The door at Halas Hall that Bears general manager Jerry Angelo had left open just a crack for unrestricted free agent linebacker Lance Briggs swung wide open last Saturday night, and the three-time Pro Bowler strolled through, accepting a $36 million, six-year contract, including $13 million in guaranteed money, to remain in Chicago.
The relationship between Briggs and the Bears has often been contentious since he turned down a six-year, $33 million offer two years ago. Last year at this time the Bears used the franchise tag, dreaded by players, to keep Briggs in town with a $7.2 million salary. That was a source of aggravation to the five-year veteran, who sought a long-term deal with a signing bonus in the neighborhood of $20 million and at one point vowed never to play for the Bears.
Briggs, 27, reluctantly accepted his status last season with assurance from the Bears that they would not use the tag on him again this season. Although he had not received offers from any other teams in the first two days of free agency, Briggs' agent Drew Rosenhaus and the Bears had continued to talk.
Last week at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, when asked about Briggs and the Bears' other high-profile free agents, Rex Grossman and Bernard Berrian, Angelo said: "We made it clear we wanted them back. They've made it clear that they would like to be back, and we're going to do our best to make sure those things happen."
While the Bears have huge holes to fill at wideout and on the offensive line, plus lesser concerns at running back, Briggs' return should help them regain the level of defensive play they achieved in the Super Bowl season of 2006, when they finished No. 3 in points and No. 5 in yards allowed. Those numbers plummeted to 16 and 28, respectively, last season, when an epidemic of injuries sidelined seven starters for varying lengths of time.
Briggs missed one game with a hamstring injury and another with a hip problem, but he was voted to his third straight Pro Bowl and his 140 tackles were second on the Bears to Brian Urlacher. Briggs led the Bears with 10 tackles for loss. In the three previous seasons, Briggs' total of 514 tackles were tops on the Bears, well ahead of the 461 of Urlacher, who missed seven games with injuries in 2004. The two games that Briggs missed last season were the first of his five-year NFL career.
Booker, who set the Bears' single-season franchise record of 100 receptions back in 2001, re-signed Monday night for two years with the team that drafted him in the third round out of Louisiana-Monroe in 1999. Booker caught 50 passes last season, but his 556 receiving yards were his fewest since his second season with the Bears. Still, Booker caught exactly as many passes in his second-best season with the Bears (97 in 2002) as the rest of the Bears' wide receiver corps — Mark Bradley, Devin Hester, Rashied Davis and Mike Hass — have caught in their combined NFL careers.
That makes Booker, who turns 32 on July 31, No. 1 by default, even though he isn't the same receiver as he was in 2001 and ‘02, when he caught a combined 197 passes for 2,260 yards and 14 touchdowns. Booker lacks the speed of Hester and Bradley, but at 6 feet and 210 pounds, he provides a tough, physical presence lacking since Muhsin Muhammad was released late last month.
Booker's drop in production in Miami is partly attributable to the Dolphins' offensive woes. They were No. 28 in the NFL last season in total offense and No. 29 in scoring a year earlier, alternating Daunte Culpepper, Joey Harrington, Cleo Lemon, John Beck and Trent Green in a Bears-like carousel of ineffective quarterbacks.
Two years after the Bears awarded Booker a seven-year, $28 million contract following his breakout season of ‘01, they traded him, along with a third-round pick, to the Dolphins for defensive end Adewale Ogunleye.
Booker had one year left on that deal when he was released by the Dolphins, who have been cleaning house under new head of football operations Bill Parcells. After five seasons with the Bears, Booker was fifth in team history with 315 catches and sixth with 3,684 receiving yards. He has 509 career receptions for 6,311 yards and 34 touchdowns.
So, in many ways, Favre's Tuesday retirement is a good thing for the Bears — almost too good to be true.
"I think this announcement comes about 17 years too late, and I don't know if I will completely believe it until Green Bay opens the season without No. 4 lining up under center," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "In all seriousness, no one has given more to our game than Brett Favre."
The Bears-Packers rivalry won't be the same without Favre, even though it became terribly one-sided in his heyday. Win or lose, it was always a challenge for the Bears to contain Favre, who threw 53 TD passes against them while completing 62 percent of his passes for 7,660 yards.
"I have a lot of respect for the guy," linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer said. "The guy is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The list of great things he's done goes on and on. It makes it that much more fun to play against him. It's fun to play against a competitor like that. You have to beat the best to be the best. He's been doing it for so long and he's such a competitor. Just the way he plays makes everybody respect him."
The challenge of playing against Favre twice a year is something a lot of Bears will miss, but it's something they'll probably talk about for a long time.
"I can tell my kids that I played against Brett Favre; that I've beaten Brett Favre," Ogunleye said last season. "You never know what you're going to get out of him. He's just a general; he's a leader. I like the way he operates on the field."
Griese, 32, started Games 4-9 last season after Rex Grossman was benched and completed 161 of 262 passes (61.5 percent) for 1,803 yards, 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, all of which were team highs, as was his passer rating of 75.6. But the Bears have decided that the starting job in 2008 will be decided between Grossman and Kyle Orton, both of whom signed new contracts late last month.
