Quietly, near the end of a conversation about his Chicago Bears offense Saturday afternoon, Mike Martz said, "I've seen this before.''
He was alluding to 11 years ago, when he took the offensive coordinator job in St. Louis and went to work under Dick Vermeil with an incredible offense that included Trent Green, Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Az-Zahir Hakim. The starting quarterback, obviously, became Kurt Warner after Green took the knee shot from Rodney Harrison in the preseason and was lost for the year. The Rams, 27th in total offense in 1998, went on to score 536 points with Martz's there's-always-someone-open offense.
Now the cast of characters is mostly nondescript in Chicago. There's Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Chester Taylor, Devin Hester, Devin Aromashodu, Johnny Knox, Juaquin Iglesias and Earl Bennett. This was the 23rd-rated offense in 2009, but Martz doesn't care. He's always been a guy who loves his team, even when there's no reason to love it. But with this team, and this quarterback, he's over the top, even for Martz -- and I've heard him say some outlandishly positive things about questionable players before.
"I never let hearsay and gossip determine what I think of a player, and I haven't with Jay,'' he said after the Bears' Saturday practice. "What I've seen in him so far is he has no flaws. None. He's got no ego. I'm sure I've not met anyone as intelligent as him at quarterback. He's been a great leader. He can make all the throws. His recognition of the defense at the snap of the ball is freaky, incredible. He sees things the way Kurt used to see them. He came to me with a completely open mind about this offense, and every day when I come to work, he's ready to learn. It tickles me. He's bought in so completely.''
The no-ego part ... that's interesting. Completely open mind ... interesting too, for a guy on his third distinct offense in three years. The honeymoon is on in Chicago.
The problem with making offseason judgments, obviously, is no one's had pads on, and Cutler hasn't been rushed and hasn't thrown interceptions. Who knows what'll happen if he has a five-pick game (as he did last year against San Francisco) or a four-pick job ('09 against Green Bay). And if the Chicago offensive line struggles as it did last year, all the fine patterns drawn up by this offensive guru won't matter much because Cutler will be running for his life.
That aside, I wanted to know Martz's thoughts about his allocation of wideout resources. I actually think the Bears should consider moving Hester back to where he was dominant his first two years in the league -- in the return game. First two seasons: 152 punt and kickoff returns, 11 touchdowns. Last two seasons: 94 returns, zero touchdowns.
Martz's love for Hester is just barely south of his love for Cutler in the early weeks of getting to know his talent. "I think he can be one of the great wide receivers in the game,'' he said. "Nothing we do in our offense should deter him from being a great return man. If he needs to take a few snaps off after a return, that's fine. He can do that. But I think he can be a fabulous receiver.''
No question the receiver group is better than the outside world thinks. Martz raised eyebrows recently when he said the receiver group is the best single unit on the Bears. "I wouldn't back off that one bit," he says. "It boggles my mind people don't see we have some top guys.''
In Martz's previous two coordinator gigs -- Detroit (2006, '07) and San Francisco (2008) -- the teams finished 19th, 22nd and 23rd, respectively, in total offense. Those numbers are partially the reason Martz was a short-timer in both spots. Unless Cutler throws a bunch of interceptions, the Bears shouldn't finish that poorly. This could be the old Chargers. But the one problem that's not going away is the raggedy offensive line. Thirty-five sacks wasn't the total story last year for the Bears' line. There was also the constant drumbeat of pressure from everywhere, which forced Cutler to face more pressure than he'd ever seen in Denver.
It'll be a fun summer anticipating the Greatest Show on the Lakefront, but Martz won't have much of a honeymoon. Everyone in Chicago knows this could be a walk-the-plank year if the Bears don't at least contend strongly for the playoffs. He'll have to scheme a way to protect Cutler, then make sure, as he did with Warner, Cutler has enough time to let his targets get open. The downfield throw is what made Warner great, and Cutler will be challenged to be just as accurate. No question he has a superior arm to Warner. Now he has to prove he can make all the throws in the Chicago offense. All that's riding on the Cutler/Martz tandem is a whole lot of jobs.
Now for some other stories of the week:
On the overtime reform vote that could happen at the one-day NFL spring meeting in Dallas Tuesday: The modified overtime system, which guarantees a possession for both teams in overtime barring a touchdown or safety on the first possession, was approved for the playoffs-only at the NFL meetings in Florida two months ago. Now there's a push to get the system in for the regular season in 2010 too.
