Miller on the Mend?

Lake Forest - Bears players and coaches on Wednesday did their best to shift attention from Fred Miller's broken jaw to Sunday's marquee matchup with the 7-2 Panthers.

Miller already has lost 15 pounds since he was punched by center Olin Kreutz at an FBI gun range in North Chicago on Nov. 7, and he won't be able to eat solid food for at least another week. But the right tackle returned to practice Wednesday in his customary spot with the starters, and he's listed as questionable for Sunday. Whether Miller's presence at practice was just for show remains to be seen.

It seems unlikely that he could return so soon with a steel plate in his jaw, and especially in a weakened condition against Panthers Pro Bowl defensive left end Julius Peppers. On Monday, Miller said he'd be out another week. He was asked what changed since then.

"I wouldn't say anything's changed," said the 10-year veteran. "It's just a matter of going out and seeing what I can do, and if I can go, I can go. If I can't, then I can't."

If he can't, John St. Clair would start his second straight game at right tackle after holding his own against 49ers standout Bryant Young last week.

"I always prepare to start whether I'm going to play or not," St. Clair said. "I have the same mentality this week. Fred's a good player and a tough guy, so if he goes out and plays, I'm sure he'll do well. If not, I'll be ready to step up to the plate."

Bears coach Lovie Smith said Miller's ability to practice bodes well for his availability Sunday, ignoring obvious differences.

"If you can practice full speed, you can play in the game," Smith said. "Fred had a good day out there. He didn't have any trouble, so we're expecting him to be able to (play)."

The big difference is that, at practice, Miller can assume that another teammate won't hit him in the jaw. He can't make the same assumption on Sunday.

"I definitely worry about a head slap," Miller said. "But I worry about that every week."

The Bears say they can't afford to focus any more attention on the Kreutz-Miller fracas, especially at the expense of their preparation for the NFC South-leading Panthers.

"No matter what it is in life, you make mistakes and move on," Miller said. "That's the same thing with whatever goes on. It's just the way things go."

Miller and Kreutz said they will put the episode behind them and it won't affect their play. Kreutz, who reportedly received a 13-stitch cut on the back of his head when Miller struck him with a five-pound weight, did not practice Wednesday. His injury was listed as "elbow." Kreutz has uncustomarily worn a stocking cap since the incident, which might have been fueled by consumption of alcohol at the FBI facility, an allegation that is being investigated.

"Every day someone is going to bring something up," Kreutz said, "but as far as we're concerned, it's done. I'm not going to comment on the stories. People are going to keep bringing up stories, and some things are made up and some things are true. But we're done with it, and people can keep going with it if they want to."

Insinuations that there might be more to the altercation than has been revealed leave Smith perplexed.

"I can't understand that," he said. "The story's come out. I think everyone knows what it is. If you find out more, I'm sure that will come out and we'll go from there. I think what everyone should go with is what's been said right now. I think everyone has tried to come clean with what's happened."

Now they're trying to get past it, which they say isn't nearly as difficult for those in the locker room as it is for onlookers.

"It hasn't been a distraction at all," St. Clair said. "I didn't know anything about it. In the meeting rooms, it's like normal. We're all together; we're a cohesive group. Everybody gets along, that's all it is, not a big deal. Everybody's friends. We all go out to eat. Nothing's changed."

That's the story, anyway.

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