Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Bears, Part II

In the conclusion of an exclusive two-part series, SFIllustrated's Craig Massei and BearReport.com's John Crist complete their back-and-forth interaction with five questions from Craig to John. Are the Bears serious starting Kyle Orton at QB? What's up with former 49er Brandon Lloyd at WR? Did the 49ers get royally screwed in Tamper-gate involving LB Lance Briggs? These Q&As and more inside.

Craig Massei, Editor in Chief, www.sfillustrated.com: Kyle Orton? Are the Bears serious? OK, they were once serious about Rex Grossman, so I guess it should be no different with Orton as Chicago's starting quarterback. Actually, I never thought Orton looked that bad when he was playing back in 2005. But is he the right quarterback to get the Bears back to prominence in the NFC? And what happened to Grossman? What went into the decision for the Bears to make that switch, and do you think Orton can get the job done?
John Crist, Publischer, www.BearsReport.com: The organization was adamant the entire offseason that both Orton and Grossman were in a dead heat for the starting job and would compete for said starting job from the offseason program throughout the exhibition schedule, but the supposed competition sure looks like it was rigged in hindsight. I watched every single training camp practice up close, and not only did Grossman make more big plays down the field, but Orton also threw more interceptions and fumbled just as many snaps. It became increasingly clear that Grossman was going to have to measurably outperform Orton during the preseason, but he wasn't able to do that in the short time he was on the field at home against the Chiefs and on the road against the Seahawks. That being said, I do believe that Orton is the right choice because this team is going to have to win with great defense and spectacular special teams – sure, Grossman can single-handedly win a game when he is playing well, but he can also single-handedly lose one with all those maddening turnovers.

Craig Massei: The Bears couldn't get rid of Cedric Benson fast enough earlier this year, and I sure can't blame them. What exactly led to the demise of that dude, and give us the rundown on the ripple effect cutting ties with that loser has had on the organization. The Bears seemed to have a lot invested in him. What are they doing at running back now?
John Crist: Most everybody seemed to focus on the fact that Benson made one too many ridiculous off-the-field decisions and pretty much forced the Bears to get rid of him, but let's not forget that his miserable play on the field is what made deep-sixing him justifiable. You know and I know that Benson would still be a part of this football team if he was coming off a season in which he ran for 1,200 yards and scored double-digit touchdowns, but he was arguably the worst starting tailback in the entire league in 2007 and gave no indication whatsoever that he was going to improve any time soon. The Bears did indeed have an awful lot invested in him, including $17 million in guaranteed money and trading away locker-room leader Thomas Jones for next to nothing in order to hand him the starting job, but you could feel a sense of relief throughout the organization after he disappeared because he was never very popular amongst his teammates. Rookie Matt Forte has been impressive on the field and said all the right things off the field so far, which means he'll likely carry the load right away until free-agent acquisition Kevin Jones comes back all the way from last season's torn ACL.

Craig Massei; I personally had a good working relationship with Brandon Lloyd when he was in San Francisco, but he rubbed a lot of people the wrong way here and the 49ers couldn't ship him out fast enough when they fleeced the Redskins for two draft picks in return back in 2006. Lloyd got his big bucks but bombed in Washington. Now that he's back in familiar surroundings, what's up with B-Lloyd? How is he fitting in, and what are the expectations for him this season?
John Christ: It's hard to believe Lloyd was run out of both San Francisco and Washington when you talk with him, because he can be as charming and likeable as any player I've encountered when you catch him on one of his talkative days. As far as his on-the-field play is concerned, Lloyd was unquestionably the best wideout on the roster during the offseason program and had a relatively good training camp from start to finish. This team is in dire need of a No. 1 target in the passing game, and he has as good a chance as any to emerge as that primary threat since there is a dearth of talent on the depth chart. That being said, Lloyd has a reputation for being a Pro Bowler in practice and a no-shower on game day, so I'll keep my expectations tempered until he proves that he's finally ready to live up to all that talent – no receiver is going to sniff 1,000 yards in this offense anyway.

Craig Massei: What Devin Hester has done the past two years is nothing short of phenomenal. How is the transition going now that Chicago is working him at wide receiver? Is that ever going to work for him? In fact, what exactly do the Bears have going on now at receiver? How much does the loss of Bernard Berrian hurt the team? Who are the starters now? How good – or bad – does the Chicago passing game figure to be this season?
John Crist: Hester catches the football surprisingly well and runs sharp routes for a player only a year or so removed from playing cornerback, but he has a long way to go and is still most effective in the return game – head coach Lovie Smith believes he can be a No. 1 receiver, but he's crazy. Hester and Lloyd are the most likely candidates to earn the two starting assignments, although veteran Marty Booker, slot man Rashied Davis, and rookie Earl Bennett figure to be in the huddle quite often, as well. Berrian may not have been worth all that scratch he got from the rival Vikings, but replacing him will not be easy because he's an elite deep threat and was better at the short and intermediate routes than most experts thought. The passing game as a whole leaves a lot to be desired at this point, as Orton has never put up big numbers, the receiving corps lacks a true alpha dog, and the offensive line is going to have trouble keeping the enemy at bay all season long.

Craig Massei: I once read that Lance Briggs said he'd never play for the Bears again. Uh ... I guess money changes everything, right? How is Briggs' "return" to the team working out, and what does he mean to that defense now that he'll be sticking around? Lastly – and be honest, now – did the 49ers get royally screwed in the whole tamper-gate episode involving Briggs or what? And how much did the Bears benefit from not only getting Briggs back, but also the extra bonanza they received in the 2008 draft as a result of it?
John Crist: I said all along that there was only one scenario in which Briggs would re-sign with the Bears: if they offered him the most money. And since there wasn't much of a market that developed for him in free agency, at least not at the bank-breaking price he was looking for, he quickly tucked his tail between his legs and came back to the Windy City – the deal he ultimately inked was strikingly similar to the one he so firmly rejected before he was ever franchised in the first place. I'm not so sure the 49ers got hosed in the tampering case because there did seem to be some shady stuff going on, but moving up five spots in the third round allowed the Midway Monsters to select Bennett at No. 70 overall. Brian Urlacher gets all the endorsements, and rightfully so seeing that he makes the highlight-reel plays in terms of sacks and interceptions, but it's Briggs who is the best open-field tackler on this defense and in part allows Urlacher to be so aggressive from sideline to sideline. While it did get ugly there for a while between player and front office, it appears everything has been forgiven and forgotten.


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