The honeymoon is over for the Chicago Bears as the team tries to pick up the pieces from a dream turned nightmare in 2009. What went wrong last season and how the Bears addressed the problems will ultimately be the difference between winning and losing in 2010. A repeat of last season could seal the fate of head coach Lovie Smith and the future of Jay Cutler as a premier quarterback in the NFL.
The 0-4 preseason sounded the alarm for the Bears but is not necessarily a precursor of what is yet to come. The Indianapolis Colts were the only other team to finish 0-4 in the preseason. But after going 7-9 last season and missing the playoffs for the third straight year, patience is thin for both the organization and Bears fans. What the Bears did to fix their problems during the off-season is a combination of moves both on and off the field; adjustments in some areas while staying put in other areas.
It started with keeping Lovie Smith as the head coach, a decision made shortly after the end of the 2009 season in January. Smith still had two year’s, $11 million left on his contract but was still very close to being released. The retention of Smith did not come without a price though as Smith relinquished his defensive play calling and six coaches were released including offensive coordinator Ron Turner.
“Personally, it’s been the most frustrating year since I’ve been here,” said team president and CEO Ted Phillips. “The last three years, it’s been clear nobody did a good enough job in the organization. Nobody did.”
After an extensive and exhaustive search Turner was replaced by Mike Martz.
A former head coach and architect of the “Greatest Show on Turf”, ala the St. Louis Rams circa 2000, Martz, like Smith, is a Super Bowl experienced head coach. But, Martz and Smith are opposites when it comes to offensive strategy with Smith being a run first oriented coach and Martz favoring the aerial blitz, a style more suited to the gunslinger style of Jay Cutler.
But with Cutler, now going into his second full year, there was no acquisition of an A-list target at the wide receiver position for Cutler to throw too. Options were available during the off-season including the receiver who currently has caught the most of Cutler’s passes as a pro, Brandon Marshall. Available through the Denver Broncos Marshall went to the Dolphins and became the highest paid receiver in NFL history. Anqwan Bolden also available went from the Cardinals to the Ravens, Terrell Owens went to the Bengals and Vincent Jackson is still available at San Diego which is where the Bears did get there new tight end Brandon Manumaleuna from.
Instead the Bears stayed put with Devin Hester as the number one receiver coming off of a season with 57 catches for 757 yards and tight end Greg Olsen who led the team with 60 receptions and 612 yards in 2009. Given, those numbers are average on one hand but can also be looked at as inflated on the other hand. If you consider the Bears played a number of games coming from behind, which forces an offense to pass more in an effort to catch up; a point indicative of Cutler’s league leading 26 interceptions last season. Rounding out the corps of receivers is Earl Bennett and second year man Johnnie Knox who made it to the Pro Bowl on special teams in 2009.
Returning to the backfield in his third year is running back Matt Forte who ripped off an impressive 82 yard run in the Bears 17-32 preseason loss to the Oakland Raiders. Joining Forte for the 2010 Bears is the former Vikings backup Chester Taylor a solid third down back and compliment to the offense. Taylor actually has a higher fantasy football rating (24th) than does Forte (34th). Cutler falls at the #10 spot along with kicker Robbie Gould and the entire Bears defense in the fantasy rankings to start the season.
In order for the Bears to advance with Martz will largely depend on the success of offensive line. Orlando Pace was a bust at left tackle last season and Chris Williams will start on the left side this year instead, next to left guard Robert Garza. Olin Kreutz stays at center with Lance Luis at right guard and Frank Omiyale at right tackle.
Last year it was the blockbuster trade for Cutler; this year is was the defense’s turn as they picked up prize free agent, defensive end Julius Peppers who left the Carolina Panthers. Peppers and the Bears agreed to a deal worth $91.5 million over six years, $42 million guaranteed. Compare that to the deal the Dolphins made for Brandon Marshall of $47 million, with $24 million guaranteed. Peppers will join linebacker Brian Urlacher who missed the 2009 season due to injury.
Gone from the Bears defense this season is defensive end Alex Brown, now with the New Orleans Saints, cornerback Nathan Vasher now with the San Diego Chargers and Orlando Pace is currently a free agent.
The Bears will open the regular season at Soldier Field on September 12th against the Detroit Lions. From there the schedule gets tough as the Bears travel to Dallas for the road opener followed by the Packers at home and the Giants on the road. In all the Bears will face eight playoff teams from 2009.
The Bears must get to at least an 8-8 record in 2010 for any respectability and at least 10-6 for any chance to make the playoffs. If not look for wholesale changes after the New Year starts in 2011.