Competing for time
Bears coach Lovie Smith said he believes in these events -- this one was held smack in the middle of the team's three-day mandatory camp. He sees them as a way of providing action behind his words. Most NFL teams chant we are family. Smith lives it. It was clear in the gentle, caring way that he engaged families during the event. In the extra moments he took to welcome all.
Smith has given his team a similar message and follow-up relating to its running game -- it will be back full-throttle for the 2008 season. He is selling it. He expects it bought.
"We talk around here about getting off the bus running the football, it is our philosophy, but we were not a good running team last year," Smith said of his recent 7-9 Bears. "We need to. We have to. We will.
"I am the first to admit it didn't happen. The fault starts with me. So, we admit it. Now we're not going to do a lot of talking about it. We're going back on the football field to work. We're a 7-9 team with some big hills to climb. We've climbed them before."
They climbed them after Smith's first season in Chicago, which finished with a 5-11 record. The next season his team was 11-5 and in the playoffs. Then 13-3 and in the Super Bowl.
But look no further than the running game disparity of the last two seasons to see where the Bears have been, where they are and where they must go.
In their Super Bowl season, the Bears averaged 119.9 rushing yards per game. Last season it was only 83.1. The average yards gained per carry went from 5.0 to 3.1. The rushing first downs sank from 103 to 74. The rushing attempts dropped from 503 to 423. The run-pass differential was plus 11 in passes during the Super Bowl season (503 runs/514 passes). It was plus 146 in passes last season (423/569).
"You're playing games here in Chicago in the winter where you can have heavy snow and winds gusting more than 50 miles per hour," Bears running backs coach Tim Spencer said. "If you look at any Bears season and the passes are way out of whack with the runs, that probably means we weren't very good."
It is a franchise built in part on the foundation of Hall of Fame backs Gale Sayers and Walter Payton. This franchise will always seek a commitment to rushing excellence.
"Well, I believe in a running game and great defense and special teams," Smith said. "I believe in a running team that can pass. A defense that gets takeaways. A complete package in the run game: Wide receivers who block, offensive linemen who are committed, coaches who call the game well, us getting ahead in order to run. So many other factors.
"We have a group of running backs. We are going to use them all. But Cedric Benson is our starter. Someone has to beat him out."
Benson, whose off-field incidents have overshadowed his on-field production, said that the Bears have not seen his best. But he insists they will.
"It means everything to have a head coach who is behind me," Benson said. "My first two years here I was behind Thomas Jones. Most of the time I just watched him work. I've got to take the heat for some things, though. Actually, I've taken a lot of heat -- but I'm not tripping. We had a bad year last year that led to some finger-pointing but ended in a good place, with everyone, including me, looking in the mirror. I've got three words for me this season: Real, nice and hard."
Fellow running back Adrian Peterson offered another three words for the entire group: "GET IT DONE."
Peterson is a six-year, all-around back from Georgia Southern. Garrett Wolfe is a second-year back who features quickness. Matt Forte is a rookie in from Tulane. And fullback Jason McKie blocks for them all.
So does a reshuffled and re-tooled offensive line, anchored by center Olin Kreutz and guard Roberto Garza.
The organization knows that Orton or Grossman must produce enough difference-making pass plays for the Bears to be a special team. Smith said both are battling for the starting job and likely will into the preseason.
"Right now they look like guys at the free throw line, shooting free throws, throwing the ball around here in shorts with no pressure in their faces, with no hits," Smith said. "I will do my evaluation when they get hit. I have told every one of our players that we are a 7-9 team. This is where you are. This is your role in the turnaround. Quarterbacks included."
The running backs, the running game are the wheels.
Smith said his team gets it. He is excited about this team. He believes it is preparing for a special season. If it can continue to compete and remain healthy, Smith sees a bigger Bears reunion. An even bigger Family Day.
"We're a 7-9 team, one that finished in last place in our division," Smith said. "You're 7-9, it tests your character. You see what you got. I think our best football is ahead of us."