The Bears took a lot of steps toward becoming a respected NFL power, but they ultimately stumbled when it was time to take the biggest step.
Even though Bears general manager Jerry Angelo delivered his state of the team address two weeks before the season came to a disappointing end with a 29-21 loss at home to the Panthers in a divisional-round playoff game, his assessment of the season was right on.
While acknowledging that the turnaround from 5-11 last season to 11-5 in 2005 was enough to make this season a success, Angelo wasn't satisfied.
"You can't minimize the fact that we won our division and we're the second seed," he said. "(But) it'll certainly be a downer if we don't win that first playoff game. For me, that's the key. That's the focus of everybody. It all starts and stops with that. That would be a huge step for us."
Instead, the Bears tripped over a more mature, more playoff-ready Panthers team that came into Soldier Field bent on avenging a 13-3 defeat during the regular season. Not only did the Panthers thoroughly outplay the Bears, but John Fox and his staff appeared to give coach of the year Lovie Smith and Co. a lesson in preparing a team for playoff football.
Nevertheless, the Bears' general manager said the regular season demonstrated Smith's value in his second year as a head coach. Angelo selected Smith based on their relationship in Tampa, where they spent five years together from 1996-2000, while Smith was the Bucs' linebackers coach and Angelo was at the end of a 14-year run as director of player personnel.
"When we went out and started our search for our head coach, (I said) it starts with leadership," Angelo said. "With Lovie, there were never any doubts about that. I knew that firsthand from when I had the benefit of working with him down in Tampa and only saw all that come to fruition even more so now that he's in charge."
Now it's time for Angelo to step up with an extension for Smith, even though Smith has two years left on his original four-year deal. He is among the five lowest-paid head coaches in the league.
"I want Lovie to be our coach for a long, long time, and I think he and his staff have done a great job," Angelo said. "Those things take care of themselves."
Wrong. The GM takes care of those things, and if he really believes Smith proved his mettle this season, Angelo needs to do the right thing. Because, all things considered, Smith did do a masterful job this season, with the exception of the playoff loss.
Rookie quarterback Kyle Orton, a fourth-round draft pick who wasn't even supposed to play this season, started in 10 victories, managing games well while relying on a strong and deep running game led by Thomas Jones, and a dominant defense. Then, when it seemed he had hit a wall and the offense stagnated late in the season, Rex Grossman was ready to come back. Grossman's ascension from the depths of a third injury in three seasons appeared to give the Bears' playoff chances a boost just in the nick of time, but he showed the rust accumulated in 15 months of inactivity. He still makes the team's promising future seem even brighter because of his leadership, decision-making and work ethic following a fractured ankle on Aug. 12.
"We have a lot of confidence in Rex," Angelo said. "He is our future. That's why we drafted him in the first round. That probably was about as frustrating for me as it was for him and his family. But it's good to see. He's taken a step, and he's got a lot more steps to take."
But, coming off a 5-11 season, losing a starting quarterback and then having his backup (Chad Hutchinson) fail, Angelo was subject to a lot of harsh criticism. He said he doesn't hold a grudge against his critics, since he came into the Bears' job with his eyes wide open.
"It just goes with the business," he said. "This is a big market. This is a tough market. I'm understanding of that. I knew that when I came here. In this business, you don't get respect by (having) quality and character. You get respect by winning. You have to win, and until we win, I've got to keep my mouth shut. We've got to find a way. I don't feel vindicated. We've always felt good about our plan. I feel gratified and real happy for all of us this year."
Chances are Angelo will continue to feel good about the Bears' situation as long as he can keep most of the components intact from a defense that many considered the best in the league. The Bears allowed 202 points, 45 fewer than the next-best team, the Colts. They also finished first in yards per play, second in total yards allowed and third-down efficiency, fourth in interceptions and fifth in passing yards allowed.
Five of the Bears' six Pro Bowl players are from the defense - linebackers Brian Urlacher (pulled out with injury) and Lance Briggs, defensive tackle Tommie Harris, cornerback Nate Vasher and strong safety Mike Brown. All the defensive starters are under contract at least through next season, except restricted free agent linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, who isn't planning on leaving.
