While Bears coach Dick Jauron doesn't care to speculate about his future with the team, defensive coordinator Greg Blache is more than willing to address the subject.
Jauron enters Sunday's noon matchup against the Chiefs in Kansas City with a 35-44 regular-season record. There have been no public votes of confidence from upstairs or any other indication that would lead Jauron to believe it won't be his final game as the Bears' boss. But Blache said numbers don't tell the complete story of Jauron's value to the organization. "If you know the man, if you know the job he's done, if you see the job he does from week to week and day to day, I think that speaks volumes," Blache said. "The man was coach of the year two seasons ago. We went on the road last year (playing home games in Champaign) and had 50-something injuries and (47) different starters."
Last year's 4-12 record represented a nine-game drop-off from the 13-3 NFC Central Division-winning squad of 2001, the biggest one-season plunge in team history. Combined with this season's slow start, the Bears at one point had lost 17 of 20 games. But they have won four of their last five and six of nine since starting 1-5.
"Things didn't start off real great, but to take a team that was in the valley, that was at the bottom of the pit and keep them playing, that's coaching," Blache said. "Anybody can win when the talent's all on the table. But when you have a football team that's got every reason in the world to just quit and doesn't, it takes leadership to bring it from the bottom, and he's shown some great leadership.
"He's taken this team, when everybody had it written off, and he's taken it back up the mountain. How many guys around the league can do that? Not many. I think that speaks for itself."
Blache also contends that Jauron's leadership qualities supersede any blame he might deserve for the failures of the offense over the past two seasons.
"You look at what a man does," Blache said. "So many people hire and fire people worrying about numbers, and they keep hiring and firing people. You look for leadership. When you have poor leadership, when you have shaky leadership, you have no chance."
Jauron isn't an emotional or demonstrative leader, which he readily admits. He has yet to give a pre-game or halftime speech that caused players to weep or run through a wall. He will be the first to point out that that's not his style. His way of leading is by example and through preparation, work and perseverance. For Jauron, those things are genuine. He has said many times in the past that the rah-rah, "Win one for the Gipper," stuff would be disingenuous coming from him.
"When you come to work in the morning, I think you do the best job that you can at what you do," Jauron said. "You try to represent who you are to the best of your ability. You try to represent the organization to the best of your abilities. You certainly don't try to present a false image of how you think things should be. And you also try to talk (to players about) how you believe things should be presented, and the obligations of playing. Not just on the field, but off the field as well."
Last season the Bears lost eight straight after winning the first two. They were also 2-8 after 10 games in 2000. This year they were 3-7 after 10 games.
In his five seasons, Jauron's teams are 4-12 in September, undermining their chances to compete for the playoffs in all but 2001, when they were 1-1 in September and won six straight after losing the season opener. "I don't have any answers for it," Jauron said of the slow starts. "I've certainly thought about it a great deal. We did the same thing in 2001 that we've done the other years.
"There's things in the game you can't control. You can't control the health of your football team, and you can't control the experience of your football team.
But there are lots of other things that go into it. And I'm certainly not trying to say that it's not my fault, it very well could be my fault. It could be what we do, but we did exactly the same in 2001 as we've done all the other years."
Does that make Jauron a bad coach for not having his team prepared to play at the start of the season, or does it make him a good leader because he rallied the troops after circumstances conspired to doom the team? Don't ask Blache to answer the critics who believe the former.
"Honestly, I don't have time or even wish to refute anything," the defensive coordinator said. "If you can't look at the product and see what's happened, then they're too stupid to talk to."
SERIES HISTORY: 9th meeting. Bears lead 5-3. Last meeting was a 20-17 Bears victory at Soldier Field on Sept. 12, 1999, Dick Jauron's first game as head coach. This game could wind up being his last.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
The fifth-round pick from Arizona, who was taken 139th overall, four picks ahead of Gage, began the season as the Bears punt returner but was benched for four games after fumbling a punt inside his 10-yard line. However, when Booker missed three games with a sprained ankle, Wade got back on the field and had 7 catches for 92 yards. Last week he caught 2 passes for 16 yards.
