The Windy City had a special football season going in 2010. The pyroetechnics (fireworks) and excitement filled the air as the first ever NFC Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers v. Chicago Bears aroused passions, renewed a century long rivalry as the Super Bowl beckoned. The sky was blue, the air crisp and hitting could be heard all around Soldier Field and then a mysterious injury to Jay Cutler brought an end to Super Bowl dreams for the Bears and cast a pall over a town, its team, Jay Cutler’s integrity, and the Bears immediate future. This team wasted a perfect window for themselves! What happened??
Many of us who observed that game were unhappy with the way Cutler removed himself from the NFC Championship. We never saw him hurt in the game. For me it wasn’t that he looked aloof and didn’t seem interested in a game where he should have had to have been carried off the field against the hated Packers. He would not help 3rd string qB Hainie as he scrambled through polaroids trying to get a bead on what he was going into. A few questions come to mind… How could a quarterback on the brink of rewriting his own image, after the Seahawk playoff game, do so much to reinforce his selfish veneer? Was the response by his teammates and Lovie Smith genuine?? The rest of the players of the NFL sounded off on twitter, as well as fans during our interactive football madness, with a ferocity questioning Cutler’s lack of heart that seem to permeate all media outlets before the game even ended. Where does Cutler go from here? Has he lost his teammates? These are questions that are right on the Chicago Bear’s mantle that have to be addressed before this team can move forward.
Quarterback: Sigh, this is one where we won’t know the extent of the fallout damage from the NFC Championship until the season unfolds. Cutler showed signs of improvement with the system Mike Martz installed and they came into the second half of 2010 on a roll with the emphasis more on running. Early on Martz was afflicted with trying to empty the backfield and the sacks, interceptions, and mistakes were prevalent. Most notably the 9 sack first half of the Giants game on Monday night. Cutler removed himself from that game in a questionable fashion… hmm?
Entering his 6th season, Cutler should be in his prime, especially with this being his third year in Chicago. This second under Martz could prove to be a coming out party for him or the nail in the coffin. The truth of the matter is we have to see if Cutler has lost his team and we’ll get back to that. In all actuality, his play improved to 23 TDs and 16 interceptions from 27 TDs and 26 interceptions between his second and first seasons in The City of Broad Shoulders. Cutler was asked to throw the ball 123 less times in 2010 in an attempt to minimize turnovers. He was still sacked a league high 52 times and was accused of holding the ball too long. There are times when he lacks a feel for the pass rush that comes back to haunt him at inopportune times. Martz is working on Cutler delivering the football on 5 step drops on time. He needs to show more consistency in throwing the ball away quicker. At quarterback the Bears are average and we need to see how Jay deals with throwing the ball away to avoid sacks and turnovers. This year is career make or break for Jay and right now you’d have to call him a break even quarterback at best. Could see a draft pick going to the quarterback right here in a second or third rounder like Boise St’s Kellen Moore. A year ahead of myself…but you get the picture
Offensive Backfield: An identity needs to be forged here also. Right now the Bears are working between two 3rd down backs in Matt Forte and Chester Taylor. They need a more physical franchise back here to help this offense field an identity. Too often the Bears had to kick the ball back to their opponent because they couldnt power the ball down teams throats on 3rd and 2. The Bears missed a few years back when they let Rashard Mendenhall of Illinois get away, this time they need to grab Illini RB Mikel Leshoure. He’s a 6 ft 230lbs bruiser who is a perfect Bear back. Forte and Chester Taylor are 3rd down backs at best. Sure Matt Forte ran for 1,069 yards on 237 carries for a nice 4.5 yards per carry, yet all too often the Bears couldn’t establish a traditional running game. They would rely on running out of passing formations and draws to catch the defense off guard. A bigger back can make a hole and be able to fall forward and pick up another 4 1st downs a game allowing the Bears to run out the clock.
There are 6 physical running backs coming out in this draft that the Bears would be better served replacing Forte as the every down starter. This way they can close out ball games, have Cutler become a second option and play to the strength of the team; defense and special teams. Stand pat…below average going into this season. Could see the Bears using two draft picks on runners if need be. Taylor needs to be released…just an enigmatic signing that needs to be rectified.
Receivers: Many pundits are calling for a splash to be made at receiver to help out Jay Cutler, I think they could use a quality guy here but strategically running back would pay immediate dividends where a receiver would not . Johnny Knox is serviceable and could be this year’s Miles Austin if the Bears can find the running game to make teams play more 8 in the box. The reduced screen passes to Forte and bubble screens that supplement the running game would be thrown here. He has speed and good hands, evidenced by his 51 rec. for 960 yards and 5TDs. His whopping 18.8 yds per reception plus additional 1 on 1 opportunities would turn him easily into a 70 catch 1,300 yard receiver like that. Think about it. Only receiver to give you impact like that as a rookie was Randy Moss in ’98, so picking that up in the draft is not likely.
