Rookie Matt 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 Cedric Benson's release following 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."
CAMP CALENDAR: Players report to Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill., on July 22, and the first practice is at 3 p.m. on July 23. Camp concludes with a 3 p.m. practice on Aug. 14.
They don't know who the starting quarterback will be. The battle between oft-injured incumbent Rex Grossman and challenger Kyle Orton, who has thrown just 80 regular-season passes in the past two years, could last well into the preseason.
"It's an open competition," coach Lovie Smith said. "It's not like we promised Rex a starting position."
"We'll continue with what we did during the off-season, which is one guy goes with the ones one day and the other guy goes with the ones the next day," Turner said. "We'll chart everything and see how many reps they're getting with the ones, with the twos, in 7-on-7, blitz, two-minute — all the different situations that come up. The good thing about training camp is we'll have pads on, so now it's a little bit different once the pads are on and you get going."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The most difficult thing to do in this business is to do contract extensions. It's a very, very difficult to do; you don't see many. I think our track record speaks pretty well as far as getting those things accomplished in the offseason, not just this year but in years past." — Bears GM Jerry Angelo, who got contract extensions done in the offseason for Tommie Harris, Alex Brown, Desmond Clark, Robbie Gould and Kyle Orton but hasn't been able yet to work out extensions for Brian Urlacher or Devin Hester.
All Jeff Backus knows of the NFL is the Lions' Matt Millen era. Nothing else. Backus was Millen's first draft pick, 18th overall in 2001. He has started every game at left tackle since.
Backus has seen a lot of losing and a lot of changes. Coaches have come and gone. Players have come and gone. There have been new styles, new systems, new philosophies, and the Lions have always gotten the same, old result.
The last two years were particularly difficult for Backus because of the pressure offensive coordinator Mike Martz put on his offensive linemen. Backus was asked to pass protect often and asked to hold up for a long time when he did. Backus, in part because he played with injuries, gave up a lot of sacks and grew frustrated.
But Backus sounds pleased with how the offseason program went under new coordinator Jim Colletto, the former offensive line coach. Colletto does things the way Backus likes. Colletto has a slower, more deliberate approach in preparation, and he likes to be balanced on game day.
"They've done a good job of just not trying to install things too fast," Backus said of the coaches after the offseason program, "being patient and just taking a couple plays each day and breaking them down very thoroughly so guys understand what the play's all about, what they're supposed to do as far as fundamentals, technique, assignments, all the things that allow you to play fast once the game starts. ...
"I think it put us in a position where the players have a good base of what is expected of them. We all understand the scheme and why we're doing things the way we are. It's going to give us a good base going into training camp when things start evolving as far as how we game plan and how we change some schemes going on into the season. I think the way the coaches handled it, I think it's really put us in a position to play fast and play smart and just go out there and have fun."
Backus likes the way coach Rod Marinelli has remade the team.
"The atmosphere is awesome," Backus said. "I think we've had a good group of guys in the locker room the last couple years. We've honed it down even more. Just the overall atmosphere on the practice field with the coaches and the players, I think has been outstanding. I think Rod has done a tremendous job of doing it his way and getting what he wants out of us and making changes when changes need to be made. I'm excited to see what happens this season."
CAMP CALENDAR: Players report July 23. The first team practice is July 24.
The Lions started 6-2 last year but finished 1-7. "I told him we'd get together and share some of the lessons I think I learned from that (‘06) season," Hurdle said. "You never know how close you really are."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Believe in now." — Lions' new slogan in advertising campaign for season tickets.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Speculation on quarterback Brett Favre's calling it quits on retirement after only 4 1/2 months picked up steam for the second straight week.
The Packers remain mum on the swirling rumors of a Favre comeback by the start of training camp July 28, but media reports in Wisconsin surfaced that the three-time MVP tried to initiate contact via text message with general manager Ted Thompson during Fourth of July weekend. Thompson allegedly replied to Favre's request to talk with a text message saying he was on vacation and any conversation would have to wait until he returned to the office. On Friday, ESPN.com reported that Favre sent a letter to the Packers seeking his release.
Team officials subsequently took the high road when they were out on the road in Wisconsin for the Packers summer caravan. New president Mark Murphy emphasized at a couple stops that the team's stance is Favre is retired.
