Postcards from camp: Bears
New offensive coordinator Mike Martz is completely enamored with Jay Cutler
Peppers looks rejuvenated by the change of venues after eight years in Carolina
The Bears have been pleasantly surprised with rookie Major Wright, who may start
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Don Banks had to say about the Bears camp. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
The Bears have trained at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill., about an hour south of Chicago, since 2002. But I still hear some folks around here fondly recall their training camp days in Platteville, Wis., where the team spent the 18 previous years. The facilities are said to be better here, but the nostalgia is probably attributable to the fact that Mike Ditka's Bears went to Platteville each summer, and everything about this franchise is still measured by (and comes up short) when compared to Chicago's only Super Bowl-winning squad of 1985.
1. If you're wondering how the Mike Martz-Jay Cutler relationship is going early on, suffice to say the honeymoon rages on. Speaking to the media for the first time in more than two months on Wednesday, the Bears new offensive coordinator did everything but name Cutler the NFC Pro Bowl starter after the first week of Chicago's camp. "What we do really fits him,'' Martz said. "He has that Kurt Warner awareness, if you will. He has such a keen sense of where everybody is at. He can see everything and can diagnose it without even thinking about it.''
Martz has always had a touch of Sparky Anderson-like hyperbole in him and loves to slather his guys in praise. But it seems a bit early to trot out the Warner comparison, because there's no higher compliment in Martz's book. But Cutler has handled everything Martz has thrown at him, according to the coach, and then some. "He's been pretty remarkable so far. He's everything I had hoped he would be. Absolutely.''
Wow. That's a mouthful for a quarterback who was so frustrated with his play at one point in Tuesday afternoon's practice that he fired a pass that hit one of the hospitality tents that line the field. When a reporter asked Martz about the perception that he and his quarterback, both strong-willed types, would struggle to mesh, he fairly well guffawed. "If you knew how silly that was and how easy things are between he and I,'' Martz said. "[I] just thoroughly enjoy his company, and just enjoy being around him outside the football part of it. He's got a great sense of humor, by the way. He's a little screwed up in his sense of humor like I am, so we kind of fit pretty good.''
Cutler reciprocated the love when he spoke to reporters shortly thereafter. "I think me and Mike have clicked very quickly in our relationship,'' he said. "We have the same goals and the same thought processes on and off the field. Mike's fun. It's been fun getting to know him and being around him. He's 24/7 football. There's no getting around that, but every once in a while, he has a few jokes. He has a few stories. It hasn't been a bad thing meeting with him a lot right now.''
It doesn't matter so much, of course, what they're saying in early August. It only matters how the Martz-and-Cutler marriage is clicking come September and beyond. So far, so good, but stay tuned.
2. Didn't get to see much practice time while I was with the Bears, but apparently Julius Peppers has been conducting a defensive end clinic of sorts during workouts. And both Bears offensive tackles -- Frank Omiyale on the right side and Chris Williams on the left side -- have been taken to school a few times. Peppers looks rejuvenated by the change of NFL venues after eight seasons in Carolina, and Bears head coach Lovie Smith said there has been no sign of the inconsistent effort that some believe marred his tenure in Charlotte.
"That's what I haven't seen at all,'' Smith said, midday Wednesday. "He's done everything we asked him to do and more. Since we got in pads, now I'll say he's been dominant. I heard he takes plays off and all that stuff. But he has a chance to just dominate the game. I know it's early, but I've seen good defensive linemen before, and he's exactly where we want him to be at this point. He's going to show up every day for us.''
That's the idea. Especially given that he's set to earn $20 million in 2010. The Bears have lacked a pass rush for three years now, and Peppers is being paid to not only provide some, but to draw attention away from other Bears defenders so they can provide some heat of their own (Tommie Harris and Mark Anderson, we're looking in your direction). Peppers has played both ends in practice, but it's expected that he'll line up mostly on the right side, next to Harris.
3. The happiest group in Bears camp are the receivers, because they know they're going to benefit from Martz's pass-centric offense. The Bears are talking about having a balanced approach, but everyone understands the ex-Rams head coach never met a forward pass he didn't love. I talked with Devin Hester briefly and he's having a hard time believing he's still in Chicago, given the unfamiliar feel of a full-throttle Bears passing attack.
"I never really imagined us being so wide open like this,'' Hester said. "On designed plays you can actually find yourself wide open. I'm not used to that. That may be the hardest thing in football, catching a wide-open pass. It's like a fast break in basketball. If you're that wide open you can get some nerves going. But I love this offense. It fits the receivers we have.''
Despite bringing a gunslinger like Cutler in last season, no one on the Bears caught more than the 60 passes snared by tight end Greg Olsen, and no receiver totaled more than Hester's 757 yards. Under Martz, those numbers will go up for the likes of receivers Hester, Johnny Knox and Earl Bennett.
"We're still Chicago and we have to be able to run the football, especially late [in the season],'' Smith said. "But we have offensive weapons at the skill positions and we have to be able to take advantage of that.''
