NFC North Notes

The Bears are going into the season with a rookie quarterback, the Lions are impressed with their trio of running backs, and the Packers are happy to have their best tight end back in the fold. Get those stories and many more notes from the Vikings' division rivals.

CHICAGO BEARS

How could the Bears go into the season with a rookie starting quarterback who wasn't drafted until the fourth round?

How could they not? Chad Hutchinson has been a disaster, and 14-year veteran Jeff Blake has only been in the system for two weeks. That leaves 22-year-old Kyle Orton, and he was given the nod Sunday.

He sounds like he's ready for the challenge, and his coaches and teammates sound like they're anxious to see what he can do with the opportunity.

Neither coach Lovie Smith nor offensive coordinator Ron Turner would commit to a starter after Friday night's 16-12 preseason victory over the Buffalo Bills, the second straight game in which Hutchinson looked completely out of sync and Orton showed great promise.

"We have a starting rotation for all of the positions, and you have to play well to stay in that position," Smith said after Hutchinson completed 3 of 14 passes and was intercepted twice. "We have another game coming up this week and we'll really kind of go from there.

"We don't change positions 30 minutes after a game or anything like that. We go back, look at it and really make a decision from there. (But) I was really pleased with how Kyle played."

A review of the game was more than enough for the coaching staff to demote Hutchinson all the way to fourth in the rotation for Thursday's preseason finale, behind Orton, Blake and Kurt Kittner. Eventually, the Bears released Hutchinson.

Orton played only two possessions — a three-and-out series against the Bills' starters and a 12-play, 81-yard touchdown drive, mostly against backups, in which he completed 7 of 9 passes for 73 yards. His 2-yard TD pass to tight end Desmond Clark demonstrated Orton's improvisational skills after the radio communication to his headset was garbled.

"Kyle misheard what we said," Turner said. "We had two plays that sound similar, and we called one play, and he couldn't hear it very well. So he called something that he thought he heard, and it was a real good call ... I like what he heard."

With Hutchinson at quarterback, the Bears managed just 89 yards the entire first half.

"It wasn't a good effort," Smith said. "It wasn't all Chad's fault. We had some other breakdowns, penalties and things like that. But (Hutchinson) didn't throw the ball as well as he needs to. He missed some reads. It just wasn't a good night for him."

With the regular-season opener just two weeks away, the Bears feel better about preparing a rookie or a newcomer rather than sticking with Hutchinson.

"You saw Chad's effort," Smith said. "We're not pleased with that, and I really think that Kyle did a great job when he was in there."

Orton doesn't talk or play as if he's at all intimidated by the prospect of running the team — or of leading it.

"I think that just comes with the position," he said. "I think you have to be in a leadership role, even though I'm probably not seen by the team as a leader (yet), just because I'm so young, and I'm just not accustomed to everything. But when you do step in the huddle, you have to have everybody's attention, you have to be a leader and really just give a feeling to everyone that you're going to get the thing done."

Orton is already giving off those vibes.

"He's a confident kid, borderline cocky, and that's always good in this business because you've got to have a little swagger about yourself," said 10-year veteran wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who took the blame for not coming down with a slightly high Orton bullet in the end zone two plays before the touchdown.

"He's thrown the ball on time, and he's completed some passes. He's made some good decisions."

NOTES

  • RB Cedric Benson agreed to a five-year contract with the Bears, ending a 36-day holdout. Terms of the deal weren't immediately available, but reports had the contract containing around $17 million in guaranteed money. "Cedric's the kind of player that gets better as the game goes on and the season goes on," said offensive coordinator Ron Turner. "He's got great running skills. He has a knack for finding the holes, getting yardage after contact and getting tough yardage. I think he's a runner who's going to be very durable."

  • SS Mike Brown was back with the first team at practice after missing Friday night's game to be with his wife for the birth of their first child.

  • P Brad Maynard on Friday aggravated a strained calf that kept him out of the first three preseason games. He did not practice Sunday.

  • Long snapper Pat Mannelly missed practice Sunday with a strained calf but is expected back for the preseason finale.

  • DT Tommie Harris, who left Friday night's game early with a strained chest, was back at practice on Sunday.

  • CB Rashied Davis remained in the running for the punt return job with 29 yards on two attempts against the Bills. He had 38 yards on four runbacks a week earlier.


    DETROIT LIONS

    Steve Mariucci has had his share of outstanding running backs during his eight seasons as an NFL head coach, but he says the Lions' current threesome might be his best group ever.

    "I have been around Pro Bowl tailbacks several times," he said, "but from one to three, this is the deepest."

    From one to three, the Lions have Kevin Jones, who rushed for 1,133 yards and averaged 4.7 yards per carry as a rookie last season; Shawn Bryson, a seventh-year player who averaged 5.3 yards on 50 carries in 2004, caught 44 passes for another 322 yards and is the team's most capable halfback on blitz pickup; and Artose Pinner, a third-year player who has finally worked his way past an injury suffered in the Senior Bowl in January, 2003.

