Even though the Bears aren't raising ticket prices for the 2009 season, it doesn't mean they will be cash-strapped in pursuing free agents when the market opens Feb. 27.
For openers, NFL teams get more than 50 percent of their operating revenue from TV money, and all of those contracts have many years remaining with many billions of dollars to be paid. Second, Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips says the team will conduct business as usual this off-season, when it expects to spend close to all of the money allowed this year under the salary cap, which should be $123 million.
"Looking at our own situation, the money we spend on players will be the same," Phillips said. "We spend somewhere near the cap limit, and we will continue to do that, regardless of the ticket prices."
The Bears are not alone in their largesse, as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell predicted during Super Bowl week that three-quarters of the league's 32 teams will maintain 2008 levels for ticket prices. The Bears' Phillips said the idea for a rare price freeze - the first for the Bears since 2001 - was not the league's idea, but rather an acknowledgment by individual teams that times are tough everywhere.
"To my knowledge there has been no suggestion from the league," Phillips said. "I just think a lot of clubs looked at it as we did. With the present state of the economy, I think it made more clubs take a look and say, ‘Maybe this is more of a problem than we anticipated, and maybe this is something we should do.'
"I hope our fans appreciate it. We always put customer service at a premium and look at ways to make fans feel appreciated as much as we can. If that results from this, that's great. If they're more appreciative, I'm all for anything that makes that happen."
Non-club ticket prices will continue to be priced from $68 to $108 at Soldier Field. Those seats account for approximately 86 percent of capacity. Club seats will remain in the $245-$350 range.
Based on a relatively sluggish free-agent market in baseball - and it's difficult to categorize a market as sluggish when Manny Ramirez thumbs his nose at a one-year, $25 million contract - the Bears and every other NFL team may get more bang for their buck in free agency this year. That doesn't mean the Bears will be making a big splash in the free-agency pool - they usually don't - but they could address a couple smaller needs rather than making one blockbuster deal.
"Typically, our history has been that we look to add quality players at a good value," Phillips said. "If baseball is any barometer, maybe some of the premier players won't be getting quite as much money as they might have gotten in the past. I think more teams might be a little more prudent and take their time before deciding to put out some of the larger contracts we've seen in recent years, given what's happened in baseball and with the state of the economy."
While holding the line on ticket prices may buy the Bears some goodwill with their fans, Phillips knows it won't make them any less impatient with Lovie Smith's team that has compiled a 16-16 record since it appeared in Super Bowl XLI.
The 6-foot-1, 198-pound Tillman has more than enough size and toughness to handle a move to free safety, and his willingness to help out in run support has often been more impressive than his ability to shadow elite wide receivers one on one. But, until the Bears acquire a better cornerback than Tillman, they will resist moving him, even though free agent Mike Brown's days in Chicago might be numbered.
For right now, that's a big "but," because "starting" cornerback Nate Vasher has not played anywhere close to the five-year, $28 million contract extension he signed on June 29, 2007, and he could soon be a salary cap casualty. And Vasher has missed 20 games over the past two seasons with groin and hand injuries.
CBs Corey Graham, a fifth-round pick in 2007; and Trumaine McBride, a seventh-rounder in the same draft, have shown promise, but the Bears aren't ready to go into a season with those two as their starting corners, even though Graham started nine games last season.
The Bears could use their first-round pick (18th overall) for a cornerback capable of starting right away. But Ohio State's Malcolm Jenkins, the safest bet, will probably be a top-10 pick. Illinois junior Vontae Davis is also a top-10 talent but comes with lots of baggage.
The irony is that none of them coach for the Bears.
Titans head coach Jeff Fisher was a Bears cornerback and punt returner from 1981-84. He spent the ‘85 season on injured reserve and served as an unofficial Bears assistant coach. Mike Singletary, the 49er's head coach, a Hall of Fame middle linebacker, was with the Bears from 1981-92. Saints head coach Sean Payton was a quarterback on the "Spare Bears" team that played three games when the NFL Players Association went on strike in 1987.
Bears linebacker Ron Rivera (1984-92), the Chargers' defensive coordinator, was a Bears coach until he was shown the door at Halas Hall after helping the team get to Super Bowl XLI as its defensive coordinator. Leslie Frazier, the Viking's defensive coordinator, was a Bears cornerback from 1981-85. Center Jerry Fontenot (1989-96) is the Packers' assistant offensive line coach, and Mark Carrier, the Ravens' defensive backs coach, was a Bears safety from 1990-96.
