Bernard Berrian walked into the locker room Thursday carrying an unopened package of gloves.
Like most receivers, Berrian wears gloves no matter the temperature so it had nothing to do with the Chicago weather turning crisp enough for many Bears players to wear knit caps for their morning walk-through. Maybe Berrian just needed a new pair because the old ones had been worn out from overuse -- and how long has it been since a Bears No. 2 wide receiver could say that after four games?
"It's not because of the cold, just something that happened at practice, no big deal,'' Berrian said.
Berrian has been wearing out defensive backs as badly as his gloves, catching 15 passes for 316 yards and three TDs in the first four games. He leads the league with three TDs of 40 or more yards. It would be hard to find a more improved wide receiver in the NFL this season.
That's a relevant point to ponder this week with the Buffalo Bills coming to town. Lining up at wide receiver for the Bills is Lee Evans, the team's No. 1 draft pick in 2004 two rounds before Berrian went to the Bears.
Many draft projections that year had Evans going in the first round to the Bears, who badly needed a speed component to their receiving corps. But GM Jerry Angelo decided to hold onto the 14th pick, which looks like one of his shrewdest decisions ever 2 1/2 years later.
The Bears used it to select defensive tackle Tommie Harris.Evans went off the board one pick earlier when the Bills took him at No. 13.
Harris just won NFC defensive player of the week honors for the second time in four games and has been compared this week at Halas Hall to Warren Sapp, John Randle and Alan Page.
Evans, the former Wisconsin star, has worked out nicely for the Bills with 96 catches and 16 touchdowns over his first two seasons. His stats so far this season--19 catches, 241 yards and zero TDs--aren't better than Berrian's.
So how do Bills fans reflect on that '04 draft, knowing Buffalo passed on a player such as Harris for a deep threat like Evans they perhaps still could have gotten in a later round?That's a question only they can answer. Here's my best stab at answering yours.
Ian Scott is fine, but Tank Johnson wreaks havoc. Why is Johnson the third defensive tackle? --Jeremy Kalmanofsky, New York
He is more like the No. 2-A tackle. The depth chart is not so much a reflection that Scott is better than Johnson, only different. Scott plays the run better but Johnson rushes the passer with more abandon and creates more big-play possibilities with his speed, quickness and reckless pursuit. How they divvy up snaps depends on the personnel in the game -- Johnson actually started against Seattle because of the personnel grouping -- and each serves his specific purpose well.
Scott was drafted by the Dick Jauron regime that required defensive tackles to be more of a roothog and clog running lanes and changed his body type to adapt to the new streamlined Lovie Smith system. Johnson was a truer fit for Smith's scheme for the reasons that he has shown in his first three seasons in the league. And, oh, yeah, both guys are better because of the attention paid Tommie Harris, the best defensive tackle in the league.
David, I see that you have dutifully answered questions about Lance Briggs for two consecutive weeks. I just want to know, in your opinion, your gut feeling, if you think he will be back next season and, more importantly, perhaps sign a long-term extension. Although Jerry Angelo has made some questionable moves here and there, I believe his policy of re-signing his own players before free agency to be extremely cost-effective and successful in keeping the core together. The fact that Briggs will not fall under that category is troublesome to me. --Clark, Dallas
You asked for a gut feeling, so I will follow instinct only in saying the Bears and Briggs will find a way to make it work. Salary cap guru Cliff Stein has a history for shrewdly manipulating contracts so they fit into the Bears' structure without limiting their flexibility. My sense is Briggs, as charismatic as they come in the NFL, will see the opportunities that exist for him in the Chicago market -- especially for a player off a playoff or, dare we say it, Super Bowl team. Money talks, sure, and if he's driven solely by the dollar then Briggs might find greener ($$$) pastures elsewhere. But he also might consider whether, say, Cleveland or Indianapolis would open the same marketing avenues and what his life would be like not having Brian Urlacher alongside him to preoccupy offensive lines.
Last week you said "If Briggs leaves the Bears after this season, all they receive in return would be memories because he's an unrestricted free-agent." But wouldn't the Bears been eligible for consideration to receive a compensatory draft pick in 2008, depending on whom they sign versus whom they lose? --Vic Fiebig, Springfield, Va.
Technically, you could be right. But it's complicated. Compensatory picks go to teams that lose more free agents than they sign. According to a formula developed by the NFL Management Council, compensatory picks are awarded to teams that lose "more or better compensatory free agents than they acquire." The picks come at the end of either the third, fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh rounds depending on the value of the contracts of the players lost. No team can receive more than four compensatory picks and the number depends on how many players a team loses to free agency. But if the Bears sign more free agents than they lose, even if one of them is Briggs, the complex league formula would not permit them to receive a compensatory draft pick. Last April, 32 compensatory picks were awarded to 19 teams, with the Jets receiving the highest in the third round after losing four free agents.
I've heard the Bears' offense referred to as a version of the West Coast. Is that what it is? My armchair QB mind thinks of short drops and timing passes. Rex Grossman seems to like to drop deep and chuck it. Isn't Ron Turner's brother Norv Turner, who runs more a power run game, and a vertical passing game? --Niel Magsombol, Naperville, Ill.
