With a new GM, a fairly large amount of available cap space and the free-agency surplus neatly matching up with the team's greatest positional need, the Chicago Bears are—dare I say it—in a prime position to win a Super Bowl.
That's right, I said Super Bowl.
I've never been satisfied with the Bears merely making playoff appearances. Losing in the playoffs is still losing. I thank Da Coach for instilling that "Super Bowl or bust" mentality in me.
While I've written a negative column about the choice of Phil Emery, this will be the counterpoint—the positive article about how Phil Emery will be basking in a ticker-tape parade next year at this time.
In fact, this article will be so positive, Emery can overcome all of Lovie Smith's coaching shortcomings and still get the team to the Promised Land.
So here's how I think the Bears can put together a plan to win the Super Bowl. Since the Bears don't operate in a vacuum, I'll also attempt to predict what other teams will be doing that could impact this plan. I'll also explain the philosophy behind the plan.
To invoke a particular beer slogan, here we go.
As Theo Epstein did upon arriving in Wrigley Field, Phil Emery has most likely embarked upon an assessment of the existing team.
After all, you can't improve a team if you don't know what its strengths and weaknesses are.
From where I sit, the team's greatest strengths are:
- quarterback Jay Cutler
- running back Matt Forte
- defensive end Julius Peppers
- linebacker Brian Urlacher
- linebacker Lance Briggs
- cornerback Charles Tillman
- special teams, including returner Devin Hester
Meanwhile, the team's greatest weaknesses are:
- wide receiver
- the rest of the secondary
- tight end
Sliding somewhere in between are:
- the offensive line
- linebacker Nick Roach
- the rest of the defensive line
So far, it makes sense to focus our offseason resources on those three areas of greatest weakness: WR, secondary, and TE.
But since Lovie declared in his season-ending press conference that tight end Kellen Davis "can do anything the good tight ends in this league can do," the team will apparently not upgrade at that position. So we can scratch TE off the shopping list.
That leaves WR and the secondary as the two areas of greatest weakness. But does that mean that's really where we should focus most of our offseason attention?
No. And I'll explain why in just a minute.
But first, let's consider what approach to take: Go for it now, or rebuild for the long haul?
As we've just seen, the Bears have a core of players to build upon, unlike many other non-playoff teams.
To decide whether we want to go for broke now or rebuild for the long haul, we need to know how long we have the services of those core players.
Turns out, the Bears' window of opportunity with that group of core players is just two years: 2012 and 2013.
Jay Cutler's deal ends after the 2013 season.
So does Charles Tillman's.
Matt Forte can be tagged for both the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs likely have just two good seasons left in their aging bodies.
Of the Bears' key players, only Peppers is certain to return beyond 2013.
Therefore, the Bears should not attempt to rebuild because almost all their key players only have two years left.
Sure, Cutler, Tillman and Forte could be re-signed after 2013 and Urlacher/Briggs could play a couple years beyond 2013, but no guarantee exists that they will.
The time is now.
Two words for Phil Emery this offseason: All in.
We've analyzed the team's strengths and weaknesses and identified our two biggest upgrade needs. We've also decided, based on how long the Bears' key players can contribute, that this offseason, we must go all in rather than rebuild gradually for the long-term.
So next, let's look at what philosophies are at work among the league's recent Super Bowl champs (and for good measure, we'll also include this year's Super Bowl runners-up). After all, if the Bears are to win the Super Bowl—and not just be satisfied with making the playoffs—then the Bears will need to be better than these particular teams.
Interestingly, these successful teams all have several traits in common:
- They are all pass-first teams.
- All have elite quarterbacks (Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady).
- All have multiple top receivers (Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, Mario Manningham; Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley; Marques Colston, Darren Sproles, Devery Henderson/Robert Meachem/Lance Moore, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez).
- None have elite running backs.
- None have elite defenses (though the Giants defense stepped up huge in the playoffs).
- And looking at the Giants defense, that unit's biggest strength is their trio of standout pass-rushers (Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Osi Umenyiora).
Let's compare the Bears to those teams as of today.
- The Bears were a pass-first team under Martz, but that failed because the team didn't have the passing weapons.
- The Bears have a quarterback capable of being elite.
- The Bears do not have any top passing options, much less multiple top passing options.
-The Bears have an elite running back, which—if the team can get the passing attack up to snuff—would give the Bears the advantage over those other elite teams.
-The Bears have a solid defense, though the team is missing the multiple standout pass rushers.
