The Bears aren't about to reveal the extent of Brian Urlacher's neck injury until perhaps the day before training camp starts in late July.
But, if the team's attitude toward free-agent-to-be Lance Briggs changes on Feb. 29 or later, it will be an early indication that they're concerned about Urlacher's future, even though it doesn't appear that the injury or the surgery are career threatening. The Bears have been resigned to letting Briggs leave since he declined their six-year $30 million offer nearly two years ago.
But they will be forced to change their tune if Urlacher's neck injury, which required early February surgery, is considered a threat to his continued excellence. Letting a three-time Pro Bowl player like Briggs walk away when you have a healthy six-time Pro Bowler in Urlacher to anchor the defense is a business decision the Bears felt they could afford to make. But going into battle next season without Briggs and with Urlacher's health tenuous could undermine the Bears' chances of returning to the playoffs and the Super Bowl, which they still consider a very real possibility.
Urlacher has been the face of the Bears since shortly after he was drafted in the first round in 2000.
Since being selected in the third round three years later Briggs has always been forced to play second fiddle, although he's played a pretty mean tune, practically matching Urlacher tackle for tackle the past four years.
But Urlacher's neck injury, even if it isn't a serious problem yet, is the latest and best indication yet that Briggs might be a better long-term asset. Briggs, who has missed just two games in five years, is only 27. Urlacher has been extremely durable too, missing just seven games in eight years, but he will be 30 two months before training camp begins, and his play suffered in several games this past season when he was hindered by an arthritic back, which isn't going to get any better.
That doesn't mean Urlacher isn't still an exceptional player — he is. He was more effective in the final few weeks of the season than Briggs, and he deserved another trip to the Pro Bowl as much as Briggs. But the Bears need an insurance policy if Urlacher's play slips or he misses significant time because of injuries. If Briggs leaves, the Bears will have no depth at linebacker, and even with him they don't have much in reserve.
For quite a while almost no one has believed there was any chance of Briggs re-signing with the Bears, but all along general manager Jerry Angelo has gone out of his way not to close the door on that slim possibility. Now it's time to swing that door wide open and welcome Briggs back to Halas Hall.
That way they're protected if Urlacher's injury is more serious than believed. If not, they keep two of the NFL's best linebackers together for a few more years, and what's wrong with that?
"Those were two good football games," Angelo said. "I'm not going to get euphoric and say that's who we're going to be in ‘08. But it was good to see that we could still play that kind of football. You did see consistency, more so on the offense. You did see the kind of defense that we're accustomed to seeing, and again you saw good special teams."
It was enough, though, to convince Angelo that he didn't need to undertake a major housecleaning in the off-season to get back to the playoffs after a 7-9 season.
"We played well as a team, but we weren't able to do that throughout," he said. "Does that mean we're going to have to make (wholesale) changes to get to that point? I don't feel we need to."
Gosselin ranks the league's 32 teams in 22 categories and assigns points according to their standing - one for the best, 32 for the worst. The Bears' score of 236.5 was 5.5 points better than the second-place Chargers. In addition to Devin Hester's NFL-record six kick-return touchdowns, the Bears also topped the NFL with eight blocked kicks in 2007, twice as many as any other team. They led the league in kickoff coverage, ranked third in punt coverage and second in field goals, and sent two players to the Pro Bowl — Hester and coverage ace Brendon Ayanbadejo.
"It's very special," said special teams coordinator Dave Toub. "It says a lot about our guys and how important it is to them that we are the best. That's always our goal. Our goal is obviously to win the Super Bowl. But our No. 2 goal is to be the best special teams unit in the league, and to do that two years in a row, it's a great honor. I'm very proud of the players."
"It's always tough when you play three quarterbacks, no matter what the reason," coach Lovie Smith said. "If you play three quarterbacks, no matter what the reasons are, it's always tough to get into your rhythm and things like that."
Solidifying the QB spot is a major concern this off-season, but for now it's anybody's guess how the position will look when training camp starts. Rex Grossman, who played poorly in the first three games of 2007 and was benched, is an unrestricted free agent who may or may not be back but certainly won't be handed the starting position without earning it. Grossman's fate appeared sealed until backup Brian Griese suffered a shoulder injury after starting Games 4-9 last season. In his second go-round, Grossman was much better, but still far from superb. Grossman's knee injury allowed No. 3 Kyle Orton to get three starts after a two-year stint on the bench, and he showed enough to be given a chance to compete in 2008, at least for the backup spot. The former fourth-round pick is under contract for another season at a bargain rate. Griese, who was a decent backup, period, probably won't be back at almost $3 million a year if Grossman is re-signed.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've come to the point now where I just say that, ‘After the catch, he's the best.' There is nobody better." — Bears special teams coach Dave Toub on Devin Hester
Al Wilson wants to return to the NFL. The Lions need an upgrade at middle linebacker. So Wilson visited Lions headquarters Feb. 12.
