> Therearen't many teams--San Diego, maybe--with a more talented roster, one through53. This already was the NFC's highest-scoring offense (26.7¬†points pergame) and stingiest defense (15.9), and three personnel decisions might makethe difference between a Super Bowl loser in 2006 and a winner this year.First, Mark Anderson moves from nickel pass rusher, where he played just 47% ofthe defensive snaps last year and still had 12 sacks, to starting defensiveend. Could he be a 16-sack guy with his playing time increasing to 65% or 70%?Second, tight end Greg Olsen, the team's first-round pick, is the big, athleticpresence in the middle of the field that could be the key to Rex Grossman'squarterback development. Third, Devin Hester, a return specialist and dimebacklast year, moves into the fourth receiver slot, assuming he can masteroffensive coordinator Ron Turner's schemes. He'll still be the Bears' returnman, but with the added touches on offense he could hit double digits intouchdowns.
The Bears allowed50 fewer points than any other team in the conference last year, and ifanything, the defense could be better. The free-agent signing of strong safetyAdam Archuleta from the Rams allows the rangy Mike Brown to move to freesafety, where he's a better fit, and linebacker Lance Briggs returns for atleast one more year after threatening to sit out the season in a contractdispute. At right defensive tackle, the Bears replaced troubled Tank Johnsonwith Darwin Walker, who's not as good a run-stopper but doesn't have characterissues. Alongside Walker is the superb Tommie Harris, who's back from the tornleft hamstring that sidelined him for last year's final four games and thepostseason.
> The defensecertainly is good enough to win a Super Bowl. But from December on, defensewasn't the Bears' concern; Grossman was. General manager Jerry Angelo and coachLovie Smith did plenty to help their quarterback in the off-season. Mostsignificant, Angelo didn't bring in a free agent to compete with Grossman.Smith told everyone who'd listen that Grossman was his guy and disdained callsfor his replacement. The quarterback was grateful for their confidence. SaysTurner, "One day this off-season, right out of the blue, [Grossman] said,'I really appreciate you guys sticking with me.' He knows what we think ofhim--he's a great player who had a few bad games last year, which happens toevery young quarterback."
At camp there wasa palpable feel-good atmosphere. rex is our quarterback, read one T-shirt inthe Olivet Nazarene College bleachers. After Grossman completed a 70-yardtouchdown bomb to wideout Bernard Berrian in a two-minute drill, tackle JohnTait lifted the quarterback off the ground and pirouetted in celebration, tothe delight of teammates.
What emerged fromcamp is the Bears' potential improvement on offense. On three consecutive playsduring a scrimmage one evening, Chicago gave glimpses of what might become thesexiest offense in the league. First play: Olsen, from the left slot, randownfield with Brian Urlacher covering him. The rookie had half a step on thestar linebacker for what would have been a nice gain, but the ball wasunderthrown slightly, and Urlacher knocked it away. Second play: Hester went inmotion behind the quarterback, and the fans in attendance began shrieking likegirls swooning over the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Even though Grossmandumped the ball to a back, the reaction showed the excitement that's beinggenerated on offense by Hester, who had an NFL single-season-record six returnsfor touchdowns last year (and another in the Super Bowl). Third play: Berrian,an emerging speedy wideout, got two steps behind cornerback Nathan Vasher(who's no slouch; the Bears signed him to a five-year, $28.6¬†millionextension in June), and Grossman hit him perfectly in stride for a 75-yardtouchdown.
Among thecontenders this year, no team needs its quarterback to cut down on his gaffesmore than the Bears. Every QB is going to have a bad game or two. Super Bowlchampions cannot tolerate one who has six. The good feelings from training campare fine--and Grossman had a terrific off-season, improving his footwork andhis mechanics with new position coach Pep Hamilton and building chemistry andaccuracy with Hester, Olsen and impressive rookie back Garrett Wolfe--but thisquarterback has to show his team he's right in December, not August.
"I know whatI need to do," Grossman said, thoughtfully, after one scorching summerpractice. "I need to eliminate the bad games. It sounds simple, and that'sexactly what it is. I want to become a great quarterback, and to do that, youhave to be more consistent. I think I'll be better this year. Part of that ishaving great weapons, which we have."
Sounds good. Nowone man has to take this offense on his shoulders and make it happen.--PeterKing
WITH 2006 STATISTICS
COACH LOVIE SMITH (29-19 in NFL), fourth season with Bears
HT 6' 7"
HT 6' 2"
HT 6' 2"
HT 6' 3"
HT 6' 6"
SACKS 6 1‚ÅÑ2
DARWIN WALKER(NEW ACQUISITION)
ADAM ARCHULETA(NEW ACQUISITION)
> 2006 RECORD 13-3 NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 15/14/15 DEFENSE6/11/5
9 at San Diego
16 KANSAS CITY
30 at Detroit
7 at Green Bay
21 at Philadelphia
11 at Oakland
18 at Seattle
2 N.Y. GIANTS
6 at Washington (T)
17 at Minnesota (M)
23 GREEN BAY
30 NEW ORLEANS
(M) Monday (T) Thursday
NFL rank 31
Opponents' 2006 winning percentage .465
Games against playoff teams 7
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AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT SIZES UP THE BEARS
Not many weaknesses on this team. You can speed-rusharound the tackles, John Tait and Fred Miller, who have been around forever,and no one knows what kind of full season you'll get out of Rex Grossman. Thething that scares me is at times, under pressure, he looks nervous. . . . Tightend Greg Olsen is the perfect tall, soft-handed target for Grossman. . . . If Iwere the Bears' G.M., I'd trade [defensive end] Alex Brown at the deadline thisyear--but only if I could get a 2008 first-round pick. Pass rushers don't growon trees. Now that he's lost his job, he's a marketable commodity. . . . No onerealizes this, but without Lance Briggs at outside linebacker, Brian Urlacherwould be a lesser player. Each of those guys does some dirty work so the othercan make plays.
THE KING 500
After signing long-term extensions in the off-season, Tillman and bookendcorner Nathan Vasher could become the NFL's best tandem at the position foryears to come. This will be their third year together as projected full-seasonstarters, and no NFC corner combo has as many interceptions (a combined 21) inthe last two years as the physical, 6' 1" Tillman and his quick andclinging partner.
scare bear Anderson had 12 sacks in part-time duty; imagine the terror he'll sow as a starter.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH