Bears players packed their bags, turned in their dormitory keys and watched Bourbonnais disappear from their rearview mirrors Saturday to mark the official end of training camp. They participated in a light walk-through session earlier in the day that was closed to the public and news media before heading out of town.
“First training camp over ... see ya later Bourbonnais,” Bears rookie safety Chris Conte wrote on his Twitter page. “Was awesome to see all the fans that came out.”
After a 136-day lockout, it was equally awesome to see football in real time.
What did the Bears reveal during 23 days at Olivet Nazarene University?
Ten lessons from training camp:
1. Defense could be great
Defensive starters Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers, Israel Idonije and Charles Tillman all are north of 30 years old. Yet the window has not closed on the Bears’ defense, which routinely dominated the offense during team drills and did not allow a touchdown in a 10-3 preseason win against the Buffalo Bills.
2. Jay Cutler is more comfortable
From the first day of training camp, Cutler looked like more of a leader than he was in his first two years with the Bears.
Perhaps he is more comfortable after a year in Mike Martz’s offense, or perhaps he realizes that someone will have to lead the huddle with Olin Kreutz gone. Either way, it’s a promising sign.
3. Lockout = muscles
During the lockout, cynics wondered how many players would arrive to training camp unprepared and out of shape. Those questions quickly disappeared – Marcus Harrison notwithstanding – when players such as Cutler, Johnny Knox and Matt Forte arrived to camp noticeably stronger than at the end of last season.
4. Gabe Carimi can play
At first, it seemed like a stretch when the Bears plugged Carimi into the first-team offensive line less than a week after the start of training camp. Despite a long lockout, Carimi proved that he was up to the challenge. He has solidified his role as starting right tackle and at times has looked like the Bears’ best lineman.
5. Even with Carimi, the O-line is a mess
Where to begin? The offensive line should have been the Bears’ top priority during the offseason, but instead they focused on wide receiver (Roy Williams), running back (Marion Barber), tight end (Matt Spaeth) and other positions. Roberto Garza is sound and Carimi is promising, but that’s far from enough.
6. Depth fuels D-line
No questions exist on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. Instead of having one player replace Tommie Harris, the Bears could use three or four. Henry Melton had a terrific camp, Matt Toeaina is underrated, and Amobi Okoye has looked good in spurts. Rookie Stephen Paea provides more quality depth.
7. Major Wright steps up
Entering camp, one of the biggest questions about the defense was whether Wright could become a full-time starter. Three weeks later, all signs point to yes. Wright consistently was active in seven-on-seven and team drills and showed his tackling prowess against the Bills. He just needs to stay healthy.
8. Mike Martz has trust issues
Martz insisted last week that Caleb Hanie was his No. 2 quarterback despite a one-day detention for sloppy play in the preseason opener. Yet the truth is that Martz has shown little faith in Hanie since the day he took over the Bears’ offense, and Hanie did no favors for himself with a mistake-filled training camp.
9. Roy Williams remains a mystery
On certain plays during training camp, Williams looked like the No. 1 wide receiver that the Bears have craved for years. On other plays, Williams looked like a No. 4 wide receiver who belonged behind Knox on the depth chart. Which is it, Roy? Are you a dangerous red-zone target or an overhyped arrival?
10. Football is king
There’s no telling whether the Bears defense can stay healthy or whether the offense can improve, but one thing is certain. The lockout had no lasting damage for the NFL or the Bears, who practiced in front of crowds that increased in size every week. Training camp was good, but the regular season should be great.