ONE AFTERNOON at Bears training camp Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher were teasing Ron Blum, an NFL line judge who was working the practice, as only cornerbacks can. The object of their scorn? The new Chicago wideout, number 87, Muhsin Muhammad.
"Hey, you've got to watch 87 pushing off," Vasher said to Blum.
"Every official," said Tillman, feigning a rip move with his right forearm, "they never call this. You've got to call it!"
Blum simply shook his head, as if to say, Corners always say the receivers are cheating; receivers always say the corners are cheating. But on a few routes that day Muhammad, the 32-year-old All-Pro who had 93 catches and 16 touchdowns for Carolina last season, came as close as he could to breaking the rules without getting flagged. He'd run at a corner, bump into him and fade to the outside, having accidentally knocked the defensive back off stride.
But that was nothing compared with the hit that Muhammad and the Bears took on Aug. 12, when third-year quarterback Rex Grossman broke his left ankle and was lost for three to four months. Muhammad and Grossman weren't acquainted when the free-agent wideout signed a six-year, $30 million contract with Chicago last February. Yet the two became such good friends while working out together from late March until early July--four days a week, a couple of hours a day watching tape, 60 to 90 minutes a day playing pass and catch--that Grossman invited Muhammad to his wedding this summer.
Now Muhammad has to get acquainted with his quarterback all over again. Early indications were that Grossman's replacement would be Chad Hutchinson, who won three of 14 career starts with the Cowboys and the Bears combined. However, Hutchinson played so poorly in two preseason starts that on Sunday he wasn't even listed among the top three quarterbacks on the depth chart.
Enter rookie Kyle Orton. A three-year starter at Purdue with a 59% completion rate and a plus-35 touchdown-to-interception differential, Orton struggled in the second half of his senior year after suffering a left hip flexor. Fully recovered from the injury, the fourth-round pick had the most impressive arm in camp; last Friday he completed seven of nine passes for 74 yards and a touchdown in an impressive second-half drive against the Bills' second-team defense. "The game's still a little bit too fast for him, but it's amazing how quickly he's picked everything up," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said of Orton in mid-August. "He's got the tools to succeed at this level."
Journeyman Jeff Blake, 34, who was signed after Grossman was sidelined, moves into the backup role, while Kurt Kittner, a 25-year-old who has failed to stick with five teams, will be the third-stringer. If they don't get improved play out of the quarterback position, the Bears could be in for a repeat of 2004, when Grossman suffered a season-ending injury (torn right ACL) in the third game and Chicago finished with the worst-ranked offense in the NFL. Over the last eight games the Bears scored as many as 20 points only once. Their quarterbacks wound up with a league-low 61.7 passer rating.
Chicago is also inexperienced at its second wideout spot--starting candidates Justin Gage and Bernard Berrian were mid-round picks in 2003 and '04, respectively, and have combined for only 44 career catches. That makes Muhammad even more important to the offense, but he doesn't seem concerned. After Grossman went down, he said, "The show must go on. I still think we'll be good."
If so, it will also take a stirring performance by the Chicago defense, which gets back two vital players. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who sat out seven games with leg injuries in '04, is now running free and easy. And after missing 14 games with a torn Achilles, Mike Brown returns, but not at free safety; he has been moved to strong safety to take advantage of his physical style.
To get out of last place in the NFC North, the offense will need to keep the pressure off the defense. That's where Muhammad, a great locker room guy and an even better player, comes in. --P.K.
Tommie Harris is a knifing, 6'3", 300-pound defensive tackle who was consistently double-teamed as a rookie late last year. "To be a great defense," Bears coach Lovie Smith says, "you need a dominating player up front. Tommie can be very, very special." Harris finished with 3 1/2 sacks and six tackles for loss. If ends Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye can be effective on the outside, Harris may turn into the interior pass rushing force this team has lacked since the days of the great Chicago defenses of the 1980s.
An Opposing Scout's View: Enemy Lines
I really admire Thomas Jones. His career was in the toilet after failing in Arizona, but he's had two good rushing years in horrible offenses in Tampa and Chicago. Jones is a tough inside runner and doesn't fumble. I'd rather have Jones for $1.8 million than Shaun Alexander for $6.3 million.... The sleeper on this offense is Justin Gage. He has good hands and runs terrific routes.... This defense has got to get more production from Adewale Ogunleye, who's going to keep the rap that he was a system rusher in Miami--helped by having Jason Taylor on the other side--unless he starts beating the quicker right tackles in the NFC.... One guy I love is Lance Briggs. The kid is everywhere. He's hard to block and has good balance and the ability to shed blocks to get to the tackler.... Brian Urlacher ought to play the outside where his speed and quickness could be used best. He's getting beat up too much in the middle.... Charles Tillman is one of the good young corners in football. He plays totally unafraid.... The Bears missed the brains and playmaking ability of Mike Brown last year. They had no enforcer in the secondary. Now they've got one.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2004 statistics
2004 RECORD: 5--11
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): OFFENSE T25/32/32 DEFENSE 25/15/21
COACH: Lovie Smith; second season with Chicago (5--11 in NFL)
MUHSIN MUHAMMAD [New Aquisition]
KYLE ORTON (R) [New Aquisition]
FRED MILLER [New Aquisition]
DOUG BRIEN [New Aquisition]
FG MADE 24
SACKS 1 1/2
SACKS 3 1/2
SACKS 5 1/2
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 170)
11 at Washington
2 Open date
9 at Cleveland
30 at Detroit
6 at New Orleans
13 SAN FRANCISCO
27 at Tampa Bay
4 GREEN BAY
11 at Pittsburgh
25 at Green Bay
1 at Minnesota
NFL rank: T24 Opponents' 2004 winning percentage: .480 Games against playoff teams: 6