Berrian, who had just 13 catches in the regular season, led the Bears with five catches for 68 yards Sunday, and when he left the game early in the fourth quarter, the passing game suffered noticeably.
"I can make plays," Berrian said. "I am not just a deep route runner. I can run intermediate routes, and I can be the No. 2 receiver here.
"When people say (I don't) like to go over the middle, if you study film from Pop Warner days, I have taken hits over the middle and still hung on to the ball. It's just getting to the next level, stepping the game up. It's not taking the hits, it's concentrating on the ball."
He said his off-season will be spent concentrating more on becoming a better quarterback than where he'll be on the depth chart, which is No. 2 behind Rex Grossman.
"Whatever coach (Lovie) Smith feels is best for the football team," Orton said. "He'll make the right decision. It's his decision totally, so I really don't have anything to say on it."
Orton directed 10 Bears victories, including eight in a row. Although his statistics were mediocre, the results were excellent, and the on-the-job learning was invaluable.
"I know the routine," Orton said. "I know what the NFL is all about. I've been in it for a long year. It's a long year all the way through the season. Emotionally and physically it's a grind, but I know what to expect now."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't feel that we executed, and then a lot of things were said during the week that were not backed up in the game. It's hard swallowing a pill when your offense goes out there and they do a tremendous job. They put up enough points, and it finally falls on the defense, (but) you didn't do the right thing. You don't have to do all that talking in this game. You go out there on the field and let your pads talk. Don't do all the talking in the locker room. You go out there and perform and let your performance speak for itself." - Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris, who took exception to teammates who talked a big game before the playoff loss to the Panthers but didn't deliver on the field.
The words had to be music to Matt Millen's ears. And they were.
When coaching hopeful Rod Marinelli spoke of the need for practicing hard, for learning to tackle the right way, for finishing every play and working to be a champion, Millen must have felt like he was looking into his own soul.
"We knew what we were looking for," said Millen, the Lions president. "We knew what this football team is and what we needed."
After five seasons in which the Lions won a total of 21 games, Millen felt the Lions needed strong leadership, they needed toughness and they needed discipline. For those reasons — more than anything else that might have entered his thinking — he hired Marinelli as the Lions' new head coach.
"To me, it comes down to a few things," he said. "It's got to be leadership, it's got to be passion and it has to be a willingness to get to work and get this thing done. We have a lot of work to do ... and I believe we have the people who want to get that work done."
Marinelli, 56, was not the best known or recognized of the candidates Millen interviewed for the job. But his record — in particular, his last 10 seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under Tony Dungy and then Jon Gruden — and his approach to the game made him the most appealing.
In the past five seasons of West Coast football as practiced by Marty Mornhinweg (2001-02) and Steve Mariucci (2003-05), the Lions had become a team that was mentally and physically soft, undisciplined and incapable of winning despite what many in the NFL consider adequate talent.
Whether they win or lose in 2006, it is unlikely that either of those adjectives — soft and undisciplined — will apply to the Marinelli regime.
"The things I'm talking about are extremely hard, hard to do," Marinelli said. "You've got to change habits with me — how you do things, how you work, how you practice, how much you enjoy practicing in pads because it's good for you — and be able to sell that as a skill-development thing.
"I believe that pads and work is good; it's good for football. I'd rather have a team maybe a little bit tired and low than maybe too high and fresh. You've got to explain those things and change attitudes."
The Lions face a number of personnel questions that will have to be answered relatively early in the off-season. A number of starters — including left tackle Jeff Backus and defensive end Kalimba Edwards — will be free agents. And there has been considerable speculation regarding the future of quarterback Joey Harrington and wide receiver Charles Rogers with the Lions.
Marinelli declined to comment specifically on any of the individual player situations.
Asked about Harrington, he said: "The thing that is unfair is that I don't know exactly what he was being taught and asked to do. That would be unfair (to judge him). What I do see is a talent. He's got a great arm, good feet, good awareness and quickness."
Harrington was a bad fit in the West Coast offense but might be more successful in the offense Marinelli envisions for the Lions.
He believes — as does Millen — that football excellence begins with the big men up front. He wants to be able to run the ball with power. He wants the quarterback to manage the game and lead, and when the ball is thrown, it will likely be in a more vertical game to take advantage of the big-play ability of wide receiver Roy Williams and others.
