Even if Ricky Manning isn't in the Bears' starting lineup this season, chances are he'll end up being the most important addition to the team.
Manning was brought in to play nickel back, the extra cornerback defenses use when faced with a passing situation. He represents an upgrade over last year's nickel back, Jerry Azumah, who retired. Manning started 26 games in three years with the Panthers, who drafted him in the third round in 2003. He still considers himself a capable starter in the NFL and could wind up in that role again.
"I have a chance to compete," Manning said. "(Bears coach) Lovie (Smith) told me, ‘You're a nickel back, but you're competing at corner.' I'm trying to win a spot in the base defense instead of just (playing) nickel."
The Bears don't have any plans to demote Pro Bowl cornerback Nate Vasher or Charles Tillman. But Tillman's inconsistency has left him open to occasional criticism. Ideally the competition at corner will result in an even better secondary than the one that finished first in the NFL last season in average gain allowed per pass play and No. 5 in passing yards allowed. But that unit was humbled by Manning's former team in last season's playoff loss, when it permitted 311 passing yards and 3 TD passes, including 58- and 39-yard scores by Steve Smith.
Manning intends to ensure that doesn't happen again, whether he's starting or playing on passing downs.
"I just bring a little bit more experience," said Manning, who played in all 48 games in his three seasons with the Panthers and started 45 games at UCLA. "I've been to two NCAA championship games; I've been in the Super Bowl. I've had big games in the big game."
Actually, he's had some huge games in big games. As an NFL rookie, Manning won back-to-back NFL defensive player of the week awards in the postseason, following the divisional-round playoff game and the NFC championship game, when he tied the conference record with 3 interceptions.
But he still faces the prospect of jail time for an assault charge on April 23 in Los Angeles, a day before he joined the Bears. Manning is scheduled for a preliminary hearing next Monday, and he could get up to four years if convicted. He hopes to put that episode behind him and project a more positive image. Off the field, he has spent significant time during training camp signing autographs and chatting with fans. On the field he's demonstrated his skills on a daily basis.
"I have some knowledge, and also I'm a hard worker," Manning said. "I go snap to whistle every down, and that's one reason why Lovie brought me here. He told me, ‘I love the way you've played since you first got in this league, and we need that in the secondary. We need you to bring another element to it.'
"And also, I'm here to push the other guys, too. If those guys know that, ‘Hey, our starting jobs are on the line,' they're going to step their game up. So it's a win-win situation for everybody. They get better, and I get better when I push them, and the best guys wind up on the field."
Manning's new teammates have been impressed with his game.
"Ricky has all the knowledge of a savvy veteran," Vasher said. "He definitely helps out our nickel position, and if something does happen, he's a proven starter, too. So we have the depth that we need to go forward and go deep into the playoffs."
Manning's former Panthers teammate, Dante Wesley, was also signed by the Bears as an unrestricted free agent, and he could wind up playing in some obvious passing situations as an additional defensive back.
"It gave us depth," strong safety Mike Brown said of the addition of Manning and Wesley, plus rookie safety Danieal Manning, who isn't related to Ricky. "I've had some problems staying healthy, and if someone goes down, we're going to have some quality guys come in and play at a high level."
And, in the case of the veteran Manning, with some high intensity. He's listed at 5-foot-9 and 188 pounds, but the compact and muscular corner hits like a much bigger player.
"That's always been my motto since college and even in high school; I've always been a physical guy," Manning said. "I'll come up and hit somebody twice my size. Maybe I'm a little crazy, or maybe it's just instincts. I've never been one to duck out of a hit."
CAMP CALENDAR: Camp closes after a 10 a.m. practice on Wednesday, Aug. 16. The Bears have a 7 p.m. practice at Soldier Field on Wednesday, Aug. 9; and 7 p.m. practices under the lights at ONU's Turner Field on Tuesday, Aug. 8, and Sunday, Aug. 13.
At 6-foot-4 and 212 pounds, Gage is the biggest of the Bears' wide receivers and can do things that the others can't.
