Back in the Saddle

Lake Forest - Jeff George doesn't consider himself just a quick-fix insurance policy for a Bears offense desperately in need of an experienced leader.

George said he'd be able to play a week from Sunday in Jacksonville, if necessary, but he'd like to also be able to play for the Bears three or four years from next Sunday.

"I'm a young man," said the 13-year veteran and NFL vagabond, who hasn't played in the NFL in three years. "I'm only 36. Guys have been playing into their 40s. Look at (Vinny) Testaverde, he's 41. (Doug) Flutie, what's he, 48? (Flutie, the Chargers' backup, is actually 42.)

"As long as you take care of yourself and you prepare yourself mentally, who knows how long you can play? Who knows what's going to happen in the future? I'm going to go in and learn the playbook and help these guys as much as I can and see where it takes me."

In his last two games with the Washington Redskins more than three years ago, George had a passer rating of 34.6, completing just 23 of 42 passes with three interceptions. In his next-to-last game with the Redskins, after he threw two interceptions and lost two fumbles, George was removed from the game. He and coach Marty Schottenheimer had an animated sideline discussion, and he was released a little more than a week later.

The reputation of having a me-first attitude has followed George through most of his career, which includes six previous stops in the NFL, and it contributed more to his early departure than a 46-78 won-lost record. Not leaving the game on his own terms has gnawed at George since midway through the 2002 season, when he was released by the Seattle Seahawks, who signed him as insurance but never used him.

"It's tough, it really is," George said. "Football is all I know. But I know the business, and I know what it's like. Unfortunately, what's happened to me in the past has continued to follow me. All I wanted was just an opportunity, a fair shake, just like the other guy. To be a third-stringer, to be a backup, to have to play whatever role that the Bears want me to do, I'm willing to do that."

Chad Hutchinson will become the Bears' fourth quarterback starter on Sunday. But the plan is to have George ready to play this season, maybe sooner than later, depending on how well Hutchinson performs.

If the coaching staff's patience with the subpar play of Jonathan Quinn and Craig Krenzel is any indication, Hutchinson will get more than a cursory look. But the Bears also want to find out if, in the future, George can be the veteran backup the Bears needed this year to prevent the season from becoming a lost cause after starting quarterback Rex Grossman was injured.

"The plan is to have (George) get ready to play," offensive coordinator Terry Shea said. "We're going to take Step One right now with Chad. We don't need Chad to be looking over his shoulder, but he's got to demonstrate that he can do it for us."

George has been working out on his own for the last 18 months in hopes of getting a second chance. Despite persistent calls to the Bears for most of this season, his interest went unrequited until rookie Craig Krenzel suffered a sprained ankle Thanksgiving Day during a 21-7 loss to the Cowboys and Testaverde.

"I was home coaching little league basketball a week ago," George said. It's amazing how life changes in a day. I was in downtown Indianapolis for the lighting of the Christmas tree and came home Saturday night and got the call from the Bears, and, boy, it was the best news I've gotten in a long time.

"If they ask me to play, great. I'll be ready; I'll be prepared. I've busted my rear end for the last year and a half. I was hoping this time would come. And if I don't play, then, hey, it means we're doing well."

That hasn't always been George's attitude. Schottenheimer isn't the first coach he's feuded with. In 1996, when he was with the Falcons, George argued on the sideline with coach June Jones. He was suspended and then cut.

But the 6-foot-4, 210-pound former No. 1 overall draft choice wants to keep the past in the past, though he's not sure how he can change minds at this point.

"I really don't concern myself with that, to be quite honest with you," he said. "I'm 36 years old, and if people want to harp on what I did when I was 26 years old, that's one thing. But I can just say this: I am a blessed man. That's all I can say. I have a wonderful family, and to get another opportunity to play football at whatever role I have, I'm definitely going to take advantage of that.

"I know there are people who always doubt me and doubt other people, but that's the nature of the business."

George convinced Lovie Smith that he was worth a gamble, but the Bears' coach is down to his last chip.

"I try not to go an awful lot on what a person's supposed to be like," said Smith, who hadn't met George before Saturday. "Coming in as a head football coach, the first thing I told our guys was, 'Hey, men, you start from now. What you do from now on is what I'm going to judge you on,' and I told Jeff the same thing.

"He's acknowledged making mistakes as a young man. I made a lot more mistakes when I was younger than when I got older, and that's the case with Jeff right now. He has a passion for the game still. The last time he played, it didn't end the way he wanted it to, so he gets a chance to write a different ending to the script."

If George has is way, he'll add a several more pages to the script.

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