NFL Nation: Mark Bradley

Jay Cutler and Julius PeppersUS PresswireThe Bears gave up two first-round draft picks and a third-rounder for Jay Cutler. Is he the reason Chicago is on the brink of the Super Bowl? Or does the credit go to Julius Peppers and the defense?
Let's play a game of addition.

  1. The starting quarterback is the most important player on any football team.
  2. The Chicago Bears finished the regular season 11-5, won the NFC North division title and will host the NFC Championship Game on Sunday at Soldier Field.
  3. Jay Cutler is the biggest reason why.

So, in this case, does 1+2=3? Did the Bears need Cutler as their quarterback to advance this far? Was he the key to their resurgence this season? Or could they have followed the same path without making the 2009 blockbuster trade that cost them three high draft choices? In today's Double Coverage, ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson and ESPN.com NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert discuss that very question.

Kevin Seifert: Jeff, you've been covering the Bears for years. You saw them go to Super Bowl XLI with Rex Grossman as their quarterback. You've lived through Kordell Stewart, Craig Krenzel, Chad Hutchinson, Brian Griese and Kyle Orton. You've seen a team win in spite of its quarterback, and you've seen quarterbacks single-handedly lose games. Let's start it off this way: How much credit do you think Cutler should get for the Bears sitting one step from the Super Bowl?

[+] EnlargeChicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler (6) talks with offensive coordinator Mike Martz, right, and coach Lovie Smith
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhBears quarterback Jay Cutler has thrived in Mike Martz's offense.
Jeff Dickerson: Cutler deserves plenty of credit, Kevin. As much as we want to hammer Cutler for his mistakes -- more on that later, I'm sure -- you can't overlook the fact his quarterback rating was above 100 six times in the regular season. And you guessed it: the Bears won all six of those games.

So if the most important player on the field was arguably the best player on the field nearly half the time, I find it impossible to minimize the positive impact Cutler had on the Bears' playoff run. Is he going to run for public office after he's finished playing football? No. Does he care that we're talking about him today, either good or bad? No. But to sit back and say Cutler was simply along for the ride wouldn't be doing his contributions much justice.

And by the way, thanks for bringing up Chad Hutchinson. I was trying to suppress that memory. What's next? Are we going to break down the NFL career of Jonathan Quinn? I could talk bad Bears quarterbacks all day.

KS: Any time. How about this: Cade McNown, Henry Burris, Shane Matthews and Steve Stenstrom. That pretty much covers it for our generation, I think.

Anyway, I agree it would be wrong to overlook some of Cutler's individual performances this season. He bounced back from some early hits in Week 2 to throw three touchdown passes against the Dallas Cowboys in a 27-20 victory. He forgot about the early interception against the New York Jets and went on to throw for another three touchdowns in a 38-34 victory. His performance against the Philadelphia Eagles -- four touchdown passes, 146.2 passer rating -- was superb. And don't forget his late-game drive against the Detroit Lions in Week 13, the one that locked up the division title.

But I think the question at hand is whether the Bears would have won 11 games with, say, Orton at quarterback. To me, Cutler was not among the top two reasons for the Bears' success this season.

More important was the defense, which limited opponents to 17.9 points per game, and the best special teams in the NFL. As a result of those two factors, Cutler and the rest of the Bears' offense had the best head start in the NFL. No offense had a better average start of its drive (33.7-yard line) than the Bears'.

Do you think the Bears win those games with Orton?

JD: I must first admit to being a card-carrying member of the Kyle Orton fan club. Is there a more underappreciated quarterback in the NFL? That being said, I think you could make the playoffs with a guy like Orton, but the Bears are in a better position to potentially win a Super Bowl with a guy like Cutler.

Let me explain.

I firmly believe if Orton quarterbacked the Bears in 2009 they probably would have won three more regular-season games (against the Packers, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers). They would have finished 10-6 and perhaps earned an NFC wild-card playoff berth. Cutler cost the Bears those games because of a barrage of turnovers and terrible decisions. But that's where the ride would've ended with Orton, in my opinion.

Could Orton have beaten the Cowboys, Eagles or Jets in 2010? Maybe. But with apologies to Jim Mora, we're talking playoffs, Kevin, playoffs!

[+] EnlargeChicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers
Mike DiNovo/US PresswireThe Bears' defense, led by Julius Peppers, gave the offense a head start on most drives.
Believe me, I know Cutler's only career postseason victory came against Seattle this past weekend, and he could easily go out Sunday and throw five interceptions against the Packers. But he could just as easily throw five touchdowns.

That's why the Bears are better off with Cutler -- because Orton hit his glass ceiling as an NFL quarterback. Cutler has not. Look at how Cutler tore up the Jets. The defense struggled, and it needed a lift from the quarterback position to beat a tough opponent. Cutler delivered. I'm not saying Orton is incapable of leading a team to victory over playoff-quality teams, but the chances Cutler can do it are greater.