"He brings that big body, which is valuable, especially in our offense," wide receivers coach Darryl Drake said. "We have a power-type offense, so when you're running those slants, you want a guy like that, a bigger body for the quarterback to throw it to in those situations."
After an impressive rookie season for a fifth-round pick, Gage slumped in 2005 with just 12 catches for 156 yards, when he was virtually ignored in the offense. He bounced back last season with 31 catches for 346 yards but is fighting for playing time with Bernard Berrian and Mark Bradley, who are faster and better big-play threats. But Gage worked in the off-season to maximize his assets, and it's helped.
"In the off-season, he needed to work at getting off the press, and he's gotten better," Drake said. "He's not getting held up as much as he did in the past. As long as he continues to use his size and strength to his advantage, he'll be fine."
Jones, who rushed for 1,335 yards last season but was dropped to No. 2 on the depth chart after boycotting all the Bears' "voluntary" off-season practices and workouts, has yet to practice because of a strained hamstring. No. 3 running back Adrian Peterson, a five-year veteran, hasn't been hit hard all camp.
After getting thumped twice in a practice earlier in the week, Benson lowered his shoulder and drove safety Chris Harris several feet down the field. A couple days later, after again taking a couple shots, Benson, who was the fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft, rammed defensive end Wale Ogunleye and knocked him a couple yards from the point of attack.
This past Wednesday, Benson was asked if the action during practice was getting chippy.
"At times," he said. "They tell me we're not going to hit. When I come through the hole, I'm not really trying to hit them, they're trying to hit me. So I just think they're trying to set me up."
Benson was only half-serious when he said that, but he missed practice on August 1 with a sore and swollen knee and was asked if it was from avoiding a low tackle the night before.
"No," he said. "It was probably those crazy defensive guys running into me."
He said that with a laugh, but he wasn't laughing Saturday night.
Smith was asked it the hit by Urlacher and Brown, which appeared pretty tame, was still unnecessary.
"Our guys don't hit unnecessarily out here, believe me," Smith said. "But you're going to get hit from time to time. There was nothing cheap about it."
"Why would Hunter be jealous. He makes more (money) than Lance," Urlacher said with a smile. "He got his new deal."
Hillenmeyer signed a five-year extension at the end of June that included a $5 million signing bonus and could be worth as much as $13 million if all the escalators are realized. Briggs has a base salary of $721,000 in the final year of his original four-year deal but is expected to hit the jackpot after the season, either as an unrestricted free agent or if the Bears use the franchise or transition tag to keep him on the team. Briggs' contract status has been a popular topic since last season, while Hillenmeyer flies under the radar as usual. But Hillenmeyer is entering his third season as a Bears starter after being cut by the Packers just before the start of the 2003 season.
"Hunter makes plays," Urlacher said. "Everyone thinks he's always the third guy out, but Hunter makes a lot of plays for us, does a good job. He probably doesn't get the hype that the other two of us do, but that's just the way it goes sometimes. At least the guys (on the team) know."
"We'd love to see consistency," Rivera said. "We don't want too many valleys. Last year we had a number of valleys that hurt us. Pittsburgh (a 21-9 loss in which the Steelers had 363 total yards) was a valley. Against Green Bay we had a couple of valleys."
The Bears won both Packers games but allowed 358 and 365 yards, respectively. All three games were in December and the slump prevented the Bears from finishing No. 1 in yards allowed, which is an often-repeated goal of this year's team.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "When you have lowered expectations, people think, ‘Oh, I don't have to do much. I can just get by doing this. Nobody's expecting me to do any better anyway.' Then you get lackadaisical and lazy. Everybody here on both sides of the ball has a great sense of urgency to get better and improve on what we did last year and not only meet expectations, but exceed everybody's expectations because we have very high expectations of ourselves." — Bears NT Ian Scott
It was understood from the minute Rod Marinelli arrived as the Lions coach last January that the wide receivers would be one of the primary focal points of the team's training camp.
But no one could have foreseen the attention two of the wideouts — Mike Williams and Charles Rogers — would be getting during the first two weeks of work at the Lions' Allen Park training facility.