Most recently, Doug Plank was added to the Jets' staff of new head coach Rex Ryan, one of the twin sons of Buddy Ryan, the Bears' defensive coordinator from 1978-85. Plank was a Bears safety from 1975-82. And Al Harris, a Bears defensive end from 1979-84, was tabbed by Singletary to be the Niners' pass-rush specialist coach.
Keith Burns, a Bears linebacker in 1999, has been the Broncos assistant special teams coach the past two seasons. Howard Mudd, a Bears offensive lineman from 1969-71, is the Colts' offensive line coach, and Andy Heck, the Bears' offensive left tackle from 1994-98, is the Seahawks' offensive line coach.
For the past three seasons, Bryan Cox (Bears linebacker 1996-97) was the Jets assistant defensive line coach.
That will give coaches, especially new staff members Rod Marinelli and Jon Hoke, scouts and other personnel evaluators a last look at the current talent in advance of the April 25-26 draft. The rookie minicamp will still be one week after the draft, the 10-week off-season program will again begin in April and most OTA practices will be in June.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Our fans are passionate, and frankly I like that. They rally around us when we play well, and with that comes high expectations (and) frustration when we don't play as well. If we play well and we make the playoffs, we don't have to worry about that frustration on the fans' part." — Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips on fans' dissatisfaction with coach Lovie Smith and his team after a 9-7 season that did not include a trip to the playoffs.
Martin Mayhew calls James (Shack) Harris a "sounding board" and "mentor." What he does not call him is a "yes" man.
"There were any number of ‘yes' men available, and we didn't pick any of those guys," Mayhew said.
When the Lions named Mayhew the permanent general manager and Tom Lewand the team president after the 2008 season, they said they wanted to add another personnel executive to the front office. Talent has been a major issue as the Lions have gone 31-97 since 2001.
Mayhew said they wanted someone experienced, and Harris was their first choice. Harris, a former NFL quarterback, has spent 22 years in the NFL as a scout and executive, going from the Buccaneers to the Jets to the Ravens to the Jaguars.
Harris was Baltimore's director of pro personnel from 1997-2002 and helped the Ravens win Super Bowl XXXV. He worked with new Lions coach Jim Schwartz in ‘97-98, when Schwartz was a defensive assistant for the Ravens, and later worked against him.
While Harris was Jacksonville's vice president of player personnel from 2003-08, Schwartz was the defensive coordinator for AFC South rival Tennessee.
"We played the same style of ball," Harris said. "We had some hard-nosed games. It was very competitive and one of our rivalries. I got a chance to see Schwartzie twice a year."
In Harris' first year in Jacksonville, the Jaguars went 5-11. They went 9-7, 12-4, 8-8 and 11-5 afterward. But they sank back to 5-11 in 2008. Harris took heat for some poor decisions and left the team in December. Some reports say he was fired. Others say he resigned.
But during the 2008 season, the Jaguars pounded the Lions at Ford Field, 38-14.
"I'm sure you guys saw the way Jacksonville handled us last year at home," Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said. "That's the kind of team that we want to have: a physical, dominant team that can physically manhandle another NFL team.
"James has been involved in building those kind of teams, and that's the reason why he's here today."
Harris said he considered retiring after leaving the Jaguars, but opportunity knocked.
"At first, it was not something I really wanted to do," Harris said. "And then I started thinking about it, and getting an opportunity to work with a guy like Martin and this organization started appealing to me."
The Lions had to wait while Harris interviewed for the Cleveland GM job. After that process played out, the Lions continued wooing him. The sides hammered out a contract after the Super Bowl.
Harris knows rebuilding the Lions will be a big challenge.
"You've got to have some patience," Harris said. "You can't panic and make bad decisions trying to make things happen quickly. However, it has been proven that it can be done faster than ever before."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "That's probably the biggest personnel decision that we have to make this off-season is the quarterback position." — GM Martin Mayhew, on the ongoing discussions regarding Daunte Culpepper ($2.5 million) and Jon Kitna ($500,000), who have upcoming roster bonuses.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
One way or another, the Packers aren't done with Brett Favre.
If the legendary quarterback indeed stays retired after announcing he would Feb. 11 in ending a one-season stay with the New York Jets, Green Bay will be in the clear to finally pay tribute to the former face of its franchise.
