Thursday, October 27, 2011

Suck for ???

Now that the Bears have put themselves in position, albeit tentatively, to make a run at the playoffs, I'm conflicted. Martz appears to be trying to save his ass, if not the team's fortunes, by once again focusing on the running game. He did the same thing last year after Lovie presumably threatened him to change or be sent packing where his eventual career in D3 college football awaits. Luckily some poor D3 college QB's health was spared as Martz started calling running plays. He's trying to stave off dorm food once again, but these will be the last nine games Bears fans will have to endure with Martz as the offensive coordinator.

If Martz does stop trying to selfishly improve his resume by sneaking in a doomed trick play or bizarre play call sequence of pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, maybe the offense can ride Forte into the playoffs while Martz is muzzled and wrapped in a straightjacket. It will also require a consistent defensive effort similar to the last two games and savvy play by Cutler, but it is conceivable the Bears sneak into the playoffs at 9-7. This scares me. I love the Bears, and my mood is markedly improved following wins, but I just can't see how this group of misfit players, coaches, and management can build a championship caliber team. A fringe playoff team every few years--maybe (as long as Urlacher, Peppers, and Hester are productive). But a championship team? Nope, don't see it.

Since the Bears are not among the dreck of the NFL, they have excluded themselves from the "Suck for Luck" sweepstakes. Short of actually wanting the Bears to lose, but rather wanting a total regime change after this season, who do you want the Bears to "suck" for? I'm leaning towards Cowher...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Smoke and Mirrors

After the 2009 season, I wanted Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith to be fired. The Bears missed the playoffs in three consecutive seasons after losing in the Super Bowl, and it looked like their window of being a championship team had closed. I felt it was time to go in a new direction. The McCaskey family did not see it that way.

Then, the 2010 season happened. With an unbelievable string of good luck, health, and an incredibly soft schedule, they ended up hosting the NFC Championship game. As much as I enjoyed last season, I never believed the Bears were an upper-echelon team or even a team on the rise. They were simply opportunistic with an aging defense that played with an enormous chip on its shoulder. Fool me once, shame on you.

After the lockout, I expected the Bears to be aggressive in free agency to bolster a bad offensive line, a bad receiving corp, and a bad secondary. Instead, Angelo made a slew of curious signings (Roy Williams, Marion Barber, Sam Hurd, Chris Spencer, Brandon Meriweather), and he chose to not re-sign Olin Kreutz. It looked like Angelo was signing guys to fill tiny cracks on a team that, in fact, had enormous craters. This speaks to the group-think that is taking place in Halas Hall. Outside those hallowed corridors, the Bears had gaping holes at numerous positions. Within Halas Hall, the Bears brass felt like some marginal depth is all that was needed for this team to take the next step. Sometimes I get the feeling that Angelo and Lovie make decisions just to spite the media and fan criticism.

The signing of Roy Williams was particularly curious. Not so much that they signed him, but that they immediately declared him a starter. Martz went so far as to predict "70-80" catches for him this year. He has six catches through five games. That is the delusion I'm talking about. Every fan who watches the NFL each weekend knew that Roy Williams was not capable of catching that many balls or of being a true #1 receiver, but the Bears management didn't know this. This a pattern for Angelo and Smith (Tommie Harris, Mark Anderson, Todd Collins, Orlando Pace, Frank Omiyale, to name a few). All of these players were given ample playing time long after they demonstrated their ineffectiveness. You can call it stubbornness, ignorance, or arrogance, but you can't deny it. The decision-makers for the Chicago Bears live an alternate universe.

After the debacle that took place Monday night in front of a national audience, I'm wondering if George McCaskey has seen what is so obvious to most Bears fans. The Chicago Bears have an offense in shambles, a defense past its prime, a head coach that can't game plan at all, and a general manager who can't evaluate talent. If George really wants to establish himself as the head of the Chicago Bears, he needs to start putting a plan in place to blow up this organization in the off season and start over.

This Bears team cannot compete with best teams in its conference or even its own division. Any reports coming out of Halas Hall to the contrary will fall on deaf ears. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Offensive Bears

The Chicago Bears are 1-2. They've proven they can play solid defense when inspired, and they've proven that Matt Forte is their best offensive player. Unfortunately, they've also proven they can't sustain long drives on offense, protect the passer, or open holes for Forte. We've also learned that Dave Toub's special teams haven't been very special this year. Whether it's the new rules or not, I'm not sure. It probably has more to do with the loss of key special teams players. Either way, the Bears can't be successful without elite special teams...not just good or even great; they have to be ELITE. That's what happens when you have an arrogant clown running your offense and an overrated, inaccurate quarterback.