    "Really a good group," said Mariucci, who worked with Garrison Hearst, Charlie Garner, Terry Kirby and Kevan Barlow during his six seasons as San Francisco's coach.

    The Jones-Bryson-Pinner trio is probably the best set of halfbacks the Lions have put together since the early 1980s, when Billy Sims was backed by Dexter Bussey and Horace King.

    In the years since, the Lions had one of the NFL's best backs ever — Barry Sanders — but he was a one-man show, playing with adequate but average backups until his retirement in 1999.

    The Lions have struggled through years of ups and downs with Greg Hill, Ron Rivers, James Stewart, Lamont Warren, Olandis Gary and others since Sanders' retirement, but they believe they struck it rich when president Matt Millen landed Jones in the 2004 NFL draft.

    A strong finish — four 100-yard performances in the final seven games of his rookie season — convinced the Lions he is a worthy successor to Sims and Sanders as a rushing threat, filling an urgent need in Mariucci's West Coast offense. And the presence of Bryson and Pinner provide not only depth, but a change of pace in the backfield.

    Bryson was coming off knee surgery in Buffalo when the Lions signed him in 2003, and he wasn't completely recovered until the 2004 season, when he blossomed sharing the workload with Jones.

    "Shawn is just Mr. Everything," quarterback Joey Harrington said. "He's a great nickel back. He runs the ball well and he protects well. Shawn knows everything about this offense and is a big key for us."

    There were times when Pinner's future looked dark as he struggled to come back from the broken foot he suffered in the Senior Bowl after his senior season at Kentucky. But if training camp and the preseason are any indication, he's ready to contribute also.

    "He's had a couple of great runs," Harrington said. "He showed some speed up the sideline against the Jets; unfortunately it was called back. (Against Cleveland), he ducked his head in there on a power run and spun away from tacklers, broke tackles and made a great run."

    The depth is obviously an asset to the Lions offense, but Jones remains the bell cow of the group. Expectations are high.

    "If he does what he did in the second half of last year, he'll work wonders for this offense," Harrington said of Jones. "I've never shied away from saying that Kevin was the reason our offense was moving so well last year at the end of the season. The last six games, he was an All-Pro. It opened up everything for us."

    NOTES

  • RT Kelly Butler didn't get a play as a rookie last season but has won the starting job, replacing Stockar McDougle, who was signed by the Miami Dolphins as an unrestricted free agent last spring. Butler is not a finished product, but the Lions feel he has made enough progress to handle the job.

  • FB Cory Schlesinger is recovering from a broken leg and will miss the season opener, but the Lions are hopeful he will be ready after the Sept. 25 bye week.

  • RB Shawn Bryson, the backup to Kevin Jones, might get some work at FB in the absence of Cory Schlesinger (broken leg) but he won't get all of it. He does not have FB size and coach Steve Mariucci feels he is too valuable to get beaten up as a lead blocker or picking up blitzing LBs.

  • FB Paul Smith is expected to get most of the work filling in for FB Cory Schlesinger (broken leg). Smith, who has a history of injuries himself, is tough and built for the blocking duties the Lions ask of their FBs.

  • WR Mike Williams will go into the season as the No. 4 receiver behind Roy Williams, Charles Rogers and Kevin Johnson. The Lions' first-round draft pick is learning to play all the receiver positions and has the luxury of learning at his own pace.

  • DT Shaun Rogers missed all of last week's practices after being kicked in the left shin in the second preseason game against Cleveland, but he is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season.

  • DE James Hall has been given precautionary rest as he recovers from a shoulder injury. Hall, who led the Lions with 11 1/2 sacks last season, is expected to be ready for the start of the regular season.

  • FS Terrence Holt, who saw limited action behind Brock Marion last season, appears to have won the starting job. There had been speculation the Lions might use R.W. McQuarters in that role, but Holt has played well enough to hold the position.

  • QB Timmy Chang, who set a number of NCAA passing records at Hawaii, was signed by the Lions and will get a look in the final two weeks of practice before the regular season begins. The Lions like his arm and his mobility, and might try to find a way to keep both Chang and fifth-round draft pick Dan Orlovsky on their practice squad.


    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    How badly did the Packers need to get three-time Pro Bowl tight end Bubba Franks under contract?

    If they hadn't signed him to a seven-year, $28 million contract on Aug. 24, the threat loomed that they wouldn't have a dependable tight end for the season opener Sept. 11 at Detroit.

    The deal was struck after Franks refused to sign a $2.095 million tender as the Packers' designated transition player.

    "He's a big part of our offense," offensive coordinator Tom Rossley said. "People don't realize how much of a part he is in blocking in our run game. He's probably the one guy who gets the least amount of respect for what he does."

    Certainly better late than never, Franks' return to the team after staying away for the entire off-season and the first four weeks of the preseason comes at a critical time. Green Bay's potent offense is predicated on establishing an effective rushing attack.

    Through three preseason games, however, the Packers are averaging only 3.6 yards per carry. Pro Bowl halfback Ahman Green has gained 61 yards in 26 carries, an average of 2.3 yards per rush, and exacerbated matters with three fumbles, two of them lost.

