Chicago Bears 2009 Preview

August 6, 2009 by

So the Chicago Bears finally did it. They finally broke down and got a franchise quarterback. After starting 37 different signalcallers over the last 171 games, and sending just one quarterback in the last 44 years to the Pro Bowl, the Bears shipped a bounty of goods to Denver in exchange for 26-year-old Jay Cutler.

The price was steep, no doubt (quarterback Kyle Orton, two first-round picks and a third-rounder). But no one will remember the price in five years.

The Windy City is understandably buzzing about its new sports icon. And Bears head coach Lovie Smith and GM Jerry Angelo are looking a lot smarter. Indeed, Cutler has special talent. His arm is an absolute rifle. He shows strength and valor in the pocket. His athleticism easily exceeds NFL requirements. And, unlike Chicago’s last two future franchise quarterbacks, first-rounders Cade McNown (’99) and Rex Grossman (’03), Cutler arrives with an NFL track record.

Of course, it’s a track record marked with one huge blemish: attitude. Ask yourself two questions: (A) why was a budding young superstar quarterback with a favorable contract so readily traded from Denver in the first place? and (B) when Cutler was quarrelling with new Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels, why did not one single player, Bronco or non-Bronco, lend an inkling of public support to the star passer? Gifted as Cutler is, his arrogance has been a much-talked about issue in NFL circles. At this point, he bears an unsettling resemblance to Jeff George.

Perhaps even more troubling is what Cutler so willingly gave up to come here. In Denver, he had a quarterback-minded head coach who had just helped guide Tom Brady to a perfect regular season and groomed Matt Cassel into a star. He also had two first-rate offensive tackles (Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris) who were both under 25 and had given up a combined 3.5 sacks in 2008. Plus, his top targets, Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, formed the best young receiving tandem in the game. Would a quarterback who was really concerned with winning turn his back so impetuously on a club that offered even just one of these three factors?

At least Cutler now has a golden opportunity to stroke his ego. His head coach is defensive-minded. His tackles are Orlando Pace and Chris Williams, a respective future Hall of Famer and ’08 first-round pick in the eyes of optimists. Realists, however, see these tackles as injury magnets, one in the form of a declining 33-year-old and the other as an untested question mark. Cutler’s top two receivers are Devin Hester and Earl Bennett, both of whom are just learning how to be NFL wideouts. (And investors aren’t exactly lining up.) Thus, any success Chicago has offensively will be credited to the new quarterback.

Cutler does have the kind of talent that can mask an entire offense’s limitations. Plus, scintillating young running back Matt Forte gives the Bears a better running game than the one that helped this team reach the Super Bowl just three years ago.

The ’06 Super Bowl team, of course, was all about defense. This ’09 defense is essentially that same Cover 2 group, except now it’s coming off a season in which it ranked 21st in yards allowed. As hyped as Cutler is, defense is where Chicago’s playoff fate truly rests. Lovie Smith’s favorite unit must recapture its bite if this organization is going to break out of its two-year malaise.

With no major defensive personnel changes, how does that happen? For starters, the addition of perhaps the league’s most respected defensive line coach, Rod Marinelli, should invigorate a front four that produced just 23.5 sacks last season (the Bears as a whole ranked 29th in the league in sacks per play). Smith’s scheme––which stems directly from his Tampa 2 days with Tony Dungy––only works if the front four can get pressure.

From there, Brian Urlacher must bounce back from an overwhelmingly average ’08 season that prompted a din of whispers about whether back and neck injuries had taken a toll on the six-time Pro Bowler (Urlacher has not made it to Hawaii the past two years). Tailing off at a rate commensurate with Urlacher has been a secondary that enters 2009 somewhat discombobulated.

But none of these obstacles are insurmountable. And the difference between this Bears team and those of the past six decades is that, even if some of the defensive problems aren’t solved, there’s at least hope. That’s what a star quarterback will give you.