I've never been one to overreact to a bad play, a bad game, or a bad season and call for immediate changes to everyone from the Team President to the Italian Beef vendors hawking their fare around the stadium. When Jay Cutler was throwing 26 interceptions during the 2009 season, I was frustrated, but I didn't think the trade was a mistake. When the offense looked inept for most of the first half of the 2010 season, I was again frustrated, but I felt they just needed time to learn Martz's offense. However, after watching Martz completely abandon the run for two straight games and foolishly expose Cutler to unnecessary punishment; after watching Cutler overthrow countless receivers; after watching said receivers drop countless balls; after watching offensive lineman whiff on countless blocks; after hearing the same tired cliches from Lovie Smith and Mike Martz over and over and over again, I've officially reached the point of complete irrationality. They need to dismantle the entire organization and start over. That's right, I said the ENTIRE organization...starting with Jerry Angelo.

Let's examine why my irrationality may not be so irrational. I recommend reading this piece from Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune first. I'll give you a few minutes. I'll wait here...done yet? No? How about now? Yes? Ok, good. For those of you who weren't able to follow that link, here is the gist of it. Based on end of year offensive yardage rankings since 2001, the Bears are tied for dead last in the NFL over the past 10 seasons...with the Cleveland Browns. DEAD LAST! For those of you who think that these ratings don't mean that much, take a look at the top 5 teams and the bottom 5 teams. This is what I call the eyeball test. Which list would you rather be a part of?

Top 5 teams (Indy, Green Bay, New Orleans, New England, Philadelphia).
Bottom 5 teams (Carolina, Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago).

This is an ORGANIZATIONAL PROBLEM. Bad offense didn't start with Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith, but it certainly hasn't gotten any better since they've been here. In fact, you could argue that it's gotten worse. (They're last top ten finish on offense was 1995). Bad drafting (Angel0), bad free-agents (Angelo), bad systems (Angelo), and bad coordinators (Angelo and Smith) have all contributed to the Bears being perennially one of the worst offenses in football. They lived up to that last year, and they're doing it again this year.

The acquisition of Jay Cutler was heralded as the end to horrible QB play, and the beginning of a new era of gawdy statistics and scoreboards exploding with points. We had a Pro Bowl quarterback who was young and as physically gifted as any player at his position! I remember saying at the time that I could forgive Jerry Angelo for all past and future mistakes because of this one, unbelievable acquisition. All of Bears Nation was giddy for months and, ultimately, delusional.

What I failed to realize at the time is that Jay Cutler never was the quarterback I thought we were getting, and he'll never be the quarterback I want him to be. I forgot where I read this, but someone recently made the point that even during Cutler's 2008 Pro Bowl season with the Broncos, he posted a passer rating of only 86. And, that was with Mike Shanahan calling the plays, Brandon Marshall catching passes, and an incredible offensive line protecting for him (only 11 sacks given up...ALL YEAR!). That team finished 8-8. Another interesting nugget is that the Broncos scored 370 points in 2008 while the Bears, with Kyle Orton, scored 375 points.

Here is my ultimate point about Cutler. Yes, the Bears can win with him at quarterback. No, we shouldn't trade him or start Caleb Hanie. But, Jay Cutler will never be the elite quarterback we thought or hoped we were getting. He's not Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, or Peyton Manning. You are delusional if you think he'll ever be that good. He is not accurate enough nor does he make decisions fast enough. He locks on receivers, and he holds the ball too long. Martz's ridiculous offense certainly doesn't help. I think he still has upside and he can get a little better if you surround him with better players and a system that suits his style. But, as I wrote earlier, he had better players and a better system in Denver and was just about as effective as he is now on his best days.

Let me be clear, though. If Cutler had the luxury of staying with Shanahan in the same system for all of these years, he may have graduated to the next level. There is no doubt that playing in the same system year after year with the same coaching staff is a huge advantage (see Rodgers, Brady, Manning, Brees). And, if most of us get our wish, Cutler will have yet another new coordinator next season. That would make it 4 different coordinators in 5 years. Not a recipe for success. Of course, Angelo and Smith never considered that moving away from a West Coast offense with the firing of Ron Turner and bringing in a completely opposite system would hurt Cutler, did they? They should've found a coordinator who ran a similar system rather than bringing in Martz, whose system has more cracks in it than Casey Anthony's alibi. Jay needs an effective line, a good running game, good receivers, and a good coordinator in order to be successful. You know, just like 90% of quarterbacks. He's not good enough to make those around him better, despite Jerry Angelo's insistence to the contrary. Realistically, Jay Cutler is a mediocre NFL quarterback with a really strong arm.

(Side Note: I like Jay Cutler and I desperately want him to succeed, but I gotta call 'em as I see 'em).

