Disenchanted running back Thomas Jones and linebacker Lance Briggs both participated in the weekend's first minicamp practice Friday afternoon after having dropped out of the Bears' off-season conditioning program in April.
Jones is upset over what he considers the inequity of his contract compared to that of his backup, Cedric Benson, the Bears' 2005 No. 1 draft choice. Benson, the fourth overall selection a year ago, got a five-year, $35 million deal, while Jones, who was signed as an unrestricted free agent before the 2004 season, is entering the third year of a four-year, $10 million contract.
That's a bargain for the Bears, considering Jones rushed for a career-best 1,335 yards last season, on 314 carries and a 4.3-yard average. Benson carried just 67 times for 272 yards and a 4.1-yard average.
Briggs will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2006 season, and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, had preliminary talks with the Bears in April. But when little progress was made and talks ceased just before the draft, Briggs dropped out of the off-season program after a couple weeks. Jones stopped showing up after a couple days, but the Bears aren't concerned with his fitness, considering he is one of the team's hardest workers in the weight room. Both players failed to attend the first of 14 organized team activities last week, and it's unclear whether they will participate in the remaining 12 OTAs which will continue Monday through Thursday the next three weeks.
Neither player had much to say about his absence from workouts the past month.
"I know what you guys want to ask me," Jones said as he walked off the practice field, "but I don't have any comment."
"Why don't you want to talk about it?" Jones was asked.
"Because I don't have any comment," he said.
Briggs, who was voted to his first Pro Bowl last season, was more upbeat.
"I'm happy to be here," he said. "I'm out here to play football. I'm a Chicago Bear, I'm happy to be here.
Asked if he wanted to have a contract extension completed, Briggs said, "Absolutely."
Bears coach Lovie Smith doesn't know if Jones and Briggs will stay away for the remainder of June, but he replaced Briggs in the starting lineup Friday with journeyman Leon Joe. Jones and Benson split time with the first team, but Benson is at the top of the rotation according to Smith.
"We have a starting rotation, and that's how it is," Smith said. "In order to be at the top of the starting rotation, you have to be here. So that's how it is. Cedric's at the top of the starting rotation at running back. Leon Joe worked with the ones at the linebacker position and we'll go from there.
"Once you get to about June, now it's time to get the team back together, and that's what we have today. We need to get back out on the football field. That's the only way to get better, is to actually get out here and start working together as a team. It was definitely good to get those two players back in the fold."
"The big thing about this right now is that at this point the last three years I was learning an offense," Grossman said. "And now I'm trying to perfect an offense and start to practice it instead of constantly thinking, ‘What should I do here and where is this guy going?' I know where they're going, and now I can get better. I think everyone out here is doing that. There's a lot more rhythm to it. Everyone understands basically what coach (Ron) Turner wants, and now it's just perfecting that, and I'm no different in that."
The acquisition of veteran starter Brian Griese gives the Bears a more qualified backup at quarterback than they've had in many years, but Grossman said that doesn't necessarily push him harder.
"I'd like to think of myself as a self-starter," Grossman said, "but anytime you have added pressure you have to turn your game up, no matter how much effort you put into it to begin with."
A similar situation led the Dolphins to trade Ogunleye to the Bears just before the start of the 2004 season.
"It's tough," Ogunleye said. "I've been through that. I know exactly what they're going through. But as you can see across this league everybody handles their business the way they want to handle it. This is a business, and that's the one thing everybody has got to understand. On Sunday after camp's over, then we can start playing the game. But once the Super Bowl is over and Pro Bowl is over it becomes a business again.
"Guys get cut. You see the way they treat a guy like Steve McNair so really you don't have any sympathy for the situations because you know that's how it happens. But at the same time, I feel for them because I've been through it. I know exactly what they're going through and I just hope it all works out well.
Backing up Walter Payton, the 6-1, 205-pounder rushed for 369 yards and two touchdowns on 94 carries and caught nine passes for 38 yards in 57 career games.
"First and foremost, he's my role model," Bryan said of his dad. "Everything that I've ever wanted to do, he's done-starting with off-the-field stuff like being a great man of integrity, being God-fearing and always providing for his family."
Following his father to the University of Georgia, Bryan blossomed as a senior. After catching just 21 passes for 301 yards and no touchdowns in his first three seasons, the 5-11, 184-pounder had 35 receptions for 529 yards and six TDs in 2005. The Atlanta native caught at least one pass in all 13 games last season with his best performance coming in a 45-13 win over Kentucky when he had four receptions for 44 yards and two TDs.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think they're happy as far as being back with their teammates. I know the team is happy to see them back. Both players meant an awful lot to us last year and hopefully will be the same this year." — Bears coach Lovie Smith on LB Lance Briggs and RB Thomas Jones, who have skipped the team's off-season workouts but showed up for this weekend's minicamp.
Coach Rod Marinelli said the Lions quarterback job is up for competition but that's not how Jon Kitna is looking at it.
