Chicago Sun-Times

December 2011 Archives

Really had a blast working on my package in today's newspaper, the best 30 players under 30 in the NFC North. I'm always amazed at how scouts and coaches view players. They're not solely obsessed about statistics, and they see and value things that casual observers just don't.

Here's a link to the package.

But let's take a closer look at the entire list.

The Packers have 11 - Aaron Rodgers (1st), Greg Jennings (5th), Clay Matthews (8th), Jordy Nelson (10th), B.J. Raji (16th), Tramon Williams (17th), Jermichael Finley (18th), Josh Sitton (20th), Desmond Bishop (23rd), Bryan Bulaga (24th), Mason Crosby (27th),

The Lions have 8 - Calvin Johnson (2nd), Matthew Stafford (5th), Ndamukong Suh (7th), Cliff Avril (11th), Chris Houston (19th), Brandon Pettigrew (21st), Stephen Tulloch (22nd), Louis Delmas (30th)

The Bears have 6 - Jay Cutler (4th), Matt Forte (9th), Devin Hester (13th), Henry Melton (15th), Stephen Paea (26th), Johnny Knox (28th)

And the Vikings have 5 - Adrian Peterson (3rd), Percy Harvin (12th), Chad Greenway (14th), John Sullivan (25th), Brian Robison (29th).

As I mentioned on Twitter, the 31st player would have been T.J. Lang, the offensive lineman from the Packers. He's a fourth-round pick, and scouts and coaches tell me he's been absolutely dominant, of late. That he's got Pro Bowl potential.

This package, though, underscores the importance of building through the draft. The Lions have gotten quickly fast, because they have had several very high draft picks. And, ultimately, those three (Johnson, Stafford and Suh) are cornerstone players for them.

But the Packers are in this position because of their talent evaluation and development. Of the 11 players on my list, four of them (Rodgers, Raji, Matthews and Bulaga) are first-round picks. The others are not.

Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson are second-round picks. Jermichael Finley is a third-rounder. Josh Sitton is a fourth-rounder. Mason Crosby and Desmond Bishop are 6th rounders.

But no player underscores the Packers scouting skills than cornerback Tramon Williams.

He was undrafted out of Louisiana Tech, and he was first signed by the Houston Texans. At the time, the Texans had one of the worst secondaries in the NFL.

But they let him go, after the preseason, and Williams was unsigned for a while. That means every NFL team had a chance to get him.

But the Packers didn't sign him until Nov. 29. Then, he didn't play in a single game.

In 2007, he played in all 16 games, mostly on special teams, and he made one start. In 2008, he started nine games. In 2009, he started 10 games.

In 2010, he was a full-time starter, and he intercepted six passes and defended 20 others.

The Packers are one of the league's youngest teams. And as they prepare for another championship run, the Vikings and Bears -- since the Lions are still in it -- need to figure out how they're going to close that sizeable gap. It doesn't happen overnight, but both these teams need to have a strong offseason if they're going to keep up.

Tillman beats the odds to make his first Pro Bowl

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Brian Urlacher made the Pro Bowl for the eighth time. Lance Briggs made it for the seven consecutive season. Matt Forte is the Bears' first running back to make it in 20 years. And Corey Graham made it as a special-teams player when Devin Hester didn't.

But for my money, Charles Tillman is the best story of the five Bears to make the Pro Bowl this season. How often does a ninth-year cornerback from a non-playoff team on a defense that ranks 18th overall and 29th against the pass -- and has two interceptions -- make the Pro Bowl for the first time?

Not very often. In fact, although there are cornerbacks who have made their first Pro Bowl after turning 30, only Tory James of the Bengals in 2004 and Gil Byrd of the Chargers in 1991 -- he's now the Bears' assistant defensive backs coach -- come closest to Tillman's low profile. And both of them led NFL in cornerbacks in interceptions the year they were chosen.

Jay Cutler a Pro Bowl alternate

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Although he only played in 10 games, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is a Pro Bowl alternate.

Aaron Rodgers is the starting quarterback for the NFC, and Drew Brees and Eli Manning also made the Pro Bowl roster.

According to a league source, though, Cutler is the fourth alternate.

Carolina Panthers rookie quarterback Cam Newton is the first alternate, followed by Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys and Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions.

For the Bears, only defensive end Julius Peppers and kickoff returner Devin Hester are first alternates.

Other alternates from the Bears include kicker Robbie Gould, center Roberto Garza and defensive tackle Henry Melton.

Mike Martz: "Sure, I would like to be back"

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While Mike Martz said he wanted to return, Bears coach Lovie Smith was outraged when asked if he planned to bring back his offensive coordinator.

"What kind of question is that, anyway?" Smith said. "At this time, what kind of question is that? Why would you ask a question like that anyway?"

The future of Martz has been a talking point for months now, with an assortment of issues cropping up since he turned down an extension that didn't include a raise. Then, last month, Martz was connected with a couple of college openings, although nothing ever materialized.

The Bears offense was playing well, during a 7-3 start. But it's struggled since, and the unit is now ranked 20th in the league.

Asked about his future, Martz said, "Obviously I sure would like to be back.

"I think all that stuff works out. This is going to be a great football team, and I'd like to be a part of it. We'll see how it works out. But we'll address that when the season is over."

Asked if he's received any indication, Martz said, "All those kinds of things, I would never discuss.

"I've addressed it. Hopefully, it works out. Then we'll go from there."

He was also asked if injuries factor into the decision on him.

"You know, I'm not going to get into all that stuff," he said. "I'm not going to discuss anything like that."

As his second season as the Bears offensive coordinator comes to a close, Martz was asked if the unit is where he'd like it to be.

"You know, the offense changes every year, because the personnel changes every year," he said. "So you take it in a different direction just a little bit, whether it's linemen or receivers or the quarterback; whoever it might be.

"This offense will never be established. We always try to be flexible enough to move it towards what we need to do to win. So, I'm not trying to dodge your question. But we're different from a year ago, just based on who we have and some of the things we're doing."

Asked if there's unfinished business, Martz said, "Well, yeah.

"I think when you lose those guys like we did. We were just getting kind of rolling."

Charles Tillman thankful for first Pro Bowl selection

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Bears cornerback Charles Tillman impressed his in-laws, when he learned that he had made his first Pro Bowl Tuesday.

"It was a good time," he said. My parents were here, my in-laws, all my family was here, so yeah, it happened at the right time."

Tillman said he's thankful to his peers and coaches for voting him in.

"I don't think it's really about recognition but I do recognize that they think that I'm a good player. So that means a lot," he said. "It makes me feel good."

Of course, the selection is bittersweet.

"It definitely would've been nice to make the Pro Bowl, slash play in some postseason games," he said.

Tillman said he plans to take his entire family, although his oldest daughter expressed some concern.

"She was like, 'I don't want to go. They've got volcanoes in Hawaii.' She saw something on like one of these cartoon shows that had volcanoes," Tillman recalled. "I kind of had to explain to her that it was a cartoon. I think she'll be all right once she gets in the water."

Tillman, though, doesn't believe 2011 is his best season.

Tale of a disappointing team: 7 wins, 5 Pro Bowlers

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Pro Bowl voting is an inexact science, but it's not so random that you can't ignore the painful truth revealed by the Pro Bowl rosters released Tuesday: the Bears were the most disappointing team in the NFL this season.

One look at the list of seven teams that had more than three players in this season's Pro Bowl says it all:

49ers (8) -- 12-3

Patriots (8) -- 12-3

Packers (7) -- 14-1

Ravens (7) -- 11-4

BEARS (5) -- 7-8

Saints (5) -- 12-3

Steelers (5) -- 11-4

If these were the multiple-choice options on a standardized intelligence test, the Bears would be the house without the chimney. There's no doubt which of these does not belong with the others.

Five Bears players selected to Pro Bowl

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Although they won't have a chance to play in the Super Bowl, five Bears players have been selected to the Pro Bowl.

The selections are: LB Lance Briggs, RB Matt Forté, ST Corey Graham, CB Charles Tillman and LB Brian Urlacher. It's the most Pro Bowl selections for the Bears since eight players were named to the Pro Bowl following the 2006 season.

Devin Hester and Julius Peppers are first alternates.

It is the first Pro Bowl selection for Forte, Graham and Tillman. It is the seventh consecutive Pro Bowl nod for Briggs, and he joins Hall of Famers Dick Butkus (eight straight), Bill George (eight) and Mike Singletary (ten) most in a row.

Forté was selected to his first Pro Bowl and is the first Bears running back to be named to the Pro Bowl since Neal Anderson following the 1991 season. Prior to missing the last three contests with a knee injury, Forté led the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,487), ranked third in the league in rushing yards (997) and ranked fourth among all running backs with 490 yards receiving.

Graham was named to his first Pro Bowl and is the eighth Pro Bowl selection by a Bears special teams player under special teams coordinator Dave Toub.

Urlacher was selected to his eighth Pro Bowl.

Charles Tillman makes first Pro Bowl team

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Bears cornerback Charles Tillman has earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl, a league source confirmed.

Initially, former Bears defensive end Alex Brown posted on his Twitter account, "Congrats to my boy Peanut on making the Pro Bowl... Long over due... Great job."

Tillman has had one of his best seasons, and he distinguished himself by singling up Detroit Lions Pro Bowl receiver Calvin Johnson in a 37-13 victory on Nov. 13. In that game, Johnson -- the league's best receiver this season -- finished with seven catches for 81 yards with no touchdowns.