Sorry, Kyle. I loved your neck beard. But I have to go with Cutler on this one.

KS: It's all fantasy talk, of course. We'll never know if Orton would have played well enough last year to compel the Bears to keep offensive coordinator Ron Turner this season. We also don't know if Mike Martz would have wanted Orton this season.

But the Bears gave up two first-round draft picks and a third-rounder for Cutler. Has he provided them enough value for those picks? Or could they have used those draft picks to improve themselves in other areas?

It would be wrong to say that Cutler hasn't had a positive impact on the Bears this season, but I'm not willing to say he was the key to the Bears' division title, either. But if the Bears go to the Super Bowl, no one is going to care about that distinction.

JD: And you know Cutler is happiest when nobody cares!

I guess it's possible Jerry Angelo would have turned those two first-round selections into starting-caliber players. But I've seen the Bears use high draft choices on the likes of Michael Haynes, Roosevelt Williams, Mark Bradley, Dusty Dvoracek, Dan Bazuin, Michael Okwo, Jarron Gilbert and Juaquin Iglesias. So to assume Angelo would've waved his magic draft wand and taken the right guys? Well, that would be misguided, to say the least. Despite all the warts, I'm happy with Cutler and feel the Bears are now in a better position to win their first Super Bowl since the 1985 season because of him.

I could talk bad Bears draft picks all day.

KS: Spoken like a longtime Bears follower. Basically what you're saying is that while Cutler has demonstrated some flaws, his acquisition nevertheless prevented the Bears from making another series of draft mistakes! Perfect. I love it.

On that note, Jeff, this has been fun. I think we can agree Cutler has made a positive impact on the Bears' run to the NFC Championship Game. Could they have done it without him? That's up for debate.

NFC South turning to rookie WRs

October, 8, 2010
10/08/10
1:01
PM ET
LaFell/Williams/Gettis Icon SMI, AP PhotoRookie receivers Brandon LaFell, Mike Williams and David Gettis are expected to start this Sunday.
TAMPA, Fla. -- When you’re watching NFC South teams this Sunday, keep an eye on the wide receivers. By choice and by circumstance, you’re going to see something rare.

You’re going to see a whole bunch of rookie wide receivers starting or playing a lot. That’s rare because there’s a school of thought, and most NFC South teams have backed it up through the years, that you shouldn’t ask too much of rookie receivers too soon.

We’re almost certainly going to see at least three rookies start at receiver for NFC South teams on Sunday and a fourth will get considerable playing time. A fifth might even be active for the first time in his career. In Week 5 of the NFL season, it’s kind of amazing that NFC South teams are leaning so heavily on rookie wide receivers, especially when not a single one of them was a first-round draft pick.

Tampa Bay’s been starting Mike Williams, a fourth-round pick, since the start of the season. Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris hinted strongly during the bye week that second-round pick Arrelious Benn will get increased playing time going forward, probably splitting time with second-year pro Sammie Stroughter. The Bucs play at Cincinnati on Sunday.

In Carolina, it appears highly likely the Panthers will start two rookies at receiver on Sunday against Chicago. They likely will go with third-round pick Brandon LaFell and sixth-round pick David Gettis as the starters. Armanti Edwards, who is converting from playing quarterback in college, might be on the game-day active list for the first time this season.

In Carolina, this wasn’t exactly the plan. The Panthers, who traditionally have been very patient in playing young receivers, wanted LaFell starting as a rookie, but they thought Gettis and Edwards would have time to develop. But that’s all changed because the Panthers are likely to be without Steve Smith due to an ankle injury. They cut veteran Dwayne Jarrett after he was charged with driving while impaired Tuesday morning. The rookie receivers will be working with rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen.

While putting rookie receivers around a young quarterback might sound like a formula for disaster, that’s actually the plan the Buccaneers have had since draft day.

“We made the conscious decision to draft these young guys and let [quarterback] Josh [Freeman] grow with them," Morris said.

Morris then pointed to the New Orleans Saints and how they let a young crew of receivers grow up around Drew Brees. Not a bad example, although Brees had been a starter in San Diego before coming to New Orleans in 2006. Freeman’s only been starting since the second half of last season.

“They, and I’m talking the wide receivers and Josh, always talk about growing up together," Tampa Bay receivers coach Eric Yarber said. “We talk about that as a staff. We’ve got a lot of young guys, but eventually these guys are going to become big-time players in this league."

Williams already has shown promise. In three games, he has 12 catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns. Although Benn was the higher draft pick, he hasn’t been much of a factor so far after missing some preseason time with an injury. But the Bucs are saying that’s about to change.

[+] EnlargeArrelious Benn
AP Photo/Paul AbellSecond-round pick Arrelious Benn is expected to see more playing time for the Bucs.
“Arrelious is coming on very well," Yarber said. “Early on, he had to spend a lot of time in the playbook. But now that he’s got the plays down, he’s playing much faster and we’re seeing the real Arrelious Benn now."

