NFC North Issues

Notes from each team within the division

Under the watch of new strength coach Rusty Jones, the Chicago Bears will have to endure fewer two-a-day practices, which may have been responsible for last summer's rash of muscle strains and pulls. There will be several evening practices, a departure from years past.

The Bears needed to change after last year's 5-11 disappointment, especially on offense, where they were the worst in the NFL in 2004. If the Bears are to improve, several major changes must prove to be for the better, and they will bear watching, starting with the first practice on Sunday.

Nobody will be under closer scrutiny than quarterback Rex Grossman, who several weeks ago, proclaimed himself fully recovered from last season's torn ACL.

More importantly, Bears coaches say that he is 100 percent and ready to lead last season's NFL-worst offense out of the ashes.

"He showed that he's very confident in his body," quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson said at the conclusion of spring practices. "He didn't show any hesitancy with his knee, his arm is as strong and as quick as ever, and his accuracy has definitely improved. If anything, he looks better now than he did a year ago."

Grossman once again enters camp as No. 1, and he has the backing of his teammates. But he knows he won't really be considered their leader until he proves himself on the field - much more so than he has been able to do so in his six NFL starts.

"It's just not going to happen until you go into the war and come out victorious," Grossman said. "Until you get in crunch time; fourth quarter, and they're all looking at you to come up with a big play and really gain their respect."

If he's healthy for 16 games, Grossman can do that, especially with an offense that will feature upgraded talent at the skill positions.

When the Lions signed Steve Mariucci as their head coach two years ago, he was viewed by many of the team's long-suffering fans as a cure-all for a team coming off back-to-back seasons of 2-14 and 3-13.

The cure, so far, has been modest at best. The Lions went 5-11 in their first season under Mariucci and last year went to 6-10. So much for the miracle worker theory.

With improved personnel and a handpicked staff aboard, this could be the season that Mariucci starts living up to his reputation as a quality NFL coach.

In his third season as the Lions coach, Mariucci is well aware that there will be pressure to win, to compete for the NFC North title, to make the playoffs and proceed from there. Whatever the external pressures, however, they will be no greater than what Mariucci says he expects from himself and his staff.

"That never changes," he said. "You find a way to get it done. "I like our progress. I like where we're headed. You don't look back. Nobody has ever won the 100-meter dash by peeking over their shoulder.

"So you keep focused and keep your eyes on the prize and the things that we have to accomplish. When we do that, it's going to be awesome."

If Mariucci is on the same schedule he was during the rebuilding project he presided over during his six-year stay with the San Francisco 49ers, the Lions should make a big step forward in 2005.

After going 25-7 in his first two years with the 49ers, the team underwent an extensive salary cap-induced rebuilding program. They slipped to 4-12 in 1999 and 6-10 in 2000, but in the third year of the rebuilding program they won 12 games and were back in the playoffs.

The Lions would settle for that kind of season in Mariucci's third year on the job.

Wide receiver Javon Walker will not report for the start of training camp at mid-week. He wants to renegotiate the final two years on his contract and the Packers have said they won't do it.

Walker received a letter from general manager Ted Thompson recently stating that the club would not consider a new deal for Walker until the end of the season.

"We were very disappointed with the team's decision when they memorialized that with a letter," agent Drew Rosenhaus said. "It basically limited our options to either being traded or deciding what our other options are."

Meanwhile, quarterback Brett Favre continued to take shots at Walker and Rosenhaus, who has asked Favre to call him.

"I haven't called him yet," Favre said during a break during his charity appearance at the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee. "I don't think he'll answer my calls. Set me straight on what? I've played 14 straight years. I have not held out one time. He has nothing to say to me."

Shot back Rosenhaus: "I don't have a problem with Brett having the desire to get Javon back. I think the way you should do it is to call us. He hasn't called me. He hasn't called Javon, more importantly. If he has a problem with what we are doing, he should call us. "The other problem that I have is I think that a player should really mind his own business when it comes to another player's personal dispute with the team. But the biggest problem I have with Brett is the fact that he has made comments based on inaccurate information."

Former Packers quarterback and coach Bart Starr, long an admirer of Favre, also weighed in on the subject. Starr said Favre was exercising his role as a leader on the team in assailing Walker.

"The reason I admire this so much, Brett doing this, is that one of the biggest disappointments I personally have is there isn't enough emphasis on team in many cases today," the 71-year-old Starr said. "There are too many I's and me's on top of that pyramid. There is no place for that. It's team. Team is the foundation."

Attaboy, Zygi.

The Vikings new owner stepped up with his wallet in hand recently to make sure fans will not have to pay to watch training camp in Mankato, Minn., this summer.

More importantly, the move also prevents opposing scouts from watching every practice. NFL rules state that opposing teams can attend practices when admission fees are charged.

In a deal with former owner Red McCombs last year, the Greater Mankato Training Camp LLC agreed last year to cover the Vikings' training camp expenses and provide the team with a percentage of revenues. The deal prevented McCombs from accepting a lucrative offer to move training camp to Sioux Falls, S.D.

Because the Vikings cancelled their inter-squad practices with Kansas City this year, the GMTC needed a way to make up for the loss of revenue. Tickets to the Chiefs-Vikings scrimmages went for a whopping $20 last year.

GMTC decided to charge fans $5 a head for Sundays through Thursdays and $10 on Saturdays this year. It also was going to charge a $5 admission to a children's game area and $5 for game programs.

Wilf, a New Jersey developer, decided to pay for it himself. The cost was estimated at more than $100,000.

The GMTC will still charge for the evening scrimmages on Aug. 5, 9 and 16. Parking prices for all practices and scrimmages are $5, up from $2 last year.

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