By Adam Hoge-
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. (CBS) As players arrived Tuesday at Olivet Nazarene University, the excitement of a promising 2012 season was already building with all the talk about high expectations put on the Bears by fans and the media.
Despite the first practice not taking place until Thursday, a handful of fans were already lined up at the ONU entrance looking for autographs.
Inside the campus grounds, new general manager Phil Emery and head coach Lovie Smith downplayed the Super Bowl talk.
“I think we’ve made progress, but to say Super Bowl contender, it has to be earned on the field,” Emery said. “Do we have good, talented players that can contribute towards a winning team and moving toward our goals to win a championship? Yes we do. Are we there? No, we’re not. We have to earn that on the field.”
Certainly there are plenty of questions, most notably on the offensive and defensive lines. But many of the worries following last year’s late season collapse have disappeared. Matt Forte has been signed to a long-term deal — something Emery claimed he was “never anxious” about — and everyone except wide receiver Johnny Knox will be full-go when the team hits the practice field Thursday. Knox will go through a final evaluation Wednesday, but it’s likely he will start out on the PUP list.
Most notably, linebacker Brian Urlacher and right tackle Gabe Carimi are ready for practice. When the players put on pads Saturday night for the first time, it will be Carimi’s first action in pads since he dislocated his knee Week 2 against the Saints last September.
Elsewhere on the offensive line, the competition between J’Marcus Webb and Chris Williams at left tackle will likely be the headline throughout training camp.
“As a first year left tackle, did (Webb) make progress? Yes, I believe he did,” Emery said. “I think he made progress. Does he need to make more to be that consistent starter, that when we line up on Sundays we know our left tackle is a consistent starting player? Yes he needs to make progress.”
Webb will start camp with a small leg up on the position battle because he is the returning starter, but moving Williams over from guard is a significant move because he was a pretty consistent starter inside a year ago. Both Emery and Smith expressed faith in Williams to move back to guard if necessary, with Smith saying he is capable of playing any position on the line.
Emery said there is already competition to watch inside with newly signed guard Chilo Rachal competing for a starting spot. Clearly, the Bears are trying to improve the line with intense competition in Bourbonnais the next three weeks.
Despite the few question marks that still exist on the roster, Smith admitted Tuesday that this is the most talent he’s had the skill positions since he’s been the head coach in Chicago. Naturally, with that talent comes high expectations and pressure, especially with a new general manager. But Lovie isn’t buying into the pressure.
“Pressure. I don’t quite understand that,” he said. “Jay has more pressure? I have more pressure? We as a team have more pressure? How can you have more? We expect to do well. We’re in a tough division, our league is tough across the board and everybody wants to do well. When you put a group like this together, I would hope that everyone wouldn’t necessary say pressure, I would just hope that everyone feels like they should play up to their capabilities — at the top level that their skill set says.”
And if the Bears do that, they are certainly a Super Bowl caliber team.
That said, Emery dodged a question about his expectations for Lovie Smith this season and even said it’s possible to make steps forward without making the playoffs.
That’s not exactly what fan want to hear, but it does relieve some of that pressure Smith wants to ignore.
Still, the head coach asked a simple question Tuesday that could linger throughout a successful 2012 campaign: “Why not the Bears?”
Seriously, why not?
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.