This charade is just one reason NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would like an 18-game regular season.
The final exhibition game is an exercise based far more on how carefully a team can make the transition to the regular season in full health than it is about preparation or player evaluation. At full price to season ticket holders, it's not a good product or good public relations for the league.
The Bears got through it reasonably well, resting 13 starters and enjoying a snappy effort from backup quarterback Caleb Hanie in a 24-14 victory over the Browns on Thursday night before 48,300 at Soldier Field to finish the preseason 2-2. That was more than the few starters coach Lovie Smith hinted at sitting earlier in the week, but with all sights set on the Sept. 11 opener against the Falcons, it didn't matter.
The Browns were more cautious. They played four starters — three of them rookies — perhaps remembering they lost running back Montario Hardesty for the season with a torn ACL in the exhibition finale a year ago. Browns veterans were doing wind sprints on the field two hours before the game, not something any fan would pay to see.
Smith needs to ensure he has his locker room focused for the journey ahead. Running back Matt Forte is awaiting a new contract that has been on the front burner since the first week of training camp. How will he react if he doesn't have the long-term security he's seeking before the opener?
Just this past week, six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs made his dissatisfaction known: Pay me or trade me halfway through a six-year contract. Don't think for a second looming money issues don't affect players.
The Bears will trim the roster from 79 to 53 and form at least the beginning of a practice squad this weekend. The team has done preliminary film work on the Falcons, and an extended practice week will start Monday at Halas Hall.
With Jay Cutler sitting out — the third consecutive exhibition finale in which he hasn't thrown a pass — Hanie started and was sharp. He completed 7 of 10 passes for 83 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown pass to Johnny Knox on a corner route, to help stake the Bears to a 10-0 lead.
It was a nice end to a preseason that had a rough start after he was called out by offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
"It was just good to have a strong game," Hanie said. "(Preseason) has been up and down. I don't try to judge those things. I go and do my work and worry about what I can control."
Hanie was clear he didn't need to hear the coaches say last month that he was the No. 2 quarterback.
"It wasn't that important," he said. "I know what confidence they have in me, and all I can do is keep working hard and keep that confidence going."
Running back Chester Taylor was showcased for 31 teams and had 27 yards on 10 carries with a nice 9-yard burst around left end. The Bears presumably held on to him after the drama earlier in the week to turn $7 million — the amount Taylor was paid last season — into a late-round draft pick.
Backup running back Marion Barber sat out with a calf injury, and third running back Kahlil Bell left with an ankle injury.
"I'm just satisfied I got through preseason healthy," Taylor said. "That's all that matters now."
Bell wasn't the only Bear injured. Reserve safety Craig Steltz, a four-phase special teams player, left with assistance after a hip injury, but an X-ray was negative. Rookie safety Chris Conte was lost to a head injury.
Other than that, the Bears appeared to get through the game clean. Rookie Dane Sanzenbacher made four receptions for 50 yards and had a 65-yard punt return for a touchdown called back by penalty. He likely secured a spot as the sixth wide receiver.
"Everybody has had to scrap their way onto a team since you were coming into college," Sanzenbacher said. "It's going to be a fight to get in and a fight to stay in. It would be awesome. It's something you dream about."
Defensive ends Mario Addison and Nick Reed made plays. Addison had a solid pass rush, showed discipline on an end around and made two tackles for a loss. Reed stuffed a fourth-and-goal run and had a sack.
Hubbard and Notre Dame product Robert Hughes rushed for 69 yards and two touchdowns but is a major long shot to make the team.
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