In an effort to fast track Devin Hester's development as a wide receiver this season, the Bears will be more judicious in their use of his considerable return abilities.
That doesn't mean Hester will be eased out of the job at which he may already be the best in NFL history. Not by a long shot. But Hester will probably not be asked to return every kickoff and punt in 2008.
Hester's 15.5-yard punt-return average was second in the NFL last season, and his 42 chances were tied for third most in the league, even though many teams refused to allow him to touch the ball. He was fifth in the NFC with 43 kickoff returns but averaged just 21.7 yards, as teams routinely kicked high and short to curtail his returns or keep the ball out of his hands entirely. In his second NFL season, Hester scored four touchdowns on punt returns and two more on kickoff returns.
He had five kick-return touchdowns as a rookie, plus a 108-yard TD return of a missed field goal and another kickoff-return TD in Super Bowl XLI.
But, with the free-agent loss of No. 1 receiver Bernard Berrian and the release of No. 2 Muhsin Muhammad, the Bears need Hester to make some strides as an offensive player over last season, when he showed flashes but still looked rough around the edges while catching 20 passes for 299 yards.
"He will still be our returner," coach Lovie Smith said, "and from there we'll just try to bring him along as a receiver. He can handle them both. I know it's hard, and it's been a long time since anyone has been able to do (punt and kickoff returns) full-time and be a full-time receiver too. I think you make those decisions as they come.
"If we're in a game, and we need a play, and they're kicking the ball off to us, there is a good chance you are going to see him back there. If they're punting the ball to us, and we need a big play — no matter what part of the game — there is a good chance you are going to see him back there."
By most accounts, Hester was the Bears' offensive MVP last season, even though he had just nine receptions in the first 12 games. With a dearth of offensive playmakers on the roster, the Bears hope Hester can step up as a No. 2 receiver this year or at least a consistent No. 3.
"I think Devin Hester can be pretty much what he wants to be wherever we play him," Smith said. "Can he be a three-down receiver? Definitely so."
The NFC North cellar dwellers are slated for five night games, including three at Soldier Field. Their other 11 games are all scheduled to start at noon Chicago time. The Bears are scheduled to play night games in three of four weeks near the end of the season, between Nov. 30-Dec. 22.
The Bears' previously announced season opener on Sunday night, Sept. 7, against the Colts will be the first regular-season game at Indianapolis' new Lucas Oil Stadium. That will be followed by primetime appearances at home on Sunday night, Sept. 28, against the Eagles; Thursday night, Dec. 11, against the Saints; and on Monday night, Dec. 22, against the Packers. The Bears play the Vikings at Minnesota on Sunday night, Nov. 30.
The Monday night home game is a rarity in Chicago. Over the past 12 seasons, just one of their 10 Monday night games has been played at Soldier Field.
"We are excited to have five primetime appearances," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "Most important, three of those games will be at home in front of our fans. Our national games have been on the road the past few seasons. This will be a showcase year for the great home-field advantage we have in Chicago."
Not so advantageous for the Bears is an early schedule that has them playing four of their first six games on the road. They also play three straight games on the road in the second half of November, but enjoy three straight home games on two separate occasions.
"You can start with offense," he said. "We have to get our quarterback position settled. It will be a good competition between Rex (Grossman) and Kyle (Orton). We need another quarterback on our roster. We lost two (starting) offensive linemen, veteran players (ORT Fred Miller and OLG Ruben Brown). We need to replace them. Lost our No. 1 receiver (Bernard Berrian to free agency; No. 2 Muhsin Muhammad was released). So you can start on the offensive side of the ball. We have a few holes, but we can replace them."
In three seasons, Benson has just five runs longer than 21 yards, last season he averaged only 3.4 yards per carry, and he's scored a total of 10 touchdowns. He's also been injury prone after being a four-year workhorse at Texas, where he carried the ball 1,112 times and was never seriously hurt.
The Bears are expected to draft competition for Benson, and he will have to win the starting job in training camp. If not, it may be his last season in Chicago.
