Print and Go Back ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Wednesday, August 24, 2011
In preseason form

By Melissa Isaacson
ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Maybe the real issue isn't whether Roy Williams dropped that pass Monday (are you kidding?), but how he and his team regard preseason games.

Roy Williams
Roy Williams said he was just joking about being out of shape and claims he'll be ready for the season opener.

Clearly, it is far out of line with the admittedly distorted view we in the media and some fans have this time of year. But Bears players such as Williams, Chris Harris and D.J. Moore don't have it completely right, either.

Asked about the Bears' 41-13 loss to the Giants, Harris, known for his playful sense of humor, was obviously irritated at what was but one of many contentious subjects discussed during recent labor talks.

"Chalk it up to a bad practice. Practice. The preseason," the Bears strong safety said Wednesday. "We're talking about practice. When you talk about a bad practice, that's what the preseason is for. It's for you to get ready for the regular season. Nothing that happened will go on any stat sheet. Nobody cares about preseason stats, at least I don't, and I don't think anyone in this room does. It's an opportunity to get better. ... We'll make corrections and move on."

Obviously, much of it comes down to the inherent risk involved in playing games that don't count, a point Moore made when he expressed disgust over the season-ending knee injury to Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas.

"That stuff is terrible, man. You got to knock these games down or something," Moore said. "I mean, your best players on the field are getting hurt? It's tough stuff; it's the preseason. I mean, you're playing for what, a thousand dollars a week or something? These are regular-season tickets. At least let him get hurt for a little more money."

It underscores the fine line players and coaches walk during the preseason. When it becomes potentially offensive is when there is a perceived lack of effort, as was seemingly the case when Williams told reporters last week that he wasn't in shape but would be ready when the real games started.

On Wednesday, he said he was kidding.

"I'm a sarcastic guy, I like to smile a lot, so I won't do that anymore," Williams said. "I'm just trying to perform, trying to compete. I think it got blown out of proportion but that's fine, whatever. I'm used to it. Whatever."

Bears coach Lovie Smith said he wasn't going to panic about Williams because it's the preseason and reminded the media that there is not a lot of game planning being done. And while discussing the Bears' failure in the red zone Monday night, a recurring problem last season as they ranked 26th in the league inside the 20-yard line, Jay Cutler brought up the same thing.

"We didn't really install anything for that game, so I'm not really all that worried about it," Cutler said. "You never really know what you're going to get in the second preseason game, and we didn't really have anything up to go against them. Red zone and short-yardage and man stuff, that's [offensive coordinator Mike Martz's] specialty, so he's going to be able to dial up stuff for us."

Still, the Bears failed to cross the goal line against the Giants on a first-and-7 from the 7 with the first team, a third-and-2 and fourth-and-1 with the second team, and again in the fourth quarter on three tries from inside the 6. Game plan or not, wouldn't you like to see them muscle it in just once at that point?

Martz said that even in a base offense, that's more about execution than toughness. And he explained as well as anyone how coaches view preseason games.

"It's kind of a catch-22," he said. "We obviously would like to win them all. But during the course of that, there are things we're trying to find out. Maybe there are plays we want to use in the season, for instance, and you find out if there's a particular player, a route perhaps or a new run or we're trying to pull the guards to see if they can do it.

"Those are the kinds of things you do in the preseason that'll answer those questions that you really can't find out in practice. Then you find out also, if you just play kind of a base offense, they don't have to think about the plays and you see how fast they can play."

Bears players often use last preseason's 0-4 record preceding an 11-5 regular-season mark as an example of why it doesn't say much about how a team will finish. But they're underestimating how fans and media look at it. It's not about wins and losses as much as how the team performs, and very often preseason games are a good predictor for the kinds of strengths or shortcomings a team will have.

Last year, the offensive line looked bad in the preseason and struggled for much of the early season. This preseason, the line appears to be improving, and so there is some reason to be more hopeful this week.

Sometimes, the wrong attitude in the preseason can turn into a good thing. J'Marcus Webb, who got himself in hot water with coaches and fans when he said he didn't expect Shawne Merriman to play with so much intensity against him in the first preseason game, showed "remarkable improvement," according to Martz, in the second.

And the O-line's leader, veteran center Roberto Garza, disagreed with the notion of putting preseason practices and games on the same level.

"No, any time you keep score, you want to win and you want to go out there and perform well," he said. "Obviously practice is practice and you're using that to get better and to work on things. But when you go out in a game, you're going out there to perform and do everything right."

It would be silly to overreact to special teams problems Monday night, given their past success under Dave Toub and the fact that Toub was filing different players, mostly youngsters, in and out at a rapid rate.

But Williams? While looking every bit the No. 1 receiver off the field with ample swagger and a colorful persona, he looked far from dominant Monday night, despite his protests. And you wonder whether his defiance Wednesday when asked about two missed opportunities to catch the ball isn't a sign of things to come.

"Who had a drop? I had a drop? I didn't have a drop," Williams said, evoking memories of Muhsin Muhammad. "But if you want to count it, you can. I think the [defensive back] made a great play to knock it out as soon as it got into my hands, so I didn't drop the ball. If you want to call it a drop, go ahead.

Williams I'm fine, man, I'm fine. I played last week, I played a half, I'm good to go. I don't understand what the hell is going on but it's all good.

-- Roy Williams

"You say I had another one, too? Yeah, I gotta catch that ball, man. My fault. I'll catch it next time, Coach."

So he'll be ready?

"Ready for what?" Williams said. "I'm fine, man, I'm fine. I played last week, I played a half, I'm good to go. I don't understand what the hell is going on but it's all good."

You'd think he would be used to this heightened state of football awareness coming from Dallas. Chalk it up to just one more adjustment to be made before, as he said, "the bullets fly" on opening day.

Smith would have weighed in on the matter but was interrupted when a reporter's cellphone voicemail went off before he could reply.

"Seems like very few people are in regular-season form right now," Smith quipped. "Roy included."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.