The Bears do not have a starting quarterback and they aren't good enough at running the ball according to head coach Lovie Smith, who said in his season-ending press conference that he would gladly welcome back his entire coaching staff and roster for the 2008 season.
Rex Grossman, who began the season as the starting quarterback, was benched but then played much more effectively when reinstated six weeks later. He is eligible to become a free agent in March. Third-stringer Kyle Orton played well enough while starting the final three games to be somewhere in the mix next season, the final year of his contract. Brian Griese, who replaced Grossman until his shoulder injury led to Grossman's return, is under contract through 2010 ($14.5 million for five years) but at a salary that would be prohibitive if the Bears decide to bring Grossman back at anything close to the average salary for a starting quarterback.
It's unlikely that any other team would hand Grossman the starting job, but there could be more than a few that would give him the opportunity to compete for the No. 1 spot. That might be all the Bears would guarantee him. Smith bobbed and weaved when asked if re-signing Grossman meant he would be the starter in `08.
"I can tell you right now, we would like for Rex Grossman to come back," Smith said. "We would like for all of our guys to come back, period. Rex has won a lot of football games for us. You look at how he played at the end of the season. Until that [knee] injury, he was playing good football. We would like for him to come back again."
But as the starter?
"I'm not talking about any starting positions right now," Smith said. "We would like for the group to come back as a whole. But I would like for all of our players right now as we go into the offseason to feel like they have to come back in and earn their position."
As for the ground game, which was No. 30 in yards and dead last in average gain, improvement is essential for a team that fancies itself a run-based operation.
"Whenever you can't run the football consistently, it makes it tougher," Smith said. "And that was the case with us. It starts up front and has a lot to do with the backs. For whatever reason, we weren't able to get that done this past year."
Starter Cedric Benson and backup Adrian Peterson both finished with a sub-standard 3.4-yard average per carry, but neither got much help from an offensive line that will look much different next season. Smith spread the blame among the line, the backs and the coaching staff.
"We had a few problems here and there," he said of the over-aged line. "We know we could have done some things better, and we will do some things better than in the past."
With the disappointing Benson coming back from a fractured ankle, it's a given that he will have to fight for his job in training camp.
"Just look at our production at the running back position. It wasn't good enough," Smith said. "We need to improve there. If we feel like there is a player who is good enough to come in and help us at any position, we'll try to bring him in."
Benson, whose cast was removed Monday, said competition wouldn't be unexpected but it would be unnecessary.
"I wouldn't be surprised, but they'd be wasting their time," Benson said. "Y'all know the competition that goes around here. I've had it before. It doesn't matter to me. Maybe [then] somebody else can get some criticism."
Although some members of the coaching staff have also taken flak throughout the season, Smith gave a blanket vote of confidence but didn't absolve anyone of blame in a season that saw a six-game drop in the standings – from 13-3 to 7-9.
"It starts with me," Smith said. "I know I can do a better job than I did this past year, as can our entire coaching staff. We know we'll have to do a better job, but I feel comfortable with the coaching staff we have in place right now. Unless there is a coach who's moving up and has a better opportunity, I would like to see our coaching staff come back intact. The same coaching staff that led us to the Super Bowl I feel like can lead us back to another."
NOTES & QUOTES
After two consecutive Pro Bowl selections as a special teams coverage ace, Brendon Ayanbadejo is hitting the unrestricted free agent market at precisely the right time for his financial future.
"It's going to be a good journey, a journey I've never been on before," the 31-year-old, five-year veteran said. "I'm actually in control of my own destiny for once."
Ayanbadejo credits special teams coordinator Dave Toub and his teammates on the coverage and kick return teams with much of his success, but he's not sure if that's enough to bring him back to the Bears.
"I don't think it's up to me where I end up," he said. "Probably whichever team wants me the most will end up having me. That's just the nature of the beast, the way it works out."
Does that mean money will be the determining factor?
"There's other factors involved," he said. "I went to college on the West Coast (UCLA), and living on the West Coast is really appealing. I don't think it's all about money. But it is a business, and at the end of the day, you have to be business-wise."
LB Brendon Ayanbadejo
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
The knowledge that Sunday's game might be his last with the Bears was in the back of Ayanbadejo's mind most of the day.
"I kind of played with a heavy heart," he said. "I was thinking, 'OK, I've got two quarters left as a Bear; I've got one quarter left as a Bear – potentially.' I'm embracing the future but remembering everything that Coach Toub did to push my career to the next level. I'm very appreciative of the things that he did for me while I was a Bear. Not to say that I'm leaving, but potentially I could be, though."
Ayanbadejo expressed serious doubts that he would be able to accomplish elsewhere what he and his teammates did with the Bears.
"I don't think I'll be the same player somewhere else," Ayanbadejo said. "If I do leave, it'll never amount to the achievements and success that I've had in Chicago. We scored seven special teams touchdowns this year. Last year we had six. To do the things that we do on special teams and dominate games and control games, I don't think any other team will have the ability to do that regardless of if I'm on the team or not." …
RB Adrian Peterson never had thrown a pass in the NFL, but he had some experience having tossed a 30-yard TD at Georgia Southern.
He made it 1-for-1 in the NFL on Sunday when he flipped a 9-yard scoring pass to Bernard Berrian in the second quarter, giving the Bears a 17-7 lead. Peterson also had one of his best games ever running the ball, picking up 91 yards on 21 carries for a 4.3-yard average, his best since taking over the starting job from the injured Cedric Benson.
He said he'll stick to running the ball and not further complicate the quarterback situation.
"I'm going to let the quarterbacks play their game," he said, while also declining to campaign for the starting job at running back. "I'll let it take care of itself. We've got a long offseason. When your number is called and you get your opportunity, you've got to step up. And that's all I tried to do."
Peterson and Benson finished the season with the same 3.4-yard average per carry, although Peterson also finished second on the team with 51 receptions and fourth with 420 receiving yards. …
Unrestricted free agent Rashied Davis had another outstanding game on special teams, his third straight with at least two tackles. But as the team's No. 4 wide receiver, he knows he's in a precarious position.
"I hope I'm back here," he said. "I'm praying. But it is what it is. I feel like I'm probably one of the guys that's probably on the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to signing because we have a lot of guys we need to sign back. I would love to be back, but life moves on sometimes."
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