As a results-oriented coach, Marinelli declined to speculate on the Lions' chances of making the playoffs in his first season as the coach.
"That's a good question," he said. "Like I stated earlier, it's a show-me game. I'm tired of talking; there's too much talk. Too much, ‘Hey, this is me; this is what I'm going to do.' I don't believe in that.
"Just start putting the pads on and do the work and let our film talk and let the fans see what we're trying to do — the passion, the energy and the belief in winning. That's been my background and that's how I've done it."
Henderson, the New York Jets defensive coordinator the past two years, will handle the same duties for the Lions under Marinelli, who was hired last week as the successor to Steve Mariucci.
"My strength has always been leadership," Marinelli said. "I can lead men well and direct. Right now, I'm looking to find the right coaches that reflect that, too. When a player sees (his) coach, he's also seeing me."
In his 10 seasons at Tampa Bay, Marinelli was known for having a strong rapport with his players while pushing them and getting the maximum effort they have to give. He was the Bucs' defensive line coach but has been praised by players at offensive positions as well, since being hired by the Lions.
Henderson, 48, was the Jets' defensive coordinator for the past two seasons under Herm Edwards. He is known for his aggressive approach with players and doesn't shy away from confrontations, although he remained popular and respected by his players.
Marinelli said he is in no rush to get a staff in place, although he obviously wants to move as quickly as possible with the NFL scouting combine only weeks away and the free agent signing period also on the horizon.
Although Marinelli has a strong work ethic and demands dedication from his players, Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks had nothing but praise for the Bucs' former assistant head coach and defensive line coach.
"I think he used the term that he'd rather have you ‘low and tired than high and fresh,' because low and tired is going to win you that game in the fourth quarter. It's going to give you that advantage," Brooks said.
"I think from a mental standpoint of guys who understand — and us particularly — understanding that was just part of who we were. We weren't trying to be anything else or trying to be cute about it. This is what we were. We were blue-collar workers who put on our pads and went to work."
Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, who originally hired Marinelli for his first NFL job in Tampa Bay, also had praise for him, as did current Bucs coach Jon Gruden and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
"Rod Marinelli is a tremendous coach and person," Dungy said. "He has the ability to relate to all types of players. He is perfect for the Detroit Lions and this could not have happened to a better person."
Gruden said: "We are very happy for Rod. He is a great person and we are really going to miss him. The Detroit Lions are getting a heck of a football coach."
Kiffin said: "There is no doubt Rod will do an awesome job. He is a motivator and the players will play hard for him. He is a disciplinarian in the right way. When the players walk off the field, they will be better football players and he will help extend their careers. In the same sense, they will gravitate toward Rod because of the way he interacts with his players."
Bucs Pro Bowl defensive end Simeon Rice raved about Marinelli, his position coach, calling him "a man, a myth and a legend."
"In the game of coaching, there's nothing like him," Rice said. "He's definitely one of a kind. He's a Michelangelo, an Aristotle, a Socrates. He's a great philosopher. He changes coaching to an art form. He understands the psyche of man and how to motivate men. He understands how to speak to men and how to lead men."
Wide receiver Roy Williams and running back Kevin Jones failed to match their rookie season production of 2004; wide receiver Charles Rogers sat out four games for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy and finished the season with fewer catches than he had in the first five games of his rookie season in 2003; and rookie wide receiver Mike Williams was at various times criticized for a lack of speed, conditioning and talent.
Roy Williams' production dropped from 54 catches, 817 yards and eight touchdowns as a rookie to 45 catches and 687 yards. He matched his touchdown production with eight.
Jones' rushing yardage skidded from 1,133 as a rookie to 664 in his second season, in part because of injuries that limited his playing time late in the season. He scored five touchdowns each season.
Rogers, who was virtually ignored in the Lions offense after his drug suspension, caught 22 passes for 243 yards and three touchdowns in five games before suffering a broken collarbone as a rookie in 2003. During the past season he caught 14 passes for 197 yards and one touchdown.
Mike Williams, by rookie standards, was not a bust. He caught 29 passes for 350 yards and a touchdown but, as a high first-round pick, was generally expected to be more productive.