"I keep going back to his retirement announcement (March 6) and how sincere and heartfelt that was," Murphy said July 8. "I think it's pretty reasonable that, as an organization, we're going to move on."
If Favre indeed wants to play an 18th year in the league, he must submit a letter to the Packers, with whom he's under contract until 2010, to request to be taken off the reserve-retired list. That letter had yet to be submitted with training camp less than three weeks away.
Head coach Mike McCarthy sidestepped the issue of a possible Favre return when posed a pointed question by a child from the Green Bay area at a local event July 9. McCarthy made a donation of $50,000 to the Boys & Girls Club of Green Bay, a gift that was matched by the Packers.
A laughing McCarthy's response to the query "Is Favre coming back?" was: "Those are things we'll, obviously, we'll get to down the line. But, great question."
Since the likes of McCarthy and Thompson have repeatedly said in the spring and summer that the club has moved on without Favre and has been preparing Aaron Rodgers to be the starter this season, Rodgers claims publicly to be unfazed by all of the Favre comeback talk.
"As the organization has commented, I'm going to keep it pretty much the same. I'm not really going to speculate about any rumors that are out there," Rodgers said July 9 before his participation in a celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, Nev. "I've been up in the mountains hanging out with my family, so I've been pretty immune to any media reports out there."
Rodgers said his preparations for the upcoming season have been status quo after a busy offseason of running the offense. He plans to return to Green Bay a week before training camp and will work out with Packers strength and conditioning coach Rock Gullickson.
"Nothing's changed," Rodgers said. "I'll be right on schedule and (am) looking forward to a good training camp."
Rodgers spent part of the five-week break between minicamp in mid-June and training camp throwing footballs to a couple of his receivers, James Jones and rookie Brett Swain, in San Diego.
Jones said July 8 during the Packers caravan that he doesn't believe Favre will return to the team.
"Aaron Rodgers is the guy, OK?" a smiling Jones told a young Packers fan who had asked the receiver how badly he wanted Favre to return. "It was great playing with Brett Favre. ... He got out at a great time. He had a great career. It's Aaron Rodgers' time now."
CAMP CALENDAR: Players report July 27. Camp opens July 28 with the first of five scheduled two-a-days — all in the first 12 days. An intrasquad scrimmage will be held at Lambeau Field on Sunday night, Aug. 3.
Rodgers was in the star-studded field for the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship in Lake Tahoe, Nev., July 11-13.
"I'm enjoying the best week of the summer, which is being here in Tahoe," Rodgers said before the tournament July 9.
Favre, the hot subject of the past couple weeks because of rumors that he's ready to come out of retirement in time for the start of training camp, withdrew from the golf tournament. So, the non-communication between Favre and Rodgers of the past few months wasn't going to end.
"Me and Brett got along real well in Green Bay, became good friends, but I have not talked to him recently about his future plans," Rodgers said.
Wolf and wife Edie had been making their primary residence in Annapolis, Md.
"We both really loved Green Bay. How in the world could you not enjoy living in a place like that?" Wolf told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Wolf's son Eliot is assistant director of pro personnel for the Packers.
Wolf insisted the return to Green Bay isn't a prelude to getting involved with the team again on a full-time basis. At the request of current GM Ted Thompson, a onetime protigi of Wolf in the Packers front office, Wolf will drop in on training camp for a few days, as he's done the last few years.
The events have traditionally preceded the start of training camp, which is July 28 this year.
The Hall of Fame ceremony sold out in the spring. Former players Gilbert Brown and Frank Winters and longtime video director Al Treml will be enshrined. Legendary quarterbacks Brett Favre and Bart Starr are to present Winters and Treml, respectively, for induction.
Packers spokesman Jeff Blumb said the change was made because of a mutual request from the teams' TV partners to be able to provide network coverage of the Democratic National Convention that night after the game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "What I remember about him is he was ready to retire, and that's how I feel today. I think down deep, that's exactly how he feels." — Packers chairman emeritus Bob Harlan, in comments made July 8 during a team caravan through Wisconsin, conjecturing that quarterback Brett Favre will stay retired.