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Another year, another unavoidable homemade sign popped up Thursday along the access road near the entry to Halas Hall intended to motivate the Bears.
Last January before the playoffs, a well-meaning fan posted the message, "Play Angry,'' a motto the Bears embraced so much that it was posted outside their Super Bowl hotel in Miami.
This time, players and coaches were greeted with, "Got Hunger?''
It sounded more like a challenge than a command. A better sign might have been "Get Healthy,'' because the injury outbreak among key players makes it more fair to wonder whether the Bears have indigestion.
But not hunger. The Bears haven't given anybody reason to question their guts.
Their braintrust is another matter.
Offensively, why Devin Hester still hasn't touched the ball except for the time a pass went through his hands mystifies everyone who heard at training camp about the ways the Bears planned to make use of the NFL's most exciting open-field runner. They haven't. An offense that has two touchdowns in three games and was bad enough to replace its quarterback really has no excuse why it hasn't gotten the football to its best weapon.
It also seems reasonable to hold offensive coordinator Ron Turner accountable for not implementing more maximum-protection schemes to slow a pass rush that contributed to Rex Grossman's demise as much as anything. Not to mention the absence of any downfield passing plays to speak of, abandoning what worked against the Cowboys after a promising first-quarter drive and other curious play-calling at times during the first three games.
Defensively, new coordinator Bob Babich has been more consistent with a more attacking approach full of blitzes that will require some tweaking to avoid man-to-man mismatches against the Lions given the injuries to cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher. Yet even as sound as Babich's debut has been so far, it was fair to note the Bears defense never really reacted to the Cowboys' halftime adjustments on offense to free up Terrell Owens.
Overall, a team returning the core of a roster that went 13-3 coached by the same group of men should have begun their defense of the NFC title sharper mentally. Physically, three weeks ago this was being billed as one of the two or three most gifted rosters in the NFL. So why are they 1-2?
The Bears haven't lacked inspiration as much as football intuition. Bad luck is a big part of it but bad decisions, by more than just their quarterback, explains much of the rest.
"Got Hunger?'' is the wrong thing to ask to get to the crux of what has been missing at Halas Hall. "Got A Clue?'' would sum up better what many fans think has been a bigger problem.
Here are some other good questions.
Because of Rex Grossman's recent demotion (and likely departure) and Brian Griese's age, it seems that the future of the quarterback position is up in the air. I've read that Kyle Orton has greatly improved, and I am wondering if he could be a legitimate starter (franchise quarterback?) for the Bears. Do you think he has the necessary skills and potential? If so, when should he start? -- Sean Ellis, Frankfort
Regardless of Orton's development, the Bears don't want to see him play this season. That would be mean Brian Griese flopped and Rex Grossman failed replacing him or both were injured. If Orton had progressed to the point the Bears coaches thought he was better than Griese or Grossman, he would have been elevated on the depth chart. Orton got serious last off-season and that commitment showed during an impressive preseason. The experience of starting 15 games his rookie season of 2005 will benefit Orton once he gets back on the field, whenever and wherever that is. But a franchise quarterback? He possesses good size, an accurate arm and improved decision-making skills but still isn't polished enough to prevent the Bears from beginning another quarterback project next off-season by looking toward free-agency and the draft. The reality of this quarterback situation looks to be what cynics feared in training camp: The Bears might have three solid backups at the position but no bona fide NFL starter around which a team can build a winner.
I was always a huge Rex supporter, but now not as much anymore. I guess, I was just wondering what is next for Rex in terms of the future? -- Bobby, Park Ridge
Look around the NFL. David Carr might start Sunday for the Panthers, his second team. Daunte Culpepper should start for the Raiders his third team. Joey Harrington will start for the Falcons his third team too. All are former first-round draft picks who were benched and run out of town by the teams who originally selected them. Grossman is 27. Nobody can take a 2006 season that ended in the Super Bowl off his resume. Physically, he still has attributes that will entice an organization to give him another chance. But the next phase of his career indeed has begun. He will have to compete for his next job. He will have to improve by watching instead of doing. But he's not finished, no matter what his harshest critics believe. Bet that Jon Gruden and/or Mike Martz will be interested in looking at Grossman next off-season no matter where they are coaching. There will be other GMs and coaches intrigued by the idea of signing Grossman but none of them figure to be Jerry Angelo or Lovie Smith.
