For his first two years in the NFL, running back Matt Forte was clearly the main man in the Bears' running attack.
As a rookie in 2008, Forte had a whopping 379 touches, rushing 316 times for 1,238 yards with eight touchdowns and catching a team-best 63 passes for 477 yards and four more scores. No other Bears back had more than 34 rushing attempts. Last season Forte's carries dropped to 258, but that was still more than twice the total of every other Bears ball carrier combined, and none of them had more than 40 carries. And Forte added 57 catches, tied for second on the team, for 471 yards.
But now, for the first time in his professional career, Forte will be asked to share the load. The offseason acquisition of veteran Chester Taylor gives the Bears a solid one-two punch with no expected drop-off from Forte, who is still the starter, to Taylor. Both players are versatile enough to run inside and outside and also provide another threat in the passing game.
The way Forte is looking at it, less could be more. He is neither put off by the competition nor surprised that Taylor was brought in.
"This is the NFL," Forte said. "People are going to be brought in and out of the mix. Competition is part of the game. If you're afraid of competition you shouldn't be playing anyway, so I come out here and compete every day."
There was speculation that the heavy load Forte carried as a rookie caused his productivity to drop last year, when his average yards per carry dipped from 3.9 to 3.6. He was also hampered by an offseason hamstring injury that lingered into the season. Taylor's presence will reduce the wear and tear on Forte, and vice versa.
"A lot of teams have a two-running back-system and actually it prolongs both their careers," Forte said, "so I don't mind having him here to take some reps and get in there as long as we win games and it's working."
In offseason work, Forte appears to have recaptured the quickness he showed as a rookie that sometimes seemed to be lacking last season.
"I feel a lot faster," he said. "I'm not injured during OTAs unlike last year (the hamstring), and at the end of last season I had (arthroscopic) knee surgery. But I got that healed up, and I actually went down to Florida and did some training so I could re-do the speed training and stuff that I did before that I wasn't (able) to do because of my injuries."
A healthy Forte, even if he cedes some of the backfield work to Taylor, could put up some impressive numbers in the Mike Martz offensive scheme that spawned record-breaking stats for Marshall Faulk a decade ago. From 1999-2001, Faulk averaged 2,225 yards of total offense and scored 59 touchdowns.
"You don't even have to look at the numbers, just the name of Marshall Faulk," Forte said. "We watch a lot of old film on them, when they had Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce and all those guys, and it just makes you get excited about how good this offense can be with some of the talented guys we've got on this team that can fit those positions."
With Taylor complementing him, Forte won't threaten Faulk's numbers, but if the Bears' offense thrives under Martz, he'll still be a huge part of the resurgence.
So Tinoisamoa will have to win his job back from Nick Roach, who stepped in after the veteran was injured and led the team with 10 tackles for loss in 2009 and played well enough in 15 starts to remain with the first team.
"Nick Roach is a good football player," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "He can do it all. He's a good rusher. We'll be comfortable with him there."
Roach had a strained hamstring during minicamp that wasn't considered serious, but he is back on the field for OTAs (organized team activities). Roach started 15 games last season and was fourth on the team with 82 tackles and tied for first with 10 tackles for loss.
"We'll take our time with Nick," coach Lovie Smith said. "He has a hammy that's a little sore. He's gone through all of the off-season work, so we know what Nick is about."
Tinoisamoa took most of the first-team reps on the strong side during minicamp, but he has been limited, too, because of last season's knee surgery. During most of the OTAs, Roach has been close to 100 percent, while Tinoisamoa is still not practicing full speed.
While Roach is presently ahead in their battle, it will probably not be decided until training camp.
The boot is off, and so tight end Tony Scheffler is finally off and running with the Lions. After a minor foot injury kept him out of organized team activities, Scheffler returned for two OTAs recently and made what coach Jim Schwartz called big-time catches.
"He's a big target," Schwartz said. "He's got great natural hands. He's got good speed. Just real savvy in the pass game. He was a little bit behind because he spent some time in the boot. But he's back now, and it's not even a concern right now. We're starting to get him with the quarterback more and more, and we're starting to see the role that he's going to take in the offense."
With 2009 first-round pick Brandon Pettigrew recovering from a torn knee ligament, the Lions wanted some insurance. They also wanted another weapon for quarterback Matthew Stafford.
So they acquired Scheffler and a seventh-round pick from the Broncos in April, while sending linebacker Ernie Sims to the Eagles in a three-team trade. Philadelphia sent a fifth-round pick to Denver.
Scheffler wasn't happy with the way things went last season after new Broncos coach Josh McDaniels came in and traded quarterback Jay Cutler. His numbers dipped. He was benched for the season finale.
So he was happy to hear from Lions coach Jim Schwartz about the trade.
"One of the questions was if I wanted to be a part of what was going on," Scheffler said. "I was thrilled. I couldn't be any more happier, not only for myself but for my family. It's just a lot of dreams come true kind of getting back here and playing for the Lions."
Scheffler is from the Detroit area. He said ticket requests have been "just a little overwhelming," so he has delegated that duty to some of his supporters. He also played at Western Michigan, spending a season with the Lions' up-and-coming safety, Louis Delmas.
"He still talks as much as he did when he was a freshman in college," Scheffler said with a smile. "I was a fifth-year senior at Western, and he came in as a true freshman, green as they come. And boy, he was chirping, though, like a little bird. That was the one of the things that was ‘welcome back,' was to hear his voice chirping over there in the locker room."
