- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Lovie Smith's address to the Chicago Bears at the start of training camp was simple. He wanted the league's top defense to find a way to recover more of the fumbles it causes (the Bears recovered only 10 of 26 caused fumbles last season). He wanted better offensive production on third down. And finally he wanted to find a way for the offense to score 21 points a game.
"In the playoff game against Carolina, we scored 21 points," Smith said. "With our defense, that's a good starting point."
Even though the Bears lost that playoff game to Carolina, 29-21, the game was significant because Rex Grossman was the quarterback. Grossman has been jinxed by numerous injuries in his three years with the Bears. But that 21-point effort against the Panthers offered some hope. If a healthy Grossman can regularly produce 21 points, the Bears will be hard to beat with a defense that gave up only 12.6 points a game.
"That helped my confidence going into this year," Grossman said. "I don't think you can look and say 21 points was good enough because we lost. We've got a lot of work to do on offense. We scored 21 points but we didn't do anything in the first quarter and that's when Carolina got a lead. There is a lot more than just scoring points."
Chicago is a city that doesn't expect much offense. Only one Bears team in the past 10 years averaged more than 21 points a game (21.1 in 2001). Chicago is a city in which defense has been king, and that's no different now. The Bears have six Pro Bowlers on defense between the ages of 23 and 29. As good as they were last year, they should just be entering their prime. Even though Chicago needed a receiver and a tight end, it used its first five draft picks in April on defensive players.
Grossman, who missed the first 13 games of the 2005 season after breaking his ankle in the preseason, knows all eyes are on him. Fans have seen his strong arm. They've seen a little bit of his leadership. Bears players believe in him, but he's played in only five regular-season games in the last two years. The Bears hedged their bet on Grossman by giving Brian Griese, considered the game's best backup quarterback, $6 million as an insurance policy. Grossman and Kyle Orton make a combined salary of $975,000. Griese earns more than six times that.
The picture is clear. Grossman's next major injury turns the team over to Griese.
"I'm just hopeful this is my year to get established," Grossman said. "At any time, any player in this league can get hurt. I'm glad to put that part of it behind me, I can't control it. I've just got to play my game, and if I do, hopefully that will take care of itself. It was huge to come back at the end of the year and salvage something."
In 2005, the Bears made a commitment in the draft to get the best offensive player available. Despite the presence of Thomas Jones, the Bears chose running back Cedric Benson over a number of available wide receivers. In their thinking, the 2005 receiving class wasn't overly appealing compared to running backs Benson, Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams. Plus, if anything happened to Grossman, the team could still win by running the ball with Jones and Benson.
That strategy worked. After Grossman got hurt in the preseason, Orton ran a scaled-back offense that saw the Bears run the ball 30 times a game. Despite finishing 29th in the NFL in offense and scoring just 16.3 points per game, the Bears finished 11-5 and won the NFC North. While Orton served admirably last season, he's an afterthought this year behind Grossman and Griese.
"I think we will have more explosive plays on offense, more plays of 15-plus [yards] if we can keep our quarterback healthy," wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. "We need to have more consistency in the passing game. You may even see more explosion in the running game because we won't face as many eight-man fronts. Our passing game will probably draw more attention."
The question facing the Bears -- aside from Grossman's ability to stay healthy -- is whether they have enough other talent to sustain a good passing game. Muhammad is the only proven part, a big, strong possession receiver with Pro Bowl experience. Competing for the starting receiver job on the other side are Bernard Berrian and Mark Bradley. Bradley is coming back from knee surgery and is about 90 percent, so Berrian should get the nod.
"Bernard is a receiver with deceptive speed, and I put him in that category with Ashley Lelie," Muhammad said. "He's deceptive and he's strong. He's 6-1, streamlined and runs good routes. He forces cornerbacks to come out of their backpedal. I told Bernard that he has to average 20 yards a catch whether it's on long routes or comeback routes."
Berrian averaged 18.9 yards per catch last year, but he caught only 13 passes. Bradley is a promising second-round pick from a year ago, who caught 18 passes in seven games as a rookie before injuring his knee.
"I'm praying Rex stays healthy," said Muhammad, who had only 64 catches for 750 yards. "I need him this year. I went from a productive role into doing what I can. It's totally out of character for me to be watching football games. With Griese here, we have a solid backup. But Rex is definitely the most talented of the three."
The offseason drama on offense has been how Benson beat out Thomas Jones for the starting running back spot without any competition. Lovie Smith has already announced Benson will start over Jones, who missed most of the offseason program because he wanted more money, then hurt a hamstring upon his arrival in training camp.
"I just think you start over each year," Smith said. "That's my policy. Thomas hasn't been here for the offseason work and he hasn't been here for training camp. There is no competition for the job."
Grossman, though, doesn't buy the idea that Jones, whom the Bears won't trade unless they get a first-round choice, will be forgotten. He doesn't discount the possibility that Jones could even end up starting once his hamstring heals. Jones is the more complete back. He catches the ball well and is a good blocker in the backfield on pass plays.
But Benson looks good, too. He held out of last year's training camp and opened the door for Jones to be the Bears starter. This offseason, Benson was as no-nonsense as his style of running. He didn't miss an offseason workout. He lifted and seems stronger and thicker around the chest and shoulders.
Benson's best runs are between the tackles, but he has surprised offensive coordinator Ron Turner with how quickly he gets to the outside on stretch plays. Turner plans to implement more of them into the offense.
"I'm not a dance around guy; I'm a north-south guy," Benson said. "When I see an opening, I hit it hard. I like to run between the tackles. I'm not a big fan of the stretch play because my shoulders aren't square to the line of scrimmage."
Grossman likes what he sees.
"Cedric's got great balance," Grossman said. "You think he's going down, but he doesn't fall over. He'll use his hands on the ground and stay upright. He's unreal. He bounces right and left. Once he gets out of the box, he can just burst it. I'm excited for him. I also feel Thomas [Jones] is going to be here. I feel he's going to play a lot."
The mission for the Bears offense is to score 21 points a game. Their schedule is considered easy. Their division is considered easy. The Bears defense isn't asking a lot, just 21 points. Keeping Grossman healthy will be the key.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
With one of the best defenses in the NFL, the Bears just need to find a way to score 21 points a game, writes John Clayton.