SAN DIEGO – When the news broke in early March that the Chicago Bears had dealt Thomas Jones to the New York Jets, the opposing coaching staff of one NFC North team burned up the phone lines and exhausted inter-office email accounts in celebration.
As a coach on that staff opined over the summer, the Bears had taken an offense with one significant problem – the mercurial play of quarterback Rex Grossman – and created another.
"That was one of our best days of the offseason," the coach recalled of the Jones trade. "He was a tough S.O.B. Losing him will really hurt them, because Cedric Benson is soft. He's just another one of those (University of) Texas guys, which is strange, because I saw him in college a lot and I loved him. He was a beast. I thought he was going to be a great NFL player."
Benson's NFL career is a long way from being fully defined, but Sunday's debut as a centerpiece back against the San Diego Chargers proved an inauspicious start. Benson finished the Bears' 14-3 loss with 42 yards on 19 carries, including a lost fumble and the failure to convert on a fourth-and-1 opportunity late in the fourth quarter. It was a performance that was emblematic of Chicago's overall running game: 80 yards and two fumbles on 26 carries between Benson and Adrian Peterson.
"We felt we could get in his head," one San Diego defender said of Benson. "It's not like we were looking at Larry Johnson or anyone back there saying 'let's go.' I talk to guys around the league. (Benson) took himself out of the Super Bowl. That's letting down your team. I guess that's what kind of guy he is. We knew that, and we played accordingly."
And while no team or unit is generally as good or as bad as it plays in the first week of the season, the struggle in the running game raises another question about a unit that was touted by the coaching staff as being more explosive than last season's offense. Instead, Chicago's offense looked similar to the one that scuttled itself with turnovers in Super Bowl XLI against the Indianapolis Colts.
But unlike the Super Bowl defeat, Sunday's loss to the Chargers featured the lack of a playmaker in the backfield (the Bears' longest runs were a pair of 11-yarders by Benson and Peterson) and an offensive line that never truly established itself at the line of scrimmage. San Diego ran a series of stunts and blitzes that flustered Chicago's veteran offensive line, which surrendered three sacks and had its hands full with San Diego nose tackle Jamal Williams in the running game.
"We really couldn't get in synch because of the turnovers," offensive tackle Fred Miller said. "Every time we'd have a couple of good plays and start moving the ball and trying to get in synch, then we'd have a turnover. We kind of shot ourselves in the foot. When you can't get in synch, you can't open up your game plan."
Benson's fumble didn't result in any points for the Chargers, but Peterson's turnover early in the fourth quarter resulted in a San Diego touchdown on the ensuing drive. But the running game's most humbling moment came in the fourth quarter, when the Bears failed to pick up a first down on a third-and-1 and a fourth-and-1, watching Peterson and Benson get stopped for no gain on two attempts between the tackles. Both times, San Diego's defensive line stonewalled Chicago's offensive line.
"They kicked our ass," Bears center Olin Kreutz said. "They did a good job and they stopped us. It's unacceptable. It's on me to get us the first down and I didn't get it done."
In fairness, the Bears' struggles came against what should be one of the best run-defending teams in the NFL. But Chicago lost an opportunity to douse one of the offseason's big questions: Specifically, whether the franchise could sustain a quality running game after dealing Jones, who rushed for 3,493 yards and 22 touchdowns in three seasons for the Bears.
The reality is that several coaches and executives from the NFC North don't see him as being a cowbell type of back. That's a frightening opinion of a player who will be expected to help ease the load from Grossman, whose mercurial play has made him a consistent whipping boy in the Chicago media.
Benson hasn't exactly done himself any favors, apparently still carrying a chip on his shoulder that extends from his awkward existence with Jones last season. The former No. 4 overall pick told the Chicago Sun-Times in training camp that he was still having issues trusting some of his teammates. Benson told the paper he felt shut out after his contract holdout as a rookie, and that some players never truly warmed to him while Jones was still on the roster.
''Far, far from it,'' Benson said in the interview, while talking about having trust in some of his teammates. ''But I am not going to get anything off my chest or put it out in the open, any grudges or anything like that. If there was somebody I didn't really trust and they wanted to go out to dinner or something, I would still go. I would still try to get acquainted with them or try to be friends or be more trustworthy of them.''
Benson also said in the interview that he believes he took unnecessary punishment at the hands of the defense in training camp last year. And one Bears player told Yahoo! Sports in July that he believes Benson still harbors resentment toward two players: linebacker Brian Urlacher and cornerback Ricky Manning Jr.
"I think he thinks (Urlacher) always sided with (Thomas Jones) and turned everyone against him," the player said. "And I'm pretty sure he's still pissed at (Manning) for a couple of hits in practice last season."
It's that kind of drama that could have been put to rest with a quality start against the Chargers on Sunday. Instead, the Bears could have another offensive question mark curling around their throats as the season presses on. Not that Benson sounded overly concerned with the struggles against the Chargers.
"It's Week 1," he said. "Week 2 will be around in no time."
The Bears had better hope Benson's upside arrives with it.