"Ced is a first-round pick, and there are expectations you can't get away from," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "You are going to get a stage and then you need to produce. That is where he is; it's as simple as that. Cedric is in a position now where it is an important year for him and he needs to take a step. He will be the first one to tell you it's time now. When you come in as a rookie, OK, but after that you have to step up. When you get a chance to play you have to elevate your game."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Did I think about cutting him? No. We're not to that point. As a football team, we didn't play as well as we needed to. I don't think you can blame a running back. But this is critical year." — Coach Lovie Smith on RB Cedric Benson, whose 3.4-yard average per carry last season was the second worst among NFL running backs with 500 or more rushing yards.
It's no secret for the Lions heading into the NFL draft. They need a middle linebacker.
The question is whether they will draft someone to step in immediately or draft someone who can develop in that role over time.
Coach Rod Marinelli would prefer a veteran to quarterback the system. The Lions pursued a trade for Jonathan Vilma and explored signing free agent Dan Morgan. Both went to New Orleans. Free agent Al Wilson remains a possibility, depending on how the draft goes. Paris Lenon could continue starting in the middle instead of moving to the strong side.
"The one position in our defense that is the hardest is the "Mike" backer," Marinelli said. "For a young player to come in, it's very, very difficult. That's what makes you leery, because it's so hard.
"Why? You're in the huddle, and you're looking 10 veterans in the eye, and you're trying to get them lined up, and man, they're ready to choke you as soon as you make the call wrong or something like that. You're the voice of that huddle."
The Lions could draft a player such as Jerod Mayo, who played three years of outside linebacker at Tennessee and then moved inside. Mayo could play on the strong side first and be moved to the middle later once Marinelli determines that he's been adequately seasoned.
But president Matt Millen has a different perspective.
"I would just drop them in the middle and just go," Millen said. "If he's going to be your middle linebacker, let him be your middle linebacker."
Could a young player make all the calls?
"Sure," Millen said. "If not, there's other guys playing. They can help him. In fact, there's plenty of guys who started right from the start, calling everything right from the beginning."
Millen, of course, was one of them. He played mostly right defensive end at Penn State. But after being drafted by the Raiders in the second round, he started his first NFL game at middle linebacker. He went on to win four Super Bowl rings in a 12-year career.
"It can be done," Millen said.
"Detroit really impressed me," Rivers wrote. "The players enjoy being there. It was kind of like when I first came to USC to visit. Everyone was so upbeat and working hard. The Lions are going to turn the corner you could just feel it."
"We've inserted a stud into our locker room," Barry said. "Sometimes the character and the type of guy and the type of worker a person is gets overlooked because, ‘Oh, man, he's a really, really good player.' Well, this kid's a really, really good player, and he's an A-plus character, and he's an A-plus guy in the locker room. I think we hit a home run with Kalvin Pearson."
Special teams coordinator Stan Kwan expects a lot from Pearson.
"I envision him being the leader of our special teams," Kwan said. "He's a smart player. He's energetic on the field. But the one thing he does that stands out is, he makes plays."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't know." — WR Mike Furrey, asked how his role will change now that slot-receiver-loving offensive coordinator Mike Martz is gone.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Even without Brett Favre — as everyone is being led to believe — the Packers are in high demand with the league's television networks.
The team, which is expected to have a new starting quarterback in Aaron Rodgers for the first time since 1992, will play no less than six games that will be telecast nationwide next season.
Beginning with a season-opening Monday night matchup at home against division rival Minnesota on Sept. 8, the Packers have four prime-time games on the docket.
"If you look at it from the kind of season we had last year, I think obviously the Packers are a very attractive team to be on TV," new team president Mark Murphy said. "And, I think there's a lot of interest in, ‘What are the Packers going to look like without Brett Favre?'"
The 38-year-old Favre has been the face of the esteemed franchise for more than 15 years. On the heels of enjoying a renaissance with his play, which helped Green Bay exceed expectations with a 13-3 record and a narrow loss in the NFC Championship, Favre retired in early March.
