None of the important questions that faced the Bears heading into training camp have been definitively answered yet.
Offensive coordinator Ron Turner was looking for one of the young, unproven wideouts to step up as a legitimate, consistent complement to Muhsin Muhammad, but it hasn't happened. Bernard Berrian is currently the starter, but he hasn't done much to shake his "fragile" tag, missing time with a bruised knee. Mark Bradley, who earned a starting spot last season as a rookie, has flashed the skills he had before a torn ACL ended his first season. He's not all the way back but is getting close.
Then there was the issue of who would be the featured running back. Cedric Benson, the fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft, was handed the job when incumbent Thomas Jones skipped all the "voluntary" work in the offseason after rushing for a career-best 1,335 yards in 2005. Jones fell further behind when he strained a hamstring hours before the first training camp practice.
But, when Benson was hit unnecessarily in an early-August practice and suffered a mild shoulder separation, both players were unavailable. Jones got healthy first and made a cameo in the third preseason game, thereby reclaiming the job. Benson might be healthy by the regular-season opener, stirring the controversy anew.
Bottom line, the Bears should be a good running team with either player featured, and both are expected to get a significant workload, but maybe not enough to keep either happy. Still, problems like this are usually the kind coaches like to have.
The Bears were also looking for often-injured Rex Grossman to cement his position as the franchise quarterback, but his performance in the first three preseason games was completely underwhelming. He was thoroughly outplayed by veteran backup Brian Griese, who did his best to douse the flames of a quarterback controversy, which will continue burning until Grossman, a first-round pick in 2003, lives up to his draft status.
The defense, the stingiest in the NFL in points allowed last season, was expected to be even better with the additions of rookies Danieal Manning at safety and Dusty Dvoracek at tackle plus the free-agent pickups of cornerbacks Ricky Manning and Dante Wesley from the Panthers.
Coordinator Ron Rivera's group has played well for the most part, but it has also suffered unexpected mental and physical lapses in addition to potentially serious injuries to strong safety Mike Brown (Achilles) and end Alex Brown (separated shoulder). Defensive tackles Ian Scott (knee) and Tank Johnson (quad) didn't play until the final preseason game.
But the Bears are expected to be close to full strength by the start of the regular season, and they appear to be clearly superior to the rest of a mediocre division. Just on defense alone, they should win 10 games, and if the offense comes of age (Grossman and the receivers), the Bears could be a lot better than last year's playoff team that went 11-5 with fourth-round rookie quarterback Kyle Orton starting 15 games.
The Bears are at least talking a good game, rationalizing inconsistent efforts as unimportant because they occurred in the preseason.
"This team has a swagger right now," Johnson said. "The defense, definitely, we got the swagger, we got the confidence. We just need to have some actual real games to show what we are capable of."
Johnson is probably right. The Bears, on paper, should be one of the NFC's best teams - as long as they stay healthy. Their depth is better than it was a year ago, but if key players like Mike Brown go down, they're still going to be in trouble.
COACHING: Lovie Smith, 3rd year, 3rd with Bears (16-16).
REMEMBERING: 2005 record: 11-5 (1st in NFC North); lost in divisional-round game to Panthers, 29-21.
"My body's fresh right now, and I'm ready to go on the champagne campaign," Johnson said. "That's all there is to it, drinking champagne in Miami after the Super Bowl. That's all we're on right now, that's our only mission. We set the bar high and that's where we want to be."
Even before they played their final preseason game, the Bears were already thinking about Green Bay, where they'll face the Packers in the regular-season opener on Sept. 10.
"We're studying some of their film from last season and looking at their preseason stuff, kind of checking out the personnel that they've got and what they might use," guard Ruben Brown said. "This week we've prepared for Cleveland, but all through training camp we've been putting stuff in thinking we're going to use this against Green Bay."
The Bears have beaten the Packers in three of the last four meetings but previous to that dropped 18 of 20 against them.
"We all still feel like we've got a great team," Grossman said. "You can't really make excuses for it, saying, 'Oh, don't worry about the preseason because we're going to be good once the regular season comes around.' It's hard to say that, but everyone in this locker room knows we're a good football team and knows that we're going to have a pretty good season.
"Everyone's confidence is still pretty high, even though offensively we haven't scored a touchdown. It's coming. I know it's coming and everyone in this locker room knows it's coming. It's just a matter of going out and doing it and proving it and time will tell."
BY THE NUMBERS: 75 - the average distance in yards of Nate Vasher's three NFL touchdown returns.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "This team has a swagger right now. The defense, definitely, we got the swag, we got the confidence, we just need to have some actual real games to show what we are capable of." - Bears DT Tank Johnson.
Keep in mind, these are the Detroit Lions we're talking about.