Still, is it wise or even productive to rely on rookie receivers so early? History has shown it’s a position that often takes time to grow into. Atlanta’s Roddy White, now the best receiver in the NFC South, didn’t really produce until his third year and he was a first-round pick. Smith spent a year as a kick returner before even getting a chance at wide receiver. Then, there’s a pretty lengthy list of guys who never really developed.

Carolina drafted Jarrett, Keary Colbert and Drew Carter and got very little from them. Tampa Bay used early picks on Michael Clayton and Dexter Jackson. Clayton had a big rookie year, but did nothing after that. Jackson never even made an impact and couldn’t make Carolina’s roster in the preseason.

Yarber admits there are challenges to playing rookie receivers right away.

“It is difficult because of the physicality on the outside against bump and run," Yarber said. “The guys in college are going against maybe one good DB that’s physical. On this level, every DB they face is physical and good at rerouting you. They’ve got to get used to the physicality on the outside.’’

But it’s far from just being a physical thing. The Panthers have been historically hesitant to play rookie receivers too much because they believe the mental adjustment takes time. In four seasons, Jarrett never was able to grasp the playbook. They don’t have much choice but to go with rookies now.

In Tampa Bay, the choice was made deliberately. The Buccaneers let veterans Antonio Bryant and Mark Bradley go to clear the way for Williams and Benn. They held onto Clayton through the preseason, but cut him once they were comfortable with the way the rookies were progressing.

Still, the Bucs admit their receiving corps is very much a work in progress and that affects the entire offense.

“You have to scale back a little bit," Yarber said. “You want to get them out there, but you don’t want to give them too much. That’s when you get to paralysis by analysis. They’re thinking so much that they can’t play fast. You need a happy medium that you don’t taper the offense down too much, but you don’t want to put too much in so that they’re thinking too much and they don’t play fast.

“One thing that can be a detriment to young guys early on is if you give them too much, they can lose confidence. You don’t want to give them too much too soon. You want them to have some success that they can build on and develop confidence and play better."

For better or worse, much of the NFC South is turning to rookie wide receivers.

Michael Clayton's future

May, 17, 2010
5/17/10
4:07
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TAMPA, Fla. -- One of the big topics out at Monday’s media session with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the future of wide receiver Michael Clayton.

Seems like every year since Clayton’s second in the league, everyone’s been wondering why he’s never been able to produce like he did as a rookie. At this point, there are even some people wondering why Clayton remains on the roster. That’s a question that has some validity, and this thing is far from done.

[+] EnlargeMichael Clayton
AP Photo/Don HeupelMichael Clayton caught just 16 passes for 230 yards last season.
Between now and the start of the regular season, I’m thinking Clayton could end up anywhere from being a starter to being cut.

“He has to define his role, just like we all do,’’ coach Raheem Morris said.

Here’s the situation: The Bucs let their No. 1 wide receiver, Antonio Bryant, walk as a free agent. They don’t have a true No. 1 yet, but they’ve got high hopes for draft picks Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams and second-year pro Sammie Stroughter. In fact, I think there’s a chance those could be the top three guys at wide receiver. The Bucs also like Mark Bradley, and veteran Maurice Stovall has some special-teams value.

But it’s hard to know for sure if Benn and Williams can start immediately. The Bucs could fall back to Clayton as an insurance policy. He knows the system and is a good blocker in the running game. Clayton’s also a good locker-room guy, which is kind of rare for a receiver. Clayton also made a point that the Bucs have had a lot of turnover at quarterback and that could be part of the reason for his dismal statistics. The Bucs now have designated Josh Freeman as their franchise quarterback and they expect big things in his second season.

"When you have a quarterback that is set, and is going to be the guy -- we haven't had that consistency in a long time -- at wide receiver that plays a huge part on what goes on in the perimeter," said Clayton. "[Freeman] is going to make that easy for all of us. [What] it is going to all boil down to is, who is out there at a specific time to make the plays? The ball is definitely going to be thrown there. We are all going to have opportunities."

Morris and general manager Mark Dominik gave Clayton a big contract extension last year, and Morris wouldn’t argue with the talk of past inconsistency and uncertainty at quarterback.

"That is very valid," Morris said. “I would never sit up here and give an excuse for anybody, but Clayton has had three changes at the quarterback position in any given season. Those guys usually don't end up with the luxury that they would like to have or the success that they'd like to have in the win-loss record for the most part. I'm going to have to agree with him that would have to affect him, but you have to overcome your deal. That's the beauty of Josh Freeman, so to speak -- going into the offseason knowing who your guy is."

The Bucs know who their guy is at quarterback. Over the next few months, they’re going to find out if Clayton still is one of their guys at wide receiver.

Bucs bring back Crowell

March, 29, 2010
3/29/10
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At long last, we’ve got some movement at One Buccaneer Place. The Bucs, who have been very quiet in recent weeks, just announced that they have re-signed linebacker Angelo Crowell to a one-year contract.