Now, let's talk about Mike Martz. Any sportswriter who still uses the word "genius" in the same sentence with this clown needs to be fired. Immediately. Martz's offenses with previous teams put up some great passing statistics, but they also exposed their quarterbacks to unrelenting punishment and struggled to move the ball on the ground. Yes, he coordinated some great offenses with the Rams, but those teams were stacked with talent and they played indoors on a fast surface. Also, that was 10 years ago. I think much has changed in the last decade, but not Martz. He still relies heavily on 7-step drops. Most offenses use a few of them per game. Martz uses them almost exclusively. He relies on long developing plays requiring impeccable timing by the QB and WRs. Most successful offenses these days use quick passes to neutralize the pass rush. Martz invites the pass rush, even if he has terrible lineman. Martz doesn't let Cutler audible. Yes, you read that correctly. In a day and age where defenses are more sophisticated than ever, he doesn't let Cutler survey the defense from the line of scrimmage and put the offense in the best possible position to succeed. That is just arrogance, pure and simple. It may have worked 10, 20, or 30 years ago, but it doesn't work today.

The mark of a successful offense is the ability to sustain drives, convert on 3rd downs, and score TDs in the redzone. Martz's offense is often allergic to these concepts. The Bears will have 5 three-and-outs in a row, and then have a drive where they complete a few long passes and score. It's hit or miss. All or nothing. Martz runs his offense like an 11-year-old playing Madden. Meanwhile, the defense gets exhausted from all of those three-and-outs. Simply put, Mike Martz needs to be fired. Barring a deep playoff run, there is no chance he'll be back next year. So, there's that. Just believing that helps me sleep at night.

Yes, the Bears went to the NFC Championship game last year with Martz at the helm (supposedly). Let's look at how that happened, shall we? Lovie grabbed Martz by the short & curlies and forced him to run the football. They also faced a slew of 3rd string QBs, won nearly all of their close games (7-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less), and had a dominate defense and special teams. Also, they faced quite possibly the WORST playoff team in history when Seattle came to Chicago during the Divisional round of the playoffs. That luck hasn't continued this year, and it won't. The defense is a little older and the special teams have been merely average. That means the offense needs to be great for this team to return to the postseason. I don't see that happening as long as Martz is running the show. If Martz is fired mid-season and replaced with Mike Tice, maybe the Bears could go on another tear led by a strong running game and solid defense. I don't see any of those things happening.

Name the last Bears head coach who was considered "offensive-minded". Lovie Smith? Nope. Dick Jauron? Nope. Dave Wannstedt? Nope. Mike Ditka? He may not have been a defensive coordinator, but I doubt anyone would call Ditka an offensive-minded coach. Neill Armstrong? Jack Pardee? Abe Gibron? Jim Dooley? Not according to their Wikipedia pages. So, I just named every head coach SINCE GEORGE HALAS, and none of them were ever known for being offensive-minded.

Maybe if team management embraced an offensive philosophy, starting with the head coach, then the offense wouldn't always be so damn offensive.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

2011 Bears Preview

Is there anything worse for a Bears fan than heading into a new season with the Packers as the defending champions? What makes it even more gut-wrenching is the fact that the Packers got into the playoffs by beating the Bears in the last week of the season, and they advanced to the Super Bowl by beating the Bears in the NFC Championship Soldier Field! That's two crushing defeats at the hands of our hated rival, yet I haven't heard anything from the Chicago media--much less the players and coaches--about this during training camp. Has the business of the NFL reduced the amount of pride players have for their team and their city? Probably, but that's a discussion for another time. The question is have the Bears improved enough from last season to challenge the Packers in 2011?

The weakness of the the Chicago Bears begins upfront on the offensive line. If they struggle to protect Jay Cutler, the offense will falter. The NFL is a passing league, but the Bears offense since the 1940s has rarely scared anyone with its ability to move the ball consistently through the air. It showed some flashes at the end of last season against the Jets, Eagles, and Seahawks in the playoffs, but it has a long way to go to catch up with the elite teams. The best teams have dangerous passing offenses that can either dominate for an entire game (Brady, Manning, Brees, Rodgers) and/or can come through when the game is on the line (Roethlisberger). The Cutler/Martz offense can move the ball in big chunks at times, and the running game proved it could be an effective weapon last season, but it is not explosive or consistent enough to consider the 2011 Chicago Bears Super Bowl contenders. For as much as everyone likes to talk about parity, it's the elite passing teams that contend for the Super Bowl Title, and those are few and far between.

Of course, naysayers will argue that teams with Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson, and a rookie Ben Roethlisberger have won Super Bowls in the last decade. That's true, but those teams had elite defenses (not just good or even great). It is the exception to the rule. In 2011, a dominating passing offense with a great QB means more than a great defense.

With that in mind, moving the kickoff line to the 35-yard line might actually help the Bears since the defense is their strength. Teams struggle to move the ball the entire field against Lovie's Cover 2 because it is so good at preventing the big play, and this will only help. But, of course, the special teams excel at giving the Bears offense a short field, so the net impact will probably be worse.