Rogers, the second player taken in the 2003 draft, was praised by Marinelli and quarterback Jon Kitna alike during the early days of camp but seems to have faded in the days since.
Williams, the 10th player taken in the 2005 draft, seemed to be on shaky ground when the workouts began but has made impressive strides in the workouts that have followed.
And Marinelli is offering no explanation to reporters following and focusing on every play the receivers run on the practice field aside from a somewhat vague: "Don't read more into it than there is. We're just getting the guys work, trying to work each guy, each person."
Yet, the change in Williams' and Rogers' assignments, the opportunities they're getting and the results that are surfacing seem to indicate Williams is ascending in the depth chart and Rogers is on the decline.
The one thing that Marinelli has made clear is that things happen on the practice field for a reason.
"It's all about competing," he said. "Earn your spots, earn your reps. Every day, earn it. If you like those reps, keep working, you may get them some more."
Williams had an outstanding day of work on one of the hottest days of training camp last week. With the coaching staff apparently testing his toughness and his willingness to work, he ran play after play after play in the sweltering heat and humidity. At one point, he even stopped to pull off his helmet, jersey and shirt to cool down briefly; moments later, he was back running plays.
Rogers has not been put to that kind of test but seemingly had done all that had been asked of him before he suddenly started getting fewer reps on the practice field.
Asked how he felt he had played in camp, Rogers said: "I think it's been decent. I don't think it's been a D grade or a C grade."
Roy Williams and Corey Bradford have been and remain the first offense receivers. Kick returner Eddie Drummond seemingly has made strides in earning more time on the field as a receiver also.
CAMP CALENDAR: Aug. 11 — exhibition opener against Denver; Aug. 17 — Break camp; Aug. 24 — Kickoff luncheon, hosted by Economic Club of Detroit.
In this case, it took them five days of two-a-days, including an outstanding effort under extremely unfavorable conditions in the fifth day.
"They earned it and I made sure they know that," Marinelli explained. "You earn what you get in life, you deserve what you get and that was a key point."
Marinelli said he felt good about the practice session early last week and, in reviewing the videotapes with his coaching staff that evening, they decided the players deserved an unscheduled lighter day of work the following day.
The result was a morning walkthrough instead of a full-pads session and an afternoon off.
"We were shocked," tailback Kevin Jones told reporters. "We didn't expect it. I know I was shocked; I was happy."
Marinelli stressed that he would be eager to see the same hard work and enthusiasm when the players returned to work the following day.
Pearson, a 6-feet-3, 310-pounder, is now getting practice time at tight end, a position he played a Brighton (Michigan) high school before going to Michigan as a defensive lineman and then a center.
Marinelli explained the move as part of the development of the Lions' running game.
"To get a look at him, to get a big, massive blocker over there," Marinelli said. "I think we have a chance to be a good running football team ... and he might have a chance to have a physical presence over there. We're just taking a look at him and seeing what he can do right now."
Pearson was also on the field when coordinator Mike Martz called a play in which a pass is thrown to the tight end. He caught the ball and got a cheer from his teammates.
"I was glad I caught the ball," he said. It was his first reception — in a game or practice — since high school.
The Lions have a 21-59 record — one of the worst five-year showings in team history — since owner William Clay Ford hired him at the end of the team's disappointing 9-7 finish in the 2000 season.
The team's best record in the five years under Millen was a 6-10 season in 2004 and late in the 2005 season many fans showed their displeasure with him by staging a "Fire Millen" rally before a game against Cincinnati.
That apparently did not discourage retiring NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue from inviting Millen to fill a vacancy on the prestigious competition committee, an invitation Millen eagerly accepted.
"We talked about it," Millen said. "(Jeff) Fisher talked to me about it awhile ago. To me, it's the game. That's the best part of it; I love the game."
As a member of the competition committee, he said he feels he has an obligation in a "gate keeper" role to work for the good of the game.
Millen will take the position on the committee left vacant by the resignation of Charley Casserly from Houston last spring.
