Bears GM faces crunch time after QB injury


THE NFL executive most on the hot seat and facing a virtually impossible climb this season is Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo.

Angelo found himself in that precarious position last week after starting quarterback Rex Grossman broke his left ankle and damaged his fibula against the St. Louis Rams.

It was Angelo's decision to pass on a posse of free-agent veteran quarterbacks last offseason - Kurt Warner, Jay Fiedler and Brad Johnson - when it was the team's biggest need.

The Bears had the worst offense in the NFL last year: fewest points, fewest yards, worst third-down efficiency, a league-low nine touchdown passes. They started four different quarterbacks, and the only starter who won more than one game was rookie Craig Krenzel, so unimpressive he was cut anyway.

Still, Angelo elected to stay in-house and keep unproven Chad Hutchinson as the backup to Grossman, the Bears' No. 1 pick in 2003. It was a mistake that could haunt Angelo all season.

The Bears bet the mortgage on Grossman staying healthy, something he hadn't done in two previous NFL seasons. He tore a tendon in the middle finger of his throwing hand in his third start as a rookie. He tore a knee ligament in his third start a year ago to end his season. Now he couldn't make it to the third preseason game.

"We're going with the hand we dealt ourselves," Angelo said. "The good news is we have one month until the season opener and [new offensive coordinator] Ron Turner is here. If we're contingent on one player, we didn't build this team to win. It's a tough blow, but we'll get through it."

How is the question. Hutchinson, a former pitcher in the St. Louis Cardinals' system, wasn't good enough to stick with the Dallas Cowboys despite a $3.1 million signing bonus. He went 2-7 in nine starts in 2002 and won just one of five starts with the Bears last year. His biggest problem is holding onto the ball too long.

At some point, coach Lovie Smith likely will give fourth-round pick Kyle Orton of Purdue a chance to show he's a worthy alternative to Grossman. Angelo's job could depend on it.

Raw recruit

Things aren't going much smoother in Minnesota, where Vikings coach Mike Tice pulled a 5-foot-10, 220-pound fan out of the stands at camp last week and invited him to play left guard for rookie Marcus Johnson in a no-pads drill.

Mike Hennager, 29, of Mankato, participated for about 10 minutes. Although Tice joked about the move, he's upset about his offensive line play.

Worse, the team's biggest free-agent signing can't get on the field. Cornerback Fred Smoot, who got a $10.8 million signing bonus, has been limited to two practices because of a strained neck and a sore knee.

Camp Easy

Former Ravens cornerback Gary Baxter has a different spin on his first training camp with the Cleveland Browns under coach Romeo Crennel. While most observers feel Crennel's camp is light on hitting, especially compared with ex-coach Butch Davis, Baxter makes his comparisons to Brian Billick's camp in Baltimore.

"Billick's camp is very easy," Baxter said. "You've got veteran players there, [and] the vets get to stay at home, they don't put the pads on as much, they don't practice that long. You don't run after practice.

"It's a young team here. I knew what I was getting into. It's like we're starting over from ground zero."

Standing guard

Warner, the Arizona Cardinals' fragile quarterback, is on notice. His offensive line already is shaky.

Center Alex Stepanovich broke his right hand and will try to snap left-handed or move to guard. His tentative replacement, Nick Leckey, is a second-year special teams player. And the starting right guard is fourth-round pick Elton Brown.

Arizona's two tackles (Leonard Davis and Oliver Ross) are solid, but Warner can expect to see quite a few middle blitzes.


Quarterback A.J. Feeley not only won't beat out journeyman Gus Frerotte for the starting job on the Miami Dolphins, he might not beat out Sage Rosenfels for the backup position, either. ... The Tennessee Titans are trying to protect themselves by giving cornerback Adam Jones only $7.7 million of his $13.5 million in guarantees over the first two years of his contract. Jones already is on probation in West Virginia and has a court date in December on recent assault and vandalism charges. ... Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Trent Green has a sore shoulder and less than his usual accuracy so far. The team limited his throwing early in camp, but he expects to throw closer to the opener. ...

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are already down to the third left tackle in recently signed Todd Steussie. He follows Derrick Deese (foot) and Anthony Davis (thigh), who became the Bucs' 12th offensive lineman to miss practice because of injury. ... The Denver Broncos moved Jerry Rice ahead of Darius Watts as the No. 3 receiver, but Watts, who is still dropping balls, will get a chance to win back the position. ... Oakland Raiders special teams coach Joe Avezzano told punter Shane Lechler to fall on any bad snaps he got in the first preseason game, but Lechler didn't listen. He took off with a bad snap and pulled a hamstring. ... Carolina Panthers running back Stephen Davis, out most of last year, still isn't close to returning from microfracture knee surgery.

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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