You can assume it’s not a real big deal because Crowell didn’t live up to the expectations the Bucs had when they signed him as a free agent last year. He couldn’t crack the starting lineup and ended up getting hurt. But Crowell had some potential, once upon a time, and the Bucs are giving him another shot.

In other news, the Bucs announced restricted free agent Mark Bradley has signed his tender offer. Generally, we don’t waste time or space reporting on the signing of tender offers because it’s basically a formality. But, as long as we had the Crowell signing, we’ll slip the Bradley note in there as well.
There have been a lot of reports out there in recent days about restricted free agents and the tenders they received. Most of the reports were accurate, but a few were not. For clarity's sake, I thought I would share with you the NFC South portion of the official list of restricted free agents and tenders sent out by the NFL this morning. ROFR stands for right of first refusal.

Atlanta

Carolina

New Orleans

Tampa Bay

Mike Sando's MVP Watch

October, 14, 2009
10/14/09
12:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando


Listing Kyle Orton as a potential MVP candidate once would have seemed about as plausible as the Broncos opening 5-0 with victories over the Cowboys and Patriots.

Orton makes his MVP Watch debut -- at the expense of Tom Brady, no less -- because we're far enough into the season for results to matter more than reputations.

The Bears castoff has seven touchdown passes, one interception and that 5-0 starting record. His predecessor, fellow MVP Watch member Jay Cutler, was 17-20 as the Broncos' starter, never winning more than half of his starts in a season. Orton has now won 26 of 38 regular-season starts for a career winning percentage (.684) exceeding not only Cutler's but also John Elway's (.644).

To make Orton comfortable, MVP Watch welcomes fellow 2005 Bears draft class alum Cedric Benson, the NFL's leading rusher for a 4-1 team, to the list. There wasn't room for Mark Bradley, chosen by the Bears between selections of Orton and Benson, although the Kansas City receiver does have as many touchdown receptions as Randy Moss this season.

1. PEYTON MANNING
QB | Indianapolis Colts (Last Week: 1)
2009 PASSING
CMP ATT YDS CMP% YPA LNG TD INT SACK RAT
133 181 1,645 73.5 9.09 80 12 4 2 114.1
Manning has earned a week off and he'll get one with the Colts' bye week, followed by a date with the Rams.

2. BRETT FAVRE
QB | Minnesota Vikings (Last Week: 2)
2009 PASSING
CMP ATT YDS CMP% YPA LNG TD INT SACK RAT
103 149 1,069 69.1 7.17 47 9 2 11 104.1
Passer rating jumps from 101.7 against standard pressure to 109.8 against added pressure. Blitz at your peril.

3. ELI MANNING
QB | New York Giants (Last Week: 7)
2009 PASSING
CMP ATT YDS CMP% YPA LNG TD INT SACK RAT
87 135 1,212 64.4 8.98 55 10 2 2 111.7
Only his brother is averaging more yards per attempt (9.1 to 9.0) this season and Eli is gaining.

4. DREW BREES
QB | New Orleans Saints (Last Week: 3)
2009 PASSING
CMP ATT YDS CMP% YPA LNG TD INT SACK RAT
87 129 1,031 67.4 7.99 58 9 2 4 108.4
Can move into the second spot on this list with a victory over the Giants in Week 6.

5. JAY CUTLER
QB | Chicago Bears (Last Week: 5)
2009 PASSING
CMP ATT YDS CMP% YPA LNG TD INT SACK RAT
83 129 901 64.3 6.98 68 8 5 8 89.3
It's a good thing he's playing well; otherwise he'd be hearing about Kyle Orton and the Broncos.

6. BEN ROETHLISBERGER
QB | Pittsburgh Steelers (Last Week: NR)
2009 PASSING
CMP ATT YDS CMP% YPA LNG TD INT SACK RAT
127 172 1,470 73.8 8.55 51 8 5 13 102.6
Apologies to "Big Ben" for leaving him off the list last week. He leads the league in completion percentage.

7. KYLE ORTON
QB | Denver Broncos (Last Week: NR)
2009 PASSING
CMP ATT YDS CMP% YPA LNG TD INT SACK RAT
104 165 1,236 63.0 7.49 87 7 1 8 97.4
Ranks eighth in passing yards, but no stat can approach that 5-0 record. Now 26-12 as an NFL starter.

8. MATT RYAN
QB | Atlanta Falcons (Last Week: NR)
2009 PASSING
CMP ATT YDS CMP% YPA LNG TD INT SACK RAT
82 123 977 66.7 7.94 90 7 2 2 102.9
One of eight NFL quarterbacks with a passer rating in triple digits this season.

9. CEDRIC BENSON
RB | Cincinnati Bengals (Last Week: NR)
2009 RUSHING 2009 RECEIVING
ATT YDS AVG LNG TD REC YDS AVG LNG TD
111 487 4.4 28 3 8 65 8.1 19 0
The Bengals needed representation here. Benson leads the league in rushing yards.

