It's easy to see why quarterback Jay Cutler believes the Bears' new offense is on track for a successful 2010 season.
For openers, coordinator Mike Martz has a well-deserved reputation for creating potent passing attacks. Cutler's receivers are swift and talented, though inexperienced, and six-time Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz was back on the practice field this week for the first time since offseason Achilles tendon surgery.
"We've got a lot of plays in, guys have responded really well to Mike and the offense and to the new situation that we're in," Cutler said. "You have to be happy where we're at. It's something to build on."
Kreutz wasn't expected back until the start of training camp, but there he was Thursday afternoon at the final OTA, snapping to Cutler and working with the rest of the starting offensive line. He's not yet full speed, but everyone expects he will be long before the games begin.
"I think he gets a little bored," Cutler said with a laugh, "and when he gets bored he starts picking on guys. But he's going to be the anchor of the offensive line. He has been for years, so we're not worried about him."
The reconstruction of the offense, which Martz is presiding over, is also far from a finished product, but it's getting there.
"We're not ready for the first game," coach Lovie Smith said. "No team is. But we like where we are at this stage. I would say we're exactly where we want to be going into training camp and the preseason."
Much of Martz's offense has been installed, but Cutler and Co. are a long way from mastering the subtleties and intricacies of a voluminous playbook with hundreds of plays that can be run from several formations.
"You're still trying to picture the play in your head when you're walking up to the line," Cutler said. "But as far as me, and (backup quarterback) Caleb (Hanie) would probably say the same thing, I think we're seeing things really well. We're going out there and instead of thinking where guys are going to be, we're just seeing the defense and reacting. We just have to get everyone on the same page."
That will be the challenge when the Bears reconvene in Bourbonnais for the first training camp practice on July 30. Cutler says the initial signs are encouraging, and he's anxious to take the next step. It's an offense that just about any quarterback would embrace.
"I love it," Cutler said. "There's a lot to like about it. The ball's in the air, we're doing some great stuff in the run game, we're trying to get guys open, and we're trying to find spaces for them we're trying to create matchups. Mike does a great job of that."
While Cutler and everyone else on the offense will admit that learning the Martz playbook is a chore, they'll also say that the additional homework is well worth the effort.
"It makes you want to come to work every day," Cutler said. "(Martz) is so creative. He's doing fun stuff, he's finding ways to win and that's all you can ask for as a player is to have a coach that loves football and is going to do everything possible to put you in position to be successful. I think that's what the great coaches are able to do. That's what Mike's done in the past, and I don't see him changing his ways at all."
"Jay is a special athlete in a unique, special offense," said Smith, who hired his former boss in St. Louis to succeed Ron Turner. "You have to love that. I know he's excited. He's been excited since Day One, getting a chance to work with Mike. Mike has been excited about him. Now we're getting a chance to see it all come together on the field."
The excitement has spread to the players, at least the skill-position players, who are anxious to do what players like Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Az Hakim did a decade ago.
"If you talk to all our receivers, most of them have a smile on their face," Smith said. "Most of the tight ends and running backs, too. It's going to be a lot of fun. Also it will help the defensive line because of all the different shifts and motion because you just have to be ready to play each down going against an offense like this (in practice)."
After losing 37 out of their last 40 games, the Lions need all the practice they can get. So coach Jim Schwartz was unhappy they lost two organized team activities because they violated offseason workout rules.
But he wasn't exactly unhappy about what led to the sanctions. The positive spin is that it is a good sign the Lions are working hard to turn themselves around.
"I'll tell you what, I'm extremely proud of our offseason program," Schwartz said. "I think that if I was a player I'd want to be in this offseason program.
"I'm just most disappointed for some of our players — not our established players, but our young guys that are trying to make the team and trying to improve as football players. They were denied the opportunity to be able to go out and improve as a football player."
Schwartz had planned to end the offseason with a five-day primer for training camp — two days of organized team activities leading into a three-day mandatory minicamp. With 80 percent of the playbook installed, he wanted to have 95 percent installed by the end of the minicamp so he would be mostly reviewing come training camp.
But then the NFL and players' union took away those last two OTA days for violating rules "pertaining to the intensity and tempo of drills," forcing Schwartz to compress his installation and taking away reps some players badly needed.
What happened? Schwartz said it went back to the rookies' first practice with the veterans, when defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the second overall pick in the draft, had his every move chronicled by the media. Suh went against veteran guard Stephen Peterman that day.
"The league called and asked for film," Schwartz said. "They actually saw a headline in one of our newspapers that said ‘Suh and Peterman battle it out in OTA's,' and they flagged.
"I assume that when they said, ‘Hey, we want to see the practice film,' they were looking for one-on-ones and things like that, which you're not allowed to do with the offense and defensive linemen, which we weren't doing. It took them a long time, almost a month, because it was the first practice with rookies.
"Generally, that's going to happen. The first practice with rookies is going to be more guys on the ground, and it's going to be a little bit looser because you have rookies that are trying to make a good first impression and you have veterans that don't want to be beaten by a rookie. They looked at that practice and didn't like the looks of it."
Schwartz has liked the looks of his OTAs, however, and made a point.
"We've had 14 last year and 12 this year, so 26 OTA practices," Schwartz said. "I had two minicamps last year, and we had zero injuries in those practices other than hamstrings, groins and calves. Player safety is important to us, and guys do practice hard, but we've had a good track record of staying pretty healthy."
The Lions drafted Matthew Stafford first overall last year and started him Week 1. But he didn't arrive until late April, had to earn that starting job and didn't have much chance to develop chemistry with his receivers. He flashed his talent at times, but also threw 20 interceptions in 10 games.
In the off-season and training camp last year, Stafford took reps with the first, second and even third teams. His top target, wide receiver Calvin Johnson, missed much of training camp because of injuries. Then Stafford and Johnson each suffered injuries that kept them from playing together a lot during the season.
Now Stafford and Johnson have had a full off-season together, working in organized team activities and informal sessions on the side. The Lions have added weapons like wide receiver Nate Burleson, tight end Tony Scheffler and running back Jahvid Best.
When the Lions take the field July 31 for their first practice of training camp, their offense should be far ahead of where it was a year ago.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers have gone down this road before, and the results from that first try left a lot to be desired.
Unbowed by the shortcomings that reared their ugly head when end Aaron Kampman was moved to outside linebacker last season, Green Bay's brain trust on the defensive side of the football is toying with the idea of a similar position switch this season.
The difference would be that Cullen Jenkins' primary position still will be as a down lineman at right end, yet his pass-rushing versatility lends itself to standing up as a situational outside linebacker.
"It's just a matter of what they ask me to do on particular plays," Jenkins said.
Unlike Kampman, who quietly took offense to the full-time change in role and subsequently bolted the Packers as a free agent to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars this offseason, changing places if on a part-time basis has appeal to Jenkins.
"To be able to get up, move around, drop back in coverage sometimes and do things like that kind of makes you feel pretty good," Jenkins said.
The seventh-year veteran is playing lighter at about 300 pounds and moving better this year, so defensive coordinator Dom Capers isn't averse to getting Jenkins out in space more as a linebacker.
His relentless ability to get after the quarterback would be paramount as the Packers try to bolster their pass rush. The only sure thing from that standpoint is Clay Matthews at right outside linebacker.
Brad Jones, who was an adequate replacement as a rookie for an injured Kampman late in the season, and Brady Poppinga are competing for the starting job at left outside linebacker in the base defense.
That the Packers are considering bumping Jenkins to that spot in their sub packages isn't a ringing endorsement for what Jones or Poppinga can contribute on a full-time basis. Even Brandon Chillar, strictly an inside linebacker last season when Green Bay implemented its 3-4 scheme, was getting some situational looks on the left side during the June 21-22 minicamp.
What's more, head coach Mike McCarthy left open the possibility of the Packers' signing a veteran outside linebacker before the July 31 start of training camp.
"We'll look at some individuals over the summer," McCarthy said. "We'll continue to evaluate that and watch what goes on around the league."
Offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, the team's first-round draft choice this year, won a modified home run derby on the team's outdoor practice field with a deep poke to culminate two days of minicamp workouts June 22. McCarthy canceled the final minicamp practice June 23.
"It was appropriate," McCarthy said. "I think our players have earned that and deserve that."
In excusing the team for the next five weeks until the July 30 reporting date for training camp, which kicks off the next day, McCarthy expects the mostly intact squad to learn from the disappointing 51-45 overtime loss at the Arizona Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs last season and use it as motivation for this season. The Packers, who went 7-1 the second half of 2009 to finish 11-5, rate as one of the NFC title favorites.
"A common message for us as a team is to move forward," McCarthy said.