Chicago Sun-Times

Safety course: Plotting a future without Mike Brown

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The post-Mike Brown era has started for the Bears and they will be able to go about working to find some solutions in the secondary when they head to the scouting combine on Thursday.

Brown's nine-year career with the Bears was celebrated for his leadership skills and top play but the second half of his run was marred by injuries, a lot of them and ultimately that probably was the final straw in the decision not to pursue him as an unrestricted free agent. Brown isn't going to be easy to replace but replacing him in March and April is considerably easier to do than replacing him during the season if he is injured again. He's finished on injured reserve four of the last five seasons.

His teammates over the past few years talked about how he was indispensable and the funny thing is only a select few were around when Brown made his biggest mark on the field for the team, returning interceptions for touchdowns in consecutive weeks to win games during the middle of the 2001 season. You can make a long list of Brown's top accomplishments on the field. He is the franchise's all-time leader with seven defensive touchdowns. Here is a list, certainly incomplete, of some of his highlights:

Oct. 28, 2001--Jeff Garcia's pass to Terrell Owens went off the receiver's hands to Brown, who returned it 33 yards to seal an overtime victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

Nov. 4, 2001--To borrow from Yogi Berra, it was deja vu all over again when Brown pulled a fluttering ball out of the air that had been deflected at the line of scrimmage by Bryan Robinson and returned it 16 yards to the same North end zone at Soldier Field to defeat the Cleveland Browns in overtime.

Sept. 19, 2004--In Lovie Smith's first trip to Lambeau Field, Brown scooped up a fumble and returned it 95 yards for a touchdown, the fifth score of his career. The play was overshadowed when he tore an Achilles tendon later in the game, starting a string of serious injuries that would plague him for the next four seasons.

Week 6, 2005 season--After the Bears managed to blow a late lead at Cleveland to fall to 1-3, Brown assessed the team in the locker room and said "we suck." Many later pointed to it as a turning point in a big year. The Bears went on to win the next eight games and win the NFC North.

Oct. 16, 2006--The "Miracle on Monday Night'' had some bigger plays in it but the comeback at Arizona wouldn't have happened without another Johnny-on-the-spot play as Brown had a three-yard fumble return for a touchdown. Again, the game was marred by a serious injury as he suffered a torn Lisfranc ligament that knocked him out for the remainder of the season and prevented him from playing in Super Bowl XLI, a game the Bears lost in part because of poor safety play.

Sept 21, 2008--Brown recorded a career-high 17 tackles in an overtime loss to Tampa Bay, a big performance in a season when he ended with 101 tackles, the third most in his career.

There are more. It's impossible to encapsulate nine years in a list. Brown means different things to different people and he has a long list of admirers around the league who respect him for his professional approach.

"He always had the toughness and was always a good teammate but he wasn't the most popular teammate because he could turn his back on a crowd and lead,'' ex-Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache said when contacted in December for a story on Brown. "Guys get their feathers ruffled once in a while when guys who aren't afraid to step up and lead step up and say what is right. He would piss some people off, particularly the guys that didn't want to be accountable.

"Mike is a warrior in every sense of the word. He may play a step slower than other guys and an inch shorter but he is still one of the most impactful safeties in his time in the league and it is because he understands the game and he understands the team concept and he has intangibles.

"He is what every Dad would wish his son would be. Not that he's better or different than my sons, he's what you would want a son to be. He's a man. It comes across in all of the things he does.''

There were many comments left about Brown from a blog entry the other day and the story in Saturday's edition. Many of them with complaints that the Bears will not bring him back, but this should not come as a surprise. Brown had a calf injury that landed him on injured reserve and prevented him from finishing three previous games in 2008. Muscle pulls have always been an issue with him. A calf muscle pull cost him the final four games of the 2005 season, the year he was elected to the Pro Bowl. The Bears decided it was time.

His exit leaves the team with three safeties under contract as Brandon McGowan, another player with a serious injury history, is also an unrestricted free agent. So is Cameron Worrell, who was signed to take Brown's roster spot in Week 17 so he could pitch in on special teams. Here is what remains:

Danieal Manning--Made just one start at safety in the season finale at Houston and managed to make an error in coverage that led to an Andre Johnson 47-yard score. Manning has all the physical ability to play the position and experience. Chances are better he will remain at nickel back where he thrived once coach Lovie Smith took over the position and started coaching him personally.

Kevin Payne--In his first full season, he made 16 starts and finished second on the team with 129 tackles. Payne piled up the tackles in the first half of the season when he was at strong safety and often times was the unblocked eighth defender in the box. He showed good hands as he led the team with four interceptions but doesn't have great range and his instincts weren't the best. He's young and still learning the position. One question worth considering is if the Bears would want to pair Payne next to a rookie. That would leave two young players manning the last line of defense.

