NFC North News

Bears QB Rex Grossman looked sharp in recent weekend practices, the Lions feel good about their team after four free-agent signings, and the Packers are poised for a rematch with Carolina in the Monday Night Football opener. Those and many more storylines in our trek around the NFC North.

CHICAGO BEARS

A year ago Rex Grossman didn't even know where he'd be playing pro football.

Four months ago, he was the Bears' quarterback of the future but had yet to play in an NFL game.

Now, he's the Bears' starting quarterback, period.

"That's an exciting position to be put in," Grossman said during a break in the Bears' two-day, four-practice weekend minicamp at the end of March. "And I'm going to try to make the best of it and take my opportunity and run with it. I've been studying the play book for a long time and just finally got a chance to get out there and throw the routes. It was fun to get out there again."

Grossman threw the ball impressively during Friday's sessions. Almost without exception he hit receivers in stride with easily catchable balls that maximized run-after-the-catch potential.

"What he showed was anticipation," offensive coordinator Terry Shea said. "If you wait until (the receiver is) open, that's too late in this offense. The really good quarterbacks throw the ball when their receiver is not (yet) open. Rex showed that."

Grossman also demonstrated a precocious grasp of the new offense, especially for someone who has played in just three NFL games and is learning his fourth offense in five years.

"The most impressive thing so far is the fact that he's learned the language as well as he has, and he's capable of stepping into a huddle for the first time ever with this kind of a language system and he rolls right with it," Shea said. "He made some great throws off of good decisions. That was the most encouraging part, his decision-making in terms of progressing through the (reads)."

For a 23-year-old starting quarterback, throwing the ball accurately and on time is just part of the job. In the most important leadership position on the team, Grossman has a lot of other duties to master.

Coach Lovie Smith realizes the difficulty of Grossman's task, but he professes confidence in the 6-foot-1, 222-pound sophomore.

"He's adapting well," Smith said. "There's a lot that goes into being the quarterback in this system, but Rex is catching on quickly. We think Rex is exactly where he should be at this point."

The Bears' willingness to part ways with veteran quarterbacks Kordell Stewart and Chris Chandler is a clear indication that Grossman is the undisputed triggerman in Shea's new offense. Grossman and backup Jonathan Quinn, a seldom-used six-year NFL veteran, have just six NFL starts between them. But Smith doesn't seem to have any fears about hitching the offense to their wagon.

"Young players ... if they're good players, we feel comfortable with them," Smith said. "We let a veteran player with a lot of years go. We feel comfortable with that."

Apparently, so does Grossman.


NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • Looking for more blocking from the fullback position, the Bears traded a sixth-round draft choice to the Redskins for four-year veteran Bryan Johnson.

    Although the 6-foot-1, 245-pound Johnson has just three carries for 5 yards and 33 receptions for 314 yards since signing with the Redskins in 2000 as an undrafted free agent, he is expected to go to training camp as No. 1 on the Bears' depth chart. He will be challenged by incumbent starter Stanley Pritchett, who carried 21 times for 93 yards last season. But the 6-foot-2, 250-pound Pritchett averaged just 4.6 yards on 18 receptions last season and the 30-year-old eight-year veteran is not considered an exceptional lead blocker, although he is a more effective ball carrier.

    Johnson, 26, was a restricted free agent who signed a four-year, $4.1 million offer sheet, including a $2.1 million cap hit this year, from the New Orleans Saints. But the Redskins matched, hoping to get something in return for Johnson, who was a linebacker and the leading tackler in his final three seasons at Boise State after converting from fullback and tight end. As a senior, Johnson played with Bears running back Brock Forsey, who was a freshman at Boise State in 1999.

    Johnson played in all 48 games for the Redskins the past three years and started 23 in the last two seasons. He was also a standout special-teams player the past three seasons, with 23 tackles in 2001, 21 in 2002 and 20 last season.

  • All movement ceased and a hush came over the Walter Payton Center when four-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher tumbled to the artificial turf, writhing in pain as trainers examined his left knee near the end of last Saturday's afternoon minicamp practice.

    The injury was not the result of contact, but occurred when Urlacher planted his foot and turned during a passing drill. After several anxious minutes of dead silence, during which Urlacher appeared in serious pain, he got to his feet and walked off slowly but without a limp. He returned with the knee wrapped in ice but did not practice anymore after having the injury diagnosed as a hyperextension. He avoided speaking to the media after practice.

