With the Bears preparing for the NFL's second season, there are questions about the rotation at running back.
Over the final four weeks of the regular season, backup running back Cedric Benson had 59 carries, while starter Thomas Jones had 49. Jones averaged 4.76 yards per carry in the final quarter of the season, while Benson averaged 4.73, and he had the only 100-yard game, getting 109 in the finale against the Packers.
"He's got his weight up, and he's close to 230. He's a load," Bears coach Lovie Smith said of Benson. "Most of the time he's falling forward, getting positive yards. I think every time you see him carry the football, you see a confident running back, a guy that's getting more and more confidence every time he plays."
With Benson and Jones complementing each other, the Bears averaged 138 rushing yards over the last seven games of the regular season, 21 more than the NFL average and 31 more than they averaged in the first nine games this season. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner has been impressed by Benson's performance down the stretch.
"He's playing really well," Turner said. "He's running hard, running with confidence and playing really well, so we've gotten him more carries lately, and hopefully that'll continue."
So who's the Bears' No. 1 running back?
The Bears started the season using Benson for a couple of possessions per game in relief of Jones, but their playing time evened out as the season progressed. In the Packers game, Benson played on three consecutive possessions, but Jones replaced him in passing situations, as the Bears consider Jones the better receiver. Jones is fourth on the team with 36 receptions, but he's averaged just 4.3 yards per catch. Benson averaged 6.8 yards on eight catches.
Jones remains the starter, but he had a series of nagging injuries (ankle, ribs, groin) the past few weeks and has the wear and tear of 296 carries (for 1,210 yards) on his body. Benson is healthier and fresher, having carried just 157 times for 647 yards. Each player averaged 4.1 yards per carry with six touchdowns and a long run of 30 yards.
Benson wasn't happy with his limited workload most of the season, but it could pay off in the postseason.
"There's no substitute for feeling good and being healthy going into the postseason," Benson said. "I don't know if that was the right choice or the best choice (during the season), but everything's working out good so far."
On Wednesday, Smith seemed to indicate that Jones would get more carries, but he didn't say the Bears would go back to their early-season routine of giving Jones twice as many carries as Benson. Common sense says that once the game begins, the more productive player will get the most carries.
"Our trend as it's been all along is to play both running backs," Smith said. "The situations have allowed Cedric to play more lately. Of course, he's taken advantage of the reps he's gotten. But, as we go into the playoffs, Thomas Jones is our starter. He'll get the majority of the reps, and Cedric will be next in line."
With quarterback Rex Grossman coming off a disastrous performance, past performance says the Bears would be wise to give gives Jones and Benson all the carries they can handle. In the six games in which Grossman threw a total of 18 interceptions, the Bears ran the ball an average of 25 times a game. In the 10 games in which Grossman was picked off just twice, the Bears ran an average of 35.3 times.
"Anytime you can run the ball, that gives you an opportunity to wear a team out, especially during the second half of the game," Jones said. "It makes it a lot easier as far as the passing game because they may put a couple more guys in the box, and that may leave some more room for receivers to get open. A good running back definitely helps the passing game."
Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera is in the midst of a busy week, juggling head-coaching job interviews while preparing his group for next weekend's divisional-round playoff game.
Rivera interviewed for the Arizona Cardinals' opening on Wednesday and will meet with the Falcons tomorrow. He and offensive coordinator Ron Turner are both scheduled to interview for the Dolphins' top job this week.
"I got an opportunity to interview," Rivera said, "and I think it's a great reflection on this organization in terms of the direction (it's) headed the last few years."
If Rivera becomes the Cardinals new head coach for 2007, he will be the seventh in the 20 years since the franchise moved from Sr. Louis to Arizona.
But he's got a lot of competition. After interviewing Rivera on Wednesday, Cardinals vice president Michael Bidwill and vice president of football operations Rod Graves, a former head of player personnel with the Bears. Graves was a scout for the Bears while Rivera was a linebacker with the team from 1984-92 and is considered a fan of his. He and Bidwill met with Texans assistant head coach Mike Sherman on Thursday.
