The talk about competition at the kicker position that the Bears' coaches and front office has been slinging for the past 10 days turned out to be just that.
The team released incumbent Paul Edinger last Sunday afternoon about an hour after the media had departed the final practice of the weekend's minicamp. The Bears chose to go with 11-year veteran Doug Brien, who was signed as a free agent on May 12. Edinger's agent, Ken Harris, had immediately requested his client's release, anxious to find a new home for him and convinced that the Bears had already decided to go with Brien. The Bears denied that assertion, insisting they only wanted to create competition for the job.
But it was a short competition. On his final Sunday with the team, Edinger even outkicked Brien, connecting on each of his five total kicks from 28, 33, 38, 40 and 43 yards. Brien missed wide left on his 33-yard effort.
While Brien is the favorite of the coaching staff, Edinger was clearly the player's choice during the minicamp. Catcalls greeted the attempts of the other three kickers (undrafted rookies Tyler Jones and Nick Novak also participated in the minicamp), but Edinger had no pre-kick distractions, and each of his boots was greeted with shouts of, "Nice kick, Paul," or "The people's champ," from captain Brian Urlacher and other teammates.
Edinger quickly signed a one-year deal with the Vikings.
"This is the right thing for everybody," Harris said after Edinger's release. "We're very appreciative and very grateful to the Bears for doing this now. Paul's had some nice successes and he's also hit some speed bumps, too."
Edinger's nine misses (in 24 attempts) were the most in the NFL last season, and his 62.5 percent success rate was the second lowest among all NFL kickers with more than 10 attempts, topping only Tampa's Martin Gramatica (57.9). Edinger, a sixth-round draft choice out of Michigan State in 2000, entered last season as the most accurate kicker in Bears history at 77.9 percent. Brien is a career 81.1 percent kicker.
"We appreciate Paul's contributions to our team over the last five seasons," Bears G.M. Jerry Angelo said. "With the addition of Doug Brien to our roster, and watching him and our two rookies over this weekend's mini-camp, we felt comfortable granting Paul's request to be released."
Edinger leaves with the second-highest field-goal percentage in franchise history at 75.3, and his 53 field goals of 40 or more yards the past five seasons were the most in the NFL.
Since veteran running back Thomas Jones ran away from the media for the second straight day, it was left for Bears coaches to discuss the battle shaping up between the incumbent and rookie Cedric Benson.
"We have two guys that can play," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "The challenge is to find a way to maximize their talents and get them both on the field and get them both being impact players, which is something we think we can do."
Coach Lovie Smith reiterated that Jones is the starter, but the sixth-year veteran appears reluctant to discuss his situation. Saturday morning Jones sneaked through an autograph line and into a side door at Halas Hall, giving reporters the slip. Following the Saturday afternoon practice, Jones bolted wide of the media and outran the pursuit, saying that he would talk on Sunday. But, at the conclusion of Sunday's practice, the 5-foot-10, 220-pounder emerged from within a circle of wide receivers, sprinted for the side door and disappeared. When his presence was requested by a media relations employee, Jones said he had a flight to catch.
If he proves as elusive to opponents in the fall, Jones might be able to hold on to his job. But that's unlikely. He and Benson won't be playing together, and there aren't enough carries to keep both of them happy, so Jones figures to wind up as the backup.
"They both can do a lot of the same things," Turner said. "Each one is going to have their own strengths, and we'll try to draw from both."
Jones rushed for 948 yards and a 4.0-yard average last season with seven touchdowns on 240 carries. He'll remain ahead of Benson until the rookie begins to react instinctively rather than contemplating his assignments.
"Every time we call a play, he's thinking, ‘What do I do, and where do I go and all that,'" Turner said of Benson. "We're going to spend the month of June (during 14 practice sessions) really getting him to feel comfortable with what we're doing. We'll find out what he can do mentally and physically.
"I don't know who the starter is. We're going to use both of them, I know that much."
All preliminary indications are good for the return of linebacker Boss Bailey to fulltime duty after missing the Lions' entire 2004 season with surgery to his right knee.
For starters, Bailey's surgery was performed in early August, which means he will have had nearly a full year of recovery time when he goes to training camp in late July. And, secondly, the knee seems to be holding up well in the rehab work prescribed by the Lions trainers and medical staff.
Although coach Steve Mariucci limited Bailey to one-a-day workouts in the Lions minicamp a month ago, both he and the third-year linebacker from Georgia were enthusiastic about Bailey's condition.
"Everything felt good," Bailey said. "I was so ready to go . . . and everything turned out the way I hoped it would.
"Once I felt going, everything felt comfortable. I felt my reads were pretty good. Can always get better at that but it wasn't as bad as I thought it could be." Bailey said the knee felt "100 percent."
The return of Bailey to fulltime duty as the strong side linebacker is crucial to the maximizing of the Lions young linebacking crew. He started all 16 games as a rookie, showing the speed and athletic ability the Lions were hoping for when they took him in the second round of the 2003 draft.
When he encountered a knee problem midway in training camp of 2004, however, it revived concerns that the knee injury Bailey suffered at Georgia in 2000 might be a recurring problem.
Mariucci says he is optimistic that Bailey is on his way to a full recovery and will be ready for the start of the regular season in September. He will get another chance to evaluate Bailey's comeback during two weeks of workouts that get underway this week.