I'm told if the vote doesn't happen, it'll be more because Roger Goodell doesn't want to inflame passions with the players as negotiations for a new CBA hang in the balance than because of all the other reasons being floated. I've heard them all over the past few days -- that a vote may not be called because the Competition Committee and Goodell don't have the votes to pass it, that the network TV partners aren't enchanted with the possible delays, especially in the Sunday afternoon games (there's some truth to this), and that some teams feel they're being rushed into something (there's less truth to that).
What I hear is that if a vote is called, the measure could get the necessary 24 votes for passage. It should, really, because non-passage could make for some awkward moments in the playoffs if teams hadn't seen how it actually worked in the league during the regular season. And given that less than one game per week goes to OT on average, the modified system isn't going to revolutionize the game.
But if Goodell gets a vibe (and he may have already) that the players association would seethe over having more snaps forced on players, that could hamper talks for a new CBA. And regular season overtime reform may not be that important if it's going to tick off DeMaurice Smith and his negotiating committee.
On Brett Favre undergoing ankle surgery Friday that will facilitate him playing in 2010: Did you expect anything different? I mean, really? After seeing Favre emotionally hug so many teammates and coaches after the NFC Championship game loss at New Orleans four months ago, you had to figure it was either a long goodbye or convincing himself he couldn't live without the game and his new team.
Favre wasn't loved by his mates with the Jets, who felt he set himself apart from them. Favre was loved by his mates in Minnesota, and he loved them back; all you had to do was see him and wideout Sidney Rice embrace for 45 seconds after the title game and whisper sweet nothings into each others ears and then dab their eyes when they let go of each other. Favre loved the Vikings. The Vikings loved him. I fully expect, as does any thinking person, Favre to rehab his ankle for the next couple of months and be in camp (not on time) sometime in August, ready to play his 20th NFL season.
If he completes another season as a starter, he'll push his record of consecutive regular season starts to 300. And if Favre then retires, Peyton Manning, who is 34 and second on the list with 192, will have to start every game for the next seven years to pass Favre.
On the New Jersey/New York Super Bowl: Notice I put New Jersey first. That's because the 2014 Super Bowl would be played in New Jersey. The teams would fly into Newark. The teams would stay in New Jersey. The teams would practice in New Jersey. The parties would be in Manhattan, and the media would stay in Manhattan, but so what? It would be a New Jersey Super Bowl through and through.
Now that that's out of the way, NFL owners will vote on the site of the '14 Super Bowl Tuesday afternoon. Three locations are in play -- Tampa, south Florida and New Jersey. I'm like everyone else: I think the Meadowlands will win. I think there's little doubt of it. Then, despite what the league says now about "this is a special, one-time thing,'' I doubt Pat Bowlen, who has wanted a Super Bowl for years in Denver, or Dan Snyder in Washington or Jeff Lurie in Philly or Bob Kraft in Foxboro would sit idly by while one northern city gets a Super Bowl, simply praising New Jersey as a wonderful place to spend a week in February four years down the road. In their words of praise will be a message: We want the game in 2017. Fair warning. I won't think of this as the 48th Super Bowl or Super Bowl XLVIII. I'll think of it as the Precedent Super Bowl.
On the Super Bowl vote: A venue needs three-quarters majority to earn the Super Bowl nod -- with an asterisk. Here's how it works. All three sites will be in the first vote. If none gets 75 percent, there is a second vote, with the three sites still involved. If no venue gets 75 percent in the second vote, the one with the lowest total is eliminated. Then there's a third vote between the two remaining candidates; a winner there still needing 75 percent. Failing that, there will be a fourth vote between the final two, and only a simple majority is needed to clinch the bid. So there could be one vote or four. Got that? I'm not sure I do.
"All these reports about older players with dementia and Alzheimer's came out. The concussions affect your thinking, your energy, everything. It's not like a knee and limping. It controls my whole body. I didn't want to know that stuff about dementia, especially not when I was playing. You can't play with that kind of fear. You can't be timid. Timid runs you out of the league. `No fear' lets you throw your head in there. I had to get those big guys off of me. I had to lead with my head and head butt them. I didn't want to play any other way.''-- Linebacker Zach Thomas, who retired as a Dolphin on Friday, on the toll concussions took on him, in an interview with Dan LeBatard of the Miami Herald.
"Actually, I need just two words. Subject-verb. Jets suck.''-- Thomas, to LeBatard, asked his feelings about the Dolphins' rival in the AFC East.
"Night and day. Everything here is a little more relaxed, I guess you can say. There is a whole different vibe in the building. The practices, walkthroughs and meetings are a little more positive and calm.''-- Thomas' brother-in-law, Jason Taylor, who -- I'm sure in Thomas' eyes -- has crossed over to the Dark Side. Taylor spoke at Jets' camp the other day about the differences between the Dolphins under Tony Sparano and the Jets under Rex Ryan.
