By Charles Robinson, Yahoo! Sports
July 31, 2006
More Bears: Observations from Bourbonnais, Ill.
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – Lovie Smith sold the moments as good-natured defensive pride, but they looked a whole lot more like lessons in humility.
As if Cedric Benson needed more of those.
There were the handful of pile-driving tackles from linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs that sent Benson tumbling into the sod. There was the smack in the middle of the field where he had the ball ripped out of his hands, and the bobbled pass followed by a little whack from a defender. And then there was the neck-high clothesline tackle by Ricky Manning, which probably would have been a fineable offense in today's NFL.
This is your training camp life, Mr. Benson.
"One did catch me off guard," Benson said, singling out Manning's mid-practice hook, which swept his feet out from under him and left him lying on his back as a handful of defensive players stomped around in celebration. "It was no big deal. I just didn't expect to get one like that."
It's the embodiment of the "Be careful what you ask for" theory. Benson has his No. 1 job. Now he has to actually prove he deserves it.
And just because it was handed to him proves nothing. Not when No. 2 running back Thomas Jones had the title stripped from him for skipping a series of voluntary workouts this summer. Such workouts are voluntary in only one way – if you miss them, you are volunteering to lose your spot on the depth chart.
Jones made a mistake with the no-show, particularly when Benson is a No. 4 overall pick with $17 million in guaranteed money behind him. That kind of cash promises opportunity, and opening a window for Benson was bad judgment. That said, the promotion seems to smack of some hypocrisy, too.
Jones wasn't available for comment, but Smith sold Benson's high points on Friday, talking about how Benson buried his head in his playbook and had a diligent offseason. Yet in the same conversation, Smith also gave a mini-sermon on the importance of game day performance. Which begs the question: Why bench a No. 1 running back who played hurt for him last season – rushing for 1,335 yards and nine touchdowns – for a guy who has, as Smith put it, "studied hard" and "taken a step in the offseason."
Asked about the policy of demoting respected locker room guys like linebacker Lance Briggs (who went to the Pro Bowl last season) and Jones (who had Chicago's best rushing season since Walter Payton in 1985), guys like linebacker Brian Urlacher could only shrug.
"It's what the head coach says," Urlacher said. "That's what you go off of. If coach says you're going to be demoted for not being there, we have no control over that."
Certainly, it's hard to knock Smith's designs. In league circles, he's known for being a guy who can press the right buttons, and he did show some foresight in predicting the Bears would rise to the league's elite on defense last summer. So you can't say he doesn't know the temperature in his own locker room. But he's taking a gamble with Benson by naming him his No. 1 guy and not just labeling it an open battle for the running back spot.
Clearly, Jones is respected by many in the locker room – particularly on defense – something he earned from playing hurt last year and being the workhorse on an otherwise tepid offense. Meanwhile, Benson had a tarnished season with 272 rushing yards, an effort that was marred by a holdout and knee sprain that cost him six games. In the city, he lost a great deal in the court of public opinion. And inside the locker room, he earned the reputation of being a quiet guy who keeps to himself but never seems to waver in his own confidence.
As Benson put it Saturday, "I have never thought of myself as being anything less than a great player."
And he might be just that. But after watching the defense pound on Benson on Saturday night (when Manning's tackle took place), one had to wonder if some players on the unit were taking up for their guy (Jones). Smith said it was merely a prideful defense that wasn't willing to give an inch to anyone – and said it wouldn't have been different for Thomas.
"Running backs never get that type of easy treatment early," he said. "You have to earn your way in. You have to take your licks. And Cedric is taking a couple."
That said, Benson should have his work cut out for him for the foreseeable future. For now, he's solidifying an already advantageous position, with Jones having yet to hit the field with his tweaked hamstring. But if he doesn't produce when Thomas returns, this isn't an offense that can afford to give him the time to work himself into a groove. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner even went as far as to affirm that it's still an open battle for the position.
"Yeah, I would say that," Turner said. "When Thomas gets back, we're going to work both guys a lot and let it sort itself out. That's not going to change. I've said it all along – the best guy is going to play."
And Benson appears game. Despite getting pounded in practice, he continued to grind and show a spark every now and then. At one point, in the first team's two-minute drill, he took a handoff inside the 10-yard line busted through the right side of the line, and absolutely pancaked (think: Earl Campbell) safety Chris Harris. Unfortunately, Benson thought he had made it into the end zone, and he spiked the football after wiping out Harris. The resulting fumble was recovered by the defense, much to Smith's dismay.
"There's good and there's bad with Cedric right now," Smith said. "It was good to see him try to get across the goal line like that. But we were in a two-minute situation, and we wanted to walk away with some points there before he spiked it away."
Smith stopped and took a little breath.
Charles Robinson is the senior investigative reporter for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Charles a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Tuesday, Aug 1, 2006 2:59 am, EDT
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