NFC North Report

The Bears made a record deal with perhaps their best defensive players, but the big news in the NFC North this week surrounded Brett Favre and his possible comeback. We've got an in-depth report that weaves comments from many different sources on the subject.

CHICAGO BEARS

It cost the Bears $40 million in new money to get three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommie Harris to agree to a four-year contract extension that runs through 2012, but general manager Jerry Angelo was upbeat in announcing the deal the morning of Friday, June 20.

"There's a lot of give and take - mostly give on our part and take on theirs," Angelo said with a smile. "But we were able to (remain) consistent with what we believe in, rewarding our own players. This is a very proud day for us to have Tommie in the fold."

In terms of yearly earnings, Harris is the highest-paid player in Bears history, and the highest-paid defensive tackle in the NFL. But he said he won't feel pressured by the size of his paycheck, and believes players in the league are overcompensated.

"I feel like the reason I have this contract is because I've already displayed that I can carry this role," said Harris, who is the only defensive tackle in franchise history voted to three straight Pro Bowls. "It's nothing that I have to become; I'm already there.

"I don't believe any NFL player deserves the amount of money that we get. But in the business that we're in, they give us all tags and say, ‘This guy's worth this, this guy's worth that.' We play a game, a kids' game and get paid a king's ransom. I'm just fortunate to be able to be in this position, and I will make the Bears' organization proud."

That being said, Harris believes he's earned the right to be paid as an elite player.

"It seems like I deserve this," he said. "I feel like I've worked hard for it. I've earned it, going out there playing through different ailments of the body (knee and groin injuries last season) and putting it all out there on the line for this organization, and I'll continue to keep doing it. I'm ready to go out there and continue to keep being the best defensive tackle in the league."

Harris still has one year remaining on his five-year, $9.8 million rookie contract that included a $2.1 million signing bonus. He'll get $18 million in guaranteed money with the new deal and a total of $27 million over the first three years of the extension with a $13 million base salary in 2012.

Harris, the 14th overall pick in the 2004 draft, would have been an unrestricted free agent after the 2008 season, and there was speculation that the Bears would slap the franchise tag on him for 2009, rather than allow him to leave. That would have guaranteed Harris a salary of an estimated $6.36 million, but kept him from cashing in on the huge chunk of guaranteed money that he'll receive as part of the extension.

Unlike Urlacher, who has stayed away from almost all of the Bears' voluntary off-season work to protest the lack of progress in his bid for a multi-million dollar extension, Harris has been at Halas Hall working out and practicing with his teammates.

Earlier in the off-season Harris downplayed his contract situation, declining to set deadlines or issue threats.

"I owe them one year, so there's not really a deadline," Harris said. "It's not a distraction, but to have security over your career or 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."


  • 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."

    NOTES

  • With the money the Bears have spent this off-season on extensions for Tommie Harris, Alex Brown, Robbie Gould, Desmond Clark, Rex Grossman, Kyle Orton and Rashied Davis, plus the six-year $36 million deal that weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs got, it's doubtful they have much left for middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. They've offered him an $18 million package, but Urlacher, who has four years left on a nine-year, $56.65 million contract, was absent from most of the off-season's voluntary workouts as a ploy to get more.

  • The Bears are also interested in extending the contract of WR/return specialist Devin Hester, which still has two years remaining, and they have discussed terms with his agent, Eugene Parker.

    The difficulty is deciding whether Hester should be paid as the best return man in NFL history or as the best return man in NFL history who also could wind up being a starting wide receiver this year.

    "It's a very difficult dynamic," general manager Jerry Angelo said. "I know I've never been involved in one quite like this with a player of Devin's abilities. It's a good problem to have, and we certainly want to take care of Devin. He certainly deserves our attention. We've talked to his agent and we'll just have to wait and see."


    GREEN BAY PACKERS

    Training camp can't come soon enough for the Packers.

    What was headed toward a lull for most of July turned into pre-Fourth of July fireworks for the organization July 2, when news broke that retired quarterback Brett Favre apparently would like to play again this upcoming season.

    An ESPN report indicated that Favre, 38, has an "itch" to come out of retirement and he expressed that to Packers head coach Mike McCarthy in recent weeks.

    Scott Favre, brother of the NFL's only three-time MVP, further fueled the comeback speculation with comments made to WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee.

    "I think it's 50-50," Scott said of Brett's playing in 2008. "There's no doubt he can play. He's in good shape. He's working out. We know he can still play. He's healthy, so, if he did, it wouldn't surprise me."

    Favre, who announced his retirement after 17 years in the league in early March, apparently has been gearing up for a potential return by throwing footballs the last few weeks at the high school near his home outside Hattiesburg, Miss.

    Amid the hullabaloo of his alleged desire to get back in action, which Favre tersely played off as "it's all rumor" in a text message he sent to the Biloxi (Miss.) Sun Herald, conflicting reports surfaced on what the future would be for Favre if he follows through on scratching the itch.

    The Packers have the rights to Favre, who is under contract through 2010, although they placed him on the reserve-retired April 25.

    The scuttlebutt in Green Bay is that general manager Ted Thompson, and to a lesser extent McCarthy, closed the door on having Favre come back as their quarterback for a 17th season once he made up his mind about calling it quits in the late winter. In turn, the reins were handed to Aaron Rodgers, Favre's first-round backup the previous three years, and the team's West Coast offense was tailored to him in the three months of offseason workouts.

    Rodgers confirmed the Favre-less game plan when he appeared on the "Jim Rome Is Burning" TV show in late June.

    When asked by Rome whether he was convinced Favre had played his last down in the NFL, Rodgers replied: "In Green Bay, for sure, a hundred percent. I really don't see him coming back with another team. But, when it comes to training camp and maybe getting that itch again, who knows? But, as far as Green Bay, we're moving forward with the guys we've got.

    "I don't know what's going to happen when training camp rolls around, but as far as Green Bay goes, we're moving on without him."

    According to at least a couple media accounts in Wisconsin on July 2, that message was relayed to Favre by either McCarthy or someone in the front office. When Favre then asked to be released from his contract, the team reportedly shot down the request.

    "I know he would like to play. He is working out; he's throwing a little bit," Scott Favre said in the TV interview. "I think when it's all said and done, Ted Thompson is the man to blame on that one."

    If Brett Favre winds up forcing the issue by saying that he's coming out of retirement, Thompson will have an unenviable decision on his hands.

    The Packers would have to reinstate Favre from the reserve-retired list, which has kept the team from having to count his 2008 salary of $12 million against the salary cap. Then, one of three things would have to happen: keep Favre on the roster, trade him or release him.

    None of the choices is favorable for Thompson, who would either junk the progress made with Rodgers this offseason or be the general manager vilified by many for running Favre out of Green Bay.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's felt like that for the last couple of years, that the Packers didn't really want him back. Nothing's been said. It was just bits and pieces throughout the last couple of years, things that would come up, and it just didn't seem like they went out of their way to keep him. It was kind of like, ‘You're done.' He has not said anything specifically, no, but I did get that feeling." — Bonita Favre, mother of Brett Favre, intimating to the FOX television affiliate (WITI) in Milwaukee on July 2 that Packers management precipitated the quarterback's retirement in March this year.

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