"It was an up and down year for me," Wade said. "I think I've learned all that I can possibly learn this year from the changes I went through. I know I grew up a lot as far as on-the-field and off-the-field things and trying to really adapt and find myself in the realm of the team atmosphere, and that's hard to do as a rookie. But I think I kind of have an idea where I'm going personally. I think these other rookies feel the same way as well. I think we have something to work for in the off-season and look forward to next year."
As Wade expected, the NFL is more of a job than college football, but that doesn't change the way he feels about the game.
"I know it's work, but at the same time it's a great job and a great career," Wade said. "I love to do it, and I wouldn't trade it for the world."
"When I look at the future?" Robinson said. "(I see) Coach Jauron winning another coach of the year award next year, definitely. I think that's possible."
Robinson said that Jauron's future isn't often discussed in the locker room, though.
"A couple guys might say something, but no, not really," he said. "We don't really worry about that. Coach Jauron is going to be fine. I truly believe that. Hopefully it's going to be here, but if not, I know he's a superb coach. He'll be fine."
"He's doing a tremendous job, you can see it," Villarrial said. "He's taking charge in the huddle, he's telling guys where to go. He's real comfortable in the pocket. He's going to be a good one, and it's going to be fun to watch him develop. He's got that leadership, and that's what you need as a quarterback."
BY THE NUMBERS: Sunday's game will be the 10th time this season the Bears have played an opponent whose offense ranks in the top 11 in the league.
"This is nothing new for us," defensive coordinator Greg Blache said. "The guys have to realize it's a high mountain, but I didn't want to spend all morning telling them about how high the mountain was. We wanted to spend time figuring out how we were going to climb it." The Bears split with the Vikings, who are No. 1 in offense, got swept by the Packers (No. 4), defeated the No. 6 Broncos and lost to the 49ers (No. 5), the Rams (No. 7), the Seahawks (No. 8) and the Saints (No. 11). The Chiefs are ranked second.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You never want to downplay the Pro Bowl. Obviously, when your peers vote you in, it's a great honor. But this game is about winning the Super Bowl. When you don't get to the playoffs, it's obviously a disappointing year, especially when you feel right now you could play with anybody and beat anybody.
"That's how we feel. But the truth is, after (this) week's game, we're going home. But we're going to play this game like it's the Super Bowl, like it's our Super Bowl, and the Chiefs better be ready because we know we're not giving any away." — Center Olin Kreutz on his bittersweet election to his third straight Pro Bowl.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Stanley Pritchett carried the ball just twice in his first two seasons as a Bear, serving primarily as a blocker and occasional pass receiver, but he has 21 carries this season, including a season-high 5 on Sunday, when he picked up 33 yards, his most productive day in Chicago.
The eight-year veteran had 58 rushes and 25 receptions for the Eagles in 2000 before suffering a fractured tibia in the playoffs.
"Hopefully they'll use the fullback a little more in the passing and the running game," said Pritchett, who has picked up most of his rushing yards this season on a misdirection counter play following right tackle Aaron Gibson over the middle. "I feel more comfortable every week. I get behind big Gibby, and he gives you the room to make cuts, and it was open (Sunday)."
Steve Mariucci has given up on his theory that the final three games of the season — Kansas City, Carolina and St. Louis — are giving the Lions a chance to evaluate their progress in becoming an NFL contender.
After losses to Kansas City (45-17) and Carolina (20-14), it is obvious to all concerned that the Lions are still a million or so light years from contending for anything except a top five pick in the draft.
So they will finish the season Sunday against the St. Louis Rams and the only thing in the balance is their won-lost record. A loss pushes them to 4-12 for the season and 9-39 for the three years under Matt Millen; a win would make them 5-11 and 10-38 under Millen.
Perhaps the best thing Mariucci could hope to see before the end of his first season as the Lions coach is some improvement in backup quarterback Mike McMahon.
