The season-ending ankle injury to backup running back Kevin Jones leaves the Bears lacking some depth, but it doesn't create an emergency situation.
Featured ball carrier Matt Forte was a workhorse last season, rushing for 1,238 yards on 316 carries and catching a team-best 63 passes. While the Bears planned to expand Jones' role this year after he carried just 34 times and caught two passes last year, there has never been any doubt about who the alpha male is in their backfield. And they still have two complementary backups in reliable, versatile eight-year veteran Adrian Peterson and third-year scat back Garrett Wolfe. They may add another runner to the mix, probably one effective in short-yardage situations, but they don't have to panic.
Peterson has averaged better than 4.0 yards per carry in three of the past four seasons, and he caught 51 passes in 2007. There were already plans to utilize Garrett Wolfe more. He averaged 13.0 yards per catch as a rookie in ‘07 but had just nine catches, and last year he averaged 4.6 yards per rush but got just 13 attempts.
Jones, who is scheduled to undergo surgery this week, was hurt when he hurdled a tackler and went out of bounds last Thursday night. He landed awkwardly on his left foot and then was hit late by linebacker Marcus Benard, who drew a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness.
"We were anxious to give him a lot of carries and see where he was, so that's tough," Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "You hate to see it. But we've got three guys that we feel really good about."
Jones carried the ball just 34 times last season for a 3.2-yard average, but he was re-signed in the off-season to a two-year contract for $3.5 million as the top backup to Forte. He looked quicker and faster in training camp than he did last season when he was still slowed from late 2007 knee surgery. He was hoping for a return to the form that allowed him to rush for 1,133 yards and average 4.7 yards per carry as a Lions rookie in 2004.
But his preseason results were disappointing. On 24 rushing attempts, he managed 77 yards for a 3.2-yard average, with a long gain of 9 yards.
To start or not to start. That was the question concerning rookie Matthew Stafford.
And when Lions coach Jim Schwartz answered it, naming the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft the starting quarterback for the season opener Sunday at New Orleans, he even made a casual reference to Shakespeare.
"A lot of those guys suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," said Schwartz, dropping the "Hamlet" quotation in the middle of a meaty paragraph about the offensive linemen and quarterbacks.
Bad stuff happens to you. Others throw their expectations at you. Why worry?
Schwartz took the bold course, choosing Stafford over veteran Daunte Culpepper. He said he did it because Stafford gives the Lions the best chance to win now, not just for Stafford's long-term development.
"This isn't an experiment," Schwartz said. "This isn't an internship. We're not asking him to go out there and practice. He's out there to win, and that's the bottom line in this league."
Schwartz said he is willing to ride the rapids with the rookie. He told Stafford that he would not be yanked the first time he throws an interception, so he doesn't need to look over his shoulder.
"That doesn't mean I'm going to go out there and try to make many mistakes and test that," Stafford said, smiling. "I don't want to try to test that. I want to go out there and try to play as well as I can."
Stafford threw an interception in each of the Lions' four exhibitions; Culpepper threw none in the three he played. But Stafford made bigger plays and has bigger upside. He knows X's and O's, and the coaches are confident he can handle the blitzes NFL defenses love to throw at young quarterbacks.
"There are some guys that may benefit from sitting on the bench and watching somebody else, and those people typically don't have a grasp of the offense," Schwartz said. "They still need to learn what defenses do. Their knowledge isn't up to where it needs to be yet. He was a different case there. What he lacked is playing experience, and there's only one way to get that to him."
The decision is controversial in Detroit. The Lions' last highly drafted quarterback was Joey Harrington, the third overall pick in 2002. Harrington played in his first two games as a rookie, then took over the job. As he went 18-37 as a starter in Detroit, he lost his confidence and saw a sports psychologist. He later said he was handed the job too quickly.
General manager Martin Mayhew said in May there was a pattern among quarterback busts: They were taken by bad teams, rushed onto the field and not put in position to succeed. But Mayhew also allowed in May that some highly drafted quarterbacks had been able to play early, and veteran center Dominic Raiola said there was no comparison between Stafford and Harrington.
"It's not even close," Raiola said. "It's a totally different guy you're looking at."
Different talent. Different personality. When a reporter brought up the fear many Lions fans have - that he will be thrown in too quickly, that failure could ruin him - Stafford laughed.
"That was put lightly," Stafford said. "I'm with you. I've been through success. I've been through failure. I've been through a lot - even this preseason. I played good in some games, poor in some games, made some bad decisions. But I try to learn from everything."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers' high-profile men in the middle of their deep linebacker corps may not be so prominent Sunday night, when Green Bay hosts the rival Chicago Bears to kick off the season.
Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk - the team's first-round draft picks in 2003 and 2006, respectively - appear to be headed toward reduced roles as the Packers officially unveil their new 3-4 scheme.
Both players should be in the starting lineup, but how much they play beyond the base looks remains to be seen.
Hawk gave way to Brandon Chillar in the nickel packages by the end of the preseason. Chillar, who excels in pass coverage and blitzing the quarterback, stood out in August as an injury replacement for Barnett playing alongside Hawk at the inside linebacker positions.
"A.J. has not been flashy ... (but) I still believe he has that ability," Packers inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said during training camp.
Barnett, conversely, is a capable every-down player, but the Packers don't seem inclined to rush him into doing everything when the season starts.
After nine months of recovery from a season-ending torn ACL last November, Barnett wasn't cleared for contact work in camp until the final two weeks, and he played in only one game. He was on the field for 25 snaps in the Sept. 3 exhibition finale at the Tennessee Titans.
"You have to be smart on how you progress forward with any player coming back," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "I think Nick will definitely play in the game (Sunday). What packages and so forth that he'll play in, we'll find out Sunday night."
Desmond Bishop was a playmaking standout as a backup at inside linebacker in the preseason, so he would be a logical fill-in for Barnett in the subpackages Sunday if the Packers decide to keep Hawk off the field as well.