After missing five straight days of practice with mysterious "general soreness," 12-year veteran wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad was back on the field Tuesday morning, sweating it out in oppressive heat and humidity.
Just as his absence was noteworthy, so was his return. Back in early 2005, when the Bears were desperate for a go-to wideout, they pounced on Muhammad as soon as it became obvious the Carolina Panthers weren't willing to squeeze his contract demands under a tight salary cap. The Panthers were more interested in keeping the spectacular and much younger Steve Smith as their main man. But because Muhammad was coming off a career year (93 catches, 1,405 yards and 16 touchdowns) the Bears stepped up with a six-year, $30 million deal.
Muhammad hasn't approached those 2004 numbers in Chicago, but he has provided the team with a go-to guy and a veteran presence.
In 2005, he caught 64 passes for 750 yards in an offense that was scaled back to accommodate rookie quarterback Kyle Orton's inexperience. Last year Muhammad had 60 catches for 863 yards. His numbers weren't spectacular, but they were the Bears' best both years, and Muhammad's work ethic and professionalism served as an example for some of the Bears' young receivers. And, for the most part, the 34-year-old has been the go-to guy in the passing game.
But this year, it could be different. Speedy deep threat Bernard Berrian had a breakout season in 2006 (51 catches, 775 yards, six touchdowns) and appears on the verge of moving past Muhammad.
"You watch Moose out here, and the plays he made, what has he lost?" wide receiver coach Darryl Drake said. "And you watch Bernard every day, what has he gained? So to me, they're both No. 1's, and they both have the ability."
Throw in big-play specialist Devin Hester and rookie tight end Greg Olsen, and it's obvious the Bears have more options in the passing game than they did two years ago.
"We have a lot of guys capable of being No. 1," Drake said.
But Muhammad isn't ready to relinquish the throne.
"I still feel like kind of one of the generals over here," he said. "I still feel like a go-to kind of guy. Actually I'm pleased to have the weapons and I'm pleased to have the talent around. When I got here, they were looking for a go-to guy, but they were also looking to develop the talent that they had, and I think that we've done that. I've definitely helped some of the guys become complete players and I've helped some of these guys just hone their skills, and when you do that the whole team is better. Who wants fifteen-hundred yards every season if you're only winning three games?"
While Muhammad may be a coach on the field, he's not ready to consider the coaching profession full time.
"Man, I'm still playing," he said. "I guess you could say I'm coaching now, so if they want to pay me a coach's salary on top of what I make already I'll be fine with that."
At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Muhammad has never shied away from the more physical aspects of the game, like catching the tough pass in traffic over the middle or blocking for a teammate. Despite his physical style, the Michigan State product has missed just 10 games in the past nine seasons.
"Throughout my whole career I've been one of those play-with-injuries, play-hurt, hard-nosed kind of guys," he said. "I just enjoy it so much. I enjoy being on the practice field, I enjoy playing, I enjoy just doing what I do (so much) that I don't want to come off the field. Maybe that's the reason why I've played as long and as good as I have. I love doing what I do."
He does, however, admit that it's time to make some concessions to age and the wear and tear that come with 702 receptions, 9,364 yards and 53 trips to the end zone.
"So, (now), when there is a question of ‘Moose, you need to rest a little bit,' or ‘Moose, you need to do this or do that,' I think now I need to start listening to some of that stuff," he said. "The coaches definitely have my best interest at (heart), and of course the team doctors all have my best interest at (heart). As far as I'm concerned I just want to play."
CAMP CALENDAR: The Bears' camp at Olivet Nazarene University in far south suburban Bourbonnais concludes after an 11 a.m. practice on Saturday, Aug. 18.
But Benson's the man now, and he hopes to develop the kind of bond with his offensive line that Jones had.
"I've been running behind them the past two years, and I'm very comfortable with them," Benson said. "Hopefully, if not now, then real soon in the future, they'll feel the same way. I think it's a great thing to have those guys."
Benson admits he isn't the same type of player or person as Jones, who was more demonstrative. Benson usually lets his actions speak for him.
"I don't feel any more responsibility to do anything extra or anything like that," the more mellow Benson said. "I'm not a real vocal guy or anything like that."
"Gilly's never lost because Gilly knows what his role is, and we know what Gilly's role is," Clark said of the man considered "the blocking tight end."
But Saturday night, Gilmore led the Bears with 4 catches, and his 43 yards were second to Mark Bradley's 47 among the 17 Bears with receptions.
"Gilly has expanded his role throughout camp," Clark said. "Over the last four years I always led the tight end corps in catches. But Gilly is ahead of me (in training camp catches), and Greg is ahead of both of us. I think (Gilmore) really was able to show that he could be a pass-catching threat also. He's not forgotten at all."
The main man in the running attack has gotten the vast majority of training camp snaps with the first team.
