The Chicago Bears have made arguably the biggest splashes in the last two NFL off-seasons, Washington Redskins be damned. Last year, they traded for temperamental but highly talented QB Jay Cutler for several high draft picks spread through two drafts. As soon as the starting gun was fired for 2010 free agency, the Bears wasted no time in acquiring the most highly coveted free agent in the 2010 class, DE Julius Peppers. Prior to Peppers, they had also signed former Viking Chester Taylor and TE Brandon Manumamamamamamamala, or something like that. But will those moves translate into more wins? Let’s look more into it after the jump.
For all the free agency activity, one of the most overlooked yet more important signings wasn’t a player, but an assistant coach. The Bears managed to lure Mike Martz to the Windy City, and turn the page on the Ron Turner era. Turner was not a popular figure in Chicago, and his end came at the hands and bad aim of Jay Cutler, angering the fan base for the last time and demanding his...removal. When the Bears acquired Cutler, my opinion was that even if he played well, the Bears defense was still a year older without playmakers, so he would need to be almost flawless to get the Bears to 10 or 11 wins. Uh, yeah. Cutler was terrible, leading the league in interceptions, sideline pouts, and microphone assaults as the Bears thudded to a 7-9 finish.
Anyways, back to Martz. As many of you know I live in St Louis, and I’ve found that there are two categories of opinions on Mike Martz here--you either love him or hate him. He has run successful offenses wherever he has coached; he had the Detroit Lions in the top 10 passing his two years there, for crying out loud. But Martz’ M.O. is to start passing at the pre-game warm-ups, and keep passing through the post-game midfield prayer. His philosophy on the run is to just give his QB’s arm a chance to rest, and he is a downfield, 7-step drop advocate, and his offenses are consistently near or at the bottom rushing the ball. You better be able to pass protect, you better have a fearless and accurate quarterback, and you better have receivers that run fast, deep, precise routes.
Do the Bears have those? Not yet. Their offense is already weak at running the ball, so there shouldn’t be much of an outcry when they abandon it two minutes into the game. The Bears were 29th in the NFL in running the football, and although they signed Chester Taylor, he’s better suited to being a receiver out of the backfield. That said, he will push Forte for playing time and carries. The Bears were 14th in the NFL in sacks allowed, running a variant of the West Coast Offense. With the added pressure of a deep downfield passing game, the Bears must be able to protect better or Jay Cutler will get killed. And to address issues on their offensive line, they’ve added…gimme a sec here…no one. Their WR corps is nothing special, but that said, neither was Detroit’s in 2005 prior to Martz’ arrival, and the talent in Chicago is better than in Detroit in 2005. The pass game should be better, and the running game has nowhere to go but up…but it won’t, because Mike Martz can’t help himself and will pass the ball way too much. The receivers have been criticized for running sloppy routes, cutting them short, and not adjusting to the ball after the throw. Those are cardinal sins in a Martz offense, and they will either learn to tow the line or they will be gone.
But it all comes down to Jay Cutler, who some are starting to refer to as the modern day Jeff George. He is supremely talented, but was not up to the challenge mentally of playing in Chicago last year. He threw ill-advised passes, made poor decisions, and looked like he wanted to be doing anything other than playing quarterback in the NFL. Personally, I think the guy has way too much talent to see a repeat of 2009; he did throw for 27 TD’s and over 3,600 yards, so it wasn’t a total disaster. However, with a new offense predicated on good pass protection (which the Bears are average at, at best) and precise route running (which the Bears aren’t very good at), along with a QB that can hold on to the ball until the last second and not get rattled (which Jay Cutler didn’t do last year) makes me think one thing: The Bears are going to set a lot of records, I just don’t know if they’re going to be for most yardage and TD passes, or most sacks and INT’s. It very well could be both.
And that’s just the offense.
The Bears defense not only fell off a cliff last year, they were flat out Monstrous on the Midway (get it…monsters, monstrous…I keed, I keed). Even though the Bears have signed Julius Peppers, and he does make the pass rush immediately better, he’s just one guy. Chip him with a back or help the tackle opposite him with a TE, you can somewhat neutralize him, and there’s really no one on the defensive line that can take the pressure off him on a consistent basis. Tommie Harris still has a degenerative knee, they released long time playmaker Alex Brown, Gaines Adams died tragically, Brian Urlacher is coming back from yet another serious injury, and their secondary that gave up 28 TD passes last year hasn’t been upgraded. Normally, you could look to the draft and bring in some young talent, but the Bears do not have a pick until the third round, leaving them vulnerable in too many areas entering 2010.
And that’s the crux of the Cutler trade. They rolled the dice and tried to ‘win now’, and didn’t. I applaud them for the attempt, but now the Bears really find themselves at a crossroads. As the sun sets on the Brian Urlacher era, it rises on the Jay Cutler era, for better or worse. They've shot all their bullets in free agency, and they still needa draft picks to fill holes...but they're not selecting until the third round.
And with the sunrise, there’s no 7th Cavalry coming over the hill to save the day. They have to circle the horses and make do with what they have.
If General Cutler gets better, and if the receivers pick up the offense, and if the defense can turn back the clock for one season. they just might make a deep run. If he repeats 2009, or even regresses, the rest of the NFL will go all LIttle Big Horn on him.