Although all of them had periods of success, it is a measure of the Lions' mediocrity over the last 47 years that only one of them - Landry, in 1972 - was ever selected to play in the Pro Bowl game.
In Landry's Pro Bowl season he completed exactly 50 percent of his 268 passes, threw 18 touchdown passes and was intercepted 17 times, and had a passer rating of 71.8. It was his scrambling ability - he ran 81 times for 524 yards and nine touchdowns that year - that made Landry special.
Mitchell, who was the whipping boy of Lions fans when the Lions failed to capitalize on their Barry Sanders-led offense in the mid 1990s, is second to Hall of Famer Bobby Layne in most of the team's career passing categories.
Layne threw for 15,710 yards during nine seasons (1950-58); Mitchell threw for 12,647 yards in his five seasons. Layne also has the most touchdown passes of any Lions quarterback (118) but was intercepted 142 times; Mitchell had 79 TDs and 57 interceptions. Landry and Layne are the only Lions quarterbacks in the team's history to play in a Pro Bowl. Layne made it three times (1952-54).
The Lions have indicated a strong interest in Law and say they will compete financially for the four-time Pro Bowl players when he is sufficiently recovered from the broken left foot he suffered last season.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers at least considered giving running back Najeh Davenport the middle tender as a restricted free agent in early March before settling for the $656,000 tender and right of first refusal.
A key factor why the club didn't go up to the $1.43 million tender was the shoulder surgery that Davenport underwent March 11.
Thus, the Packers will have Davenport at a bargain-basement price for another season as the primary backup to Ahman Green. Next year, however, all bets are off.
Davenport will be an unrestricted free agent in March and could attract significant interest if he can stay healthy and perform as well in 2005 as he has in the past.
Toward that end, Davenport has changed agents, hiring Drew Rosenhaus and dumping Michael Harrison.
"I've mentioned to the Packers that we would like to get an extension done for him," Rosenhaus said. "I'm looking forward to working with the Packers on Najeh, and hopefully we can get a long-term deal.
"He's definitely a player that's capable of being a quality starting running back in this league. I'm hopeful of working something out with the team before we get into the season. We'll see what happens."
The Packers signed Rosenhaus clients Earl Little and Arturo Freeman, a pair of safeties, during the offseason.
Davenport has played in just 34 of a possible 48 games in his first three seasons. He has 187 carries for 963 yards and an impressive 5.1-yard average. Also, he has a kickoff-return average of 25.6.
In five practices, Collins made just one dramatic play, coming out of a two-deep look to vault high and bat away a pass. He and the other drafted safety, Marviel Underwood (fourth round), played together almost all weekend. Collins also played about 10 snaps at cornerback during one practice.
"The first day both of them had a little trouble as far as the rhythm and the eye control," defensive coordinator Jim Bates said. "But there was steady improvement. The thing that was shocking was Nick made some checks that were hard for a rookie to make."
Although Bates declined to single out any of the seven safeties as being a standout, he expressed confidence that from the group would come two capable starters.
The one drafted cornerback, Mike Hawkins (fifth round), didn't back down and eagerly chased all over the field.
"We knew he was fast," Bates said. "But when he came out here and just ran through the first drill you could tell, my gosh, he was like a thoroughbred. With his catchup speed and two interceptions in two days, he jumped out at you. Does he have a lot to learn? Wow."
But in the final practice Hawkins was burned for a total of three long touchdown passes.
"He was right on the guy," Bates said. "He just eased and started looking back and the guy got separation. But that's what he has to learn."
Free-agent cornerback Patrick Dendy of Rice pulled a hamstring shortly before the 2004 draft and sat out the entire season. He was signed after the draft and showed the speed to cover.
"It's incredible that that young man wasn't in a camp last year," Bates said.
Unorthodox Brooks Barnard, a "street" free agent who kicked for New England in one 2003 game, showed a fast, strong leg but not much directional skill.
Rookie free agent Bryce Benekos was inconsistent, struggled with get-off times and also didn't control the ball well.
The Packers auditioned Craig Nall and Aaron Rodgers as the holder for Ryan Longwell. Despite never having held in a game at California, Rodgers looked like a natural whereas Nall didn't.
"Really, Rodgers showed us that he was poised, smooth and had good hands," special teams coach John Bonamego said. "He's just got to commit to working on it. It's a matter of a guy spending the time outside of practice with Ryan getting snaps and learning how to put the ball down in a consistent spot at the right angle where Ryan's comfortable with it.
"Last year, B.J. was really jerky. Kickers want to see a really smooth hold. (Bryan) Barker really was exceptional."
The plan is to use a quarterback to hold because of the uncertainty at punter.
"Even though B.J.'s doing a good job holding over there (NFL Europe), if one of these quarterbacks can do it and take some pressure off him, that's probably in our favor," Bonamego said.
Long snapper Rob Davis, 36, remains in control of his position. The backup, Grey Ruegamer, isn't bad, either.
"It amazes me what Rob has done in the off-season the last two years," special teams coach Larry Bonamego said. "He's really changed his body around. He's leaner. He's stronger. I thought he was a lot more athletic last year. Just taking better care of himself."