Linebacker Lance Briggs and running back Thomas Jones missed all three sessions of the Bears' voluntary offseason program last week.
Their Bears teammates participated in three more organized team activities (OTAs), but two of the most important elements from last year's 11-5 NFC North championship squad stayed away. Both players want new contracts but essentially have no bargaining power.
Jones has two years left on a four-year, $10 million deal he signed an unrestricted free agent after the 2003 season. He would welcome a trade to a team willing to redo his contract. Briggs is in the final year of the four-year deal he signed after being drafted in the third round in 2003. But he doesn't want to wait until after the season, when he becomes an unrestricted free agent, to cash in on the riches that await after last season's Pro Bowl campaign.
"They're unhappy, but they're under contract," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "It's disappointing given that this is the advent of our season and we want all of them here."
Both players are represented by agent Drew Rosenhaus, who met with them just outside Halas Hall following the Sunday afternoon practice that was the last of four sessions over the weekend. Both players participated in each of the minicamp sessions, although Briggs was demoted to second team behind backup Leon Joe. Jones split carries with Cedric Benson, whom he outrushed 1,335-272 last season.
Briggs has said he cannot foresee sitting out during the season, since he would have to wait another year to become an unrestricted free agent. And Jones doesn't make himself any more attractive to other teams by missing activities that are technically voluntary but at which attendance is expected.
Angelo doesn't believe the tactic of staying away is helping either player improve his contract situation.
"I wish they would explain it to me," Angelo said. "I don't have an answer for that."
The longer Jones' absence continues, the better the chance that he essentially hands the starting job to Benson, the fourth overall pick in last year's draft. Either runner is capable of having a big season in the Bears' run-first offense, and Benson said he believes he could rush for 1,700 yards this season. Briggs would be more difficult to replace given the Bears' lack of depth behind Brian Urlacher and Hunter Hillenmeyer at linebacker. But they have starters returning at every other position and are considered the team to beat in the NFC North.
"We're going to go on with business as usual," Angelo said. "We have a good nucleus. We have good players. We're not handing out any (starting) positions. Every guy has to show his ability. If a guy isn't here, he isn't competing."
For most of his previous eight NFL seasons, Brian Griese has been a starter, but the Bears brought him in as the backup to Rex Grossman.
"I've always looked at myself as a starting quarterback in the league," Griese said. "So at the times when I wasn't, to me it was just a matter of time and working hard to get back out on that field."
Griese continued to do that over the weekend while he battles back from the knee surgery that ended his 2005 season prematurely.
"The knee felt really good (Friday), and I was happy because I didn't have a whole lot of swelling in it after practice which is the biggest concern," said Griese, who did not practice Saturday morning but was back on the field in the afternoon session and for Sunday's finale.
"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 Brian Griese, a long-time starter, 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."
"Coming back from the offseason, working out too fast, just doing too much," Johnson said. "It was just kind of unfortunate."
QUOTE TO NOTE: Coach Lovie Smith on backup Brian Griese and the Bears' QB situation, which includes starter Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton, who started 15 games last season, as the No. 3:
"What (Griese) has done in the league speaks for itself. We're excited about having him here. This is as strong as we've been at the quarterback position in a long time."
The only thing missing in the Lions' locker room now is a sledgehammer.
The rock — and the attendant message — is there as a constant reminder from new coach Rod Marinelli and his staff of what they expect of the Lions players.
If the Lions are going to improve on last year's 5-11 record and their five-year record of 21-59, they're going to have to keep pounding the rock.
The rock — roughly two feet across and a foot thick — appeared unannounced recently at the team's headquarters in Allen Park. It sits on a blue equipment trunk. On one side of the rock is a blue plaque with the team logo and a reminder: "NOT GOOD ENOUGH."
The Lions players make an occasional wisecrack bout the rock. "That is my mold for my helmet," joked fullback Cory Schlesinger recently after a workout.
But they understand Marinelli's point and they are taking it to heart.
"I think that's kind of what the organization was lacking the last few years," Schlesinger told the Detroit Free Press. "That's a very good visual image of what we need to do as an organization.
"We need to sit there and pound, pound and pound. It's going to take awhile to break that baby but we're going to break that rock, and when we do that, that means we're winning."
