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Camp Confidential: Bears

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Summer visitors to Olivet Nazarene University are greeted annually by navy blue banners promoting the Chicago Bears' training camp. Bears team logos are plastered all around town. Marquee signs invite the hungry and thirsty to patronize local establishments. And in 2012, there was a notable addition to the welcoming committee.

Overt talk of a Super Bowl run hits you from every angle here. 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.

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.

"There's no doubt that this year by far is our best chance to win a Super Bowl," place-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. I think everybody is excited about that."

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, as they say, are in place, and nothing I saw in the early days of training camp suggested otherwise.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Adding explosion to offense: I lost track of how many different 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 and added: "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, he will give Cutler the responsibility of changing plays at the line of scrimmage based on the "number count" of the defense. If defenses are aligned against the pass, Cutler can call a run. If they are stacked on the line of scrimmage, Cutler will have the ability to switch from run to pass. The approach requires the type of balanced personnel the Bears have, and in the end it 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 capacity of an offensive line. But 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 the Bears made to their offense, from receiver Brandon Marshall to running back Michael Bush to Bates. It has been assumed that the Bears' special teams will maintain its annual strength, and also 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 appeared 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, a.k.a "The Happiest Man in the World." But on a relative scale, 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," Cutler said, "and what we are doing scheme-wise and the talent around me."

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

Left tackle is one of the three or four most important positions on a team, but 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 necessary to play the position. Williams, on the other hand, hasn't played the position 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 itself isn't a bad thing. But the Bears really 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," he 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 at least 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.) But 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 our expectations unreasonably high, but I was surprised by how many miscommunications Cutler and Marshall had in their first few practices. On Day 1 alone, I counted five passes that either hit the ground or were intercepted because Cutler threw one way and Marshall ran another. But 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 as the starter with Matt Spaeth as the top blocker. But it's certainly 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.) Rodriguez 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. It's also worth noting that 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 form 26 percent to 19 percent by changing his diet in the offseason. "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, in obvious passing downs. Another candidate to be an inside pass-rusher is newcomer Brian Price.