Three numerical points regarding the overtime debate:
1. The league averages 13 overtime games a year. That's 5.1 percent of the games in a season. That's three overtime games a month. To me, it's not revolutionizing the game, or adding much to the time of a game, or to the burden on the networks, to make overtime reform part of the regular season.
2. Eleven teams did not play an overtime game in 2009. Only four teams played more than one.
3. Detroit has not played an overtime game in its last 46 games. Seattle (30), San Francisco (30) and Houston (29) have gone nearly two years without playing extra time.
On a visit to Washington to tend to some USO matters last Wednesday, my wife and I visited Arlington National Cemetery for the first time. In the midst of watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we heard distant rumbles, like thunderclaps. Those were no thunderclaps. They were rifle volleys, fired at the interment of a former service member. I didn't realize how active a cemetery Arlington still is. There are 318,000 people buried there, and an average of 28 burials per weekday -- some recent servicemen and some from past wars.
Four Washington-related travel notes:
1. I left my Blackberry in a taxi after being dropped at Walter Reed Army Medical Center early Wednesday afternoon. If the cabbie (a nice Ethiopian fellow who coaches youth soccer in Takoma Park, Md.) who finds my phone would be so kind as to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, there'll be a reward in it for him. By the way, I stupidly never downloaded the contact list from the phone onto my computer, so I've got to regenerate my phone list. So those of you who have given me your cell and home and office numbers over the years would be so kind as to e-mail them to me at that address, I'll be indebted. Thanks. And don't worry, I have the phone password-protected. There are some pretty good numbers there, but they won't be falling into the wrong hands.
2. Washington has to be the best walking city in America.
3. Nationals Park is a pleasant venue, with lots of creature comforts. The best: Peroni on tap, all over the ballpark.
4. If you have three hours in D.C. and you want to do something peaceful and memorable, just walk through our National Cemetery. Verdant hillsides with row after row of distinguished simple headstones, pristinely kept. A superb place to honor those who gave their lives for the country.
"@SI_PeterKing you should have run with us pal! Dolphins will win the division!''-- @JozyAltidore17, U.S. Men's National Team striker Jozy Altidore, two hours after Saturday's training at Princeton University ended.
Back story: I am covering the World Cup Group Stage in South Africa for Sports Illustrated and SI.com, and I drove down to Princeton University on Saturday to meet a few players and coach Bob Bradley after their training session there. Altidore was one of the players SI soccer maven Grant Wahl told me I should meet (when Grant speaks, I listen). First words out of Altidore's mouth: "Hey, you're on Twitter! You got that dog for an avatar.'' And then we talked for a bit.
Altidore's wider than the soccer player I envisioned. Turns out he played defensive back as a middle-schooler, broke his arm, and his mom didn't want him to play football anymore. So he continued his soccer career, and here he is, preparing to try to get America an upset win over England in the June 12 World Cup opener. The running part of his Tweet concerns my comment about how much the 30 candidates for the Cup team ran after practice -- about 45 minutes, all with heart monitors on, with trainers monitoring every players' heart rates at midfield on a laptop.
Interesting NFL thing about Altidore. He wants to buy season tickets -- a box, really -- to the Dolphins games. Big Miami fan. But he says he's not there enough to make it worthwhile.
By the way, I've asked my Twitter followers to vote by noon today whether they want me to Tweet on soccer from South Africa between June 10-26 (I'm back home after the Group Stage), or stay idle. I've been overwhelmed with responses since last night, and I'd love to hear from you about whether you want to hear from me on life, coffee and futbol from South Africa, or whether you want me to shut up. Your call. Majority will rule.
1. I think it would really surprise me if the Broncos were shopping Kyle Orton before the draft. Here's why: Josh McDaniels couldn't have been sure he was going to get Tim Tebow, and he didn't have enough information on Brady Quinn as a player yet. If Orton's name came up in discussions with another team ... well, maybe it did. But "shopping?'' I can't see it. On April 15, McDaniels knew two things about his quarterback situation: He didn't know if Orton was his 2010 quarterback, but he also couldn't have known Quinn was superior to Orton either.
2. I think I've heard reliably the Saints will lock up running back Pierre Thomas before training camp begins, which is smart. I've said it before and will say it as often as I have to for people to believe it: Thomas was the unsung hero, times four, of the Saints' Super Bowl. The number of huge plays he made -- and not just in the playoffs -- equal any player on the team in 2009, other than Drew Brees.
3. I think this Anthony Galea HGH/pro athletes story will touch a lot of people, and a lot of teams, in the NFL before it's all over. The next PED crisis in the NFL is HGH, and we'd all be naïve to think scores of players in the NFL aren't using HGH, knowing there's no reliable way to test for it.
