The Bears have a lot of issues heading into the 2014 season opener. But Lance Briggs missing an abbreviated Monday practice is not one of them.
The seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker was excused from practice by coach Marc Trestman on Monday so he could attend the opening of his restaurant in his hometown of Elk Grove, Calif. On one level he’s got his priorities straight — the restaurant business is a lot tougher than the linebacker business. And as Harry Caray, Michael Jordan and Jim McMahon can attest, one of the keys to success of a celebrity restaurant — besides really good food — is the celebrity actually being there every now and then.
On a more real level, the timing could have been better. And it smacks of Briggs putting his personal interests ahead of his professional interests. But it’s not a big surprise. Briggs has always been about two things in his Bears career — the Bears first and Lance Briggs a very close second. While teammates like Corey Wootton and Tim Jennings have sacrificed their comfort zone for the team — Wootton playing inside last season in a contract year; Jennings, a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback, playing nickel this season to ease rookie Kyle Fuller into the NFL — Briggs refused to move to the middle whenever Brian Urlacher was injured. He preferred the comfort of a position tailor-made for his skills in a defense tailor-made for his skills.
Lance is very much into Lance. While he has to be nudged into a once-a-week press conference, he’s a little more eager to do his weekly television show on Comcast Sports Net. And now, the Double Nickel Smokehouse on the first day of practice for the regular season.
Be that as it may, it is also undeniable that Briggs is most dedicated to playing great football. Regardless of the circumstances — the hubub over crashing his car on the Edens; his dissatisfaction with his contract; his unhappiness with Lovie Smith being fired; not having the great Urlacher next to him — Briggs has almost always been at his absolute best on the football field.
He’s a seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker. He’s earned the dispensation. Adam Dunn didn’t hit .220 for the White Sox because he missed a day of spring training to attend the Oscars. And Briggs isn’t going to be a bad linebacker because he missed Monday’s practice. If he’s slow this year, it’s because he’s old. Briggs takes Wednesday and Thursday practices off during the regular season and still manages double-digit tackles. This isn’t going to impact him or his team.
On the contrary, the most significant development involving Briggs’ absence was that Jon Bostic replaced him in practice on Monday instead of Khaseem Greene, who backed up Briggs last season. The Bears are grooming Bostic to be something that Briggs is not — versatile. Bostic is behind D.J. Williams at middle linebacker but he might be best suited for the weak side, where Briggs plays.
But things change quickly in the NFL. It could turn out that Bostic is the Bears’ best weak side linebacker by December. In retrospect, it might turn out that Briggs’ absence was worth all the fuss after all.
And now, the rest of this week’s First-and-10:
2. The Bears haven’t announced starting safeties for Sunday’s opener against the Bills, but at this point, does it really matter? Ryan Mundy, Danny McCray, Chris Conte and rookie Brock Vereen are all in the same boat at this point – competent players who will make plays in a good defense and not make plays in a bad one.
Conte and Vereen have the biggest upside but also are the biggest question marks — Conte is recovering from a concussion and played 22 snaps in the preseason. Vereen is talented but inexperienced. He was working with the first team in the offseason and at the start of training camp, but was a backup by the preseason opener. Expect all four to get their shot in the early going.
3. Best matchup of the Bears-Bills opener — the Bills front four vs. the Bears’ offensive line. The Bills, second in the NFL with a franchise-record 57 sacks, had three Pro Bowl linemen last season in Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. And end Jerry Hughes had 10 sacks. The Bears were tied for fourth in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed (30). But their offensive line did not play one snap of the preseason intact, because of injuries to right guard Kyle Long and right tackle Jordan Mills. And the Bills have a new coordinator in former Lions coach Jim Schwartz, who replaced Mike Pettine (now the head coach of the Browns). So set the over-under on Bears-Bills scraps at 1.5.
4. The Bears’ biggest concern on offense, though, is the running game. Matt Forte gained 10 yards on 10 carries (1.0 yards per carry) in the preseason. No excuses on Sunday, though — the Bills were 28th in the NFL in rushing defense last year (129 yards per game), 23rd in yards per carry (4.4) and allowed an NFL-high 19 rushes of 20 or more yards. That’s even more than the porous Bears’ run defense of last year, which allowed 18 rushes of 20-plus yards. And the Bills are without their leading tackler from 2013 — linebacker Kiko Alonso (159), who is out for the season after suffering a torn ACL in offseason workouts.
5. It was a disappointment but not a big surprise that South Sider Jordan Lynch was note even put on the practice squad. The Bears seemed to make an early evaluation that Lynch wasn’t NFL material, because they never really gave him a chance to do anything until a token set of carries in the final preseason game.
6. With the release of safety Craig Steltz, the Bears have nine players remaining from the Jerry Angelo era, less than three years after Phil Emery was hired to replace him: Lance Briggs, Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, Roberto Garza, Stephen Paea, Chris Conte and Robbie Gould.
7. For what it’s worth, 21 of the 67 players who played at least one game for the Bears during the 2011 season — prior to Emery’s hiring — are on 53-man rosters entering Week 1. That’s not a high percentage, but it’s heartening to see offensive linemen Lance Louis (Colts) and Gabe Carimi (Falcons) still in the league after suffering devastating injuries with the Bears. Henry Melton, who also suffered a knee injury last year, did not play in the preseason with the Cowboys after suffering a groin injury. But he practiced Monday and appears ready to play in the opener against the 49ers.
7a. Speaking of ex-Bears, Devin Hester had six receptions for 71 yards and two touchdowns for the Falcons in the preseason — including a 31-yard touchdown from Matt Ryan against the Titans in the third preseason game. Hester averaged 7.2 yards on five punt returns, with a long of 18 yards; and he averaged 24.0 yards on six kickoff returns, with a long of 47 yards. The Bears play the Falcons on Oct. 12 at the Georgia Dome.
8. It is expected that wide receiver Marquess Wilson will go on the injured reserve/designated to return list, which would open up a spot on the 53-man roster. Josh Bellamy, currently on the practice squad, is one candidate to fill that spot. Wilson, who is recovering from surgery to repair a broken clavicle he suffered early in training camp, would not be eligible to practice for six weeks and would not be eligible to play for eight weeks.
9. The practice squad generally is inconsequential in the big picture. Last year, seven of the eight players on the Bears’ original practice squad never made the active roster (special-teamer Jerry Franklin was the exception) — though wide receiver Ricardo Lockette ended up playing in the Super Bowl and winning a ring when the Seahawks signed him after the Bears released him.
But there was one change in the rules for practice squad eligibility that makes it more likely players could end up making a bigger impact. According to the NFL, each team is allowed two players who have “earned no more than two accrued seasons of free agency credit” on their 10-player practice squad. The other eight spots are for players who have not accrued even one season of free agency credit (unless they have fewer than 10 games on the 46-man active roster).
That opens the door for every second- and third-year player in the league, which is a boon for players on the fringe who have NFL talent but might get cut to make room for younger or healthier players. It gives a second chance to potential players who might not otherwise get it.
The Bears took advantage of the new rule by signing Bellamy and cornerback Isaiah Frey, who was their starting nickel back last season but suffered a hamstring injury in training camp and never had a chance to show what he can do. It gives the Bears a better chance to see what Frey can do when he’s healthy. The expanded eligibility makes so much sense that there should be four or five spots available instead of just two. Still, it’s a start toward giving fringe players a chance to prove they deserve to stay in the league.
10. Prediction time: Bears 27, Bills 13. As many question marks as the Bears have in the preseason, not every team can expose the Bears like the Seahawks did — that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. For now.