Offense

It will be interesting to see how Jay Cutler and offensive coordinator Ron Turner do with getting on the same page. Cutler is a classic gun-slinger who takes risks that can drive coaches crazy. His ability to zip balls through tight windows will prove valuable, as unrefined route-running means Chicago’s two fastest veteran wideouts, Devin Hester and Rashied Davis, struggle at getting separation. It’s doubtful either of these two will ever be top-shelf receiving options. Hester is more equipped for the slot and, frankly, too valuable in the return game to waste on offense. (Usually a player is too valuable on offense to waste in the return game. But in Hester’s case, his big-play skills are so lethal that his overall impact on field positioning is actually greater on special teams.) The former Arena Leaguer Davis runs well and could possibly be a No. 2, though given that he’s already 30, it seems more likely that he’ll settle in as a long-term No. 4.

The Bears have other prospects, at least. Last year’s third-rounder, Earl Bennett, set the SEC receptions record in just three seasons at Vanderbilt. He was irrelevant as a rookie, but if he can digest Turner’s playbook, he’ll start. This year’s third-rounder, Juaquin Iglesias, was productive for three years at Oklahoma and projects as a viable slot receiver underneath. And fifth-round rookie Johnny Knox, raw coming out of tiny Abilene Christian, might be the fastest player on the team.

That said, tight end Greg Olsen will become Cutler’s favorite target in 2009. Strong yet supple enough to play the slot, Olsen has the capability of snagging 70 balls. He just needs to solidify his confidence. Formidable-blocking veteran Desmond Clark––who also has good hands––will continue to play a prominent role. So will newcomer Michael Gaines, whose run-blocking prowess is likely to move him ahead of the more talented Kellen Davis.

Chicago’s rushing attack will need the extra power from the tight ends and fullback Jason McKie, as this front line, as a whole, doesn’t have great downhill strength. Street-fighting Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz is an obvious exception, and left tackle Orlando Pace, when healthy, can absolutely plow defenders. But both guards, Frank Omiyale and Robert Garza, are iffy. Omiyale, who might replace mobile but spongy Josh Beekman, is a natural tackle who has barely played in four years; Garza is just plain slow. Right tackle Chris Williams figures to bring more athleticism up front. But if he’s unable to go then veteran mudder Kevin Shaffer, who was a liability for the Browns, will get the nod.

Running behind these men is Matt Forte, a 6’2”, 216-pound 23-year-old who is football’s equivalent of jazz music: smooth, patient, entertaining and wise. Remarkably pliable hips give Forte an uncanny ability to change directions without disrupting his glide. Last season, by catching a running back-high 61 passes and gaining 1,238 yards on 316 carries, Forte accounted for 35 percent of Chicago’s offense, more than any other individual player in the league. But he also wore down in December. That’s why the Bears are intent on getting former Lion Kevin Jones more involved. Now fully recovered from a devastating ’07 knee injury, Jones is expected to exhibit the unique finesse-power combination that made him a successful first-round pick early in his career. If he can’t, then dependable veteran Adrian Peterson and shifty but diminutive third-year pro Garrett Wolfe could see meaningful carries.

Defense

Prior to trading for Cutler, the Bears believed that assistant Rod Marinelli was their most significant offseason acquisition. Though unsuccessful as a head coach in Detroit, Marinelli is a wizard as a defensive line coach. He became close friends with Lovie Smith when the two were assistants in Tampa Bay. Warren Sapp credits much of his early success to Marinelli; the NFL’s present version of Sapp, Tommie Harris, has already characterized his new position coach as the best in the business.

You can expect Harris to regain the quickness and awareness that made him the most dominant interior force in football a few years ago. Of course, he must stay healthy. So must Dusty Dvoracek, a suffocating young nose tackle who can be a monster going in all four directions. The Bears have wisely decided to rotate their injury-prone defensive tackles, which explains why they spent third-round picks on Marcus Harrison (’08) and Jarron Gilbert (’09). Harrison is big and hardworking but must improve at shedding blocks. Gilbert is the athletic tycoon from San Jose State who became a YouTube sensation for jumping straight out of a swimming pool.

