Cedric Benson's combination of quiet confidence and tranquility appears so genuine, it's almost impossible not to believe him when he says: "If they want to see C.B. shine, put me in the game, and I'll shine."
Benson's unimpressive rookie season got off to a rocky start because of a month-long holdout and then was interrupted for six games because of a sprained knee. But that 2005 season was the first time in eight years that the workhorse running back didn't rush for more than 1,000 yards. During the off-season he predicted he could rush for 1,700 yards this season, which he says wasn't meant to be boastful.
"That was just some fun stuff," he said. "I mean it's back there, yeah. Once we get close to it, I'll start bringing it back up again."
Benson said he doesn't actually set individual goals, preferring to follow the advice of John Parchman, his coach at Lee High School in Midland, Texas, where he rushed for 8,423 yards and 127 touchdowns while being named Texas' offensive player of the year and leading Lee to state titles in each of his last three seasons.
"My high school coach always told me, ‘Just work hard to win,'" Benson said. "‘Take it one week at a time and work hard to win the game. Focus on winning the game, and the rest will take care of itself.' "
While it seems everyone else is focusing on Benson's battle with Thomas Jones for the starting job, the fourth overall pick in last year's draft seems almost oblivious.
"It's cool," the laid-back Benson said of the competition. "It's fun. It's good. I don't really think much about it. I know it's going to work itself out. I'm just going to work hard, and I know me being me will take care of what I need to take care of. I don't really think much about. It's funny because they ask me questions, and that's the only time I think about it."
The race for the role of featured ball-carrier in the Bears' run-oriented offense will be the most closely watched development in training camp and throughout the preseason, as long as Benson and Jones are both in the running. The Bears haven't dismissed the notion of trading Jones if the price is right.
Jones, who remains sidelined with a mild hamstring injury, is a team leader coming off a 1,335-yard season, the best of his six years in the NFL. Benson is the Bears' highest draft pick since 1979, when they also had the fourth pick and used it to select Hall of Fame defensive lineman Dan Hampton. The Bears have invested too much in Benson ($35 million over five years) to allow him just 67 carries, as he had last season, when he was cast in the unfamiliar role of observer rather than a contributor.
"You miss it, but I just tried to find the positive, and say, ‘Hey, it's going to prolong my career,'" Benson said. "Just stay patient. I knew my time would come, and I knew a lot of things led up to me not being the guy. I was pretty confident in myself and was aware of what was going on and didn't beat myself down about it. I never really got a good shot at it. I thought ‘Just be patient, and in a year, you'll have a great shot at it.'"
Coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo insist the team needs two high-caliber runners, but it could be argued they already have three with Adrian Peterson. The bigger question is whether two talented featured runners like Benson and Jones can be given enough carries to keep both happy. Bears coaches say it can be done, but there isn't much precedent in NFL history to back them up.
"We're a running football team," Smith said, "and we need as many good running backs as we can get, and we have that. We like the three that we have. I'm anxious to see all three of them play."
For now, Benson is content to buy into that theory. He's just glad to have last year's lengthy contract stalemate in the past.
"I'm not going to complain," he said. "I'm just going to work hard and let everything work itself out. I'm happy. I'm here. I have no issues, no contract issues, no nothing."
Just a little running back controversy.
General manager Jerry Angelo had little to say about an internet report that the Denver Broncos had inquired about acquiring Bears running back Thomas Jones for their disgruntled wide receiver, Ashley Lelie. He also didn't totally dismiss the notion, though.
"I'm not going to get into trades," Angelo said. "I'm not going to get into any of that."
Angelo and coach Lovie Smith have insisted that the team needs two quality running backs, but they have one to spare if they consider third-stringer Adrian Peterson a viable starter. He led all Bears running backs with a 5.1-yard average last season.
"You can't have enough good players at any position," Angelo said. "We have three good running backs. If it's a situation where we feel we could upgrade our football team (with a trade), we're certainly going to look at that situation. But right now, this is the hand we're dealt, and that's the hand we're playing."
Jones, who rushed for 1,335 yards last season, is currently sidelined with a mild hamstring strain and, because he skipped "voluntary" off-season workouts and practices, has been demoted to second team behind Cedric Benson.
Jones said he boycotted team activities because he wanted to work with his personal trainer Ian Danney, but speculation is that he wanted a trade and a new contract. Although Jones says he's happy to be with the Bears, he's not satisfied playing behind Benson or making $2.5 million this year, which is less than half the average of Benson's five-year contract which could be worth as much $35 million and included nearly $16 in guaranteed money. Angelo said he has no control over Jones' state of mind.
"I can't make a guy feel something," Angelo said. "At the end, he knows what he has to do. It's about business now, and he knows what we expect of him and what he expects of himself. It's about the team and us being the best team we can be."
