- Jon Greenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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It wasn't that long ago that Fast Willie Parker was the toast of Pittsburgh. He set a Super Bowl record and had an inspirational story.
Just last year, Julius Peppers was the second-highest-paid defensive player in the league, and he is a tremendous athlete.
But things change quickly in the NFL. The elevator goes from the penthouse to the basement faster than you can say "offseason participation bonus."
Now we find ourselves wondering if the Bears should pick up any of these superstars, all around 30 years old and arguably on either the downside of their careers (all three running backs) or just past their peak (Peppers), in what could be a one-year-or-bust season for several decision-makers.
With labor strife in the air and an uncapped year unfolding, it will be interesting to see which teams go for broke -- figuratively, of course (don't believe an NFL owner who cries poor) -- when free agency kicks off March 5.
Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips, perhaps playing possum, told reporters the Bears aren't going to go "hog wild in free agency." Coming off a ticket price hike on 75 percent of Soldier Field seats, this isn't what fans want to hear, especially coming from a listless 7-9 team that doesn't have a pick in the first two rounds of the draft. Not that it would have helped.
The Bears have failed numerous times since their Super Bowl aberration to identify high-caliber talent in the draft, with flops like Garrett Wolfe, Michael Okwo and Dan Bazuin polluting past successes. Firing Bobby DePaul, and the yet-to-be-announced hire of Tim Ruskell, was the Bears' idea of a change, and a rather late one at that, but how will it affect their offseason strategy?
If any team needs to go to market, it's the Bears, and it's not like they haven't spent on the market before. They have enough pieces to compete, but are short a few impact players. If the Bears opt to go cheap, not going hog wild will make next season uglier than the movie "Wild Hogs."
If the Bears start slow next fall, the throwaway phrase "hog wild" is going to haunt Phillips like Cedric Benson. Is that line going to be his personal "getting more left-handed" or "decided schematic advantage"? Then again, "hog wild" can be redefined for the situation. If you sign one difference-maker and a couple of complementary pieces, it's not Daniel Snyder territory.
What do the Bears owe their fans? What do the Bears owe their players? Spending money doesn't equal wins. Peppers earned nearly $20 million last season. Cutler earned more than that, with $22 million getting Chicago 27 touchdown passes and 26 interceptions.
If I were a Bears fan, especially a season-ticket holder, I would be watching how the Bears approach free agency very closely. They have a chance to make amends for three straight disappointing seasons in one fell swoop, and no one can say there aren't deals to be had and moves to be made.
Last season ended for Bears fans with a sour taste, and higher ticket prices won't help. A Mike Martz offense should bring some fun back, but the team is less-than-marketable right now. Bears executive Chris Hibbs told me the team is ratcheting up fan-friendly initiatives, but all the pep rallies in the world won't make up for another season without the playoffs.
On offense, a big wide receiver would be nice, but I think the Bears' most pressing need is in the backfield, to complement Cutler and fit in Martz's system.
While the Bears can't blow too much cash on a running back, they need to establish a rotation with Matt Forte, and if it came down to it, I'd probably take my chances on Parker before Tomlinson and Westbrook, who, to use Phillips' hog reference, are more like "pigs in a poke." You don't know what you're going to get.
I think Westbrook would be ideal in a perfect world. But the fact is he is one concussion away from retirement, and his knees are reportedly shot. Tomlinson had no burst for San Diego and looks worn down. Parker, too, has seen better days, but he basically was replaced by a younger, stronger back in Rashard Mendenhall.
Fast Willie has a chip on his shoulder after being phased out in Pittsburgh and would be a good locker-room guy, for whatever that's worth. He would also come cheaper than LT or Westbrook. Thomas Jones could be cut from the Jets, but would the Bears take a flier on him again?
They never should have let him go in the first place.
On defense, Peppers is the most exciting possibility, but is it feasible? Certainly the defensive line is a problem. Tommie Harris is highly paid but inconsistent. Gaines Adams' passing, macabre as it sounds, decimated the Bears' depth at end, with Adewale Ogunleye a free agent.
But Peppers isn't a viable option for a team that doesn't want to spend hog money. Last year he had a cap value of $19.1 million, according to USA Today's salary database, and probably isn't looking for that big a salary haircut.
Peppers, 30, is looking for one big payday, and likely a hefty signing bonus. He has been criticized for relying on his talent rather than effort, but that could be said about a lot of freakishly gifted players. You have to wonder what the Bears -- or any team -- would get out of a guy after a career-culmination payday. If you pay him what he's looking for, what do you have left to fill the holes on a roster pock-marked by a never-ending storm of bad decisions?
Last year the Bears had a high payroll, but one that was pretty evenly distributed, with 23 players having a cap hit of $1 million or more, but only seven above $5 million and two about $10 million -- Cutler and Brian Urlacher.
With Ogunleye's $6.46 million cap hit coming off the books, it makes more sense to replace him with a guy like Aaron Kampman, who made around the same and is looking to leave Green Bay's 3-4 defense.
If I were running the Bears, I would also focus on Darren Sharper, a veteran they whiffed on last year who wound up winning a Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints, or maybe the New York Jets' Kerry Rhodes, who could be released before a $2 million roster bonus is due in March.
The Bears desperately need help at safety, where they were consistently embarrassed last season. While the Cover 2 needs pressure from up front, the Bears can manufacture that with lesser-known, less-well-paid players. It's obvious that going with bad or inexperienced safeties can't happen again. Safety is a need position.
What about Antrel Rolle, who could be released from the Arizona Cardinals? He's only 27 and is well-regarded. Pittsburgh's Ryan Clark packs a wallop, and maybe Bernard Pollard would be an option. We know he can blitz. Heck, how about another year of Mike Brown, who had a healthy season in Kansas City?
The saying goes, "Pigs get fat. Hogs get slaughtered." Don't listen to that one, Mr. Phillips. Fill your plate while the buffet is full.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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