Arizona interviews are planned on each subsequent day with Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, Colts assistant head coach Jim Caldwell, Titans offensive coordinator Norm Chow and Steelers assistant head coach Russ Grimm, who was a finalist for the Bears' job in 2004, in that order.
"Just the fact that I've been recognized that I have that type of potential to be a head coach, I think that's kind of exciting," Rivera said. "I don't know what (the Cardinals) are thinking, but I thought it went well, and I thought I was pretty well prepared. I got an opportunity last year that gave me a little insight as to what to expect, and I think just the preparation getting ready for it was pretty good."
Rivera interviewed a year ago for head-coaching positions with the Packers and Rams, and was a finalist for the latter.
For now, Rivera is trying to keep everything in perspective regarding his possible career advancement.
"It's just speculation, and (you) just try to treat it that way," he said. "You really never know until they make their decision. Until then, every time I come back here, my focus comes right back to the playoffs and getting ready for our first-round playoff match-up."
Whoever gets the Cardinals' job will be encouraged - perhaps required — to keep at least some of the seven assistants the team still has under contract. And the new coach will not be allowed to purge the roster, as Green did three years ago. The Cardinals' front office and many players believe the team is close to turning the corner despite this season's 5-11 record.
"We will be looking for a coach that will be organized, that will see the opportunities with this football team," Graves said. "We are looking for someone with the best plan given what we have in place currently. I don't see wholesale changes needed."
Bidwill said the Cardinals are closer to success than they were three years ago despite the lack of progress in the standings.
"I think we will be successful, and more importantly, look at the team we have," Bidwill said. "This is a much different situation than it was three years ago. This is something that can be turned around very quickly."
Turner spent eight seasons as the head coach at Illinois before rejoining the Bears in 2005.He was also the Bears' offensive coordinator from 1993-95 and helped produce some of the most productive offenses in team history. In ‘95, quarterback Erik Kramer set team records with 315 completions, 522 attempts, 3,838 yards and 29 touchdowns.
"I'm flattered that they would have some interest in me," Turner said. "I'm excited about it. My ultimate goal is to be a head coach in the National Football League. I feel that through the years of being a head coach at the collegiate level and an assistant at this level and being with somebody like Lovie Smith, who's taught me a great deal, that I'm prepared for it and ready and anxious to go talk to them."
"In this league, especially at this position, you have to bring it every single week no matter what," Grossman said. "I felt like I was going to play about a half, and it was the last game, it was New Year's Eve, and there were so many other factors that brought my focus away from what is actually important. That's something that I am never going to do again. There's too much I'm responsible for to not give it 100 percent during the week and just (give it) the full attention. It's another lesson."
The defensive end from Alabama led all NFL rookies and set a team rookie record with 12 sacks but finished second to college teammate DeMeco Ryans, a second-round (No. 33 overall) linebacker who led the Texans in tackles.
"We're both good players coming out of a real good system in college," Anderson said. "I expect those types of guys to come out of Alabama because we work so hard in what we do. I congratulate him on the honor. I'm honored just to be in the running."
Anderson had more sacks than any rookie in the history of the NFL who was drafted in the fifth round or later.
BY THE NUMBERS: 7.5 — After the Rams' game on Dec. 11, Devin Hester was averaging 14.2 yards on punt returns. Since then he's averaged 7.5, and his kickoff returns have also been disappointing. After taking a pair to the house against the Rams, for 94 and 96 yards, Hester has averaged 19.7 yards on his subsequent 10 kickoff returns.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Denny Green has been an excellent football coach in the league for a long time. He's done a good job. Jim Mora has a winning record right now; he's done a good job. I know we are in situations where people would like to see winners early — and late, and there's not a lot of room for anything else. I guess that's what happened with them. But both of them are excellent football coaches." — Bears coach Lovie Smith, who was hired the same time as the first two NFL head coaches fired this season.