"That should at least put him right on schedule," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "He's gone through all the off-season work, getting a chance to go to training camp and now play the football game. He's not ahead of schedule, but just right on schedule, and that's where we want our team."
Benson played a little less than a quarter, along with the rest of the offensive starters, and carried five times for 23 yards and caught 3 passes for 11 yards.
"That's my main goal, I want to carry it over and play well in these preseason games," said Orton, who doesn't expect much regular-season action. "It's a four-game season for me. I know what I need to do to play well, so I just want to play within myself and do the things that I need to do to execute the offense. Going into Year Three in this offense, I feel like I've really mastered it and got a good handle on it so things are coming a little bit easier for me right now."
He was informed last Thursday that his appeal was denied from an earlier violation of the NFL's anti-steroid and related substances, meaning he will be suspended for the first four games of the regular season. Ayanbadejo also had 2 special-teams tackles.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "As a rookie, I haven't done anything. I'm carrying in their pads right now. I think it's a sign of respect. They're the veterans who come before you, they've been doing it for a long time, and they have a lot of good tips that they want to pass along to you. You're a pupil. If they tell you to do something, you should just do it because you have to earn their respect. So, when they say, ‘Carry the pads,' it's no problem. I'm going to carry their pads. If they say, ‘Go get water,' or ‘Beeks, do this,' I'm going to do it." — Rookie guard/center Josh Beekman who, in keeping with tradition, lugs his own pads and those of a veteran, into the locker room after practice
There isn't a lot of drama at Lions training camp. There really aren't any battles for starting jobs. The drama is going to come Sept. 1, when rosters must be cut to 53 players.
The coaches want to squeeze everything they can out of those 53 spots, and that potentially could squeeze out one of the Lions' most popular players — return man Eddie Drummond.
At times, Drummond has been the Lions' best offensive weapon. He went to the Pro Bowl after the 2004 season, when he became only the second player to return two punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns in a season — even though he played only 11 games.
But Drummond doesn't actually play offense, and that could be his undoing.
Over the years he has tried to convince the coaches he can play receiver, like he did at Penn State. He thought he would have a chance when the Lions brought in Mike Martz last season. That's one reason he re-signed with the Lions as a free agent.
At 5-feet-9, 190 pounds, Drummond thought he could fill the role of the small, speedy receiver Martz had used so successfully in St. Louis. Things went well at first. Almost exactly a year ago, Martz praised Drummond's play at receiver, saying he was "very, very pleased" with him.
But Drummond quickly fell out of favor last year, and he has gotten virtually no reps at receiver this year.
Asked if that was OK, he said with the laugh: "Um, no, since last year I put so much work into going at receiver just because I knew Mike Martz was coming and I would get an opportunity. It was the perfect situation for me. It kind of instilled receiver in my heart last year because I grinded out so hard for it. Just watching them right now and not getting any reps is killing me a little bit. But at the same time, I've got to be focused and got to understand and trust the coaches."
Special teams coordinator Stan Kwan has said he will fight for Drummond. But Drummond knows he might be in trouble. Running backs Aveion Cason and Brian Calhoun can return kicks. Receivers Troy Walters and Shaun McDonald can return punts. Receiver Devale Ellis, who is nursing a knee injury, could be in the mix if healthy.
"Yeah," he said, "I think some of the coaches — the assistant coaches and stuff — aren't comfortable with somebody just playing special teams."
CAMP CALENDAR: Aug. 19, camp breaks.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I was like, ‘Man, how can that happen?' I kind of talked to coach and really just kind of honestly talked to God and said, ‘OK, just focus in.'" — QB Dan Orlovsky, on the interception returned for a touchdown by Cincinnati's 311-pound rookie defensive tackle, Matt Toeaina.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Until someone emerges in the crowded battle for the nickel-back role, the Packers defense can hang its collective helmet on a depth-laden line that appears to be well oiled for the upcoming season.
Cullen Jenkins led a dominant performance by the line in its unofficial 2007 debut. He had two of the group's five sacks and also forced a fumble in Green Bay's 13-9 preseason win at Pittsburgh on Aug. 11.
"Our goal this year is to be the best defensive line and best defense in the league," Jenkins said. "We want to try to carry this team with our play. So, we're just trying to get off to a good start."
Days before the auspicious showing, head coach Mike McCarthy called this year's defensive line the deepest he's been associated with in 15 years as an NFL coach.
"It really started last year," McCarthy said. "I thought that group was the most consistent on the football team and had the most depth. Adding (first-round draft pick) Justin (Harrell) and some other young guys just adds to that depth. It's a very, very competitive position."
As proof, Harrell, despite the accolades of coming in as the team's top draft selection this year, has been working primarily as a third-string tackle after two weeks of training camp. Harrell remains listed as a starter on the depth chart but has been slow to come around because of a ruptured biceps tendon incurred last year in college that kept him out of most offseason activities.