Why hasn't there been just as much focus on Ron Turner as there has been on Grossman? I think it is time to sit Rex because at 1-2 we no longer have the time to experiment or wait until the light comes on but Turner's play-calling is being overlooked also. -- Brian Munos, East Moline
The offensive coordinator for the Bears traditionally rivals the quarterback as the least popular guy in town. Heat on Turner will increase if Griese struggles but probably not to Shoop-ian proportions. Remember that only a year ago Turner was being credited for stability and consistency that found ways to keep two running backs happy and keep the offense productive through Grossman's ups and downs. He didn't just get stupid. That said, his unimaginative approach through three games inhibited Grossman and possibly magnified his tentativeness. Turner never really gave Grossman a chance to be the Grossman who was the best offensive player in the league in September 2006. A year later, the calls were safer, the holes were smaller, and the emphasis on reducing turnovers shrunk the offense. If Turner expands his thinking with Griese in charge it will accomplish two things: 1) Spread the field and take advantage of the way Griese distributes the ball with accuracy to the open receiver and 2) Make Grossman supporters wonder why the offense failed to be so bold with No. 8 in charge this season.
Should the Bears draft a QB next year? -- Sam, Rolling Meadows
They should petition the league to see if they can draft one next week. Of course they should because they haven't gotten it right yet. The prospective crop of 2008 quarterbacks lacks a blockbuster, Top 5 sure thing at this point but the overall depth is considered solid. The top names include Brian Brohm of Louisville, Chad Henne of Michigan, John David Booty of USC, Matt Ryan of Boston College, Colt Brennan of Hawaii (whose home games should be covered by this Tribune reporter just in case he becomes the Bears quarterback, right?), Sam Keller of Nebraska and Andre Woodson of Kentucky. But based on the Bears luck in drafting quarterbacks and the way Tony Romo carved up their defense last Sunday, maybe they should focus on the list of potential undrafted free-agents.
Is Brad Maynard the best punter in the history of the Chicago Bears? Where does he rank among the all time great Bears punters? -- Charley Barth, Stafford, Va.
Statistically, George Gulyanics is ranked first in career punting for the Bears with a gross average of 44.5 yards per punt from 1947-52, according to the media guide. Maynard is second with a 42.3 average with 544 punts from 2001 through three games this year -- . 1 yard ahead of Todd Sauerbrun in third place after his stint from 1995-99. No Bears punter used his right foot more than Bob Parsons, whose 878 punts from 1972-83 are a team record. But Parsons isn't ranked in the top 10 for gross average. Given that Maynard has been a big part of the Bears' defensive dominance and field-position success during three playoff seasons, calling the former Ball State All-American the best Bears punter of all-time shouldn't start an argument.
Can we expect to see the same aggressive approach defensively if Lance Briggs, Tommie Harris and Nathan Vasher are out for any length of time? -- Dan Yopchick, Arlington Heights
Asked a form of that question Thursday, Brian Urlacher wouldn't even acknowledge key players would be missing from the defense so the Bears won't reveal anything. There are security checkpoints more open than Bears players and coaches. Of those three players you mentioned, Briggs looks the healthiest and most likely to play Sunday. But if the Bears attempt to be as aggressive in coming after the Lions even though starting cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher are out, they might be sorry.
It's obvious that none of the three quarterbacks the Bears have will be the long-term answer. What about Chris Leak? Should they have gone after Byron Leftwich and could a trade for Derek Anderson be a possibility once the Browns lose five more in a row and make the switch? I know its hard to predict, but if you were the GM ... -- Scott, Dayton, Ohio
Leak lacked the arm strength of an NFL quarterback and that combined with a slow release will make it difficult for him to ever stick on a roster. Byron Leftwich sounds good on paper but limitations and injury concerns scared some teams away. Derek Anderson? Really? That's all the Bears need: Another young, erratic passer prone to high highs and low lows who's a castoff from a losing team. Be careful what you wish for.
You speak of how the Bears will put Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen out there at the same time for Griese. Why on earth did the Bears not do more of this on Sunday? -- John McCarthy, Virginia Beach, Va.
Olsen hadn't played in three weeks due to a knee sprain and the Bears took a cautious approach to the rookie's first NFL game. He and Clark did provide one of the few bright spots and that must continue Sunday in Detroit to help Griese get off to an efficient start. By the end of the first quarter of the season - Week 4 - the Bears' two-tight end formation they raved so much about in preseason needs to become more reality than rumor.
Is it me or is one of the Bears best weapons, Mark Bradley lost in the shuffle? I know Lovie Smith says he is fifth on the depth chart but he is game-breaker that needs to see more snaps. -- Willie Wright, Killeen, Texas
No better time than now exists for the Bears to reintroduce Bradley into the offense with Griese's strength coming on short, accurate passes that rely on receivers making yards after the catch. When healthy, Bradley excels in that area and could flourish. But whether it's because of persistent injury problems or his mild frustration over a lack of playing time, coaches apparently have lost confidence in Bradley.