Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
19 Jun 2008
by Mike Tanier
Walkthrough usually begins with a joke. This week, it begins with the Chicago offense. We admit, this is a very minor format change.
It's June. NFL players are drilling and working out in shorts. The real hitting is more than a month away. A few players are holding out or rehabbing injuries, but most have enjoyed quiet camps and conditioning programs. They're in shape. They know the system. They're ready. It's a time for optimism.
Even about the Chicago Bears offense.
The Bears had trouble moving the ball when they went to the Super Bowl. Just two years later, their offense has the potential to be a true disaster. Rex Grossman and Kyle Orton are vying for the starting job in one of the least exciting quarterback controversies in NFL history. The team released running back Cedric Benson after three injury- and scandal-plagued years, leaving rookie Matt Forte as the top runner. The left side of the offensive line is new, and rookie Chris Williams will probably start the season at left tackle. The receiving corps features converted kick returner Devin Hester, aging journeyman Marty Booker, perpetual disappointment Brandon Lloyd, and a bunch of guys named Mark Bradley. There's no cornerstone and few guaranteed yardage generators. It's an offense filled with new faces of dubious pedigree, and if any one of the newcomers washes out, it could cause a cascading failure that makes the Bears one of the worst offensive teams ever.
But not everyone is gloomy about the Bears' chances in 2008. "I like where we are," head coach Lovie Smith said two weeks ago. "Even though we have a few question marks right now, it's a great opportunity to have some players step up." Tight end Desmond Clark is also optimistic. "We're probably in the best position we can be in -- nobody is expecting us to do anything. It gives you something more than your own motivation when you get outside motivation."
Lovie and Clark have to say nice things about the Bears offense. But they aren't the only ones who see potential, not for excellence, but for competitiveness. Reed Schreck, reporter for the Rockford Register Star, spent a lot of time at Bears OTAs this spring. He gave me an inside look at what the Bears have been doing right this offseason.
Devin Almighty: Bears coaches can't stop gushing about Hester, who they claim has the potential to be the team's top wide receiver. "I don't have to tell him anything anymore," said receivers coach Darryl Drake. "He's telling me stuff when I am screwed up. He has taken the time to study [the system]. He has been in my office every day since the beginning ... he's just so far ahead right now it's unbelievable.''
Drake sounds like he's over-selling a bit. But Schreck has been watching Hester carefully throughout OTAs. "He looks like a receiver, not a guy who's being converted," Schreck said. Hester is no longer a guy who only runs bombs and reverses. He's picked up much more of the offense, and he's running all kinds of routes. But the bombs are still there: On one play, Hester slipped into one of his quantum gears to chase down an overthrown Orton pass. "That was the signature highlight of the offseason" according to Schreck. That raw athleticism offers hope that Hester can not only force safeties to play deep, but also use his make-up speed to cover for quarterback's mistakes.
Like Hester, Brandon Lloyd is a deep threat with limited experience as an all-around receiver. Lloyd always looks better when no one is trying to hit him, but he has had a fine offseason and has not yet lapsed into malcontent mode. "This could be a good situation to resurrect his career," Schreck said of Lloyd, a Midwesterner who played college football at Illinois. If Hester and Lloyd can provide adequate big-play punch, they'll take pressure off everyone else.
Forte Time: Most observers agree that the Bears got better by releasing Benson. Rookie Forte is more versatile than Benson and comes with a lot less baggage. Some scouts see him as an immediate contributor. "He has better speed and agility than he's given credit for," Rob Rang of Scout.com told me last week. "I argued before the draft that he'd be one of more NFL-ready backs of the NFL class due to his experience as a blocker and a receiver."
Schreck is also impressed with Forte. "It looks like they finally drafted the right guy," he joked, noting that the team's awful track record when selecting running backs (Benson, Curtis Enis, Rashaan Salaam). Like Rang, Schreck thinks the rookie's receiving skills will be an asset. "He can run routes so much deeper than Benson. He can run routes 15 to 20 yards downfield and still be effective."
Forte's downfield receiving ability could be a major factor for a team that lacks a true possession receiver. Hester and Lloyd will do most of their work outside the hashmarks, and while Marty Booker can play the crafty veteran, the Bears are in trouble if he starts catching six passes per game. Forte and tight ends Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen will have to do the dirty week over the middle, and underneath the coverage that will (hopefully) be stretched thin if Hester and Lloyd do their jobs. Even with the offensive line in transition, a balanced passing game plus a more motivated runner should yield a solid ground game. "The Bears could be a better running team this year than last year, when they were supposed to be a 'running team.'" Schreck said.