This is a team with one playoff win in the past 48 seasons, a team that has never participated in a Super Bowl.
This is a team that has enjoyed only six winning seasons in the past 22 years and has not won a division title since 1993 when it finished 10-6 under Wayne Fontes.
This is a team that has won a grand total of 21 games in the past five years and is on its fourth coach in six seasons under president Matt Millen.
To expect an immediate turnaround for new coach Rod Marinelli might be asking a little too much. Or probably a lot too much.
For all of the "pound the rock" and "keep chopping wood" gospel Marinelli has preached, for all of the hard work and pushing his players toward toughness, there is scant indication the Lions are ready to burst from the starting blocks as serious contenders in the NFC North.
Millen - for one - expects opening day to be just the start of what the Lions will become during the 2006 season.
"It better not be the finished product," he said. "We better get better as the year goes on."
The Lions will not be the soft, undisciplined team that fell to 5-11 and got coach Steve Mariucci canned 11 games into the 2005 season, but it appears they will have a considerable way to go before they're ready to play at the level of toughness and perfection demanded by Marinelli and his coordinators, Mike Martz with the offense and Donnie Henderson with the defense.
The unspoken hope at the Allen Park headquarters is that the Lions will stay alive through the early weeks of the season as a work in progress and begin paying dividends in the second half of the season, a la the Miami Dolphins in their first season with Nick Saban last year.
Marinelli's major accomplishment of training camp was to set the standard of expectations high. He pushed the Lions through two-a-days in sweltering heat, working them in full pads at every opportunity, preaching accountability and testing their toughness - mental and physical - with a day trip to Oakland for the third preseason game.
They took the five-hour flight to the Bay Area, spent a couple of hours resting in a hotel, played the game (losing 21-3 to the Raiders) and making the return flight to Detroit, all in a span of 24 hours.
The Lions got some things accomplished in training camp. Jon Kitna established himself as the quarterback and offensive leader, Roy Williams established himself as the big-play receiver and Kevin Jones showed occasional indications he can headman an invigorated running game. Rookie linebacker Ernie Sims and safety Daniel Bullocks, the two top draft picks, proved they are ready to play in the NFL.
But Marinelli did not get everything done he wanted or needed to get done in training camp.
Injuries limited his ability to get all parts working in sync. Guard Damien Woody (hand) and tackle Rex Tucker (knee) missed virtually all of training camp, as did Pro Bowl defensive tackle Shaun Rogers (shoulder) and middle linebacker Boss Bailey (ankle). It remains uncertain when linebacker Teddy Lehman (foot) will get off the PUP list.
COACHING: Rod Marinelli, first year.
REMEMBERING: 2005 record: 5-11, third in the NFC North.
Sanders and Cleveland guard Gene Hickerson are the two finalists selected by the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Seniors Committee and will join 15 yet-to-be-determined younger candidates on the ballot for the 2007 Hall of Fame class.
Sanders, who caught 336 passes for 4,817 yards and 31 touchdowns in his 10-year NFL career (1968-77), said he never obsessed over making it to Canton but now that he's this close, he says it's "kind of like having your hand in that cookie jar, hoping to get that cookie and not just the crumbs."
"I didn't spend that much time dwelling on it," he said. "I just felt that in my mind the guys that were in there, they knew. It was gratifying to think and to know that you had success against a lot of the guys that were in (the Hall of Fame) and that's what mattered to me - the fact that I had their respect."
If he is elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Sanders will be the seventh tight end enshrined. The other six are Dave Casper, Mike Ditka, John Mackey, Jackie Smith, Kellen Winslow and Ozzie Newsome.
Casper, Ditka, Mackey, Smith and Winslow all had five Pro Bowl appearances and Newsome had three. Sanders was elected to seven Pro Bowl games.
Sanders has remained with the Lions in various capacities since his retirement. He is currently the team's assistant director of pro personnel.
"I think it was a great idea," quarterback Jon Kitna said after the 21-3 loss to the Raiders. "It helps a team have to deal with adversity. You never know what's going to happen, week in and week out. I thought for the most part guys were fresh and energetic at the start of the game. I didn't think that was an issue whatsoever.
"I think we came out with great energy. We just had some unfortunate things happen on their side of the 50, where we turned the ball over a couple times, had a couple penalties and a couple times we felt there should have been some pass interference calls. But those things happen on the road, you've got to be able to fight through them."
Marinelli was not ready to dismiss the final preseason game against Buffalo but after that he knew the focus would go immediately to the Sept. 10 home season opener against defending NFC champion Seattle.
