Push came to shove last Thursday.
Bears general manager Jerry Angelo, pushed to the point of frustration by holdout first-round draft pick Cedric Benson and his agent Eugene Parker, retaliated with a strongly worded statement implying that the team may soon take back some of the money that they are presently offering.
”After missing all of training camp, we want to make it abundantly clear that the Chicago Bears have made their best and final offer to Cedric Benson,” Angelo said in a statement. “No dollars are left on the bargaining table, and at this point, the only contract discussions that will be entertained will be reflective of the considerable loss of value to the club created by the player’s extended absence.”
That could mean that the Bears are prepared to begin reducing their offer for each additional day that Benson stays away. The fourth overall pick has already missed 28 days and is the only unsigned first-round pick in the NFL. In 1998, Bears first-round running back Curtis Enis held out for 27 days. Three years earlier, first-round running back Rashaan Salaam reported to Bears camp 18 days late.
The negotiations are being held up by the amount of guaranteed money. According to a Bears source, Parker wants close to the $18.5 million that No. 3 pick Braylon Edwards got from the Cleveland Browns. The Bears are believed to be offering an amount closer to the average of Edwards’ money and the $15.1 million that No. 5 pick Carnell “Cadillac” Williams got from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
”We will not provide details regarding contract negotiations,” Angelo’s statement said. “However, in an effort to move forward and focus solely on preparing for a winning football season, we believe it is important for everyone to know our position on Benson’s contract situation.
”The Chicago Bears have always placed a premium on having our players in camp on time, and recent history reflects our excellent track record. Our last four No. 1 draft picks have been signed on time for the opening of training camp. Two of those picks, Rex Grossman and Tommie Harris, were also represented by Benson’s agent, Eugene Parker.”
Harris, who has since dumped Parker in favor of Drew Rosenhaus, started all 16 games last season, a virtual impossibility for Benson at this point. Benson almost seems to have become an afterthought for coaches and players.
”Hey, that’s the way it goes,” coach Lovie Smith said when it was mentioned that he’s resisted the temptation to vent. “I don’t have a choice. I’m behind Jerry 100 percent. We have other guys we’re getting ready. I concern myself more with the guys we have here.”
Benson will almost surely be signed before the preseason ends, but the Bears say they can get by without him for the whole season.
”If we have to we can,” offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. “We’ll do what we have to do. It’s obviously disappointing he’s not here, but we’ll just focus on the guys that are here and move forward.”
The Bears were counting on Benson to take over the featured ball carrier role from Thomas Jones or at least provide a complement, but because he has missed so much work on the field and in meetings and film study, he might not be ready to contribute anything on opening day, Sept. 11.
”The failure to reach an agreement on a fair and reasonable contract has been a huge disappointment,” Angelo said. “We look forward to having Cedric end his holdout and join his coaches and teammates, as they prepare for the upcoming season.”
In their first three preseason games, the Bears have out-rushed their opponents 385-150 - even without holdout first-round running back Cedric Benson.
They out-gained the Colts 152-30 on the ground and are averaging 4.3 yards per rush, while permitting just 2.3 yards per attempt on the ground. A reliable ground attack in the regular season would make life easier for Chad Hutchinson, as he attempts to fill the void left by Rex Grossman’s injury.
”I talked to Chad about that the other day,” offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. “I said, ‘Your best friend is the running game — if we can run the football.’ It really makes everything else easier. The protections are much easier. The passing game, getting the ball down the field vertically, all that stuff is easier.”
During a three-possession sequence in the third quarter, rookie quarterback Kyle Orton fumbled twice after being sacked. He lost the second fumble at his own 12-yard line, setting up a 1-yard run by James Mungro that tied the game 17-17 with 3:34 remaining in the third quarter.
But Orton came back with consecutive connections to rookie Mark Bradley for 24 and 13 yards, setting up Antoineo Harris’ 1-yard TD run and a 24-17 Bears lead 13:05 from the end. He completed 6 of 10 for 67 yards and a passer rating of 80.0.
”I think he finished strong leading that touchdown drive,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “He’s had a good training camp for a rookie. It’s not like it’s too big for him. He doesn’t have big eyes on the sideline. He has a lot of confidence in his ability, and he has a bright future ahead of him.”
Based on Saturday night’s performance in a 24-17 victory over the Colts at Indianapolis’ RCA Dome, the Bears miss Rex Grossman a lot more than Cedric Benson.
Even without Benson and starter Thomas Jones, who was “rested,” the Bears’ first-team offense ran the ball successfully. Fill-in starter Adrian Peterson picked up 60 yards on 14 carries (4.3-yard average) and scored on a 4-yard run. The Bears out-rushed the Colts 152-30 and averaged 4.1 yards per carry to 1.7 for the Colts.
”We’re really pleased with how Adrian Peterson ran the football,” coach Lovie Smith said.
