The Chicago Bears have made their way to the campus of Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL for training camp, and their head coach – armed with a four-year, $22 million contract extension he signed back on Feb. 28 – feels better than ever about his football team.
Just a year ago at this time, the Monsters of the Midway had to field constant questions about the health of Rex Grossman, whether Thomas Jones or Cedric Benson was the starting tailback, and Lance Briggs' contract situation. They answered all those queries with a 13-3 season and an appearance in Super Bowl XLI. And although they were defeated in the title game by Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts down in Miami, the arrow was certainly pointing up at Halas Hall.
The offseason, however, was a big kick in the groin for a while there.
First there was Smith, who looked like he was being lowballed by a notoriously penny-pinching organization before finally agreeing to his much-deserved extension. Jones, fresh off leading the team in rushing for a third straight year, was shipped off to the New York Jets for nothing more than a flip-flop of second-round draft picks. Briggs vowed never to play another down in Chicago after being slapped with the franchise tag by GM Jerry Angelo. Free agency saw more subtractions than additions, and April's draft wasn't exactly inspiring impromptu high-fives all over town with the exception of first-round tight end Greg Olsen. And then there was the saga of the troubled Tank Johnson, which felt more at home on Court TV than the NFL Network.
Not many Super Bowl teams have had such a tumultuous offseason directly thereafter, but the picture grew increasingly clear as training camp approached.
All nine of Angelo's draft picks – including Olsen, a client of the infamous Drew Rosenhaus – signed contracts and reported to Bourbonnais on time. Devin Hester, who was nothing short of sensational in the return game as a rookie, moved from defense to offense and took to his new position like a fish to water. Both starting cornerbacks, first Nathan Vasher and then Charles Tillman, signed lucrative contract extensions totaling $69 million. Johnson was cut after yet another run-in with the law, alleviating an albatross around the franchise's collective neck. And then to top it off, Briggs decided to end his threat of a 10-game holdout and inked his franchise tender on Wednesday afternoon.
Wouldn't you know it? Smith & Company can actually worry about football now – only football.
Smith addressed the media on Thursday afternoon and is looking forward to a bevy of camp battles over the course of the next three and a half weeks.
"When you start over from scratch – a new year – I'm gonna say there are a lot of battles," he said from the gazebo on the ONU campus. "I'm saying all of them are battles because if you're in that number one starting rotation position, you have to play at a certain level. You never know. Each team is different. We have to get on the field and go from there. So I assume we're gonna have a battle at all positions."
Although Smith didn't detail which positions he'll be watching closer than other, he did acknowledge that this year's questions are different from 2006.
"Last year, we talked about a number two receiver playing opposite [Muhsin Muhammad]," he said. "Bernard Berrian filled into that role. We were sorting out our running back position. Rex Grossman was coming off an injury. We had a lot of different things we were dealing with. This year we don't have that, but there are always training camp battles."
While the team has certainly received an array of good news the last week or two, the fact remains that teams coming up short end on Super Sunday rarely have the same success the following season. Not since the Buffalo Bills lost four consecutive title games from 1990-93 has a Super Bowl loser been able to make it back to the big game the very next year.
Many teams have had a tough time recreating the team chemistry that can sometimes play such a big role in winning at the highest level, but Smith disagrees with that sentiment.
"Well, I don't buy that at all," he said. "I think success breeds success, period. And that's what we're talking about. We've heard about the losing Super Bowl team and what they're supposed to do. We haven't bought into that. What we're buying into is that we think we have our best team coming this year. A lot of things have to fall into place. We're anxious to go to work and see if we can make that happen."
Perhaps most importantly, Smith's entire roster will be at full speed for Friday's opening practice – including a pair of prized Pro-Bowlers on defense, tackle Tommie Harris and safety Mike Brown.
"That's good when you can't think of anybody that won't practice the first day," Smith said with a grin. "We'll have all our team out there ready to go."
Be sure to visit BearReport.com each and every day of training camp, as we'll be reporting from the front lines with practice recaps, one-one-one player interviews, and comments from the coaching staff.
|John Crist is the Editor in Chief of BearReport.com and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.|