"I think everyone on this team would tell you the same thing, that we think we can get to the Super Bowl and win it," Urlacher said. "That's our goal.
"I think we're the best defense in the league right now. We return everybody on defense. We've only gotten deeper and better. There are a lot of people that say we fell off at the end of last season, but those aren't people in our locker room. We believe we're a great defense, and we're going to go out and prove it."
It will take a better effort than the Bears had in their 29-21 playoff loss to the Panthers to prove the Bears have made progress. Last season, just as in Urlacher's second season (2001), the Bears earned home-field advantage only to lose heir first playoff game.
"It's tough," the five-time Pro Bowler said. "If you don't bring your best game in the playoffs, you're not going to win. We've found that out twice now in my career. We get home-field advantage, and we go out there and don't play well for that one game, and your season's over. We know what it takes now. We've just got to get out there and do it."
Brown was given a special exercise regimen just for him by strength and conditioning coordinator Rusty Jones. It is designed to correct any muscle imbalances and prevent injuries like the torn Achilles tendon that caused him to miss 14 games in 2004 or the strained calf that knocked him out of the final four regular-season game last year and part of the playoff loss to the Panthers.
"I call it ‘Bearlates,'" Brown said. "Rusty had me on this program, it's mostly Pilates, with different movements and whatnot just trying to get my body even. I think it's working, I feel really good and I can tell that my body is changing as far as the way that I'm moving, the way that I'm running. Different, different muscles are working that haven't been working and muscles are sore that haven't been sore before. That's good because it means that I'm balancing up."
Asked if he came up with the name "Bearlates," Brown admitted it was his wife Erin's term.
"I thought it was pretty cool," he said, "so I told her I was going to steal it, and I did."
Bradley, who is battling Bernard Berrian to regain his starting position, stood out in Thursday's first training-camp practice, making several catches downfield. He looked as if he's back to where he left off, when he caught 5 passes for 88 yards in the first half before getting hurt against the Lions. Last year's second-round pick is thrilled to be back so soon after an injury that can sometimes take more than a year to rehab.
"It just shows me how short the lifespan of being in the league really can be with an ACL injury, so I'm just out here having fun," Bradley said. "That's the nature of the game; it's entertainment and having fun, but at the same time, I'm out here for a job. I'm out here for a reason."
QUOTE TO NOTE: After second-year running back Cedric Benson took some unusually hard hits from teammates seeking to "welcome him to the NFL" during the Bears' first padded practice Saturday night, he retaliated by knocking safety Chris Harris into the end zone from three yards out. Benson's comment when told he got in the last shot was: "Yeah, I mean ... they asked for it."
The competition will be on-going but, until further notice, Jon Kitna is the Lions' quarterback.
Coach Rod Marinelli doesn't want to discourage Josh McCown or Dan Orlovsky, but he didn't want any confusion or divisions disrupting the start of his first training camp as a head coach so he spelled it out early.
"I think this team really needs veteran leadership," Marinelli said. "He really brings something special to the table as a leader. And I wanted to move away from distractions."
Although he didn't mention it specifically, Marinelli might have been referring to the 2005 season in which incumbent quarterback Joey Harrington was being challenged for the starting job by veteran free agent acquisition Jeff Garcia.
With then-coach Steve Mariucci clearly in Garcia's corner, the controversy simmered throughout training camp and the pre-season until Garcia suffered a broken leg and was temporarily eliminated from the competition.
Eventually the two quarterbacks shared playing time during the season and it was such a disaster that Mariucci eventually lost his job, Garcia was not retained and Harrington was traded to the Miami Dolphins.
There was little doubt among those close to the Lions that Kitna would be this year's starter, but it was still somewhat surprising that Marinelli made a commitment so early in the process.
"I thought he did a great job in the off-season, he really did," Marinelli said. "We put a lot of emphasis in it, especially in our seven-on-seven, the blitz period and all of those things we were able to do."
The players clearly had no problem with Kitna taking the first snap with the first offense. Wide receiver Roy Williams had cut short his pre-camp break to get a head start working with Kitna in mid-July.
And Kitna had said almost from the day he signed with the Lions as a free agent that he expected to be the team's starting quarterback by the start of the regular season, so he was neither surprised nor excited to get the coach's backing as the No. 1.
"There was no reaction," Kitna said. "I've said it all along: My mentality has been that I'll be the starter unless they tell me differently. It's not like I started jumping up and down. That's been my mentality since I got here."
And the reaction in the huddle has been similar.
"I feel like guys respect the leadership of the quarterback," Kitna said. "It's not something to be taken lightly as a quarterback. You have to go out every day and earn respect. You don't just get to come in and flop around. You have to put yourself out there every day."