Two games into the Lions’ preseason schedule, backup quarterback Jeff Garcia leads the team in touchdown passes — one. He also leads the team in interceptions — three.
He was intercepted once in the preseason opener by the New York Jets and twice in the second game by the Cleveland Browns. So what’s deal?
As uncomfortable as he is with the reality of the situation, Garcia said it has probably been greed that is responsible for the interceptions: He’s forced the ball when he shouldn’t have, trying to make something happen.
And, he says, he knows better.
”I’m here for a reason,” he said. “I’m here to be a quality backup and if that time comes, to step out on the field and take advantage of the opportunity. But I want to push Joey, help him get better. I want to help him as much as possible.”
The Lions signed Garcia last spring, knowing he was coming off a subpar year at Cleveland but confident he had enough ability to provide a challenge or at least backup help for Joey Harrington.
Garcia admits he does not think of himself as a backup quarterback but says he should not feel pressure to outperform Harrington every time he goes on the field.
”I don’t feel I need to go out there and rise above him, as far as my playmaking is concerned,” Garcia said. “I feel that I’ve proven myself over the years that I’ve played. I know that I have it within myself when I go out on the field,
”I can make things happen, I can put drives together. I can get the ball in the end zone and now it’s just a matter of not being greedy or not feeling that I need to make a play, just take what the defense gives me.”
Garcia says he and Harrington are comfortable with the competitive nature of the situation they’re in.
”I think we have a really good thing going, as far as the quarterbacks go, as far as our support for each other, as far as how we push each other,” Garcia said. “This is not something that we’re trying to create any kind of a negative situation.”
The competition seems to be bringing out the best in Harrington. He was 9-for-9 and 100 yards in the opening preseason game and 5-for-6 and 46 yards in the second game, giving him a two-game total of 14-for-15 (93.3 percent) for 146 yards and a 107.2 passer rating. Harrington has not driven the team for a touchdown, however.
Every year, Lions coach Steve Mariucci looks for new ways to break up the tedium of training camp two-a-days.
A couple of years ago, he invited Pistons guard Chauncy Billips to camp and invited the Lions players to shoot free throws against him.
This year, Mariucci took the team behind the practice field storage building to test their skills on the one-hole golf “course.”
Each position was represented by one player in a contest to see who could hit a tee shot closest to the hole, at a distance of approximately 100 yards.
Rookie wide receiver Steve Savoy took the first swing and hooked a line drive through a crowd of teammates, staff and media near the storage building.
The eventual winner was kicker Jason Hanson, who in fact was the only player to put his ball on the green.
Hanson’s reward was a battered baseball trophy. “I had my choice of a deflated football, a stolen car stereo or this,” Hanson said, looking at the scruffy trophy. “It’s going somewhere fairly special. Probably won’t leave the locker room.”
Three years into their new Ford Field stadium, the Lions have only one problem — winning at home.
”It’s such an awesome place to play football,” coach Steve Mariucci said. “I know that even players around the league think that this is an awesome place to play.”
Trouble is, the Lions haven’t been able to win even as many as they lose since the field opened in downtown Detroit in 2002. They are 11-13 at Ford Field.
Part of the problem is that the Lions of the past three seasons were not a very good team. They were even worse on the road than they were at home in seasons of 3-13, 5-11 and 6-10.
If they are going to compete for an NFC North title and playoff berth, however, it’s obvious they have to establish some kind of home field advantage.
”We need to make it difficult on them,” he said. “We need to play good football and keep our crowd alive.”
The Lions might have showed some progress in at least one area Saturday, although they were victims of a late-game Cleveland rally in a 21-13 loss at Ford Field.
At least, the fans did not boo quarterback Joey Harrington as they had in the open practice session two weeks earlier.
Progress, a little bit at a time.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
More than ever, the Packers might need their iron-man quarterback to remain healthy for another entire season.
Green Bay has gotten next to nothing out of its three backups in the first two preseason games after Brett Favre sparkled in each, albeit in a cameo role. The trouble is that Favre has a big chink in his supposedly indestructible armor.
Last week, the NFL’s only three-time MVP revealed that he has a bad hip. He’s played with avascular necrosis since he broke into the league with Atlanta in 1991 - and managed to start a record 225 straight games with the Packers since his arrival in ‘92.
The debilitating condition, which cut short the two-sport career of Bo Jackson, stems the blood supply to the hip socket. In the case of Jackson, the joint eroded, and he had to undergo hip-replacement surgery.
”To this day, it bothers me from time to time,” said Favre, 35, adding he’s lost flexibility in the hip and that having it replaced is a possibility after he’s done playing.
He’s already far exceeded the prognosis of a litany of NFL team doctors and trainers who examined Favre entering the 1991 draft after he suffered the injury in the East-West Shrine college all-star game.