The rock is not new to Marinelli. He used a similar ploy — with good results — to get the attention of his defensive linemen when he was a position coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"It's just that believe that you've got to keep pounding, that if you believe it, it's going to crack," Marinelli has explained in the past. "On the outside, it looks all the same but, inside, it may be crumbling. So you never know what snap's going to break it, what swing's going to break that rock."
The Lions' second-year wide receiver was dismissed from the final two days of the team's mandatory mini-camp, and sources say it was for the same reasons that got him into disfavor with the previous coaching staff.
Coach Rod Marinelli declined to get into specifics, saying only that Williams had been excused because of a team issue, but reports surfaced that Williams was late for at least one hamstring treatment and missed a meeting before being sent home.
Williams was back at work in the organized team activities the following week. "He's here working and that was the whole thing," Marinelli said. "He's here and he had a good start this week, very good."
Williams would say only that he had been working out during the off-season and would not let the incident overshadow all of the work he had done.
The Lions took Williams in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft. He caught 29 passes for 350 yards and a touchdown but was criticized for being overweight, out of shape and did not practice or prepare well.
He has been bothered by a hamstring injury during the off-season workouts, but said he had committed himself to losing weight and getting in better condition.
The players — running backs Barry Sanders and Billy Sims, and defensive back Lem Barney — all wore the number 20, which was retired by the team in 2004.
Sanders and Barney are both members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio; many feel that Sims would have been a Hall of Famer also if he had not blown out a knee in a career-ending injury midway in his fifth season with the Lions.
The three players were listed as "The Roaring 20s" and honorary co-chairmen of the 16th annual Detroit Lions Invitational golf tournament.
"The three of us always have a good time when we're together," Sanders told The Detroit News. "It's a natural fit."
Sims was the only one of the three who wore 20 before joining the Lions. He wore it at Hooks (Texas) High School and also at Oklahoma, where he won a Heisman Trophy. Barney wore No. 26 at Jackson State but was assigned 20 when he was drafted by the Lions in 1967 and Sanders, who wore No. 21 at Oklahoma State, inherited the number 20 after being drafted in the first round in 1989.
Kick and punt returner Eddie Drummond said his vote goes to second-year cornerback Stanley Wilson.
Running back Kevin Jones said he believes safety Terrence Holt is in the best shape of any of the Lions players.
And cornerback Fernando Bryant has a perfect explanation of why he and his teammates in the secondary are the best-conditioned players on the roster.
"We do more running than anybody," Bryant said. "The wide receivers kind of rotate a little bit but if you're a DB, you're in there for your reps."
And who would be the least-conditioned player on the team?
"I don't want to mention any names," said one player, laughing, "but it's got to be one of the big boys."
Interpret that as one or several of the offensive linemen.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The best feedback is non-verbal. The best feedback is going out and doing it; that's the feedback I look for." — Lions coach Rod Marinelli on the feedback he's getting from Lions players to his tough off-season workout program.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Brett Favre has ditched the personal trainer. The veteran quarterback could use a translator, however.
Favre has put aside his indifference toward the monotony of offseason practices by committing to the Packers' three weeks of voluntary organized team activities. The workouts, a total of 14, started May 31 and wrap up June 21.
Despite 16 years in the league and a spot waiting for his bust in Canton, Ohio, Favre acknowledged that he needs as much practice time as he can get. He's admittedly struggling to comprehend the foreign language that is first-year head coach Mike McCarthy's variation of the West Coast offense.
"I'm actually going to study when I go home (after the OTAs)," Favre said. "I'm going to have them send me some stuff and turn my little night light on."
Much of the terminology in McCarthy's adaptation of the system run by the Packers since Favre's first year in 1992 is Greek to the NFL's only three-time MVP.
"It's a big challenge," Favre said. "‘Strong right' last year was something totally different than ‘Strong right' this year. So, when I hear, ‘Strong right,' I'm thinking it's something from last year or the year before or the year before that.
"For the most part, the concepts are the same. As you're watching, you go, ‘OK, I recognize that play.' I do, too. But, it's getting out of the huddle that's the problem."
Favre suspects it will take him until the start of training camp in late July to grasp the new language. The coaches aren't concerned.