Craig Steltz--Appeared in 11 games and made a big interception against Detroit. He's strictly a strong safety at this point and the club may have overstated things when calling him a "starting quality" player when it drafted him in the fourth round from LSU. But he's young and developing like Payne and should have a chance.

Which way will the Bears go to fill the position? We ought to get answers in the next two weeks after free agency opens Feb. 27. Here's a list of available safeties in free agency. We've covered the possibility of cornerback Charles Tillman making the move to safety but that would create a major void at left cornerback, one of the most critical positions for any defense. That move won't happen unless there is a replacement at corner.

As far as his future, Brown's agent Ethan Lock said his client hopes to continue playing.

A couple programming notes ... we'll be getting to Monday's edition of Four Down Territory later on. Because we're going to be busy at the combine later this week, Four Down Territory will only run through Wednesday this week. Send in your questions and we'll get to as many as we can. As usual, thanks for participating. We should have an action-packed end of the week from Indianapolis so make sure you check back often. We'll also be posting updates on Twitter. Sign up to follow cst_bears to get your mobile updates.

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The bottom line here is that we have a bunch of strong safety types, and a guy who may be best suited to corner tagged as the starting free safety for the time being. Mike Brown cannot be counted on, but when he was healthy, he may have been the best secondary player I have ever seen in a Bears uniform. If his injuries were anyplace other than his legs, bringing him back would be no question. But when his living is made by running all over the field, having serious ankle, claf, and achilles injuries renders you useless in that capacity.

The football intelligence, the heart, the desire, and the leadership he displayed are not things that are easily replaced. My question is whether it is an Eli Manning situation, where once the "strong" personalities are out of the picture, a new leader emerges as a galvanizing force for the team. But given who our leaders are, we most certainly will take a step backwards in that regard. We have a lot of "me getting mine" personalities on this team. Harris, Briggs, and Urlacher are all capable of leading a team of men on the field, but none of them have shown the traits necessary to be what a guy like Ray Lewis is in Baltimore. When the entire team (all 3 phases) rally around a guy and his emotion and passion can carry them through the game, you have your man. This team wears down late in games, and doesn't have the fire to finish. How many games did we have a chance to win that we didn't? At least two obvious ones, and probably a couple of others with some 60 minute efforts...Olin is billed as a team leader, but consistent emotional outbursts (personal fouls) hurt this team, and he disappears on the sideline when the game is on the line. I see Orton trying to rev up the offense, but it seems to fall on deaf ears.

Now is the time for a defensive team leader to step up. All we keep hearing is how Mike was the heart and soul of the defense. He missed 44 games in the last 5 years! What does that tell you about the defense? It tells me that we have a bunch of guys who are waiting for someone to take charge and lead them. The guy that did was sitting on the sideline for most of the last few seasons.

I see this as a real problem for our defense in 2009. Replacing Mike Brown the player is a problem, but replacing Mike Brown the leader is a bigger one. Tommie Harris is the only one on the team who I feel is capable of carrying the team with his will. Can he do that? Hard to say, but considering he wasn't sure he wanted to play football any more not too long ago, that's not a good sign. He has the ability to be among the best in the league, and the charisma to lead from the front. It's time for him to step up and be the one who holds all 11 members of the defense accountable (including himself). It starts there, and then expands to special teams, and the offense. Someone has to lead this team. Lovie Smith runs this team, but he can't make them do anything they don't want to do. Someone has to make this team hungry again.

It's not Urlacher any more. It's not Lance Briggs. It's not Olin Kreutz. And right now, it's not Mike Brown. The Bears are in desperate need of PRIDE right now, and it is our biggest offseason need right now if you ask me. It is the difference between winning and losing.

If the Bears can't rely on Mike Brown, they sure as hell can't rely on some other Bears staying healthy for the whole season.

The door should also hit Dusty Dvoracek, Brandon McGowan, Nathan Vashar,and Terrence Metcalf on their bums as well.

Thanks so much for brightening up my morning with the picture that accompanies this post. Suitable for framing!

The bears should draft all defesive players. Offense has never been our strong suite(quarterback play is evident here). If we have no "D" then look for us to join Detroit in terms of misery.

why not resign him? we have enough problems at the other positions. the corners and the D-line weren't playing that well either. even the offense need help.

Well guys, there comes a point when you have to call it truthfully. I have always loved Mike Brown and really wanted him to finish his career here, or even begin his coaching career here. He has a great football mind and that's good for the team. But let's face it, he played in 15 games and the defense still stunk up the field. His leadership didn't help make Big Url play with any more intensity. His leadership didn't help with our pass rush. His leadership didn't help in our pass defense at all. He's lost a few steps and therefore is not a factor in pass coverage. How long do you beat a dead horse? All that we can ask for is that we find a player with very similar player traits to that of Brown.

