For seven years, Mike Brown worked with his teammates to reach the NFL promised land, but when the Bears finally arrived there last season, it was without their Pro Bowl safety.
Brown suffered a season-ending foot injury in the Bears' 24-23 comeback victory over the Cardinals and spent the remainder of the season as a cheerleader; not the role he envisioned for himself when he fantasized about his career.
"When you first come into the league, you always want to have a ring on your finger and play in the Super Bowl," Brown said. "We made it, but I wasn't able to play in it, so it was the most disappointing thing that's ever happened in my athletic career."
It was the third straight year that an injury ended Brown's season, and he's missed 28 of the Bears' previous 48 regular-season games. So, if the Bears had decided that Brown wasn't part of their future, even though he's signed through next season, it wouldn't have come as a shock.
"I've been around this business long enough to know that if you're not on the field on a consistent basis, then your time with that team, or your time in the league in general, is limited," said the 29-year old. "You only get so many opportunities, and they run out pretty quickly."
But guys like Brown deserve more opportunities than most players. He's always had a knack for being around the ball and making big plays, as evidenced by his franchise-record 7 career defensive touchdowns (4 interceptions and 3 fumbles). Every coach he's ever played for has praised his smarts and ability to quarterback the secondary and get everyone positioned correctly. He's a team leader by example, and he's not shy when it comes to verbalizing, even when it's critical.
"It seems like I'm a big part of this team, and I feel like I am, and I feel like my teammates respect me in that way, and the coaches and management know what I bring to the table," Brown said. "I'm delighted to have this opportunity — it wasn't guaranteed."
So Brown's still in the starting lineup, where he's been since about 15 minutes after he was drafted in the second round out of Nebraska in 2000. The only difference is he's back at free safety after spending the previous three seasons at strong safety. Traditionally strong safeties have more run-stopping responsibilities and play closer to the line of scrimmage, while free safeties help more in pass coverage. Newcomer Adam Archuleta is considered a better fit at strong, but Bears coaches don't see the situation as a problem, even though both safeties are considered more physical hitters than rangy pass defenders.
"Mike has played both positions before, and I don't think it's really a big deal with him going strong or free," said Bears defensive backs coach Steven Wilks. "When he's in there, we feel very confident that he's going to do an outstanding job for us, and we just want to keep him healthy."
Brown sees good things for the new safety partnership after working in the off-season and through the first week of training camp with Archuleta, who entered the league a year after him as a first-round pick of the Rams, where he played three years under Lovie Smith.
"It's always easier when you know someone knows what they're doing," Brown said. "The communication was real good right when he came here. We work well together, we both know the defense, and we picked it up really quick."
Brown has a tendency to get a little worked up, even in practices, as he did the other day, but having another experienced veteran in the backfield will keep the operation running smoothly.
"Sometimes I was talking too much or forgot what coverage we were in, and he let me know with a little hand signal or whatever," Brown said. "That's the key, to keep everybody on the same page, and he's able to do that."
When all the pages are turned as the end of the season, Brown's looking to be an active participant when the Bears return to the Super Bowl, which will be played in the Cardinals' Glendale, Ariz., stadium, not far from Brown's hometown of Scottsdale.
"That's pretty cool, right in the home state," Brown said. Trust me, I've heard a whole bunch about that already, but we've got a long way to go. I have another opportunity, and I'm going to take advantage of it."
CAMP CALENDAR: The Bears reported to Olivet Nazarene University in far south suburban Bourbonnais on July 26, and their first practice was at 3 pm., Friday, July 27. Camp concludes after an 11 a.m. practice on Saturday, Aug. 18. They will return to Chicago on Saturday, Aug. 4, for a 7 p.m. practice at Soldier Field.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Kyle Orton vs. Brian Griese for the backup QB spot.
Third-string quarterback Kyle Orton took a good chunk of the second-team snaps during Wednesday's practice and continued to look sharper than second-stringer Brian Griese, as has been the case throughout camp.
But offensive coordinator Ron Turner cautioned against jumping to any conclusions.
"There's nothing to read into that at all," Turner said, "other than the fact that Kyle's playing well. He had a great off-season, and (he's) having a good camp.
It's things you do; you get all three guys reps. Brian's our No. 2, he's getting the majority of reps with the second group, (but) Kyle got some today."
After being force fed 15 starts as a rookie in 2005 because of injuries — and winning 10 of those starts — Orton was buried behind Rex Grossman and Griese last season. His response then wasn't ideal, but he's back with a vengeance this year. No one's saying he can't move up to No. 2 eventually.
"It's great just to get back into a competitive situation," the former fourth-round pick said. "Last year when I came into camp, I knew where I was going to be. I knew I was going to be a three. I probably didn't take that the best way, but this year I just took it upon myself to just try to make it a competition and see where it falls."
OTHER BATTLE FRONTS: Darwin Walker vs. Dusty Dvoracek at NT.
Bears general manager Jerry Angelo insisted that the acquisition of eighth-year veteran Darwin Walker early in training camp was a move a Super Bowl contender can't refuse to make, rather than an indictment of the players who were already in supporting roles alongside Pro Bowl tackle Tommie Harris.
The Bears were hoping Dusty Dvoracek, Anthony Adams and Antonio Garay could fill the void at defensive tackle left by the loss of Tank Johnson, Ian Scott and Alfonso Boone. But last Sunday they added Walker to the mix when they acquired him from the Bills for a fifth-round draft pick next year and awarded him a five-year, $25 million renegotiated contract. He's expected to be the opening day starter, although Dvoracek is expected to play significant snaps in a rotation.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: WR Mike Hass. While newly converted wide receiver Devin Hester and rookie TE Greg Olsen have been the offensive stars of training camp so far, they haven't caught the ball any better or more consistently than Hass.
He spent last season on the practice squad when the Bears snapped him up after the Saints drafted him in the fifth round but then waived him, hoping to sneak him back onto their practice squad.
After eight days of practices, no one can recall Hass dropping a pass. Not in 11-on-11 team segments, seven-on-seven work or individual receiving drills. Still, with starters Muhsin Muhammad and Bernard Berrian ahead of him plus Mark Bradley, Devin Hester and Rashied Davis, Hass is competing with Drisan James, David Ball, Brandon Rideau and Timon Marshall for, at the most, one spot. He's the early leader based on his flawless hands and good size (6-foot-1, 206 pounds).
"I'm pleased, but I still have a ways to go learning some hot (reads) and protections and those types of thing," he said. "I just have to keep making plays. If I make enough plays, I'll open enough eyes and good things will happen for me."
Hass was in a similar situation when he enrolled at Oregon State as a walk-on, and that worked out pretty well for him. The Portland, Ore., native won the 205 Fred Biletnikoff Award as the top receiver in the nation after catching 90 passes for 1,532 yards. He set school career records with 220 catches and 3,924 yards and became one of just 10 players NCAA history with more than 1,000 receiving yards in three seasons.
But Hass doesn't have the flat-out speed of a Berrian or the freaky change-of-direction skills of a Hester. He does have a knack for never letting the ball hit the ground when it's thrown in his vicinity.
When the Lions signed wide receiver Calvin Johnson, there was some celebration in Detroit. But there was also consternation, because to make room for Johnson on the roster, the Lions put rookie quarterback Drew Stanton on injured reserve.
It wasn't just that the Lions had to put their second draft pick on the shelf to make way for their first. It was that fans had followed Stanton from high school through college — from a suburban Detroit high school to Michigan State — and knew he had blown out his right knee on punt coverage in 2003.
Why did the Spartans put him on special teams? Did the Lions do their homework on the knee? What did this mean for the future?
But it all isn't as bad as it sounds. The injury isn't serious. Stanton wasn't supposed to play this year, anyway. And this gives the Lions some roster flexibility.
Stanton felt something in his right knee while dropping back to pass Saturday, during the Lions' third day of practices at training camp. The knee swelled up that night. He had an MRI on Sunday and surgery to clean up some cartilage Tuesday morning.
The Lions say the injury is unrelated to the one Stanton suffered in 2003. Stanton said the knee had not been a nagging problem and this injury was surprising. All of his ligaments are in good shape.
The timing was worse than the injury. It meant Stanton would miss training camp, a critical time in his development. Even if Stanton is ready physically for the regular season — or early in the regular season — he won't have had the practice he would need to be ready to play.
Stanton, a second-round draft pick this year, was expected to be the third quarterback this season so he could sit back and develop. The battle for the backup job is still between Dan Orlovsky, a 2005 fifth-round pick, and J.T. O'Sullivan, a journeyman who has been impressive so far in training camp.
Now the Lions can keep Orlovsky and O'Sullivan both on the roster. Or, they could use only two roster spots on quarterbacks and still have essentially the same depth chart they would have had all along — Jon Kitna, the backup, then Stanton.
Stanton can't practice with the team while on injured reserve under NFL rules, but he probably wouldn't have gotten many reps late in the preseason and during the regular season, anyway. When teams prepare for games, the starter gets the bulk of the work, the backup gets a little and the No. 3 gets next to nothing. Stanton can still rehab, work out and attend meetings at team headquarters.
"Hopefully it's going to help me in the long run and benefit me down the road," Stanton said. "The only thing bad about it is, I'm not going to be able to practice and take the reps. As far as the mental part, I can still learn a lot this year and understand the offense and what's going on."
CAMP CALENDAR: Aug. 19, camp breaks.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: J.T. O'Sullivan vs. Dan Orlovsky for backup QB — The situation has changed a bit now that Drew Stanton is on injured reserve. The Lions could keep both on the roster. But you never know, the Lions still could keep just one and go with two quarterbacks on the roster. O'Sullivan continues to get reps ahead of Orlovsky.
OTHER BATTLE FRONTS: There isn't much competition for starting spots. One guy to watch is Eddie Drummond. He hasn't been getting much action at wide receiver and isn't happy about it. Some coaches might not want to keep a guy who plays only special teams, even if he once went to the Pro Bowl as a returner.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: CB Keith Smith — The Lions have simplified things for Smith, asking him to play right corner and nothing else, and he has responded. He seems more confident and decisive. "No. 23 every single day is making plays," defensive coordinator Joe Barry said. "So I'm really happy with where Keith Smith is at."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
As much as general manager Ted Thompson keeps saying that the team needs more production from the tight ends after a lackluster 2006 season, one has to wonder whether an up-tick is possible this season.
The offense barely has enough healthy bodies at the position to get through a practice at training camp.
The season-ending loss of Tory Humphrey to a broken ankle on the first day of camp July 28 was a harbinger of a string of setbacks that has depleted the depth.
Donald Lee, a gimpy Zac Alcorn and green rookie Joe Werner were the only tight ends in uniform for the intrasquad scrimmage Aug. 4 at Lambeau Field.
Sidelined were incumbent starter Bubba Franks, who had yet to practice since sustaining a scratched cornea July 31, and rookie Clark Harris, who suffered a sprained ankle Aug. 2.
"It (the availability of tight ends) was better than I thought it was going to be (Friday) night when we were talking about the play time," head coach Mike McCarthy said.
Alcorn, who earlier in camp was beset by heat-related cramping, soldiered on in the scrimmage despite having painful blisters on the bottom of his feet.
"He really gutted it out. That's the kind of kid he is," McCarthy said.
Lee (two) and Alcorn combined for the three catches by the tight ends in the scrimmage.
Werner, signed as a free agent July 31, hadn't played football since he was in high school. With a lot of work, team management feels the 6-foot-6, 252-pound Werner could be converted into a capable tight end after he starred on the basketball court as a Division III all-American at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
"Donald Lee did some nice things (in the scrimmage), and Joe's learning as we go," McCarthy said. "We had some more three-receiver, two-backs (sets) and four-receiver, one-back (alignments) than we normally would have in an opening scrimmage like that. But, that's OK."
McCarthy also started experimenting with backup tackle Tony Moll as a blocking tight end in goal-line situations, a role Humphrey had in the past.
CAMP CALENDAR: Ends Aug. 28. The team has five of eight scheduled night practices remaining: Aug. 7, 9, 14, 16 and 20.
The first day of training camp July 28 yielded two casualties on injured reserve: tight end Tory Humphrey with a broken ankle and punter David Lonie with an unspecified ankle injury. Humphrey underwent surgery a few days later. Lonie, a first-year player signed in the offseason to challenge incumbent Jon Ryan, rolled his non-kicking left ankle while warming up to kick.
Tight end Joe Werner and punter Ryan Dougherty, both undrafted rookies, were signed to fill depth at the two positions. The 6-foot-6 Werner, who played basketball at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, last played football in high school.
Defensive tackles Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly finally were cleared to practice July 30. Both had failed their physicals because they couldn't complete a run test for conditioning and were kept off the field the first two days of training camp.
Receiver Donald Driver also failed the pre-camp physical because of not having sufficient strength in his right shoulder, which he injured late last season. Driver passed another strength test to get the green light for practice July 31.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Dave Rayner vs. Mason Crosby for K. Rayner, the incumbent, held the edge early in camp after he went 11-for-11 to Crosby's 9-for-11 in an extensive field-goal segment Aug. 2. The only non-make for Rayner after five days of camp was on a blocked kick. Rayner, though, stumbled the next two days, punctuated by an 8-of-11 effort before a boisterous capacity crowd at Lambeau Field for the intrasquad scrimmage Aug. 4. Rayner was off the mark from 36 yards and missed both of his kicks from 52. Crosby was slightly better at 9-of-11, missing from 38 and 49 yards, but connected on both of his 52-yard attempts. The first big test comes in the preseason opener Aug. 11 at Pittsburgh.
OTHER BATTLE FRONTS: Patrick Dendy vs. Jarrett Bush vs. Frank Walker vs. Will Blackmon vs. Tramon Williams for nickel back. Dendy had the most exposure to the spot with the No. 1 sub package in the first week of camp and has the most experience of playing in the system as a third-year player. Bush, though, is coming on and capped a solid opening week by breaking up a pass to Ruvell Martin in the end zone on third down in the intrasquad scrimmage Aug. 4. Walker, the team's only notable offseason acquisition, has regressed after standing out in the offseason. Donald Driver beat Walker for two big receptions in the scrimmage. The injury-plagued Blackmon might be turning the corner for the better, as he picked off one pass in the scrimmage and had another interception nullified by a penalty. Williams, a first-year player, delivered the biggest hit of the live scrimmage when he leveled Chris Francies to break up a pass over the middle.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: WR James Jones — The third-round draft pick was cast as a big unknown after the Packers took him out of San Jose State, but he's been receiving big cheers from the team's fans each and every day at training camp. Perhaps Jones' biggest supporter is quarterback Brett Favre, who has more than once compared the rookie to former Packers receiving standout Sterling Sharpe. Like Sharpe, the 6-foot-1 Jones has suction cups for hands, grabbing almost everything within reach (he had one drop in the first week of camp), and has been displaying deceptive quickness with his separation after the catch.