With five weeks to chill until the start of training camp, Bears coach Lovie Smith expressed confidence in a running game that features as-yet-unsigned second-round pick Matt Forte backed up by Adrian Peterson and Garrett Wolfe, who averaged a combined 3.3 yards per carry last season.
Although the position appears thin numbers-wise since the release of Cedric Benson, who was the Bears' leading rusher last season with 674 yards, Smith discouraged talk of bringing in veteran help.
"We don't have any plans to do that," Smith said after Wednesday's final OTA practice at Halas Hall. "We like the running backs that we have right now, and those are the ones that we're going with."
The running back depth chart also includes second-year man P.J. Pope, who spent last season on the practice squad injured list, and Matt Lawrence, an undrafted rookie from Massachusetts.
Forte, who rushed for 2,127 yards last season at Tulane, is expected to be the focal point of the ground game, a role Bears coaches may have envisioned even before Benson's two alcohol-related arrests in a five-week span.
"We liked (Forte) coming in," Smith said. "He hasn't disappointed us at all. We feel real good about where he is. I feel like he'll meet the challenge."
Forte will have to live up to expectations for the Bears to bounce back from last season's 7-9 Super Bowl hangover to a playoff team. They're coming off a last-place finish in the NFC North, just as they were after Smith's 5-11 rookie season of 2004. The following year the Bears reversed their record to 11-5 and made the playoffs.
"We've been in this situation before, so it's not new to us," Smith said. "We've been in last place and we've climbed that mountain. So that's the message. It's always good to be the underdog. Right now most people are counting us out. We like that position."
The Bears are not in an ideal situation at quarterback. Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton are jousting for the starting job. If that battle continues throughout the preseason, it could negatively impact continuity within the offense, which will have different starters at both wide receiver positions and is expected to have different starters at three of the five offensive line spots.
Offensive coordinator Ron Turner said the quarterback competition remains even and hopes the competition elevates the performance of both players.
"Right now, it's highly competitive," Turner said. "I think both guys are stepping up to the challenge and stepping up to the opportunity. I see a great focus in both of them. They've both been in the system for a while, so they should have much better knowledge and a much better feel for it and that's showing on the field."
When training camp practices begin on July 23, the coaching staff will get a better idea of which quarterback will lead the offense.
"I'm anxious to get into camp when we have pads on and everything else picks up a little bit," Turner said. "Then you get into some preseason games to see how they are going to respond."
In the mean time, Smith has encouraged his players to avoid the pitfalls that claimed Benson, and Tank Johnson a year earlier.
"It's not a perfect world in any profession," Smith said. "That's definitely the case with us. They know what's at stake.
"Here is the time to go to the Bahamas, go to Hawaii, or just hang out and do nothing. Spend time with family. Let your mind get away from football a little bit because we plan on playing a long time. There won't be a lot of breaks then."
But the rash of injuries began in 2004 with a season-ending ruptured Achilles' tendon in the second game of the year. The following season he was voted to the Pro Bowl, even though a calf injury forced him out of the final four regular-season games. Brown's ‘06 season ended after six games because of a foot injury.
Through four serious injuries and lengthy rehabs, Brown hasn't lost his passion for the game, which is why he's already jacked up about regaining his Pro Bowl form and helping the Bears' defense attain the elite status it enjoyed in 2005 and ‘06.
"I have a total passion for the game, and I feel that I can still play," Brown said. "If I didn't have my skills, if the injuries were diminishing my skills any, I would think long and hard about it. But every time I come out here and see myself on film, I still look pretty good.
"When I'm on the field, I think I'm one of the best safeties in the league. I have a lot of confidence, and I feel like I bring a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of intensity. I love playing with this team. I love the defense, I think it's conducive to the way that I play and I just want to show people what I can do."
"Right now the position is wide open," Hester said. "The best two are going to step up and play."
Hester sees himself as a starter; if not now, then soon.
"If you're a receiver and you don't feel that way, then you don't deserve to be out here on the field," he said. "It's competing for a job, and that's how the next man (on the depth chart) gets better. That's what I'm out here doing, and when the season kicks off, I'm hoping I'll be one of the No. 1 guys."
