32 Teams in 32 Days: Chicago Bears
It’s a new era for the Monsters of the Midway. Gone are the faces of the franchise of the past decade in Head Coach Lovie Smith and Linebacker Brian Urlacher. Second-year General Manager Phil Emery has placed winning a championship above anything and anyone, regardless of what they have done for the team in the past. Upon dismissing a players-first coach in Smith, Emery brought in business-oriented Marc Trestman in the hope of having an extension of the front office on the field. Trestman also brings a vast offensive history, a complete contrast from the defensive-minded Smith. Emery hopes the remnants of Smith’s defensive philosophy, combined with Trestman’s genius on offense produces an outstanding year in Chicago.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Jay Cutler, Part I
Before Chicago’s media could even pose the question, Emery made it clear that no player would receive a contract extension before the end of the 2013 season – including quarterback Jay Cutler. Similar to the position Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco found himself in at the beginning of last season, if Cutler can lead a deep playoff run, he has everything to gain. Winning will not only entrench Cutler as the face of the franchise, but he will find himself signing a new lucrative contract, immediately catapulting him into one of the league’s highest paid players. Likewise, Cutler will be able to quiet doubters (at least some of them), who don’t believe he can win on a big stage. Make no mistake about it, Cutler possesses elite skill and has more talent around him than he’s had in his career. All of those things considered, a perfect storm is possible in the Windy City for all parties involved.
2. Keeping the Same Defensive Terminology
The best decision new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker made in the offseason was keeping the terminology the same on the defensive side of the football. Despite not making the playoffs, Chicago had one of the best defenses in the league last year. They turned offenses over at a remarkable clip and put the team in a great position to win most games. By not changing the calls, there’s less thinking on the field for Chicago’s eight returning defensive starters, putting the team in a great position to build off last season’s success. Things will be easier for linebacker Lance Briggs as well, who is taking over play-calling duties from the departed Urlacher. A great first year in Chicago can also get Tucker even closer to that elusive head coaching gig.
3. Revamped Offensive Line
In his four seasons with Chicago, when Cutler has been upright, he has shown he has as much talent as any guy at the position. GM Phil Emery made it a priority in the offseason to upgrade the talent upfront. By signing Jermon Bushrod (+1.5 overall grade in 2012) and Matt Slauson (+2.5 in ‘12), and drafting Kyle Long and Jordan Mills, Emery addressed depth and skill. For the first time since Cutler arrived in Chicago, there are less concerns on the offensive line than usual. A welcome change.
4. The Best Cornerback Duo in the League
Undeterred by playing in an NFL age where rules put defensive backs at a disadvantage, Chicago’s starting cornerback duo had an outstanding year in 2012. Charles Tillman (+23.8) led all defensive players in forced fumbles (10) and touchdowns (3), while Tim Jennings (+12.4) led in interceptions (9). Although another year older (Tillman’s 32 and Jennings’s 30), these guys have showed no signs of slowing down so far in training camp. If Chicago is going to reach double-digit wins this year, it will help if this pair is able to slow down the opposition’s passing attack again.
5. Brandon Marshall’s Hip is Well
Apparently, Brandon Marshall’s hip was injured last year — but I’m not sure anyone could tell (he graded out at +21.2). Marshall pretty much carried Chicago’s offensive load in 2012, only being out-targeted and out-caught by Detroit’s Calvin Johnson (tied with Reggie Wayne and Wes Welker, respectively). Marshall continues to monitor the hip during training camp — he has already taken a veteran’s day off — to make sure he is 100% for the regular season. With Trestman calling the 49ers’ plays in 1995, Hall-of-Famer Jerry Rice set the previous NFL receiving yards mark of 1,848. Marshall will be hoping to have similar success this year under Chicago’s new head coach.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Jay Cutler, Part II
Though there are plenty of reasons for Cutler to succeed this year, there are also plenty of reasons why he could fail. Cutler could never find a consistent level of output last season — as evidenced by his Week 1 grade of +2.5, followed by a Week 2 mark of -2.5. That trend pretty much lasted throughout the 2012 season. Cutler is also learning the fourth offensive system in his five years with the Bears, which is a tough assignment for any quarterback. Injuries are a concern as well. Cutler hasn’t been on the field for all 16 games since 2009, and second-string quarterback Josh McCown isn’t one of the league’s best backup options.
2. Will There be an Adjustment Period for Marc Trestman?
Trestman has not been in the NFL in any capacity since 2004, and the knowledge of coach and team tendencies that a current NFL coach would have likely won’t be there. There could be an adjustment period for the first-time head coach, which the Bears can’t really afford. The game has changed plenty since Trestman’s departure to NC State and then to the CFL.
3. Lack of Depth at Defensive Line
Even though studs Julius Peppers (+9.9) and Henry Melton (+15.8) remain, and Corey Wootton (-1.4) and Stephen Paea (+1.7), are looking to take steps forward, things are questionable behind them. The unexpected retirement of Sedrick Ellis and the season-ending Achilles injury of Turk McBride are two big issues, as both were expected to contribute. The departure of Israel Idonije looks like it might hurt as well. Idonije graded out as the best overall defensive linemen in 2012 for Chicago (+17.8), bringing the ability to play both DLE and DLT positions. In his second year, Shea McClellin (-2.9) is still figuring out things at defensive end but hopes to make more of a contribution in a pass rushing role. In past years, when Chicago’s pass rush isn’t affective the entire defense took a step back.
4. Everyone’s Old
According to ESPN, the Bears have the oldest projected starting lineup in the NFL. Most of that age is on the defensive side of the football. Peppers (33), Briggs (32), and Tillman are all seemingly at the end of, or have exited, their primes. Even newly signed Linebacker D.J. Williams, who is expected to start, is at the 30-years-old threshold. As we all know, the NFL season is a grind and a battle of attrition. Older guys usually have a harder time holding up throughout a season than their younger counterparts. Additionally, it’s probably no coincidence that the two youngest teams in the NFC North (Packers and Vikings), found themselves in the playoffs last year.
5. Lack of Speed at WR
When Chicago takes the field in three wide receiver sets, it’ll most likely be the trio of Marshall, Alshon Jeffery (-2.0) and Earl Bennett (+1.0). There is some serious talent between all three of these guys, but there is also a lack of speed to take the top off a defense. At one time that guy was Devin Hester. However, his failed receiver experiment (-6.2 receiving grade in 2012) is over and he has returned to the kickoff and punt return game full-time. Opposing defenses might be able to “push down” on Chicago’s receivers to take away shorter routes without any fear of being beaten over the top.
What to Expect
Talent-wise, the Bears have one of the best rosters in the NFL. The challenges will likely come with having a smooth transition between coaching staffs, having first-year continuity on offense under Trestman, and keeping the defense playing at a high level. The playoffs are a realistic goal for this team. They will likely earn it through a Wildcard spot, as Green Bay still looks like the class of NFC North, with three capable teams fighting for second. If Trestman can do what Smith failed to do — beat Green Bay on a regular basis — then Chicago will have a shot at the division crown.
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