Defensive ends Jared DeVries and James Hall, fullback Cory Schlesinger and placekicker Jason Hanson are the only players remaining from the Lions team that finished 9-7 in the 2000 season.
The Lions missed the playoffs when Paul Edinger kicked a game-winning field goal for Chicago in the closing moments of the season finale, and owner William Clay Ford decided to blow up the team and start over.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Packers QB Brett Favre said last season he would have a difficult time coming back to play if a coaching change were made and it meant learning a new system. New head coach Mike McCarthy, an offensive-minded mentor, though, won't tinker much with the West Coast system that has been in place since Favre's first year as Green Bay's starter in 1992.
Favre took two months after the 2004 season before deciding to put off retirement. The Packers presumably want an answer on his future plans much sooner this time around, although general manager Ted Thompson told the Wisconsin State Journal that the club isn't necessarily pressing Favre to make a decision by the start of free agency March 3.
"Brett's aware of the importance of this decision - it's an important decision for him personally and an important decision for the organization," said Thompson, who has had informal phone conversations with Favre recently. "He understands that, at some point, he and (wife) Deanna have to decide. He's aware of that. I'm not concerned. I don't think Brett would ever leave this organization high and dry."
Favre endured his worst season as a pro, tying a franchise record with a league-high 29 interceptions and compiling a personal-low 70.9 passer rating. The Packers finished 4-12, their first sub-.500 record with Favre under center.
He hasn't spoken publicly since shortly before the season ended Jan. 1. No one knows for sure how he has taken to the firing of head coach Mike Sherman and the subsequent hiring of 42-year-old McCarthy, who was chosen over defensive coordinator Jim Bates. Favre had a good rapport with Bates, who bolted the team after he felt he was snubbed by Thompson.
Green Bay is in an enviable position from a financial standpoint with free agency looming. It could have anywhere from $15 million to $20 million in spending room, depending on where the 2006 salary cap is set.
The Packers stand to gain almost another $10 million if Favre were to retire. His cap number for this year is slated to be a team-high $12.2 million, which includes a $7 million salary and a $3 million roster bonus to be meted out in March.
The team has Aaron Rodgers, last year's first-round draft pick, waiting in the wings. Thompson, though, has reiterated that he would like Favre back for next season.
Favre, meanwhile, is at the center of a Wisconsin state investigation into fraudulent collectibles that turned up at a sports-memorabilia store not far from Lambeau Field.
Investigators raided All Sports Marketing last Friday and seized an array of items, including posters, helmets and trading cards, allegedly bearing the forged signature of Favre.
"We would encourage anyone who bought Favre memorabilia at this location to call us," Assistant Attorney General Eric Wilson said.
The state Justice Department established a toll-free number at (800) 998-0700 to collect information from individuals who purchased items at the store, which has remained closed since the raid.
An associate of Favre tipped off investigators last year about the supposedly deceptive and improper practices being conducted at the store.
Sanders, 52, got the nod to run a defense for the first time in his 25-year coaching career at the pro and college levels over unemployed veteran coordinators Jerry Gray (formerly with Buffalo), Donnie Henderson (New York Jets, since hired to be Detroit's coordinator) and Vic Fangio (Houston).
McCarthy acknowledged that keeping the defensive framework status quo was a factor in entrusting Sanders with the duties. Sanders is the fourth coordinator in as many years for the Packers defense.
Sanders came on high recommendation from Jim Bates, who spurned McCarthy's offer to return for a second season as coordinator after he was passed over to succeed the deposed Mike Sherman as head coach. Bates brought Sanders to Green Bay after mentoring him for four years with Miami, where Bates was a highly successful defensive coordinator and Sanders coached the linebackers.
"I'm not Jim Bates. I've just got to be me," said Sanders, allowing though, "(The defense) will be very, very similar. I hope to put a stamp on it with some things that I believe in."
At the core of the defense Bates implemented with a marked degree of proficiency is a base 4-3, gap-control scheme predicated on the players' staying fundamentally sound. A young cast with which Bates had to work embraced the system and skyrocketed from 25th in total yards allowed in 2004 to seventh in the league rankings, while also finishing No. 1 against the pass.
