Thursday, February 15, 2007

Briggs and Jones and Roll the Bones

Being the Super Bowl loser is a dubious distinction, and it goes well beyond the week or two that follows the big game.

2006 Seahawks: 9-7
2005 Eagles: 6-10
2004 Panthers: 7-9
2003 Raiders: 4-12
2002 Rams: 7-9
2001 Giants: 7-9
2000 Titans: 13-3
1999 Falcons: 5-11

But let's think more positively than not playing in January of 2008. The Bears will try to follow in the footsteps last walked by the famously jerky 1972 Dolphins. They were the last (ahem) 'Super Bowl Runner-Up' to come back the next year and win the title. Those ill-wishers probably have a bottle of champagne waiting to be popped each year when this distinction remains safe, the self-congratulatory pricks.

Lovie Smith ought to have his contract extension coming, to rectify being the lowest-paid coach in the league. I’ve heard a fair share of fans prepared to let Lovie go, if draft picks are involved of course. I suppose I’d be in that camp if it weren’t a fantasy camp. Which is to say Lovie’s a fine leader of men, but he’s below-average working the sidelines and handling game situations (see the timeout with 2 seconds left against Seattle).

No team is going to surrender high draft picks for him. He’s not that kind of coach. To put too fine a point on it: only 3 blitzes in the Super Bowl amidst the endless Colts drives? That's on your watch. I've seen some improvement, now I want more.

Jerry Angelo’s contract is up in the spring and, other than his personality (see the “bullcrap” or “I should have a turban on” freak-outs), there’s little to criticize about the job he’s done.

Ron Rivera will likely be on the interview list for the Chargers job, but he appears to be staying in Chicago for another season. He’s got just enough experience and reputation that he gets the token interview as a minority candidate, before each team officially names the white guy they’d planned to hire all along.

Ron Turner figures to be here and that’s not the most exciting prospect. Turner was a welcome returnee a few years back, what with the Bears cycling through Crowton, Shoop, and Shea in the interim. Turner’s a bona fide NFL coordinator, which is far more than can be said about aforementioned Morons 1-3, but is that enough for this team anymore? Rarely do we see any imagination from Turner -- coming out throwing on every play and abandoning the run are closer to bad dreams than imagination.

There were rumors that Special Teams coach Dave Toub was leaving, but fortunately he has re-signed to lead the NFL’s best unit. I'm at least mildly surprised Wade Wilson has been invited back to expand on the body of work known as Rex Grossman's mechanics and fun-da-mentals. Dallas was smarter than to take Wade off our hands.

Onto player moves, obviously signing Lance Briggs is the focus. Things started to sound a little better from Lance’s perspective during Super Bowl week, when he finally mentioned a small discount might be possible for the home team.

The Bears can’t afford to let LB get away. They have absolutely no plan behind him and I’ve got news for them: Hunter Hillenmeyer goes from barely passable to pretty damn lousy if he’s not playing next to both Urlacher and Briggs. Leaks in the defense will spring without Briggs, who quietly covers receivers more often than Urlacher does, despite the hype. Briggs also keeps the cats loose with his silliness – he’s a glue guy.

I can almost understand why they might spend the $7.2 million (10 times his 2006 salary) to franchise-tag him for a year, rather than fully pony up for the long-term contract. I'd hate it, but I can almost understand.

A lot might change after the 2007 season, starting with Rex Grossman, who’ll be playing out the final year of his contract -- and who knows if he’ll earn another? If they only re-up with Briggs for one more year, I’ll be hurt; if he’s already played his last game as a Bear, I’ll need to have two-a-days throwing myself down flights of stairs before mini-camp.

Then there’s Thomas Jones, set to play out the last year of his contract at $2.25 million. Obviously a heck of a bargain for the Bears and not a great deal for Jones. That’s what happens when your career is on life support, as Jones’s was when the Bears signed him as a free agent. I’ve heard an awful lot of New Jersey types getting grabby about Jones coming over in trade and playing for either the Jets or Giants, but that talk better go as far as last year’s Thomas Jones-for-Ashley Lelie talk. Lelie's residing in the Where Are They Now? file already.

Jones is another of the Bears’ leaders. Yes, it makes sense to get something for him before he walks after 2007, but once again, it could be a one-year window the Bears are looking through before some wholesale changes come.

Unlike at the LB position, the Bears have fine depth at RB with Benson and Adrian Peterson. They could survive trading Jones, but there’s little reason that they should. Peterson’s surprisingly satisfied just playing special teams despite having the ability to get regular RB reps, and there’s no shortage of carries to keep both Jones and Benson happy. They even stopped hating each other so much by the end of 2006.