Scheffler sees similarities to 2007 and ‘08, when he put up big numbers for the Broncos. Calvin Johnson is the dominant wide receiver, like Brandon Marshall. Matthew Stafford is the strong-armed quarterback, like Cutler. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan is the chess master, like Mike Shanahan, moving pieces around to create mismatches.
"It's something that we kind of got away from last year in Denver," Scheffler said. "Coach Linehan is going to find the guys that can win in situations, and he's going to get them in those situations. It's been fun. It's been fun being here so far."
"I'm excited about the offseason, where we are right now," Schwartz said. "We're at a different spot this year as opposed to last, mainly because of our quarterback situation. We're not trying to find out who are quarterback is going to be. We know who our quarterback is, and it's all about putting pieces around him."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The big G on the Packers helmets might as well stand for "Grounded."
That's how Packers head coach Mike McCarthy needs his players to comport themselves in the wake of an offseason uncharacteristically rife with off-the-field issues.
"We're in the paper way too much with things other than football," a chagrined McCarthy said.
Young cornerback Brandon Underwood was the latest to be singled out in unwanted headlines.
Allegations of sexual assault were brought against him by two women who were at a rented condo where Underwood and several teammates were staying after playing in a charity golf event. The alleged incident occurred in the early morning June 5 at the property in the Wisconsin Dells area, a popular location for vacationers.
Although Underwood hadn't been charged of any crime as of last week, he could be disciplined by the NFL for a violation of its personal-conduct policy.
"You've just got to be aware of your surroundings, who you're with and what you're doing," said linebacker Clay Matthews, one of six Packers players who were cleared of any wrongdoing in the alleged incident after being questioned by police.
"We're an ambassador to the community ... people look up to us," Matthews said. "So, you have to kind of represent a model America. I think, for the most part, that's what 99 percent of this league does. Unfortunately, there's a few situations where someone might have a lapse in judgment and it kind of puts a black eye on everybody."
Underwood stood in front of his teammates and apologized June 9.
"It's a closed chapter. It's unfortunate. It is what it is," said linebacker Brad Jones, who also was staying at the condo that night.
Missteps — alleged and otherwise — by Packers have taken away some of the offseason luster for a team that is on the upswing toward contending for the Super Bowl title next season.
In March, tight end Spencer Havner was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving after crashing his motorcycle near his California home.
Defensive end Johnny Jolly faces a felony drug possession charge, stemming from his arrest in his native Houston two years ago. The veteran starter is an unsigned restricted free agent, and the delayed start of his trial (July 30) falls on the same day Green Bay's players are to report for training camp.
"It's unfortunate. But, we're going to move forward as a group," said quarterback Aaron Rodgers, alluding to the latest disturbance. "This is not going to create a schism in the locker room. We're going to deal with this behind closed doors, like we always do and move forward together."
"He's definitely going to have to earn our trust back," linebacker Clay Matthews said.
Underwood, a second-year cornerback, has been accused of sexual assault by two women. The alleged incident occurred in the early-morning hours of June 5 at a resort in Lake Delton, Wis., where several Packers were staying overnight in a condominium following their appearance at a charity golf event.
Seven Green Bay players were questioned by police, but six of them — Matthews, quarterback Matt Flynn, fullback Korey Hall, guard Josh Sitton, linebacker Brad Jones and safety Khalil Jones — were cleared of any wrongdoing. Only Underwood remains under investigation.
"I just want to apologize to my teammates for dragging them into this, and I'm sorry that it's been a distraction for the team," said Underwood, who spoke publicly for the first time June 9 in the midst of the Packers' organized team activities. "It's just been a long week, and hopefully, the week will hurry up and wind down for me."
Underwood expressed remorse for the repercussions of the alleged incident when he addressed teammates in a team meeting before the June 9 practice. Players accepted the apology.
"For the most part, there's not a rift in this team," Matthews said. "We're moving forward. Obviously, it's a little distracting, but I don't think it's hindered us from moving forward as a team. We have a goal and a mission in mind, and that's what we're going to get after."
Yet, those players whose names came out as being linked to the incident were none too happy.
"I am upset that we didn't do anything and our names get thrown out there," Flynn said. "There is nothing that I or we did that I am embarrassed about."
Underwood's attorney believes his 23-year-old client won't be charged with a crime, citing inconsistencies in his accusers' statements to police about what occurred. Sauk County (Wis.) prosecutors are expected to decide whether to file charges against Underwood in the next week.
"We all have a responsibility and an obligation to represent the Green Bay Packers properly," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "Every decision we make, both on and off the field, has consequences, and poor judgment was made. With that, the circumstances are what they are. We have dealt with it as a football team, and frankly, we have moved on."
The allegations against Underwood came only three days after McCarthy praised the on-field development of the backup cornerback, saying he was a candidate for most improved player from his rookie season.
"I stand by what I said about Brandon Underwood last week," McCarthy said. "I think he has had a very good offseason program here at work, and that's the facts. ... The young man is an ascending player.
"But, this isn't all about playing football. There is a lot more to it. The rules of our society dictate that, the rules of the National Football League dictate that, and more importantly, the rules here in Green Bay dictate that, and it's a lesson that he will learn from."
Justin Harrell, who missed the entire 2009 season because of recurring back issues, has been getting starting reps at left end with Pickett and Jolly out.