Sims had missed the first two days of two-a-days while his agent and the Lions worked out details of the deal but he was there, ready to start delivering blows in the fifth practice of training camp.
As it turned out, his first contact came against fellow rookie Brian Calhoun, a running back the Lions took in the third round.
"That felt good," Sims told reporters after the Lions' morning practice. "I couldn't unload on him like I wanted but it was nice to get a lick in."
Sims' aggressive attitude is one of the things the Lions liked about Sims when they drafted him. They are expecting him to move into the weak-side linebacker position.
After running with the third set of receivers through most of the off-season mini-camps, Rogers was lining up with the second string receivers on the first day of training camp and getting appreciative comments from coach Rod Marinelli and quarterback Jon Kitna.
"I've said many times, he's been our most improved receiver throughout the spring," Kitna said. "He was playing at a high level the last four or five weeks we were in practice. Every day he was doing something that caught your eye on film so I think the expectation level for him with our team and him individually has been raised to a point where now we know what he can do and it's expected of him every day, and he's stepped up to that challenge."
Rogers, the second player taken in the 2003 NFL Draft, missed most of his first two seasons with two broken collarbones and was hit with a four-game drug abuse suspension last year. As a result, his production has been disappointing, leading to speculation he might be dumped by the Lions.
That no longer seems likely, however.
He reported at his lightest weight ever (195 pounds) and seems to have regained the speed he lost when last year's coaching staff asked him to put on weight to get stronger and avoid injuries.
"I believe he's come in in pretty good shape," Marinelli said. "We've just got to work, get it going."
"Folks, I'm here for the free food and to steal t-shirts," he joked with reporters. "And I've got four days to do it."
Actually, the former NFL and college coach was in Lions camp on the invitation of his good friend, Lions head coach Rod Marinelli.
"Rod and I worked together and have been friends for many years," Robinson said. "I always thought he was the most unique coach I've ever been around. He could motivate one of these blocking dummies into becoming a player.
"I've never been around a man who could get in a man's face and demand things that the guy said, ‘I just can't do that,' and the guy wound up loving him. I just have an enormous respect and affection for him."
Neither Robinson nor Marinelli could recall exactly when they met. They worked together when Marinelli was Robinson's defensive line coach at USC in 1995 but their relationship obviously goes back much farther.
"It goes back further than I can explain to you," Marinelli said. "But he really is one of the coaches I look at as my teacher. You get a teacher here that sits down with you and to have him here and everything he brings to the table, but just to have him here as a friend is very important also."
If he is to have any chance of giving the team immediate help in the defensive secondary, he has a lot yet to learn.
Coach Rod Marinelli expects a lot from the safeties in his defense and Bullocks has a lot to learn if he is going to compete with veterans Terrence Holt, Idrees Bashir and Jon McGraw for a starting job.
"They're the guys who are your last line of defense, really," Marinelli said. "They have to have range and the ability to tackle. I mean you can eliminate a lot of big plays. Usually, an offense needs a big play on a drive to score and if you have guys who have ball skills back there and are tacklers, that is key.
"Sometimes those guys have to drop in the box and you like to have both of them be able to do that, for disguise purposes. They've got to be very stout run defenders, great tacklers."
Bullocks is expected to work initially at free safety but will also get practice time at strong safety to provide the kind of position flexibility Marinelli wants in the secondary.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I like the heat for them to work in. We've got to water them down, we've got to be smart with them but the heat is good. The heat is good; the heat is our friend." — Coach Rod Marinelli on practicing in high heat and humidity of the Michigan summer.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
With running back Ahman Green a bystander and the receiver group unsettled, two rookies made a good first impression as training camp opened July 28.
Second-round draft pick Greg Jennings, who had jumped out for his route-running and pass-catching abilities in off-season workouts, didn't skip a beat with the pads on the first few days. He's a viable contender for the No. 2 role, part of a bunched-up group that includes veterans Robert Ferguson, Rod Gardner and Marc Boerigter.
"I haven't seen a decline in his speed or quickness," coach Mike McCarthy said.
As important, Jennings already has begun clicking with quarterback Brett Favre, 14 years the rookie's senior. The Western Michigan product has good hands and, early in camp, frequently turned slants over the middle into big gains.
"For a receiver that young, that's exciting to see," McCarthy said. "I'm very pleased with Greg to this point. That's what training camp is all about — the receivers getting on the same page with the timing of the passers."
Undrafted signee Arliss Beach has gotten some exposure at running back with the starting unit.
The Packers are waiting on Green to be given a clean bill of health, 10 months after he sustained a ruptured quadriceps tendon early last season. Green said it would probably be at least another week before he's allowed back on the field, albeit for non-contact work. He expects to miss at least the first two preseason games.
"Slowly but surely," said Green, who's penciled in as the starter pending a full recovery.