Booker and Lloyd have gotten most of the first-team reps, but Hester has also been utilized. Receivers coach Darryl Drake said no final decisions have been made.
"Right now we don't have clear-cut starters," Drake said. "Those guys (Booker and Lloyd) are in the mix. Devin is in the mix. So those guys are probably the ones."
Hester has been focusing on running more precise routes and fine-tuning his timing with quarterbacks Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton. He said the mental aspect of his game has improved over last season, his first as a full-time receiver.
"I'm a lot better at knowing the game," he said. "I'm starting to understand the defense as well as the offense."
For now, though, Hester's forte remains the deep ball, where he can utilize his rare speed to get behind even the fastest cornerbacks. His communication with the quarterbacks on those plays is simple.
"Whenever we have a deep ball, I just tell them throw it as far as you can and hopefully I'm going to run it down," he said.
"It's pretty easy," Grossman said. "I think you'd have to be pretty immature to take it to a personal level. I don't think there's a downside to (the competition) for anyone other than Kyle and I. Obviously we'd both like to have the job. If anything, it probably makes you better to concentrate that much harder."
Coach Lovie Smith said he's in no hurry to determine the winner of the QB battle and that it would not be decided by the start of the preseason.
"Just some time during training camp, during the preseason," Smith said of the timetable. "Ideally, you would like to have someone in place by going to that last week of the preseason, but we'll just let it play out. If it's not clear by then, we'll let it go right up until (the start of the season)."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're in fourth place right now in our division. So that's the mindset that we have. We have a long ways to go." — Bears coach Lovie Smith on the team's attitude after completing off-season practices.
Lions defensive tackle Shaun Cody knows he needs to improve if he wants a new contract — or perhaps to even make the team. He has only 1.5 sacks in three seasons — none since his rookie year.
Cody, a second-round pick in 2005, played all 16 games as a rookie. But he played only six the following year. He suffered a dislocated big toe on his left foot.
The thing stuck straight up. He sat out four games. He tried to come back, taping down the toe and taking a pain-killing injection, but he lasted only two or three snaps and went on injured reserve.
He played 15 games last season and said the toe was "OK."
"I think any time you have a severe injury like that, to come back it takes a whole year," said Cody, who recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament at USC. "When I did my ACL in college, it took about a year to come back. I figure this year, I've had a chance to play on it for a year and get used to it and rehab it to its fullest. It feels great now."
Cody has been solid against the run, but he has struggled to penetrate into the backfield. That's why coach Rod Marinelli's phone calls have focused on the pass rush.
"I think what's happened here is, I've been playing cautious," Cody said. "I know that my reps were limited last year. When you get in there, you really don't want to make a mistake. And that's the wrong way to play football. You don't want to worry about making a mistake. You just want to go out there and play."
Cody said he has been trying to trim his weight from about 305 to about 295. When wide receiver Mike Furrey picked up a plate of pastries at the Lions' charity golf outing and offered them to Cody, Cody waved them away.
"I've got to lose 10 pounds, Mike," Cody said.
In the final year of his contract, Cody is fighting for playing time - and perhaps a roster spot - even though the Lions traded Shaun Rogers. The Lions signed free agent Chuck Darby and drafted Andre Fluellen in the third round, with Cory Redding and Langston Moore on the roster.
"Last year I had no sacks, and that was disappointing for me," Cody said. "This year coming into a contract year and wanting to be a part of the Lions a long time, it's important for me to have a big year. I know that."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You've got to have confidence to play in this league. We have the confidence. We've had it for the past two years. The question is: Are we going to be able to put it together?" - WR Mike Furrey.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The big job of moving into a new house in the Green Bay area this summer won't be so cumbersome for head coach Mike McCarthy, who is emboldened by the results and commitment he received from his players in the offseason.
The Packers capped an eventful three months of activity with a three-day minicamp that ended June 19.
"Clearly, I think it's the best offseason we've had to date," said McCarthy, in his third year at the helm. "It's an exciting time for us. We feel like we've had the opportunity to improve through this learning process because that's really what this time of year is. I liked the way the rookies jumped in there and picked things up.
