How convenient that struggling quarterback Kordell Stewart came down with a mysterious leg injury this week that allows the Bears to start backup Chris Chandler without having to formally bench Stewart.
Stewart's "injury" originally occurred during the Raiders game in Week Five, but didn't prevent him from rushing nine times for 52 yards. He reinjured the same leg last week while rushing nine more times for 42 yards but also losing two fumbles after being blindsided on sacks. The turnovers handed the Saints 10 points in a 20-13 Bears loss.
So Chandler will get the call Sunday against the Seahawks in Seattle (1:15 local time).
The issue at quarterback is clouded because that's apparently the way the Bears want it.
"It's a question that doesn't need to be answered really," coach Dick Jauron said when asked if Chandler was starting because Stewart is questionable with a vague leg injury. "The fact is that Kordell is hurt, and Chris is playing this week."
But players who are questionable, like Stewart, supposedly have a 50-50 chance of playing. Are they are almost never ruled out on Wednesday, a full four days before the game. Most of them wind up playing. Wide receiver Marty Booker is listed as questionable with a sprained ankle, but the Bears are hoping he will start Sunday.
Further confusing the issue are comments from Stewart, who was originally hurt in the Raiders game and re-injured last week, even though he rushed nine times for 42 yards and didn't appear impaired at all.
"I didn't practice (Wednesday), just to give it a chance to rest and all that good stuff," said Stewart, who said he would start Sunday if he's healthy. "We have to be optimistic about it and see what happens."
But later, Stewart, No. 31 in the NFL with a 56.0 passer rating, almost seemed resigned to accepting what appears to be a demotion.
"I don't really try to ask too many questions and worry about what could happen or why is it happening," he said. "But this game is like life. You're going to have situations that are going to occur and, as a human being, you're either going to be immature or mature about it and open-minded about it as well. It's not a time to point a finger."
Chandler, who turned 38 last Sunday, has taken two snaps this season when Stewart suffered a minor neck injury at the end of the 24-13 loss to the Vikings. He completed 1 pass, and the other was intercepted. In his last two starts last season, Chandler completed 29 of 35 passes (82.9 percent) for 290 yards, 1 TD and no interceptions. But he suffered a concussion early in the second game, his third injury of the season and at least the fourth concussion of his 16-year NFL career.
Chandler, in his second year with the Bears, said he is better equipped to run the offense than he was last year.
"I know this offense a lot better," he said. "I feel a lot more comfortable with this offense than I did last year."
SERIES HISTORY: 8th meeting. Seahawks lead series, 5-2, but the two teams have met just once in the past 12 years, with Seattle winning 14-13 at Soldier Field in 1999.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
Thomas is averaging 5.5 yards per carry. He was hurt during the Saints game but played through it and rushed for 96 yards on 21 carries. Only afterward did Thomas experience swelling and enough soreness to all but eliminate him from Sunday's game.
"I suppose it is possible, but in my mind it would be a long shot," Jauron said. "It didn't really swell up until late (Sunday) night or early the next morning. When he came in (Monday) it was very swollen."
Adrian Peterson will replace Thomas as the starter, and Rabih Abdullah will likely see more playing time, too. Peterson, who played well at the end of last season when Thomas was out with a fractured finger, has just one carry for three yards in the past four games and only six carries for 15 yards this season.
"Nothing's special," he said. "I'm a Bear now and that's all that matters with me. I'm not going back there with a grudge or any hard feelings. I loved it when I was there, and they treated me with respect. I have nothing but respect for them. They gave me an opportunity to be in the NFL, and I made the most of the opportunity, and that's all I can ask for. I'm going to go out and play my game, and I'm pretty sure they're going to do the same thing."
