SI.com has dispatched 10 writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. For the complete schedule of postcards, click here.
The Bears take refuge at miniscule Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Ill., about an hour south of Chicago. During evening practices the feeling is pretty much Friday Night Lights on a far smaller scale. Fans belly up about three-deep along the fenced-off track oval that rings a lone field or they squeeze into a singular grandstand.
Observers do their best to entertain themselves throughout Lovie Smith's light practices, which so far have lacked much pop. Kyle Orton and Rashied Davis barely fail to connect on a 40-yard bomb and one fan bellows, "Get Hester a helmet!," referring to the Bears speedster who was then toiling, "injured," on the sideline. Rex Grossman defies character and pulls the ball down for a long scramble and another fan joshes, loudly, "Who is that?" It's amateur night at the Apollo. Just imagine if they served beer at Bears camp. Beyond that, the prevailing theme in Bourbonnais is uncertainty. The depth chart at every offensive skill position remained unresolved through Sunday.
1. Grossman vs. Orton vs. ... Caleb Hanie? OK, it seems almost unfathomable the Bears will ever have to call upon their No. 3 guy, which looks to be Hanie, a rookie out of Colorado State. But keep in mind the Bears have had to use at least a third-string QB in three of Smith's four years. (Telling, isn't it, that Orton and Grossman were both third-string or lower on this team at one point?)
Having watched Hanie sputter through two practices, Bears fans had better hope this rejiggered offensive line stays intact. (For starters, that means first-round pick Chris Williams has to get on the field, and quick. He has a bad back at the moment.) As far as the QB starter goes, very little seems to have changed from Day One of camp when Smith flipped a coin to determine which QB got first-team reps at the beginning of a month-long rotation. Rex won.
Bottom line: Grossman still has a much better arm ... and he still makes the same mistakes. Meanwhile, Orton still seems to prefer playing it safe. And he still has trouble with most long balls. To me, logic says Orton gets the nod. The Bears seemed to have given Grossman one last chance to wow them when they re-signed him to a one-year contract. As far as I can tell, it hasn't happened yet.
2. Not buying the Hester-holdout nonsense: There was never a question of whether Devin Hester would seriously hold out long, especially under this current Bears regime, where GM Jerry Angelo is quick to quell all holdouts. (See recent long-term contracts for Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, RobbieGould, Tommie Harris, and so on ...) Hester was all smiles on Saturday, a day before his contract was renegotiated, and was seen chatting up Angelo on the sidelines. He wasn't fooling the fans or the media when he developed a mysterious "hamstring injury" on the same day that he returned to camp last Friday.
For Saturday's evening practice, he was the last player on the field, sans pads, whereupon the crowd went nilly-willy. He spent the majority of his time fielding balls from the punt machine, and every now and then he'd stop to stretch, high-kicking BOTH legs, one at a time, far over his head, like he was trying to punt his own face. This was not a guy with a hamstring problem. The Bears knew that and were OK with it, as long as the situation got resolved soon.
Smith seemed equally cool on Friday when he told reporters, "The players I know can play, I'm not going to rush any of them back." But offensive coordinator Ron Turner seemed a little more concerned. Remember, the Bears immediately need Hester to become a No. 1 receiver following the departures of Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad. "He's up to speed," Turner said. "But he needs reps. We need to get him out here." That was 9:15 Saturday evening. Hester re-signed less than 15 hours later. As for the hammy, "it's a'yight," Hester deadpanned Sunday.
3. Greg Olsen on breakout alert: Hester and teeny-weeny running back Garrett Wolfe garnered the loudest applause over the weekend, but Greg Olsen got the most consistent cheers. Without a proven bunch of receivers, Turner says he'll lean more heavily on the second-year tight end, who came on strong around midseason last year after essentially missing the first four games to a knee injury.
Olsen has been a beast at camp, snatching balls in traffic and exhibiting acrobatic abilities on one particular deep ball Saturday -- that he barely managed to fingertip to himself while staying in bounds. Tellingly, that pass came from Grossman, which Bears fans have to like if he wins the job. Olsen and Grossman never seemed to click last year. Most of his balls came from Orton or the departed Brian Griese.
Marty Booker. Well, sort of. Five years after being traded to Miami for defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, Booker, who ranks fifth and sixth all-time in receptions and yards for the Bears, is back in Chicago, having signed as a free agent this offseason. Sure, he has a few obstacles to overcome before he's a starter again. He turns 32 on Thursday, but he might be the best man for the job -- at least for now.