In three seasons with the Lions since being drafted in the fifth round of the 2001 NFL draft, McMahon's completion percentage has dropped steadily.
He went from 46.1 percent as a rookie to 42.2 percent in his second season and is currently stuck at 29 percent in his third season, playing only in two relief appearances.
The question is whether McMahon can ever become accurate enough to be an effective backup quarterback. He will become a restricted free agent at the end of the current season and the Lions must make a decision on whether he is worth the investment of another contract.
Despite his inability to complete passes, Mariucci has the same attraction to McMahon that his predecessor Marty Mornhinweg had. He sees in McMahon a strapping 6-feet-2, 208-pound quarterback with the mobility West Coast coaches love. McMahon is agile, runs with decent speed (for a quarterback) and loves to compete.
The only thing missing is his accuracy, the same thing that was missing through his career at Rutgers and in the first three years with the Lions. In 14 appearances in which he has thrown at least one pass for the Lions, he has completed more than 50 percent of his throws in just twice — completing 15 of 28 in a win against Minnesota in 2001 and 13 of 25 in a loss to Miami in the season opener of the 2002 season.
Mariucci and Lions president Matt Millen continue to dream of the day McMahon will suddenly be able to hit moving targets while he himself is on the move, so it is likely he will get significant playing time in the season finale against the Rams.
"He's been better on occasions in previous appearances, and I do believe he can be a good player," Mariucci said this week. "Given enough opportunities, I think he can show that."
SERIES HISTORY: The Lions and Rams will be playing the 78th game in a series that began in 1937, when the Rams were playing in Cleveland. The Rams hold a 40-36-1 lead in the series and won the last game between the two teams, 35-0, in a Monday night affair two years ago.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
Harrington already has thrown the third-highest total of passes among NFL quarterbacks this season — 518 — but he wants to keep throwing right through the Lions' season final Sunday against the St. Louis Rams.
"From the standpoint that I'm trying to help build something, I'm trying to be somewhat of a consistent figure, somebody people can lean on, can turn to," Harrington said.
"That's the guy I want to be for this team, so it's very important to me that I continue to be in the lineup and continue to be the guy people look for.
"You see guys like Brett (Favre) who have played 106 billion games in a row, and you always know Brett is going to be there and you know when it's crunch time you can count on Brett being there. That's the kind of player I want to be."
Coach Steve Mariucci is probably hoping for the same thing but it appears likely he will give McMahon playing time against the Rams, possibly as much as the 38 minutes he got at Carolina last Sunday.
Mariucci became emotional, his voice quavering and his eyes misting up when he talked to reporters about Favre's play under extreme duress.
"You've got to realize that's a special guy, a special player," Mariucci said. "We even talked about it in our team meeting today; it was unbelievable.
"I thought he handled himself very well after the game. He's probably having a rough day today. You know, probably when he retires at some point, that game will be such a bittersweet memory in his mind, maybe his best game ever."
As Mariucci paused to maintain his composure, a reporter asked him, "Are you pulling a Dick Vermeil on us?" The question broke the tension and Mariucci continued, but his strong feelings about Favre and his father were obvious.
Rams wide receiver Torry Holt will be playing against cornerback Dre' Bly, a former teammate from the 1999 draft class in St. Louis, as well as his own younger brother, Terrence Holt, a promising rookie safety with the Lions.
The battle of the brothers has been of particular interest in Detroit and the Holts say it will be no-holds-barred competition for the duration of the game.
"I'm scared," Torry Holt said. "He's got me shook up right now. I'll try to look for ways that I can beat him because he's going to be looking to take my head off."
Although Holt was speaking facetiously, he and his younger brother have obvious high respect for each other — both on and off the field.
They have never played against each other in a game, although Torry recalled a time at North Carolina State when they were practicing on special teams and nearly came to blows.
"I think Terrence is a good football player," Torry said. "I think he has a tremendous amount of room for improvement. I don't know if you understand, Terrence didn't start playing football until his sophomore or junior year in high school.
