ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 21
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears have returned to the pastoral campus of Olivet Nazarene University, a sleepy college setting for the methodical and slow pace of an NFL training camp. But make no mistake. Despite outside appearances, the Bears are in a desperate race against the clock to straighten themselves out on both sides of the ball this summer.
Operating under a win-or-else mandate from team president Ted Phillips, the Bears urgently are installing a new offensive scheme while blending in as many as six players into different positions on defense. The team with the most unknowns in the NFC North is the one that can least afford them.
Yet coach Lovie Smith opened camp with an optimism that bordered on fantasy, suggesting that not only will the Bears smooth out all of the edges this summer but that they are legitimate Super Bowl candidates.
"We've had success before," Smith said. "We know what a Super Bowl football team looks like. So this part of the season, all teams can do is talk about the potential they have for their football team and see if there are any glaring weaknesses. We just don't see that. We see guys in positions with an opportunity to really excel and take a big step forward. Before now it was about getting personnel, getting a lot of outside things set. Now, it's down to just the coaches and the players with football and we feel good about that."
Smith has instituted a "Monsters of the Midway" theme even as national attention has focused on the installation of Mike Martz's pass-focused offense. Smith is looking for something -- anything -- to hook on to after missing the playoffs for three consecutive seasons. "We just want to be an aggressive, tough football team," he said.
Competing in a division with two other Super Bowl contenders, they have no choice.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Can the Chicago offense hit the ground running in Week 1? The Bears hired Martz to inject life into the offense, but there can be no growing pains. It's going to have to happen immediately.
Why? The Bears' first five games include a pair of divisional games at home, against Detroit and Green Bay, and three tough road games at Dallas, the New York Giants and Carolina. That schedule is tough enough as it is. If a still-developing offense contributes to, say, a 1-4 or 2-3 start, it won't matter how good the offense eventually becomes. The die will be cast.
It's almost unfair to grade an offense on that kind of curve, but every high throw and missed hole -- and there were a fair share of both during the practices I watched -- must be noted. It was interesting to hear quarterback Jay Cutler's description of the scheme in an interview with ESPN's Adam Schefter.
"Very complicated," Cutler said. "You see some of the stuff on film and you hear stories from different quarterbacks, how hard it is to learn, how difficult it is. But once you grasp it, it is very dynamic and you can be very successful in it. But I've heard that there is a lot of speed bumps in it."
Unfortunately for Cutler and the Bears, this situation is too urgent to be slowed by speed bumps.
2. Are the Bears going to be better at safety? Smith identified the position as a critical area of need this offseason, and general manager Jerry Angelo complied by re-acquiring veteran Chris Harris and making Major Wright his top draft choice. Smith believed it was critical to have Harris because "you need some veterans around that have been through it that know how to play."
But Harris, who sat out some spring drills to freshen up his legs, didn't make it past the second practice of camp before being sidelined by a strained back. The Bears have high hopes for Wright, but don't think he's ready to step in to the starting lineup so early in camp. So when the Bears lined up for their first full-pads practice of the summer, their first-team safeties were holdovers Danieal Manning and Craig Steltz.
Nothing against either player, but they represent the status quo. By definition, that's no upgrade. During 11-on-11 drills in Saturday night's full-pads practice, Bears receivers had their way with the secondary. Their first-team secondary did not manage an interception, and cornerback Zack Bowman dropped the only real opportunity.
3. What are the Bears' intentions for running backs Matt Forte and Chester Taylor? The Bears paid Taylor too much money (four years, $12.5 million) to be a third-down back, so speculation has centered on how many carries Taylor might take away from Forte, the starter and workhorse over the past two seasons.
During early practices this summer, Forte and Taylor both got extensive work with the first team at roughly a 50-50 split. That won't necessarily continue into regular-season games, but it would represent the best way to utilize both players' skills while keeping them fresh for a 16-game season.
Both are solid inside runners and above-average receivers, making them good fits for Martz's attack.
