For the most part, the Bears have been content to stand pat in the off-season, confident in the belief that their 22 returning starters are enough to take the next step after last season's 11-5 NFC North title campaign.
But they did add a player who gives them an insurance policy at a position that has often been their demise in recent years. Unrestricted free agent Brian Griese gives the Bears their best backup at quarterback in a long time. Considering the so-far fragile health of starter Rex Grossman, a player of Griese's stature ostensibly allows the Bears to run the same offense at the same level of efficiency even if Grossman suffers another serious injury, as he has in each of his first three NFL seasons.
The Bears also addressed a shortcoming in the secondary that was exposed in the playoff loss to the Panthers when wide receiver Steve Smith torched them for 12 receptions, 218 yards and two touchdowns. They added restricted free agent Ricky Manning Jr. to play nickel corner behind starters Nate Vasher and Charles Tillman. The Bears lavished a five-year deal that could be worth as much as $21 million on Manning, which many considered exorbitant for a non-starter. The largesse of the deal was questioned further when Manning was arrested for assault near the UCLA campus a day before he officially became a Bear when the Panthers opted not to match the offer. The Panthers' decision was a no-brainer according to team sources, who said the team never considered paying anywhere close to the Bears' offer to keep a player they considered a solid nickel but not much more.
Manning may very well be a major upgrade as the Bears' third corner, but his signing has already caused some negative fallout. Vasher, a Pro Bowler last season in just his second year, has stayed away from voluntary workouts the past two weeks. He and agent Michael Sullivan are upset that under the fourth-round pick's current deal, he will make approximately $900,000, while Manning gets about $9 million.
The Bears aren't depending on a huge contribution from their 2006 draft class, but their second second-round pick Devin Hester could be an instant-impact player on special teams. Hester has a lot to learn at cornerback because he also played wide receiver and running back at Miami. But, as a kickoff and punt returner, he can change field position faster than anyone but the referee. From the first day of the first off-season practice, Hester has looked more natural than any player on the roster as a returner, and he is a threat to go the distance every time he touches the ball.
Vasher didn't scrimmage because he's doing some minor rehab work to strengthen his quadriceps muscle in order to take pressure off his sore patella tendon, but he said he's ready to do whatever coaches ask. He and agent Mike Sullivan were hoping to entice the Bears into adding a year to the two years still remaining on his original four-year deal. He will make $900,000 over the next two seasons, making him the 131st highest paid cornerback in the NFL, while Bears nickel corner Ricky Manning Jr. will make about $9 million.
The Bears have stuck to their philosophy of not renegotiating with players who have just two years' experience.
"For the time being I have to be content with my position," said Vasher, who had eight interceptions last season. "I realize it's a business, and I'll continue to get ready to have a great season."
Vasher said he isn't even considering not reporting to training camp on time.
"I'll be there with bells on," he said. "I'll be ready for another Pro Bowl season."
Although the Bears have not engaged in any dialogue with Vasher's agent regarding an extension, it could happen in the future.
"We haven't been promised anything," Sullivan said. "They didn't want to pay attention; we wanted to get their attention. What Nate has accomplished is out there. They could do nothing, but it would be unfair to Nate."
"I have a contract that I signed when I got here," said Smith, who has two years remaining on his original deal. "I feel good about it. My contract is no issue. I'm just glad to be the head coach of the Chicago Bears every day I come into work. We have an outstanding team. We can't wait for training camp to start."
Smith was asked in jest if he considered blowing off some of the "voluntary" practices in May and June.
"It never crossed my mind," he said, smiling. "Once the team is out here, I want to be a part of it. You know what happens when you miss a day, you find out practice goes on with out you. So I don't want them to get too comfortable with me not being here."
Clark, who had just 24 catches for 229 yards last season, was singled out for praise by Bears coach Lovie Smith at the conclusion of spring practices.
"I'm just not throwing out Desmond because the tight end has been a position that most people like to talk about," Smith said. "He's played well. He's had a few outstanding days out here and yes, he definitely has earned that right to get more plays, more balls thrown his way."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've made a run and had a good season (in 2005). We've gone on a long winning streak (eight in a row), and now the next phase we have to go through is how to come back from a tough loss (in the divisional round to the Panthers), when we've been knocked down. This team will get up. That's the next step for us. We can't wait for the season to start. We can't wait to get up, and this time we're going to handle success a lot better." — Bears coach Lovie Smith.
