The last time Phil Emery stayed at Olivet Nazarene for Bears training camp was in 2004 when he was an area scout for Jerry Angelo. Now he's the Big Cheese.
''The one big difference that I did see was now I have furniture in my room,'' said Emery, the Bears' first-year general manager who replaced Angelo after last season. ''I have a couch and an easy chair, which I did not get to enjoy as an area scout. That's a nice change right off the bat.''
With all due respect to Emery, the biggest difference literally was right in front of his face. A typically large media contingent, while lightly grilling Emery on the future of coach Lovie Smith, was more interested in how good the Bears might be rather than how bad.
''Well, I think we've made progress. But to say a Super Bowl contender -- it has to be earned on the field,'' said Emery, a scout for the Bears from 1998-2004.
''Do we have good talented players that can contribute towards a winning team and moving towards our goals of winning a championship? Yes we do. Are we there yet? No we're not. We've got to earn that every day on the field.''
This training camp opener had a different feel to it. Lovie Smith's optimism at a training camp press conference usually evaporates into the heat-heavy air almost as soon as the words are out of his mouth. But not this time.
Almost everybody's on board this train. And none of us has any idea where its headed. Hard to believe that less than a year ago, it looked like the Packers and Lions were pulling away from the Bears in the NFC North. Yet even after another playoff-less season, Emery was basically being asked if "all the pieces are in place" for the Bears to make a Super Bowl run.
''This time of year you can't wait to get started,'' Smith said. ''We just feel like, as we look at our roster coming into camp, [it] looks about as good as it has since I've been here.
''We realize that. We embrace that. We have a good football team. Once you've established that you have good personnel and you have a good coaching staff, you can't wait to get on the football field, and that's where we are.''
How does this happen? The Bears lost their best receiver (Johnny Knox) to injury. Brian Urlacher is coming off a knee injury at 34. Matt Forte is coming off a knee injury and is no longer fighting for a long-term contract. Gabe Carimi still hasn't proven he's healthy. Mike Tice's biggest attribute as an offensive coordinator is that he's not Mike Martz. And Jay Cutler, while 20-9 in his last 29 starts for the Bears, still has never beaten a winning team in the postseason. If Brandon Marshall is that much of a difference maker, why has he never played in a playoff game?
But those very legitimate reservations are currently being trumped by some almost-as-legit expectations. If the stars align, this team could be as good as it's cracked up to be. And why not? All we have to risk is disappointment.
''I liked how our team looked in OTAs,'' Emery said. ''I liked how they practiced. I like the talent base of our football team. I'm a fan of the Chicago Bears. I said that coming in. And I like our football team. But we've got to earn our place, though. That'll come starting Wednesday.''