Could it be that Martz wasn't even the best coaching hire named Mike that Smith made this offseason? New Bears offensive line coach Mike Tice might wind up being the real steal. The ex-Jaguars and ex-Vikings coach has been brought in to reshape a Bears line that was dreadful at times last year, and from early indications, his work is being enthusiastically received by the team's linemen.
Tice has made it clear that three spots on Chicago's offensive line are up for grabs, with only left tackle Williams and center Olin Kreutz secure in their starting jobs. Veterans Omiyale and Kevin Shaffer are competing at right tackle, Roberto Garza and Lance Louis are dueling at right guard, and Josh Beekman and Johan Asiata are battling for the starting left guard slot.
Tice will get the Bears line playing tougher and with more attention to detail, because that's his calling card. I saw his strong work up close when he had a bevy of Pro Bowl selections coaching the Vikings offensive line in the late '90s, and he's adept at getting the best from formerly underachieving players. The Bears gave up 35 sacks last season and at times Cutler's penchant for interceptions were a direct result of the line's breakdowns.
Not owning first- or second-round picks this year, the Bears aren't loaded with rookies. But safety Major Wright had started camp impressively before being sidelined with a groin muscle strain on Monday. The third-round pick out of Florida was the Bears' top selection this season, and he's slated to compete for the starting strong safety job once he returns.
The Bears have been pleasantly surprised thus far in Wright's ability to make plays on the ball. He's aggressive in run support, but he has caught Smith's eye with a nose for the football in pass coverage. In the best-case scenario, Chicago this season will have a starting safety tandem of Wright and Chris Harris, the former Bears free safety who was reacquired from Carolina on draft weekend. But at the moment that tandem can only stand and watch, because Harris is out with a back injury.
Everywhere you look in Bears camp you see an ex-NFL head coach. There's Martz, the ex-Rams No. 1 guy over there working with Cutler and the offense. There's Tice, the ex-Vikings boss barking out orders to his offensive line. And there's Rod Marinelli, onetime Lions head coach, overseeing the defense in his role as coordinator/assistant head coach. That's an impressive array of decision-making experience on one staff, and they're all here knowing that they're working for a head coach in Lovie Smith who is clearly entering a make-or-break season in Chicago.
After stints in Detroit and San Francisco that didn't go exactly as planned, this may be Martz's final opportunity to re-establish his reputation as one of the game's premier offensive coordinators. He is one of the game's finest play-callers, and his creativity in that department should be a significant upgrade over the departed Ron Turner. Tice was a great offensive line coach in Minnesota before ascending to the top job and he's still young enough to get his name back on the radar screen for a head coaching job. As for Marinelli, who was the Bears defensive line coach/assistant head coach last season, Smith and he go back to their days together on Tony Dungy's staff in Tampa Bay and the two work together like hand in glove.
1. Everybody knows the hot seat is cranking in Chicago this year, but you'll never get Smith to blink and acknowledge it. And I kind of like that. But he knows what's at stake this season, even if he doesn't feel the need to increase the pressure he faces by talking about it. The Bears have missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons after their Super Bowl team of 2006, and a fourth out-of-the-money finish figures to bring his seven-year tenure to a close.
2. Recently retired 49ers receiver Isaac Bruce just got to Bourbonnais and will spend the rest of camp with the Bears as a coaching intern. The longtime Ram obviously flourished under Martz's offense in St. Louis and will be helping the likes of Hester, Knox and Bennett learn the intricacies of the offense. Hester and Bruce both live in South Florida and the two have been working out together this offseason. Recently Bruce was quoted saying it will take "2 1/2 years'' for Bears receivers to fully learn Martz's offense. Martz didn't dispute that estimate, but said Hester, as a veteran, is ahead of the curve and that only rookies would take that long. If that sounded like a bit of damage control to you, the same thought occurred to me.
3. Trying to get Cutler and Bears backup Caleb Hanie up to snuff in the offense, Chicago has given its top two quarterbacks almost all the snaps in camp. That's not really helping rookie Dan LeFevour's bid to lock down the team's No. 3 job. The ex-Central Michigan QB was taken in the sixth round by Chicago, and his arm hasn't looked too strong in the few attempts he's had in camp. He and former Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel are competing for the No. 3 spot, but Teel pulled a hamstring in Wednesday night's practice and will be out for a while.
4. Brian Urlacher is healthy again in the middle and the Bears still have Pro Bowl weakside linebacker Lance Briggs to count on. But in the strong side slot, veterans Pisa Tinoisamoa and Nick Roach are splitting reps so far. I'd give Tinoisamoa the slight edge, but performances in preseason games will determine who starts.
5. I get the theory that the presence of Peppers should make everyone on the defensive line more effective, because teams will be keying on the former Panther. But I'm going to have to see Bears left end Mark Anderson produce in the sack department before I fully buy it. The 2006 sixth-round pick was a rookie sensation in Chicago with 12 sacks in the regular season and another 1 1/2 in the playoffs, as the Bears went to the Super Bowl. But he's had just 9 1/2 sacks in the three seasons since, and it's way past time for him to prove 2006 was no fluke.