The three off-season moves that will have the greatest impact on the Lions:
1. The hiring of head coach Rod Marinelli.
Lions president Matt Millen felt the team needed to be tougher and more disciplined, and that is the approach it is getting in Marinelli, a highly-regarded former Tampa Bay defensive line coach in his first head coaching job.
Within a matter of weeks, the entire atmosphere had changed at the team's Allen Park headquarters. Some feathers were ruffled and a grievance was filed after the first mini-camp, costing the Lions two days of off-season workouts, but most of the young team appears to be buying into Marinelli's get-tough style.
For a team that had gotten soft and undisciplined, it is already a major change and training camp promises more of the same as offensive coordinator Mike Martz and defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson continue to flex their muscle.
2. Dumping the West Coast offense.
For whatever reasons, former coach Steve Mariucci's West Coast offense never seemed to fit the Lions talent; now we'll see if it fits any better into Martz's greatest show on turf approach.
The quarterbacks and receivers say they love the new offense but it might take a while to get all of them on the same page of the voluminous offensive playbook Martz brings with him.
3. Joey Harrington is out; Jon Kitna is in at quarterback.
Marinelli and Martz both were high on Harrington but after four years in which he took the heat from fans and even his own teammates, Harrington was simply too uncomfortable to return to the Lions locker room for a fifth season.
Harrington eventually was traded to Miami and Kitna, who was originally signed to compete with him for the No. 1 job, is expected to start. Josh McCown, a four-year veteran from Arizona, and second-year player Dan Orlovsky will compete for the backup role.
Jones, Bryson and Pinner all are back for 2006, along with free agent acquisition Arlen Harris and third-round draft pick Brian Calhoun from Wisconsin. Although coach Rod Marinelli isn't bestowing any starting jobs, it is expected that Jones, a former first-round pick, could benefit greatly from offensive coordinator Mike Martz's insistence on a strong running game.
"It's like I've always said since I've been here, we've got to ride (Jones') coattails," said wide receiver Roy Williams. "We've got to be able to run the football in this league. If we can't do that, we'll be at the bottom of the barrel like we have been the last three years.
"We've got to be able to run the football (and) he's the man to do it. Calhoun can come in and get his little shake on in there and our running game will be at the top of the league."
Marinelli isn't promising the top running game in the NFL but he says he likes what he has seen from Jones in the off-season workouts, especially in becoming a more complete back, capable of catching the ball out of the backfield.
"He's catching the ball well, better," Marinelli said. "And he's worked hard at it. He's caught a million balls. I think he's really done a nice job."
While admitting the players have reason to be enthused about the possibilities being developed by offensive coordinator Mike Martz, Marinelli wants the team concept to overshadow anything else.
"The thing I keep trying to allude to, I think, is ‘Lions football,'" he said. "This is Lions football and every time I get into a team setting, I think it's really important (that) we're not an offense, we're not a defense, we're not a special teams and we understand it's ‘Lions football.' And each unit has the opportunity to impact Lions football."
Except for occasional brief glimmers, the West Coast offense never gained any traction in the past five seasons under Marty Mornhinweg or Steve Mariucci, and the players were clearly ready for a change with Marinelli was hired last January.
Although Martz is demanding as he installs the new offense, it has caught the players' attention and imagination during off-season workouts.
"What the offense is doing right now with the energy of coach Martz and the offensive staff ... the team can see it," Marinelli said. "We've got to do it; the basis, the movement, the patterns, the speed, the energy out there, I really like the progress (and) the steps we're taking to be a really good offense. It's got a chance to really energize our team, yes."
"I really do," said receiver Roy Williams. "I'm really excited about this football team. We have (Mike) Martz on the offensive side, we have coach (Donnie) Henderson on the other side.
"These are two of the ‘head coaches' coaching around this league and as long as we do what they tell us to do, I don't think there's any stopping this football team."
It's been awhile since that kind of enthusiasm existed in a Lions camp, especially when the coordinator was as demanding as Martz has been in developing the offense during the off-season program.
"It's exciting because this offense exploits the positives that people have," quarterback Jon Kitna said. "You've seen this offense over the years, (Martz) has come here, the strides we've made have been great but there's no need to make predictions.
"We have to go out and do it ... week in and week out. It can't be a sometimes thing, it can't be two quarters. His offense is predicated on everybody doing their job on every single play or else it's going to break down. We're going to have to keep working."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think the fact we stunk it up the last five years might have something to do with it." - Fullback Cory Schlesinger explaining why most of the Lions players have bought into the aggressive, disciplined approach of coach Rod Marinelli and his staff
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers will have played eight games before they play division archrival Minnesota for the first time in 2006. By then, it should be known how much — or how little — kicker Ryan Longwell is missed.