Matt Millen is staying and Rod Marinelli is forging ahead, as enthusiastic and determined as ever, in the Lions' ongoing and seemingly never-ending battle to escape the depths of the NFL standings.
For those still counting, 2007 is year seven of the rebuilding program launched by owner William Clay Ford when he hired Millen as the team president after his team turned in a disappointing 9-7 record and missed the playoffs on the final day of the 2000 season.
Since then the Lions have won 24 games and lost 72, and they haven't come close to winning nine games in any one season. Their high-water mark over the past six years was 6-10 in the 2004 season.
Their 3-13 finish in 2006 guaranteed them the No. 2 pick in April's draft and also gave rise to speculation that Millen might be dismissed.
Ford apparently did not consider it enough of an issue to clear the air, leaving Millen in the unusual situation of giving himself a vote of confidence in a postseason session with a handful of reporters.
Millen said he and Ford have talked "a bunch" but added: "It never even got to anything other than just keep on doing what we're doing."
That apparently does not apply to the .250 winning percentage, but Millen says he will never quit, and, with Marinelli, he feels he finally has laid the groundwork for the kind of improvement he's been seeking the past six years.
Although the Lions won only three games, Marinelli seems to be on the way to overcoming the culture of losing that has pervaded the team for so many seasons. If it had not been for the rash of injuries that cost the team three starters off both the offensive and defensive lines, the Lions might have won more.
Marinelli never used the injuries as an excuse, however, and two days after the end of the season he was back in the office, making staff changes — releasing defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson and offensive line coach Larry Beightol and making a hurried adjustment after the unexpected retirement of special teams coach Chuck Priefer.
Marinelli says he and Henderson remain close friends but felt it was best to go their separate ways because of philosophical differences: Henderson never got entirely comfortable running the Tampa-2 defense that is Marinelli's lifeblood.
One day after Henderson was fired, Marinelli had hired a replacement — his son-in-law, Joe Barry, who was hired by Tony Dungy at Tampa Bay in 2001 and also worked with Lovie Smith in the Tampa-2.
Marinelli declined to give a reason for the firing of Beightol, but it is believed Beightol and offensive coordinator Mike Martz had differences in their approach to running the offense. A replacement was not named immediately.
The biggest surprise in the year-end wrap-up was Priefer's decision to retire at age 65 after spending the past 10 years with the Lions.
"He caught me off guard, darn him," Marinelli said. "But he's just a tremendous special teams coach, just a tremendous football coach, a great coach for young coaches to be around."
Marinelli didn't have to look far for Priefer's replacement, however. Stan Kwan, who was an assistant to Priefer the past three seasons and worked with him from 1997-2000 also, accepted the job.
As he has all season, Marinelli took full responsibility for the Lions' disappointing results, but he was enthusiastic regarding the foundation of hard work and commitment he established. He said he expects it to pay dividends in the future.
"I think sometimes the route I'm going is the harder route — how tough I want this football team to play and changes in attitudes in changing a long culture of losing," Marinelli said. "Just like I've said before, you can have instant coffee or you're going to percolate it.
"I'm going to percolate it, I'm going to do it at my pace, the way I believe it should be done. No panic, just poise."
The fact that Barry is married to Marinelli's daughter Chris and the father of four Marinelli grandchildren, he says, is beside the point.
"I hired one of the best," Marinelli said. "If we didn't get him, he'd be defensive coordinator some other place right now. So I went and got the best guy to run this defense.
"People can look at it how they want to look at it, I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in winning. ... I've worked with him, I know what he's got, and that's what I'm excited about."
The Lions had asked permission to interview Barry for the defensive coordinator position almost a year ago, after hiring Marinelli as their head coach off Jon Gruden's coaching staff at Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers had denied their request.
With Barry's contract due to expire within a matter of weeks, however, the Bucs had no problem letting him talk to the Lions this week, however, and the rest was a formality after the Lions released Donnie Henderson as their defensive coordinator earlier this week.
Barry says he has no problem working with his father-in-law.