It is unclear whether the Lions will sign Wilson. But clearly they are interested in adding the five-time Pro Bowler to their lineup if he is healthy, and he has reportedly been cleared to play.
Wilson suffered a neck injury during the 2006 season and sat out the ‘07 season. The Broncos agreed to trade Wilson to the Giants for a third-round draft pick during the ‘07 off-season, but he failed a physical because of his neck, voiding the trade. The Broncos ended up cutting him.
If Wilson can return to his old form — or even close to it — he would help fill a hole in the middle of the Lions' Tampa Two defense. The Lions need a middle linebacker who is stout enough to stop the run but athletic enough to handle the deep middle in pass coverage.
When Rod Marinelli took over the Lions and installed the Tampa Two in 2006, the Lions tried to move Boss Bailey from the strong side to the middle. Marinelli said then that if you put together a prototypical linebacker for this system, Bailey is what he would look like. President Matt Millen raved about Bailey's ability to run.
But Bailey didn't work out and moved back to the strong side. Now he is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent and probably won't be back.
In 2007, the Lions tried Paris Lenon in the middle. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry said Lenon was going to burst onto the scene, that he was smart, fast and physical, that he had everything this system needs in a middle linebacker.
But Lenon didn't make enough plays, either. The Lions likely will keep him, but he probably would fit better on the strong side.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Mr. Ford was a great owner and really treated us right. The Silverdome was just built a couple years before that, and it was a very exciting time to be there. I just wish we could have won a few more games." — Patriots coach Bill Belichick, on his years as a Lions assistant in 1976-77.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers' first acquisition of the offseason was a much-needed one.
Coming two weeks before the start of free agency, the club hired Russ Ball as vice president of football administration/player finance. Ball replaces Andrew Brandt, who resigned last month, as contract negotiator and salary-cap manager.
Ball, 48, has worked in the league for nearly two decades. He came on high recommendation from Packers head coach Mike McCarthy and personnel analyst John Schneider, both of whom were colleagues of Ball with other teams.
Ball previously was New Orleans' vice president of football administration for six years, but he deferred to general manager Mickey Loomis with most of the team's contract negotiations. So, Loomis called Ball's departure to Green Bay a promotion.
With the Packers, Ball will be under the direction of general manager Ted Thompson but, like Brandt, will oversee all financial matters with personnel.
"Russ will be carrying a big portion of the water here," Thompson told the Green Bay Press-Gazette. "It's good to have (the hire) over with and done and know that he's going to be part of our team."
Ball couldn't ask for a better situation to come into from a financial standpoint. The Packers are coming off a surprisingly successful season, have only one pending free agent of significance (defensive tackle Corey Williams) and will have about $25 million in cap money with which to play in the offseason.
The team doesn't seem to be compelled to re-sign Williams since it's well-stocked at the tackle positions.
Having knocked on the door to the Super Bowl, however, Thompson might eschew a longstanding philosophy of building through the draft to make a huge splash or two in free agency to put the club in position to contend for the league title.
With input now from Ball, the Packers could free up more cap money with decisions they make on a couple of their veteran players.
Fading tight end Bubba Franks, who has a salary-cap number of nearly $4.5 million in 2008, could be cut. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, strictly a pass-rush specialist, might have to take a pay cut from his scheduled salary of $6.15 million.
Head coach Mike McCarthy has tried to keep in weekly contact with Favre, who is mulling his future while at home in Mississippi. The two talked in person during Super Bowl week in Phoenix, where both received end-of-season league awards.
Favre, 38, informed the team a month after the 2006 season ended that he would continue playing. With the Packers' having played their final game this past season Jan. 20, a 23-20 overtime loss to the Giants in the NFC Championship, an announcement in the next week would seem realistic.
Green Bay tied Tampa Bay for seventh place in the wide-ranging, objective ratings system. The Packers were assessed in the compilation of points for 22 categories as having the worst special-teams units each of the previous two seasons.
The marked improvement reflected the all-around strength of Green Bay's special teams in the past season. The Packers' units scored four touchdowns.
Players brought back after spending a portion of the season on the practice squad were receiver Chris Francies, running back Corey White, offensive tackles Chris Patrick and Cliff Washburn, guards Ryan Keenan and Cameron Stephenson, defensive tackle Alfred Malone, linebacker Spencer Havner and defensive back Joe Porter.
Also signed were quarterbacks Jerry Babb and Dalton Bell, punter Ryan Dougherty and receiver Johnny Quinn.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've played 170-some straight games here, and I'd like to think that it would be just as hard replacing me as it would Brett Favre or anybody else who's played so many games here." — Long snapper Rob Davis, 39, who is due to become an unrestricted free agent, on his desire to play another season with the Packers.