Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips would like to complete negotiations soon on new contracts for Tommie Harris and Brian Urlacher for several reasons.
"Obviously the sooner the better, so I don't have to keep answering these questions for the next three months," Phillips said with a smile.
The Bears are preparing to contribute a good chunk of their salary cap toward a contract extension for Harris before the 2008 season, the last year of his original contract, which was for $9.8 million over five years, including $6.9 million in guaranteed money. Urlacher is boycotting the team's voluntary offseason workouts that began Monday in hopes the Bears will sweeten the $56.65 million, nine-year deal he signed prior to the 2003 season. Four years remain on that contract.
"They're important to us," Phillips said of Harris and Urlacher, arguably the two best players on a team hoping to bounce back from a 7-9 season. "We want to get those two guys done; that's our philosophy. We believe in rewarding our own, and that's what we intend to do, hopefully in both of their cases."
But Phillips took exception to characterizing the ongoing Urlacher negotiations as an "extension." A better word would be "restructuring."
"I never said we were talking about an extension," Phillips said. "I never said that. I said we were talking to his representatives about how to look at his contract and try to educate them on the value of his deal. He signed a long deal, so ..."
When it was pointed out that Urlacher's deal was for good money five years ago, Phillips agreed.
"It was," he said. "It still is."
Coach Lovie Smith expressed little concern about Urlacher's absence from the voluntary weight lifting and conditioning sessions.
"I don't get too worked up about that," Smith said. "If a player has some type of contract dispute that's going on, I realize in the off-season you take care of those things. In the end, when we need Brian there, he'll be there."
Harris seemed content to let the process play out at its own pace when he spoke with reporters Tuesday afternoon, at first joking that a deal had already been completed between the Bears and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, who was at Halas Hall earlier in the day for contract discussions.
"I would love to be a Bear," Harris said. "I'm patiently waiting. I'm very optimistic. I'll leave the negotiations to the front office and my agent. I feel like they're going to do a great job, so right now I'm just staying focused on the off-season workouts and get my body in the best shape possible to go out and do it again."
Harris underwent postseason arthroscopic knee surgery after the 2007 campaign in which his health was less than 100 percent much of the time, although he still made his third straight Pro Bowl.
"There's not really a deadline," Harris said. "I owe them one (more) year. Right now it's not a distraction. But to guarantee security and to be able to get paid for your accolades, I believe that's what all of us do, and that's what we all come to work for. It would be great (if we get it done), but I owe the Bears a year. If it doesn't (get done), it's expected."
Considering defensive tackles with similar, and in many cases less, talent than Harris have struck it rich in recent months, the former first-round pick can expect a windfall — if not now, then in the near future.
The Raiders re-signed Tommy Kelly for $50.5 million over seven years, including $18.125 million guaranteed money. Former Packer Corey Williams got $38 million over six years from the Browns in free agency, and Kris Jenkins signed a five-year, $35 million deal including $20 million in guaranteed money with the Jets after he was traded from the Panthers.
The Niles (Ill.) North High School graduate's 1,681 rushing yards last season were the most in Illini history. Aside from the local angle, Mendenhall was recruited to Illinois by Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner, who knows him as a player and a person.
"Great speed, great power, everything you look for," Turner said. "Rashard was just outstanding."
In his breakout season in Champaign, Mendenhall exhibited almost every positive trait a running back can possess. He caught 34 passes last season and packs a heavily muscled 225 pounds on a rock-solid 5-foot-10-inch frame, and his postseason 40-yard dash times in the 4.45-second range are excellent for a player with his size and power.
"He can catch the ball, he's got speed, he's got size, he's got strength, and he's got some wiggle to him," said Bears director of college scouting Greg Gabriel. "So he's got a lot of tools."
But they don't have a legitimate No. 1 receiver. Even the Bears' coaches are unsure what the wide receiver pecking order will be when offseason practices begin.
"When they get in here, we'll just start teaching them the offense, get them comfortable with everything," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "We've got a good feel for what they can do, but we want to see them in the offseason, working with our quarterbacks and fitting in with the other guys that we have."
The Bears have way too many more pressing needs to spend a first-round pick on a wide receiver, even though their corps of pass catchers is badly in need of an upgrade and is currently lacking anyone resembling a go-to guy. So the possibility of getting a first-round talent without spending a first-round pick, would be worth considering, even if it means taking a chance.
But that doesn't mean they won't jump at second-day bargains, searching for players who can add depth and play key roles on special teams, as linebackers often do.
