Let the quarterback controversy begin.
Rookie Kyle Orton is coming off what coaches are calling his best game of the season, and the Bears have won six in a row. But former starter Rex Grossman will be in uniform Sunday for a regular-season game for the first time in 14 months, providing plenty of ammunition for the time-honored Chicago tradition of arguing about who should start at quarterback.
It would take a catastrophe for Grossman to set foot on the field at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, but he's clearly making progress on the left ankle he fractured Aug. 12. Grossman will the Bears No. 3 (emergency) quarterback, meaning Orton and Jeff Blake would have to suffer debilitating injuries for him to take a snap.
"I feel like I can do about everything," Grossman said. "I'm not as quick. The agility is not quite as good as it would have been, but that will come in time with more strength and just being out there more. I'm just coming back from a pretty serious break, and this is just my first step back. If I have to play, I can."
If Grossman continues to progress at the rate he has in recent weeks, he will be the No. 2 quarterback soon, maybe by Dec. 4 at home against the Packers. Then the debate will really heat up, although coaches will continue to do their best to extinguish any talk of a controversy.
"He's closer to being able to play, so we feel good about that," Bears coach Lovie Smith said of Grossman. "He makes the position stronger. But, I'm going to say again, the guy that has been quarterbacking our football team, that's what we're really excited about and what Kyle has been able to do."
Orton is at the bottom of most of the league's statistical rankings, but he's the only rookie starting at quarterback in the NFL, and his won-lost record of 7-3 is among the best in the league. His confidence is near the top of the chart, too.
"In terms of being worried about my starting job, I'm not worried about it at all," Orton said. "I won't answer questions about it. I'm just happy with where I'm at. I (plan to) keep on winning, and I'm not the type of guy to look over my shoulder. Coach (Smith) is going to (play) the guy who he thinks is going to win the game, and hopefully that's me."
Grossman has said he doesn't want to be a distraction to a team on a roll and that he's glad to do whatever's asked of him as long as he's on the sideline instead of the training room. For now, his role is helping Orton, as it's been all season.
"I think he's been doing just fine," Grossman said. "He's been doing what the coaches have asked him to do, and I've been there telling him what I see from the sidelines. He's gotten those things under control, and he understands what's going on out there. I just give him support any way I can."
Offensive coordinator Ron Turner said Grossman's lack of mobility is the biggest hurdle to getting on the field, although he split scout team reps with Blake during Wednesday's practice inside the Walter Payton Center.
"He's not there yet, but he's close," Turner said. "He's getting better."
Although Grossman has been attending quarterback and offense meetings all along, he said it's not the same when you're not playing.
"We meet from about 8 to 11 every morning, and then, when they go out to practice, I go out to rehab," he said. "So that's been my job for the last 23 games, and I'm just glad to be back on the practice field doing everything that all my teammates are doing."
Orton has already started four more games than Grossman has in the three injury-marred seasons since he was a first-round draft pick in 2003. He started the final three games of his rookie season but was sidelined in the second quarter of the season finale with a finger injury that required surgery. Last season he suffered a season-ending torn ACL in his right knee while diving into the end zone in the third game. His latest injury occurred in the second preseason game.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Until they can finally get it right, more changes seemingly will be in the offing for the Packers' run-deficient offense.
In a lengthy holiday practice Thursday morning, veteran Grey Ruegamer took the majority of the reps at right guard in place of rookie Will Whitticker.
Ruegamer said afterward that nothing definitive about a lineup change for the game Sunday at Philadelphia has been said by the coaches.
"It was just one practice," he said. "I don't know what it was for. It may have been more as a reprimand for Whitt. I don't know."
Head coach Mike Sherman, who didn't speak to reporters Thursday, was critical of the performance of both Whitticker and left guard Scott Wells in the 20-17 loss to Minnesota on Monday.
Sherman said after reviewing the game tape that the young linemen were "outmanned" by the Vikings' Pro Bowl tackle tandem of Kevin Williams and Pat Williams.
The Packers gained all of 21 yards on 14 carries, their worst output on the ground since they set a franchise low with 12 yards in a 29-10 loss at Tampa Bay in 1999.
If seventh-round draft pick Whitticker were to be demoted from the spot he surprisingly won in the preseason, it would mark the second switch on the line in three weeks.
Wells, who had been backing up center Mike Flanagan, was moved to left guard to replace ineffective veteran Adrian Klemm in the starting lineup for the Nov. 13 game at Atlanta. It initially paid off as unheralded rookie Samkon Gado ran for 103 yards in his first pro start — the Packers' first and only 100-yard rusher of the season.
Green Bay ranks last in the league with a per-carry average of 3.0 yards and is second to last with an average of 70.3 rushing yards per outing.
Gado, who generated national attention for his efforts against the Falcons, came back to earth in Monday's game. He gained but 7 yards on 10 carries before being banished to the sideline after he fumbled early in the third quarter.
Gado has put the ball on the ground three times in the past two games, though the Packers recovered all of them.
Sherman hasn't lost faith in the former practice-squad player and seems to be leaning toward giving him another start Sunday.
Gado has split reps with Tony Fisher and ReShard Lee in practice the last two days. Gado, though, said Thursday he's had most of the work on early downs, which likely would mean Fisher will remain in his customary third-down role.
Realizing he can't make one more mistake, Gado has been more conscientious about ball security in practice this week and hasn't fumbled once.
"I've been focusing on carrying the ball tight," he said. "Coach has placed an incentive for the defense to strip the ball. I think I've done a better job this week than I have (in the past)."
Ruegamer, who's known for playing with a mean streak, has been Mr. Utility for the Packers in the interior of the line. The seventh-year player is capable of playing all three positions.
He started 12 games in place of an injured Flanagan at center last season and has been the backup at the spot the last few weeks after Wells was moved to guard.
Ruegamer also battled Klemm and Whitticker for the starting guard spots during the preseason this year.
Ruegamer has yet to make a start this season but is confident he can provide a jump-start for the porous running game.
"I'm just going to go out there and play football," he said. "I like to play the game; I like to get out there and have fun. If it means run blocking, pass blocking and putting people on the ground, (it's about) having fun and enjoying the fact that you're out there playing."
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