The defense should be good again, possibly better than last year. Henry Melton looks like the real deal at defensive tackle. That position is key in the Cover 2. The Bears dominated when Tommie Harris was reeking havoc from that position in 2005 and 2006. And, Amobi Okoye was a great signing to backup Melton. Peppers and Urlacher will make their usual impact, and the secondary, while not dominate, will continue to keep the completions in front of them. The Bears just signed safety and two-time Pro Bowler, Brandon Merriweather, after he was cut by the Patriots. Not exactly sure why he was cut, but he certainly has been an impact player since joining the league in 2007. Not sure what this'll mean for their starting lineup, but it is another intriguing addition to their defense.

It is more than a little worrisome that Briggs asked for a trade. Nothing like some locker room disharmony to kickoff the new season! In my opinion, the Bears should restructure Briggs' deal and throw him a few more dollars, but he was an idiot for asking for a trade. He lost whatever small amount of public sentiment a millionaire athlete can have when this information became public. Angelo and company don't like to be threatened, and I worry that this situation might get real ugly.

The special teams--the strongest unit year-in and year-out for the Bears--will likely struggle early this season with so many new faces. Major contributors Garrett Wolfe, Tim Shaw, and Rashied Davis have all departed. Adam Podlesh takes over the punting duties from Brad Maynard, who was excellent at directional kicking, but struggled recently with distance. Coordinator Dave Toub will be counting on youth to cover kicks. Don't be surprised to see some hiccups in September. I'd be surprised, though, if Toub's unit wasn't rolling by mid-season.

It is tough to see the Bears winning more games than last year, even though they might actually be a better team. In 2010, they faced 3rd string QBs, had a soft schedule, and were unbelievably healthy--a pretty good string of good fortune that is unlikely to continue. They did beat playoff teams late in the year, though (Jets, Eagles), which gives me a little bit of hope that this could be on the ascent.

The Bears play the NFC South (Falcons, Saints, Panthers, Bucs), and the AFC West (Chiefs, Broncos, Raiders, Chargers). Plus, the NFC North will be tough (Lions will be better, Vikes could be better, Packers won't be worse). Seahawks and Eagles will be their other opponents. If they hope to make the playoffs, they will need to beat a bunch of team with realistic playoff chances, most of whom have improved in the offseason.

Overall, I think the Bears are a 9-7 team that'll finish strong and just miss the playoffs (last six games are: Raiders, Chiefs, Broncos, Seahawks, Packers, and Vikings). If everything goes right, the Bears could get to 10 wins, but the Packers will once again be the class of the division and the NFC (that was painful to say). The Bears just don't match up well against Dom Capers' defense. I would love for Cutler/Martz to find a way to beat that overaggressive, blitz-happy scheme.

The good news is that expectations are again low this year. No experts that I've seen have picked the Bears to make the playoffs but, of course, no one thought they'd do much last year (yours truly included) and they got to the NFC Championship game. They seem to enjoy playing with a chip on their shoulder. Wouldn't it be nice if they won this year without looking like they got every break imaginable? I'd love to see the offensive line come together, Cutler take the next step, and the defense dominate. The Bears have a fairly talented roster, so another playoff appearance wouldn't surprise me. I'm hoping to be pleasantly surprised once again.

Just for fun, here's the rest of my predictions for the NFL season.
NFC Division Winners: Packers, Eagles, Falcons, Rams
NFC Wild Card: Giants, Saints
NFC Champ: Packers

AFC Divison Winners: Patriots, Steelers, Texans, Chargers
AFC Wild Card: Ravens, Jets
AFC Champ: Patriots

Super Bowl Champ: Patriots

Sunday, August 28, 2011

2011 Chicago Bears Preseason Thoughts

The lockout is done, three preseason games have been played, and the 2011 Chicago Bears are starting to take shape. After unexpected success last season, you would assume that hopes would be high this year. But, a tougher schedule, an improved division, and a fair amount of questions at key positions will again keep fans guessing this season. Warning: I haven't written since February so this is going to be Bill Simmons long...

In 2010, the Bears took advantage of a healthy roster and the rare good fortune to face a slew of 3rd string QBs last year. They were able to "hide" a porous offensive line, and a below average receiving corp and secondary. They were bad for most of the season on 3rd down, short yardage, and the red zone. But, their defense overall was good, the running game came around in the second half of the season, and their special teams were excellent as usual.