Sanders, who has a long history of working under Steve Spurrier in the college ranks at Duke and Florida, was instrumental in bringing along a star-less Packers defensive line that was generally productive. End Aaron Kampman posted career highs of 105 tackles (second in team history for a lineman) and 6.5 sacks and is an attractive free agent-to-be if Green Bay doesn't re-sign him in the coming weeks.
McCarthy was sold on Sanders as both a high-character individual and a longtime assistant coach who has paid his dues to earn a previously elusive plum role after they met for two hours a day throughout last week. McCarthy, whose expertise is confined to the offensive side, has given Sanders the autonomy to orchestrate the defense.
"You have to have the ability to take away the offense's most important weapon. And, just going through the process of evaluating, that's part of what this (in-place defensive) system does," McCarthy said. "I don't believe in guessing right more than you guess wrong. I think, in the long run, it catches up to you with the players. When you get up there with the big boys and start playing the games that really count, your gap integrity in the running game (suffers) and your potential for (giving up) big plays increases.
"I'm more interested in a scheme that has a foundation that the players clearly understand and believe in."
McCarthy ensured more stability for the returning players by also retaining defensive backs coach Lionel Washington and defensive tackles coach Robert Nunn. Washington has been on the Green Bay coaching staff since 1999, surviving the dismissals of Ray Rhodes after that season and now Sherman. The coaching roles for Nunn and Washington, who worked with the cornerbacks last season, haven't been firmed up yet.
The 66-year-old Stock was out of football on a full-time basis last year after he underwent hip-replacement surgery. Stock was special teams coach with St. Louis in 2004, following a three-year run in the same capacity with Washington.
McCarthy first got acquainted with Stock when they were on staff in Kansas City. McCarthy was the Chiefs' quarterbacks coach as Stock spearheaded a special-teams unit that ranked among the best in the league in the late 1990s. Stock earned the unofficial title of Special Teams Coach of the Year by a vote of peers in 1997.
Stock, who's put in more than 40 years of service on the pro and college levels, replaces John Bonamego with the Packers. Bonamego was part of McCarthy's purge of the majority of the previous coaching staff.
Mark Lovat was retained as strength and conditioning assistant.
Brandon Johnson, a onetime defensive tackle at Purdue, was added to the staff as a strength and conditioning aide.
McCarthy previously hired former Atlanta offensive line coach Jeff Jagodzinski as offensive coordinator, former New Orleans receivers coach Jimmy Robinson for the same role and former San Francisco assistant line coach Ben McAdoo as tight ends coach. Retained from the previous staff were Joe Philbin, who was promoted from tight ends coach to line coach, running backs coach Edgar Bennett and assistant line coach James Campen.
The team signed free agent Ryan Dutton to a two-year contract. The 6-foot-4, 213-pound Dutton, like Sander, kicks left-footed. He kicked in the preseason with Cleveland and Seattle the last two years. Dutton, 28, is a product of the Green Bay area from Oshkosh West High School and played collegiately at Minnesota State Mankato.
The Packers also worked out Canadian Football League standout Jon Ryan. He was reportedly offered a $10,000 signing bonus to join the team but wanted to first go through tryouts with other teams. The 6-foot, 192-pound Ryan led the CFL last season with a league-record gross average of 50.2 yards and a net average of 42.3 while playing for Winnipeg.
Sander ranked 30th and 31st in the NFL with respective averages of 39.2 gross yards and 33.9 net yards. A serious knee injury kept him out of the last two games, when bartender Ryan Flinn filled in. Flinn remains on the roster.
Sherman had two years left on his contract when he was fired Jan. 2, a day after Green Bay's 4-12 season concluded. Had Sherman been hired for another job, the Packers would be out only the difference between the two salaries.
Incidentally, Sherman stands to be paid by the Packers about $1.2 million more than what McCarthy will earn in the first year of his three-year deal.
Sherman isn't considered a candidate in Oakland, which has the only unfilled top coaching position in the league.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I can jump up and down, but I have to be careful how high. I'll be excited; there's no question about it. I'm fired up and ready to go." — New special teams coordinator Mike Stock, who, at 66, is the oldest member of the Packers' predominantly young coaching staff and has had both hips replaced in recent years.