4. I think Brian Westbrook has three interesting choices, but only one good one if he wants a valuable role on a team that has a chance -- a chance, I said, not a probability -- to be good: Denver. He might get more carries in St. Louis behind Steven Jackson, and he might be on a more family-friendly team in Washington (where his brother plays), but the best football decision is Denver.
5. I think there's little doubt Wes Welker is ahead of where anyone thought he'd be right now, after February surgery on his knee and shoulder. Three months post-surgery, he was dancing to "You Should Be Dancing'' by the Bee Gees Saturday night at the Magic-Celtics game in Boston, and earlier in the day, multiple reports had Welker moving well and jogging through routes at his football camp in a Boston suburb. He's not playing opening day -- that would be way too quick a recovery -- but it looks like Welker could be back earlier in the season than any of us thought.
6. I think the controversy over Gale Sayers' remarks over the Bears being a disappointing team, and Brian Urlacher being on the other side of his career, and Lovie Smith's job being in jeopardy ... I mean, they're so, so controversial! And the presses stopped all over Chicagoland to report everything he said! And breathlessly! That Sayers is such a bad man! And he stirred the pot so horribly!
7. I think Darren Sharper said on Twitter what every Saint will think entering the Sept. 9 season opener against the Minnesota Vikings, regarding Brett Favre's ankle surgery: "X marks the spot.'' You watch. In the first quarter of that game, Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will be sending blitzers from everywhere -- and I don't doubt one will be Sharper, reprising his up-the-middle rushes from the NFC Championship game.
8. I think this is just a hunch, but I wouldn't be surprised if Terrell Owens signs with Washington.
See pictures of how T.O. has kept himself busy this offseason
9. I think it makes no sense for the Cardinals to sign Marc Bulger -- unless Ken Whisenhunt, down deep, has decided Matt Leinart's definitely not his man. And I don't think he's decided that. I know this from talking with Whisenhunt at the Tom Coughlin golf tournament last week in Florida: He really likes Derek Anderson. I can't see him signing Bulger to muddy the waters.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. So sue me. Never watched Lost.
b. Many questions recently about Paul Zimmerman and his status. Checked in with Linda, his wife and the most wonderful person in the world, over the weekend, because I'm planning a visit with Dick Vermeil and a few others post-World Cup (yes, Dr. Z can still enjoy a good glass of Pinot Noir) and she reports his speech is making some progress. That's been the toughest part of this. Don't get your hopes up about a return to writing, because he's got a long, long way to go. But keep sending the good karma his way, and you never know what will happen.
c. It was fun being with Vermeil last week at the Coughlin tournament. Such a sunny person. So happy to talk about anything -- football, life, wine, the human race, whatever. Glad to see him doing well in the early stages of his wine business, and his wine is so good.
d. My favorite wine these days come from Rubicon, in the Napa Valley. That's the premium Francis Ford Coppola stuff. I'll stack up his Cask 2005 Cabernet against anything.
e. I wish there were 28 hours in a day. I'd use the other four to make progress in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Can't wait to review a few books for my Father's Day reading list. I love how Stieg Larsson wove this story. Amazing.
f. Speaking of amazing, Michael Leighton, the Flyers' goalie-off-the-bench with three shutouts in four games against Montreal.
g. And Rondo. The fabulous Rajon Rondo.
h. I see Jonathan Broxton woke up.
i. And I traded Roy Halladay, in a big package that netted me Pablo Sandoval and Corey Hart, and I picked up Scott Rolen. Had no choice. I can't hit. I've cast my miserable hitting lot with Pablo Sandoval now, who's got to wake up and be the stud he was last year.
j. Enough of the whining, David Ortiz. It's beneath you. It's ridiculous.
k. Should have used this as a travel note, but consider it, at least, a travel lesson: Never, ever, ever (when possible) travel the Cross Bronx Expressway through New York City. Stupidly, I'd forgotten that lesson that had been pounded into me over 24 years in New Jersey on Saturday morning around 8, when, on the way from Boston to Princeton, N.J., I figured, "Why not? Why not use the GPS in the car and drive the way it tells me and go down I-95 through the city?'' What I'd learned two decades ago, through bitter experience, is to go 10 miles out of the way and use the Tappan Zee Bridge to the Garden State Parkway. But I got greedy, and a 45-minute jam (for no apparent reason) made me cut it close getting to Princeton. Consider yourself forewarned.
l. I really miss New Jersey. Not enough to move back, but I have so many good memories of the place. The softball. The pizza. The family life. The Star-Ledger on the doorstep. Wouldn't trade our 24 years there for anything.