BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- The chances of Charles Tillman returning to Chicago for a 12th season seemed remote at the onset of free agency in March.
Tillman, an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his illustrious career, appeared destined to reunite with former Bears head coach Lovie Smith in Tampa Bay. But after making a free agent visit to the Buccaneers, Tillman went home without a deal, and ultimately re-signed with the Chicago Bears for one year at $3.25 million. Tillman earned just over $8 million in 2013.
On the eve of his 12th training camp with the Bears, Tillman admitted to still being somewhat surprised he remains with the Bears when reached during a promotional appearance Wednesday morning.
“At the end of the day this is a business,” Tillman said. “Despite all that I’ve done for Chicago, none of that matters, that doesn’t mean a thing. I’m just a [salary] cap number. I realize that. They realize that. It’s the game. It’s the world we live in. I’m very well aware of that. At the end of the day it was business. At the end of the day it’s always business. If I get hurt, if I go down, the show goes on. I’m replaced. When I retire, it’ll be somebody else and I’ll be long gone and forgotten. That’s just how this business and this league operates.
"So it was just all business at the end of the day. I didn’t take it personally. They didn’t take it personally. They were just trying to get the best guy at the cheapest amount. That’s just kind of how this business rolls.”
Tillman was one of the many casualties on defense last season. The two-time Pro Bowl selection started just eight games (52.5 tackles, three interceptions and three forced fumbles) before suffering a season-ending triceps injury. Tillman watched as the Bears’ defense hit historic lows, ranking dead last in the league against the run.
But the offense thrived under first-year head coach Marc Trestman, finishing No. 2 in points scored and No. 5 in passing yards.
That resurgence on offense, coupled with key offseason defensive signings such as Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston, has Tillman convinced this could be his best shot to reach a Super Bowl since the 2006 team.
“Our offense did a really good job for us last year keeping us in games because what we were doing on defense wasn’t cutting it,” Tillman said. “The hard part about our offense is can they do it again? We claimed that title last year of being a very good offense. That was last year. This is this year now. Can you do it again? Nobody cares about last year. You can’t hang your hat on being one of the best offenses of 2013. If you do, it’s going to be a long season for us.
"Defensively, we can’t hang our heads on being the worst defense in the NFL last year. Right now we have to focus on and prepare to be one of the best defenses in the NFL in 2014. It’s a title you have to reclaim every year. From both a team standpoint and individual perspective. It’s all reset. The Seattle Seahawks were Super Bowl champions last year. Well, there’ll be a new one this year. Everybody is equal and everybody is even.
"I think Lamarr and Jared are going to help us out a lot. But how much better are we? I think we are better, but that’s just a thought. I think we have the best team on paper in the NFL right now; the hard part is going out there and proving that we are the best team. Right now, we are stacked. We have a lot of talent of defense. I think the Bears did a very good job in helping us out in areas that we were weak in last year. We just need to go out and execute like we are supposed to, and then we can call ourselves a better team.”
Tillman, a native of Texas, has spent the days leading up to training camp working in conjunction with the Gatorade Beat the Heat program to educate younger football players and athletes on heat safety and the importance of hydration when participating in sports during the warm summer months.
A timely initiative considering football training camps are opening up across the country on a variety of levels. Tillman and the rest of his Bears' teammates took part in a mandatory conditioning drill on Thursday morning, and while the temperature registered in the low 70s in Bourbonnais, other regions are not so fortunate.
"I went to Copperas Cove High School in Texas so I know all about growing up and playing in the heat," Tillman said. "The key is to hydrate yourself before you hit the field. The more you drink and hydrate yourself ahead of time, the better off you will be in the long run."