Furthermore use Earl Bennett and Jay Olsen’s big bodies a little more and DO NOT rely on passing formations (3 / 4 receivers) so much. The Bears telegraphed too often when they were going to throw and that clogs too many passing lanes for them. Olsen (from the U) could have a breakout year with linebackers paying attention to the run. We saw evidence of this in the divisional playoff win against Seattle when we watched Olsen get deep and scorch safety Lawyer Milloy on a 58yd TD on the second play of the game. Seattle expected run and from a traditional set got on top of their linebackers. The Bears could have two , 1000 yard receivers in Olsen and Knox, with Bennett a chain moving intermediate supplement at the other receiver. Bennett caught 41 rec. for 561 yards and could catch a few more with this offensive premise. Devin Hester and Aramashodu would be wild cards to be used for special plays or three receiver sets. The dependable Desmond Clark should be used more in 2 TE sets and this team would really best utilize Cutler with intermediate throws on defenses in traditional sets.
Offensive Line: This team could use an upgrade in several spots. This team allowed for the most hits on their quarterback and sacks with 56. Not good! We have already mentioned the inability to move the ball on the ground in critical opportunities. The Bears were 23rd in the league in rushing average with 3.9 yds per rush and 21st in the league with 10TDs rushing as an offense. Instead of really coming down hard on individual players lets just say this is an area that needs upgrading. A few draft picks here and in a few powerful backs could band aid an offensive approach that would allow offensive line coach Mike Tice to take some young linemen and get on the 7 man sled and run the football. This is how they can cover deficiencies on their line, Cutler at quarterback, and rush the ball more effectively. Young lineman can run block easier than pass block. Stand pat…below average…
Defensive Line: Julius Peppers tilted the field in 2010. His sacks and subsequent pressure caused numerous holding penalties against Green Bay that were key in a Monday Night win. He reworked his contract to allow some cap relief and hopefully they will get him some help now that they have released the underachieving Tommie Harris. Peppers sack total wasnt as high as he would have hoped with 8, but the attention afforded him allowed Israel Idonijie to match him with 8 sacks and an overall defensive ranking of 9. This team was 5th in 3rd down % allowed at 35% which kept the field short for Devin Hester in the return game…yet I digress. Peppers should get 12-15 sacks this year.
The Bears had a shuttle of defensive tackles in the game to take place of the underachieving Harris. Matt Toeaina #75, just signed an extension started 10 games had 28 tackles and had 2.5 sacks last season. Immovable on the point which allows Bear linebackers to flow to the ball. Look for a breakout year with teams unable to gameplan for this 6ft 2 305 lbs plodder. Anthony Adams #95 (take that off…its Richard Dent’s) was the other tackle who also had a good year with 37 tackles while tying up blockers. Peppers and Idonijie are in their prime and the tackles are young and immovable. A Super Bowl defensive front
Linebackers: Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are probably the best 1-2 punch at Middle and Outside Linebacker in the NFL. Urlacher really benefitted from missing the entire season before and he looked fresh all through the 2010 season. “If only he had legs to get that 3rd quarter interception of Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship to the endzone” is echoing through the minds of Bears fans everywhere. Yet that play showcased his skills entirely. His drop, read and react skills, quickness to catch the ball in traffic and make a play when his team desperately needed one. Urlacher was 1st on the team in tackles with 126, 3rd on the team with 4 sacks and was one of the leaders of a punishing defense.
Briggs came in second with 88 tackles, had 2 sacks and 2 interceptions in a fine all around performance. He along with Urlacher were able to roam free with offensive line attention placed on the D-Line. Briggs is as good against the run as he is against the pass. A sure tackler who is also in the prime of his career. Briggs is entering his 10th season and Urlacher his 13th so its imperative the Bears make a move on the defensive side of the ball in next years draft. The Bears should be even better with the return of Hunter Hillenmeyer #92 from injury. A solid linebacker who is best on the outside can play inside in a pinch as evidenced by his 2009 performance. A solid group that is getting up there in years but going into this season is still a Super Bowl set of ‘backers.
Secondary: First and foremost Charles “Peanut” Tillman was robbed of an NFC Pro Bowl spot in 2010. Get this; he was 3rd on the team in tackles with 83 behind Briggs and Urlacher, 1st on the team with forced fumbles with 4, and 1st on the team with 5 interceptions. All of this on a top 10 defense that made the NFC Championship Game and no pro bowl? Seriously? A great zone cornerback with cover skills and will tackle in the running game. Tillman should have a long career and is in his prime right now. Players like this are able to move to safety when they lose a step so don’t be surprised in a few years when he’s back there. Tim Jennings #26 was playing some good football the last time we saw him in the NFC Championship Game. The Bears coaching staff should have allowed the Bears corners a chance to be more aggressive on the line of scrimmage. Jennings is quick but can get muscled by stronger receivers.
At safety Harris and Daniel Manning are solid safeties. They do lack swivel hips to turn and run and require a good reroute of the receivers at the line. However against the run they each have some heft and will put the finishing touches on a ball carrier.
Overall: This team could be in for a long season if they don’t move quickly and get their hands on a few running backs and offensive linemen to give them the best chance in 2011. Spending too much for a top flight receiver to get Jay Cutler to throw more would be disastrous and showcase a line that is in serious need of a rebuild. Furthermore it could damage the psyche of the team and how they feel about Jay Cutler. They let a golden window for a Super Bowl run close on them yet with a few astute moves can keep it open one more year slightly.
This team had an esprit du corp that was second to none going into that championship tilt with Green Bay. With the defense allowing Devin Hester ample kick return opportunities they should fend off Detroit and stay ahead of the rebuilding Vikings this year. Will they catch Green Bay?? Only if they can get to an NFC Championship at Lambeau Field…now that would be full circle and will take an olympian effort to get there.