"Oh yeah, no question," Marinelli said. "They're in your mind. You sit down at night before going home and maybe watch a tape on them and you're just getting a feel and getting used to them. And then it's, 'the preseason is over, let's go and ... you're locked in.' "
BY THE NUMBERS: 3-0 - The Lions' record in their last three season openers. Not bad, considering they won only 16 of the other 45 games they have played in the past three seasons.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm a Lion, man. I'm going to be a Lion and when you talk to me next week, it's going to be the same story. I'm still going to be here." - Wide receiver Charles Rogers on whether or not he might be finished as a Lion.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
To quote quarterback Brett Favre on July 31, the fourth day of training camp:
"I really feel like this is, as far as talent is concerned, the most talented team that I've been a part of as a whole ..."
Before everyone in Wisconsin choked on a cheese curd with that bold proclamation, Favre followed with, "but the most unproven, inexperienced team that I've ever played on."
Four weeks later, in his final news conference of the preseason Aug. 30, Favre spoke more realistically about what he's in store for with a young team that raised more questions than provided answers in the preseason.
"You'd like to be able to gauge something off of these games, but I don't know. I really don't," Favre said. "There's a lot of potential, but that in itself doesn't get it done."
In other words, the 16th-year veteran isn't any more certain that last year's 4-12, last-place finish in the NFC North was merely a fluke - after 13 consecutive non-losing seasons - than he was when he waffled for more than three months in the offseason about putting off retirement.
It's a fact of life in Favre's once-peachy world that things aren't what they used to be. As he creeps closer to 40, the majority of his teammates are barely older than the legal drinking age of 21. The Packers could open the season Sept. 10 against Chicago with two-thirds of their roster filled with players who have no more than two years of playing experience in the league.
The vast inexperience was reflected in the preseason results.
"I still stand by it," Favre said of his early-camp comment that raised eyebrows across the country. "There's a lot of talent.
"(But) I have no idea what to expect this year. I really don't," he added. "Is that scary? Not really. I'd love to think we're going to the Super Bowl. But, we have to worry about winning a game first."
In some ways, Favre is starting all over on offense, a year after he endured the lowest point in his celebrated career with a league-high 29 interceptions.
He has a new head coach in Mike McCarthy, who has implemented his own West Coast philosophy, including a zone-blocking scheme in the run game. As for the rushing attack, which plummeted to 30th in the league rankings last season, there's no guarantee Ahman Green will revert to his prolific ways before he suffered a season-ending leg injury last October. For the second straight season, Favre must deal with an unsettled offensive line, which will feature three new starters on the interior, including rookie guards Jason Spitz and Tony Moll. What's more, the only receiver he admittedly trusts to throw the football to is Donald Driver.
Defensively, the Packers are in flux, on their fourth coordinator in as many years with Bob Sanders. A unit that wasn't as dominant as its No. 7 overall ranking last year would suggest will have six new starters, featuring free-agent signees Charles Woodson at cornerback and Ryan Pickett at defensive tackle and first-round draft pick A.J. Hawk at linebacker.
The only saving grace for a team that may be on a seesaw for most of the season is it has the second-easiest schedule in the league, based on last year's records.
COACHING: Mike McCarthy, 1st year.
REMEMBERING: 2005 record: 4-12 (4th in NFC North).
In turn, Green Bay set the kickoff Friday for 3 p.m. so as to avoid any conflicts with high-school football games being played in the state of Wisconsin that night. It was the first preseason game played during the day since Baltimore met the New York Giants in a noon start Aug. 31, 2001.
The Packers were scheduled to practice only once, on Wednesday, between their last two exhibition games. The team had to pare its roster to the mandatory 75-player limit after the Cincinnati game, then will have to establish its 53-man roster less than 24 hours after the Tennessee game.
"In a perfect world, you could play Saturday with your first game, the next game maybe on a Friday, the next game on a Thursday and the next game on a Wednesday or a Thursday, so you have several days in between your mandatory roster reductions and the games," general manager Ted Thompson said. "But, it just didn't work out schedule-wise this year. It happens."
The 31-point margin was Green Bay's most lopsided defeat in the preseason since it was drilled 34-3 by the New York Giants in 1988.
Reigning Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh, incidentally the opponent for Favre's starting debut, is right behind the Packers with a record of 138-82-1 (.627 winning percentage).
BY THE NUMBERS: 4 - Games the Packers will play against 2005 playoff teams: Chicago (twice), New England and Seattle.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "In pregame on the sidelines, just looking around at the guys, thinking back to when I was their age, it's kind of like being on a camping trip and you're waiting for someone to lead you on a hike or a fishing trip - Where do we go next? What do we do?' Not that someone in that group couldn't do it themselves. But, it's kind of like, 'Is it my place to do it? Let's wait for this person to show us where we're going.' Or, (on) a horseback ride, 'How do we saddle the horse?' That's kind of what it seems like." - 36-year-old quarterback Brett Favre, addressing the inexperience that permeates the Packers roster this season.