Justin Gage's roller-coaster ride of a season is on the upswing again, as he gets another chance to prove he belongs in the Bears starting lineup at 3:15 Sunday against the reeling Saints at Baton Rouge, La.
The three-year veteran started the first three games of the season, but his performance was underwhelming - two catches for 31 yards - and he was replaced by rookie Mark Bradley. It got worse for Gage after that. He went three straight games without a catch and was benched for the Ravens game.
Sunday against the Lions, Gage was back on the active roster, and he stepped up with two catches for 47 yards after Bradley suffered a season-ending torn ACL in his right knee. It remains to be seen if being inactivated two Sundays ago provides the wake-up call that will spur Gage to become a productive complement to Pro Bowl wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad. Gage said he got the point.
"It was real tough just sitting up there and watching the guys you come to work with every day going out on the field and playing and competing," he said. "Not having the opportunity to be out there makes you re-evaluate what you're doing and makes you change a lot of things around and look at the program from a wider perspective and see what you can do to get better.
"That was really like a reality-check week for me, like I need to come in and start doing more of this, this and this and work on these things. It was something that really changed my perspective."
Since being drafted in the fifth round out of Missouri in 2003, Gage has only showed glimpses of big-time talent. As a rookie, he averaged a team-best 19.9 yards on 17 catches, scored two TDs and displayed a knack for coming down with jump balls deep down the field. But he was not one of offensive coordinator Terry Shea's favorites last season, and his numbers shrank to 12 receptions, 156 yards and no scores.
This is his second chance in Ron Turner's offense, and Gage may not get many more. His mission is simple, according to wide receivers coach Darryl Drake.
"Just be consistent," Drake said. "When you get the opportunity, make the catch; make the play. It's that simple. He's been somewhat consistent, but there are a couple opportunities that got away from him."
Gage dropped a 3rd-and-4 pass late in the third quarter against the Lions, but three of his four catches this season are for more than 20 yards. With burners Bradley and Bernard Berrian out of action, the Bears are desperate for big-play receivers. Gage isn't a speed receiver, but he has the ability to stretch the field.
"When you're not the fastest guy in the world, you have to have great technique, and that's what it's all about with him," Drake said. "As long as he continues to have great technique when the ball comes his way he'll make those catches. But he has to make the tough catch; not just the easy ones."
Gage needs to establish a rapport with rookie quarterback Kyle Orton, who has relied on Muhammad all season and was just getting comfortable with Bradley. That didn't occur in Gage's first stint as a starter, but he seemed to make a smooth transition back into the passing game last Sunday.
"He's a big target," Orton said of the 6-foot-4, 212-pound Gage. "He runs good routes. That (22-yard) post he caught when we were down, pinned back (at the three-yard line), was a big play. He's playing well and he'll be fine."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
If ever there was a good time for a team seemingly headed toward oblivion to have a few distractions, what unfolded Wednesday was ideally timed for the 1-6 Packers, who will host Pittsburgh on Sunday.
The players can thank general manager Ted Thompson and a disobedient press corps for diverting most of the attention from their early-season travails on the field.
Thompson, in his first year calling the shots with the team, pulled a fast one by cutting one-time starting cornerback Joey Thomas right on the spot just minutes prior to the start of practice in the early afternoon. Thomas, a third-round draft pick last year, may have overstayed his welcome by voicing his displeasure after he was benched in the first half of last Sunday's loss at Cincinnati following a critical penalty he committed.
"I was a little shocked by the whole situation, but they just called me up and said you're released. I didn't ask any questions," said Thomas, who took the high road and refused to bad-mouth the organization on his way out.
The biggest sound made at team headquarters Wednesday perhaps was the ringing of a cell phone during coach Mike Sherman's pre-practice news conference. The session was abruptly ended after about 15 minutes.
Since it marked at least the fourth time a cell phone has gone off during a non-game-day news conference involving Sherman this season, he didn't take kindly to the interruption. Before leaving the media auditorium, Sherman said sternly, "I don't understand that. That stuff to me, to be honest with you, is a total lack of respect for each other. Forget me; you don't have to respect me. But respect each other."
In turn, the team's public relations department, which in the wake of the previous incidents beseeched media members to mute their cell phones, resorted to a drastic measure. It called on the offender to come forward by the end of practice Wednesday. Otherwise, the impending weekly news conference with quarterback Brett Favre would be canceled.
Nobody owned up to having the ringing phone, leaving the Wisconsin media without the talkative Favre for a week. It marked the first time a Favre press briefing had been called off during the regular season in at least a decade.
Some players got a laugh out of what went down, citing how there are strict rules in place for them not to have ringing cell phones during meetings.
"That's a no-no. I don't know who did it, but they're in trouble," said linebacker Na'il Diggs, unable to stifle a big smile. "That's happened before (with teammates a few years ago), and it's been addressed before. It's a pretty big deal around here."
Nothing like some midweek comic relief to keep the players' minds off how just about everything has gone wrong seven weeks into the season. The Packers haven't been this bad from a win-loss standpoint since they also started 1-6 in 1991 on the way to a 4-12 record, which led to the hiring of Mike Holmgren as head coach and the acquisition of Favre in a trade with Atlanta.
Sherman, a former protege of Holmgren with both the Packers and Seattle, acknowledged before he was so rudely interrupted Wednesday that he's in the midst of his "most challenging" season in all of his years as a coach. He's never had a losing record in his first five years as Green Bay's head coach, having won the last three NFC North titles.
Thanks in great part to the mediocrity of the division this season, Sherman isn't worried about losing his players anytime soon despite all of the hardships the team has endured. Players and coaches alike, collectively have the mindset that they're not out of the title hunt, what with frontrunner Chicago sitting only three games ahead of them.
"If you still look at it, we're still in the race for our division," running back Tony Fisher said with an incredulous laugh. "We still have a lot to prove because we know that we're not as bad as a 1-6 team. We're not really a 1-6 team, in our eyes. Our record might speak for that. But, in our eyes, we're not a 1-6 team; we're a lot better than what we're playing right now."
And, a significant roster move doesn't figure to make matters worse.
"When you're 1-6, there's bound to be changes that happen. Someone's going to get cut," linebacker Nick Barnett said. "No one's safe. This is the NFL."