So now that we've compared the Bears to the most recent Super Bowl champs, if we revisit the Bears' needs, it's painfully obvious that offense is more important than defense for getting to the Super Bowl and that a pass-rushing defense can help give the team an added advantage.
As much as I like Earl Bennett, Johnny Knox and Dane Sanzenbacher, they are complementary role players, not key offensive options that will lead Chicago to a Super Bowl championship.
Analyzing the common patterns among successful Super Bowl teams that the Bears still lack, we see:
- top passing options
- standout pass rushers
Now, recall that the Bears' two greatest weaknesses were:
- top passing options
- the secondary
So the first item (top passing options) neatly matches up on both boards. Clearly, then, Emery's primary offseason responsibility is to acquire top passing options for the Bears.
But the second item doesn't match up (standout pass rushers vs. secondary). Since the Bears don't have unlimited funds to spend on both, which of these two should the Bears focus on?
Well, a strong pass rush can mask the sins of a weak secondary. Under duress, quarterbacks have to rush their decision-making, as well as their throws, which not only masks a weak secondary but also causes more turnovers than normal.
But a strong secondary doesn't necessarily mask the sins of a weak pass rush. Quarterbacks with time to be comfortable in the pocket can give a receiver enough time to eventually get open, especially if there are multiple top receiving weapons.
So getting standout pass rushers is a wiser investment than improving the secondary.
We now have fully defined the two fundamental areas for the Bears to address when shopping:
- top receiving weapons
- standout pass rushers
In that exact order.
Once Emery has filled these two areas with top players, he can, from there, fill in the rest of the roster with complementary players.
This is a good start. But there's more to the plan than what we've identified so far.
The next question: how many players should we target in those two key areas, and who?
What we've seen so far is that if a team has an elite quarterback and multiple top receiving options, the team has a serious shot at a Super Bowl title (the lone exception being the Dallas Cowboys).
What we haven't yet considered is what happens to teams with just one top receiving option.
Such teams are mere playoff contenders but never Super Bowl contenders.
Like the Detroit Lions with Calvin Johnson.
The San Diego Chargers with Vincent Jackson.
The Houston Texans with Andre Johnson.
The Atlanta Falcons with Roddy White.
The Kansas City Chiefs with Dwayne Bowe.
And so on.
If the Bears want to win the Super Bowl, the team cannot settle for just one big-name free agent wide receiver. Getting one big-ticket wide receiver just makes the Bears like all of the aforementioned teams in the league. It doesn't distinguish them from the other competing teams.
To be instant Super Bowl contenders and truly rise above all the other teams in the league, the Bears must get two major free-agent wide receivers.
Repeat: Must. Get. Two.
Emery may be tempted to think one wide receiver in free agency and one wide receiver in the draft, but that would not help the team win now.
Highly-rated rookie wide receivers, though recently demonstrating they are not exactly helpless in their first year, will still be learning and adjusting to the speed and physicality of the pro game in their first season.
In other words: inconsistent.
Drafting a rookie wide receiver this April with the goal of seeing them make significant contributions for 2013 would be reasonable, but not for 2012.
Fortunately for the Bears, there is a glut of free-agent wide receivers in a wide range of tiers (to borrow a fantasy football strategy). And the tiers will be the key to the team's free agency plans at the position.
It's not likely Emery can sign two "Tier 1" free-agent wide receivers.
But it's very likely Emery can sign a "Tier 1" free-agent wideout and a "Tier 2" free-agent receiver.
Say, Dwayne Bowe and Mario Manningham.
Or Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston.
Or Laurent Robinson and Robert Meacham.
The options are very intriguing. But more importantly, possible.
The tricky part is competing with other teams for wideouts. A few other teams also need a wide receiver and have a lot of cap room as well.
Jacksonville will be a force in the market for wide receivers. The Bears' best negotiating tactic against the Jaguars is to compare quarterbacks.
"Dwayne, would you rather have Jay Cutler throwing you the ball or Blaine Gabbert?"
Tampa Bay may also be in the market since Mike Williams fizzled in 2011. The Bears can use the same Jacksonville argument to any receiver considering Tampa Bay.
"The Bucs don't even know if Josh Freeman is the answer at quarterback, son."
Cincinnati has at least $40 million to spend and are rumored to be looking for a receiver to complement A.J. Green.
However, it's uncertain if Cincinnati will be willing to pay for a "Tier 1" receiver or merely a "Tier 2" or "Tier 3" in order to avoid bruising Green's ego. So the Bears and the Bengals may not even be competing for the same receivers.