As far as Manning taking over the position, he's not a bad option. He has what it takes physically. Yes, the kid has made a few mistakes. Not a surprise, all kids do. All I've heard was people complaining of one or two plays. Obvious mistakes. The kid bit on playaction. IMO, that wasn't that bad. Or, at least he continued to be aggressive. He read run and went hard toward the play. My point is, he wasn't slacking. He'll get better with his reads. I was actually hoping that Brown hung around and worked exclusively with Manning or whatever FS they bring in. That would help the kid a lot.

Nice post Joe! Go Bears!!!

How is our defense better without Mike Brown?

How does Danieal Manning get better without coach-on-the-field Mike Brown?

Safety is the bears primary need.
If Angelo drafts the best strong safety available at 18 I would not complain.
Payne is not fast enough and not agile enough in deep space to play free.
Steltz is a "tweener" too slow for free safety. They shouldn't have hyped him so much.
Tillman is a great corner, very valuable.
I guarantee that they will move Vasher to free safety.
Corey Graham is the best thing to hit the Bears in years. A natural cornerback which is really hard to find in the NFL.

Mike Brown was a great player when healthy, but it is time to move on. The Bears need a free safety, unfortunately Brown can no longer help the Bears at the free safety position. Chicago tried playing Brown at free safety early in the season thinking a less physical position could maybe prolong Browns career, unfortunately Brown no longer possesses the ability to drop back in coverage. Chicago moved Brown back to strong safety the more physical position, and Brown goes down with an injury, time to move on.

The Bears have a nice young strong safety on the roster in 3rd year player Kevin Payne. When Payne was at strong safety he was leading the team in tackles. Also, Payne is known for his ability to hit hard, again, this guy is a good strong safety in the makings.

Chicago needs a safety with the ability to drop back in coverage, is there one in free agency, maybe? I would still like to see the Bears draft Alabama free safety Rashad Johnson. Johnson would be a reach in the first, so I say use a second rounder on him, if you have to trade up, then trade. I realize Angelo does not like to trade up, especially on the first day of the draft, but he might want to strongly consider trading up this year for Johnson. This kid has all the attributes of a very good NFL free safety. Johnson is known as a smart football player, Nick Saban calls Johnson "one of the smartest players he's ever coached," and also said, "Johnson was the quarterback of his defense because of his knowledge of every position on the field and ability to react to offensive formations." Not only does Johnson have the smarts to play free safety, he has the big play ability, this season Johnson had 5 ints, two of them were pick 6's, and Johnson had 11 pass breakups. Last season as a junior, Johnson had 6 ints, and 8 pass breakups, so Johnson is no fluke. With Johnson football smarts, ballhawking skills, and big play capabilities, Chicago should trade up for him in the second. But who knows what Angelo has in store for the free safety, maybe theres a free agent he likes, or maybe theres someone in the draft he wants, maybe someone later on during the second day. The late round draft pick could develop while Manning gets another shot at free safety, we'll see GO BEARS!!

I think there's a typo in the headline:

Safety course: Plotting a future without Mike Brown

This is De bears -- should that not be "Safety course: PLODDING a future without Mike Brown" ???

Teams went after Payne last year and had a lot of success doing it. The middle of the field is weak for the Bears. Were did teams hurt us last year? In the middle of the field.

As for what kind of Saftie the Bears need, the Bears reaelly need two free Safties who can both suppot the run, rather than a typical, Strong saftie run stopper and a free saftie pass defender. In the Tampa 2 the Saftie is more of a hybrid position cause safties are asked to cover more ground in the Tampa 2 than typical safties. While Corners are asked to cover less ground and be better against the run than a typical corner and sually don't need the range of a typical corner as well.

With Urlacher and Brown both loosing a step or two and Payne not having great range the middle of the field is now more vulnerable than in the past and teams are exploiting it. This is also tied to the front four of the Bears who are giving QB's to much time.

I expect with Urlacher in decline, and the Saftie situation poor at best, that the middle of field will continue to be a problem. Bears may use more nickle this year but that will open them up to being run on like it did in 07. The team is unbalanced on both sides of the ball. Last year was a great draft class, there was talent all over the place and Angelo blew it again. I expect he will blow it again this year. Cause he knows so much more than everyon else, thats why his draft picks have been so great. It's easy to draft a great young OT in the first round who will play great for your team for years. But thats to easy. It's much harder and a lot more fun to draft a OT with a bad back and try and make him a great player. Chris Williams meet Tommie Harris. You gotta love a challenge.

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This page contains a single entry by Brad Biggs published on February 16, 2009 8:03 AM.

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