Tillman has 93 tackles this season, with three forced fumbles, two interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown, and 11 passes defended. He also earned his first sack of the season in last Sunday's loss to the Green Bay Packers.

Bears linebacker Lance Briggs posted on his Facebook page that he has also been selected to the Pro Bowl team.

The official announcement will be on the NFL Network tonight.

Bears place Jay Cutler and Matt Forte on IR

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Eliminated from playoff contention, the Bears placed quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte on the injured reserve today.

Both were inching closer to full recovery, with the hope of returning in the postseason. But the Bears have lost five games in a row after a 7-3 start, and they were officially eliminated from the postseason in Sunday's 35-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.

Cutler was scheduled to have pins removed from his fractured right hand, and he had already begun throwing the ball.

Forte, meanwhile, is recovering from a second-degree MCL tear in his left knee.

The Bears were wise to make this move, since there was no upside to playing them Sunday in the finale against the Minnesota Vikings. The Bears should absolutely try to win Sunday's game, to end the losing streak. But, they should do so without risking a setback to either of their best two offensive players.

Josh McCown could return to Bears in 2012

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Bears coach Lovie Smith was impressed enough with 32-year-old veteran Josh McCown that he would consider bringing him back in 2012.

McCown, who signed a one-year contract, completed 19 of 28 passes for 242 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.

"I think everything you do, you have to look at the performance, and the performance that Josh put in last night was impressive," Smith said. "That's why we can get so much done this week. We want to see him have an opportunity to come back and play again this coming week. But you normally can find a spot for a player who played the way he played last night."

The Bears have been officially eliminated from the postseason. But Smith said his plan is to field players who can win the finale against the Minnesota Vikings.

Asked about playing rookie Nathan Enderle, Smith said, "It's not a tryout period for us.

"We're gonna go with the quarterback that gives us the best opportunity to win, period, and that's Josh. So Nathan will have his time. He's a good quarterback for the future. But that future isn't now."

Smith said not trying to win Sunday's game wouldn't be fair to other players.

"Others may do it differently. But for us, [it would] be pretty hard to tell the rest of the guys, 'Hey we've got a tryout period going here. We don't really care if we win. We just want to see this guy play.' Nah, we won't do it that way," Smith said. "Every time we go out with the same purpose, and that's trying to win the football game. That's the approach we'll take this week."

Smith said Jay Cutler is getting pins removed from his right thumb Tuesday. But he suggested that Cutler wouldn't play Sunday.

"If they're healthy and ready to go, we won't tell them no. But there are some other guys we feel comfortable playing," Smith said, speaking of Cutler and running back Matt Forte. "They're making progress but if we had other things on the line, we would take the same approach. We would never stop a player that wanted to play who was healthy and really ready to go, but I don't know if that'll be the case."

Kahlil Bell says he wants to be a starter

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Never short on confidence, Bears running back Kahlil Bell isn't content being the backup to Matt Forte next season.

Asked if he's shown enough to be the No. 2 running back, Bell said, "I'm not interested in that.

"I never woke in the morning and said I'm going out there to be the No. 2 running back on any team that I've ever been on. My goal is to be a starter in this league, and that's what I'm shooting for. I'm not settling for anything less."

Bell, though, won't have a choice. He is a restricted free agent, which gives the Bears the opportunity to place a tender on him to at least get some draft pick compensation if he signs a contract elsewhere. But, the Bears also have the right to match any offer from an opponent.

Meanwhile, starter Matt Forte is an unrestricted free agent, but the Bears will likely use the franchise tag on him to prevent him from leaving. Veteran Marion Barber is under contract to the Bears.

Bell hasn't had anything handed to him, since he entered the league in 2009 as an undrafted free agent. He started with the Minnesota Vikings, but they released him that August. He's looking forward to proving the Vikings made a bad decision.

"For me, personally, it's trying to help our team get a win, get to .500, and get that bitter taste out of our mouth. It's another division game with Minnesota. Personally, I don't really like that team," he said. "I played up there for a short stint. It's not going to take much for me to be motivated for this game.

"Nobody likes to sit there and say they feel good about the team that let them go, but they obviously felt that I wasn't adequate enough to be a part of their organization, which is in my mind a blessing because I love it here in Chicago and I love being with the Bears. At the same time, hopefully, I can make some plays and show them otherwise."

Bell had 23 carries for 121 yards, as well as four catches for 38 yards. But, he did fumble the ball twice, although teammates recovered both.

"It was impressive what he did last night, to finally get your chance to be the guy, to be the man, and I thought he ran hard from start to finish," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "He does have to hold onto the ball, but he made excellent cuts in the open field, ran with power, caught the ball out of the backfield, everything you want a good running back in the NFL to do, he did, on a national stage. You have to feel good about what he did in his first time as the bell cow."

Zack Bowman has rough first start of the season

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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Bears cornerback Zack Bowman got his first start of the season.

But he probably isn't going to want remember much from the game.

He was beaten on three of the Green Bay Packers' five touchdown passes, including two to James Jones.

"Asked if he felt like he was picked on, Bowman said, "I mean, not really because they were dialing up plays.

"They know us and we know them," he said. "They obviously executed tonight. It's just how the cookie crumbles sometimes."

Bowman acknowledged that there were "some tough plays."

"But just because they're tough, and I was in position, I just have to find a way to make a play on the ball and get it out," he said.

The comment wasn't convincing.

Jordy Nelson scored a two-yard touchdown against him, and Jones scored from seven and two yards out. But one of his toughest plays was late in the third quarter, when he was flagged for pass interference on Nelson. Still, Nelson made the 25-yard catch.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers finished the game 21 of 29 for 283 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions.

"They have a great defense. They're very well coached. I have a lot of respect for coach [Lovie] Smith and coach [Rod] Marinelli and the job they've done," Rodgers said. "I've played them nine times as a starter, and it's always a difficult game and the mental chess match that goes on between Brian [Urlacher] and myself."

Urlacher gave Rodgers his props.

"I said it last year, too," Urlacher said, when asked if Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL. "He knows where to go with the football. He doesn't make mistakes. He runs well. They said they were banged up, up front. But I don't know how many sacks we had."

That would be none of Rodgers and only one of backup Matt Flynn.

As cornerback Charles Tillman said, the Bears defense didn't play winning football.

"Defensively, we had our struggles," he said. "We didn't play good, and when you play like that on defense, you deserve to lose."

Playoffs? Next year is here after 35-21 loss to Packers

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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Josh McCown threw only two interceptions. Kahlil Bell rushed for 121 yards and only fumbled once. But those silver linings to the dark cloud that couldn't be ignored Sunday night -- the Bears' 35-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, their fifth consecutive loss, eliminated them from playoff contention.

''If we play like that, that's what's going to happen,'' middle linebacker Brian Urlacher said. ''The last five weeks we haven't played well enough to win and we lost all five games. I'm not happy about where we're at. Our coaches aren't happy. But that's what we got. The season will be over next week. That's good.''

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, coming off a subpar game in a stunning loss to the Kansas City Chiefs that knocked the Packers (14-1) from the ranks of the unbeaten, solidified his MVP candidacy with a sterling performance. Rodgers was 21-of-29 for 283 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions and no sacks for a 142.7 rating.

Against the Chiefs, Rodgers threw back-to-back completions on the same drive only twice until late in the fourth quarter. But he was 8-for-8 on the Packers' opening drive against the Bears, driving the Packers 80 yards on nine plays for a 7-0 lead.

Devin Hester active, Marion Barber is not

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GREEN BAY -- Bears receiver Devin Hester, who didn't practice last week, is active for tonight's game against the Green Bay Packers.

Hester hasn't missed a game this season, but he talked to me about the fine line of playing through pain and missing time and healing. The story is here

He also told me Friday that he would do everything possible to play tonight.

"I want to give my son a Christmas touchdown ball, man," he said. "That's how bad I want it.

"I want to take one home."

The Bears need all the help they can get, with quarterback Jay Cutler, and running backs Matt Forte and Marion Barber inactive. The Bears other inactives are Levi Horn, Andre Smith and defensive tackle Anthony Adams.

Nate Enderle is the third quarterback, which means Caleb Hanie will back up Josh McCown. The Bears, of course, could play Enderle, if McCown falters or gets injured.

The Packers have several key players sidelined. They are offensive tackles Bryan Bulaga and Chad Clifton, defensive end Ryan Pickett and receiver Greg Jennings.

The top-10 Bears Hanukkah games of all-time

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A Bears game on Christmas is problematic even for Jewish Bears fans because there are usually aren't any televisions in Chinese Restaurants. Of course, this is only the second time the Bears have played on Christmas. They beat the Packers 24-17 at Lambeau Field in 2009. The Bears intercepted Brett Favre four times, including one that Lance Briggs returned 10 yards for a touchdown that gave the Bears a 24-7 lead in the third quarter. It was the beginning of a run of five victories in six games over Favre, who had tormented them for most of the previous decade.

And that glorious day was even sweeter for many of us because it not only was Christmas, but most of that game, which kicked off after 4 p.m. Central time, was played on first night of Hanukkah. It was the first time the Bears had beaten the Packers on Hanukkah since 1991. Not exactly 40 years in the desert, but it seemed like a generation to a lot of Bears fans.

