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