The Bengals also have a lot of needs on defense so they may be pegging most of their cap money on that side of the ball.
And the clincher for the Bears vs. Cincinnati if they do compete for the same receivers could be this:
"You'll get more media exposure and endorsement opportunities playing in a major market like Chicago than you will in Cincinnati."
Dallas has plenty of room under the cap to re-sign Laurent Robinson, who has great chemistry with Tony Romo. But the Cowboys also have a lot of defensive needs to spend on. Perhaps the Bears could entice Robinson not only with more money, but the allure of being the No. 1 wide receiver on the Bears, rather than being just one option of many on the Cowboys.
The Rams also need a wide receiver and have cash to burn. But since they also have the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, they may be just content to draft WR Justin Blackmon and focus their free-agent sights on defense.
Even if the Rams are deadset on signing an elite free-agent receiver, the Bears could compete for those receivers by pointing out they are closer to a Super Bowl than the Rams and try to appeal to the free agents' competitiveness and desire to win a ring.
So while the Bears will be competing with other money-spending teams for the same pool of receivers, the Bears still have a realistic shot at persuading them to come to Chicago.
And if we can add a free-agent pass rusher, that'd be gravy.
Free agency starts March 13. Can't wait.
But wait—we're not done yet.
Since the draft will happen after free agency begins, and assuming the Bears take care of their most pressing needs with signed veterans, the Bears can finish their shopping list with rookies in April.
If the Bears sign two marquee free agent wide receivers, as we've advocated, they'll still need to add a third top receiving option. As mentioned, that's how the Patriots, Giants, Packers and Saints roll, and for good reason. Good defenses can handle one stud wideout, maybe even two. But three top receivers is an overload that few defenses can manage.
In other words, three top WRs with an elite QB makes you an instant Super Bowl contender.
The Bears won't have enough money to sign all three of these top receivers in free agency. But they can sign two. That means the third receiver must come from the draft.
The Bears' first-round pick is No. 19, and there could be as many as eight teams drafting before them (St. Louis, Minnesota, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Washington, Jacksonville, Seattle, Arizona and San Diego) who might be in the market for a wide receiver.
This draft class is not very deep at receiver. Justin Blackmon is at the top of the class, with Kendall Wright and Michael Floyd being the other likely first-rounders.
Alshon Jeffrey and Mohammed Sanu are likely second-rounders.
If Floyd falls to the Bears at No. 19, Emery shouldn't hesitate to take him.
Imagine Dwayne Bowe, Mario Manningham and Michael Floyd for Jay Cutler to throw to, while Matt Forte adds to opposing defensive coordinators' nightmares.
If the top three WRs are gone when the Bears' turn comes up in the first round, the Bears need to turn their sights on a pass-rushing beast.
After the first round, offensive line or the best available defensive player should be the focus.
If all this becomes reality, a Bears Super Bowl is very possible—even Lovie couldn't screw it up.
I hate to sound cruel, but it makes more sense for the Bears to slap the franchise tag on running back Matt Forte than to give him a long-term deal.
I'm a big Forte fan. And, yes, Forte's play shows he deserves a big pay raise.
But that's exactly what a franchise tag will give him. He'll be given a one-year salary that will rank among the top running backs in the league.
Unfortunately, running backs have a short shelf life in the NFL. In fact, it's the shortest life span of any skill position in the league—four years.
Super Bowl-winning coach Jimmy Johnson also points out that running backs historically lead the league in rushing for no more than three years. And when they go downhill, they go downhill fast.
While NFL contracts aren't guaranteed like in MLB, they do usually give big bonuses upfront.
The Bears could use that money to spend on other areas of need, as we've discussed.
Some of those needs include the team's own free agents that it should retain for short-term modest deals, like defensive end Israel Idonije,
offensive lineman Roberto Garza, back-up running back Kahlil Bell and special teamer Corey Graham.
It's time to stop living off the memory of 1985.
We have assessed and confirmed the team's needs.
We have determined that the Bears have to go all in now.
We have identified what are the common traits among the Super Bowl winners to see what makes them successful.
We have a free agency class that has the depth to help the Bears in their greatest area of need that fits the pattern of Super Bowl success.
We have shaped a realistic strategy on how to act once free agency starts.
We have developed a draft strategy where Chicago can continue to plug in the best available playmakers.
We have strategized how to handle in-house free agents.
And that is the blueprint for how the Bears can not only get to the Super Bowl in 2012—but win it too.