In fact, while the Bears are 1-0 on Christmas, it is not as well known that they are 30-34-2 on Hanukkah. Three of their nine NFL titles were won on Hanukkah -- 1933, 1941 and 1943. The 1985 Super Bowl team is the only Bears team to win twice on the Festival of Lights, beating the Colts 17-10 and the Jets 19-6. In 1979, the Bears almost miraculously beat the St. Louis Cardinals 42-6 to edge the Redskins for the final NFC playoff spot. The following year they didn't make the playoffs, but still made it a great Hanukkah with a 61-7 rout of the Packers.

So in the spirit of two great traditions, here are the top 10 Bears games on Hanukkah:

Marion Barber and Devin Hester do not practice Friday

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Bears receiver Devin Hester isn't giving up on Sunday's game, even though coach Lovie Smith said it's "not looking real good."

"There's still hope. I got time," said Hester, who didn't practice this week.

He noted that the Bears don't play until Sunday night. But he said he doesn't know how much his ankle has improved just by walking. Instead, he'll have to test it in warm-ups at Lambeau Field.

Officially, he's listed as questionable, which means there's a 50-50 chance he plays. The Bears, though, ruled Jay Cutler and Matt Forte out for Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers and listed running back Marion Barber as doubtful.

Smith said he was "concerned" about Barber and Hester, which will test the depth of the team at running back, receiver and on special teams.

"Two key players for us. Have a little bit of time still before the game. But it's not looking real good," Smith said of Hester and Barber. "Besides that, we're in pretty good shape. We're excited to get the opportunity to play on Christmas night, when everyone will be watching."

Kahlil Bell will likely get the start, barring a miraculous recovery from Barber. But while Bell's played well, unheralded Notre Dame rookie running back Armando Allen will also get some chances to play.

"When you get an opportunity like this right here, it's exciting but, most important, it's all God's plan," Allen said. "It's definitely a blessing."

Asked about Allen, Smith said, "We like him, a lot.

"Had a chance to see him, primarily on our look squad. But what we've seen is a guy with a lot of quickness and speed. Bright eyed. Guys, just excited about this opportunity, when you haven't gotten a lot of time. You realize opportunities like this don't always come around, so you're just ready to make the most of it."

In fact, if Hester doesn't play, Allen may also be handling kickoffs. Earl Bennett will handle punts, if Hester cannot play.

Proud Bears defense trying to keep it together

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The Bears' defense is taking more than its share of the blame for the Bears' four-game losing streak that has put their playoff hopes on life-support. Their greatest culpability is that they've been good when they needed to be great.

In the previous four games against the Raiders, Chiefs, Broncos and Seahawks, the Bears' defense allowed a total of 26 points and 3.7 yards per play in the first half and that includes the fluke 38-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass by the Chiefs.

But with the offense unable to produce very many sustained drives, let alone scoring drives, the defense has eventually wilted in the second half. The Bears held the Broncos to 150 yards of total offense through three quarters, but allowed 195 in the fourth quarter and overtime in a 13-10 loss.

Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz was guilty of inflating Josh McCown's resume a little bit when he said McCown has ''got some playing experience and won some big games.''

McCown hasn't won too many big games and hasn't even been in that many. The teams he played on in Arizona in 2002-05 were 5-11, 4-12, 6-10 and 5-11. The Raiders team he started on in 2007 was 4-12.

His biggest victory was more of a personal one than anything. In the final week of the regular season in 2003, McCown threw two touchdown passes in the final 1:54 -- including a 28-yarder to Nathan Poole on fourth-and-25 as time expired -- to eliminate Mike Tice's Minnesota Vikings from playoff contention with an 18-17 victory.

Vet McCown taking business-like approach vs. Packers

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Josh McCown said he's not surprised to be starting for the Bears on Sunday, four weeks after he was coaching a high school football team in Charlotte, N.C. because ''I kind of believe God can do anything.''

It remains to be seen if He can give the Bears a backup quarterback who can win football games.

After the disastrous experience with Caleb Hanie, the Bears never officially announced that McCown would replace Hanie as the Bears' starting quarterback for Sunday night's game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. The ''announcement'' was McCown stepping to the lectern in the media room Wednesday for the weekly press conference with the starting quarterback.

''It's just another opportunity,'' said the 32-year-old McCown, who is 12-19 as a starter with Arizona (10-12 in 2003-04) and Oakland (2-7 in 2007). ''To be with this group of guys, especially a veteran ballclub on defense, it's a little different from that perspective because I don't know if I've played with a group that's played this well.

''So that part of it will make it different. Other than that, it's just another opportunity to come out and compete.''

Josh McCown will start for Bears against Packers

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The Bears are turning to newcomer Josh McCown in a last-ditch attempt to make the playoffs.

McCown, who had been coaching high school football in Charlotte, N.C. when he was signed by the Bears on Nov. 23, will start at quarterback Sunday against the Green Bay Packers in place of Caleb Hanie, who was 0-4 with a 41.8 passer rating in a disastrous stint as the Bears' starter after Jay Cutler suffered a broken thumb.

McCown, 32, was out of football since being cut by the 49ers prior to the start of the regular season. Until he replaced Hanie in a mop-up role against the Seahawks last week (1-for-2, 12 yards and an interception) he had not thrown a pass in a regular-season NFL game since the opening week of the 2009 season with Carolina. He relieved starter Jake Delhomme against the Eagles and was 1-for-6 for two yards before suffering a sprained knee.

Packers and Bears mix at Nike event Tuesday

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While the Packers and Bears were bundled up on the sidelines, Nike officials weren't complaining about the rainy and chilly conditions at Soldier Field.

It was, after all, the Hyperwarm Bowl, an event to showcase their latest innovations to provide warmth, breathability and protection. More than 100 local high school players got to test it out and meet Devin Hester and Earl Bennett of the Bears and Jordy Nelson and Ryan Grant of the Packers.

The NFL players cheered on players, and they provided inspiration to Chicagoland seniors.

Bennett even played catch with some of the participating athletes.

"We're showing off what Nike is doing and, at the same time, we're watching these kids have a lot of fun," Grant said. "Whenever it's with kids, I'm with it."

Hester said he hasn't had a chance to try out the new cold-weather gear, but he looks forward to trying it soon. A native of South Florida, he isn't a fan of the wintry conditions.

"Whatever keeps you warm," he said, "I'm going to try it out."

The Packers and Bears are set to play Sunday at Lambeau Field. But there were no hard feelings between the players Tuesday.

"We walked in the room, and they were looking at us crazy. But then one person started talking," Hester said. "It's a business on the field. But off the field, you got to be more social. You can't take what happens on the field and carry it off the field."

Bennett jokingly told Nelson, "It wouldn't hurt to run around and pull a hamstring today."

Although the Packers aren't undefeated anymore, Grant said the team has plenty to play for, so he doesn't see them becoming less aggressive.

"I don't see it, especially with what we're trying to do with home field advantage," he said. "I think we're going to keep it on. But, of course, that's [Mike McCarthy's] choice, and he makes that final decision. But with what we're trying to do as a team, I think we kind of keep that foot [on the pedal]."

Receivers talk about Josh McCown

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Bears receivers Earl Bennett and Devin Hester don't know who will start at quarterback Sunday in Green Bay.

But, according to ESPN Chicago, veteran Josh McCown will get his first start for the Bears, if he practices well this week. Caleb Hanie is winless in four starts since Jay Cutler fractured his thumb against the San Diego Chargers.

The Bears did have meetings Tuesday morning, but I haven't been able to independently confirm that information.

At Nike's Hyperwarm Bowl at Soldier Field Tuesday afternoon, Bennett and Hester provided some insight on McCown.

"You can tell he's comfortable with the offense. He's very vocal. I noticed that about him," Hester told me. "He shows leadership. He has that in him. He's very confident, and that's what you like in a quarterback. Other than that, it seems like he fits in with the offense."

Bennett said he plans to rally around whoever starts at quarterback.

"Give him some good targets, get open and make plays for him and help him out. No matter whose in there, we just got to rally behind him and get ready for this weekend," Bennett said. "It's going to be a big game, up in Green Bay, Christmas Day, everybody watching. Most important, we just got to win this game."

Asked about McCown specifically, Bennett said, "Josh is a competitor.

"He's real big on timing. So we definitely got to get our timing down this week with I'm and get ready to go from there."

Gabe Carimi prepares for another knee surgery

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After mulling his options, Bears rookie offensive tackle Gabe Carimi has elected to undergo another knee surgery to stabilize his right knee, according to league sources.

The surgery is expected to take place later this month.

The first round pick has had a difficult debut season. After showing promise in his first six NFL quarters, Carimi dislocated his kneecap against the New Orleans Saints. He tested himself during the team's bye, but he suffered a setback and underwent a scope.

Carimi obviously hoped not to need another surgery -- given his long history of knee injuries at Wisconsin -- but will have surgery soon and he's projected to need four months of rehabilitation before he can resume normal physical activities.

The first-round pick told the Sun-Times a few weeks ago that his knee issues were a "one year deal."

"I just hope it happens once in my career," Carimi said of being placed on injured reserve in November. "It's something I just got to get through."

Johnny Knox could be ready to go in three months

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Bears receiver Johnny Knox underwent surgery to stabilize the L1 vertebra in the lumbar region of his back and is projected to be ready for 2012 training camp, if not sooner, according to a league source.

The Bears wouldn't provide a timetable, but a league source said Knox could be healed in three months.

That meshes with insight from Dr. Neel Anand, a renowned spine surgeon who is the director of Orthopaedic Spine Surgery at the Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles.

"If it's an innocuous fracture, and all he needs is screws and rods, he could come back in three to six months," Anand said.

Some surgeries sideline an athlete for a year. But Anand said Knox having full movement is an encouraging sign.

"He should be OK by next season, even if it's a complete reconstruction," he said.

In the first quarter, as Knox was falling to recover his fumble, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Anthony Hargrove drilled him and pushed his back backward, the only direction it's not intended. He was placed on a flat board, loaded onto a motorized cart and transported, via an ambulance, to a local hospital. The team announced after the game that Knox had full movement in all his extremities and that he would have surgery Monday to stabilize a vertebra in his back.

Knox's surgery was performed by Dr. Srdjan Mirkovic, the Bears' spine consultant who works at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, among others.

The Bears announced that he was placed on injured reserve today.

Knox finishes the season as the Bears' leading receiver with 727 yards and ranked second with 37 receptions.

Hanie or McCown? Lovie leaves QB for Packers open

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Bears coach Lovie Smith would not commit to Caleb Hanie as his starting quarterback after Hanie threw three interceptions and had two of them returned for touchdowns in the Bears' 38-14 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.

''Who's going to be our quarterback?'' Smith said, repeating the question during his Monday press conference. ''Right now Caleb Hanie is our starting quarterback. He played yesterday. We felt we needed a boost, we needed to change the course a little bit yesterday. But we do that with all our players. None of those decisions have been made.

''With any of our positions, we evaluate the video, which we're doing right now. And come Wednesday, for you guys out there Wednesday, you'll have an idea then.''

Spine surgeon says Johnny Knox should be fine for 2012

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Spine surgeon Neel Anand didn't see Bears receiver Johnny Knox's gruesome injury.

But Anand was encouraged when he learned that Knox had full movement throughout his body.

"Neurologically, he's completely fine," said Anand, the director of Orthopaedic Spine Surgery at the Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles. "The only thing left is the nature of the stability."

In the first quarter, as Knox was falling to recover his fumble, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Anthony Hargrove drilled him and pushed his back backward, the only direction it's not intended. He was placed on a flat board, loaded onto a motorized cart and transported, via an ambulance, to a local hospital. The team announced after the game that Knox had full movement in all his extremities and that he would have surgery Monday to stabilize a vertebra in his back.

Anand said the most common -- based on that blow -- is the junction the thoracic and lumbar curvatures. The lowest vertebra in the thoracic section is T-12 and the highest in the lumbar area is L1.

Anand said the key then is to determine if its an "unstable or potentially unstable fracture."

Knox will undergo surgery in the Chicago area.

Doctors will have to determine whether to go through the front or the back and likely will use screws and rods to stabilize the vertebra.

"If it's an innocuous fracture, and all he needs is screws and rods, he could come back in three to six months," Anand said.

Some surgeries sideline an athlete for a year. But Anand said Knox having full movement is an encouraging sign.

"He should be OK by next season, even if it's a complete reconstruction," he said.

Anand declined to say who he's performed surgeries on.

Bears playoff hopes fade as Hanie falters again

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When they finally do the autopsy on the Bears' 2012 season, it won't take long to find the cause of death: Jay Cutler's broken thumb four week ago and Caleb Hanie's inability to simply steer the Bears to victory against medicore competition.

Hanie had another dreadful outing that put the blame squarely in the laps of all those who had a hand in making him the No. 2 quarterback behind Cutler. He was 10-for-23 for 111 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions -- two of which were returned for touchdowns.

''First off, we're disappointed in our team and how we played the last four weeks,'' coach Lovie Smith said when asked about Hanie's performance. ''Of course, Caleb is a large part of that. It's hard when you don't get more production form the quarterback position. And Caleb's been our guy -- great opportunity, but we haven't played as well as we need to.''

''I came out today and felt really confident,'' Hanie said. ''You just have to critique yourself not on did you win or did you lose, but what you're doing on every single play. When I feel like I'm getting better, I feel confident.''

Angelo: Hurd arrest 'ultimate selfish act' of betrayal

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Bears general manager Jerry Angelo reiterated his contention that "there was no way" the Bears could have known about a federal investigation of Sam Hurd that led to his arrest on drug charges this week and ripped Hurd for "the ultimate selfish act" of betrayal.

"Absolutely. Anybody would feel betrayed,'' Angelo told WBBM's Jeff Joniak on the Bears' pre-game show. ''We want loyalty. We give loyalty. It's a two-way street. He understands that. That's part of being a teammate. That' why makes this so upsetting. He knew what he was doing.''

Angelo said the Hurd arrest was shocking to everybody at Halas Hall because it came out of nowhere. ''This has been a model guy. He's out in the community. He's a great teammate, a good football player. There were absolutely no signs prior to us signing him and being here.

''He's been a model that way. That is what makes this dumbfounding and very very upset by it. It's the ultimate selfish act of a human being to affect the livelihoods and reputations of people [he works for and with].''

Bears will release Sam Hurd today

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Bears general manager Jerry Angelo announced that the club will release receiver Sam Hurd this afternoon.

Hurd will be subject to the NFL's waiver wire, which means other clubs can pick up the remainder of his contract.

Angelo insisted that the club had no suspicion of Hurd's alleged involvement as a drug dealer.

"For me to say we should have known something we didn't know, I can't say this. There's no foundation for anybody to say that," Angelo said. "No facts, no flags that anybody can present tangibly to say otherwise.

"I want to make that perfectly clear to the public and the fans. We did our homework. We do our due diligence. We did everything you could possibly do given the information we can allocate," he said. "Saying that, we go back, we ask questions, is there something we could have done, something we should have done in the process. Sometimes there are glitches. In this case there are none. I can sit here and tell you with total transparency that we did everything we could do in terms of our research and there was nothing we found that would create a flag or alert or real concern in Sam Hurd's case."

Johnny Knox to visit children in Engelwood Saturday

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Bears receiver Johnny Knox, through his charitable organization Opportunity Knox, wants to spread the joy of Christmas to children in Englewood, one of Chicago's most challenged neighborhoods.

Knox is teaming up with Joyce Meyer Ministries and Maranatha Church to visit with children and their families Saturday afternoon.

There will be prize giveaways and music, as well as hot drinks and appetizers.

A Gospel choir will also sign Christmas carols.

Knox is expected to be joined by other Bears players, including guard Lance Louis.

Families in attendance will receive non-perishable food care packs, grocery or restaurant and retail gift cards, toys and electronics.

"I'm excited to partner with such a great organization like Hand of Hope," Knox said in a statement. "We want to bless as many children in the Englewood community as possible."

Joyce Meyer Ministries is an international nonprofit organization that provides global humanitarian assistance.

Happy-go-lucky Sam Hurd was a card: a one-eyed Jack

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In his last interview before being arrested on federal drug charges, Bears wide receiver Sam Hurd gave no indication he was about to run afoul of the law.

Because Hurd knows all three wide receiver positions in the Mike Martz's offense, he was a "go-to" guy on anything involving the receivers, even though the special-teams standout was used sparingly on offense.

So with Earl Bennett struggling to connect with Caleb Hanie as he had with Jay Cutler, I asked Hurd if it was more difficult for an inexperienced quarterback to find a guy like Bennett, whose expertise is finding the cracks and seams in a defense rather than just beating his man off the line.

Marion Barber speaks -- and doesn't say much

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With Marion Barber facing a $10,000 fine for violating the NFL's media policy, the Bears finally convinced their reticent running back to address two reporters in a controlled setting at Halas Hall. Unfortunately, there's no NFL rule that can force him to acknowledge reality.

In an interview with Larry Mayer of the Bears' web site and Zach Zaidman of the Bears broadcast team, Barber refused to address any of the costly mistakes he committed that played a key role in losses to the Chiefs and Broncos that have crippled the Bears' playoff hopes.

Here is the transcript as provided by the Chicago Bears:

Q. How tough was last game?

A. "I'm looking forward to this week. Practice yesterday, guys are really excited about this next week, and that's really what it's all about."
 
Q. You ran for 108 yards but made two costly mistakes late; your thoughts on last week's game?

A. "My thoughts on it is getting to this next week and just preparing as much as I can to be ready for this game of course."

Sam Hurd arrested on federal drug charges

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Former Northern Illinois and current Bears receiver Sam Hurd was arrested Thursday night on federal drug charges, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Hurd told an undercover agent last night that he wanted five to 10 kilograms of cocaine and a half ton of marijuana a week "for distribution in the Chicago area."

The news of the arrest was first reported by the Dallas Morning News.

"We are aware of Sam's arrest and are continuing to gather details surrounding it," the Bears said in a statement. " We are disappointed whenever these circumstances arise. We will deal with them appropriately once we have all the information."

Hurd first came on Homeland Security's radar in July, when an associate driving his vehicle -- which included $88,000 in cash -- was pulled over in a routine traffic stop.

Hurd agreed to terms with the Bears to a three-year, $5.1 million contract on July 29th, according to the team's official transaction report. But, on July 27, Hurd was going to transport the cocaine "to a northern destination" that same day," according to the Homeland Security report.

Bears players reported for training camp in Bourbonnais on the 29th and practiced on the 30th.