It is unrealistic to expect another 11 win season and division title without dramatic improvement on offense, especially along the offensive line this year. The Bears made a run at the Steelers' G/T Willie Colon, but he took a hometown discount to stay in Pittsburgh. Jerry Angelo also decided to let Olin Kreutz go reportedly over the ridiculously small sum of $500k (more on that later). So, the offensive will consist of a 2009 7th rounder playing left tackle, a 1st round bust at left tackle playing left guard, a solid right guard playing center, a young player who failed last year at right guard, and a rookie college left tackle playing right tackle. On paper, this lineup should not instill confidence in fans or, more importantly, Jay Cutler.

Through the first 3 preseason games, though, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic about the offensive line. After getting mugged by the Bills in the first game, they played pretty well against the Giants and the Titans. The Giants didn't get much pressure on Cutler, and the Titans weren't able to sack him (but they did put him on the ground a few times). Part of this improvement is due to the line playing better, but part of it is Cutler getting rid of the ball a little quicker. But, the tackles still concern me with the depth of their sets. Both Webb and Carimi still fail to get deep enough on seven-step drops. Lance Louis has looked shaky despite all reports of performing well in practice. I'm not sure he'll be the starter for 16 games. The Bears might be better off with the newly acquired Chris Spencer at center and Garza at right guard. For now, though, it looks like Mike Tice will be sticking with his original plan.

Cutler has looked good. It looks like he has improved his footwork as has been reported. This, in turn, has improved his accuracy. It still worries me that he throws off his back foot on quick passes to beat the blitz, though. It seems like all defenses will have to do this year is show lots of pressure on 3rd and long which will force a quick pass that will likely end the drive. At some point, the Bears offense will need to beat the blitz by throwing downfield. Also, I wish the Martz offense used more true 5-step drops, especially on 3rd and short. It looks to me like 5-step drops are actually 7-step drops and 7-step drops are actually 9-step drops. Cutler consistently sets deeper than other quarterbacks around the league. Yes, this will help open up things down the field, but if you need three yards, why are you dropping so deep? Just another thing about Martz that drives me nuts.

The offense, overall, looked pretty good against the Titans. They moved the ball through the air and on the ground. Forte looks quick and driven. He should be poised for another good season, if the contract issue doesn't get in the way. I like the addition of Marion Barber, who should provide some tough running in short yardage situations. I just wish, though, that the Bears running game wasn't so dependent on pulling the lineman. In short yardage situations, they just look like they have too many moving parts, which increases the chances of a lineman darting through to disrupt the play. But, I do like the use of draw plays and screen passes, which should be a big part of the offense again this year.

If you only watched the game against the Titans, you might be worried about the receivers. There were a bunch of dropped passes on easily catchable passes, including the one by Roy Williams that led to Cutler's interception. Williams has been a disappointment so far, and I think it's reasonable to expect similar numbers out of him that Dallas got the past 3 years (35-40 catches, 500-600 yds). He is not fast, and he has a tendency to drop lots of balls. The Bears publicly said they got a true #1 receiver when they brought him in, but that's just another case of arrogant coaches thinking they can improve a player's performance when previous coaches couldn't. Sure, Roy Williams had his best season in 2006 under Martz (82 rec, 1,310 yds, 7 tds), but that was 5 years ago. He has never exceeded 850 yds in any other season. Despite his arrogance, I just don't see him being a difference maker. If he can at least use his size to catch 5-6 tds in the red zone, then it was a worthwhile pickup. But, he will not be a go to receiver for the Bears. Just like last year, the offense will spread the ball around. I expect similar production out of Hester, Knox, and Bennett. Each of them are capable of winning match ups on any given play, but I don't think any Bears receiver is poised to take the jump to true #1 status this year. Hester and Knox have the physical ability, but both seem to lack a natural feel for the wide receiver position. Bennett, on the other hand, has the natural feel but is limited physically. The rookie Sanzenbacher will be a good story if he makes the team, but he is destined for nothing more than a slot receiver specialist (see Bobby Engram) rather than a difference maker. The Bears just can't find and/or develop #1 receivers. I don't see that changing anytime soon.

The defense will be good, especially the defensive line. Julius Peppers can take over a game, and Israel Idonije is solid at the other end. But, I really like the tackles. At the three-technique position, Henry Melton is poised for a big year. Also, Amobi Okoye was a great pickup who should contribute mightily behind Helton. He has been excellent this preseason. Toenia and Adams are major contributors at the nose tackle spot. Both are great against the run, and they have shown some ability to push the pocket. Corey Wootton is the 3rd defensive end, a position that Rod Marinelli likes to use to keep his starters fresh. But, he has been hampered by a knee injury, so this spot is in flux right now. He should be back in three to four weeks, but the Bears will probably use Melton at defensive end on occasion until Wootton gets back. During the Titans game, I saw Peppers line up inside and Melton outside a few times. That could be a dangerous combination this year. Vernon Gholston was given a chance to see if he could comeback from being a 1st round bust with the Jets, but he hasn't shown much in the preseason. He probably won't make the team.