Getting Creative: Offensive coordinator Ron Turner's system rarely fooled anyone in the past, but that's likely to change. Hester is a top trick play threat, and the Bears have practiced all manner of reverses and fake reverses in the offseason. Clark and Olsen are the only two known commodities at the skill positions, so Turner is mixing in more two-tight end sets (the team used two or more tight ends just 22 percent of the time last year, 20th in the NFL). Olsen has been playing a Chris Cooley role in camp, lining up in the slot and in the backfield while motioning around the formation.
The Bears will need a little bit of trickery to move the ball this year. "They need to make defenses think a little," Schreck noted. Trick plays and surprising formations only work when they're the icing, not the cake. Hester reverses only work when opponents fear off-tackle runs, and Olsen and Clark won't be able to roam around the formation if Turner needs them to help the offensive tackles block. Still, Bears fans who catnap through the team's offensive series might be thrilled to discover a little more diversity this year: more passes to the backs, more motion, a little razzle-dazzle, anything to break the two-handoffs-and-an-incompletion monotony.
A Shocking Display of Competence: None of this suggests that the Bears will suddenly become the Colts. They'll struggle to score points. Grossman and Orton will remain Grossman and Orton. But the Bears went 11-5 with a terrible offense in 2005, and they reached the Super Bowl with a not-quite-average offense in 2006. It's not crazy to predict a solid all-purpose season by Forte, plenty of thrills from Hester, 100 total catches for the tight ends, and enough points to help the defense keep the Bears in the Wild Card hunt. The Vikings did the same thing in the same in the same division last year. All it will take is a few surprising displays of competence -â€“ like Lovie says, a matter of a few guys stepping up.
Then again, the June sun may be getting to me.
(Ed. Note: Our Pro Football Prospectus 2008 mean projection for the Bears is 6.9 wins. The offensive projection is not nearly as optimistic as this article.)
Tampa: The Buccaneers signed long snapper Andrew Economos to a long-term contract last week. There are now mill-yuns and mill-yuns of dollars in the Economos.
Miami: John Beck and Josh McCown are battling it out for the Dolphins sacrificial lamb job, with Chad Henne running a distant third. But Dolphins quarterback coach Donald Lee says that June is no time to evaluate quarterbacks. "I really believe this in my heart,'' Lee said. "You evaluate a quarterback once he gets into a game when people in the stands are cursing at him and throwing ice at him and the FOX camera is running over his head in the huddle."
If cursing and ice throwing help quarterbacks develop, then Bobby Hoying should be Joe Montana. McCown and Beck may not become great quarterbacks, but they may learn how to play the theme from Rawhide.
Kansas City: The Chiefs held a series of open practices last week. One workout, which was held at Missouri Western University, gave the team an opportunity to bond while "roughing it." "I think it'll be good, all of a sudden get on a bus and go somewhere and practice, like it's a road game," Herm Edwards said. "Give them a sack lunch, an apple, kind of like high school football. But I think it forms a camaraderie. That's not a bad thing."
A sack lunch and an apple? That explains this audio clip someone sent me:
Voice of Larry Johnson: Man, am I beat. I never carried the ball 33 times before halftime before. My hammies feel like banjo strings. I need to refuel. Let's see what coach packed for lunch. Wow ... A PB&J on white bread, an apple, some Chips Ahoy, and a Capri Sun juice box.
At least Herm thinks of the little things: He cut the crust off the bread, just like I like it. But the jelly was on the bottom, and the apple was sitting on top of it. Now I have peanut butter bleed-through and the jelly is smeared all over my Fruit by the Foot. This is worse than the time he packed egg salad sandwiches and left them out on the bus during our road game in Jacksonville. The guys who didn't get sick from salmonella threw up when they saw the yolks stuck in Brodie Croyle's braces.
OK, let me finish this fruit cup and single-serving size Pringles and ... wow, halftime is over and I am still hungry. Oh well, tonight is dinosaur-shaped chicken nugget night, so I should be able to pig out.
Canton: Dolphins rookies got a chance to visit the Hall of Fame last week as part of an NFL sponsored program. Jake Long took a picture beside Dan Dierdorf's bust. (Conrad Dobler head-slapped him when he got too close.) Chad Henne had his picture taken beside the bust of Dan Marino. Hall spokesman Joe Corrigan led a tour of the museum that taught NFL newbies about the rich history and tradition of the game. Commissioner Roger Goodell sponsored the program after talking with noted football historian Michael Irvin. Irvin told the commish last August that he wished someone had taken him to the Hall when he was a rookie. Irvin actually had three "dream destinations": the VIP room at the Sapphire in Vegas, the Big 'n' Loud section at a John Varvatos boutique, and the Hall of Fame. Two out of three ain't bad, Mike.
