In the air-controlled confines of the Walter Payton Center at Halas Hall, the Chicago Bears this afternoon conducted their first practice of the 2013 season. It was the first session under new head coach Marc Trestman's and it was, well, different, to say the least. But we'll get more into that later.
Our first order of business: injuries.
Brandon Marshall is still recovering from minor hip surgery and did not practice today. Trestman said he doesn't have a timetable for Marshall's return.
"It's one day at a time," said Trestman. "He said he's feeling better. We'll talk to the trainers every day and when they say he's ready, he'll go."
Also held out of practice was Robbie Gould, who apparently still hasn't fully healed from the calf injury that finished his season last year.
Hester in (in)action
One person who was dressed yet participated only briefly in practice was Devin Hester, who no longer has any role on offense. During positional drills, Hester stood on the sidelines next to Adam Podlesh and Patrick Mannelly. When coordinator Joe DeCamillis conducted his special teams portions of practice, Hester took the field, and even did work as a gunner. But beyond that, he was nothing more than a spectator.
"The plan going in, and I'll make it clear because I've been asked that a number of times, Devin is going to focus on being our returner," Trestman said. "He's got to be the returner for him to be here. And once that's locked in to place, which we expect that it will, then we'll see where it goes from there. Let him get back to doing what he does best first. And once that's all in place we'll see if we need to, or if we're in a position to incorporate him in doing more things."
That, my friends, is far from a vote of confidence. In fact, after listening to Trestman talk today, I don't think Hester's roster spot is guaranteed by any means. This is a great strategy by Trestman, as we all know Hester was never a receiver. Now, he won't have to worry about memorizing playbooks, opposing defenses, check offs, hot reads, etc. All he has to do is be the return man he once was.
"He'll spend all of his time with Joe [DeCamillis]," said Trestman. "So when we're in an offensive meeting, he'll be with Joe. He'll be with Robbie and the kickers. And he'll be spending time totally focused in on being the best returner in the national football league."
The problem is that a return to glory is highly unlikely to happen. Hester will be 31 midway through this season. Historically, the production of NFL return men drops off substantially after the age of 30. He struggled mightily as a returner last year, so this may be just the thing to get him back on track. Just don't get your hopes too high, as time is not on Hester's side.
Under former coach Lovie Smith, Bears practices were a fairly laid back affair. There wasn't a ton of yelling by the coaching staff and everything moved along as if floating down a lazy river. By comparison, Trestman's practices are hurricanes, with gusts up to 100 mph.
The pace of practice was something to behold. Players were herded from drill to drill, spot to spot, play to play with intense urgency. Not a second of the practice was wasted, with Trestman fitting in as much work in 75 minutes as Smith would have in three hours.
"Our only goal today was to practice fast. That was it," said Trestman. "It's very clear we have a fast team. We have a fast football team and practicing fast will help us with the muscle memory to play fast all of the time."
The session appeared hectic at times, almost to the point where you had to wonder if players, who haven't practiced since December, would begin to wear down.
"It was definitely intense," said Corey Wootton. "I've never experienced a practice like that, just the tempo and how quickly we go through everything. In college I thought it was fast but this definitely [beats] that. I think it'll definitely be good for our conditioning. I think that's the biggest thing. We're only going two plays in a row and then off, but the tempo is quick. You run to the ball on every play so you're getting quality reps, conditioning reps. It felt like we only got about 12 plays each but it felt like we had 30-plus."
The chaos of a Trestman practice is also a way to simulate the out-of-control environment of an NFL game field, getting players used to the disorder.
"Sometimes in the game it gets kind of chaotic," said Wootton. "A lot of teams nowadays are going no-huddle offense, like we saw last year in Seattle and Washington, and a bunch of other teams. So it's nice to right away get used to a tempo like that, so when we do play those types of teams, it feels like nothing."
Offensive line shuffle
Chicago's offensive line has two set starters: C Roberto Garza and LT Jermon Bushrod. Beyond that, every position is open for the taking. At left guard, right guard and right tackle, the player who proves himself the most effective will be named the starter. That competition began today.
"Coach said there was no set roster yet," Gabe Carimi said. "We're all going to keep on fighting."
When practice started, here was the Bears' first-team offensive line:
Here was the second-team offensive line:
Later in the practice, the guards in both the first and second teams switched sides. This moved Slauson to left guard, where he has played his entire four-year career. If I were a betting man, I'd say Slauson locks up that spot sooner than later. That leaves just the right side of the line.
The rotating of guards means Trestman, offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer and assistant offensive line coach Pat Meyer are evaluating all the candidates at each position. It's anyone's guess how the right side will work out but as far as Carimi goes, Trestman was very clear where he'll play going forward.
"We're going to focus in on [Carimi] competing at the guard position," he said.
"We've all earned a lot of gray hairs over our years. Those are years and experience that teaches us not to say never, to not use those words," Emery said. "But certainly our focus is on the roster that we have on the field and moving forward with our team, and using that roster and our talent and our resources to develop championships. That's where our focus is at."
To that end, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker today got his first good look at his new linebacker corps. On the weak side was a familiar face, Lance Briggs, yet his teammates are new to Bears fans. On the strong side is James Anderson and in the middle, taking Urlacher's old position, is D.J. Williams.
Williams will be asked to fill big shoes but for now, he's got bigger fish to fry.
"Most defenses play the same; it's just different terminology," Williams said. "But I'm playing a different position. I played MIKE linebacker before, about six years ago, so now I've just got to get used to the reads and the vision of that part."
-Despite his offseason arrest, Evan Rodriguez stepped right back into his role as the club's starting H-back, although not until after Emery spoke with him.
"I certainly was disappointed in his arrest," Emery said. "Certainly Evan knows I was disappointed; he was re-educated with my expectations of a Chicago Bear off the field and I certainly expect good things from him."
Rodriguez worked with the first team throughout practice.
-Bears coaches started from scratch today, breaking down the fundamentals and techniques at every position. At the tight end station, coach Andy Bischoff started off his first practice by having the players practice the fumble-recovery drill. During my two years covering the Bears under Lovie Smith, I never saw that drill conducted by anyone.
-Wide receivers looked rusty today, taking turns dropping passes. It was a really poor showing out of that position group.
-The defense stripped three balls during practice and each one was scooped up and run back. In fact, every loose ball was snatched as if it were a fumble, a philosophy the defense has carried over from the Smith era.
-Trestman is an active head coach, often running amidst his players as a play is being conducted. It's a dangerous practice but he said it's just the way he rolls.
"That's just how I've been doing it. I like football and moving around and making sure people are running to the ball. That's kind of how I've done it."
-Safety Tom Zbikowski, signed as a free agent this offseason, was working with the third team. Defensive end Shea McClellin rotated with the first team.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.