When Griese suffered a minor injury to his left shoulder in his last start, the Bears used that as an excuse to get Grossman back in the starting lineup. When Grossman suffered a sprained knee, Orton was given the final three starts of the season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I got the market that I felt like I was supposed to get. Like I said, I got the market. My contract is right in line with Adalius Thomas and his contract from last year. There's three or four years that my contract is right in line with his. So I'm not mad. I'm happy." — Bears LB Lance Briggs after accepting $36 million over six years from the Bears with $14 million guaranteed. Thomas got $20 million guaranteed.
The Lions didn't sign Asante Samuel. They showed interest in Drayton Florence and Randall Gay but didn't get them, either. But they moved quickly to address their biggest weakness — the secondary.
They released cornerback Fernando Bryant and re-signed cornerbacks Travis Fisher and Keith Smith. They acquired cornerback Leigh Bodden in a trade with Cleveland. They signed safety Dwight Smith, pursued cornerback Brian Kelly and signed safety Kalvin Pearson, a restricted free agent, to an offer sheet.
Bodden is coming off the best season of his career statistically — 16 starts, six interceptions, three fumble recoveries — and he expects to play a large role.
"I want to be the guy," Bodden said. "That's what I plan to do here. ... Detroit, they had a pretty good season, first eight games, and then kind of fell off. I want to help the team get over that hump and make the playoffs."
Smith, Kelly and Pearson all have played for Tampa Bay, and coach Rod Marinelli, defensive coordinator and secondary coach Jimmy Lake all have coached for the Buccaneers. Marinelli said familiarity with players was "a big positive."
So did Smith.
"I already know Rod Marinelli and I know the type of ship he's running, and Joe Barry was basically in the next room from me for four years while I was in Tampa," Smith said. "Just the familiarity with everybody and to know they've got that headed in the right direction. I would love to be a part of the turnaround of the franchise."
Smith said he could be like a coach in the locker room and on the field.
"Outside of making plays on the field, I feel like I could be a guy who lets guys know that this system really works," Smith said. "I've been in this system, won a Super Bowl in this system and seen a lot guys make a lot of plays and make a lot of money and make a lot of Pro Bowls in this system."
Barry sounded excited about the additions of Bodden and Smith.
"They improve us," Barry said. "They make us better. You say, ‘Well, how do they make us better?' Well, you simply just look at the production."
But Barry would like to add another corner in free agency.
"I'm greedy," Barry said. "I want to get as many good football players as we possibly can. So, yeah, hopefully we're not done."
Kelly visited the Lions but did not immediately sign a contract.
Pearson's deal is for three years and worth $3.5 million, with a $1.1 million signing bonus. If the Buccaneers don't match, the Lions land Pearson and don't have to give up any draft choice compensation.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You know that they're not being the same, old Lions, because when I was growing up, we always felt that the only reason we didn't get over the top, we didn't try to spend the money on the right players." — S Dwight Smith, who grew up in Detroit, after signing with the Lions.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
As he bid adieu to playing football for the Green Bay Packers in a tear-filled press conference of 67 minutes at Lambeau Field on March 6, Brett Favre all but slammed the door on coming out of retirement down the road.
"It's been a great career for me, and it's over. As hard as that is for me to say, it's over," the 38-year-old quarterback said. "There's only one way for me to play the game, and that's 100 percent.
"I will wonder if I made the wrong decision. I'm sure on Sundays I will say, ‘I can be doing that. I should be doing that.' I'm not going to sit here like other players maybe have said in the past (and say) ‘I won't miss it,' because I will. But, I just don't think I can give anything else, aside from the three hours on Sundays, and in football, you can't do that. It's a total commitment. Up to this point, I've been totally committed."
Favre's decision to finally retire after recent years of flirting with calling it quits still came as a shock to a good number of Packer backers and other football fans. Those blindsided by the news, especially after Favre was coming off one of his more productive seasons and the Packers came within a win of the Super Bowl, surely didn't heed the subtle clues the past few weeks that pointed to the revealing call made by the three-time MVP to head coach Mike McCarthy in the evening of March 3.
Linebacker A.J. Hawk — not Favre, after so many years — has been moonlighting since the end of last season as the pitchman in TV commercials for a Wisconsin auto dealership.
Then, there was the big would-be gaffe on the Packers Web site on Feb. 28, when an incomplete page announcing breaking news of Favre's retirement appeared briefly for anyone on the site at the time to see before it was removed.
Finally, what might have cinched the whole deal was Randy Moss' re-signing with New England, thus depriving Favre of the dynamic receiver he wanted going back to last offseason.
Sure enough, no sooner did the retirement decision come to light on the morning of March 4 than speculation ran rampant that Packers management was responsible for running perhaps the greatest player in the history of the storied franchise out of Green Bay. The notion was fueled by comments made by Favre's agent, Bus Cook.