BY THE NUMBERS: RB Anthony Thomas and QB Kordell Stewart have 608 of the Bears' 656 rushing yards this season, and neither is expected to play on Sunday.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's easy for everybody to sit around and say you should blitz all the time and do this that and the other. I don't know how many of those same people take their paycheck and go to the casino and put it all on black 22. Being responsible, I can't always take the family milk money and bet it on black 22." — Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache answering critics who say he should gamble more.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Speculation is that fringe player Ahmad Merritt may start ahead of 2001 first-round pick David Terrell at wide receiver if Marty Booker cannot play on a sprained ankle.
Terrell has been largely ignored in his three seasons with the Bears despite showing occasional flashes of greatness. He caught one pass last week, even with Booker missing most of the game, and had three other chances but came down out of bounds with the ball. Terrell had seven catches for 48 yards in Game Three vs. the Packers, but he has three catches for 25 yards in the other four games combined.
Merritt had his first catch of the season last week, a 22-yarder. He was removed from the kickoff-return job earlier in the season after averaging just 20.3 yards on 20 attempts.
Six months ago, shortly after the NFL schedule came out, the Lions' October 19 game against the Dallas Cowboys looked imminently winnable.
Face it: Neither team had the look of a contender. The Lions were coming off a 3-13 last-place finish in the NFC North and one of their three wins was a 9-7 victory over the Cowboys, who finished last in the NFC East with a 5-11 record.
Both teams had new coaches — Steve Mariucci in Detroit and Bill Parcells in Dallas — and clearly had a major rebuilding project ahead.
Six weeks into the new season, however, much of that has changed. The Lions are struggling with one victory in their first five games under Mariucci but the Cowboys have made a dramatic turnaround, winning four of their first five games under Parcells.
In the ultimate indignity, the Lions — playing at home in Ford Field against a team they beat a year ago — are three-point underdogs to the visiting Cowboys.
Parcells is making the most of a solid defense he inherited when he was hired by owner Jerry Jones shortly after the end of the 2002 season, and is getting the maximum production possible out of an offense that features quarterback Quincy Carter and veteran receivers Joey Galloway and Terry Glenn.
And Mariucci is struggling to shed the cloak of misfortune and inadequacy that has been clinging to the Lions since they went 9-7 in 2000, the final year under Bobby Ross and Gary Moeller before owner William Clay Ford turned his franchise over to Matt Millen.
The Lions' latest slide — they have lost four games in a row after winning the season opener — is the result of a disappointing defense and a rash of injuries that have combined to hamstring the offense.
First, the defense.
The Lions rank 29th overall in the NFL in yards allowed and 13th in points allowed. The loss of three cornerbacks, including a projected starter and his backup, have left them susceptible to big plays in the passing game and the lack of a consistent pass rush has made the job even tougher for the replacement defensive backs.
Offensively, the Lions realize again how much RB James Stewart means to them, even though he is not the big-play threat that Millen wants so badly. Stewart could be counted on for 1,000 yards if he were healthy and he generally had more runs of 20 yards or more than you'd expect from him.
Although Mariucci has committed to developing the running game with Shawn Bryson and Olandis Gary, it is hit and miss at best. The Lions production in that area is 26th best in the NFL.
That leaves the burden of offensive responsibility on quarterback Joey Harrington and a corps of minimally productive wide receivers that will be missing rookie Charles Rogers for at least a month.
Rogers, who leads the Lions with 22 receptions for 243 yards and three touchdowns, suffered a broken collarbone during the bye week last week. The other two leading receivers — Bill Schroeder and Az-Zahir Hakim — have 20 catches for 185 yards and a touchdown between them.
Not a lot to scare the Cowboys, or any other NFL team for that matter.
SERIES HISTORY: 16th meeting. The Lions hold an 8-7 edge on the Cowboys going into their 16th regular season meeting Sunday at Ford Field. The teams have split two playoff games — the Cowboys winning the first 5-0 in 1970 and the Lions taking the second 38-6 in the 1991 playoffs. The Lions have won the last three regular season meetings, including a 9-7 game last year, also at Ford Field.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
That is not the case, however.