10. ADRIAN PETERSON
RB | Minnesota Vikings (Last Week: 4)
2009 RUSHING 2009 RECEIVING
ATT YDS AVG LNG TD REC YDS AVG LNG TD
99 481 4.9 64 7 10 62 6.2 18 0
Six yards behind Benson and due to take over a game while focus is on Favre.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

 
 Jeff Gross/Getty Images
 Kansas City may have found a solution at quarterback in Tyler Thigpen.

Tyler Thigpen has no earth-shattering explanation. He wishes he had something more revealing.

But he just doesn't have a deep, well thought out explanation why he has been so efficient, productive and forceful in his past three starts compared to his first NFL start.

"I don't know," said Thigpen in a South Carolina accent as cool and relaxed as his play. "I guess I just decided to be myself. I just decided to be the quarterback who I am ... That first start, against Atlanta, I admit, I was timid and shy. I'm not anymore."

In the past three games, Thigpen has been one of the more intriguing players in the league. He outplayed Brett Favre in his second start and caught a touchdown pass in his third. He engineered a near game-winning drive in the final minute in his fourth start. The 1-8 Chiefs lost all three games, but they may have gained a future quarterback.

Thigpen has taken control of the Kansas City Chiefs. Suddenly, the Chiefs don't look hopeless anymore and don't look like they will need to go quarterback hunting in the offseason.

If the next seven games are anything like the past three, Kansas City may want to shop for an offensive lineman or an impact player on defense with their first pick next April instead of trading for or drafting a quarterback.

"Hopefully, my play takes care of that stuff," Thigpen said. "All I can worry about in the next seven games is to go game-to-game and not worry about being the future of the Chiefs. That's up to them."

If Thigpen, 24, keeps his composure and swagger, there's no doubt the Chiefs will consider making him the quarterback of the future.

Still, Kansas City never thought it would be in the position to consider Thigpen for anything other than a backup role. The team had high hopes Thigpen prior to training camp. But after a lackluster preseason, Thigpen opened the regular season as the No. 3 quarterback behind starter Brodie Croyle and veteran backup Damon Huard. If anything, Thigpen's best bet was to be a career backup to Croyle, who was being groomed to be the franchise quarterback.

Then Croyle suffered two serious injuries in two starts and was lost for the season. He was put on the injured reserve the same day that Huard was. Thigpen's crowning as the starting quarterback in Kansas City was an emergency reaction.

The Chiefs gave Thigpen a chance to show himself in Week 3 in Atlanta when Huard was banged up. Thigpen threw for 128 yards and was intercepted three times. However, since taking over after injures to Croyle and Huard, Thigpen has been a far different player. He has thrown six touchdowns and has not been intercepted in the past three games.

Using the spread offense in which he excelled at Coastal Carolina, Thigpen looks as comfortable as a five-year veteran. He is extremely accurate and moves well with the ball. Two NFL scouts recently said that they believe Thigpen has the moxie, instincts and athletic ability to succeed in the NFL.

Both scouts said the 6-foot-1, 224-pound Thigpen reminds them somewhat of Drew Brees, whose Saints visit Kansas City on Sunday.

"He's a guy that's progressed every week," Kansas City coach Herman Edwards said of Thigpen this week. "He's gaining confidence in himself and it's a tribute to him and the coaching staff that we feel he can do well. You talk about the guy who's only started four games. He still has a long way to go. He's done fairly well so far."

It's the leadership Thigpen has shown that most impresses his teammates. Kansas City Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters said he saw a different Thigpen prior to the Jets game than he saw during the Falcons game. Thigpen took charge, leading a players-only offensive meeting three days before the New York game. He was a "true leader," Waters said. After the loss to the Jets, tight end Tony Gonzalez admitted that Thigpen's poise and production surprised him, but he was thrilled to have Thigpen as his quarterback.

During the past three weeks, Thigpen has developed a terrific chemistry with Gonzalez and starting receivers Dwayne Bowe and Mark Bradley. Thigpen will have running back Larry Johnson back on Sunday too. Johnson has been sidelined by the team and the league for the the past four games.

While Thigpen said he is comfortable with his play in the past three games and his chemistry with his teammates, he is not satisfied.

"It's been good, but the next step is to win," Thigpen said. "It's coming. It's close .. We've come a long way, but we have to win."

If the Chiefs win in the next seven weeks, the Thigpen era in Kansas City could continue in 2009.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Chicago defensive tackle Tommie Harris cleared up some of the mystery surrounding his one-game suspension Thursday, telling the Chicago Tribune that a baby he fathered out of wedlock "has weighed on me" and "really affected my professional life."

Harris admitted he has not been fully committed to his job but disagreed with coach Lovie Smith's decision to suspend him for Sunday's game at Detroit. Officially, the Bears issued the discipline because he was late to a rehabiliation appointment.