    "Very suspect in the run game, as has been the case" all preseason, coach Mike Sherman said after New England held Green to 23 yards in 11 carries in a 27-3 win over the Packers on Friday.

    Some of the struggles can be attributed to the drawn-out process of identifying replacements for departed standout guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle. Sherman wanted to name the starters at those positions after the first two exhibition games to allow the line to jell during the last couple weeks of the preseason, but inconsistencies among the candidates delayed the decision.

    Veteran free-agent signee Adrian Klemm and rookie Will Whitticker have a tenuous hold on their spots as the starters to replace Wahle and Rivera.

    The belated arrival of Franks, who's expected to play in the preseason finale Thursday at Tennessee, should help alleviate some of the concerns with the uneven blocking up front.

    As important, Franks will give quarterback Brett Favre a familiar, sure-handed target at tight end that's been sorely lacking in the offensive scheme thus far.

    David Martin, the incumbent as top backup to Franks, has missed considerable chunks of the preseason because of a groin injury. Sherman has almost run out of patience with Martin's proclivity toward spending more time in the training room than on the field in his first four-plus seasons in the league.

    "He just needs to be a dependable player who we know can line up week to week without injury," Sherman said.

    With Franks absent and Martin a frequent observer on the sideline, Ben Steele spent a lot of time working with the first-string offense. The second-year player, though, literally dropped the ball on the ample opportunity, drawing the ire of Sherman on a few occasions in practice because of an inability to hang on to the football.

    Little wonder teammates welcomed Franks, the team's first-round draft pick in 2000, back with open arms.

    "That's one more dimension to our offense. More firepower. The more firepower we've got, the better we are," said receiver Javon Walker.

    Now that he's one of the five highest-paid tight ends in the league, the 6-foot-6, 258-pound Franks made it known he wants to be utilized better and more frequently in the Packers' offense, rather than just making hay in the red zone.

    Franks' season catch totals dropped significantly from a career-high 54 in 2002 to 30 in ‘03 and 34 last season.

    "Before all is said and done, I want to be known as the best tight end in Packers history, hands down. Actually, I want to be known as the best tight end in the NFL," said Franks, who hasn't missed a game in his five-year career. "It's just a matter of being put in the right situation. Hopefully, we can get things started in the right direction this year."

    NOTES

  • GM Ted Thompson gave coach Mike Sherman a two-year contract extension Aug. 23, guaranteeing his salary through 2007.

    The deal calls for Sherman to make $3.2 million per year, the same salary he's making this year as part of the contract extension he signed in 2001, when he took on the added title of GM after Ron Wolf retired.

    Sherman, though, was stripped of his GM duties after last season and replaced by Thompson. Sherman said he wasn't interested in the possibility of pursuing a job elsewhere after this season had his contract expired.

    "I get way too much money to do what I do as it is, to be honest with you, and am appreciative of it," Sherman said. "I like being here, and there is a value to that, being in Green Bay, coaching the Green Bay Packers. As far as testing the market, I didn't need to test it. I have the best job in the National Football League."

  • DT Grady Jackson was expected to be removed from the physically unable to perform list and cleared to practice this week. He could play in the final preseason game at Tennessee on Thursday. The mammoth Jackson, whose weight is more than the 345 pounds listed by the team, has been rehabilitating a surgically repaired left knee.

  • DT Cletidus Hunt, Jackson's fellow starter on the interior of the line, hasn't responded well to treatment for tendinitis in both knees and his right shoulder, which has plagued him since Aug. 5. Hunt returned to practice on a limited basis for one day last week, only to be sidelined again. His status for the game Thursday is questionable.

  • DT Corey Williams, who had been filling the void left by Jackson and Hunt most of the preseason, didn't play in a 27-3 loss to New England on Friday because of a strained oblique muscle. Williams suffered the injury in the previous game, Aug. 20 at Buffalo.

  • WR Antonio Chatman suffered a strained neck in Friday's game at Lambeau Field. Chatman initially experienced tingling in his neck and arms and had to be taken off the field on a stretcher after being blocked into the ground by safety Rodney Harrison on an interception return. Tests taken at the stadium were negative. Chatman, who doubles as punt returner, walked out to the sideline in the fourth quarter and isn't expected to miss much time before the season starts. Harrison made a goodwill gesture by visiting the Packers locker room after the game and checking on Chatman.

  • WR Robert Ferguson played in the game Friday, but not before missing two days of practice because of a heart murmur. He said the preexisting condition, which gave him trouble in college but never in a game, crops up only when he's in a relaxed state.

  • QB Aaron Rodgers made slight improvement Friday over his first two preseason games. The Packers' first-round draft pick completed 5 of 9 passes for 52 yards, playing most of the second half in relief of Brett Favre. Rodgers, though, was sacked once, recovered his own fumble and had an ill-advised pass intercepted. For the preseason, he's 11-of-24 throwing for 80 yards with no touchdowns, two interceptions, a team-high four sacks and an abysmal passer rating of 19.4.


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