To compensate for the absence of the four-time Pro Bowl selection, McCarthy is rotating four backs with the starting unit: Samkon Gado, Noah Herron, Najeh Davenport and Beach. Davenport was cleared for the first day of camp after missing the entire off-season because of a broken ankle suffered last October. He's being limited initially, getting six to 10 carries a practice and participating in only one practice when the team has two-a-days.
The 5-foot-10, 219-pound Beach isn't unlike the undrafted Gado, last year's second-half surprise, in some respects. Beach was primarily a backup at Kentucky but had 14 touchdowns as a rushing and receiving threat. He also didn't fumble once in his four years.
"What happens a lot of times, when you get to real football, guys like Beach jump out," McCarthy said. "He plays with good balance; he's a physical guy. He's obviously young and learning — some of his mistakes are just for lack of experience — but I've been impressed with him since we've put the pads on."
Meanwhile, veteran cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson didn't cause any waves as they reported to training camp on time.
Harris had threatened to hold out of camp because he's unhappy with his existing six-year, $18.6 million contract, which expires after the 2009 season. He skipped all of the voluntary workouts in May and June.
He has since vowed to let his play this season do the talking for getting a restructured deal.
"This will be the last time we talk about this whole thing until it's time to talk about it," Harris said after the first camp practice.
Woodson, whom the Packers snared in free agency with a seven-year, $39 million deal, had no regrets about following Harris' lead and staying away from the team during its non-mandatory practices in the spring. Woodson opted to train on his own in Houston, which he has done in recent years.
"I understand how everybody feels about me not being here (and a belief that) I can't lead the team, this and that. It's not true," Woodson said. "I felt like what I was doing was getting me in best possible shape physically to come in here and play this game. I mean, what more can you ask of a player?"
Favre reported in tip-top shape, weighing 219 pounds, but he's enduring sore ankles brought on by what McCarthy quipped as "old age."
Consequently, McCarthy held Favre out of the lighter morning practice of the team's first set of two-a-days July 30.
"The ankle's bothering him a little bit, but he's throwing the ball with good accuracy and good velocity," McCarthy said. "He's playing with good balance. His legs are still very strong; he hasn't lost anything there. (He's) very comfortable with the offense, and (I'm) very pleased with him so far."
Favre, though, is on a daily pitch count. He'll throw 40 to 50 balls during the team's 2 1/2-hour practices and make 20 to 25 passes in the shorter practices when two-a-days are held.
However, Clifton will practice only once a day when two workouts are scheduled.
Will Whitticker stands to back up Clifton after Adrian Klemm suffered a potentially severe Achilles tendon injury July 29. Whitticker, who fell out of favor with the new coaching staff after starting at right guard as a rookie last season, shed about 15 pounds before reporting to camp to get to his prescribed weight of 322.
"It just took a little longer than expected to get the language worked out and to get all the lawyer stuff that they need to after they agreed on the terms, I guess," said Hawk, referring to his first pro contract.
Hawk, the No. 5 overall pick in the draft, and the Packers came to terms on the deal July 28, but he had to miss the opening practice of training camp that evening. The contract was finalized the morning of July 29, allowing Hawk to make the team's second practice.
On July 24, Hawk and Laura Quinn, sister of Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, moved up their wedding date eight months. They were married in a civil ceremony at a Green Bay law firm.
News of the impromptu exchange of vows spread quickly in Wisconsin, which didn't sit well with Hawk, who was hoping to keep the matter under the radar. The newlyweds are going ahead with a big celebration they planned for March 17 next year in their native Ohio.
"We were happy. We felt like it was the right thing to do at the time, and it was — we're still happy about it," Hawk said. "It's good to get all this stuff in line before. Now, I can come in here and just play football. And, that's what I'm focused on."
"He was grinning from ear to ear, so he must have been feeling pretty good," general manager Ted Thompson said.
Jones, 54, has been recuperating at home. He was elected the successor to a retiring Bob Harlan in May.
The caps are being sold through the team's pro shop for $15, with $5 from every sale donated to charity.
The coaches donned the caps on the practice field in training camp.
The team takes up residence in dorm rooms there for the first three weeks of camp, but all of its meetings and meals during the day have been shifted to Lambeau Field. The change hasn't agreed with at least one veteran player.
"I kind of like St. Norbert food a little bit better. I wish we could eat over there again," linebacker Nick Barnett said. "They had steak and lobster on the first day. All we have (at the stadium) is spaghetti."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It kind of felt like ‘Monday Night Football' out there, playing all over again. The lights were on. The crowd was screaming. I felt like we were at home. That's Green Bay football. It just wasn't cold." — WR Donald Driver on opening training camp July 28 at night with portable lights set up at the practice field in Green Bay. The Packers have eight evening practices in camp this year.