    Urlacher, who has never missed an NFL game, was re-evaluated the following day and cleared to return home.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm trying to lead by example and know my assignments and be there for my teammates to ask questions. Hopefully I can learn it as fast as possible so they can look to me as a guy who knows the offense, and team-wise, just do the right things — keep everybody positive and win some games." — Bears QB Rex Grossman.


    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    The Bears added some local flavor to the roster April 2.

    Quarterback Zak Kustok and defensive lineman Dan Rumishek agreed to two-year contracts and linebacker Jack Golden was expected to sign later in the day.

    Kustok, a record-setting former Northwestern Wildcat and graduate of Carl Sandburg High School in south suburban Orland Park, was waived by the Dolphins after being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2002. He signed with the Packers early in 2003, but the 6-1, 215-pounder was waived on June 17, 2003, and was out of football last season.

    Rumishek, from west suburban Addison Trail High School, is a 6-3 1/2, 285-pounder out of Michigan. He signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent in 2003 and spent part of the season on injured reserve before being waived in mid-October.

    Golden, a four-year veteran from south suburban Harvey and Oklahoma State, played for the Buccaneers the past two seasons.

    NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES: Defensive line - At tackle UFA Keith Traylor didn't fit the new scheme and signed with the Patriots. Holdovers Bryan Robinson and Alfonso Boone are ordinary players, not the kind of playmakers that Lovie Smith needs for his defense. At end, Michael Haynes is penciled in as the every-down player on the left side, but his play last season wasn't extraordinary by any means. It's possible, though, that all he needs is a chance to play like a first-rounder. Even if he does, there is no depth behind he and DRE Alex Brown; Offensive left tackle - Mike Gandy filled in here for most of the past two seasons, but he's a guard, and he plays left tackle like a guard. 2002 first-round draft pick Marc Colombo may never make it back from a dislocated knee cap suffered in November of that year. For now, inexperienced Qasim Mitchell is No. 1 based on his two starts last season; Wide receiver - The Bears need a complement for Marty Booker, preferably one with big-play capabilities. David Terrell has done very little in his first three years to indicate that he's the guy.


    DETROIT LIONS

    The Lions have won only 10 games total in the past three seasons, but coach Steve Mariucci believes they can contend in the NFC North as soon as this fall.

    But his theory is based at least partly on wishful thinking that the other teams in the division - Green Bay, Minnesota and Chicago - don't suddenly catch fire.

    Mariucci was asked during the NFL owners meetings last week if he felt the Lions had made enough progress in free agency - with the draft coming up later this month - to compete in the division.

    "Yes, I think so," he said. "When you go through these cycles within a division, you hope that there's a certain ebb and flow where those teams like us get better. The good teams lose some players.

    "Obviously, we're making a push to move up. You hope that Green Bay's not quite as good."

    The Lions have made four major free agent signings that - on paper, at least - look good. They have landed guard Damien Woody, cornerback Fernando Bryant, wide receiver Tai Streets and safety Brock Marion.

    They still have major holes to fill, however. They need a starting linebacker to replace Barrett Green (lost to the NY Giants) and a starting guard to replace Ray Brown, who retired. In addition they need playmakers - a running back, a wide receiver and another tight end.

    And there is a strong likelihood they will have to depend heavily on players taken in the draft.

    "I've been in that boat before where you just draft them and start them, and then you hang on," Mariucci said. "We're going to be in that boat."


    NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • The Lions are gradually rebuilding their class of ‘99, not the players they originally drafted but with players of that age and experience level.

    Three of their top free agent acquisitions - guard Damien Woody, cornerback Fernando Bryant and wide receiver Tai Streets - were drafted by their original teams in 1999.

    The Lions have only one player - defensive lineman Jared DeVries - left from the seven players they drafted in 1999. Three others - linebacker Chris Claiborne, tackle Aaron Gibson and linebacker/special teamer Clint Kriewaldt - are playing for other NFL teams and the other three players are no longer in the league.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's scary to put a guy back there that's not very well schooled in all the blitzes, protecting your quarterback. All he has to do is make one mistake and you've got to open a new can of quarterbacks." — Coach Steve Mariucci on the need to have a tailback capable of handling his pass protection duties.


    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    Club president Matt Millen and coach Steve Mariucci wasted no time getting back into the free agent market after spending four days last week at the owners meetings in Palm Beach, Fla.