Kitna has more experience than Josh McCown and Dan Orlovsky, he is getting the most plays with the starting offense in the off-season workouts and he says he is looking at the job as his own.
"I'm not looking at it as a quarterback competition," said Kitna. "I'm approaching it as I'm the starter until somebody tells me differently."
Kitna is by far the most experienced of the three quarterbacks fighting for the job that was left open when the disgruntled Joey Harrington asked to be traded to Miami several weeks ago.
Kitna is starting his 11th season in the NFL. He started his career in Seattle, including the last two years under Mike Holmgren, and he played the last five years at Cincinnati, three as a starter and the last two as the backup to Carson Palmer.
McCown, like Kitna, was signed as an unrestricted free agent earlier this spring and had limited starting experience with the Arizona Cardinals. Orlovsky was the Lions' fifth-round draft pick a year ago and has made noticeable progress in practices but has played briefly in only two regular season games.
Marinelli has been staunchly non-committal in evaluating the Lions quarterback situation and didn't change his tune in the mandatory minicamp at Allen Park this week.
"We'll just let it play out, that's all," Marinelli said. "All of them are doing a good job right now. I feel good about it.
With offensive quarterback Mike Martz installing his voluminous system in major chunks, all of the Lions quarterbacks are being tested.
"It's a lot," Marinelli said. "Some days will be better than others. It's the volume that we put in and then the defense will match it with the volume.
"Some days we might put in a heavy blitz day and things are coming from all different directions at you and you haven't seen that amount of pressure. Then the next day, ‘Bam' and you're right on top of it.
"They're adjusting and doing some of those things pretty good. It's a process. Then it's the pace that chews these guys up a little bit. They've been on it. They've done a heck of a job."
Marinelli says he won't set a date for naming his starting quarterback but Kitna apparently has done nothing to hurt his chances of staying in the No. 1 job.
"I'm not every day counting my completions," he said. "I'm just going out, trying to be the best quarterback I can be."
Anyone who knows Martz knows that he has no trouble formulating a strong opinion but he says he has had a problem evaluating the Lions offensive players because they were "grossly out of shape" when they went to work in the off-season program.
In his first comments with the Detroit media since the NFL scouting combine in February, Martz said his players are progressing nicely, however, and will be ready for the season opener Sept. 10 against Seattle.
"Sure. Absolutely," he said. "These guys are so willing, we'll be fine. I'm excited and encouraged about their attitude."
Because Martz is moving the Lions out of the West Coast system they played the past five years under Marty Mornhinweg and Steve Mariucci, there is a great deal of work yet to be done but he basically shot down theories that the Lions three first-round receivers are busts.
Martz said he views Roy Williams as a player in the formative stages of becoming an elite receiver, says Mike Williams has better speed and quicker feet than he expected, and that Charles Rogers has made excellent progress in the past week.
Verba, 32, has played 106 games with Green Bay and Cleveland but missed the 2003 season with a torn bicep muscle and did not play last season after negotiating his release from the Browns.
The Lions signed Verba to a one-year contract (with club options for additional time) and had him working at left guard with the starting offense during the mandatory mini-camp.
Verba played for Lions offensive line coach Larry Beightol when they were both at Green Bay and he has no doubt he will be in the starting lineup when the Lions open the season against defending NFC champion Seattle.
"I'll be starting," Verba said after his first mini-camp workout. "I'll earn it. I don't not start."
Assuming Verba wins the left guard job from Rick DeMulling in training camp, the Lions will probably have two new starters on the offensive line. Rex Tucker is likely to start ahead of Kelly Butler at right tackle.
Marinelli, who was the defensive line coach at Tampa Bay during the time King was the Bucs' starting quarterback, gave King his release before the start of the Lions mini-camp in Allen Park on May 31.
With Jon Kitna, Josh McCown and Dan Orlovsky ahead of him in the quarterback pecking order, it appeared unlikely King would be able to make the Lions' 53-man roster in training camp.
"I've got a great relationship with the guy over the years," Marinelli said. "I didn't know if he had a great shot to come in here. He's got a chance, maybe, to go and be in the mix someplace else."
The team has mentioned frequently its interest in a multi-year deal but had never approached Backus to get anything done. And when he was named the Lions' franchise player in March, the best they could do was to get him to sign the tender offer of the average of the five top-paid offensive linemen in the NFL.
Chief operating officer Tom Lewand maintains the Lions want to get a long-term deal in place by July 15.
"Once we go beyond the 15th, it's at best uncertain as to what happens," Lewand said.
The uncertainty is based on the status of the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement with the players union. The league and the union have several unresolved issues, including the possibility that a team could lose the right to use the franchise tag if it negotiates with a franchise player after July 15.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I like to call it the system I've been in for eight years ... but on steroids." — Lions quarterback Jon Kitna describing the explosive potential of offensive system being installed by coordinator Mike Martz.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers aren't going to know until the pads come on and the live contact starts whether they have a fearsome 1-2 punch in cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Al Harris.