Here is Harris' response to Smith's decision:

"If I'm not coming to treatment or if I'm not doing all these other things, my approach if I [were a coach] would be, 'What's going on? Is everything OK? I wouldn't punish him and think that this punishment is going to help him. I would try to help this player. Suspending me is not going to help my [personal] problems. You actually just put more on what I'm going through."

The child was born prematurely Sept. 14, the day the Bears played at Carolina. Harris attended the delivery and joined his teammates in Charlotte prior to the 1 p.m. ET kickoff.

But the birth apparently is only one of several problems Harris has had. Both the Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times reported Harris argued with Smith over the release of receiver Mark Bradley.

The Bears have indicated Harris would rejoin the team Monday, but you have to wonder if a four-day absence will rectify all of the issues surrounding their best defensive player. There should be a significant clearing of the air between Harris and Smith before everyone moves forward.

The suspension was almost out of character for Smith, but as the Tribune's David Haugh writes, it was an important display of authority from a coach who is sometimes viewed as too forgiving.

Brad Biggs of the Sun-Times, meanwhile, adds an important element to the story: The suspension all but assures Harris won't meet a set of contract qualifiers that fully maintain a bonus due in 2012. The Bears owe Harris an $8 million bonus that year, but it reduces by $1.5 million for every season that he doesn't make the Pro Bowl and play in 74 percent of the team's defensive plays.

Elsewhere around the NFC North:

  • The Detroit Lions continue to drop hints that they'll be less committed to the running game when they emerge from the bye, according to the Detroit News. Offensive coordinator Jim Colletto: "We've got to manufacture more points faster. We'll probably play a few more receivers in the game a little more often than we've been doing."
  • The NFL granted the Lions an extension to sell out Sunday's game and as of Thursday afternoon fewer than 2,000 tickets remained. The team has a 50-game home sellout streak.
  • Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers didn't suit up for Thursday's practice, but the Packers still plan to test out his sprained right shoulder Friday in practice. Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal has details.
  • You can have Brett Favre's old house in Green Bay (actually, Ashwaubenon) for $475,000.
  • Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel chronicles the rehabilitation of defensive tackle Justin Harrell, the 2007 first-round draft pick who is on the physically unable to perform list. Harrell is eligible to be activated Oct. 13.
  • Minnesota linebacker E.J. Henderson (dislocated toes) is highly unlikely to play Monday night against New Orleans, according to the Star Tribune.
  • Vikings nose tackle Pat Williams, speaking to the St. Paul Pioneer Press about the Saints' offensive line: "I've seen better."
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

It will be interesting to see what treatment option Green Bay cornerback Al Harris chooses for his ruptured spleen.

Whether he opts for surgery or several months of rest, he will almost certainly miss the remainder of the season. But one of the options -- surgical removal -- reportedly would decrease his chances of returning in 2009.

So Harris will have some heavy thoughts on his mind starting Wednesday. According to the Green Bay Press-Gazette, he sent his medical records to a pair of specialists Tuesday and should get their recommendations within 24 hours. Tramon Williams is expected to take his place in the starting lineup.

Elsewhere in the NFC North this morning:

  • The Packers' entire secondary is banged up. They open the practice week unsure if either starting safety -- Atari Bigby (hamstring) and Nick Collins (back) -- will be ready to play Sunday at Tampa Bay. Overall, it's already been a bad year for injuries in Green Bay, writes Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal.
  • Are the people of Wisconsin moving on? Television ratings in Milwaukee for Brett Favre's third game with the New York Jets were down 42 percent compared to his first two games, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Detroit backup quarterback Drew Stanton spent some extra time with coaches Tuesday, prompting Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com to wonder if a change is coming after the Lions' bye week. Starter Jon Kitna said no one had informed him of anything and added: "I'm all about this team winning. If they feel that's necessary, then so be it. But I don't think I'm the problem."
  • You have to love Lions receiver Roy Williams. As long as everyone is expressing their opinion -- vice chairman Bill Ford, Jr., said Monday he would fire general manager Matt Millen if he could -- Williams went ahead and blurted this out: "And if I was the offensive coordinator, I'd be in four-wides. It means nothing. Everybody has their opinions."
  • Chicago defensive tackle Tommie Harris didn't agree with the team's decision to release receiver Mark Bradley, according to Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune. Harris: "I don't feel like he had a fair chance. I feel like he just had his job taken from him. You know how it goes: He had a knee surgery, then he lost his job."
  • Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times on Bradley's release: "It signals new accountability at Halas Hall."
  • Minnesota has one game remaining before left tackle Bryant McKinnie returns from an NFL suspension. His replacement, Artis Hicks, will be matched up against Tennessee Pro Bowler Kyle Vanden Bosch on Sunday. Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune has details.
  • The playing time for Minnesota nose tackle Pat Williams has decreased notably this season, according to Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Coach Brad Childress said he is simply trying to keep Williams' legs fresh and that there are no injury issues.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

It seems like ages ago, but I did spend a few days at the Chicago Bears' training camp in Bourbonnais, Ill., this July. The Bears were in the early stages of their quarterback competition, but one thing struck me about Kyle Orton: He looked lean and athletic and was displaying a low-key personality -- pretty much the opposite of the impression I had of him from the outside during the early part of his career.