"Rod and I, we do have an unbelievable relationship," said Barry. "The simple fact is that Rod's the grandfather to my kids, the father to my wife. We do have a great relationship in the sense that when we walk out of the building, we are family.
"But the thing Rod and I were able to do so well, especially in Tampa for five years, when we were at work, when we were in the confines of work, I didn't look at him as my father-in-law, he didn't look at me as his son-in-law. We looked at each other as coaches. He was the D-line coach, I was the linebacker coach. Now, he's my boss. Bottom line."
Although Marinelli and Priefer had no history of working together until Marinelli was hired a year ago as the Lions head coach, he found Priefer's approach jibed perfectly with his own.
"To watch a man teach young coaches how to meet, how to prepare, how to organize, how to work on the field, construct and be consistent ... I mean, he's been as consistent as any coach I've been around — win, lose, no matter what," Marinelli said.
"That's a loss, that's a tremendous loss. A personal loss for me, and I really think the world of him."
Since coming to the Lions as a member of Bobby Ross's staff in 1997, Priefer has produced some of the NFL's most consistent special teams play. He was a no-nonsense coach on the field but personable and friendly away from the field, known among the writers covering the team for his interest in the Cleveland Indians.
Priefer, 65, and his wife, Sheila, built a home in North Carolina three years ago, and he decided it was time to spend some more time there.
"It's just something that I feel," Priefer said. "I know how old, I am but I don't feel that old or act that old until I leave the field and my body feels that old."
Lions president Matt Millen and Marinelli have indicated they would like to keep Priefer involved, perhaps in an advisory capacity, with the Lions for at least a while longer.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "They will play hard, they will play fast, they'll be prepared and they'll finish." — Defensive coordinator Joe Barry on what his players need to know about his expectations and demands on them.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Packers coach Mike McCarthy in his season-ending news conference Wednesday confirmed what has been hardly a secret in league circles the last several weeks: He and general manager Ted Thompson have told Brett Favre that they want him as their quarterback next season.
The football is now in Favre's court. He returned home to Mississippi on Wednesday, after putting off ankle surgery that was scheduled for Monday, and he will resume his annual mulling game about what to do about next season.
Favre told a national TV audience during an interview after the season-ending triumph at Chicago on Sunday night that he would make a relatively quick decision, in the next couple weeks. McCarthy, though, said no time limit was imposed on Favre, who waited until late April last year to say he was coming back.
"Brett, more than anybody, doesn't want to draw it out," McCarthy said. "I just felt it was important for Brett and (wife) Deanna to get away from here and take the emotion out of the situation, look at the facts on both sides of the ledger and make a 100 percent committed decision. From our conversation (before his departure from Green Bay), I think that's what he's in the process of doing."
McCarthy, who is thought to have a good relationship with Favre, stressed that he won't be in the business of trying to sell the 37-year-old Favre on delaying retirement until at least 2008. McCarthy noted that some of the factors that weighed heavily on Favre as he tried to make up his mind last off-season won't be in play this year, such as waiting on who will be the head coach and the effect of the hire on the offensive system.
"I don't think that I need to try to convince him. I think Brett has all the information he needs, frankly," said McCarthy, who was tabbed to replace a fired Mike Sherman 11 days after the 2005 season ended. "We've had quite a bit of conversation of late, so there's nothing out there that he needs to go find out about. I think last year there was more questions in the air, as far as the new coach, the new staff, the system, the terminology. There's a lot more things he needed to find out about.
"The unknown is not nearly as much as it was last year, so I think all the facts are on the table. He just needs to go away. He has a lot of things going through his head, and I'm not going to speak for him. He's had a very fulfilled career, to use his words, and that's a decision that him and Deanna need to sit down and I'm sure they're talking about, and I'm sure we'll know soon enough."
Not unlike previous years when uncertainty about Favre's future took precedence in the early part of the off-season in Green Bay, the direction of the team hinges on his impending decision. The giddiness emitted by the league's youngest team during the final hours of 2006 on Sunday was tempered in the first few hours of 2007 on Monday.
