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Lack of Experience Will Be Put To an Early Test for the Bears

Wednesday, September 8, 2004; Page H12

After six losing seasons in seven years, the Chicago Bears are embarking on a grand experiment. Since they open the season with three games against divisional rivals, it won't take long to see if it blows up in their faces.

"We were a 7-9 team last year so it's not like it's a total rebuilding job we're doing," Coach Lovie Smith told reporters last month.

It seems like one. Smith takes over as a first-time head coach. Twelve of his 16 assistants are first-timers at their positions. Both the offense and defense are learning new schemes.

Offensive coordinator Terry Shea is handing the reins of his complex offense to second-year quarterback Rex Grossman, who has three career starts. The Bears have praised Grossman's progress, but he has a problem besides learning the offense: Who will he pass to? Chicago's only proven receiver, wideout Marty Booker, was traded to Miami. The team's projected number one wideout, David Terrell, has yet to start more than eight games in a season or surpass his rookie total of 415 receiving yards.

In addition, Chicago backed a dump truck full of money onto Thomas Jones's lawn to make him a featured back in the Priest Holmes mold, but Jones (Virginia) has all of three 100-yard games in his previous four seasons. This may be the only offense in the NFL that can claim linemen as its two marquee players (Olin Kreutz and John Tait).

But you can't win the NFL without good line play, and the Bears boldly attempted to improve their defensive line as well. Their trade to Miami may have cost Booker, but it brought Pro Bowl defensive end Adewale Ogunleye to a team that mustered only 18 sacks last season. Chicago also used its first two draft picks on defensive tackles. The secondary is deep -- cornerback Charles Tillman showed signs of stardom last season as a rookie -- and even though linebacker Brian Urlacher is coming off a disappointing season, any team would be glad to have him prowling the middle.

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