Orton once had a reputation as a typical early-20s party animal, if for no other reason than a few unfortunate pictures that circulated on the Internet during his rookie year in 2005. I didn't know if I had misjudged the situation or not (wouldn't be the first time), but as David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune writes, it turns out Orton has made a conscious effort to get more serious about his profession and his personal life.

"I've learned a lot of stuff, and obviously I'm a different guy from '05 in all aspects of my life," Orton said. "I'm different just like everybody else is three or four years down the road."

He was married in March and dedicated the rest of his offseason to relearning the Bears offense to give himself the best chance to win the starting job.

"I'm still the same guy," Orton said. "I'm still a fun guy and like to hang with my teammates. It's not like I'm trying to live in a hole or anything. But [I] certainly have to be careful and not put myself or my family in jeopardy."

That sentiment doesn't guarantee Orton success this season, but at least he's given himself the best chance possible.

Elsewhere around the NFC North, A MERE 54 HOURS UNTIL THE BLACK AND BLUE REGULAR SEASON KICKS OFF:

  • Having lost his spot as a starting receiver, the Bears' Mark Bradley has been working as a gunner for punt coverage, the Chicago Sun-Times reports. Asked if he was upset that he is no longer a first-team receiver, Bradley said: "I'll say I'm just confused."
  • Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress said any intensified emotions he might feel against the Green Bay Packers shouldn't impact the teams' game Monday night. "Last time I checked, I won't be out there between the white lines or anything physically like that," Childress told members of the Wisconsin media.
  • Vikings left tackle Artis Hicks spoke Thursday for the first time about replacing the suspended Bryant McKinnie. "It's not that big of an adjustment," Hicks said, according to the Star Tribune. "The biggest thing is guys are a little bit faster out there, a little bit more athletic."
  • Vikings running back/kick returner Maurice Hicks has a sprained foot and might not be ready for Monday night's game, according to the Star Tribune.
  • Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk was cleared to practice Thursday as he recovers from a strained chest muscle. But he hasn't been cleared to play yet Monday night, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • There has been plenty of discussion about the Detroit Lions' new running game. But of equal importance is the Lions' efforts to improve their run defense, writes John Niyo of the Detroit News.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

We're with you a little later than normal because we wanted to give you a chance to absorb Saturday night's posts on NFC North cutdown day. (Yeah, riiiiiiiight....)

We are heading into the most optimistic week of the NFL season. No one has lost a game and everyone is mathematically and realistically still in the playoff race. Life is good everywhere.

Which brings us to a pair of columns published Sunday morning in the Detroit Free Press, which covers a team that hasn't made a playoff appearance this decade. The Detroit Lions finished the preseason 4-0 and appear to have made some important improvements, but the locals know better than to get too excited.

  • Here's how Michael Rosenberg put it: "They have moved up in the world from hopeless to hopeful."
  • And Drew Sharp: "The odds certainly favor the Lions finally breaking that glass ceiling into mediocrity."

In relative terms, that's about as positive a review the Lions have received in a while. Yes, there is optimism even in Detroit. For this week, at least.

Elsewhere around the division:

  • Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune writes the Vikings haven't gotten their money's worth from left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who signed a seven-year contract worth $48.4 million in 2006. The NFL suspended McKinnie for the first four games of the season for violating the league's personal conduct policy, and, Zulgad writes, coach Brad Childress would be justified in feeling betrayed.
  • Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette suggests the Packers' cuts on Saturday reflect an ongoing willingness to experiment with youth rather than play it safe with veterans.
  • Rookie running back Kregg Lumpkin has a chance to be active for the Packers on Sept. 8 against Minnesota, writes Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The Packers might want Lumpkin available because starter Ryan Grant didn't have a preseason carry.
  • The Chicago Bears kept unproductive receiver Mark Bradley for another season, but this is likely Bradley's last chance with the team, writes Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

It's not too hard to cull the primary goal of all four NFC North teams in Thursday night's preseason finales: Stay healthy.

Take this history lesson from Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press: The last two times the Detroit Lions visited Buffalo for their preseason finale, as they will tonight, a significant injury occurred.

In 2003, starting tailback James Stewart separated his right shoulder and never played for the Lions again. In 2005, meanwhile, quarterback Jeff Garcia fractured his left fibula and sprained his ankle. He missed the next five games and wasn't very effective upon his return.

Those kind of horror stories will compel all four division coaches to limit starters to a series or two, at best, Thursday night. Most teams have a pretty good idea about their rosters and have only a few, if any, decisions remaining.

