Just like he does every year, Bears coach Lovie Smith kicked off training camp with a press conference at the gazebo on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University.
And just like he does every year, Smith went on and on with his famous glass-half-full approach about how he likes his football team and believes Chicago has everything it needs to win on Sundays.
"It's an exciting time of the year, of course," Smith said Thursday. "I think I start off every press conference before the season that way. We're a good football team. I can't wait to get on the field to become a better football team."
If games are won and lost at the quarterback position, as general manager Jerry Angelo professed after a postseason-less 2008, then the Bears should indeed be a playoff contender again in '09. Angelo pulled off one of the biggest trades in recent history by prying Pro Bowler Jay Cutler from the Broncos, sending Kyle Orton and a pair of first-round draft picks to Denver in return. While Smith appeared to be a believer in Orton and felt he was good enough to get the job done, Cutler is an elite talent and could finally solve the QB problem that has been never-ending in the Windy City ever since Sid Luckman called it a career way back in 1950.
The sports talk radio waves were on fire Wednesday when a report out of Minnesota claimed defensive captain Brian Urlacher wasn't particularly fond of Cutler, but Smith did his best to extinguish that flame quickly.
"There's no issue with Jay and Brian," he said, "except for Brian and Jay are both excited about being teammates for our club this year. No more than that. We can't spend a whole lot of time on something that isn't true, number one, and you go from there. I have talked to the players. Whenever something comes out you have to address it, but it's a non-issue."
As far as the defense is concerned, cornerback Charles Tillman recently underwent a surgical procedure to clean up a disc problem in his back, so he'll be placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list Friday when camp opens. Despite the fact that Corey Graham played relatively well in place of an injured Nathan Vasher this past season, Zack Bowman will move to the top of the depth chart in Tillman's absence. Trumaine McBride and rookie D.J. Moore are also in the mix.
Smith knows how important a healthy Tillman is to the secondary, but he likes what he saw out of Bowman during OTAs.
"If there is a good thing about one of our best players being out," said Smith, "it's that Charles was out a little bit in the spring. We got a chance to look at some of the younger players then, Zack Bowman being one of them. He did a good job when he was given opportunities then. He'll line up with the first group [Friday] in Charles' place."
The Midway Monsters have excelled under special teams coordinator Dave Toub recently, and they feature two of the best return men in the league: Devin Hester on punts and Danieal Manning on kickoffs. However, both players will be spinning a lot of plates throughout their stay in Bourbonnais. Hester is expected to be the primary receiver on offense, while Manning is currently the starting free safety – he'll also be the nickel back in obvious passing situations.
Nevertheless, Smith doesn't seem worried about either one of them having too much responsibility on game day.
"I think a player can be a full-time [starter] and do one of the returns," he said. "Whether Danieal is the nickel or the free, he's on the field all of the reps on the defensive side, and then he's returning. Hester will do the same thing. I think you can do that and do it well. Both players feel comfortable doing that. Both players want to do that. And in order for us to win, we need them to do it."
The Wildcat formation took the NFL by storm last year, and Chicago experimented with it by putting Hester in the shotgun formation. But perhaps the most intriguing potential Wildcat specialist is currently searching for a job: ex-Falcon Michael Vick. After serving a lengthy prison sentence for crimes against the canine community but recently being reinstated by Commissioner Roger Goodell, Vick is free to sign with any team and can participate in the final two preseason games.
That being said, even though Smith believes everybody – including Vick – deserves a second chance provided he pays his debt to society, don't look for the former running-and-passing sensation to put on a Bears uniform any time soon.
"We like our football team that we have right now," Smith said. "There aren't any plans to go in that direction."
The Monsters of the Midway are scheduled to hold their first practice of training camp Friday at 3:00 p.m. Central time.
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John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.
Smith's Glass Half Full Once Again
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