"Nobody pushed Brett Favre out the door, but then nobody encouraged him not to go out that door, either," Cook told The Associated Press.
Favre tried to extinguish the flames by saying the team wanted him back for next season — general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy said as much — and that his abruptly calling it quits after 17 years in the NFL was of his own volition, chiefly brought on by mental fatigue and not having a desire to go through the rigors of a full season again.
"I've given everything I possibly can give to this organization, the game of football, and I don't think I've got anything left to give, and that's it," Favre said. "I know I can play, but I don't think I want to. That's really what it comes down to.
"I'm not up to the challenge anymore. I can play, but I'm not up to the challenge," he added. "You can't just show up and play for three hours on Sunday. If you could, there would be a lot more people doing it and be doing it for a lot longer. I have way too much pride, expect a lot of myself, and if I cannot do those things 100 percent, then I can't play."
Favre was never asked directly in the long-running presser whether he would give any thought down the road to returning, as some superstars before him have done. Interestingly, though, Thompson didn't dismiss a Favre comeback.
"I guess you never say never," said Thompson, "but I wouldn't anticipate that."
Favre said during his farewell press conference at Lambeau Field on March 6 that he plans to do "nothing" in his first year out of the NFL in 18 years.
"(Retired Packers general manager) Ron Wolf asked me (March 5), ‘What are you going to do?' I said, ‘Nothing,'" Favre related. "I'm going to stick to that, until I want to do something else."
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy expressed a similar sentiment after Favre had called him on the night of March 3 to say he was retiring.
When asked whether he could envision Favre being on camera or coaching, McCarthy said, "I'd be shocked."
"I'll just warn you all — if you try to climb the fence (of Favre's property in Mississippi), he's going to shoot you. I'll just pass that on to you," McCarthy quipped. "He'd be great at (doing TV work), but I don't think he's coming out from behind the fence very often."
Lost in the worldwide hullabaloo stirred by Favre's decision to retire was veteran long snapper Rob Davis' hanging up his cleats as well.
Davis, at 39 the oldest player on Green Bay's roster at the end of last season, was with the team since 1997, when the Packers made their second straight appearance in the league title game.
Davis, an unrestricted free agent, felt he could play another season, but the club apparently wants to go younger at his position.
"We all hope to be able to walk away on our own terms," Davis told WLUK-TV in Green Bay on March 5. "Brett's 38 (years old), and I'm sure he started playing (football) in Pop Warner, so he's put that helmet on for about 30 straight years. That's a difficult transition for any player. I face that same transition myself."
Davis, though, will remain with the organization, as he slides into the front office to assume a full-time role overseeing player development programs. Davis had part-time responsibilities in that area last season.
Williams took a parting shot at the Packers during his introductory news conference with the Browns, expressing his displeasure that Green Bay used the franchise tag on him before making the deal. The Packers received a second-round draft pick this year.
"I wanted out of Green Bay, and I'm glad Cleveland called me," Williams said. "I feel like I am wanted here. It feels like home to me ... I already feel like I got the love that I have been looking for."
Green Bay balked at meeting Williams' demands for a lucrative long-term contract. Cleveland obliged by signing the fifth-year player to a six-year, $38 million contract, including $8 million in bonuses this year.
"I'm going out on top," Favre said. "It's been a wonderful career. I have no regrets."
Favre's starting streak, which dates to his first year with the Packers in 1992, ranks second in the NFL for all positions. Favre came within 17 straight starts of the record held by Jim Marshall of Minnesota, attained from 1961 to ‘79.
Counting playoff games, Favre started 275 straight games.
"It's been 275 games. At some point, it's got to end," Favre said.
The foundation has raised more than $3 million for disabled and disadvantaged children in Wisconsin and Mississippi the last 10 years.
"I hope that will continue in some form or level with our charity work here, but I don't think it will be as extensive as it has been," Deanna said. "We have decided to take a break from all events this year."
Deanna confirmed the foundation's annual softball game played near Green Bay in June won't be held this year.
"I know that will disappoint a lot of people," she said. "But, honestly, we both are really tired right now."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Will I find something to do that's equal to throwing a touchdown pass in Lambeau Field? I doubt it. Will I find something that is as equal as playing in a Super Bowl or playing in a game in general? I doubt it. I'm not even going to try. There really isn't a plan. I know that this place and what it's meant to my career is really special, and to think that I can find something to replace that and feel the same, I'm no fool, I know that there's nothing out there like that. So, I'm not even going to try. But, life does go on. I will do something, whatever that may be. But, it will be nice for a while, I think, to not feel like I have to live up to certain expectations, not only that other people have of me but I have of myself. I can just kind of, as they say, ride off into the sunset — whatever that means. Just try to relax for once in my life and enjoy it. I'm going to steal a quote from (wife) Deanna, when she said, ‘See life through the front windshield, not through the rear-view mirror.' I think that is so true, so important." — Retired quarterback Brett Favre, speaking at his farewell press conference March 6 at Lambeau Field, on what the future holds for him.