Hurd met with an undercover Homeland Security agent at a restaurant on W. Bryn Mawr Ave at 7:40 last night. He told the undercover agent he wanted to purchase 5-10 kilograms of cocaine & 1,000 pounds of marijuana a week to distribute in Chicago because the four kilograms he was currently distributing with a co-conspirator wasn't enough.

Hurd then accepted a kilogram of cocaine from the undercover agent, placed it in his vehicle, and then was subsquently arrested.

The report says that Hurd faces 21 violations and that the defendant "knowingly, intentionally, and unlawfully combine, conspire, confederate and agree together and with other persons known and unknown, to possess and distribute 500 grams or more of a mixture or substance containing detectable amounts of cocaine."

Barber faces NFL fine after avoiding media again

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Bears running back Marion Barber refuses to talk to the media whether he runs for 108 yards and a touchdown or inexplicably runs out of bounds and fumbles. But his reticence to talk after doing both in the Bears' 13-10 overtime loss to the Denver Broncos is going to cost him.

Barber is expected to be fined by the NFL for violating the league's media policy after he declined interviews again after practice Wednesday at the Payton Center, the Bears' indoor practice facility.

Barber has rarely spoken to the media going back to his days at the University of Minnesota. Supposedly it's just because he's shy. Regardless, the NFL has a policy that requires players to be available to the media. And the NFL already had warned the Bears that Barber would be fined if he continues to violate the policy.

''There are things in place for that. That's the least of my concerns '' Bears coach Lovie Smith predictably said when asked if Barber should talk to the media. ''I assume most of our guys answer when they're supposed to and meet with you guys. But I've got other things on my mind instead of that.''

Caleb Hanie: "The wins are tough to come by"

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Winless in three starts, Caleb Hanie has learned an obvious bout hard truth about starting as an NFL quarterback.

"That wins are tough to come by. They don't hand them out," Hanie said. "The plays that are out there, they have to be made. There's no excuses for... I mean there are excuses you can make, but that's all they are are excuses.

"They don't get the job done."

Hanie said he thought the Bears played well enough to win Sunday's game in Denver.

"You just gotta finish games. As a team we have to finish what we started," he said. "We played them tough for almost the whole game until the very end.

"It was a tough loss, but we'll bounce back. There's a lot of character in this locker room and on the coaching staff. So no doubt in my mind we'll bounce back strong this week."

It may or may not be too late.

The Bears have fallen behind the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions -- both 8-5 -- and they no longer control their own playoff destiny. Still, they can't accomplish anything, unless they defend their home turf against the Seattle Seahawks Sunday.

Here are some other highlights from Hanie's presser:

* On if he talked to Marion Barber: "I think it's important. The guys are gonna listen to what the quarterback has to say. I feel as though if the quarterback's not giving the guys the encouragement as well as the praise when it's needed, then guys are not going to follow you as much. It was something I felt like I needed to do. Marion's a professional. So I'm sure he doesn't need it and at the time he probably didn't want to hear it. He probably just wanted to think to himself at that moment. But you just gotta do what you gotta do sometimes. It might help him in the long run -- hopefully."

Lovie Smith: "We're on the outside looking in"

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Ever optimistic Bears coach Lovie Smith accepted his team's reality today at his press conference.

"At 7-6, we're on the outside looking in," he said. "You lose three games in a row this time of the year, you're normally not in a great position. But we are in position still and that's what we have to keep in mind."

The Bears needed to be beat the Kansas City Chiefs or the Denver Broncos over the last two weeks. And after the number the Green Bay Packers did on the Oakland Raiders, it makes the Bears' 25-20 loss three weeks ago look even rose.

Now comes the Seattle Seahawks, a 5-7 team that's won three of the last five.

"We've got to get a win. This Seattle game was important game no matter what happened yesterday, but of course it's just that much more... a situation where we have to get a win," Smith said.

Here are other highlights from Smith's presser:

On game plan: "Yesterday we had our opportunities. I thought our game plan going in -- ball control, rushing over 30 times, keep the game close. Getting to the fourth quarter with the lead, that's the position you want to be in on the road. But you have to finish strong, always it comes down to how you finish the football game. Three quarters we executed the game plan well, but right at the end we just didn't get it done. And we all had something to do and could have had something to say about the outcome. And in situations like this you tend to look at a couple of plays here and there, but it was a lot bigger than that. All three phases had an opportunity to make a play there late in the game."

* On his defense: "I thought we played the option well; played the run well, kept their running backs down. But Tebow scrambling around hurt us early and really late. That fourth quarter, he really got it going and completed some passes to keep them going. But we had our chances. The breaks kind of went against us this week."

Barber miscues turn victory into defeat for Bears

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Tim Tebow thanked his savior Sunday.

Marion Barber?

No offense to Tebow's spiritual beliefs, but Barber had more to do with Tebow's latest uncanny victory than anybody or anything -- mythical, mystical or otherwise.

Barber rushed for 108 yards on 27 carries, including a nine-yard touchdown and was inches away from becoming a hero for the Bears, until fate mysteriously moved its huge hands in favor of Tebow and the Broncos:

DENVER -- Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow led his team to a sixth consecutive victory, four straight in fourth quarter -- and now overtime.

One could argue the defense -- which has limited four of the last five opponents to 13 or fewer points points -- that the defense has played a huge part in the Broncos' run.

But the Broncos couldn't have won 13-10 in overtime Sunday without Tebow's clutch play.

After going just three of 16 in the first three quarters for 45 yards, Tebow was 18 of 24 for 191 yards and one touchdown in the fourth and overtime.

The Bears weren't impressed.

"Nobody had panic in their eyes, thinking, 'It's Tebow Time,' " Bears cornerback D.J. Moore said of the Broncos' fourth-quarter rally. "Nothing like that."

On the Broncos' touchdown drive, though, Tebow was seven-for-seven for 63 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown to Demaryius Thomas.

"It's not really what he's doing," Bears cornerback Tim Jennings said of Tebow. "He's making the best of it, but that's what any professional does, so I'm not really sold on it.

"We - and other teams - have to find a way to put the foot on the throat and finish games."

Asked what he thinks of Tebow, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said, "He's a good running back.

"He does a good job for them. They have a good offense with him back there. They do some different plays. I thought we did a good job, overall."

Israel Idonije, who had a strong game, was speechless afterwards.

"I'm just like, 'Wow.' But what's happened has happened," Idonije said.

The Bears were in excellent shape, with about nine minutes remaining, when Bears safety Craig Steltz sacked and forced a fumble of Tebow, which Idonije recovered at the Bears' 45.

But the offense mustered just five yards on three runs, and they punted the ball to the Broncos. The Bears offense also went three-and-out on the next two series. Remarkably, they possessed the ball just four minutes and 22 seconds. In the fourth quarter, the Bears mustered just 18 yards of offense, all of them on runs.

Asked about needing one more first down, Bears coach Lovie Smith said, "Well, we were trying to get that first down.

"One play we talked about after the game was holding onto the ball. I still like the plan that we had."

Josh McCown will back up Caleb Hanie vs. Broncos

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Veteran Josh McCown will back up Caleb Hanie as the Beasr' No. 2 quarterback against the Denver Broncos today at Mile High Stadium.

McCown was signed after Jay Cutler suffered a broken thumb against the San Diego Chargers on Nov. 20. But rookie Nathan Enderle was the backup to Caleb Hanie against the Raiders and Chiefs while McCown, who had not played in the NFL this season, became acclimated himself to the Bears' offense.

McCown began taking more snaps as the No. 2 quarterback this week, but downplayed the possibility of replacing Enderle as the backup for Hanie. Not surprisingly, McCown is the No. 2 quarterback.

General manager Jerry Angelo said the Bears search for a veteran backup was concentrated on quarterbacks who had played in Mike Martz's offense.

"Given where we were, with five games left, we wanted to get somebody who had familiarity," Angelo told the Sun-Times. "We're training a new quarterback in Caleb [Hanie]. You know there are going to be some nuances to that, and adjusting to him."

So while Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb were the most prominent names out there, the Bears instead reached out to those who had played for Martz before.

Shortly after starter Jay Cutler suffered a fractured thumb in his right hand, the Bears evaluated their quarterback options. Hanie, of course, was handed the starting job, but the club wanted a veteran so they didn't have to turn to rookie Nathan Enderle.

"We wanted to minimize every speed bump," Angelo said.

The reality is, because Hanie got so few snaps behind Cutler, Martz wasn't going to have time to work with a player unfamiliar with his scheme. So Hanie would have to take every possible snap and whoever would back him up wouldn't get any, thus the focus on veterans who had played for Martz before.

They reached out to J.T. O'Sullivan, Josh McCown and Marc Bulger, who reiterated that he's happily retired.

The Bears then signed McCown. Today, against the Denver Broncos, he'll be the back up to Hanie. He was the third quarterback the previous two games.

Jerry Angelo sas he's not mulling retirement

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Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said he's not considering retirement, although an NFL Network report said that there is "persistent chatter" that this could be his last season.

"I've not talked to anybody about retirement," Angelo told the Sun-Times before today's game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. "It's business as usual. I'm not thinking about retirement.

"When that day eventually comes, like it comes for all of us, hopefully I'll be in a position where I can determine when my time is. But, that will come from me, and no one else, or a rumor mill broadcast."

Angelo is under contract through the 2013 season, and he said his mindset is to fulfill those terms.