Although both were eligible to begin their 21-day practice window this week, the Lions are keeping them on hold, temporarily at least.
The decision was particularly disappointing to Elliss, who thought he was certain to practice this week and would probably play Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys after recovering from a torn pectoral muscle suffered in an offseason workout at his home in Utah.
"I spoke with Luther in my office," coach Steve Mariucci said. "He is anxious to get going and I told him to hang in there because we have to decide.
"We'd have to waive someone else just to activate Luther, so I told him probably not this week because we seem to be relatively healthy (on the defensive line). I told him just to be patient, we may not do anything this week."
Elliss played in back-to-back Pro Bowl games in 1999 and 2000 but has been hampered by elbow problems the past two seasons and his production has fallen. He says he is fully recovered from all of his injuries now, however, and would like to show the Lions he can still play after eight NFL seasons.
Although he is disappointed, Elliss is also understanding of the situation.
"It's just one of those things where I think Mariucci's going to do what's best for the team right now," he said.
Harrington dislocated the finger when he connected with center Dominic Raiola's helmet while throwing a pass during the Sept. 21 game against the Minnesota Vikings. He missed only one play while trainer Al Bellamy popped it back in place and has played with the injury since then.
The week off helped.
"It feels good," he said. "Some of the swelling's gone down. It's a little looser, not quite as tight as it used to be. It's improving."
But he realized he would probably have to play with some swelling and discomfort for the remaining 11 games.
"Honestly, it's probably something I'll wrap for most of the season," he said. "When things like this happen it's best to rest but when you're in the middle of a season, you can't rest.
"So it's something I've learned to adapt to. That's part of this game, you learn to adapt to injuries. Guys out there all day are adapting to little bumps and bruises that you pick up during the week."
Harrington hardly touched a football during the entire bye week last week, on orders from coach Steve Mariucci.
"It was an attempt to freshen his body up," Mariucci said. "Primarily his throwing arms and legs and muscles and fingers and everything. I don't think he's completely healthy.
"In fact, today I pulled him out and put Mike (McMahon) in for awhile. I asked him, `How you feeling?' Well, `Okay.' He always says he's okay. He's a tough guy. He's just trying to work through it the best he can."
The latest x-rays indicate Rogers' broken right collarbone is healing on its own and will not require surgery to get it properly aligned. That's the good news. The bad news is that the Lions don't expect Rogers back any sooner than the original 4-8 weeks that was speculated when he was hurt in a bye week practice last week.
Rogers currently has his right arm in a sling while the healing process continues but he is spending some time at the team's practice facility, trying to stay mentally involved with the offense.
"He was out here watching the walkthrough this morning," Mariucci said Wednesday. "And in all the meetings prior to that."
Mariucci advised Rogers to walk and ride a stationery bike to help in his conditioning.
"He was trying to take his sling off to throw a jersey on and I told him, `Just relax, you're fine with your sweatshirt on,'" Mariucci said. "As the pain starts to go away he will be more active with his lower body."
Veteran wide receiver Shawn Jefferson, who has become something of a mentor to Rogers, said Rogers is not taking the down time well.
"He's taking it pretty hard," Jefferson said. "A guy like that, he's a great competitor. He says he's never been hurt before, so you don't know how to handle it.
"The first time I missed a professional game, it's like, `Man' . . . The first time you get hurt, it's unfamiliar territory. You don't know what to do, it's like shock."
BY THE NUMBERS: 3 — The Lions are mired in their third losing streak of four games or longer since the start of the 2001 season. In 2001, they went 0-4 on their way to a team record 12-game losing streak and in 2002 — after starting the season with a 3-5 record, they lost their last eight games in a row.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm about to give them all my secrets. I've already given them some. I've got plenty more in store." — Lions kick returner Reggie Swinton on what he could tell the Lions about the special teams of the Dallas Cowboys, the Lions' opponents Sunday and the team that traded him Sept. 29.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Injuries to kick returner Eddie Drummond and punter John Jett have put the Lions in a tight spot with their 53-man roster.