A month later, talk picked up that Favre was reconsidering his decision. He acknowledged in an interview with his hometown newspaper in Mississippi that he would be tempted to play again should the Packers need him if Rodgers were to be injured.
The release of the 2008 schedule April 15 gave pause to some on whether the increased exposure for an otherwise youthful team is a foreshadowing of Favre's return.
The Packers will host Dallas on Sunday night in Week 3 and play late-season Monday night games at New Orleans and Chicago. They also will be featured twice nationally on the back end of Sunday afternoon doubleheaders: Week 6 at Seattle and Week 7 vs. Indianapolis.
Head coach Mike McCarthy said April 10 at a sports awards banquet in the Green Bay area that the recent speculation of a comeback by Favre is nothing more than that.
"I've actually talked to Brett a lot the last couple of weeks. He's content where he is (in retirement)," McCarthy said. "I think he's always going to wonder if he can still play and things like that. I think that's natural, you talk to anybody that's gone through retirement. I think these are very normal emotions that he's going through.
"He'll be missed next year. But, my understanding is he's very content with his decision."
Right tackle Mark Tauscher firmly dismissed the notion of Favre's return by referring to him in the past tense.
"He loves playing. (But) he's made a decision," Tauscher said. "And, we as a football team are ready to move forward. We're not going to worry about all of those speculations. We respect Brett. He was a great teammate. But, this is Aaron Rodgers' team right now."
Rodgers, provided he does take over for Favre once and for all, will be under the gun from the outset. Five of the Packers' first eight games are against teams that joined Green Bay in the playoffs last season. They have only one game against a playoff team in the second half of the season.
The Packers announced on April 17 the decision to retire Favre's No. 4 as part of a ceremony on Sept. 8, when the Packers open the regular season against Minnesota.
"The season-opening game is always an exciting event, and now we're very pleased to add the retirement of Brett's No. 4 to that evening," said team president/CEO Mark Murphy. "It will make for an electric atmosphere at Lambeau Field, as well as a great opportunity for our fans around the country to share in it while watching the game on the national broadcast."
Head coach Mike McCarthy said Rodgers has been preparing since Green Bay started its offseason workouts March 17 as though he will be the starter come opening day in September.
"I think Aaron has a very good head on his shoulders," McCarthy said. "He's going through the quarterback school. He's doing a great job from a leadership standpoint. In his strength and conditioning program, he's doing a great job himself. He's just really focused on this opportunity. This is a tremendous opportunity for Aaron. He has put a lot into this opportunity, and he's going to take full advantage of it."
Favre is scheduled to be a guest on the "Late Show with David Letterman" on April 24. Favre reportedly will be in New York City for an NFL promotional appearance that day.
Favre's only other appearance on Letterman's show was in 1997 after the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI.
To the so-called Milwaukee season-ticket holders who are entitled to two regular-season games each season after the team stopped playing games there in the mid-1990s went the spoils of a pair of marquee matchups at Lambeau Field. The schedule worked in their favor with the annually designated home games 2 and 5 being a Sunday night clash with Dallas on Sept. 21 and the showdown with rival Chicago on Nov. 16.
New Packers president Mark Murphy said the team couldn't make a request with the league for how the games were divvied up between Green Package ticket holders and Gold Package (Milwaukee) ticket holders.
"That's something you really don't have a lot of control over," Murphy said. "I know going back a few years one of the things that (retired president) Bob (Harlan) had talked to the league office about was trying not to have the Milwaukee games in the evening because of the travel. But, I think with the attractiveness of the Packers now and some of the changes with the scheduling at the league level, that really has gone by the wayside."
Of the six games for the traditional season-ticket holders in the Green Package, the only appealing date is Oct. 19 against Indianapolis.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We had a very successful year last year. We were a play away from the Super Bowl. I think there's a lot of interest in our team. You look at the ratings that the Packers have produced over the years, I think those are all factors." — New team president Mark Murphy on the Packers' getting maximum TV exposure for the 2008 season with four prime-time games and two others in the Sunday late-afternoon national slot.