"As long as I feel good about what I'm doing and feel good, I'm going to continue do it," he said. "It's no more than that. I've been in football a long time, so I understand where people might pick up the idea."

More specifically, Angelo confirmed he plans to return for 2012.

"I feel good, going forward," Angelo said.

NFL Network Insider Jason LaCanfora cited "multiple general managers and executives from other teams" as the basis of his report this morning.

LaCanfora was initially asked about the future of Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who has a contract that expires after this season.

"His head very much is trying to get the Bears in the playoffs," LaCanfora said on NFL GameDay Morning. "If the Bears were to come at with something more lucrative or something that maybe made more sense for his future, that's one thing. But obviously this is a two-way street. He's been asked questions about this and it's not something he wants to get into now, but it has come to light.

"The reality is if the right college head coaching position is out there, maybe that makes sense and maybe even another coordinating position," LaCanfora said.

Then, LaCanfora talked about "instability" of the Bears front office and highlighted Angelo possibly retiring.

Willis McGahee, ranked 10th in the NFL in rushing yards, has plenty of respect for the Bears linebackers, namely Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher.

"They're fast to the ball," he said, "and they're not showing a step like they're old."

So how does the Bears linebacker group stack up against other units he's faced?

"I played some good linebackers this season," McGahee said, "but not like [that group]."

Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow said he's excited to play the Bears defense, given the stars in the unit.

"It feels like I've been watching them for years, that same defense, that same scheme," Tebow said. "It will be exciting playing against Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman and Julius Peppers, some of the best guys for the last decade," Tebow said. "They're a great defense, and they've got some of the best players at certain positions in the whole game; so it will be fun."

The Bears defense is ranked 20th overall and eighth against the run. The Broncos offense is 25th overall, but they are ranked No. 1 running the ball, thanks in large part to Tebow.

McGahee, though, has 182 carries for 886 yards, averaging just under five yards a carry.

Willis McGahee expected to play

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DENVER -- Broncos coach John Fox ruled running back Willis McGahee as questionable for Sunday's game against the Bears.

But McGahee is expected to play. Receiver Eddie Royal (concussion) is also questionable, but he likely won't play.

Royal only has 18 catches for 153 yards and one touchdown this season.

Meanwhile, rookie linebacker Von Miller, who didn't play last Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, is probable to play against the Bears. He leads the Broncos with 10 1/2 sacks

DENVER -- There are no hard feelings in the Broncos locker room toward former quarterback Jay Cutler.

Maybe that's because the Broncos are 7-5, and their future looks brighter with the departure of Josh McDaniels and the arrival of former Carolina Panthers head coach John Fox. But as is often the case, the players are focused on the here and now.

But Sandy Clough, a popular personality for 104.3 The Fan said Bronco fans have a certain expectation of their starting quarterback -- and many have fallen short, including Cutler.

"There's a certain bit of acting that a quarterback in Denver has to do, even if you aren't sincere about it," Clough said, "and Cutler seemed to revel in not cooperating and playing the part."

Clough also said recent quarterbacks like Kyle Orton and Jake Plummer also struggled with that requirement.

When the trade was executed, Clough estimated that Bronco fans were split 50-50 on it.

"Cutler's public image, off the field, wasn't very good," Clough said. "But those of us - and I was certainly one - who was a fan of his talent, defended him.

"In some ways, it was a fun debate to have, because the talent was unmistakable but so was some of the reaction to the off the field behavior."

But any anxiety disappeared, after Josh McDaniels -- the coach who soured the organization's relationship with Cutler and engineered the trade -- was fired after a 3-9 start.

Urlacher, Briggs unfazed by Tebow challenge

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Brian Urlacher and the Bears have an intriguing solution to the challenge of defending Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos' option-oriented offense Sunday in Denver: football.

''We just have to be gap-sound and run to the football and we should be OK,'' Urlacher said. ''We have rules for every offense that we play that stay true all season. Carolina ran a similar offense, every once in a while they'd run some option, so it's not a lot of adjusting for us.''

Neither Urlacher nor Lance Briggs seemed fazed by the prospect of facing the seemingly unique dimension that Tebow brings to the Broncos offense.

''You have to be disciplined, but we have the guys that can do that,'' Briggs said. ''It's not rocket science.''

Confident Hanie unfazed by subpar game vs. Chiefs

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Whether or not Caleb Hanie feels the heat, the dynamic has changed after his second NFL start.

Hanie was given a virtual mulligan after throwing three interceptions against the Raiders on Nov. 27. It was a road game, his first NFL start and he played well in the second half.

But after throwing three more interceptions against the Chiefs last week and losing a game at home that should have been won, he's already in a position where he has to be better this week against the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium.

''Oh, no doubt about it,'' Hanie said Wednesday at Halas Hall. ''There's definitely a huge sense of urgency and no choices but to go get a win right here. Denver's got a good team, so we've just got to go out and execute a lot better and fix our mistakes and make the plays when they're available.''

Tebow: 'I'm human just like everybody else'

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Asked about the Denver Broncos' surprising turnaround, quarterback Tim Tebow gave praise to a higher authority: coach John Fox.

''Every week he always brings something new to our team meetings and a new outlook, just in his speeches,'' Tebow told Chicago-area reporters via teleconference Wednesday. ''He's always encouraging guys, and he's just upbeat, very positive, and players feed off of him.

''It's been kind of a feel of just do your job and count on the person next to you doing his job, and believe in everybody, be resilient and keep fighting. We want to start fast but we want finish faster. He's just been very positive and I think guys have really responded well.''

Mike Tice looks for bounce back game from his unit

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The question and the answer were simple.

Reporter: "Will you ask more from your line this week?"

Bears offensive line coach Mike Tice: "I ask more from my line every week.

"They've been playing above their heads. I think they've been doing a great job. We had unfortunate circumstance with one of our players who didn't play up to the way he had been playing."

Tice then went on to describe Lance Louis, who was thrust into the starting lineup at right tackle and "who has been holding the fort pretty good."

"I'm not down on him," Tice said of Louis. "He's down on himself, a little bit right now. I don't think he should be. We could have helped him as a staff, a little more, and we will, moving forward. He's got to bounce back, and we all got to bounce back."

Louis did have a rough game, which Tice said overshadowed the play of others.

"We had a lot of guys play good in that game. It kind of gets overshadowed by the numbers," Tice said. "Everyone is hung up on the f-ing numbers all the time. Seven sacks.

"But I'm not. You can't be. So we just have to bounce back. It's unfortunate, but we have to bounce back. It's a long season, and we have a game this week. And we got to move on."


Jay Cutler tells ESPN 1000 about his thumb surgery

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Bears quarterback Jay Cutler opened up about the surgery and progress of his his right thumb, during an appearance on ESPN 1000's Waddle & Silvy show.

He told the two hosts that he had the stitches taken out today and that "everything is on track."

"Now it's a matter of letting that bone heal. Maybe taking the pins out," Cutler said. "Time's not really on our side right now, but that's all we can really do."

Cutler also told the pair that he gripped a sterilized football during the surgery, to ensure the proper placement of the screws and pins.

"I've got a picture of it," Cutler said. "I'm being very serious.

"[Dr. Randy Viola] made sure my grip was where I liked it, and I would have some freedom and flexibility."

Cutler said the Bears had their "own guys" in mind to perform the surgery on his right thumb. But after consulting numerous doctors around the country, he picked Viola, who is based in Colorado.

"Dr. Viola is who I chose to go with him, and if I had to do it again, I'd go right back to him," Cutler said.

Cutler added that he's doing some "grip stuff" and working on his flexibility and mobility. He hopes to begin throwing in the "next couple of weeks, hopefully."

Here are other highlights from his interview:

* On if he was surprised by the 10-3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs: "It's a tough game. You go back and look at film, and you're like, 'Gosh, we could have had 30, 40 points.' It's just certain things happen. Some interceptions here. Some missed opportunities. Some sacks. I've been in those type of games. Unfortunately, we weren't able to pull it out."

* On the team's approach to the Denver Broncos game: "I think guys are getting really focused this week. There wasn't a lot of talk. Guys know what we have to do. It's December football. It's time to stop messing around. We have to win games to keep our playoff hopes alive and keep our season alive."

* On his advice to Caleb Hanie: "Just relax. Quit thinking as much. Just go out there and let it happen.
He wants to be successful. He's doing everything right, during the week. He's doing extra film. Asking questions. He's going the extra mile. He's just got to let it happen."

Meet Kahlil Bell

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With Matt Forte out for Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos, third-string running back Kahlil Bell is sure to get some opportunities to make plays.

Backup Marion Barber rarely does interviews, but Bell is a well-spoken and likeable young player with plenty of quiet confidence.

Here are some comments from him today:

* On if he can catch the ball? "To replace a player like Matt is going to be tough to do because he's had a great year so far and he's going to come back strong. I'm confident in my abilities to play the game. I feel like I can catch the ball. If they need me to do that, I'm going to do that to the best of my abilities and let God take care of the rest. I'm not going to try to be anybody else that I'm not."

* On comfort level with Caleb Hanie: "We get a lot of reps together on the scout team so I think that's a good thing for us, because we have pretty good chemistry. I always joke to him, 'Just throw me the ball and I'll make the play.' But sometimes it'll come down to that for the receivers or the running backs. If he feels comfortable enough to drop off the ball to me, then I need to be able to try to make the play to help our team."