Tommie Harris can provide a pass-rush inside, though in order for Smith and his titular defensive coordinator, Bob Babich, to rely less on blitzing in ’09, the Bears must get better play from all four defensive ends. Adewale Ogunleye is steady but, at 32, too mundane. Booming utility veteran Israel Idonije should get more of the former-Dolphin’s snaps. Idonije, however, is not quite fast enough to draw double-teams. Mark Anderson is fast enough, but for whatever reason, he’s registered a measly six total sacks since breaking into the league with 12 as a rookie in 2006.

Anderson traditionally shares playing time with Alex Brown, a 30-year-old who gets in the backfield more than his ho-hum statistics indicate. Brown is actually at his best in run defense, though his services get overshadowed by this star-studded linebacking core. Brian Urlacher has been too dominant for too long to simply write-off. Yes, his 2008 season was, by his standards, an absolute clunker. And yes, neck and back problems have impacted him the past few years. But Urlacher has the football character and intelligence to be a vociferous stopper even if his athleticism has diminished (and at 31 years old, there’s still no guarantee that it has). Coaches were excited about how he looked during offseason activities.

There are no concerns about star weaksider Lance Briggs, even though the 28-year-old also wasn’t his best last season. Briggs’s speed and explosiveness make up for his somewhat remedial football IQ. The Bears have a litany of options at strongside linebacker. Longtime starter Hunter Hillenmeyer is too reactionary and destined to finish out his career on special teams. Thus, vying for the job are lightning-fast ex-Ram Pisa Tinoisamoa (a natural Will but perhaps too talented to sit behind Briggs), Nick Roach (an athletic 234-pounder who shows a burst) and Jamar Williams (a once-thought-to-be underachiever who turned everybody’s head this past offseason). Expect Tinoisamoa to get the first crack.

The chaos at strongside linebacker is nothing compared to that of the secondary. Über-physical cornerback Charles Tillman was firmly entrenched as a starter before back surgery put his availability for September in question. Jerry Angelo and the coaching staff looked strongly at demoting high-priced former Pro Bowler Nate Vasher, who has fought injuries the past two years and can’t seem to rediscover his ball instincts.

Free safety is even more tenuous. Second-year man Craig Steltz was thought to have the job, but he’s more natural in the box and the Bears already like firm-tackling Kevin Payne in that role. Cornerback Corey Graham made the switch to safety in the spring, but with Tillman’s injury, Chicago wants Graham back on the outside. His improvements last season make him a finer option than inconsistent Trumaine McBride (who did have a good offseason, however). Free agent Josh Bullocks was signed to a one-year deal, but he’s never shown acceptable instincts. Thus, the Bears will enter training camp with nickelback Danieal Manning back at the free safety spot he started 29 games in early in his career. Manning has first-class speed and agility, though he’s never translated it into great coverage.

Special Teams

Robbie Gould is almost never asked to kick from beyond 50 yards, which is partly why his accuracy numbers are so good. Chicago had the league’s second-rated punt coverage unit last season, in large part because Brad Maynard planted 40 balls inside the twenty (second most in NFL history). As for Devin Hester, you know the story there. The best return man of all-time is hoping to bounce back from a subpar season that special teams coach Dave Toub blamed on youthful blockers and Hester’s focus on wide receiver. If Hester isn’t available, Danieal Manning actually led the NFL in kick return average in 2008.


Bottom Line

Jay Cutler alone should make this offense better than it was a year ago. But that won’t be the deciding factor in 2009. That label is reserved for the defense. If the Bears can’t stay healthy and improve against the pass, they won’t be much better than .500. If they can, they may not be any worse than they were three years ago.

Predicted Finish: 2nd NFC North

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