, anti-line -- overreacts to disprove the other."

Camp Confidential: Chicago Bears

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

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

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

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

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

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

THREE BIG ISSUES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROOKIE ADJUSTMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OBSERVATION DECK

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

Remember all of those weeks last season when the Green Bay Packers listed linebacker Clay Matthews with a shin injury on their weekly report? That injury, Matthews revealed in an interview with Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, was actually a stress fracture.
Matthews: "I don't make a big deal of it. [It happened] some time in the middle of the season. You can't do anything about it. I was just taking practices off and showing up on game day and giving it my all."

The injury might have slowed Matthews' production in the middle of the season, and perhaps ultimately scuttled his chances for winning the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award. But he rebounded well in the postseason, totaling 3 1/2 sacks, and had a critical forced fumble in Super Bowl XLV.

As we discussed during our earlier stop on CampTour'11, Matthews reported to training camp slimmer and in improved cardiovascular shape in an attempt to limit the chance of injury. He told Demovsky he weighed in at 252 pounds, or six pounds less than in 2010.

Continuing around the NFC North:

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