Coach Lovie Smith has been encouraged by what he has seen from the Bears' offense during spring practices, but truthfully, that group has nowhere to go but up after finishing last in the NFL last season.
Pro Bowl wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad has been the most noticeable improvement, catching everything within his expansive wingspan and frequently owning talented young cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman.
Fully rehabbed quarterback Rex Grossman has increased the precision of his timing with Muhammad, and he is 100 percent healthy with a month to go before camp begins. Whether a retooled offensive line, which is better on paper, performs more efficiently on the field remains to be seen. But Grossman's quick release and rapid reading of defenses will make the line appear better even if it isn't.
"We're getting closer to being the type of offense that we would like to be," Smith said at the conclusion of the Bears' 14 OTAs (organized team activities) last Wednesday. "I think Rex Grossman had an outstanding off-season. Muhsin Muhammad has been outstanding on and off the field. (Free-agent offensive right tackle) Fred Miller, a guy who has really solidified the offensive line, has been good. Muhammad has been exactly what we've asked him to be."
Muhammad has been asked to be the bellwether for a receiving group that was arguably the least talented in the league last season. That's exactly what he's done.
While second-round wideout Mark Bradley seems extremely raw for a No. 39 overall pick, other young pass catchers have taken a step since the last off-season.
"We really like where we are right now," Smith said. "I think Bernard Berrian, Justin Gage and other players we've had in our system have really stepped it up. The second year in the system we should be a lot better, and I think that's what we've seen."
It's actually the first year under new offensive coordinator Ron Turner, but the wicked fast and quick-as-a-hiccup Berrian has served notice that he's more than a deep threat and hash mark-to-sideline receiver. He's caught the ball much more consistently and turned inside slants into long gains. The key for the spindly former go-to man for David Carr at Fresno State, will be how he handles the banging he's sure to get when the pads come on.
Gage, who showed big-play potential as a rookie in 2003 but was ignored by fired offensive coordinator Terry Shea last season, has been given a starting spot opposite Muhammad and seems determined to hold on to it.
"I definitely have an opinion on that," Smith said on the Bears' final practice day before training camp begins on July 23. "No, I don't think they should (carry weapons). Of course we're going to let it play out in the courts, and (NFL) commissioner (Paul Tagliabue) will really decide what to do with Tank first before we get a chance to look at it. But of course we don't agree with guys carrying guns around, if that was the case. We'll look to discipline Tank after he goes through the courts and through the NFL."
Johnson was charged June 11 with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon after police said they found a loaded 9 mm Ruger handgun in his GMC Yukon parked outside downtown nightclub Excalibur. Last week, Johnson's attorney, Jerome Marconi, said he expected Johnson to plead not guilty at his arraignment and that the case would proceed to trial.
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED
After four years and a steady diet of losing game after game, it might take more than personnel changes to get the Lions back to respectability. And that is what coach Steve Mariucci has been working on during the six months since the end of the 2004 NFL season.
Mariucci is hoping to establish a new attitude on this year's team, in addition to getting his players physically prepared for the start of training camp in late July and the regular season in September.
"I think these guys are very in tune to what sort of calendar year we expect from them in terms of the entire body at work," Mariucci said. "From the 14 weeks in the off-season through the mini-camps, through being in shape before they get to training camp, the certain tempo in the way we practice and developing a certain work ethic."
Although Lions coaches seem to inevitably say "this year's" off-season workouts are the best ever, it has done little for the team's fortunes the past four years.
The Lions were 2-14 in 2001, 3-13 in 2002, 5-11 in 2003 and 6-10 last year. Although there has been improvement every year, it is at a pace that won't get them back to .500 for two more seasons and into a contender's role for another two or three years after that.
In Mariucci's third season, he is hoping that the combination of physical preparation and mental attitude will accelerate the pace of the Lions return to respectability.
"A system and a philosophy have to be ingrained and we are doing that, and we have done that," he said. "There are new faces every year to incorporate but I have been really pleased with this off-season so far this has been by far our best off-season."
Although he is lining up behind Charles Rogers at the split end position, Williams has worked at all of the wide receiver positions during the Lions' three weeks of minicamp and organized team activities.
Williams admits it can be a frustrating experience with a head-full of formations, responsibilities and new routes to be run by a rookie.
"You're playing as hard as you can and doing what you can do, and you're going the wrong way," Williams said. "When you're in practice they don't care that you mixed this play up with another position, because you're wasting everybody's time, you're wasting a rep."
Although offensive coordinator Ted Tollner and receivers coach Fred Graves might show impatience on the field, Williams said they are supportive and understanding in the meeting rooms. And he says he gets a lot of help from his teammates, including last year's rookie receiver Roy Williams.
"Coach Graves is on me," Mike Williams said. "He's that guy, he's on you like, ‘You do this, yada yada yada.' Coach Tollner is like, ‘C'mon, Mike, let's go.' And Roy and all those guys, you watch them do it and when you don't do it right, they pull you aside and say, ‘Oh, you've got to do it this way.'
"When you're trying to learn, trying to do well, you've got to be receptive to every form of criticism from every angle. You get to the point where (cornerback) Dre' Bly will be like, ‘You're open but you'd be more open if you did this.' It's a good situation to be in a good group of guys that want you to do well."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers had a rather disappointing season on the football field in 2004 but their economic performance off it never was better.
For the fiscal year ending March 31, the Packers reported record net income of $25.4 million, or an increase of 10.9% from the previous year.
The team also reported that total operating revenue jumped 11.7% to a total of $200 million.
The profit picture is particularly impressive given the fact that the franchise did not receive an expansion fee from the Houston Texans in fiscal 2005. The Packers received $2.1 million in fiscal 2004, the last year the expansion fee was paid to all NFL teams.
With revenue generators like the Packer Pro Shop and the Titletown Atrium padding the coffers from Lambeau Field, the Packers ranked 10th among NFL teams in total revenue for the third straight year.
Meanwhile, expenses increased from $149.9 million to $166.3 million.
While the financial news was bright, there is reason to be concerned about the future, according to club officials.
"The No. 1 unresolved issue for us is the labor situation," vice president John Jones said.
Under the current contract, the 2007 season would not be subjected to a salary cap, which worries the league and the franchises. In 2008, there would be no system in place.
"We are confident we will solve the revenue-sharing issues," Jones said.
New stadiums will open in the coming years serving the Cardinals, Cowboys, Colts and Giants. Those new stadiums will alter the revenue picture in the league.
In order to deal with upcoming financial obstacles, the franchise has established the Packers Franchise Preservation Fund. The fund, essentially the old corporate reserve fund, is used for player costs and other football-related operations. The fund was given a new name to address future needs.
The fund now totals $97.7 million, an increase of $13.3 million from the previous fiscal year. In years past, club officials said their goal was to build the fund to a level that approximated the yearly costs of football operations. Last year, that was $119 million.
What happened next was unexpected. Sherman set up a no-holds-barred dodgeball tournament. Not only players but also coaches and staff participated.
In the end, wide receiver Donald Driver's team defeated fullback William Henderson's team for first place.
"It was a good event in regard to the chemistry of the team," Sherman said. "Everybody was having a good time."
Plus, no one came up lame.
"Obviously, you always worry about those things," Sherman said. "But we played paintball one year and I think (Darren) Sharper fell out of a tree, so this was probably safer. We've done bowling and guys have hurt their backs and balls changed lanes so this might have been the safest exercise."
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED