No less an authority than six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher refers to Bears safety Mike Brown as "the heart and soul of the defense."
Unfortunately for the Bears, Brown has missed 43 of 64 regular-season games over the previous four years with a ruptured Achilles in 2004 (14 games), a strained calf in '05 (four games), a torn foot tendon in `06 (10 games) and a torn ACL in his right knee last season (15 games). Maybe because he has already spent so many months being injured and rehabbing, Brown doesn't waste a lot of time feeling sorry for himself these days.
"There are a whole bunch of sayings," Brown said. "Something like 'You have to cry before you can smile,' and things like that. It's just part of life. It's football, and I love to play. But in the grand scheme of life, it's not really that big of a deal. I still have my health. My kids are healthy. My wife is healthy. Football is a big part of my life, but I realize it is just a game."
Brown won't dwell on it now, but the heartache of being away from the game has been difficult for the emotional mastermind of the secondary to hide. In an interview the day before his teammates faced the Colts in Super Bowl XLI, Brown was moved to tears while discussing how much he missed being part of the action.
Now at 30, the former second-round pick from Nebraska knows time is running out. He's back in the starting lineup, and he'll stay there as long as he's healthy. If it's true that luck evens out, Brown is due to have a stretch of good health similar to his first four years when he played in all 64 games and started 63 of them.
S Mike Brown
Warren Wimmer Photo
"I go day by day," he said. "Right now, I'm healthy. But with my past and everything, who knows how long that's going to last. Hopefully, it's the whole season. I'm planning on it being the whole season. I'm preparing to play the whole season. That's all I can do. But some things are out of your control. I come out here every day, and I feel blessed to be able to come out here with this team again. I'm just having fun with it."
History shows that the Bears have more fun when Brown is on the field. In the 21 games that he's started the past four seasons, the Bears are 16-5 – a winning percentage of 76.2. Without Brown, the Bears are 20-23 since 2004 – a winning percentage of 46.5.
"We're definitely a better team with him out there because of all the leadership qualities he brings," said fifth-year cornerback Nathan Vasher. "We have to step our game up and play up to his standards. Even as a rookie, I knew when I got into the huddle with guys the caliber of Mike Brown and Brian Urlacher that I had to play better. He holds us all accountable. He's very vocal. There are no secrets out there with our defense and we know exactly what's going on, so we're confident."
It's the feeling a defense gets when it has its heart and soul.
News & Notes
A much wealthier and healthier Devin Hester joined his teammates on the field Sunday afternoon for the first time in training camp, just hours after agreeing to a four-year contract extension that contains $15 million in guaranteed money and could be worth up to $40 million if he reaches pass-catching incentives – and at least $30 million otherwise.
Hester's base pay for this season is $445,000. …
Cornerback Charles Tillman has high hopes for the defense, but the health of the unit will determine how close it comes to his expectations. Last season, Vasher – Tillman's running mate on the corner – missed 12 games with a torn groin muscle, and the injury bug inflicted major damage on the defensive line.
"With the two of us healthy," Tillman began, "well, with everyone healthy, not just Nate and I, with our whole defense healthy, I think the sky's the limit for us."
The Bears had a top-five defense in 2006 but slumped badly last season. Most of the same players are around, but Tillman says the current group has to make its mark all over again.
"I just think we need to create our own identity and stop living in 2006," he said. "It's 2008 now, so we have to establish our own identity again." …
Rookie running back Matt Forte showed above average speed and quickness after taking a screen pass for big yardage in Saturday's night's practice during 11-on-11 drills.
"It seems like every day he's doing something that we take notice of," head coach Lovie Smith said of the second-round pick.
Smith also singled out fifth-round rookie tight end Kellen Davis, who caught a deep seam route in stride from Rex Grossman. Rookie wide receiver Earl Bennett had another notable practice, which is becoming commonplace.
"He seems to make a couple big plays each day," Smith said. "We expected that out of him. He made a lot of catches at Vanderbilt, and hopefully it will continue." …
Tillman was excused for the first two days of camp for personal reasons, giving 2007 fifth-round pick Corey Graham another day of first-team practice reps.
"We've been impressed with him," Smith said. "He has good size, good speed, [and] he knows what to do with the ball once he gets it. He seems to show up around the ball each day."
Graham was victimized for a long touchdown pass in 11-on-11 by Rashied Davis, although the wide receiver appeared to push off while the ball was in the air. Graham saw most of his action last season on special teams, where he was second on the Bears with 20 tackles. He was behind seventh-round pick Trumaine McBride on the depth chart, although that situation has been reversed.
Graham felt he struggled on the first day of camp but that he played better on Thursday. He said being in the huddle with the first team has been a little awe-inspiring.
"It's a little awkward," he said. "I'm just in there not saying anything, just looking around. They do all the talking. You're looking around at all these big-name guys, but it's a good experience to go through." ….
Even though the Bears have started practicing in pads and doing some controlled hitting, Forte says there's no need to worry about him.
RB Matt Forte
Rex Arbogast/AP Images
His running style is sometimes is characterized as "upright," which can give defenders an easier target to hit. But he doesn't agree with the "upright" description, and at 6-2, there's no way the rookie from Tulane is going to look anything like 5-7 Garrett Wolfe coming through the line of scrimmage.
"I've been running like that since I started playing football," said Forte, who is sharing first-team reps with veteran Adrian Peterson. "I wouldn't call it an upright running style because when I'm running and I see somebody's going to hit me, I'm not going to stand straight up. So I don't know why they say 'upright running style' anyway. I hear it all the time."
Whatever you call it, Forte used that style to rush for 2,127 yards for the Green Wave last season, and he missed just three games in four years.
"Obviously, I'm going to protect myself out here," he said. "I run with my pads low. You make easier cuts that way. That's how you learn how to cut and hit the hole hard." …
Just over a month ago, Smith said he was content to go into the 2008 season with a running back corps led by Forte and backed up by Peterson and Wolfe.
The late signing of veteran free agent Kevin Jones added a former 1,000-yard rusher to the landscape, although he's not 100 percent yet and isn't expected to come off the PUP list for a while.
Still, why the change in Smith's philosophy?
"A month ago I said I really liked our running back position," he said. "I thought we had the players that we thought we could win with. I say the same thing right now. You can just take this for the entire time I'm here: We'll always try to improve our ball club, at any position. If a player becomes available, we'll look at him. And that's what happened with Kevin. I like the running back position more right now, and as far as our plans for Kevin, we'll just see where he is once we get him on the field and go from there."
Jones' availability remains a question mark seven months after surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee. He is confident he'll be ready to contribute by the start of the regular season, but the consensus seems to favor taking it slowly for now.
"There's a chance he won't be ready to go right away," Smith said. "We checked out his knee, and it's sound and all of that. I talked about the strength of that running back position. It is there, so we won't be in a hurry to rush him in there. But he eventually will help us."
Quote to Note
"I don't think I've ever been this busy in an offseason, and I don't think I ever will again. We did a lot. Hopefully we accomplished a lot. We certainly kept a good foundation in place for a good while, and that was our goal going into our offseason." – Bears GM Jerry Angelo after Devin Hester became the team's seventh player since last season to sign a contract extension, following Kyle Orton, Tommie Harris, Desmond Clark, Robbie Gould, Alex Brown and Brian Urlacher.
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