The linebackers will continue to be a strength. Urlacher and Briggs are still borderline Pro Bowl players, and Nick Roach is solid on the strong side. Their depth is thin, so let's hope they all stay healthy. Briggs is already dinged up, so the Bears will keep him out until the opening game. He should be fine. I just hope Marinelli doesn't get blitz happy with the linebackers. I don't like the Cover 2 defense, but it is what they do best. I hate when they blitz the linebackers on 3rd and long and then give up a dump off pass that goes for first down because the corners are manned up with their backs to line of scrimmage. They should never blitz Urlacher and Briggs at the same time. Never. They don't do it often, but it drives me nuts when I see it.

The secondary is a weakness. Harris is solid at safety, and Major Wright has shown flashes. But, Wright has also missed two tackles in the preseason on touchdown runs by over-pursuing the running backs. He needs to do a better job of playing under control. However, neither of these players are ball hawks. I think most of that is due to the depth they are required to play in the Cover 2. The Bears don't generally give up long touchdowns due to this, but it also hampers their ability to jump routes. Tillman is still a gamer at corner, and Jennings is adequate at the other corner. D.J. Moore seems to be in the right place at the right time more often than not, but he is not a dominating nickel back. In a weird way, the zone coverage utilized in the Bears defense has prevented the organization from pursuing corners with good coverage skills. They live with average cover guys who tackle well. I'd like at least ball hawk in the secondary, but the Cover 2 is all about letting the offense catch slants and digs and punishing them. That's fine, but I'd like to see our corners be in position to jump a few routes now and then. Plus, most veteran quarterbacks will take advantage of the soft zone by getting the ball out quick to neutralize the pass rush. Teams don't use many deep drops against the Bears because they don't need to. The check downs are always available against the Cover 2.

The special teams will be solid, but I don't think they'll dominate like in year's past. They've lost some key contributors, and there will be an adjustment period with the new punter Adam Podlesh. Robbie Gould is good, but he's missed a few short ones in preseason. Let's hope that's an anomaly. His leg strength has improved dramatically since he entered the league. Knox will likely return kicks and Hester will return punts. Both are dangerous, but the blocking doesn't get enough credit for their success. Dave Toub will need to replace the loss of key contributors Tim Shaw and Garrett Wolfe.

The Bears didn't win any preseason games last year, but won the division. I don't put much weight on their preseason record, but it would be foolish to ignore glaring problems in exhibition games. I still worry about the offensive line, but I do think they'll be better than last year (that's not hard to do, though). The offense will again determine how far the Bears go this year. If Cutler gets protection, the red zone offense improves, and the defense stays healthy, the Bears could reach double digit wins this year. But, I'll save predictions for later. For now, I'm just glad football is back!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Chicago Bears 2010 Season Wrap-Up

The 2010 Chicago Bears came within one game of making it to the Super Bowl. Let that sink in for a minute. The team most experts picked to finish at or below .500 won their division, earned a first-round bye, and won their first playoff game in convincing fashion. They hosted the NFC Championship Game and played tough against the hottest team in football who had demolished the #1 seed a week prior on the road. By all measurements, the 2010 season was an unqualified success for the Chicago Bears, especially considering preseason expectations.

The unfortunate thing about calling a season a success despite finishing short of the ultimate goal of winning it all is that opportunities like this are generally fleeting. Yes, the Bears came within one game of playing for the title. And, they did it with a porous offensive line and below average receivers. But, they also were the healthiest team in the league and had a pretty incredible string of good fortune (Calvin Johnson no-catch, playing against multiple 3rd string QBs, Vikings shocking the Eagles to give the Bears #2 seed). Of course, every team must take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves, and the Bears did just that. They played with a chip on their shoulders and proved a lot of doubters wrong.

But, what is troubling about not making it to the Super Bowl this year is that you can't count on good fortune every year. They will not face as many 3rd string QBs next year. They will not be as healthy. The Lions will be much better next year, the Vikings won't have the Favre/stadium drama, and the Packers will probably return as the best team in the NFC. So, in a season when expectations were low, the Bears had the chance to shock the football world and make it to the Super Bowl. They fell short. Can they make the necessary improvements and get better next year?

The optimist in me says, "yes". If they add a receiver, some offensive line talent, and maybe some secondary help, the Bears could improve. Jay Cutler will have another year in the Martz offense, and Martz will have another year with Jay Cutler. Matt Forte continues to be a multifaceted offensive weapon, and Devin Hester will continue to give the Bears huge advantages in field position. These are some of the reasons to remain hopeful.