Yet, their desire of getting an off-season sneak peek of the newly united duo started and stopped with a few practices during the first minicamp in early May. Since then, Woodson and Harris have given football a rest.
Both players skipped the voluntary second minicamp later in May. They didn't bother to report for the first week of an optional four-week phase of organized team activities, which include 14 practices and run until June 21.
"I think they deserve not to be here, as much work as they've put in (in their careers)," fellow cornerback Ahmad Carroll said. "I've talked to Al, and I know he and Charles are working out. When they show up, they'll be in shape and they'll just pick up right where they left off. This isn't going to hurt them at all."
Carroll, naturally, wasn't squawking that Woodson and Harris have stayed away for the last month. It's meant reclaiming, if only on a temporary basis, the starting spot the 2004 first-round draft pick lost after the Packers signed Woodson, a four-time Pro Bowl honoree, to a lucrative free-agent contract.
Head coach Mike McCarthy said Woodson might report back for some of the OTAs. He's been traveling out of the country.
As for Harris, indications are he won't rejoin the team until training camp beckons in late July. Harris has refused to take part in anything not required of the players because he's seeking a reworked contract in light of Woodson's deal that includes up to $10 million in earnings this year.
Harris has four years remaining on the five-year, $18.6 million contract extension he received in 2004. That deal was brokered at the same time the Packers were at their wits' end with disgruntled cornerback Mike McKenzie, whom they eventually traded to New Orleans early that season.
Harris' agent, Jack Bechta, reiterated comments made by his client last month that he won't follow the lead of McKenzie and hold out of training camp. In lieu of a new contract, Harris also won't resort to the retirement threats made earlier this year by wide receiver Javon Walker, who got his wish and was traded to Denver during draft weekend.
"There's going to be nothing to write about come (training) camp," Bechta said.
Still, the notable absences of Harris, Woodson and two other projected starters on defense — safety Nick Collins and nose tackle Ryan Pickett — at the outset of the OTAs didn't sit well with at least one teammate. Collins finally reported Friday after missing the first two days.
"We're a younger team, and the more guys see the older guys here, they see that, ‘Hey, this is the way it's supposed to be,'" defensive end Aaron Kampman said.
He cited the commitment made by the team's elder statesman, Brett Favre, to be on hand for the optional workouts.
"We've got our quarterback here, so that kind of says it all. I think that just shows you the type of guy he is, to have been at it this long, and he's here for a voluntary practice," Kampman added.
Levens, 36, was a late-round (fifth) steal for then-general manager Ron Wolf in 1994 and played eight years with Green Bay. His best season was in 1997, when he racked up 1,435 rushing yards (third best in team history), caught 53 passes and had 12 touchdowns to earn a Pro Bowl spot.
The acquisition of Ahman Green in a trade with Seattle in 2000 expedited the release of Levens a year later. He ranks fifth in club annals with 3,937 yards.
Levens finished his career with two seasons in Philadelphia (2002 and ‘04) sandwiched around one with the New York Giants. He was out of football last season. He amassed 4,955 rushing yards in 11 NFL seasons.
Barry, a candidate to start at right guard, sustained the injury May 21 in a pass-blocking drill toward the end of the team's final minicamp practice.
"He's in rehab, and it's going to be a while," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "I don't see him making it back for this season."
Second-year Junius Coston is the early front-runner to man right guard, with incumbent Will Whitticker considered too heavy to play inside in the new zone-blocking scheme.
Whitticker continues to line up at left tackle with the No. 1 unit as the fill-in for Chad Clifton, who will be held out until the start of training camp in late July. Clifton is on the mend after undergoing minor knee and ankle surgeries earlier in the off-season.
Adrian Klemm, who initially filled the void during the post-draft minicamp, remains sidelined with a sprained knee.
Jones last year was handpicked by outgoing president Bob Harlan to be his successor. Jones officially will take over next May, when Harlan must relinquish the position because he will be 70.
Harlan has been president since 1989 and is widely credited with resurrecting a moribund franchise located in the NFL's smallest market. He will chair the board of directors and the executive committee until his tenure expires. The board then will formally elect Harlan chairman emeritus and Jones president and chief executive officer.
Jones, 54, will remain in his current capacity as the team's chief operating officer until the transition is completed in May.
"No one is going to replace Bob Harlan," Jones said. "His shoes aren't going to be filled. Bob is in a special class in all of football, and I'm the first guy to recognize that."
McKenzie, 43, interviewed May 24 for the job vacated by the resignation of Charley Casserly.
Denver assistant general manager Rick Smith, though, might have the inside track. Smith was brought back in for a second interview June 2.
Neither McKenzie nor New Orleans director of player personnel Rick Mueller, who was in Houston this past week, had yet to be contacted for another interview.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Old and gray (in the hair). Man, I'm just amazed. He doesn't look slow. He doesn't look like he's not an athlete. But, he does look old." — Fullback William Henderson on the arrival of 36-year-old quarterback Brett Favre for the team's organized team activities, which started May 31. Favre was excused from attending the last of two minicamps two weeks previously.