Just three weeks ago, on the heels of a strange story from Las Vegas about star linebacker Brian Urlacher supposedly calling new quarterback Jay Cutler something he might call a cat, the Monsters of the Midway arrived in Bourbonnais for the start of training camp.
Then on Thursday, Lovie Smith and Co. held their last practice on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University – a glorified walkthrough done at about three-quarters speed – before making the journey back to the friendly confines of Halas Hall.
On the offensive side of the ball, Cutler proved to be the real deal more often than not, firing passes all over the field with bullet speed, laser accuracy and Pro Bowl swagger. A rebuilt offensive line looks to be better than it was a year ago, Matt Forte took it easy but should be primed for a huge season and the wide receivers did their best to debunk the notion that they are the weak link of the roster. Among the rookies, both Juaquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox had flashes catching the football, but each battled inconsistency from start to finish.
Defensively, Tommie Harris took it just as easy as Forte did, but his recent injury history means he remains a question mark for now. The addition of Pisa Tinoisamoa appears to be a wise one, as the former Ram has fit in well next to Urlacher and fellow Pro Bowler Lance Briggs. The secondary has been riddled with injuries and ineffectiveness, with three probable starters – cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Zack Bowman as well as free safety and nickel back Danieal Manning – spending a lot of time watching from the sideline.
For precautionary reasons, Forte, Harris and budding superstar tight end Greg Olsen were all held out of the exhibition opener, a 27-20 loss to the Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium this past Saturday, but all three are expected to suit up this Saturday against the Giants at Soldier Field.
"Everyone should play this week," Smith said Thursday after practice. "We're in pretty good shape, grass surface, ideal conditions to come out."
While Smith refused to tell the Windy City media exactly how much he plans to play his starters against New York, they should see more time than they did a week ago.
"We don't have a set total right now;" he said. "We want them to have a good series before they come out. But our history, for the most part, has been the second game the guys will play into the second quarter."
The Midway Monsters came to training camp with more than a few concerns, and even though some of them have been answered to some degree, several more have popped up here and there. Yes, Hester and Earl Bennett have resembled starting-caliber wideouts thus far and Orlando Pace appears to have some gas left in the tank at left tackle, but left guard is far from settled and the running game wasn't productive in Buffalo. Sure, top pick Jarron Gilbert looks like a keeper and sixth rounder Al Afalava has come out of nowhere to threaten for a starting job, but Harris' knee is still problematic and Nathan Vasher can't cover anybody right now.
Smith believes the team he has now is better than the one he brought to ONU at the end of July, although the remaining preseason contests will prove to be the real test.
"This is just a start," he said. "Training camp gets you going. We know where we are a little bit, but as you get prepared for these games, we have three excellent teams coming up. But, of course, it starts with the Giants. We've got ourselves in position where we feel like we're ready to really compete and see exactly why type of football team we'll be this year."
And to keep the mood light Thursday, especially after not giving the players a curfew the night before, Smith continued the yearly tradition of letting everyone switch jersey numbers for the final workout.
"Orlando Pace in a No. 33 just doesn't quite seem right," Smith quipped, "like Garrett Wolfe in 71 doesn't quite seem right either."
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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.
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