"Terrence was a basketball player. I've played football forever; he's still learning how to play the game. He's still learning how to be a defensive back but one of the things that helps Terrence be the player that he is ... is because of his wits and his smarts, how he studies the game and how he wants to be one of the better safeties in the National Football League."
Terrence, drafted by the Lions in the fifth round last April, has made a big impression on the Lions after spending the first five weeks inactive. He got his chance to play when the Lions suffered a number of injuries at cornerback. In the eight games he has played, he has three interceptions and now is viewed as the team's free safety of the future.
Terrence is expected to start at free safety in this game where he might be called on to help out Bly in coverage against Torry.
Terrence was asked what it would be like if Torry was running a post pattern and Terrence had to make the play.
"I think it'll be like me sticking the guy running the post and I'll think about it being my brother afterwards," Terrence said. "During the game I'm not even going to be thinking about, ‘Hey, this is my brother. Don't do this or don't do that.'
"I'll be concentrating on my job, be focusing on what we have to do as a defense to stop their offense, and hope our offense plays well and we can put up a whole lot of points and beat these guys."
BY THE NUMBERS: 1-11 — The Lions record in December for the past three seasons, going into their game Sunday against St. Louis.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Pick your poison." — Lions coach Steve Mariucci on whether he'd rather play against St. Louis starter Marc Bulger or backup quarterback Kurt Warner.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Lions will finish the season with 15 players on injured reserve. The latest is defensive end Kalimba Edwards, who got off to a slow start while recovering from a sports hernia and had his season ended last Sunday with a torn groin muscle at Carolina.
The Lions signed defensive lineman Colin Cole, an undrafted rookie who made the Minnesota team but got no playing time with the Vikings before being released.
The Lions will be understaffed on their defensive line for the final game of the season against St. Louis.
In addition to losing Edwards to IR, they will be without DT Luther Elliss (post-concussion symptoms) and DE Robert Porcher will be playing with an elbow/wrist injury if he plays at all.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The eyes of America were upon Brett Favre Monday night in Oakland during his hour of immense personal grief.
Somehow, some way, Favre found a way to play perhaps the greatest game of his fabulous career.
His passer rating in the 41-7 victory over the Raiders was 154.9, just under the maximum score of 158.3. His previous best had been 147.2 against Chicago in November 1995, when his ankle was swollen so badly a lot of people thought he wouldn't play. The team's record had been 152.1 by Lynn Dickey against Pittsburgh in September 1983.
Playing just one day after his father, Irvin, died in Mississippi of heart attack or stroke, Favre was fantastic.
"You couldn't draw up a script better than that," coach Mike Sherman said. "You hoped he'd play that type of game but the chances of that happening, unless it's Brett Favre, are unlikely. This guy put together a career day."
Favre annihilated the Raiders' secondary with a dizzying array of completions, throwing just about every pass in the book with unerring accuracy. "Maybe it bought him some kind of respite," long-time Raiders scout Jon Kingdon said. "His dad was so much involved in his career. Maybe it was his way of paying some kind of tribute."
The victory improved the Packers' record to 9-6 (they finished 5-3 on the road, equaling their best mark since 1972) and enabled them to keep pace with Minnesota atop the NFC North Division. The Packers will win the division if they defeat Denver (10-5) Sunday at Lambeau Field and the Vikings lose at Arizona (3-12).
The Packers will clinch a playoff berth if Seattle (9-6) loses in San Francisco Saturday.
The Packers lost at Arizona in Week 3. Could the Vikings lose in the desert?
"There might be a chance," Packers director of pro personnel Reggie McKenzie said. "Let's hope."
Denver, which clinched an AFC wild-card berth, has little to play for at Lambeau Field, although the Broncos could move up to the No. 5 seed with a victory and a loss by Tennessee (11-4) against Tampa Bay. The Broncos might rest or even not play a flock of starters.