Jerry Angelo: Confident in Hanie; Favre a 'fantasy'

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Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said Caleb Hanie ''has to take the brunt'' of the responsibility for his three-interception performance in a 10-3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last week, but cautiously expressed confidence in his fourth-year quarterback.

''I'm confident in the fact that I know Caleb has the makeup we need to win,'' Angelo said in an exclusive interview with Larry Mayer of the Bears' web site, chicagobears.com. ''But he's got to go out and perform to his abilities and take care of business.''

Angelo echoed the sentiment of coach Lovie Smith that Hanie also needs better support than he received against the Chiefs.

''The players around him have to do [play better],'' Angelo said. ''It's not a one-man show. Everyone has to do their job. They don't have to do any more than that, just do your job. Unfortunately, we had too many miscues -- mental and physical -- that created issues in terms of being able to get the job done.''

Bears running back Matt Forte refused to provide a timetable for his return from a second-degree MCL tear in his right knee, but he also insisted that he isn't going to milk the injury to punish the team because of his contract situation.

"I think people just assume what they would do, and ask if I would do that," Forte told the Sun-Times Tuesday at a promotional event at the PINK store at Water Tower in downtown Chicago. "I'm not saying I'm holding out, but I'm also not saying I'm going to try to go out there tomorrow and try to run.

"I can't really rush anything," said Forte, who suffered the injury in Sunday's 10-3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. "I'm going to wait until everything is healed up before I get back out there."

Forte, though, did get on Tuesday morning a platelet rich plasma injection, which often speeds healing, sometimes a full week. And while he wants to return to rejoin his team, he did note that he learned a lesson about playing through injuries in 2009, when he started all 16 games despite several injuries, including an MCL sprain. That knee MCL injury wasn't as serious, he said.

"I'm just treating it, just like any other injury. I'm going to wait until I get 100 percent out there, because I don't want to hurt myself," he said. "And me not being a 100 percent, I'm going to hurt he team as well, because I cant do what I'm supposed to do."

Asked about Bears coach Lovie Smith expressing optimism that he could return this season, Forte said, "I have no idea.

"I don't want to make any predictions, because I don't know either. I think he was maybe being hopeful, because he's the coach."

Forte leads the NFL with 1,487 yards from scrimmage and he's third with 997 rushing yards.
In the first quarter of Sunday's game, Forte was drilled in his right knee by Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson. Forte was tended to on the field, before walking to the sideline on his own.

"I wasn't scared, but it hurt. I was trying to let the pain subside. But, after that, I knew it was inside, and I didn't really feel like it was anything major," Forte said. "I was just hoping I didn't need surgery, or anything like that."

He said trainers and doctors noticed looseness during an evaluation on the sideline, but they weren't alarmed that it was a significant knee injury. Their inclination was confirmed in the locker room, where Forte underwent further tests.

Still, he wasn't completely at ease until his MRI Monday morning.

"I was very relived, because nobody wants to have surgery, especially at running back," he said. "You need those knees to run and make moves and stuff."

While he did get the PRP injection, Forte didn't want to pin a target date for his return.
"They're all different," he said. "Some guys are 2-4 weeks. Some guys are 6. It depends on how it heals, and how the swelling goes down. The PRP should help it out."

Bears start preparations for Tim Tebow

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After a 1-4 start, the Denver Broncos have salvaged their season and are actually atop the AFC West.

By leading the Broncos to a 35-32 win in Minneapolis, Tim Tebow is now 6-1 as a starter, including five straight wins.

He's unconventional in that he's more of a runner than a passer, but Tebow has proven clutch and effective, especially late in games.

Asked about the Broncos unconventional offense, Bears coach Lovie Smith said his team will be ready.

"This is option football. Our defense is based on sound, option principles, but we don't have to have all of our option responsibilities ironed out each week," Smith said. "So this is forcing a lot of teams in the league to be sound in all of those things. But our defense is set up to play this type of offense."

Specifically, Smith called Tebow "a unique athlete."

"He poses a lot of different problems," Smith said. "We're just starting to evaluate him and look at what they're doing right now. There will be some challenges, with this offense."

Lovie Smith: "We have our quarterbacks here now"

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After another abysmal start by Caleb Hanie, Bears coach Lovie Smith still backed his current trio of quarterbacks with starter Jay Cutler recovering from thumb surgery.

Namely, Chicago native Donovan McNabb is the most high-profile free-agent available, but Smith made clear his answers are already at Halas Hall. Currently backing up Hanie is rookie Nate Enderle, followed by veteran Josh McCown.

"That's our group. We're going to make improvements with our group, like all positions," Smith said. "We're not looking on the outside. We're not having a quarterback tryout or anything like that.

"These are our guys and they're all going to get better."

Smith also made clear that Hanie remains the starter and that the backups won't get increased snaps, as the Kansas City Chiefs did last week with Tyler Palko and Kyle Orton.

"Caleb's our quarterback," Smith said, "and he, like the rest of or team, didn't play well yesterday. But give us a little bit of time," Smith said. "There's this week -- hopefully we'll see some improvements this week, for our football team."

In his first NFL start, against the Oakland Raiders, Hanie posted a rating of 56.9, tossing two touchdowns and three interceptions. In his second start, though, Hanie was even worse, tossing three interceptions with no touchdowns. He also completed just 45 percent of his passes.

His passer rating was. 23.8.

"Caleb can run our offense," Smith said. "We had opportunities yesterday. We need to hit a couple of routes. But we had our chances yesterday."

During an appearance on ESPN's Mike and Mike radio program, Bears receiver Devin Hester said it would be a "waste of time" to bring in a quarterback who isn't familiar with Mike Martz's offense.

"It's one of the more difficult offense to run," Hester said on the show. "So to get a quarterback that hasn't been in that offense, right now it's going to be a waste of time. I guess we'll stick with the guys we have right now and hope we get better with those guys."

Forte has sprained MCL, expected back this season

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Bears coach Lovie Smith said he expects Matt Forte to return this season despite suffering a sprained MCL in his right knee in the Bears' 10-3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday at Soldier Field.

''Can't tell you exactly when or whether it's this week or next week or whatever, but hopefully we'll get him back soon,'' Smith said at his Monday press conference at Halas Hall. We're still evaluating him. He looked pretty good this morning. But it is an MCL sprain. He didn't finish the game, so there is concern.''

It remains to be seen how eager Forte will push the issue of a quick return, considering he will be a free agent this season after turning down an offer from the Bears that reportedly would be worth $14 million in guaranteed money.

''I don't think that'll come into play at all,'' Smith said. ''I think all players in the NFL will try to do whatever they can to help their team win. We will not play a player that's injured and once you have a healthy player, I think they're all ready to go. And I know that's the case with Matt Forte. He can't wait to get back on the football field to help his team win.''

Matt Forte has Grade II MCL tear in right knee

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Bears running back Matt Forte received some positive news Monday morning.

An MRI confirmed that he had an MCL tear in his right knee and that he didn't suffer any additional damage, according to a league source. The MRI also revealed that it is a Grade II MCL tear.

That's the same grade as Jay Cutler, who left the NFC title game with an MCL tear.

The injury means there is pain and tenderness and possibly some swelling. The general timetable for that would be two weeks on the low end and four weeks on the high end.

That means, at best, Forte could be available Dec. 25 against the Green Bay Packers.

But as S-T columnist Rick Morrissey pointed out in his column today will Forte want to rush back?

Forte is believed to be strongly considering a platelet rich plasma injection, which can accelerate healing by a week. It can be a single injection or a series, but they don't always work. The injection usually takes place within 48 to 72 hours of the injury, said Dr. Daniel Kharrazi, a surgeon at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles.

He added that it usually takes a week for the injection to kick in.

While not always a sure-fire bet, Dr. Kharrazi said it is often effective with MCL sprains.

Is it time to panic after Bears' ugly loss to Chiefs?

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As The Daily Show's Jon Stewart would say, 'Did not see that coming.'

The Bears' 10-3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday at Soldier Field was arguably the most perplexing loss in the Lovie Smith era. Even without quarterback Jay Cutler, the Bears were nine-point favorites and at home. Except for a 31-13 loss to the Miami Dolphins as 13-point favorites in 2006 -- when the Bears were 7-0 and the Dolphins were 1-6 -- you have to go back to the end of the Ditka era to find a game where the Bears lost as bigger favorites.

Matt Forte appears to have low-grade MCL sprain

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Bears running Matt Forte left Soldier Field without crutches and a brace.

A knee surgeon who works with the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Dodgers said that's a very encouraging sign for Forte and the Bears.

"When you have a valgus injury, where your knee goes inward, you are concerned about the MCL and the ACL," said Dr. Daniel Kharrazi, a surgeon at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles who serves as a knee consultant with the Lakers, Dodgers and several other professional sports teams. "If all he has is an isolated MCL, he's pretty lucky."

From his home in Los Angeles, Dr. Kharrazi watched the jarring hit in the first quarter, when Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson drilled Forte squarely on his right knee with his left shoulder.

In 2009, Forte played through an MCL sprain, a reinforcement of his toughness. But this could be a different injury, the extent of which won't be fully known until doctors see the MRI results. One of the keys will be determining how much inflammation there is.

"The bottom line is, the MRI will determine the grade of the injury and, on average, how much time it will take for that to heal," Kharrazi said.

As he left the stadium, Forte said, "I'll be fine."