General manager Ted Thompson allowed Longwell to bolt in free agency and sign with the enemy a few hundred miles away due west. Longwell not only left an indelible mark in Green Bay after nine years as the franchise's all-time leading scorer (1,054), he was an invaluable asset in expertly handling the blustery conditions common to Lambeau Field as the season winds down.
Dallas castoff Billy Cundiff and kickoff specialist Dave Rayner, formerly of Indianapolis, are the candidates at the moment to make Packers backers forget about Longwell. It's not going to be an easy sell, considering Cundiff has had accuracy issues in favorable climates and Rayner lacks experience at the pro level. Thompson figures to be scouring the waiver wire religiously during the preseason should a better option become available.
Having a reliable kicker at crunch time will be a must, considering the defense should keep the Packers in most games after being bolstered within four days in late April. First came the free-agent signing of Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson to a seven-year, $39 million deal. Then came the addition of standout linebacker A.J. Hawk with the No. 5 overall pick in the draft.
Woodson and Hawk give name recognition to a Green Bay defense that ranked seventh in the league last season but lacked a star player.
Provided Woodson can stay healthy after four injury-marred seasons, the Packers stand to have a formidable bump-and-run pairing on the perimeter. Woodson's presence will force teams to not throw away from Al Harris, who totaled but four interceptions the last two seasons.
Hawk, meanwhile, is a ready-made starter on the weak side, giving the defense two talented, athletic players at linebacker, with Nick Barnett in the middle. As long as the line can subtract the blockers, Barnett and Hawk will be able to free-wheel in pursuit and make running the football against the Packers a tough chore, thus putting Harris and Woodson in better position to make plays against the pass.
Head coach Mike McCarthy said Favre, 36, will concentrate on keeping himself fit at home in Mississippi. Rock Gullickson, the team's strength and conditioning coach, will be dispatched for a few days to work with Favre.
"Just going back through the cut-ups and things like that, I think his biggest concern when he left here was probably his conditioning, which we feel he's in pretty good shape for this time of year," McCarthy said.
McCarthy excused Favre from the final day of the 14 OTA sessions, which were spread out over three weeks. Favre, in his 16th year in the league, participated in 10 of those practices and spent the other four days working out with Gullickson.
Favre said earlier in the month that he planned to throw on his property two or three weeks before the start of camp.
"He's got a big bag of balls hanging out there in his warehouse. So, I think there's a little more throwing that goes on than some people think down in Mississippi," McCarthy said.
Favre also will be trying to stay mentally sharp in the coming weeks. He acknowledged early in the OTAs that he was overwhelmed by the new verbiage implemented by McCarthy in the West Coast offense. Favre left Green Bay with DVDs of practice footage and playbook material in tow for his laptop.
Hawk said at the end of the OTAs that he's "confident" a deal will be struck with the team and that he won't be a camp holdout at the outset.
"I know a lot of first-round picks don't come to camp on time, but we'll see what we can do," said Hawk, whom the Packers selected fifth overall. "You miss something in these OTAs, and you're behind. Obviously, training camp is even worse."
Hawk missed the first seven OTA practices because he was completing school at Ohio State, from which he earned his degree in criminology.
As a top-five pick, the Packers' first since they took cornerback Terrell Buckley at No. 5 in 1992, Hawk will command a hefty contract. Running back Carnell Williams received a five-year, $30 million package with guaranteed bonus money of more than $13 million as the No. 5 pick by Tampa Bay last year.
The Packers have been nearly flawless in recent years to get their first-round draftees signed by the start of full-squad practices in training camp. Cornerback Ahmad Carroll missed only the first practice in 2004.
The Packers had profits of $18 million. The renovation of Lambeau Field, which was completed three years ago, is the crux of the big revenue stream. The famed stadium has become a year-round destination for visitors with an atrium dotted by restaurants, shops and other attractions.
The scrimmage last year featured the Buffalo Bills. The Packers aren't aligning with a team in training camp this year.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You have to wait and see. Who knows? First of all, why worry about something hypothetical in the middle of June when there's another month and a couple of weeks before we even have to worry about that? So, if that comes up and that's an issue, then we'll address it when it does. But, until then, I think you're just wasting energy." — Right tackle Mark Tauscher on what effect a potential holdout by disgruntled cornerback Al Harris at the start of training camp would have on the team.