Wrapping up who might be gone – the unrestricted free agents:

G Ruben Brown - Ruben’s 34 but is coming off perhaps his best season as a Bear. I’d hope they can at least get him locked up in a deal that’s friendly for one year. If that’s all it takes to keep the band together on the O-line, that’s a worthy expenditure.

The one-year window I see has a lot to do with the offensive line, whose ages are as follows:

John Tait, 31
Fred Miller, 33
Ruben Brown, 34
Roberto Garza, 27
Olin Kreutz, 29

It’s been a minor miracle that the Bears have kept these guys healthy the last 2 seasons, less a handful of games here or there. My biggest fear when it comes to the Super Bowl loser curse is that the aging line finally caves in and is decimated, bringing back into question the ability to run a football play. It wasn't long ago that many plays looked like jailbreaks, defenders flyin' and dancing around the backfield.

Fingers crossed for one more year, but there will definitely need to be an overhaul following next season, at the latest. One would assume Angelo’s going to draft at least one offensive lineman, but I’m coming up empty trying to remember even one that he’s drafted. The veteran retreads have worked out for him thus far.

WR Justin Gage - I once had irrational fear that I would never be able to tell the difference between 2003 fifth round draftees Justin Gage and Bobby Wade, but that’s the end of that. Bobby Wade’s the one who fumbled a dozen punts and had to be cut. Gage is the one who did less and then went gently into NFL Europea. Hey, no one hates you like you’re David Terrell or anything, JG.

DT Alfonso Boone & DT Ian Scott - Honestly, I couldn’t always tell them apart. They’re both pretty OK players against the run, they fill up some space in the middle. And there’s room for defensive tackles. Tommie Harris should be fine, with a slight lingering injury concern, but you never know how long Tank Johnson is for Chicago.

Unlike during the season, the Bears can make some other plans so they don’t need to abide Tank’s nonsense. Unless he improves his play and distinguishes himself as non-expendable, in which case: fire at will, nutty.

Poor Ian Scott and Alfonso Boone, being overshadowed again, perhaps on their way out. Because Dusty Dvoracek is ready to roll!

Look at that face. But don’t look too close or laugh too loud, because Dusty once punched one of his friends so hard that he required reconstructive facial surgery. Does your face hurt? It’s killin’ me. Even at Oklahoma, this transgression cost Dusty some playing time.

Fortunately Dusty’s friend in that case wasn’t Tommie Harris. They’re best buddies, so Tommie can keep Dusty in line and on the field, and he can prove he was worthy of his draft position a year ago before the foot landed him on IR.

If the Bears don’t bring back Scott or Boone, they’ve got Israel Idonije, who showed a few flashes in the playoffs, and Antonio Garay. In a case of being in the right place at the right time, Garay made a few plays in the Buffalo game that I happened to attend. He made me look up his number in one of his few active games. Not that that makes him any good, but if he does become great, then I discovered him.

If the Bears do keep Scott or Boone, it has to be Scott who’s sneakily got a 4-year head start in the NFL over Dvoracek, despite that they’re both 25. Boone’s an old-timer anymore at 31.

S Todd Johnson & S Cameron Worrell - Most memories of these guys would probably be chippiness after the whistle. As bad as the Bears need safeties, they need these guys as much as they needed the departed Mike Green. I will say for Todd Johnson that he swung hard in case he hit someone, and every so often someone would get “jacked up,” as the kids say. Often it was Peanut Tillman or another teammate he was indiscriminately throwing himself into. And to say something even more kind, I didn’t understand when Chris Harris passed Johnson on the depth chart this season.

Without delving into possible free agent signings that I know very little about yet – I’m told the Bears have $23 mil, before signing Briggs – the buzz is already in the air for Adam Archuleta. The Redskins beat the Bears to one of Lovie Smith’s favorite players last offseason by making Archuleta the league’s richest safety.

Archuleta was a contributor for the Skins’ surprisingly horrible defense for about 10 minutes in 2006, before being a healthy inactive for the last 4 months. Once the season was over, Archuleta announced that as much as he enjoyed having time to have his face sharpened regularly at the place Maria Shriver recommended, he was never given a fair chance by the Washington staff.

I thought he was a stiff in St. Louis as well, but apparently Lovie believes in him, and that’s good enough for me given the residual options at safety.

Godspeed, Mike Brown. Happy Belated Birthday on the 13th. You're only 29, man. I know it feels like a lot more. We don't stop trusting anybody until they turn 30. Give us one more good year and it might be a very special one, not the ignominious 7-9 campaign that history is predicting.

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