However, this season sort of reminded of the 2003 Chicago Cubs. That team came out of nowhere and made a deep playoff push. They had some young talent, especially in the rotation, and some veteran leaders. Wood and Prior carried them to within 5 outs of their first World Series appearance in six decades. After the historical collapse that ended that season, everyone kept saying how dominant the Cubs would be for years to come. I wasn't one of those people. I knew that for most teams (excluding anomalies like the Yankees, Red Sox, Colts, Patriots, and Steelers), making a deep playoff run is uncommon. The opportunity does not present itself very often, especially in the NFL. There are simply too many variables each season. That's what makes the loss to the Packers even more painful.

So, what can the Bears do this offseason to ensure another playoff run next year? I've mentioned a few things already. They need to improve the offensive line, but I'm not really sure how they should do it. They have some young talent that showed flashes of ability, especially in the second half of the season. But, is Omiyale a starting left tackle in the NFL? Is Chris Williams worth starting at any position? Should they re-sign Kreutz and, if so, can he remain effective? Continuity is incredibly important on the offensive line, but if you're not trying to improve the talent at those positions, then Mike Tice will be using duct tape and glue to field a workable unit next year as well. Maybe if Jerry Angelo hadn't completely neglected the drafting of offensive lineman for most of his tenure, the Bears would be in better shape. They should probably sign a veteran and draft a center/guard. Either way, the offensive line will be the biggest question mark again in 2011.

Jay Cutler needs a reliable, franchise, go-to wide receiver. I have no idea if the Bears can or will find someone like this, but it is obvious that Knox, Hester, Bennett, and company cannot take over a game when needed. Olsen should be featured much more, too, but I'm not sure Martz is willing to do that. He seemed to forget about him for long stretches during the season. It sounds like the Bears will be active in free agency again, so maybe they can make another splash this year. A big, reliable downfield threat for Cutler will do wonders for the offense.

The Bears need to start drafting defensive backs who can play man-to-man. They had more success in the 2nd half of the Packers game when they challenged the Packers receivers at the line of scrimmage. This forces the quarterback to hold the ball a little longer, which also helps the pass rush. The Cover-Two isn't going away, but if they can play more man-under, it will make their defense even better. Tim Jennings is a stop-gap measure, and Bowman just doesn't seem to have the confidence to be a starter any more. Tillman is still reliable, but I think his physical play over the years is taking its toll. D.J. Moore is a keeper, and the jury is still out on Major Wright. They should probably bring back Manning. Drafting a corner in the first few rounds is probably necessary.

Before I wrap up this ridiculously long post, I need to comment on the Jay Cutler situation. I will be the first to admit that I was shocked when he exited the game. Yes, he was limping, but he was also standing for periods of time along the sidelines. Because I was wrapped up in the game, I was pissed Cutler didn't try to gut it out. The problem, though, wasn't the severity of the Cutler injury. The problem was how badly the Bears organization handled the whole thing. The announcers said his return was "questionable". That makes most fans think that he's CHOOSING not to go back into the game. Why put your franchise quarterback in that position? If, as was later reported, the training and coaching staff decided he couldn't go, then SAY THAT. Don't give the fans, media, and Twitter-happy players the chance to pile on your franchise quarterback! What a debacle. (By the way, Martz should take a pay cut for allowing Collins to be the #2 option, especially after that Carolina game. Moron.)

I think the truth behind the Cutler situation is that he is simply not liked and/or respected by players, fans, and the media. Players, especially, took the opportunity to question his toughness...not because they really believe he's a wuss, but because they dislike him. Unfortunately, though, Jay has brought this on himself. He has an image problem. There are some in the media (Joe Theismann) who think Cutler is just being himself, and that he shouldn't have to change. I vehemently disagree with that assertion. He is the starting quarterback for one of the proudest franchises in the NFL. His job is not limited to winning games and throwing touchdowns. While those are the most important aspects of his job, his duties do not end there. If you think they do, you are simply naive. He needs to be aware of how he carries himself on the sidelines and at the podium. It is part of his job to at least HIDE his disdain for the ancillary aspects of being a pro quarterback. How he carries himself on the field and in front of the media is important. If the rest of us have to fake our through some part of our day jobs, then Jay Cutler should have to as well. Image isn't everything (sorry Mr. Agassi), but it's important. And, if you think Cutler is immune to what other people think, read this story again.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Packers vs. Bears NFC Championship Game Preview

In case you haven't heard, there is a rather interesting football contest taking place this Sunday at Soldier Field between the Packers of Green Bay and the Bears of Chicago. Apparently, these teams have played a lot over the years, but rarely has their games had this much meaning. The winner, I guess, will have the chance to play in another game called the Super Bowl. I don't know about you, but I think that sounds kind of cool. I may even try to watch this match-up on my television.