The Packers' plans to retire Favre's No. 4 during their 2008 season opener were quashed when Favre came out retirement during training camp, engaged in a bitter dispute with the club and was traded to the Jets.
"Congratulations to Brett on a remarkable career," the Packers said in a statement released after Favre's second retirement. "The Packers organization wishes him and his family well. Brett always will hold a special place in Green Bay Packers history, and we remain committed to retiring his number at an appropriate time in the future."
Such a ceremony might not happen for a while, given that Favre hasn't shied from making suggestions of his disdain of Packers general manager Ted Thompson, who jettisoned Green Bay's 16-year starting quarterback and three-time league MVP.
Favre said in a media conference call Feb. 11 that patching things up with the Packers could take a lot of time.
"It's a shame what has unfolded throughout the whole thing," Favre said. "I don't know. I don't know. I don't have an answer for that right now. It may be five years; it may be the first game."
With regard to the acrimonious breakup with Green Bay, Favre said: "(Thompson) had his reasonings; I had my reasonings. Who's to say who's right and who's wrong? He has a plan. I'm not mad at him for that. Other people may be, but I don't know. It's a touchy situation.
"My stay in Green Bay was unbelievable, unbelievable," Favre added. "And, not one thing could take that away, not one person. And, that organization has been outstanding to me throughout my career. It is what it is. It's unfortunate. But, at some point, it'll be dealt with."
The Packers received a third-round pick from the Jets for this year's draft as a playing-time condition set forth in the trade.
Another parameter in the transaction was if Favre retired after one season with the Jets, Green Bay would have to give them a draft pick for 2010. So, as long as Favre doesn't return to football this year, the Packers will part with a seventh-round selection.
Although Favre insisted this retirement announcement is for keeps, citing a torn biceps in his throwing arm, the possibility as it did last year exists that the 39-year-old will get the itch to play again.
By retiring from the Jets, who retain his rights but could release him at any point, Favre might have his sights set on playing for the Minnesota Vikings - a preferred destination last summer when he unretired - and getting at least two shots to play against the NFC North-rival Packers next season.
The Packers plummeted precipitously from seventh in the 32-team league in 2007 to 26th. They had the worst ranking of NFC North teams and were third worst in the NFC.
Gosselin's ranking system is derived from points assigned for 22 kicking game categories.
Among all teams, the Packers ranked last for kickoff returns, averaging 20.1 yards per runback, and for penalties with 24.
Head coach Mike McCarthy promoted assistant special teams coach Shawn Slocum to coordinator to replace Stock, who held the post for three years.
A top target to bolster their new 3-4 defensive front could be Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, who is eligible to become a free agent and has expressed interest in playing in a 3-4 scheme. Peppers, a four-time Pro Bowl player, would hit the open market if the Panthers, who run a 4-3 defense, don't use a tag on him.
"At this point in my NFL career, I am seeking new challenges that will allow me to grow, develop and reach my personal potential on the football field," Peppers said in a statement last month. "I strongly feel that making a move at this time is in my best interest."
Reports have been mixed on Trgovac's relationship with Peppers the last six years, when Trgovac was Carolina's defensive coordinator.
Trgovac turned down an offer from the Panthers after last season to remain in the position and chose to take a step back in the coaching hierarchy to return to the Packers, for whom he was defensive line coach in 1999.
After arriving in Green Bay in early February, Trgovac noted the role his wife, Angela, played in the decision.
"She said, ‘You haven't seemed happy the last year,'" Trgovac said. "When she said that to me, it just made me realize that my kids are growing up and maybe I was taking my work home with me. That's why I wanted to just take a step back and coach a position again. That's one of the things you miss as a coordinator - just the day-to-day interaction that you have with one specific position group. I wanted to get back into that again."
Collins, a Pro Bowl newcomer, made the start at free safety. He had an NFC-best two tackles on special teams.
Harris played in the all-star game for the second straight year after being added to the NFC squad as an alternate. He broke up one pass.
Cornerback Charles Woodson was the other Packers selection for the Pro Bowl, but he backed out for injury reasons.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've got a lot of work to do here before the (scouting) combine, defensively. You start from scratch - it's just like once the players come in. With the staff, you start talking about philosophy and all of those little things that sometimes get passed over. That's one of the unique things when you're starting from the ground level. So, we've got to do a good job putting together a teaching plan. It starts with us making sure that we're all on the same page to begin with." — Defensive coordinator Dom Capers on the first few weeks of having the mostly new defensive coaching staff on board.