Kingdon, who serves as the spotter for the Raiders' radio network, said former Raiders coach Tom Flores was astonished by any speculation from Favre and others that he might quit. Flores is the radio color man.
"Flores was laughing at the concept of him retiring," Kingdon said.
Raiders' fans in their notorious ‘Black Hole' of a stadium did what they could to rattle Favre. The Packers faced eight third downs in the first half, and each time the crescendo from the crowd grew as Favre walked to the line.
On those first-half third downs Favre coolly hit six of eight for 154 yards and one touchdown, effectively deciding the game.
The Packers are hoping that emotions of the moment in Oakland will carry over to the rest of the season. Favre attended his dad's funeral Wednesday in Mississippi and probably won't practice until Friday.
"We're a close team to begin with and now it appears we're even closer because of this," coach Mike Sherman said. "And so adversity does bring out sometimes the best in you and sometimes the worst. With this team it's brought out the best in us."
Favre spoke with Sherman for about two hours Sunday night before he made his decision to play. He then accompanied Sherman to the team meeting, where he addressed his teammates.
"With Brett's adversity that he was facing, that forced him in our team meeting to talk about it," Sherman said. "It opened him up and showed a side of him that maybe some of our players hadn't seen.
"Brett Favre is this tough quarterback who's indestructible. He showed a very vulnerable side and shared that with them. On the same lines the team showed a side of themselves toward him, a very caring, consoling side to help him through his grief and I think that culminated with the way they took the field against Oakland."
SERIES HISTORY: The 10th regular-season meeting. Denver leads, 5-3-1. The last meeting was in 1999 at Denver and was won by the Broncos, 31-10. When the teams last met at Lambeau Field, coach Mike Shanahan benched John Elway and other key players because the Broncos had clinched the AFC West. The Packers rolled, 41-6.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
Davenport, the second-year backup to Ahman Green, now is averaging 32.3 yards on 15 returns after bringing back two for 92 yards against the Raiders. That's 10 yards more than Antonio Chatman, who had a 22.3 mark in 36 runbacks.
The change from Chatman in a one-back scheme to Davenport and Robert Ferguson in a two-back scheme was made in Week 10 against Tampa Bay. Although Davenport was given priority over Ferguson to return kicks down the middle, Ferguson still has returned seven for a 21.1 average.
"He's good because he storms it," Minnesota Vikings pro personnel director Paul Wiggin said, referring to Davenport. "He takes it and heads up the field. He's a completely different style of return man. You dance on punt returns; you storm on kickoffs."
Davenport averaged 24.7 in 14 kickoff returns during his four-year career at the University of Miami.
Reggie McKenzie, the club's director of pro personnel, said Davenport didn't return early because of concern he might be worn down late in the season.
"Everybody knew Najeh can return kickoffs," McKenzie said. "He did it in college. But we wanted fresh legs at the end of the season."
The NFL record for highest kickoff-return average in a season has been held by Green Bay's Travis Williams at 40.06 since 1967. Tom Moore is second in the Packers' record book with a 33.08 average in 1960 and Al Carmichael is third with a 29.86 mark in 1955.
Another pro scout said Monday that there was no question in his mind that Davenport possessed all that was required to become a solid starting running back.
"He's a bonus for the Packers," Wiggin said. "He's a complete player. He can kick your butt."
In his seven games first six games for the Packers Jackson had 2 1/2 sacks, 11 solo tackles, 8 assists and one forced fumble.
"Grady Jackson is a great, great football player," Wiggin said. "He's strong and quick. He's got a motor that has a lot of gears, and sometimes he turns it off. That's the knock on him. But he can give you something that someone like Gilbert Brown can't."
Jackson, who will be 31 in January, will become an unrestricted free agent in early March if the Packers aren't able to re-sign him.
"We'll try to sign them all," McKenzie said. "We like all of them."
The list includes linebacker Steve Josue, tackle Jason Jimenez, wide receiver Frank Rice, cornerback Calvin Carlyle and running back Dahrran Diedrick. Wide receiver Scottie Vines underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in November.