The Packers overcame a horrendous three quarters of the season, in which they started 1-4 and were 4-8 in early December, by winning the last four games and narrowly falling short of an improbable playoff berth with an 8-8 record. Everything finally came together, culminating with a blowout win on the road against the NFC-leading Bears. In the first three months, the season had been characterized by the defense's charity on big plays, the offense's failings when more points were to be had and the team's inability to close out winnable games.
Right tackle Mark Tauscher compares the roller coaster ride of this season to that of his rookie season in 2000, when the Packers also won their last four games to finish 9-7 under a rookie coach (Mike Sherman) and engender positive vibes heading into the offseason. Green Bay proceeded to go 12-4 the next season and returned to the playoffs after a two-year absence.
Favre was at the center of the quantum leap made at that time. Tauscher acknowledged Monday that the quarterback, no matter that he's six years advanced, is needed more than ever for the team to turn its initial ascent at the end of this season into a more pronounced climb next season.
"I think a lot of that depends on what kind of team we end up bringing back," Tauscher said. "Pretty much the entire team came back (after the 2000 season), and I think that was a case where we could build off of that (late-season) momentum.
"Now, a lot of things have to fall into place for the same team to be back (next season). If that is the case, I definitely think we can build off of it."
That's not to say Rodgers believes Favre will return next season. In the event, though, that the uncommon sight of an emotional Favre was a precursor to a retirement announcement, his heir apparent plans to be ready to take over.
Rodgers said he is eyeing a return to the field for the opening day of head coach Mike McCarthy's quarterbacks school March 19, which coincides with the start of the team's offseason workout schedule. Rodgers, the team's first-round draft pick in 2005, is recovering from a broken left foot sustained in a relief role of an injured Favre against New England on Nov. 19. Rodgers will be in a walking boot for a few more weeks, then will commence a training program with a personal trainer near his residence in Chico, Calif.
The 6-foot-2 Rodgers, who was listed at 223 pounds this season, said shedding some excess fat is a priority.
"Mike (McCarthy) always hounds me about my weight ... not really my weight but my body fat," Rodgers said. "He says I'm overweight, fat or whatever. All of his quarterbacks, he said, have always been around 8 percent body fat, and I was about 10. So, I want to get down to 8 percent and get a little stronger upper-body wise and, obviously, get healthy and be ready to maybe go through a 16-game grind."
Hawk, the fifth overall pick in the draft, received four votes, one behind Chicago defensive end Mark Anderson. Houston linebacker DeMeco Ryans won the award with 36 votes.
The Green Bay coaching staff off its film review credited Hawk with a team-high 155 tackles this season. The total ranks second for most tackles by a Packers rookie since the team started charting tackles in 1975. Rich Wingo holds the record with 166 in 1979.
MLB Nick Barnett, who led the club in tackles each of his first three years in the league, finished second this season with 141.
Green Bay's 2007 opponents combined for a 126-130 record this season. Only NFC North champion Chicago (119-137) will have an easier schedule in the division. The Bears had what was regarded as the easiest schedule this season and will have the second-easiest ledger among all teams next season, behind only Arizona (118-138).
The cumulative records of the opponents for the Packers' other division rivals are 128-128 for Minnesota and 129-127 for Detroit. All four NFC North teams will play just seven games against teams that are in the playoffs this season.
The Packers last picked 16th in 1994, when they traded up to take G Aaron Taylor out of Notre Dame. Their only other No. 16 selection since the league merger in 1970 was Elon TE Rich McGeorge that same year.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think he has a lot of confidence in the team. I think that people actually these last few games have realized the talent on the team. I think Green Bay is headed for a few (more) victories again. In his mind, that's hard to walk away from. The team is definitely headed in the right direction." — Deanna Favre's response to what she feels would convince husband/quarterback Brett Favre to come back next season during an interview with WTMJ-TV of Milwaukee after the Packers' season-ending victory at Chicago on Sunday night.