Coach Steve Mariucci currently has four roster spots devoted to those two positions — two for Drummond and Jett, and two more for the players acquired as temporary replacements — kick returner Reggie Swinton and punter Nick Harris.
That means they were not able to bring DT Luther Elliss or rookie RB Artose Pinner off the reserve/NFI list and were not able to bring in another receiver to make up for the loss of rookie WR Charles Rogers with a broken collarbone. Swinton is a WR but will be limited to return duties only.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Green Bay Packers have had a history of falling on their faces in dome stadiums during the magnificent career of Brett Favre.
Favre is 13-20 in domes, mostly the result of numerous pratfalls in Minneapolis and Pontiac, Mich.
On Sunday, Favre and the Packers return to the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, where Favre delivered six interceptions the last time he was there. That was the 2001 NFC Divisional playoff game won by the Rams, 45-17.
Coach Mike Sherman, of course, tried to downplay the significance of the Packers' horror stories indoors.
"The barrier is being on the road, dome or no dome," Sherman said Wednesday. "I don't look at it as an obstacle."
Having played four of six games at home, the Packers are ready to play some road games but it remains to be seen if they're ready for the dome in St. Louis.
The Rams have won nine straight at home, including a 36-0 victory Monday night over the Atlanta Falcons. That pushed their NFL-leading home record since the start of the 1999 season to 32-7, counting playoffs. In that same span the Packers are 29-9 at Lambeau Field.
"Home field may mean more to this team (the Rams) than it does to any other team in the league," said an assistant coach for a team that lost in St. Louis this season. "Their game is a turf game for the most part. That box they play in, it gets full of noise. It's a fun football environment but people are wild in there."
The Rams are more ball-control oriented on offense than they were during their heyday from 1999-'01. Their average time of possession of 35 minutes, 13 seconds easily leads the NFL. Dallas is next at 33:08.
Even with running back Marshall Faulk (knee, hand) out for several more weeks and quarterback Kurt Warner on the bench, the Rams remain explosive with running back Lamar Gordon, quarterback Marc Bulger and wide receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce.
"The system is good because the coaching is good," an executive in personnel for a recent Rams' foe said. "I think you can make a living running against the Rams, and Green Bay has the good run game. You've got to keep the ball out of the Rams' hands because they can just score at will when they want to."
Last week, Martz compared Bulger to Trent Green, a five-game starter for an injured Warner in 2000 who threw for 400 yards Sunday in Kansas City's overtime victory over the Packers.
"I think that Marc is on a par with Trent Green," Martz said. "And we've got a couple of backs now that will play very well in Lamar and Arlen (Harris). I think Lamar's really developed into an exceptional player."
SERIES HISTORY: This is the 84th meeting. The Rams lead, 43-39-2. The Rams crushed the Packers, 45-17, in the 2001 NFC Divisional playoffs in St. Louis in the last meeting between the two teams.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
Coach Mike Sherman said diagnostic tests revealed Johnson had torn the quadriceps muscle just above the kneecap. He will undergo an operation in the next few weeks.
Johnson, a starter at power end, was injured late in the first quarter Sunday against Kansas City. He took an outside rush against right tackle John Tait, reached for quarterback Trent Green and had his leg twist as he fell to the grass with Tait on top of him.
Even though Johnson had been starting, the truth is the Packers wouldn't really miss him other than for depth if Chukie Nwokorie or Aaron Kampman were healthy. However, Nwokorie has a bad shoulder that might require surgery at some point, and Kampman still isn't 100% after missing the last four games with ligament damage in his left ankle.
Thus, Sherman faces the possibility of having to start 315-pound nose tackle Rod Walker at power end Sunday in St. Louis. The other option would be moving tackle Larry Smith to end.