Harrell, though, registered a sack in the first preseason game. His presence and the prospects for a productive future solidify a veritable logjam at the tackle spots.
The Packers have five quality tackles in incumbent starters Ryan Pickett and Corey Williams, along with backups Colin Cole, Johnny Jolly and Harrell.
Jenkins, promoted to starting right end late in the 2006 season, is a versatile lineman and moves inside on a passing downs.
So, Green Bay has essentially six tackles it can comfortably rotate in on a liberal basis. Given the dynamics of creating a 53-man roster, that might be one too many tackles with whom to enter the season.
General manager Ted Thompson hasn't ruled out peddling one of them in a trade.
"I don't know if I've ever gotten to the end of training camp and felt like I had too many defensive linemen that were of that caliber. But, we like our group," Thompson said. "We've got a long way to go before we get to having to make those kinds of decisions.
"You're always looking at where you might have some strengths and where other teams might have some weaknesses, and then, maybe two teams could get together. But, we're not really anticipating anything."
By the same token, the Packers don't have a shortage of playmaking defensive ends.
Jenkins' late-season explosiveness earned him a four-year, $16 million contract to keep him from getting away as an unrestricted free agent. He has begun rewarding the team's investment in him by being a consistent standout in training camp thus far and starring in the first quarter against the Steelers, highlighted by his blind-side strip of the ball from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the pocket.
The attention teams will have to give to Jenkins should benefit left end Aaron Kampman, who is coming off a career-high, NFC-best 15.5-sack season.
The pass rush is further bolstered by the speed duo of Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Jason Hunter. Gbaja-Biamila was demoted to pass-rush specialist in favor of Jenkins last season because of his deficiencies in stopping the run but, by being fresher on passing downs, stands to recapture his double-digit sack totals from 2001 to ‘04.
CAMP CALENDAR: Ends Aug. 28. The team has the last of three straight no-practice Wednesdays on Aug. 15. It has three of eight scheduled night practices remaining: Aug. 14, 16 and 20.
Both had attempted more than 60 field goals in team periods after only 10 days of training camp but weren't any worse for the wear in the first preseason game Aug. 11 at Pittsburgh.
Rayner, last year's kicker, put the Packers on the scoreboard with a 32-yard field goal to end the first half.
Crosby, a rookie drafted in the sixth round, answered with a 52-yard conversion late in the third quarter to complete Green Bay's 13-9 comeback victory.
Two weeks into the preseason, the competition was considered a dead heat.
"We're probably wearing them out a little bit, kicking them too much," head coach Mike McCarthy conceded. "We want to make sure we give them both a chance to win the job. They're both talented. They're both strong-legged. I'm glad they're both here."
Rayner was the front-runner in the battle early in camp but trailed Crosby slightly in the practice environment entering the preseason opener.
The Green Bay Press-Gazette has charted the kickers' field-goal attempts since the outset of camp. Crosby made 61 of his first 73 kicks for a conversion rate of 83.6 percent. Rayner was 60-of-75 for 80 percent.
The two combatants also are neck-and-neck with their kickoffs. Rayner reached the end zone twice in the game and had one touchback, while Crosby's only kickoff resulted in a touchback.
Driver had about $11 million and an extra year added to his existing contract. He is signed through 2010, all but ensuring that the 32-year-old will play his entire pro career with Green Bay.
Driver is coming off a career-best season, in which he had 92 receptions for 1,295 yards and earned a second Pro Bowl selection.
His new deal includes an unusual provision. Driver will reportedly receive a roster bonus of $50,000 for every game he's on the active 45-man roster from this season to 2009, bringing the extra potential earnings to $2.4 million in the three years.
"There's some mechanisms that we've used with most, if not all, of our veteran-type contracts recently," general manager Ted Thompson said. "We feel like sometimes it enables us to address some things that we think are important. Plus, we'd like for Donald to be here for a long time."
The occasion marked the first time McCarthy returned to Pittsburgh as an NFL coach. He previously faced the Steelers six times as an assistant coach, all when his team was at home.
McCarthy enjoyed a pizza-and-pasta dinner the night before the game at his parents' house near downtown Pittsburgh.
The last blocked point-after kick by a Packer in a regular-season game was Cullen Jenkins against Carolina's John Kasay on Oct. 3, 2005.
They won 10-7 over San Diego at Lambeau Field to start the 2005 exhibition slate.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've talked from the get-go that both the offensive and defensive lines are the engines that run the thing. You can have as good a secondary as you can possibly have. But, if you don't have a defensive line that can control the run and put pressure on the passer and things like that, in this day and age, it makes it unbelievably difficult to be successful. So, we put a lot of weight in that. And, there is a lot of weight in our defensive line." — General manager Ted Thompson on the importance of the team's defensive line, which rates as its deepest position group.