Continuing around the NFC North:

  • Both Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times and David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune mentioned Chicago Bears receiver Mark Bradley as player who doesn't seem to have a lock on a roster spot yet.
  • Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Johnny Jolly had his court case moved to Sept. 16. He was arrested July 8 in Houston for felony drug possession. Jolly could eventually face discipline from the NFL.
  • Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette takes a look at what it feels like to be cut. The Packers have to shed 22 players by 3 p.m. Saturday.
  • Minnesota Vikings safety Darren Sharper, describing himself: "I'm like a fine wine, a Cabernet-Merlot-Shiraz blend. It can do a lot of things. It gets better as you open it up and let it get out there and air out, filtrate, do all those things. I don't even need a decanter. Just let me go out there and run. Pour me in your mouth, suck it up and let it run."
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
 
 AP Photo/M. Spencer Green
 Devin Hester has 11 returns for TDs in two seasons.

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears insisted Wednesday they were blindsided by kick returner/wide receiver Devin Hester's decision to hold out from training camp. The Bears assume Hester is not happy with the pace of negotiations on a potential contract extension, but general manager Jerry Angelo said: "I really don't know why he isn't here today."

According to Angelo, one of Hester's agents "floated" the idea of a holdout earlier this week. Angelo, however, said he "didn't take it serious because we were still talking." Numbers were still being exchanged, Angelo said, when the decision was made.

"There was no closure," Angelo said. "Usually when you say, 'Hey, it's over, take it or leave it, we're out of money,' you might get a reaction like that. But continuing on into negotiations as we have been, it's surprising. ... We did tell Devin we were going to address his situation and we have. That's where it is. The timing of it maybe wasn't satisfactory to him, but those things kind of run their course."

That lack of urgency apparently set Hester off. He told the Chicago Tribune that the team wasn't "taking it seriously that I wanted to get a new deal." Hester went on to make this outlandish statement:

"You should pay me like I'm one of a kind. It's like dating a girl. When you find somebody that is real special, you're going to do whatever it takes to keep her. You might cut back on what you're giving your mom to give her. And that's how I feel they should treat me."

This broadside clearly caught the Bears off-guard and represents a huge setback on the first day of training camp. Coach Lovie Smith and his staff are planning to make Hester a full-time receiver while maintaining his role as the NFL's top returner. After the departures of Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad, Hester was going to get every opportunity to be the Bears' No. 1 receiver in 2008.

Hester, who has two years remaining on his contract, participated fully in the team's offseason program but still will need maximum training camp time to secure a smooth transition to receiver.

"I know he would like to be out here," Smith said. "He realizes how important his work is, especially for him becoming a full-time receiver."

Hester's absence left the Bears with an underwhelming group of receivers for the first practice of training camp. Veterans Marty Booker and Mark Bradley took the initial repetitions with the first team, while Brandon Lloyd and Rashied Davis also rotated in. The Bears ran plenty of plays for tight ends Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen, a pattern they figure to follow at least until Hester's situation gets resolved.

That could take some time, however. Angelo noted it is the team's right to fine Hester for every day he misses at a maximum of about $15,000 per day. Angelo also said the team has a policy that expects players to participate in camp while negotiating extensions. In other words, the Bears could stop negotiating altogether until Hester reports.

Angelo didn't sound like a general manager who wants to play hardball with one of his favorite players. What's also clear is the Bears never believed Hester would hold out until the minute they realized he wasn't here.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

What? Could one whole day have passed without an update in the Brett Favre saga? It appears as though both sides rested Sunday, at least publicly, in anticipation of a key week for the Green Bay Packers. So we'll take our cue and go Favre-less ourselves -- for now -- in this edition of Black and Blue all over.

  • It's not clear if Chicago Bears wide receiver Mark Bradley will be ready for the start of training camp after offseason surgery on his right knee. With the departures of Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad, Bradley has an opportunity to finally establish himself as a front-line receiver. But he has to get on the field. And stay there.
  • Jay Mariotti of the Chicago Sun-Times endorses Kyle Orton for the Bears' starting quarterback job based on one qualification: He isn't Rex Grossman. "I have slightly more faith that he'll make fewer mistakes than Rex Grossman," Mariotti writes.
  • Rookie safety Caleb Campbell (Army) is expected to report to Detroit Lions camp on Wednesday, according to the Detroit News. Campbell's status has been in some doubt as the U.S. military reviews the "alterative service option" that will allow him to defer and modify his post-graduate service obligation.
  • Among the issues that have been swept under the (public) rug recently is the Green Bay Packers' concerns at defensive line, according the Green Bay Press-Gazette. The Packers traded Corey Williams and then watched Justin Harrell tweak his back and Johnny Jolly get arrested this month for drug possession in Houston. Jolly could eventually face NFL discipline.
  • The Packers are hoping to identify a clear-cut No. 2 running back behind Ryan Grant, assuming Grant signs a contract and reports to camp on time. Brandon Jackson will get the first crack, reports the Wisconsin State Journal.
  • Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress will keep in mind the NFL's new 80-man roster limit while monitoring his players' workload in training camp. "You don't need to be a slavedriver," Childress told the Star Tribune.

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