Johnson, 31, had a long history of injury during his eight-year career in New Orleans but Sherman still signed him in March 2002 for $33 million over six years. He had missed 22 games for the Saints with a ruptured tendon in his right knee in 1999, back surgery to fix a herniated disc in 1999 and more than one arthroscopic knee operation. He also played almost all of the ‘01 season with triceps damage in his left arm.
Last season, Johnson blew out that same triceps in a Week 5 game against Chicago and had season-ending surgery.
This year, he had struggled with gout in his foot before the Arizona game, an Achilles' tendon problem and a right triceps injury. His practice time was cut short because of the injuries, just as it had been during his latter years with the Saints.
"The physical we gave him, obviously those injuries were talked about at length," Sherman said. "Obviously, there was a medical history, as there is with most defensive linemen at his age. In his case, after his physical, after talking to people about where he was at, after watching the tape again to make sure this was the player we were looking for and he playing at a level we want, at that time those questions were answered."
Johnson will continue to count $3,584,432 against the Packers' salary cap, fifth on the team behind Brett Favre, Antonio Freeman, Darren Sharper and Ahman Green. When this season ends he will have collected $10 million.
For that $10 million the Packers have received 2 sacks and 15 solo tackles in 11 games, or $5 million per sack and $1.5 million per tackle. During 11 years of unrestricted free agency there hasn't been another player signed by the Packers who is even close to Johnson in terms of not earning his money.
As it stands now, he is the biggest bust in Green Bay since Tony Mandarich, although Reynolds comes close.
Sherman was asked if he thought the mistake of such magnitude with Johnson had damaged his credibility as general manager.
"Ron (Wolf) has told me in our conversations that he's made numerous mistakes but you have to try to fix them as soon as possible," Sherman replied. "And so I try to take that approach as well.
"I never said I wouldn't make mistakes. I never claimed to be omnipotent or all-knowing. I will make mistakes and will make them in the future.
"Hopefully, I can minimize them as much as possible. I very seldom make the same mistake twice in my career. I learn. That's what happened here."
Johnson played 496 snaps for the Packers, exactly 248 each year. Last season, he had 8 solo tackles, 7 assisted tackles, 2 sacks, one fumble forced, one fumble recovered, one-half tackle for loss, 5 knockdowns and 1 pressure. This year, he had 7 solo tackles, 1 assist, 1 tackle for loss, one-half knockdown and 3 pressures.
On play after play Johnson would line up farther off the ball than any other defensive lineman and then would be the last to come off the ball. The coaches rated him as adequate at the point of attack but he seldom showed any burst or moves as a pass rusher.
"It hasn't changed," one scout said in late September, comparing Johnson's play this year to 2002. "He comes off, locks up and dances. You can see he can't run at all in space."
Defensive tackle Santana Dotson was 30 when he suffered a torn quadriceps in December 1999, but it appears as though Johnson's injury wasn't quite as severe. Dotson made it back to play all 16 games in 2000, but he worked like a dog to do it and then was ineffective before being released in February 2002.
Recently, Sherman said he continued to miss Dotson's unique leadership qualities. But Johnson was no leader. Johnson had at least one strike against him under the league's substance-abuse policy, and in May was arrested in Georgia and charged with marijuana possession.
If the Packers cut Johnson before June 1, they would have to count the remaining unamortized portion of his $6.5 million signing bonus, or $4.333 million, against their ‘04 cap. If they cut him after June 1 he would count $1.083 million in ‘04 and then the remaining $3.25 million in ‘05.
Johnson's base salaries increase from $2.85 million this year to $4 million in 2004, $5.5 million in ‘05 and ‘06, and $7 million in ‘07. The base salaries aren't guaranteed, meaning they wouldn't be paid if he were released.
This is a passing game that ranks just 17th in yards, the club's worst showing since the West Coast offense was installed in Green Bay in 1992. But that mostly reflects the Packers' inability to throw downfield, not their eye-catching ability to catch everything that's thrown.
