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NFC champs make big offseason changes

CHICAGO (AP) - Teams that make it to the Super Bowl usually have it easy in the offseason. They're obviously doing a lot of things right, so there's no need to overhaul the roster.

Scratch that theory with the Chicago Bears. Scratch Thomas Jones, Tank Johnson, and maybe Lance Briggs, too. While you're at it, scratch defensive coordinator Ron Rivera.

A year after returning 22 starters, the Bears head to training camp next week looking more like a team on the mend than the reigning NFC champions. There have been major personnel changes and some off-the-field embarrassments since the Bears left the Super Bowl in February, and with Briggs' status yet to be resolved, there's the potential for ugliness that could linger long into the season.

"Change is inevitable given our system, so it's not that we're not used to it. And I'm talking about players and coaches alike," general manager Jerry Angelo said. "We felt we did what we needed to do. Even though there are going to be some unknowns, it doesn't mean we don't feel good about what our future is going to be." After a decade of putting the fun in dysfunctional, the Bears have been a model of stability the last few years. And, no surprise, that's coincided with the team's emergence as one of the NFL's elite.

Their 15 wins last year gave them back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1995. It also put them in the playoffs for a second straight year, a first since 1988.

And when they beat New Orleans for the NFC title, the Bears were in the Super Bowl for the first time since Walter Payton, The Fridge and the Punky QB were playing.

Though Chicago was beaten by the Indianapolis Colts, it wasn't a stretch to imagine the Bears being contenders for the next several years. Angelo had built a strong core and added depth through savvy drafting, and had a knack for shoring up key positions with veteran pickups.

"I'm proud of our program and where we are right now," coach Lovie Smith said. "We didn't achieve our ultimate goal, but I like where we are right now, like the direction we're going." The changes started before the Bears even finished unpacking from Miami.

Rivera had been so highly thought of for his work with the defense that he was considered a shoo-in for a head coaching job somewhere in the league. Indeed, he interviewed with eight teams in two years.

Instead of a promotion, he found himself out of a job less than three weeks after the Super Bowl.

Though Rivera took pains to say there were no conflicts between him and Smith, it was a curious decision. Chicago's defense had been among the league's best for two straight years, and often carried the offensively challenged team. The Bears did struggle to contain the Colts, but they were also missing a few key players, including tackle Tommie Harris and safety Mike Brown.

At the same time, Smith was trying to figure out his own future. He was the lowest-paid coach in the NFL last year and even though the Bears made it clear they wanted to keep him, negotiations on an extension got tense. At one point, Smith's agent even said the coach would likely be gone after his contract ended following the upcoming season.

Shortly after, Smith agreed to a deal that will keep him in Chicago through 2011 and pay him a reported $23.45 million. Angelo also got an extension, through 2013.

"We won 15 games, played in the Super Bowl," Smith said. "When you've had success like that, you have to deal with some problems."

And more were coming.

Jones and Cedric Benson always had an uneasy coexistence, with neither meant to be a backup. Jones came to Chicago as a free agent in 2004 to be the Bears' primary running back. A year later, the Bears used the No. 4 pick in the draft to take Benson.

Though the two pushed each other - Jones joined Payton as the only Bears to rush for 1,300 yards when he gained 1,335 in 2005 - it was clear one had to go. And no way the Bears were going to dangle a former top-five draft pick as trade bait.

So on March 6, the Bears shipped Jones to the Jets for a second-round draft pick in what looked like a real bargain for New York.

"We felt very good about Thomas Jones. He was a very good player for us, a very good leader, I have nothing but good things to say about him," Angelo said. "(But) it's (Benson's) time. We made that bed when we drafted Cedric, and now we have to sleep in it. And we felt very good about that."

The biggest shake-ups, though, have been to the defense, the very core of the team.

The Bears supported Johnson during his legal troubles, believing they could help him turn around his life. When the talented tackle spent two months in jail this spring after violating his probation on a gun charge, Smith, Angelo and several of his teammates were among his visitors. When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him for the first half of the season, the Bears again stood by him.

But when he was stopped at 3:30 a.m. June 22 on suspicion of drunken driving, that was too much. Three days later, he was cut.

"We did what we had to do. It's unfortunate it ended up the way it did," Angelo said. "When we took Tank in, we knew there were issues and we would have to be willing to bend and be patient. We did that. It's unfortunate he crossed the line that we felt was beyond what we all had an understanding of what direction he was to go in.

"We lost a good football player, and we wish him well." Even before losing Johnson, the Bears were thin at defensive tackle. Ian Scott and Alfonso Boone left as free agents, and Harris missed the last month and the playoffs with a hamstring injury so severe it required surgery. If he's limited at all this year, the Bears could have trouble stopping the run - just as they did against the Colts.

Then there's Briggs.

The star linebacker wants a long-term deal, and he threatened to sit out the first 10 games of 2007 after the Bears slapped him with the franchise tag. There was no deal before last Monday's deadline, meaning the only contract he can sign until next year is the $7.2 million franchise offer.

"I'm assuming - and I can't speak for Lance - that Lance is going to be with us," Angelo said. "If he chooses to pursue another course, then we feel comfortable about the players on our roster. We have what we feel are a couple of good young players that we feel real good about.

"They're unknowns, but Lance was an unknown at some point, too."

The bigger concern is chemistry. Briggs is well-liked among his teammates, and an ugly holdout could be a distraction in the locker room. It wasn't lost on anyone that Urlacher, the undisputed face of the franchise, wore Briggs' No. 55 when the players swapped numbers on their last day of workouts in June.

"I hope Lance is there," Smith said. "If he's not, I mean, we've got a season to get ready for."

Despite the turmoil, there have been some positives. The Bears believe their top draft pick, tight end Greg Olsen, could be a game-changer, and he was already showing promise in the offseason workouts. He's also already signed.

Harris and Brown are healing nicely, and the Bears are hoping a change of scenario will rejuvenate safety Adam Archuleta.

And in the move that could have the biggest impact, the Bears switched uber-return man Devin Hester to offense. Hester set an NFL record last year with six returns for TDs, and his opening 92-yard return for a score was one of Chicago's few bright spots at the Super Bowl.

Now he'll have his hands on the ball even more, energizing a sometimes lethargic offense. He's been working out at both running back and receiver.

"Last year we had 22 starters coming back, so you had to feel pretty good," Angelo said. "We don't have 22 starters back, but we have 22 good players. The concern again comes back to our health and staying hungry.

"... That's not something you take for granted. Every team, every year takes on its own personality," he added. "So far, what we've seen has been very, very positive."

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