Emmitt Smith also had a wish when he was a rookie: It was ...
KIDS! Here's your chance to write your own joke! What did Emmitt wish for? Post your best zinger. The winner will be immortalized in Walkthrough on July 3.
Here at Football Outsiders, we're always searching for new products we can sell to major and minor media outlets. For a few months, we've been experimenting with Write-it-Yourself Templates for busy editors with tight budgets and deadlines. Why dispatch expensive beat writers to compose routine training camp reports when you can just insert names into an easy-to-use template? It's fast, it's fun, and the same template can be used multiple times before anyone notices.
This week, we are proud to unveil our first Write-it-Yourself Template: The Undrafted Rookie Profile. Every local paper churns out three or four brief features about no-name rookies who made a few good plays in minicamp but will probably be cut by mid-August. The articles all seem unique, but when you read about 50 of them in a row (as I have to do when finishing Pro Football Prospectus) you realize that they are all the same. Sports editors: Save yourself some time and money. Use the template below, then drop us an e-mail to find out how you can buy others!
Headline: ROOKIE Shows off his moves
Copy: It was a routine short pass over the middle. ROOKIE caught the ball in stride for what looked like a four-yard gain. But then he made a move, juking out VETERAN DEFENDER and cutting upfield for an extra 20 yards.
It was only a minicamp drill, but the move opened eyes and turned heads. That catch wasn't the first time in camp that ROOKIE left a defender tackling thin air. "We didn't know what we had with this kid," said POSITION COACH after practice. "He really makes things happen."
ROOKIE has been making things happen for his entire football career. He broke every rushing record at TINY RURAL HIGH SCHOOL but wasn't highly recruited because he was just REALLY SHORT feet tall and weighed REALLY LIGHT pounds. After a year in juco, he transferred to UNHEARD OF UNIVERSITY where he overwhelmed the competition, rushing for OBSCENELY GREAT STATS while doing it all for the RIDICULOUSLY NON-THREATINING TEAM NICKNAMEs: rushing, catching passes, returning punts and kicks, and even throwing some option passes.
Still, pro scouts were skeptical of his size and the level of competition. ROOKIE didn't hear his name called on draft day, but several teams contacted him as a free agent. "I knew my size would be a liability. It has been all through my career," ROOKIE said. "I came here because I believe coach HEAD COACH will give me the best opportunity to show what I can do."
So far, HEAD COACH has been singing ROOKIE's praises. "That kid gives us a lot of flexibility. He can do a lot of things as a rusher, receiver, and a return man. I also like his effort and intensity." Still, ROOKIE faces an uphill battle to make the roster. FEATURED BACK and VETERAN THIRD DOWN GUY are locks to make the roster, and THIRD-ROUND PICK is ahead of ROOKIE on the depth chart. The team may keep four running backs, so ROOKIE's best chance to make the roster is to beat out DISAPPOINTING FORMER NO. 1 PICK WITH TWO DUI'S ON HIS RECORD and OBSCURE PRACTICE SQUAD GUY.
ROOKIE remains optimistic despite the odds. "I like being the underdog. It motivates me," he said. "This camp has showed me that I can play in the NFL." ROOKIE has faked and juked his way through an impressive college career. His next fancy move could fake him right onto the roster.
The guys at Rotoworld published their 2008 Fantasy Draft Guide in conjunction with Beckett this season. Adrian Peterson is on the cover. Two articles by yours truly are inside, a silly one and a serious one. Check it out.
If you blinked on June 10, you missed my debut on NFL's Top 10 on the NFL Network (I said one whole sentence). But I appeared several times on the June 17 segment about the top tight ends in history. Watch the show, and you'll see me bash Mark Bavaro pretty badly. Don't get me wrong: I think he was a heck of a player. But there are several tight ends -- including Todd Christensen, Riley Odoms, Charlie Sanders and Brent Jones -- that I would rank ahead of him. I should be on several upcoming shows, and hopefully I won't be caught doing any more Giants bashing (although there could be some Steelers bashing on the horizon).
I'm thrilled to be on this program. But my one-line performance in the first show got me thinking of famous "one-line" parts in film history. Marcel Marceau in Mel Brooks' Silent Movie and John Wayne in The Greatest Story Ever Told leap to mind. Silent Bob had one long line in Clerks. Can anyone think of any others?
Oh, and I know that Carl Sagan never actually said "bill-yuns and bill-yuns" in the landmark Cosmos miniseries. He also never mentioned the evolution of the long snapper, which admittedly isn't as interesting as those crabs with the samurai face on their backs.
So much for a tight ending. Peace out.
In two weeks: Stopping the safety blitz, plus some summer book reviews
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