With five weeks to chill until the start of training camp, Bears head coach Lovie Smith expressed confidence in a running game that features as-yet-unsigned second-round pick Matt Forte – backed up by Adrian Peterson and Garrett Wolfe, who averaged a combined 3.3 yards per carry last season.
Although the position appears thin numbers-wise since the release of Cedric Benson, who was the Bears' leading rusher last season with 674 yards, Smith discouraged talk of bringing in veteran help.
"We don't have any plans to do that," Smith said after Wednesday's final OTA practice at Halas Hall. "We like the running backs that we have right now, and those are the ones that we're going with."
The running back depth chart also includes third-year man P.J. Pope, who spent last season on the practice squad injured list, and Matt Lawrence, an undrafted free agent from Massachusetts.
Forte, who rushed for 2,127 yards last season at Tulane, is expected to be the focal point of the ground game, a role Bears coaches may have envisioned even before Benson's two alcohol-related arrests in a five-week span.
"We liked him coming in," Smith said. "He hasn't disappointed us at all. We feel real good about where he is. I feel like he'll meet the challenge."
Forte will have to live up to expectations for the Bears to bounce back from last season's 7-9 Super Bowl hangover to a playoff team. They're coming off a last-place finish in the NFC North, just as they were after Smith's 5-11 rookie season of 2004. The following year, the Bears reversed their record to 11-5 and made the playoffs.
"We've been in this situation before, so it's not new to us," Smith said. "We've been in last place and we've climbed that mountain, so that's the message. It's always good to be the underdog. Right now, most people are counting us out. We like that position."
The Bears are not in an ideal situation at quarterback. Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton are jousting for the starting job. If that battle continues throughout the preseason, it could negatively impact continuity within the offense, which will have different starters at both wide receiver positions and is expected to have different starters at three of the five offensive line spots.
QB Kyle Orton
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Offensive coordinator Ron Turner said the quarterback race remains even and hopes the competition elevates the performance of both players.
"Right now, it's highly competitive," Turner said. "I think both guys are stepping up to the challenge and stepping up to the opportunity. I see a great focus in both of them. They've both been in the system for a while, so they should have much better knowledge and a much better feel for it and that's showing on the field."
When training camp practices begins July 23, the coaching staff will get a better idea of which quarterback will lead the offense.
"I'm anxious to get into camp when we have pads on and everything else picks up a little bit," Turner said. "Then you get into some preseason games to see how they are going to respond."
In the mean time, Smith has encouraged his players to avoid the pitfalls that claimed Benson – and Tank Johnson a year earlier.
"It's not a perfect world in any profession," Smith said. "That's definitely the case with us. They know what's at stake. Here is the time to go to the Bahamas, go to Hawaii, or just hang out and do nothing. Spend time with family. Let your mind get away from football a little bit because we plan on playing a long time. There won't be a lot of breaks then."
NEWS & NOTES
Despite playing in just 21 games over the past four seasons of his eight-year career because of a string of injuries, safety Mike Brown is the all-time franchise leader with seven defensive touchdowns – four on interceptions and three on fumbles. He averaged 99 tackles a year in his first four seasons, when he didn't miss a game and started 63 of 64 contests.
But the rash of injuries began in 2004 with a season-ending ruptured Achilles' tendon in the second game of the year. The following season he was voted to the Pro Bowl, even though a calf injury forced him out of the final four regular-season games. Brown's 2006 season ended after six games because of a foot injury.
Through four serious injuries and lengthy rehabs, Brown hasn't lost his passion for the game, which is why he's already jacked up about regaining his Pro Bowl form and helping the Bears' defense attain the elite status it enjoyed in `05 and `06.
"I have a total passion for the game, and I feel that I can still play," Brown said. "If I didn't have my skills, if the injuries were diminishing my skills any, I would think long and hard about [retiring]. But every time I come out here and see myself on film, I still look pretty good.
"When I'm on the field, I think I'm one of the best safeties in the league. I have a lot of confidence, and I feel like I bring a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of intensity. I love playing with this team. I love the defense. I think it's conducive to the way that I play and I just want to show people what I can do." …
The depth chart at wideout is in flux with newcomers Marty Booker and Brandon Lloyd figuring prominently in the mix along with Devin Hester, Rashied Davis, Mark Bradley and rookie Earl Bennett – plus holdovers Mike Hass and Brandon Rideau fighting for roster spots.
WR Marty Booker
Warren Wimmer Photography
"Right now, the position is wide open," Hester said. "The best two are going to step up and play."
Hester sees himself as a starter. If not now, then soon.
"If you're a receiver and you don't feel that way, then you don't deserve to be out here on the field," he said. "It's competing for a job, and that's how the next man gets better. That's what I'm out here doing. And when the season kicks off, I'm hoping I'll be one of the No. 1 guys."
Booker and Lloyd have gotten most of the first-team reps, but Hester has also been utilized. Receivers coach Darryl Drake said no final decisions have been made.
"Right now, we don't have clear-cut starters," Drake said. "[Booker and Lloyd] are in the mix. Devin is in the mix. So those guys are probably the ones."
Hester has been focusing on running more precise routes and fine-tuning his timing with Grossman and Orton. He said the mental aspect of his game has improved over last season, his first as a full-time receiver.
"I'm a lot better at knowing the game," he said. "I'm starting to understand the defense as well as the offense."
For now, though, Hester's forte remains the deep ball, where he can utilize his rare speed to get behind even the fastest cornerbacks. His communication with the quarterbacks on those plays is simple.
"Whenever we have a deep ball, I just tell them throw it as far as you can and hopefully I'm going to run it down," he said. …
While Grossman and Orton are fighting for the same job on the field, Grossman says it's possible to separate their professional and personal lives.
"It's pretty easy," Grossman said. "I think you'd have to be pretty immature to take it to a personal level. I don't think there's a downside to [the competition] for anyone other than Kyle and I. Obviously, we'd both like to have the job. If anything, it probably makes you better to concentrate that much harder."
Smith said he's in no hurry to determine the winner of the QB battle and that it would not be decided by the start of the preseason.
"Just some time during training camp, during the preseason," Smith said of the timetable. "Ideally, you would like to have someone in place by going to that last week of the preseason, but we'll just let it play out. If it's not clear by then, we'll let it go right up until [the start of the season]."
QUOTE TO NOTE
"We're in fourth place right now in our division, so that's the mindset that we have. We have a long ways to go." – head coach Lovie Smith on the team's attitude after completing offseason practices.
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