In 2012 the Chicago Bears finished 10-6 and head coach Lovie Smith was fired.
The Bears had only been to the playoffs one time since their Super Bowl appearance in January 2007. This, despite having one of the more talented quarterbacks in the league in Jay Cutler.
While the defense was always one of the better units in the league, the offense never really was able to get untracked under Smith. The club went through four offensive coordinators while Smith was head coach, with Cutler playing under three of those coordinators. To say that Cutler has been a disappointment is an understatement.
ICONCan Jay Cutler have his most productive season yet for the Bears?
General Manager Phil Emery named Marc Trestman as head coach in a bold move. Trestman has the reputation as an offensive guru and being able to work well with quarterbacks, but he hasn’t coached in the NFL since 2004. Trestman was head coach of the Montreal Alouettes from 2008 through 2012 and he got to the CFL Championship game three times, winning two Grey Cup titles. Trestman’s main job will be getting Cutler to play to his ability. This is Cutler’s last year under contract so for him to earn the big money that other quarterbacks in the league have gotten in the last year Cutler has to produce under Trestman. Otherwise the Bears will be looking for a new quarterback come January.
The offense has some very interesting skill players in place. Matt Forte is one of the better running backs in the league and there are few backs who are better catching the ball out of the backfield. Brandon Marshall is an elite wide receiver and new tight end Martellus Bennett is coming off a career year with the New York Giants. The Bears have to find a top complementary receiver to Marshall. My bet is that it will be second-year man Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery was an early entry into the 2012 Draft and like most rookie receivers he was inconsistent. It didn’t help that a broken wrist caused him to miss time during the middle portion of the season. Consistent Earl Bennett will be the third receiver.
The big question mark for the Bears offense will be how the offensive line plays. The Bears signed two veteran free agents in tackle Jermon Bushrod from New Orleans and guard Matt Slauson from the Jets. The other guard will most likely be first-round pick Kyle Long and the right tackle will be a competition between J’Marcus Webb and Jonathon Scott. While Long is raw after only playing one year of major college football, he is extremely talented. Longtime veteran Roberto Garza remains at center. Much of Cutler's problems have come because he has had little time in the pocket. How this new line plays will be in the hands of new line coach/offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. Kromer built a reputation as one of the better line coaches in the league while with New Orleans. Bushrod earned two Pro Bowl trips under Kromer’s guidance.
Under Smith the Bears defense was excellent at causing turnovers. Year after year the Bears were at or near the top of the charts in this category. It remains to be seen if this will remain the same under new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. Tucker’s scheme is similar to Smith’s, so that shouldn’t have a major effect on the defense.
The key question around Chicago is who is going to replace perennial All-Pro Brian Urlacher at Mike linebacker. Urlacher retired after he couldn’t come to terms on a new deal with the Bears. From a physical point of view I don’t think that Urlacher is that hard to replace. It has been three or more years since he has been at the top of his game. Where the Bears will miss Urlacher is in the locker room, where he had such a strong presence. Who will replace Urlacher? The answer to that question isn’t known going into camp. Right now at the top of the depth chart is free agent signee D.J. Williams, who had many productive seasons at Denver. At 30 years old, Williams still has the traits to be a productive Mike linebacker. In the second round of this year’s Draft, the Bears drafted Jon Bostic to play inside. In the tape work I did I felt that Bostic would be better off at Sam or Will. I didn’t see the take-on skills that I like a good Mike to have. Whoever ends up at Mike will have Lance Briggs next to him at Will linebacker. Briggs is one of the most instinctive playmaking linebackers in the game. At 32 he still hasn’t lost a step.
The defensive line is solid with Pro Bowlers Julius Peppers and Henry Melton leading the way. Either newly signed free agent Sedrick Ellis or Stephen Paea will line up next to Melton at tackle. Those three give the Bears a strong inside rotation at tackle. The end opposite Peppers will be fourth-year pro Corey Wooton or last year’s top pick Shea McClellin. I look for a big improvement in McClellin this season. For this defense to be most effective it needs a strong six-man rotation and they seem to have those six players at this time.
The secondary is led by two Pro Bowlers from last year, corners Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings. The third corner is veteran Kelvin Hayden, who is very reliable. At safety Major Wright and Chris Conte lead the way. While this may not be the best secondary in the league, it is one of the better ones.
The key to the Bears season will be how Cutler and the rest of the offense adapt to Trestman’s offense. If Cutler struggles the Bears will struggle. If Cutler buys into Trestman then the Bears may very well challenge for the division championship or at worst a wild card position. This is the crossroads of Cutler's career being he is in the final year of his contract. It will be interesting seeing how this plays out.