At least one national publication identifies LSU's Ali Highsmith as a player who fits the Bears' scheme, and if he's still on the board when the Bears make their two third-round selections, the three-year starter at LSU would make sense. After running an extremely disappointing 4.96 40 at the Combine, the 5-foot-11 3/4-inch, 230-pound Highsmith could find himself in a bit of a free fall on draft weekend, but he was hampered by a groin injury that day.
Highsmith redeemed himself by running 4.68 and 4.69 at LSU's pro day in late March and put up 225 pounds on the bench press 23 times, slightly higher than the linebacker average of 22.7 at the Combine.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's in the offense he's in. It's the same for a lot of other backs. You can't do anything about that. When you're running in college, your holes are big. It's that way in most cases. You've got to translate that to our game, where you don't have two-yard- and three-yard-wide holes. You've got two-foot holes, if that. It's instinct, it's quickness to the hole, it's power, it's staying low. We put everything together and then we'll figure it all out." — Bears director of college scouting Greg Gabriel on projecting how college running backs, like Illinois' Rashard Mendenhall, who played in a spread offense, will perform in the NFL.
Tony Dungy knows why Rod Marinelli has brought so many former Tampa Bay coaches and players to Detroit.
"I think it absolutely is part of the mindset, trying to create that winning mindset," Dungy said.
Dungy coaches the Colts, Marinelli the Lions. But back in 1996, Dungy landed his first NFL head coaching job with the Buccaneers, and he gave Marinelli his first NFL job as his defensive line coach.
Marinelli is trying to build the Lions much the way they built the Bucs. The former Bucs are in Detroit to build a bridge, in a way. They know the system well and should be able to patch holes effectively, helping the Lions improve in the short term. They also are supposed to create a culture from which the long-term building blocks — the Lions' draft picks — can learn.
"When you can have some guys that you know believe in the things you believe in, it helps," Dungy said. "You're selling it as a head coach. They've got to hear it from your assistant coaches as well. They've got to hear it from the players who are in there all the time."
Especially when the team has been losing for a long time and the fans and media often overreact to everything negatively.
"They're getting so many messages," Dungy said. "Detroit is, I'm sure, just like we were in Tampa, where, you know, we'd get a guy hurt in Tampa my first couple years, and that's all you'd hear around the whole city. ‘Oh, the season's over now. Eric Curry got hurt. There's no way you can win.' "
"But that's what the players hear," Dungy continued. "So they've got to hear it from everybody else. ‘No, the season's not over. We're going to be fine.' You're saying it as a head coach, but if you're only one voice, it's not as effective. I know that's what Rod's trying to do."
Can't a coach get caught in a comfort zone, though?
"The danger is sometimes you're bringing in your guys and you're letting guys who are pretty good go," Dungy said. "But you've got to know what fits you.
"There are players, especially the system Rod plays, they might be great players, they don't fit that. And so it looks like sometimes, ‘Well, this guy's a good player. Why did we let him go?' "
Dungy said you have to keep an open mind and try to get the players you inherit to buy in first. But if they don't, you have to move on.
"I think that's what Rod did," Dungy said. "Slowly but surely, he understands who does fit, who does buy in, and he's now bringing in guys who are going to add to that."
"I think there's going to be a lot of check-with-me's, which is, get up to the line, if you see a safety coming down this way, we'll go this way," center Dominic Raiola said. "Everybody's got to know before the quarterback changes it what's going to happen during the play. If the safety comes down here, you know we're going to run it away from the safety, and you've kind of have to know it your head and kind of operate faster in your head before he changes the play."
"I think Shaun's the best in the game," Raiola said. "It's hard to let a guy go like that, but it's what Rod wants, and he's going to get it." Rogers was drafted right after Raiola, in the second round in 2001. Raiola got an up-close look at Rogers' immense talent, lining up across from him in practice. Asked if he understood why Rogers had to go, Raiola said Rogers knows "if he lost a few pounds he could have been a little more productive on the field." He said after Rogers' excellent first eight games last year, "you saw it all catch up with him."
Asked if the Lions were better off, Raiola said: "We'll see. I know Shaun could take over a game and win a game by himself. I've seen that. Over seven years, I've seen that a lot. We're going to be fine. One guy's not going to make the whole team. Yeah, we're going to be fine."
"I teased Rod before the draft," Dungy said. "I said, ‘You can hide your first-round pick as much as you think. I know you're taking Ernie Sims, because this is a guy who just epitomizes what you're all about, what you're trying to sell.' "
Sure enough, the Lions took Sims. Who does Dungy think the Lions will take 15th overall this year?