In fact, the Packers were prepared to fail Favre on the physical he took for them a year later, which would have voided the trade with Atlanta. Then-general manager Ron Wolf, though, was so insistent on acquiring Favre, in exchange for a first-round draft pick, that he called on another of the team’s doctors for a second, more favorable opinion. The trade was consummated, and the rest is history.
”You’re kind of rolling the dice, I guess,” Favre said in retrospect. “They said I wouldn’t play (past) three or four years. But, obviously, they were wrong, and Ron was willing to take that risk.”
As a way to help himself stay out of harm’s way on the field this season, Favre took up an intensive workout program with a personal trainer during the off-season.
Favre, whom head coach Mike Sherman excused from the mini-camps, reported to training camp in his best shape in five years, weighing 217. The weeks of toiling at his home in Mississippi have paid early dividends.
Favre followed a 9-for-10, 91-yard performance against San Diego in the preseason opener Aug. 8 with one impressive series of work in a 27-7 loss at Buffalo on Saturday. Favre completed four of six passes for 41 yards in a 13-play, 75-yard drive, which culminated with a 12-yard touchdown throw to halfback Ahman Green.
On the scoring play, the reshaped, revitalized Favre escaped the pursuit of blitzing linebacker Jeff Posey on a designed bootleg to the right, turned back to the middle and lofted a pass to Green in the left side of the end zone.
”He’s been sharp,” Sherman said. “I think with Brett Favre, most things are exceptional, this camp or even previously. But, he’s been very sharp. Great decision-making, accuracy, his arm. Everything.”
Meanwhile, Favre’s understudies of rookie Aaron Rodgers, Craig Nall and J.T. O’Sullivan have hardly given Packers fans comfort that the team could carry on in the event Favre were to go down with a serious injury. The triumvirate has combined to complete only 15 of 36 passes for 91 yards and been sacked a total of six times in the two preseason outings.
Rodgers, the team’s first-round draft pick this year and cast as Favre’s heir apparent, has struggled both times out.
He played most of the first half and into the third quarter Saturday, working with the first- and second-string units, but had trouble connecting with receivers. He was 4-of-9 throwing for just 21 yards. His night ended with an interception on a poorly thrown ball on a short route to the outside.
Nevertheless, the retired Wolf, who visited training camp last week, believes the Packers made the right decision in drafting Rodgers, a would-be No. 1 pick who fell to them at No. 24. Never mind the team’s glaring needs on defense.
”When you’re (picking) in the 20s, you better take the best football player. Damn the position (needs),” Wolf said. “You can get in trouble picking (for) position. I know. I did that a couple of times, picking for position rather than (best available) player. Every time I did that, it came up and bit me right in the rear end. So, I subscribe to that theory.
”From what I’ve seen of Rodgers, he wouldn’t be a disappointment.”
Nose tackle Grady Jackson insists he’s no longer an unhappy camper.
Still awaiting clearance to practice for the first time after undergoing surgery on his left knee in February, Jackson vowed last week to give the Packers his best effort this season. It’s a far cry from Jackson’s demand on the eve of camp to team management that he wanted to be cut or traded since it wasn’t willing to renegotiate his contract, which expires at the end of the season.
”I’m going to come back and play, give my all, worry about the contract thing after the season,” Jackson said. “If I’m here next year, I’m here. If not, I’m not. So, I just have to worry about this season and play ball.”
In fact, the mammoth Jackson is determined to have “a Pro Bowl season,” which has eluded him his first eight years in the league.
Jackson is hopeful he’ll be ready to play in the last preseason game, Sept. 1 at Tennessee.
Having only one game to get ready for the regular season is, according to Jackson, “enough for me. I just have to get out there and play. One game will be fine, just tuning it up and getting ready.”
B.J. Sander is among the league leaders in the preseason with a punting average of 45.2 yards, having strung together two solid performances. Still, neither Sherman nor general manager Ted Thompson is ready to anoint Sander as the team’s punter for the start of the regular season. Sander, after all, is only a year removed from a dubious rookie season in which he ranked 31st in the league with an average of 36 yards per punt in the preseason and didn’t kick the entire regular season, though he was on the 53-man roster.
When asked last week whether he believes Sander has graduated to being an NFL-caliber punter, Thompson responded flatly, “No. But, that doesn’t mean he isn’t. I think he’s done a nice job (in the preseason thus far). This is not anything against B.J. or any other punter in the league, but I think you have to see ‘em through the course of a little more than a couple weeks in training camp.”
Sander kicked well for the second straight outing. He had good hang time on all six of his punts Saturday and averaged 44.3 yards. However, his net average was a meager 28.5 yards, as the Bills gashed the Packers’ shoddy coverage unit with five returns totaling 95 yards. Sander made tackles on two of the long runbacks.
Thompson said there are no immediate plans to bring in another punter to compete with Sander, who has been afflicted with tendonitis in his non-kicking right knee. The coaching staff tried to alleviate the problem by limiting Sander to one practice a day during two-a-days, which concluded last week.