Does Brown have a future with the Packers?
"I don't know," McKenzie said. "Gilbert will know his body well enough to let us know his plans. He will have a chance to tell us how he feels and be honest about what he really wants to do. Coach (Mike Sherman) and the player then will discuss it."
Bidwell, 27, is six years younger than any of the other nine punters with contracts set to expire March 2, making him attractive to teams despite his rather modest statistics.
"We're going to try to keep him (but) I personally think we may have our hands full trying to keep others from getting him," said McKenzie. "A lot of people struggled with punters this year. There's 31 other teams that want to look at him."
The Packers could prevent that by making Bidwell a lucrative offer before the signing period begins March 3.
However, kicker Ryan Longwell will be entering the fourth year of the five-year, $7.5 million contract that he signed in February 2001, and with having to re-sign him by March 2006 the Packers might decide to let Bidwell go if he won't accept a mid-level deal.
"When you've got a guy like Ryan Longwell, who scores points and you just can't live without, there's not a lot of teams that will pay both a punter and kicker," Bidwell said. "I just don't think I'm the type of guy that will get a monster deal because, when it comes down to it, you have to have the numbers. Kicking in Green Bay really doesn't allow you to do that."
Bidwell had a $605,000 base salary this year. The contractual standard for punters was set in September by Carolina's Todd Sauerbrun, whose five-year, $7.45 million deal averaged $1.49 million and contained a $1.6 million signing bonus.
"I'm not trying to put a number on how much," McKenzie said. "I don't know. We'll see."
Bidwell, a fourth-round draft choice in 1999, has almost identical numbers after 15 games as he did last season. He has averages of 41.8 (gross), 35.2 (net) and 4.13 seconds (hang time).
"He's been pretty much what he's been," special teams coach John Bonamego said. "We'd always like to do better. He's had a couple bad punts this year but you take those out and he's done a pretty good job.
"I'd like to have him back. He's a good person. He ranks up there favorably to a lot of guys on that (free-agent) list."
The aging list of projected unrestricted punters includes St. Louis' Sean Landeta (41), San Diego's Darren Bennett (38), Jacksonville's Mark Royals (38), the New York Jets' Dan Stryzinski (38), Tampa Bay's Tom Tupa (37), Seattle's Tom Rouen (35), Miami's Matt Turk (35), Cleveland's Chris Gardocki (33) and Detroit's John Jett (33), who is on injured reserve.
"I'm only 27 and I've been in a great groove for the past three years," Bidwell said. "So I really think a team can invest in me for a five-year deal and really anticipate a couple more years after that. I think I have a lot going for me."
"The ‘Black Hole' is what it is," Flanagan said. "It's an abyss, an endless, dark thing where nothing good can come from."
He added: "You've got to give them some originality points. It's not the typical, ‘You suck.' They go off the deep end and they're non-stop. They've got that liquor courage, and they're convinced they could come over and line up and play.
"I wouldn't do a Lambeau Leap in there under any circumstances. But, as long as they're not throwing stuff, who gives a damn?"
"I would have voted for him to the Pro Bowl as a cover guy," Bonamego said. "Robert Ferguson is as good as I've ever been around. He's a guy that plays 50 snaps a game and he always gives you everything he has."
The next best core players on special teams, according to Bonamego, have been Davenport and Paris Lenon.
BY THE NUMBERS: 548 — The Packers' total yardage against Oakland. It's the third highest total in team history.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's had some outstanding performances. I can't remember all of them. But how about the first game he ever played? Talk about someone changing the game around. He became the dominant face in the game." — Retired GM Ron Wolf on Brett Favre Monday night.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Packers continue to let running back Ahman Green take himself out of the game whenever he needs a breather.
They don't mind because they know Green has asthma and needs frequent breaks. Also, they like to use Najeh Davenport as a change of pace on early down and have gotten big plays all year on third down from Tony Fisher.