"You look at all the success that Marshall Faulk had in this offense and know it can happen," Forte said. "As for carries and all that, it'll be up to the offensive coordinator. He'll make that call game-to-game."
We've noted that Cutler favored receiver Johnny Knox during early practices, while Devin Hester, Earl Bennett and Devin Aromashodu played secondary roles. But the bigger surprise was how frequently -- and, probably, deliberately -- the Bears threw to their tight ends in the first practice of the summer. Backup tight end Desmond Clark caught at least eight passes during team drills, and of the first 29 passes Cutler threw in those drills, eight went toward tight ends. That might not sound like a high number, but keep in mind that no tight end has caught more than 38 passes over the course of a season in Martz's offense. "I have heard an awful lot about the tight end not being involved in our offense," Smith said. "... Well, you saw that the tight ends will be a big part of our offense."
Pass defense is equal parts rush and coverage, and while the Bears took steps to improve both this offseason, the fruits weren't immediately clear in training camp. That was particularly true in coverage, where Harris was immediately sidelined by the injury and Bowman and Charles Tillman were laboring to smooth out their new positions on opposite sides of the field. It's really too early to call the Bears' pass defense a disappointment, but it was an element I wasn't able to get a good feel for during the opening days of camp.
As promised, defensive end Julius Peppers was working on both sides of the line during early practices. His matchups against right tackle Frank Omiyale were particularly entertaining. The excitement over Martz's offense took some of the spotlight off Peppers' arrival, but he knows how much the Bears are counting on him when the season begins. "I've been in that position my entire career," he said. "I know what that's like and I'm fine with it."
Clark's future has been in question since the Bears signed free-agent tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, presumably to pair with Greg Olsen on the first team. But it's hard to imagine the Bears parting ways with Clark, who at 33 is determined to prove he can make it in a pass-oriented offense. "I'm trying to establish a role right now," Clark said. "That's all I can do right now is try to show and prove that I can play in the offense, and leave it up to the coaches to create a role for me."
Smith created a mini-stir on the opening day of camp by declaring that Peppers' presence could lead to more blitzing than last season. Two quick points here. Peppers' individual pass-rushing skills should lessen the need to blitz, lifting pressure on the back end of the defense. Second, the Bears blitzed more than all but four teams last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They can't blitz much more than that. What I think Smith was trying to say: His secondary will do a better job in man-to-man defense, allowing more flexibility from a play-calling standpoint.
It's pretty clear that Tillman isn't thrilled with the move from left cornerback to right cornerback, which symbolically equates to a demotion from the No. 1 cornerback role to No. 2. Tillman said he had "no idea" why the change was made and said the adjustment to playing on the opposite side is not insignificant. But it was the right decision for the Bears. Bowman, the new "No. 1," is a ball hawk of the first degree.
Martz hired Shane Day as his quarterbacks coach this offseason, but during the first few days of camp, Martz worked almost exclusively with the quarterbacks himself and was rarely more than a few feet away from Cutler. Both men know how important the other is to their collective success this season. As a result, Martz's early practice plan has featured Cutler and backup Caleb Hanie getting all of the snaps in team drills. Teams usually find some snaps for the No. 3 and/or No. 4 quarterbacks, but the Bears' situation is too urgent this summer.
Defensive tackle Tommie Harris routinely sat out selected practices in recent years to rest his aching knee. So it was worth noting that he participated fully in two practices Saturday, including the evening session in full pads, while several other veterans -- center Olin Kreutz and linebacker Brian Urlacher among them -- did not.
Kreutz, who had Achilles surgery last winter and sat out most of the offseason program, seems to have fully recovered. He had a jump in his step during practice and said: "I'm ready to go."
For what it's worth, the Bears' roster includes the biggest safety I've ever seen. Rookie Quentin Scott, an undrafted free agent out of Northern Iowa, is listed at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. Both figures might be understatements. I have no idea if he can play, but, I mean, wow.