"I don't know," Dungy said, smiling. "I haven't had time to study it yet."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Stop doing that." — Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden, growling somewhat good-naturedly about Lions coach Rod Marinelli bringing former Tampa Bay coaches and players to Detroit.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Maybe there's good reason team management wasn't ready to circle its season-opening Monday night home game against rival Minnesota on Sept. 8 as the date to retire quarterback Brett Favre's No. 4.
A month after he tearfully said he was done playing football after 17 years in the league, Favre apparently is having second thoughts.
A few days after the Los Angeles Times reported that Favre's agent, Bus Cook, had been quietly courting suitors for his famous client through a trade — Cook subsequently called the report false — Favre spoke up and didn't shoot down the rampant speculation about a comeback attempt.
In an article published April 8 by the Biloxi (Miss.) Sun Herald, Favre told writer Al Jones, a friend of the Favre family, that he could be talked into playing again if the Packers were to need him if successor Aaron Rodgers is injured.
"It would be hard to pass up, I guess," Favre said. "But, three months from now, say that presents itself, I may say, ‘You know what, I'm so glad I made that decision (to retire).' I'm feeling very comfortable in what I'm doing and my decision.
"Yeah, I can probably be up there doing that and playing, but again, I don't know. It's only speculating."
Favre, 38, himself has fueled rumors about making his retirement short-lived — a la former teammate Reggie White and basketball's Michael Jordan in the modern sports era — because he has yet to make the decision final by filing paperwork with the league office. Until he does, Favre will count some $12 million against the team's salary cap this year.
"When I think of now being retired, I think I won't be in the quarterback/receiver meeting on Thursdays joking around and having fun and game plan and all that stuff together," Favre said in the Sun Herald. "It was a fun year (last season). That was fun throwing the ball around like we did. There's no reason to think that won't happen again. Aaron has fallen into a great situation. And if that opportunity presented itself (with a setback to Rodgers) and they did call, it would be tempting. And I very well could be enticed to do it."
Favre, however, admitted that short of keeping himself physically fit this spring and summer at his home in Mississippi, he would be hard pressed to take to the field again. A commitment to training rigorously while he's technically retired doesn't seem appealing to the NFL's only three-time MVP, who owns many of the league's passing records.
"I don't want to (play again) if I'm not in shape. It would be hard to go up there at 38," Favre said. "It was hard to stay in shape (while he was playing). I worked out and I worked out hard. Week in and week out, I was just drained.
"To think that if they called me in October and told me, ‘Hey, we need you this week,' that would be hard. I'm sure mentally, I would be refreshed. I'd be away from it for a long time. But mentally vs. physically, the last thing I'd want to do is go up and it's ‘Oh this is great and all that stuff and me be excited and then just flop.' You just can't show up and play."
While saying he is happy with his decision to retire, Favre acknowledged that he's "just taking it one day at a time."
The Packers were awaiting the release of the full 2008 regular-season schedule before determining when to honor Favre by retiring his jersey.
McCarthy, in his third year at the helm, will conduct the minicamp June 17-19, which falls at the end of the team's offseason schedule. In previous years, the required minicamp for all players came in May.
The revised practice schedule following the April 26-27 draft will start with an orientation camp for the rookies May 2-4. In turn, voluntary organized team activities will be spread out from mid-May until before the minicamp.
The crux behind the changes is promoting individual development of the younger players, McCarthy said April 2 at the league owners meetings in Palm Beach, Fla.
"I think it's a better way. It's a better teaching progression," McCarthy said. "Now, we'll have a more competitive minicamp. We can get more done, and we leave (before the start of training camp in July) as a football team, as opposed to coming together as a football team in May. I always felt like we kind of splintered off at the end of OTAs."
Both Harris and Bigby were outspoken about such a measure being considered.
"It's not a uniform violation; it's not a part of the uniform. So, what's the problem?" Bigby told WLUK-TV in Green Bay. "It's a personal choice, by a human being. To have that taken away from you, that's everything that's against America and freedom and your constitutional rights."
The Packers' lone unsigned restricted free agent is defensive tackle Colin Cole.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't have a date for you. It bothered me. There's no question about that. It still bothers you when you see a highlight or something like that. It's definitely an experience we need to learn from as a football team because you're only given so many opportunities, especially in this business. That was an excellent opportunity for our football team, and we didn't take advantage of it. That's how I really view the game now." — Head coach Mike McCarthy, on April 2 at the league owners meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., when asked how long did it take for him to get over the Packers' 23-20 overtime loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship on Jan. 20.