Think of the West Coast as a general description that different coaches interpret differently depending on their tastes. It's like food. One Italian restaurant may specialize in lasagna and fettuccine while another makes the best pizza and calzones. It's all under the heading of Italian food, as different as it is. It's the same way with the West Coast offense. Turner introduced the West Coast offense with the Bears in 1993. (And on a side note, Jim Harbaugh still credits Turner for teaching him the tenets that Harbaugh uses today as the head coach of the University of San Diego.) The beauty of Turner's offense now, under Grossman, is that he picks and chooses plays and formations like he's ordering off a menu to tailor the game plan to his personnel. Deep passes, short passes, power running, edge running -- it's all part of the West Coast offense. So far, the choices Turner has made have been palatable to Bears fans.
David, what is your background as a writer and where did you gain your football expertise? --Tim, San Antonio, Texas
Not sure "expertise" would be the word bandied about Halas Hall, but I grew up in North Judson, Ind., played college football at Ball State University, home of the 1989 Mid-American Conference champions, which lost to Ron Cox and Fresno State in the now-defunct California Raisin Bowl. I still have the watch to prove that was indeed the name of the bowl and the videotape of getting beat deep for a TD pass on national TV to mark the forgettable occasion. From there I got my Master's degree at Northwestern University, spent a decade at the South Bend Tribune writing about everything, including Notre Dame football, before coming to the Chicago Tribune in 2003.
Given that Benson is considered "the running back of the future" what sort of playing time do you see him getting this year? Would it be only garbage time or closer to the end of the season? I know Jones is the guy but if he's gone after this year, the team would be well-served giving our future ball-carrier some adequate experience this season. No? --Rafer Weigel, Sacramento, Calif.
It makes sense to distribute carries and playing time to Benson similar to the way the Bears did last Sunday night against Seattle. He had 11 mostly unspectacular carries (except for a 19-yard run) for 37 yards while Jones did the heavy lifting with 24 for 98. If that trend continues, it will be best for the Bears. Benson can spell Jones to keep him fresh, which will provide valuable experience for the future when the Bears will make him the franchise running back he is paid to be. But that's next year, at the soonest, and looking that far ahead serves little purpose for a team in the midst of a playoff run. An easier (and shorter) answer is this: Benson is the Bears' $16 million insurance policy to a Jones injury.
Does Rex Grossman have a good connection with his receivers? He seems young but shows a lot of confidence in his receivers' abilities as well as his own. --Mary Hill, Sebastian, Fla.
One of the big reasons Grossman so quickly assimilated himself back into the offense last December after missing the entire season involved the relationship he had with the receivers, especially Muhsin Muhammad. Grossman remained visible and a part of team practices and meetings during his rehabilitation and that played no small part in deepening those connections.
Additionally, when many others were doubting Berrian's durability and dependability in catching the football, Grossman kept calling him a star in the making who only needed to stay healthy and get on the field. The other thing about Grossman is that he makes friends simply by trusting every receiver in a pattern. There is no such thing as a decoy route in the Bears' offense under Grossman because if things break down, as he has shown, he is liable to find the open man.
What's with Devin Hester the last three weeks? He broke a punt for a TD the first week and then in Week 2 he ran everywhere but straight up the field and fielded the ball way too close to the goal line. Now he looks like a deer in the headlights out there, not knowing whether to catch it or let it fall, sometimes doing both on one play. He obviously was given a talking to after Week 2 and now seems confused out there. His instincts and speed are his greatest asset but now he seems afraid to use them. Will he be able to find an in-between because John Madden said it best last week when he said he would not have that guy back there in a close game. --Jerry Cartwright, Wheaton, Ill.
I realize Madden is in the Hall of Fame and made a tremendous living now with four TV networks ... but I'd keep Hester back there and actually want him returning a punt in a close game because he just might make a play to provide an edge. He needs coaching, that's all, and to be reminded before every punt in the red zone to put his spikes on the 10-yard line and don't back up. He has made some unusual decisions after the ball bounces and at times forgotten the fundamental idea of getting upfield and wasted time dancing laterally. But he remains a threat to score whenever it's in his hands so why would you want him off the field? The Bears do not have any player about whom they can say that.
What rookie will have the most impact on the Bears when we get to the last quarter of the season? --Randy Isaacson, South Bend, Ind.
Focus has centered on Hester (see above) and he is always a threat to turn a game around with a big return. Defensive end Mark Anderson already has shown the ability to make the type of sack or fumble recovery that could swing the momentum in a football game. But the rookie who should have the most impact remains the one on the field most, and that's starting free safety Danieal Manning. Manning is the last line of defense and if there is a vulnerable spot on a defense, a rookie figures to be one teams most try to expose. That said, challenging Manning could be a mistake given the way he plays the ball and relies on instincts that have been good to him. The Bears would have not inserted a rookie into the league's best defense if he were not ready -- if it's not broke, why fix it? -- so Manning would seem able to handle whatever lies ahead.