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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?
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 backI 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 andif and when Enis shows upeventually 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.
"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.
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