Fisher, the Tennessee coach, and Atlanta general manager Rich McKay co-chair the committee.
The appointment of Millen is viewed in Detroit as a feather in the cap of the Lions, who traditionally have a very low profile at the league level.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "When he asks me, I'll let you know." — Lions coach Rod Marinelli on whether he would turn down a presidential dinner invitation as Miami coach Nick Saban did recently, citing a conflict with the Dolphins training camp schedule.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Brett Favre raised more than a few eyebrows in Green Bay, never mind across the league, when he declared in his first news conference of training camp July 31: "I really feel, as far as talent is concerned, this is the most talented team that I've been part of as a whole."
A strong statement, indeed, from a quarterback coming off his worst season as a pro and who hemmed and hawed for months in the off-season about whether to delay retirement and come back to a 4-12 team that he wasn't sure could be much more competitive.
If Favre knows something many others apparently aren't privy to, he had better hope he makes it through the entire season to enjoy the turnaround.
No guarantee for the iron man of his position because a red flag has been waving at left tackle since the outset of training camp July 28. The Packers went through five players trying to protect Favre's back side in only the first week.
Chad Clifton, one of the league's best pass blockers at the position, tweaked his right knee on the third day of practices and was out the rest of last week. Clifton had arthroscopic surgery on the knee after last season and didn't participate in any off-season workouts.
The club contends it's nothing about which to get worked up.
"Chad's rehab has gone well in the off-season. We wanted (him) to take a few days off to make sure that this doesn't become a big problem. He's our left tackle," general manager Ted Thompson said.
Yet, the Packers have little in reserve if Clifton were to need more time on the sideline.
Only a day prior to Clifton's dropping out of practice, top backup Adrian Klemm sustained a season-ending ruptured Achilles' tendon.
Will Whitticker, who struggled as a rookie starter at right guard last season, shifted outside to take over for Clifton. The experiment lasted only four days.
Whitticker isn't cut out to play the left side, so head coach Mike McCarthy replaced him with Junius Coston, who entered camp as a candidate to start at right guard. The versatile Coston, a second-year player, last lined up regularly at left tackle in high school.
Just as Coston was getting acclimated to his new position, Whitticker pulled his hamstring in practice August 4 and figures to be out at least two weeks.
Undrafted rookie Josh Bourke out of Division II Grand Valley State also has taken reps at left tackle with the starting group. ...
In the event that Favre were to miss any time, the Packers feel a lot better than they did this time a year ago that heir apparent Aaron Rodgers would be able to direct the offense.
Rodgers, last year's first-round draft pick, bombed in the team's scrimmage against Buffalo at Lambeau Field, completing only one of seven passes and taking three sacks.
A year to the day later at the same place, Rodgers put up satisfactory numbers in an intrasquad scrimmage Aug. 5. He was 11-of-23 throwing for 92 yards and a touchdown with no sacks. The lackluster accuracy numbers were skewed by a few dropped passes.
"What a difference a year makes. The comfort level, the confidence level, the patience level, grasp of the offense, it's all that," Rodgers said.
Rodgers ran the No. 2 offense against the No. 1 defense and directed a 15-play, 75-yard drive in his third series, which culminated with a 5-yard scoring pass to Marc Boerigter. It was one of three fourth-down plays Rodgers coolly converted for first downs in the drive. He connected with tight end Donald Lee for 20 yards and lofted a 30-yard pass to receiver Ruvell Martin.
"He threw the ball very well. I thought he gave the receivers opportunities," McCarthy said. "I like the way he was coming off his back foot, and the ball was coming out of there quick. He's definitely reached a confidence level and played with a lot of urgency. I'm excited about him."
Rodgers' only blemish was a downfield heave that was intercepted by safety Marviel Underwood in the final seconds of a two-minute drill. ...
Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson was scratched from the scrimmage because of a hip flexor that flared up toward the end of practice the previous day.
For Woodson, it was a legitimate excuse to get out of a practice situation for which he had no use.
