With a crowd estimated at more than 12,000 enjoying a spirited Bears practice highlighted by several big pass plays from Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall and others from Jason Campbell to Dane Sanzenbacher and even Matt Blanchard to Evan Rodriguez, even veteran observers are getting the impression we've been missing out on something all these years -- like an offense that actually entertains instead of just giving the Bears' defense a chance to rest.
Coach Lovie Smith said the nice weather and the fact that it was a weekend night brought out the big crowd. But the truth is that before Brandon Marshall got here, there were many other better things to do on a sultry Saturday night in the Chicago area than watch a Bears training camp practice.
There's more than a curiosity factor at play here. There's the anticipation/expectation factor -- with Cutler and Marshall the Bears have a chance to be as good as they've been since the early Ditka era. And there's an entertainment factor. If they charged admission, Marshall vs. Charles Tillman in practice would be worth the price of admission. There's actually something worth watching at practice regardless of what it projects for the regular season.
Here's a capsule look at the Bears third training camp practice Saturday night, their first in pads:
1. Brandon Marshall is good.
Marshall gave the fans -- and Smith -- a brief scare when he couldn't get up after falling during a casual (no defense) passing drill early in practice. But he quickly recovered and put on a show, though what to us is ''a show'' is probably another day at the office for Marshall.
It was only the first day in pads, but Marshall made several impressive catches, including two deep balls vs. Tillman along the left sideline. On the second one, it seemed like Cutler just threw the ball up knowing Marshall would get it. It was 50 yards or more in the air and under thrown, but Marshall adjusted to the ball and made the catch. He later made a reaching one-handed grab on a shorter throw from Cutler.
This is probably ho-hum at the Lions or Texans or Cardinals practices. But it's a revelation here. Regardless, it's fun to watch.
2. J'Marcus Webb has the early lead at LT
It was only the first day in pads, but offensive coordinator Mike Tice didn't do anything to dispel the notion that it's Webb's job to lose when Webb got the majority of first-team snaps in practice and handled most of them well. Maybe Chris Williams will get the majority of first-team snaps Sunday. But at first glance, Webb is the early leader. He should be. He played there all last year.
3. Shea McClellin looks the part.
It was only the first day in pads, but rookie defensive end Shea McClellin showed off his quick first step, his high motor, his agility and most importantly his knack for making football plays. Besides rushing the passer as much as one can rush the passer in a training camp practice, McClellin also knocked down to passes. It doesn't mean he's going to make an impact on defense in 2012, but it means he's got a chance.
''It was very physical, but I enjoyed it,'' McClellin said. ''I want to show my speed and I think I did that. This is just a starting point and I need to get better every day.''
4. Jason Campbell has upgraded the backup QB spot.
One subtle (maybe not-so-subtle) difference in camp this year is that Bears receivers have two proven NFL starting quarterbacks throwing to them. A year ago, the inexperienced Caleb Hanie was struggling to knock off the rust in training camp -- he even was benched in favor of rookie Nathan Enderle for one practice. But Campbell is not only a better Plan B in case Cutler can't play in the regular season, but he significantly upgrades their practice reps. If rookies Alshon Jeffery and/or Evan Rodriguez make an impact this season, Jason Campbell will be one of the reasons behind it.
5. DT Brian Price can't wait to play.
Price, who was acquired from the Buccaneers reportedly for a seventh-round draft pick in 2013, was at practice but did not participate in pads until Tuesday because of NFL rules. A starter for the Bucs last year, Price had personal and physical issues that led to his departure from Tampa Bay. But he is eager for a new start in Chicago.
"I was happy [about the trade],'' he told reporters after practice. ''A brand new beginning, a fresh start. It doesn't get no better than this. The defense. This is a defensive town. Great leaders. The love of the game is coming back to me.''