In nine NFL seasons, Booker has played alongside 16 starting quarterbacks, which he says has made it easy to deal with the Bears' uncertain QB situation. "I've never had stability at that position," Booker said. "I have to go out and catch the ball from whoever is throwing. Who's throwing it has never been part of the issue. Can't be. I'm paid to catch the ball, not to care about where it's coming from."
On the downside, Booker's never been a speedster. He generally has relied on his humongous hands (no, really, they're massive) as a possession receiver and has used his big body to box-out defenders. Too bad neither Orton nor Grossman are known for their accuracy.
Just like in 2007, when the Bears opened the season against a much-hyped San Diego team, Chicago gets a tough Week 1 test that could set the tone for '08. This year it's the Colts in Indianapolis. Last year the Bears not only lost a close game to the Chargers, 14-3, but also they lost two key defensive starters to injury in safety Mike Brown and defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek (each one tore an ACL). Not exactly the best follow-up to a Super Bowl loss.
Coming out of this year's game with a win and a healthy Brown (remember, he's missed the majority of the last two years) would be a huge start. After that, the Bears face just one playoff team, Tampa Bay, over the next seven games. Managing six wins over the first half of the season seems realistic, and this is a team that tends to steamroll when it builds confidence.
Between the injuries (Brown, Harris) and contract squabbles (Urlacher, Briggs), who would have thought the entirety of the dominant '06 Bears defense could ever return to the field intact? But there they were, yucking it up all weekend, knocking helmets off and oozing intensity. Following one run on Saturday, rookie Matt Forte was pushed back down to the ground after bouncing up from a tackle, evoking memories of the alleged harassment Cedric Benson got from this same bunch during the '06 camp. Forte didn't take it personally, but he certainly took notice: This unit is still tough as nails.
• Speaking of Forte, he's had his moments, but Smith seems to have taken a step back from declaring the rookie a starter just yet. Adrian Peterson, who's proven perfectly capable as a starter in the past (he had three scores in five starts last year), had been taking the majority of the snaps with the first-team offense up until Sunday. On Sunday, Forte finally worked in with the unit a few times and was used heavily as a receiving back, displaying some nifty moves and steady hands, especially on a one-handed grab in traffic that he took the distance. The catch might have looked a little less pretty had it been placed better, but this one was low and behind. The passer? Grossman.
• Come late August when I'm drafting my fantasy team, I'll have very few Bears players on my "draftable" list. If Olsen falls into the seventh round or later, he's a steal. I've got a mental list that also includes Hester if he falls very, very far, and the "Bears defense." Beyond that, whomever starts in the backfield will be worth a flyer, based on the commitment of this offense to the run (Smith used his go-to "we get off the bus running" line again Sunday), but even that situation will be tough to figure out with the position still up for grabs.
• There cannot be a team in the league with greater depth at tight end than the Bears. After Olsen and Desmond Clark (two years removed from a 45-catch, six-touchdown season) is 6-foot-7, 262-pound Michigan State rookie Kellen Davis, who the Bears selected in the fifth round. The way the Bears were telling it, Davis hadn't dropped a pass until Sunday afternoon, and more than a few reporters had dubbed him the "best looking player in camp" so far. His best chance to make an impact in '08: Learn how to block.
• The first player to express frustration with Hester-mania? That would be Rashied Davis, who's also competing for a wide receiver spot. On Hester's first day in pads on Sunday, fans cat-called "Heeeester" for the first five minutes of receiver drills before Davis finally had enough. In shrill falsetto, he wailed "Deeeeeeevin! Deeeeeeevin!" for the rest of the drill.
• The Bears know what's coming in 2008: No one with any sense will punt or kick directly to Hester. (Note: the Broncos aren't on the schedule.) So when Hester lined up in pads to return live punts for the first time on Sunday, the crowd got a fistful of disappointment as Brad Maynard sent eight straight punts away from Hester. Maynard hung 'em high, he pinned 'em against the sideline -- but not a single one was returnable. You could see the frustration building in Hester's eyes. It could be a long season for the Windy City Flyer.
• Best way to pass the time in Bourbonnais? Stroll through the players' parking lot and try to guess whose gaudy ride is whose. The gigantic Nissan monster truck with the UF stickers? Gotta be Grossman or Alex Brown, both Florida alums. But the blended chocolate-brown-and-black Hummer with extra-thin wheels and chrome rims? I'm leaning toward Dvoracek, but, really, I don't want to know.