"I don't try to do too much in preseason. I give everything I've got during the season," Woodson said after the scrimmage. "I think there's too many preseason games as there is. This is almost like a fifth one."
The Packers signed Woodson to a seven-year, $39 million contract in free agency this year. He also showed what he thinks of off-season team workouts for which he's not obligated to be present by skipping all of the voluntary practices before reporting to training camp on time.
"Two (preseason games) is good, I think," Woodson said. "Camp is long enough to evaluate the players. Give them two preseason games. You pretty much know who's going to be here, the core of the team. Get two preseason games and get to look at some other guys, then you make your decisions. I think two is enough."
Woodson said he would be ready for when practice resumed Monday after the players had a day off following the scrimmage.
CAMP CALENDAR: Closes Aug. 26. The team will make St. Norbert College in nearby De Pere its living quarters until Aug. 18.
The traveling party of about 20 had to hop back on a plane in Canton, Ohio, before White stepped up to the podium because the Packers had an evening scrimmage in Green Bay. The induction ceremony went longer than scheduled. Reggie White was second to last in the order of inductees, and Sara didn't give her speech until after 3 p.m. CDT.
The scrimmage at Lambeau Field started at 6:30 with pre-practice drills.
General manager Ted Thompson, current players Brett Favre and Rob Davis and retired players George Koonce and Dorsey Levens were among those who traveled to Canton in the morning and spent time with Reggie White's family during a private brunch put on by the Packers.
The club issued a statement later in the day that its attendees had to cut the trip short so as to not disappoint the capacity crowd on hand for the family-oriented scrimmage.
"The White family knew the early departure was a possibility," the team said in the release.
Fullback William Henderson, like Favre and Davis a former teammate of White, was supposed to make the trip but had to back out.
"I meant no disrespect to Sara and the family. I had to get some personal stuff taken care of," Henderson said.
Harlan, 69, was admitted to a Green Bay hospital Aug. 3 for a suspected gallstone. He was expected to be discharged during the weekend and be back at work this week.
"I didn't want to miss Reggie's induction for anything," Harlan said. "The timing of this (incident) is unfortunate. Everyone knows how much Reggie meant to the Packers, the city of Green Bay and everyone he came to know."
Harlan, the team's president since 1989, was diagnosed with melanoma in 2003 and had surgery that fall to remove two lesions. He will retire next May after he turns the mandatory age of 70 on Sept. 9.
John Jones, elected in the spring as Harlan's successor as president and chief executive officer, is recovering from open-heart surgery performed June 11.
Lambeau Field's capacity is 72,922. Only seats in the stadium bowl made up the sold-out number.
"In an atmosphere like this, for a Family Night scrimmage, it's unbelievable. The fans here are unbelievable," rookie wide receiver Greg Jennings said. "You can't do nothing but make progress, grow as an organization and as a team with fans behind you and supporting you the way that these fans do."
The controlled scrimmage was drawn up to have 60 plays of live action, but head coach Mike McCarthy said the team ran nearly 90. The scrimmage lasted one hour, 40 minutes.
"We had guys play a lot of snaps," McCarthy said. "I thought the speed of the game as far as game entry and substitution was very good for the first time out. Usually, you encounter personnel problems early in the preseason."
A new camp schedule implemented by first-year coach McCarthy has kept the players on site at Lambeau Field throughout much of the day, including for lunch and dinner. Some players expressed early in camp their desire to have meals at the college, and McCarthy compromised with moving dinner there until the team moves out Aug. 18.
The former running back is getting his feet wet in the pro personnel department to see whether scouting is appealing as a second career in the NFL.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I have a great love for the man and what he meant to this franchise. He showed every free agent in football, ‘Hey, take a look at Green Bay. It's special.' I don't want to ever forget what he meant to us. All I would say is Ron Wolf, Mike Holmgren, Reggie White and Brett Favre, that's the foundation that put this franchise back among the elite. Those four guys. And, I'll be forever grateful to all of them." — Chairman and chief executive officer Bob Harlan on the legacy left in Green Bay by late defensive end Reggie White, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 5.