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.