Lance Briggs wasn't burdened by great expectations when he came into the NFL in 2003.
Instead, he was motivated by low expectations.
A dozen other linebackers were drafted before the Bears took Briggs in the third round with the 68th overall pick, and in the beginning even they didn't think that highly of him.
"One of the first things that was said to me was, ‘We want you to be a hell of a special-teams player and then, maybe sometime down the line, you could become a starter in a couple of years,'" Briggs said. "That always kind of stuck in my head. (I thought) ‘I'm not a special-teams player, and I want to play now.' But just like any rookie, you don't say a whole lot. You just go out and you speak with your pads and you play."
Briggs and his pads have been sounding off for seven years, and the message has come through loud and clear. He's not a special-teams player. He's a special player.
"Lance has been an outstanding player for us in every year he's played here," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "Even having the type of (6-9) season we've had, Lance shined most of the time."
Tuesday, Briggs was voted to his fifth straight Pro Bowl. He joins Hall of Famers Bill George, Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary as the only Bears linebackers to make it five in a row. Injured teammate Brian Urlacher has gone six times, but there was a one-year gap between his first four selections and his last two.
Urlacher arrived in Chicago three years before Briggs and played in three Pro Bowls before Briggs was even drafted, becoming the face of the franchise. For most of his career, Briggs has played in the shadow of Urlacher, and he wasn't named a team captain until this year. But he has few complaints.
"I've never felt like I don't get the recognition that I deserve," Briggs said. "I'm real comfortable with the recognition I get. I really always have been. The only problem I ever had was when we were going through free agency."
During contentious contract negotiations that resulted in Briggs dipping a toe into the free agency pool, he threatened never to play for the Bears again before signing a six-year, $36 million contract on March 7, 2008.
"All that stuff got resolved," he said. "Outside of that, as far as my play, the right people have always evaluated me right, and those were my peers and the coaches."
Briggs moved into the starting lineup in the fourth game of 2003 of his rookie season in 2003, a year before Smith took over the Bears. Since then, Briggs has never had fewer than 135 tackles. Monday night, he notched his 1,000th tackle in the NFL. So much for special teams.
"When I got drafted, I thought just like anybody else, that I should've been drafted higher," Briggs said. "But I just wanted to prove that I belong, that I deserve to be on the field."
For the last five years, Briggs has proved he deserves to be on the field with the best players in the NFL. The validation he received there was a bonus on top of the free trip to Hawaii.
"Having other coaches come up after the game and say, ‘You're a hell of a player,' or ‘You played well,' and even other linebackers saying, ‘I like to watch you, Briggs,' or ‘It's fun watching you,' is nice to hear," Briggs said.
"The first time I went to the Pro Bowl, coaches who had told me on my Pro Day in college, ‘You could never play for me, I'll take Nick Barnett,' or, ‘I'll take somebody else over you,' those same coaches come up to me now and say, ‘You earned it, you're a hell of a player.' To me it's nice to change some of the minds of these guys who didn't think I was capable."
Coach Jim Schwartz still has not announced his starting quarterback for the season finale Sunday against Chicago. It appears to be Daunte Culpepper, who took the No. 1 reps in practice for the second consecutive day, at least in the part of practice open to reporters. But Drew Stanton could make an appearance.
"The way we're going right now, everybody that's suited up better be ready to play," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "That's the way I look at it."
The Lions have benched their starter each of their last two games — Stanton on Sunday at San Francisco, Culpepper on Dec. 20 against Arizona. The game before that was a 48-3 loss Dec. 13 at Baltimore, and Schwartz said he didn't bench Culpepper then because the Lions "had enough other issues without having to worry about quarterback."
Stanton's health has been a factor this week. He popped up on the injury report Wednesday as limited by an ankle problem. He was listed the same way Thursday. Linehan said Stanton suffered the injury early in Sunday's game and was "real sore" afterward but has improved since.
"He's made progress toward being closer to 100 percent now than he was, what we thought coming out of the game," Linehan said. "It ends up not being a real serious thing."
Stanton struggled in his first NFL start, an apparent audition for the backup job next season with Matthew Stafford as the solid No. 1 and Culpepper unlikely to return as the No. 2. Stanton failed to generate any points after a field goal on the opening drive. He finished 11-for-21 for 130 yards, with three interceptions and a fumble.
"Anytime you turn the ball over four times at my position, you're not going to win," Stanton wrote in his blog at drewstanton.com. "Our defense was playing extremely well and we did not respond on offense, and that falls completely on my shoulders.
"That ... sat the worst with me on Sunday's flight home. I felt as if I had let my teammates down. And that is about as bad of a feeling as you can have."
Linehan gave a positive spin.
"There were some good things," Linehan said. "Some of the turnovers overshadow that — always happens if you don't win. But I liked the fact that he had a 15-play drive for points in the first start of his career on the road against a pretty good defense.
"So that's a start, and I told Drew that. I said I look at that as moving forward, progress. We've got to eliminate some of the things that are catastrophic for our team from the quarterback position, and he's not the only one. We just can't have the turnovers."
Stanton has pleased Linehan in a backup role, both in the preseason and regular season.
"As a relief pitcher, he's been kind of what you're looking for, if you use a baseball analogy," Linehan said.
Linehan said "that's not what he would want to hear," but "what you want in your developmental (QB), your guy that you're maybe looking at as a possible No. 2. He doesn't want to be a 3 for the rest of his career.
"Those are all things that he's shown me that I like in him. He's been able to come off the sideline if that's his role and feel good about him doing the job."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers might have good reason to keep their offensive starters in as long as possible for their essentially meaningless game to end the regular season Sunday at Arizona.
The highly productive, rarely mistake-laden starting unit hasn't been bad enough to commit four turnovers in a game. As long as the Packers stick to the frugal script for a 16th time this season, they'll transition to the playoffs next week with a franchise record in hand.
Green Bay has only 15 giveaways, giving it some cushion to better the 1972 team's 19 turnovers for fewest in a season.
"Our offense has done a very good job taking care of the football — really our whole football team with the turnover ratio," head coach Mike McCarthy said.
Thanks in part to 37 takeaways by the defense, the Packers lead the league with a plus-22 TO ratio.
The utter lack of generosity by the offense to its opponents is impressive. Green Bay is No. 1 in the league with the 15 giveaways and is tied for the lead in interceptions thrown (seven) with the rival Minnesota Vikings.
McCarthy credits offensive coordinator Joe Philbin and his other assistants on that side of the football for staying on the players about the importance of hanging onto the football.
"Joe does not have a presentation in the offensive meeting that doesn't refer at some point to ball security, and our players have totally bought into it," McCarthy said.
The Packers have turned the ball over three times only twice this season and had two giveaways four times. They have been mistake-free in eight games, including the last two after an uncharacteristic run of committing seven turnovers in three games.
McCarthy said quarterback Aaron Rodgers' disciplined ability to keep miscues to a minimum — he has only seven interceptions in 515 pass attempts with 29 touchdowns — manifests itself throughout the offense.
"It starts with Aaron," McCarthy said. "He handles the ball every play. He is very, very decisive as far as his decision-making in the passing game, and I think that is a big part of the low interceptions. Our perimeter players do a good job of holding the thing high and tight and taking care of the ball.
"So that will be a key statistic in the playoffs because I think you establish your style of play, you establish who you are as a football team, and what we have established so far in the first 15 games is the ability to take care of the football and take the football away."
As a frame of reference, the team-record 19 giveaways by the 1972 squad came in a 14-game season. The fewest giveaways for a Packers team in a 16-game schedule are 21, in 1995 and 2008.