Last week signaled a landmark in NFL history, as the current work stoppage reached its 100th day on Thursday. It is the longest lockout in league history and will last for at least another two weeks, if not two months.
We now sit at Day 104. Many with knowledge of the talks have said an internal deadline of July 15 is being used by both sides, as a full pre-season would be salvaged if an agreement is reached by then.
That means the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams – the two participants in the Hall of Fame game – would enter training camp on July 23. In less than a month, the team is expected to sign its free agents and bring together its coaches and players in Bourbonnais for the first time since the 2010 season ended.
The Bears currently have just 54 players under contract, so there will be a number of new faces in training camp. Acclimating the veterans, rookies, veteran free agents and undrafted free agents, in a severely shortened timeframe, will prove challenging for the coaching staff.
For the Monsters of the Midway, a veteran team with a long-tenured coaching staff, the transition back to football shouldn't be as difficult for younger teams with new coaching personnel. Teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos – all of which are transitioning to brand-new coaching staffs – will find the first few months of football activity much more difficult than the Bears.
This is especially so for the defense, which is loaded with veterans who have been playing in the team's Cover 2 system for years. Yet on offense, where Mike Martz will begin his second season as coordinator, there could be some larger hurdles to overcome.
Obviously we can't account for the players to be signed by the front office once free agency begins, and how they will affect the offense. But we can look at how four months of inactivity could disrupt the progression of certain players, and the group as a whole.
QB Jay Cutler
Rob Grabowski/US Presswire
Jay Cutler progressed in his comfort level with Martz's scheme throughout last season, yet he still has far to go. Martz has said it takes at least a full year in his offense for a quarterback to fully grasp its myriad aspects. The more time Cutler and Martz spend together, the better. The chemistry between the two needs to further develop, and that can only happen in the film room and on the practice field. Caleb Hanie looks to be the primary backup. Both players are already fairly comfortable with the system, so the time away won't be detrimental.
Yet for rookie Nathan Enderle, the lockout will firmly entrench him as the No. 3 signal caller. He needs time to not only adjust to the speed of the NFL but also to Martz's intricate system. If he is called on for duty this year at any point, don't expect him to be up to speed.
Matt Forte is firmly entrenched as the lead runner. He gained more than 1,000 yards rushing last season behind a porous offensive line. If he can get better push from the front five in 2011 he could make his first Pro Bowl appearance, especially when you consider his contributions in the passing game. Forte has been training in the North Chicago suburbs by climbing a steep hill, a la the great Walter Payton. He'll be ready to go from Day 1.
Deciding Forte's backup is where the lockout will hurt the team. Chester Taylor was a colossal bust last season – his 2.4 yards per carry was the worst average of any runner with more than 100 carries in a season since the merger. The team may choose to cut its losses if it feels the 31 year old is out of gas. The other runners on the roster though, Harvey Unga and Kahlil Bell, haven't had an opportunity to prove they can be the primary backup. This is especially so for Unga, who spent last season on injured reserve. He has the size (6-1, 240) to serve as the short-yardage back but also has soft hands, giving him third-down value as well. Had the team been able to conduct OTAs, the coaching staff would have a better idea of what they have with Unga. As it is, the team might be more inclined to hang on to the veteran Taylor.
Like Cutler, the Bears receivers would benefit with more time under Martz's supervision. In this offense, the quarterback must throw to a spot and trust the receiver will be there to catch the ball. As such, timing is of the utmost importance. Projected starters Johnny Knox and Earl Bennett have been participating in the player-only workouts organized by Cutler, but that doesn't replace time spent with Martz. Devin Hester looks like he'll occupy the third-receiver position, saving his talents more for the return game. His playbook will most likely be smaller than either starter, so he won't be too hurt by the time off.
WR Andy Fantuz
John E. Sokolowski/US Presswire
The same can't be said for Andy Fantuz, the former CFL star the team signed in February. Fantuz has good size (6-4, 220), which the Bears could use in the passing game. He doesn't have great speed, but he runs good routes and gets after jump balls. Yet he was never issued a Martz playbook, and as such, won't be anywhere near ready to contribute once the season starts.
The same goes for any potential free agent the team may sign. Even the most-talented pass catcher will need extensive practice before being comfortable in Martz's scheme.
Like the wideouts, Greg Olsen could use the extra practice time. It's hard to believe Martz will under-utilize his best pass catcher for a second-straight season. Odds are he's been developing schemes to get the ball in Olsen's hand. Implementing those plays takes time, which is right now being wasted.
Behind Olsen are Brandon Manumaleuna and Kellen Davis. Manumaleuna was brought in last offseason to be a blocker, yet Pro Football Focus ranked his blocking performance in 2010 the worst of any tight end in the league. If the team still has plans for him in 2011, he'll need extra work on the blocking sled. With Manumaleuna underperforming last year, now would be the perfect time for Davis to prove he's the better, and cheaper, option to backup Olsen. Unfortunately, his window of opportunity is rapidly closing.
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