-- On the first day of practice for the Chicago Bears, nothing terribly interesting happened. That alone is significant progress.
Last year, perennial all-pro linebacker Brian Urlacher pulled a hamstring on the first day of practice. An injury-laden 5-11 season followed.
Urlacher returned and had 17 tackles and one sack in a loss to the Washington Redskins in October, but the Bears star played only nine games because of three different leg ailments.
Quarterback Rex Grossman tore his right anterior cruciate ligament at the end of the third game and safety Mike Brown, like Urlacher a leader of the defense, blew out his Achilles' tendon in the second game.
As they try to start fresh, the Bears opened practice under triple-digit temperatures in preparation for the regular season opener at FedEx Field against the Washington Redskins on Sept. 11.
Coach Lovie Smith, starting his sophomore season, was optimistic after what he saw in the initial practice. "As long we are a healthy football team, we are a good football team," said Smith, whose team plays the Miami Dolphins in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 8. "We like where we are now."
The Bears have averaged 6.4 wins a year, with one playoff appearance, since 1995, and the key to turning things around will be to correct an offense that finished last in the league in points and total yardage and scored only 19 touchdowns.
Grossman, 24, is in his third year but has played in only six games. Recovered from last year's season-ending surgery, he will be playing for his third offensive coordinator in the NFL and his fifth in five years going back to the University of Florida. This time, Ron Turner returns to the Bears in that role. After serving under Dave Wannstedt from 1993 to '96, Turner left to be the head coach at Illinois.
"There are a lot of similarities in the offenses I've learned over the past five years," Grossman said. "This one gets down to basics. We don't try to do too much at one time. We go through the playbook methodically and try to get good at something and then move on to the next page. That's a good approach rather than trying to have a lot of volume and seeing how many plays we can run."
Grossman appeared relaxed in practice and was able to connect in stride on several short passes. He was more inconsistent on longer passes.
"I thought he was making good decisions and seeing the field well," Turner said of Grossman. "[As for] throwing the ball he'll get better and better the more he does it."
One main aspect of an offensive overhaul was the signing of wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad from the Carolina Panthers. Muhammad, 32, had 93 receptions last season for 1,405 yards and 16 touchdowns.
"It's a huge thrill to get a Pro Bowl receiver out there," Grossman said. "A guy who is a veteran who understands how to get open and what defenses are trying to do so it is a huge help for a quarterback."
With the fourth pick in the draft, the Bears selected Texas running back Cedric Benson, the sixth-leading rusher in NCAA Division I history. He is expected to team with Thomas Jones to lead the rushing game, once he signs. But that is not likely to occur until the logjam of other unsigned first-round picks breaks.
Grossman practiced Sunday without a brace on his knee, which he said he trusted completely. But can he count on his offensive line, which has been in tatters in recent seasons? John Tait, signed as a right tackle for 2004, has been moved to left tackle. Fred Miller, signed as a free agent this past offseason, will play right tackle. Eight-time Pro Bowl selection Ruben Brown is coming off an injury-laden season at right guard.
"The key to our success will be execution," Turner said. "We're going to have plenty to attack anything we see. But the key is to get these guys to believe in it, which I think they do."
The defense, which kept the team in many games last year, will be bolstered by the return of Brown, Urlacher and Adewale Ogunleye, the 2003 leader in sacks with 15 when he played for the Miami Dolphins. After being traded to the Bears, Ogunleye managed only fives sacks and he sat out four games because of an ankle injury.
The Bears jettisoned wide receiver David Terrell, running back Anthony Thomas and kicker Paul Edinger, all of whom had worn out their welcome.
"We have a lot of great character guys out there," Smith said. "They know the job at hand."