"It's huge," coach Mike Sherman said. "If you get open, and they put the ball on you, you've got to catch it."
Mike Eayrs, the Packers director of research and development, has charted what happened to every pass in practice since the start of training camp. He says the number of dropped passes in practice also has decreased from past seasons.
In 17 games last season the Packers dropped 48 passes, an average of 2.83 per game. Coach Mike Holmgren's teams averaged 1.99 drops per game from 1992-'98. The team dropped 2.88 under Ray Rhodes in 1999 and then 3.25 in 2000 and 2.33 in 2001 under Sherman.
The worst offender a year ago was Javon Walker, who dropped nine of the 59 passes thrown to him. So far, he leads the team with 35 targeted passes and no drops.
"That's the biggest change right now," wide receiver Robert Ferguson said. "He just dedicated himself in the off-season. We talked to him. He's more focused on catching the ball."
Offensive coordinator Tom Rossley thinks he knows why Walker is much improved as a catcher.
"I think there was so much on his mind last year, thinking about routes and assignments," Rossley said. "The last thing he was doing was concentrating on the ball. All of a sudden something went off in his head and he wasn't thinking anymore. He was going after the ball. I can't remember the last time Walker dropped a ball in practice."
Green's total of one drop out of 28 targeted throws also is far superior to 2002, when he dropped nine of 77. However, he had merely one drop in the first 10 games (48 passes) last year before dropping eight of the last 29.
"That's a tribute to Ahman," Rossley said. "He just works at it. His biggest thing was just concentration. Sometimes he'd start to run before he had it."
Driver, who had nine drops out of 117 last year, has one in 30 this year. Ferguson, who had five drops out of 61 in ‘02, has none in 24 this year.
As an analyst, Eayrs is paid to explain some of football's mysteries. He had a quick answer why the Packers are catching the ball so well. He cites the strictly monitored game conditions in practice and Favre's catchable passes.
"I think we practice and play the game at the same speed," Sherman said. "I think that's contributed to it. Brett throws the same velocity in games that he does in practice and the receivers are running the routes the same."
Fullback Nick Luchey, who spent the last four seasons in Cincinnati, said the pressure to perform on a daily basis is intense in Green Bay.
"You don't expect to drop Brett Favre's balls," he said. "The placement of his balls is better. He gives you a chance just about every time. Guys here expect to win where guys in Cincinnati want to win. It's just a whole different atmosphere."
Eayrs has seen receivers coming back to the huddle with their gloves literally shredded from Favre's fastballs. You never get used to No. 4's velocity, according to Ferguson, but it's far better than the alternative.
BY THE NUMBERS: 36 — Wesley Walls had a 36-yard reception Sunday against Kansas City. It was the longest by a Green Bay tight end since Tyrone Davis had a 41-yarder in Week 3 of 2000. From 1993-'02, the team's tight ends caught just seven passes for more than 36 yards, including three by Davis, three by Keith Jackson and one by Jackie Harris. Mark Chmura's career long in 103 games counting playoffs was 33 yards. Bubba Franks' career long in 57 games counting playoffs is 31.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Bob is one of my all-time favorite people in this world. I'm praying for him." — Coach Mike Sherman on club president Bob Harlan, who had surgery Oct. 8 to remove two cancerous lesions that were diagnosed as melanoma. Surgery revealed that the cancer had not spread and that Harlan, 67, would not have to go through an aggressive treatment program of radiation or chemotherapy. Harlan said he still hopes to work to age 70.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Antuan Edwards, the starting strong safety, has missed the last two games because of an ankle injury but is just about ready to return. In his absence, Marques Anderson probably has played his two best games as a Packer. Mike Sherman said Edwards would continue to start but said Anderson would challenge. "Marques didn't feel sorry for himself and did a great job," Sherman said.