Ok, enough of the snarkiness. Holy crap, the Bears and Packers are playing in the NFC Championship Game! Let that sink in for a minute. First of all, no one in their right mind saw the Bears having this much success this season. But, to top it off, not only are they one game away from the freakin' Super Bowl, but they also have the chance to get there by beating Green Bay, who, besides being our mortal enemies, were the chic Super Bowl pick this year by everyone and their sister. And it all takes place by lake at Soldier Field in Sweet Home Chicago. If you are not out-of-your mind, Alonzo Spellman-crazy, Mike Ditka-fired up for this game then you should hand in your Bears fan membership card.

Packers vs. Bears Preview

Protecting the quarterback, not turning the ball over, special teams, and the running game are all obvious factors that will impact the outcome of this football game. But, they are also obvious factors that impact almost ALL football games. So, I won't spend much time on these. In fact, I won't really be spending any time at all on the Packers strengths or weaknesses. Instead, I will focus on what I think are the important issues the Bears need to address in order to win this football game. Some of these still might be obvious, but, hey, I'm just a fan. No one has ever paid me to play, coach, or analyze professional football.

1. Red Zone Defense
It will be imperative that the Bears keep the Packers out of the end zone at the end of long drives. I think I'd have to be delusional to think we're going to completely shut down this Packers offense. They are going to move the ball to some extent. But, once they get inside the 20, the Bears will need to tighten up the space in their zones, force Rodgers into his 3rd or 4th read, and be aggressive at playing the football in the air. And, the defensive line can't be caught getting upfield and out of their gaps in case Green Bay decides to run weak-side draw plays under the defensive end. Any field goal given up inside the 20-yard line is a HUGE victory for the Bears.

2. Jay Cutler's Eyes
The Packers play an aggressive form of bump-and-run, man-to-man coverage. In his four games against this defense, Jay has looked befuddled most of the time. He needs to use their aggressiveness against them. There have been numerous times where he has stared down a receiver and thrown it late down the middle of the field only to see two, three, even four Packers defenders converge on the football. This can only happen when a quarterback is staring at a receiver or into an area far too long. Jay needs to use his eyes to move defenders to one area and then throw to the area they have vacated. I haven't seen him use many pump fakes, which may not be built in the Martz offense. But, that could also be an invaluable tool against a Packers defense that thinks it can pick off every pass he throws.

2a. Jay Cutler's Roaming Eyes
I hate to sound like such a Ron Turner, ball-control wimp, but I think Cutler (and Martz) should reverse the reads this week in their offense. I'm pretty sure most teams, and especially a Martz offense, have the quarterback read the defense from back to front (deep to short). The Packers pass rush and coverage is too good to wait for long developing pass plays. I think Jay should look for the underneath routes first and get the ball out of his hand to Forte, Taylor, and Olsen, especially early on in the game. This will help build confidence and, hopefully, frustrate the Packers blitz.

3. Forte and Taylor
I think Martz should put Matt Forte and Chester Taylor on the field at the same time for 12-15 plays. This will give them a myriad of run/pass options as well as showing Green Bay something that the Bears really haven't done much this year. If both players can chip on the ends/backers and then get into the flat, I think it will provide the outlet options Cutler will need.

4. Misdirection
The Bears have run on a few misdirection plays this year, and have had some success. I think they need to do this a few times early in the game to get the Packers thinking, which will slow down their pass rush. This is what offenses do to the Bears because their ends can get up field so fast. We should be doing it to other teams.

5. Zone Blitz
Ok, so this one might be a bit far-fetched, but I would love to see Marinelli call a handful of zone blitzes where D.J. Moore comes off the slot and Peppers drops back into coverage. While it may be insane to take Peppers out of what he does best, he is too athletic not to use him in a variety of ways to try and confuse the Packers. Plus, I would love to see Julius get a pick-six on a pass intended for Donald Driver.

6. Defensive Line Hand-Play
Finally, the entire defensive line should be aware of the clock in Rodgers' head. If on a given play the defensive line was unable to get much penetration, they MUST get their hands up in hopes of deflecting a pass. The Bears used to be really good at this during the Jauron years when they had very little pass rush. If the defense can get two or three balls tipped up in the air, good things will happen.

If the Bears can do some of these things plus, you know, protect the football, run it well, get a special teams score, and get a bunch of turnovers, the Bears will win big. I don't really think you can count on all of those happening in the same game, especially in the NFC Championship Game against a familiar opponent that is playing as well as the Packers. But, the defense has shown it can limit the Packers offense this year, and the Bears offense has shown some signs of life towards the end of the season. This should be a really close, relatively low-scoring game. Since the Bears are at home, and I'm a huge homer Bears fan, of course I think they'll win...but it will be close enough to cause a huge increase in Maalox consumption during the 4th quarter and, yes, overtime. So, pack your bags Bears fans. Your trip to Dallas awaits you. Bear Down!!!

Bears 23, Packers 20 (OT)