He'll undergo an MRI today, but the Sun-Times first reported that the expectation is that Forte suffered a medial collateral ligament sprain on his right knee.

"We just have to keep our fingers crossed," Bears coach Lovie Smith said, "and hopefully it's not that serious."

Some MRI sprains, though, could even take six to eight weeks, depending on other issues, Kharrazi said.

With a 7-5 record, though, the Bears can ill afford to lose Forte at all.

After a dominant performance against the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football, Forte has been the focal point of opposing defenses, oftentimes with a safety called upon to help slow him down.

In the three games before Sunday, Forte averaged 60 rushing yards and 18 receiving yards per game. When he left the game against the Chiefs, Forte had five carries for 12 yards.

Bears tight end Matt Spaeth lamented that he didn't block Johnson well enough on that fateful play.

"I felt horrible. He made a good play," Spaeth said of Johnson. "I missed him. I was coming around, tried hookin' him to get Matt outside, which we were supposed to do.

"But they were kind of all day jumping underneath and submarining and diving and different things all day. I don't think anybody feels worse about the Matt Forte injury than me because it was my guy."

Matt Forte believed to have an MCL sprain

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Bears running back Matt Forte is believed to have suffered an MCL sprain in his right knee, according to a league source.

Forte, though, will require further testing for he and the Bears to have a full handle on the severity of his knee injury.

He suffered the injury in the first quarter, when Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson drilled him in the right knee. He was tended to on the field, and he walked off under his own power, with a slight limp.

The Bears made re-signing Forte to a contract extension its top priority. But the club and the players were unable to come to terms on a long-term deal.

Forte had 985 rushing yards, entering the game, and he was a candidate for MVP, based on his total yards from scrimmage. He had five carries for 12 yards Sunday, before leaving the game in the first quarter.

Bears running back Matt Forte has been ruled out for the game, after suffering a knee injury in the first quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Forte was drilled in the right knee by Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson on a run for no gain. After being tended to on the field for several minutes, Forte walked off the field, under his own power, with a slight limp. Forte was then evaluated on a training table on the sideline by medical officials. Minutes later, it was announced that Forte was ruled out for the remainder of the game.

Forte had five carries for 12 yards.

Bears-Chiefs: The Week In Preview

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It was an unusually eventful week at Halas Hall leading up to a rather perfunctory game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday at Soldier Field. Here's a capsule review of what happened:

1. Jay Cutler says he might be out for the season.

''I've got to be smart about it,'' Cutler told the media Wednesday. ''I want to play next weekend if they'd let me, but I don't think that's going to be in the cards. It could be that I'm done for the season. I don't know. I just have to be smart about it. I have to realize there is a long-term picture. And at the same time I want to be out there and my teammates want me to be out there.''

That the Bears have avoided providing the details of Cutler's broken thumb has blurred a distinction that could have a monumental impact on their season: If Caleb Hanie only has to get the Bears into the playoffs, it's all good, or should be. If it's Hanie-or-bust in the postseason, that changes things.

Lovie: Not interested in acquiring Donovan McNabb

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Coach Lovie Smith indicated he has no interest in acquiring quarterback Donovan McNabb, who was waived by the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday.

''I like our quarterbacks we have here right now,'' Smith said when asked if he was intrigued by the availability of McNabb.

He reiterated his position when he was asked if he expected the Bears to put in a claim for the former Eagles star, who prepped at Mount Carmel High School on the South Side.

''I like our quarterbacks we have right now,'' he repeated. ''I'm not going to start talking about guys from the outside. That should be enough for you. We have three quarterbacks here. We like them. We're anxious to play Kansas City this week.''

The Bears have retained one of its key players before he became a free agent, signing Earl Bennett to a four-year, $18 million contract that includes $9 million in guarantees.

Bennett has just 18 catches this season. But the Bears admire what the former third-round pick brings to the table, in terms of his attitude, his toughness and his obvious chemistry with former Vanderbilt teammate Jay Cutler. He is also one of the better slot receivers in the league.

Bennett had his best season in 2009, when he caught 54 passes for 717 yards.

By comparison, the Detroit Lions signed receiver Nate Burleson to a contract that included $11 million in guarantees. But that was a five-year deal, with a total value of $25 million.

"I's home, man," Bennett said of Chicago. "The organization has been loyal to me, and I want to be loyal to them. They had the first shot at it."

Donovan McNabb just appeared on ESPN's SportsCenter, explaining why he asked for his release and what he wants to do now.

Here are highlights from his appearance, although the Chicago native was never specifically asked about the Bears:

* On asking for his release from the Minnesota Vikings: "I felt, the way things were going, it was best suited for Christian [Ponder] and Joe [Webb], to develop and mature in the offense of which they have. I wanted to be the guy who could add that confidence and spiritual advice, to better them. But I felt, the best move for me was to move on and clear my thoughts and clear my head."

* McNabb said he has no regrets since being traded from the Philadelphia Eagles two years ago and that "even in the last two years, there are positives in there."

* On being 6-13 as a starter the last two years: "We begin to lose focus of this being a team game. The teams of which I've played with, a lot of great athletes, a lot of positive things, but nothing to really show for it. Obviously, the quarterback receives a lot of the credit but also too much of the criticism. Individually, each person can move on and possibly have a better life somewhere else."

* On why an NFL general manager should sign him: "You're bringing in a veteran, who can bring experience to your ball club. Athletic ability. A guy who is not a locker room cancer. Works hard. Great work ethic. I'm a winner, and I've proven that. A guy who will try to make the guys around him better."

* On how he returns to the player he was with the Eagles:"Being surrounded by a great supporting cast. When you're surrounded by veteran players, who know how to win, that's something that's contagious."

McNabb went on to say there are several teams desperate for quarterback help. "For myself, it's an opportunity - at this particular point - to clear my head... and get back to playing the way I know I'm capable of playing."

* On if he doesn't get claimed: "Well, there's always Plan B, but one I'm not focusing on right now. I have a career that I can look back on, and I can be very excited about."


Do the Bears want Donovan McNabb?

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The Minnesota Vikings are going to grant Donovan McNabb his release, according to multiple reports.

ESPN was the first to break the news.

The Bears would appear an attractive option to McNabb on several fronts. First, the Bears are a playoff contender with the starting quarterback sidelined because of an injury. Second, McNabb is a Chicago native.

The question is, would the Bears want him? The second question is, will another team claim him?

The Bears -- along with the Dallas Cowboys -- put in a claim for Kyle Orton, but the ended up with the Kansas City Chiefs because they had the worst record.

The Cowboys and the Houston Texans both could still be in the market for a veteran backup quarterback. The Bears and Cowboys have the same record (7-4), but the Cowboys are ahead on the waiver priority list, according to ESPN. The Texans are 8-3.

Any team that claims McNabb would pay him about $1.485 million for the remainder of the season.

When he was benched in favor of rookie Christian Ponder, McNabb, 35, insisted he still had "a lot of football left in me."

If he believes that, McNabb will want to play well so he can get an opportunity to start somewhere next season.

McNabb, though, hasn't played at an elite level for quite some time. He was 1-5 when he was benched this season.

His final start was in the 39-10 loss to the Bears. But, it was his best game of the season, as he completed 19 of 24 passes for 177 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating was 97.4.

The Vikings are 1-4 under Ponder, but they are committed to the rookie.

For the season, McNabb was 94 for 156 passes (60.3 %) for 1,026 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions and an 82.9 passer rating.

In 13 starts for the Washington Redskins in 2010, McNabb had a passer rating of 77.1.

Bears running back Matt Forte has maintained his position as the 10th-leading vote getter from fans for the Pro Bowl.

Forte, with 563,441 votes, has about 10,000 more than Philadelphia LeSean McCoy but 120,000 fewer than Minnesota's Adrian Peterson in the NFC.

Nine other Bears are currently among the top five in fan votes:

* Fullback Tyler Clutts moved up one spot to fourth.

* Center Roberto Garza slipped into the fifth spot 94,621 votes.

* Defensive end Julius Peppers is still third, behind Jared Allen and Jason Babin.

* Weakside linebacker Lance Briggs is still fourth.

* Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher remains third, behind San Francisco's Patrick Willis and Green Bay's Desmond Bishop.

* Cornerback Charles Tillman remains in the fifth spot.

* Devin Hester is first at kickoff returner.

* Special teamer Corey Graham moved up from fourth to third.

* Kicker Robbie Gould moved into the fifth spot, but he's still behind San Francisco's David Akers, Dallas' Dan Bailey and Detroit's Jason Hanson.

The Packers, meanwhile, maintain a stranglehold on Pro Bowl votes from the fans. Coaches and players will vote later this month.

* Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, fullback John Kuhn, safety Charlie Peprah, cornerback Charles Woodson, safety Morgan Burnett, kicker Mason Crosby, special teamer Jarrett Bush, offensive tackle Chad Clifton, guard T.J. Lang and center Scott Wells all lead their respective positions. In addition, receiver Greg Jennings, linebacker Clay Matthews, offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga and guard Josh Sitton would have starting spots because they are second in votes.

Other Packers in the top five at their positions include defensive tackle B.J. Raji (4th), receiver Jordy Nelson (fifth), punter Tim Masthay (2nd), returner Randall Cobb (2nd), tight end Jermichael Finley (4th), linebacker Desmond Bishop (2nd) and linebacker A.J. Hawk (4th).

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