"It puts us in very good position to start off (training) camp healthy and ready to go."
The good vibes were crucial since the Packers' prospects for building on their wondrous 2007 season, when they went 13-3 and nearly reached the Super Bowl, appeared bleak because of a couple significant losses earlier in the offseason. Franchise quarterback Brett Favre retired, while emerging defensive tackle Corey Williams priced himself out of Green Bay and was traded to Cleveland.
Having built depth across the board last season with the league's youngest team, McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson aren't fretting moving on without those key pieces. Aaron Rodgers was groomed the previous three years to be Favre's successor.
So, as the Packers prepare to get training camp under way July 28, only a few starting positions will be up for grabs: both guard spots, strong-side linebacker and possibly free safety.
"This is the best it's looked since I've been here, as far as the names and the talent and the type of people on the board," McCarthy said. "So, I'm very happy with that, the depth of it. I think when the time comes to get to 53 (players), there's going to be some tough cuts that we have to make."
Rookie to watch: Brian Brohm - The former Louisville quarterback has been a quick study in the West Coast system, in which he flourished as a three-year starter. The first-round talent fell to the Packers late in the second round. He stood out in the offseason workouts with his acumen and leadership. Should Aaron Rodgers falter out of the gate or incur another injury in taking over for the retired Brett Favre, Brohm looks ready to be a capable stand-in. A starting gig sooner than later isn't out of the question. Brohm, though, will have to get past his own injury history.
Sudden impact: DeShawn Wynn - The second-year running back faces a make-or-break training camp. His inability to stay healthy last season, which ended prematurely after seven games because of a shoulder injury, cost Wynn the starting job and has him in a crowded mix trying to win a backup spot behind his breakthrough replacement, Ryan Grant. Wynn is perhaps the most physical back on the team and a load to bring down between the tackles. Healthy again, Wynn added a few more pounds of muscle mass this offseason and is ready to go toe to toe with Brandon Jackson for the No. 2 job. Wynn also seems to have his head on straight after a lack of maturity bogged him down.
A few of the retired Favre's former teammates bellyached during the minicamp, which ended June 19, that successor Aaron Rodgers is provoking pain with the velocity on his passes.
"Since I got here (last year), everybody's talking about how hard Brett throws, and Aaron's tearing gloves up out there, too," second-year receiver James Jones said. "When you all interview him, tell him to slow down a little."
Rodgers had some playful choice words for his receiving corps when he caught wind of their comments.
"I'm not surprised by it - they need to catch the ball," a smiling Rodgers said. "They're doing a good job of catching the ball. They just whine and complain all the time."
On the first day of minicamp June 17, the fourth-year pro had to quash a report by the FOX television affiliate in Green Bay that he had gotten married the previous weekend in his native California.
In fact, Rodgers dropped out of playing in receiver Donald Driver's charity softball game on Father's Day because he was attending the wedding of a family friend in California.
"It's all funny to me," Rodgers said of the erroneous information that went public. "It's all good stuff. It's better than maybe a different story. It's all positive stuff, except for the wedding stuff. They're trying to kill my game in Green Bay, I think.
"It's fun being in the public eye. I know I have a responsibility. I'm just going to try to keep it positive information."
Rodgers attracted further attention with a haircut. The family friend requested that Rodgers get his shoulder-length locks chopped before the wedding.
"It was just too much maintenance," Rodgers said. "I got to the point where, combing it every morning, I really got the feel of what the female sex has to go through on a daily basis. I have a lot more respect for ‘em after combing my hair, to get the knots in your hair, it's always in your face."
Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk, who has long hair, quipped of Rodgers' new ‘do: "He looks like he's about 13 years old now."
A team that included defensive end Aaron Kampman and running backs coach Edgar Bennett won the eight-team tournament.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The happiest person in the whole world is my mom, probably. She's been waiting a long time for it. But, I'll be honest, I miss it, and it's probably going to come back here pretty soon." — Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, on getting a short haircut before the team's three-day minicamp, June 17-19. Rodgers had let his hair grow down to his shoulders during the offseason.