    On their first day back at the office in Allen Park, Mich., they met with middle linebacker Michael Barrow and outside linebacker Warrick Holdman. Neither player left with a contract but that doesn't mean the Lions won't be interested before they go to training camp.

    They need an outside linebacker, in particular, to replace starter Barrett Green, who went to the NY Giants. There is a good chance they will draft an outside backer in the first day but they would still need to improve their depth. They also lost Jeff Gooch, a solid backup linebacker and special teams player.

    The Lions apparently have completed the big-money portion of their free agent shopping but will keep enough "dry powder" to move on players cut June 1 if they find any they like at that time, according to executive vice president and COO Tom Lewand.



    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    If things had turned out the way the Packers planned last season, they would have played the Carolina Panthers at Ericsson Stadium in the NFC Championship Game. Instead, they were eliminated in overtime at the divisional level by the Philadelphia Eagles.

    In September, eight months later, the Packers will get a chance to play Carolina in the opening Monday night game of the regular season.

    "It's a pleasant surprise," Packers President Bob Harlan said. "I think it shows the popularity of the franchise and what the Packers mean to television. We're playing the NFC champions. I think it's a salute to the Packers. From that standpoint, it's great."

    From a competitive standpoint, the game will be no easier than the ‘03 opener when the Packers took on a fired-up Minnesota team at Lambeau Field and were pounded, 30-25. That loss was only their third in their last 11 openers.

    The last time the Packers opened the regular season on the road was 1996 when they defeated Tampa Bay, 34-3, en route to the Super Bowl. The last time they opened on Monday night was in 1997, when they beat Chicago, 38-24, at Lambeau Field.

    "It's been awhile since we've opened on the road," Harlan said. "But we didn't make any requests. We did last year because of the stadium dedication. It was the first time I ever remember asking the league to give us a home game. This is very unusual for us to open on the road. It's been a long time."

    One of the down sides for the Packers is that their final two exhibition games will be played on the road in Jacksonville and Tennessee. That means the Packers will travel for at least three straight games.

    However, their final exhibition game is Sept. 3, giving them 10 days to rest and prepare for the Panthers.

    "Those games (exhibition) are different," Harlan said. "It's not like traveling three weeks in a row during the regular season. I'm hoping we're home Week 2, coming back late at night from Carolina like that. Even though we don't know, I'm sure hoping we're home."


    NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • The Packers were stunned after they received merely one seventh-round compensatory draft choice.

    In February, vice president Mark Hatley said that he expected the Packers to receive multiple compensatory picks.

    "I think we'll probably get three or four picks," Hatley said at the time. "I'm excited about seeing how it works out."

    The free-agent losses that the NFL took into consideration in determining the Packers' picks were defensive end Vonnie Holliday, defensive tackle Billy Lyon, cornerback Tod McBride and cornerback Tyrone Williams.

    The free-agent additions that were considered were fullback Nick Luchey, linebacker Hannibal Navies, defensive end Chukie Nwokorie and guard-center Grey Ruegamer.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "Brett was chasing beavers around his property. The beavers are damming up some streams and he's all concerned about that. He's like the guy in ‘Caddyshack:' he's going to blow everything up to track these beavers down. He thinks they're waging a war against him." — Coach Mike Sherman on QB Brett Favre, who recently met with offensive coordinator Tom Rossley at his plantation outside Hattiesburg, Miss.


    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    The Packers are interested in Browns quarterback Tim Couch. How interested remains to be seen.

    "We have options," coach Mike Sherman said at mid-week. "He is still an option."

    Sherman and Couch had dinner last week in Cleveland. Couch told Sherman he would prefer a situation where he'd have a chance to play sooner than later. His chances in Green Bay would hinge on Brett Favre's future. He's 34 and hasn't missed a game in his entire career.

    "Mike had a good visit with him, talked to him, felt good about the kid," vice president Mark Hatley said. "It depends on what they want in compensation and whether we can afford him. I'm sure if he's interested in the Packers he knows what his role would be.

    "A lot will depend on how many other teams are interested, a lot will depend on the compensation. You can't tell (who else is interested). He was the first pick in the draft awhile ago."

    MEDICAL WATCH: S Bryant Westbrook (second Achilles' tendon surgery) hopes to play again. "The big question is, is it going to limit his ability?" coach Mike Sherman said. "How limiting will it be?"





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