"He's a smart guy. It's different (with the terminology) all around the league, but it all means the same thing," offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski said.
Favre will balance the at-home studying in Mississippi with resuming conditioning workouts that he delved into for three weeks prior to the OTAs. After working religiously with a personal trainer most of last offseason, Favre is adhering to a regimen outlined by Rock Gullickson, the Packers' first-year strength and conditioning coach.
Favre, 36, said he's done more weight training than he has in previous years and also is running more. He's determined to atone for his worst season as a pro, when he threw a league-high and club-record-tying 29 interceptions as the Packers went 4-12.
"I woke up some days this offseason and said, ‘The hell with working out the way I did last year. A lot of good that did.' But, that's not the right way to do it," Favre said. "The bottom line for me is I want to be the best I can be, so how far am I willing to go?"
Favre, who has been limited to about 30 throws a practice in the OTAs, said he will throw on his own for a few weeks before training camp commences.
"My arm is not where it needs to be yet," he said.
Head coach Mike McCarthy announced after practice during the team's organized team activities that Washington had been released. Washington was a third-round draft pick (72nd overall) by Green Bay in 2004 but never played a down in a regular season game.
"Quite frankly, we're kind of excited about some of the fellas we have at that position," general manager Ted Thompson said. "We wish him well; we wish it would have worked out here. But, this gives him a chance to go hook on with another team."
Washington was signed through 2007.
The mammoth Washington, who's listed at 6-feet-6 and 328 pounds, got himself into some hot water with the new coaching staff when he reported for the post-draft minicamp in early May out of shape. Washington was kept off the field for the entire camp.
He was cleared to practice in the second minicamp later in the month. He also participated in the first five of the Packers' 14 OTA practices, but was conspicuously missing on the field June 8 and 9 before McCarthy broke the news.
Both Thompson and McCarthy downplayed the impact Washington's earlier conditioning issue played in releasing him.
"Not very much at all," Thompson said.
McCarthy said he never gave Washington an ultimatum to shape up or he'd be shipped out.
"This is professional sports, and we just went in another direction," McCarthy said.
Washington missed his entire rookie season in 2004 because of a foot injury sustained early in training camp. He was activated for only one game last season but was kept on the sideline.
The Packers, under then-head coach and general manager Mike Sherman, traded up 14 spots to take Washington in the third round of the 2004 draft. Cornerback Joey Thomas, whom the team selected two spots before it grabbed Washington, was cut by Green Bay early last season.
Cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson and nose tackle Ryan Pickett haven't reported for the voluntary sessions. There was no indication that any of them would show up when practice resumes June 12.
Meanwhile, McCarthy expects rookie linebacker A.J. Hawk to be on the field June 12. Hawk, the fifth overall pick in the draft, completed his studies at Ohio State and was to graduate June 11.
It was the first time McKenzie, 43, was in the running for general manager with an NFL team. He has been in the Packers' front office since 1994 and served in his current position the last 10 years.
"It was a great experience for me. It was my first interview, and I felt like I was in a win-win situation," McKenzie said. "I'm happy to be back here. Disappointed at first (to not get the job), like any competitive person would be, but I'm still glad to be back here in Green Bay."
McKenzie figured Smith had the inside track to the job because of his previous working relationship with new Texans head coach Gary Kubiak during their time in Denver.
"If you're working with a guy and you feel comfortable and you trust his work, I'm pretty sure you're going to go to bat for him, too. I would, especially if he's good at what he does," McKenzie said.
Thornburg, a second-year player, missed the final month of last season because of a shoulder injury. He hadn't participated in any offseason workouts this year.
The Packers are one of eight teams with representation on the panel, which will be chaired by Tagliabue. The committee will determine the standards for appropriating money in the league's new supplemental revenue pool.
The pool is funded by the 15 highest-revenue teams, of which the Packers are one, for potential distribution to the other 17 teams.
Underwood is an emeritus member of the Packers' board of directors.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Our first practice is going to be a padded practice. We're not coming back here, running around here in underwear for three days trying to make sure everybody's in shape. We've taken care of that part of it now." — Head coach Mike McCarthy on hitting the ground running as he conducts his first training camp, which starts July 28.