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NFL '98
By the Numbers | Inside Slant | Lineup
Scouting Report

5 - Chicago Bears

The strategy is a sound and a sensible one for Soldier Field: Pound the ball unmercifully. But will Dave Wannstedt have the horses to make it work?

  Curtis
The fleet-footed Conway should see more single coverage if the Bears get their running back untracked.   (Jay Crihfield/ Spurlock Photo)
At training camp the most popular mode of transportation is the golf cart. Players zip to and from practice in the buggies as white-knuckled passengers hold on for dear life. Somehow, though, Edgar Bennett, the former Packer signed by the Bears during the off-season to help boost their running game, got stuck with a granny cart. Parents pushing baby strollers were passing Bennett's cart at the team's camp in Platteville, Wis.

The cart drove Bennett bonkers. Fully recovered after sitting out last season with a torn Achilles tendon, Bennett can't stand to do anything at half speed anymore. "I'm a back—I need speed," he says. "I'm gonna drop a bigger engine in this thing, maybe a radio. Soup it up, make it fast, make it bad, give it some power."

That's exactly what the Bears expect out of Bennett (who in February signed a four-year, $6.2 million deal) and their first-round draft choice, fellow running back Curtis Enis. However, at press time negotiations between Enis and the Bears were creeping along slower than Bennett's golf cart.

Not that it hasn't been a busy off-season for Enis, who left the Penn State football team last season before the Nittany Lions' Citrus Bowl appearance after admitting he had accepted clothing from agent Jeff Nalley. After a religious awakening in June, he fired his agent, Vann McElroy, and signed on with Greg Feste, a financial planner who is new at negotiating contracts. Enis was married in July. As the contract dispute dragged on, word came that a grand jury in Irving, Texas, would hear a sexual-assault complaint against Enis. On Aug. 4, after Feste threatened to sit Enis out the entire season, Chicago signed Bam Morris.

"Curtis is a Soldier Field-type back," says coach Dave Wannstedt. "He's big, fast and tough, perfect for the mud, the snow and the cold. That's why we drafted him. But he needs to get in here and get going. We're not waiting for Curtis; we're moving ahead. Our philosophy is not going to change. We're going to run the ball, period, no matter who is carrying it."

Right now that looks to be Bennett, one of 47 new faces who reported for camp. "This is an opportunity for me to be the man again," he says. A proven all-around back who rushed for 899 yards in 1996 as the Packers went on to win the Super Bowl, the 29-year-old Bennett will earn his money as the starter and—if and when Enis shows up—eventually as a third-down back. (In five seasons with Green Bay, Bennett averaged 48 receptions, including a career-high 78 in 1994.)

"I hear people talking bad about the Bears all the time, saying we don't have a chance," says Bennett, who sustained his injury on the second possession of the Packers' preseason opener last year. "How can they say that when we have a veteran quarterback, talented wide receivers, some great backs and a coach who is a master on defense?"

Erik Kramer passed for 3,011 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, and the Bears were undefeated in games in which wideout Curtis Conway had 100 or more receiving yards. Unfortunately for Bears fans, that only happened three times. Conway missed the first six games with a broken collarbone, then aggravated the injury later in the season and missed three more games. Chicago was middle of the road in the league in rushing, passing and total offense, but only 28th in points. Making matters worse, the Bears committed 41 turnovers, which the opposition turned into 122 points, fifth most in the league. Little wonder that in a division loaded with high-powered attacks, Wannstedt is intent on developing a ground-oriented, time-consuming offense.

Schedule
Sept. 6 JACKSONVILLE
13 at Pittsburgh
20 at Tampa Bay
27 MINNESOTA
Oct. 4 DETROIT
11 at Arizona
18 DALLAS
25 at Tennessee
Nov. 1 OPEN DATE
8 ST. LOUIS
15 at Detroit
22 at Atlanta
29 TAMPA BAY
Dec. 6 at Minnesota
13 at Green Bay
20 BALTIMORE
27 GREEN BAY
 
That's easier said than done with a line devoid of stars and lacking in depth. Left guard Todd Perry is considered the best player up front, but he missed five games last year due to injuries. The projected center is rookie Olin Kreutz, a third-round draft pick out of Washington. Chris Villarrial moves from center to right guard, and the tackles, Andy Heck on the left side and James Williams on the right, are solid but not spectacular.

"On every successful team I've been with, the running game was critical to the team's success," says Wannstedt. "So we'll have to stay healthy and just pound the ball and pound the ball. With our running game, the uglier the better."

So the line is average, the marquee rookie running back is unsigned, the first five games are against teams that made the playoffs in '97, and even after a 4-12 season the schedule ranks as the league's second toughest.

It doesn't get any uglier than that.

David Fleming

By the Numbers | Inside Slant | Lineup

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