While most other NFL teams are slowly reeling in the remainder of their draft classes with signings that are becoming more plentiful by the day, the Bears have had that business wrapped up for more than a month. The season is fast approaching and the Bears' first training camp practice at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill., is two weeks from today. We've already put in our request for an 80-degree day with full sunshine and a light breeze. Individual game tickets go on sale a week from Saturday on July 25 at noon via Ticketmaster phone and Internet outlets.
As our 30-day countdown to camp marches on with little news, we're going to jump around with a few different items this morning. But first, we have a little news.
According to a source with knowledge of the situation, the Bears and Olivet Nazarene have reached an agreement for the team to leave camp following practice on Aug. 20. The contract between the club and the school allowed the Bears to occupy campus through Aug. 21 but school officials asked the team to leave a day earlier to allow them time to prepare for the arrival of the student body of 2,500 beginning Aug. 22. That means the Bears will be at another location for their Aug. 21 walk through in advance of their second preseason game Aug. 22 at Soldier Field vs. the New York Giants. For a complete training camp schedule, go here.
*** KC Joyner was able to sidestep much of the Jay Cutler firestorm he's been at the center of recently in another chat on ESPN.com. It's Joyner's opinion that this could be a better team than the one that went to Super Bowl XLI following the 2006 season.
"Wouldn't you know it, I only get one question in and a Cutler comment gets posted. I'll say this about the Bears - they get a lot of turnovers and have the next Brian Westbrook in their backfield. They went to the Super Bowl with less talent than what they have now. Cutler will hurt them at times but many teams have won with QBs that have high bad decision rates, so they have at least a 50/50 shot at the division."
That is high praise for running back Matt Forte that we detailed here. No one seems up in arms with that comparison by Joyner. By the way, later on in his Thursday chat he clarified that he has Minnesota as the favorite to claim the NFC North, but called them a 51/49 favorite over the Bears.
And, in the event you didn't see his latest Cutler post on the New York Times' Fifth Down blog, here it is. His theory is that Denver coach Josh McDaniels was led to trade Cutler more because of film review of the player than anything else.
"Some are speculating that this is because Cutler is a prima donna, but dealing with those kinds of players has always been part of being a coach. I cannot imagine McDaniels would have thrown in the towel on his QB right off the bat simply because of a self-important attitude. What might lead him to make a change would be watching the tape and seeing someone who makes a bad decision on one out of every twenty passes."
That's an angle we've once heard before, from a source in Denver, but it was hard to filter everything that was coming out of there when the trade went down. At this point it's unlikely the whole story ever comes out. What we'd love to hear--the story that would top all stories in our opinion--is who leaked the news that the Broncos were working to trade for Matt Cassel and would ship away Cutler to get him? Who leaked that news and what was their motivation? The answer to those two questions would tell an awful lot. From the Bears' perspective, they have a quarterback with physical tools like none they've had a long while. Cutler is still young so he should be coachable and the plan is to build an offense around him.
*** Could the Tampa Two have another use this season? Here is an interesting nugget in a column at SI.com where Ross Tucker spoke with Greg Cosell, a senior producer at NFL Films for 30 years. Cosell sits down and watches coaches tape with guys like Ron Jaworski and has been doing it for decades. While acknowledging the Tampa Two seems to be fading, he sees a different use for it all of a sudden:
"The other thing is that the Tampa 2 defense has been fading a bit because you really need to get pressure from your front four and that isn't always easy. But we may see more Tampa 2 on defense to stop the Wildcat. It was designed by Bud Carson when he was in college to stop the option because you essentially have a nine-man front since the corners are your run support players on the perimeter."
*** Finally, we'll touch on some more of the observations we received from Football Outsiders managing editor Bill Barnwell when we discussed the Bears, specifically the play of the cornerbacks in 2008.
Barnwell didn't paint a very pretty picture and it's easy to remember why. The Bears were not very good vs. the pass. They ranked 30th in passing yards allowed but were No. 1 in the league in yards after the catch. How did that happen? They were picked apart, left to die a slow death. The Tampa Bay loss kind of summed the entire season up when ex-Bear Brian Griese passed for 407 yards on 67 attempts, three shy of Drew Bledsoe's NFL record 70. The Bears didn't sack Griese and according to press box statistics they registered just seven quarterback hits. Griese averaged only 6.07 yards per attempt, more than a yard below the league average and 1.5 yards below the elite passers. But Griese chewed them up on slant routes and the defense couldn't get off the field, not when it counted.
By and large, the Bears did an excellent job of avoiding the big play with the exception of a 99-yard touchdown by Bernard Berrian at Minnesota. They allowed only 12 passes of 30 yards or more. It didn't help that three came in the must-win season finale at Houston when safety Mike Brown was out of the lineup. But enough of the recap, let's get to the chat with Barnwell. He thought that the Bears got away from their signature Tampa Two defense more than they would have liked, a move made to aid the pass rush and one that put the cornerbacks in more challenging spots more often.
"Because the pass rush wasn't there last year, the secondary looked bad,'' Barnwell wrote in the Football Outsiders Almanac. "Charles Tillman benefited from a league-high ten drops by receivers whom he was covering, while Nathan Vasher spent the year alternately injured and ineffective.''
One nugget in the Almanac worth mentioning, Tillman was involved in 13.3 percent of the plays on defense, the second-highest total for any cornerback in the league and a testament to his involvement vs. the run. The problem is many of his stops in the run game came far downfield, more a product of the system, however, than Tillman's ability as a run stopper.
"Corey Graham was the guy who stood out as the weak link to us,'' Barnwell said. "His numbers were not good at all relative to the other cornerbacks they had. None of the cornerbacks really had a good year relative to prior numbers. We've had really good numbers for Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher in the past. Whether it was the scheme, whether it was injury, I don't know. None of them had good passing numbers. Year to year, that can change but they weren't good last year relative to what they've done in the past."
Tillman played the majority of the season with injuries to both shoulders. Vasher missed time because of hand surgery and never seemed right. The good news is the coaching staff was upbeat about his return during the spring. Right now, Graham doesn't appear to have a starting job. He completed OTA's as the nickel cornerback because Danieal Manning was out with a pulled hamstring. Vasher looks to have the lead at right cornerback and Craig Steltz looks ahead in the fight to win the free safety job. Graham could get looks at both spots during training camp or coach Lovie Smith, who personally coaches the nickel backs, could have him challenge Manning for his job. Stay tuned.