The 2011 NFL Season left the Chicago Bears and their fans disappointed and wondering what could have been. But with a new season comes new hope.
After injuries and poor coaching led the Bears to an underwhelming 8-8 finish, the front office felt it was time for a change. The outing of Jerry Angelo and the resignation of Mike Martz left Bears fans with the belief the team was finally going to make some serious changes.
And serious changes they made. The hiring of longtime scout Phil Emery to General Manager, the promotion of Mike Tice to Offensive Coordinator and the hiring of Jay Cutler's old QB's Coach Jeremy Bates were all moves to put the Bears in a position to succeed.
So let's take a look at five reasons why the Bears changes this offseason will lead to a Super Bowl Contending team in 2012.
1. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery
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Phil Emery made a splash with his first move as the new Chicago Bears GM when he traded two 3rd round picks for Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall.
Marshall, a six year NFL veteran, experienced his two best seasons as a pro when teamed with current Bears, and former Broncos quarterback, Jay Cutler. He amassed over 200 receptions, 2300 yards and 16 touchdowns, and was voted an All-Pro in 2009. Cutler was no slouch with Marshall at his side as his best seasons as a pro coincided with Marshall's best season (2008-2009).
The promotion of Mike Tice to Offensive Coordinator will provide the Bears with a much more balanced attack in 2012 that will provide Jay Cutler and Matt Forte more opportunities to thrive in what should be one of the most improved offenses in the league.
Emery also created some noise when he traded up in the 2nd round of the draft to grab highly skilled, but often criticized, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery from South Carolina. As a sophomore, Jeffery had one of the best receiving seasons in SEC history when he caught 88 passes for 1500 yards and 9 TD's. But many focused on his disappointing junior season where he amassed 49 catches for 760 yards and 8 TD's.
Scouts and fans alike pointed to Jefferys fluctuating weight throughout his career at South Carolina to his lackluster 2011 season. But many forget Jeffery was without 2010 starting quarterback Stephen Garcia and on a team that has a player who many consider to be the top RB prospect for the 2013 draft, Marcus Lattimore.
But Alshon quieted many of his critics with his performance at the Scouting Combine, and his pro day where he weighed in at 216lbs and ran in the 4.4-4.5 range on the 40 yard dash.
As a #2 receiver on the Bears, Jeffery should see a lot of single coverage opposite of Marshall. With his big frame, he is sure to be a favorite of Jay Cutler very quickly.
2. The Defense
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There is a reason the Chicago Bears have come to be known as the Monsters of the Midway, and it's because their continued brilliance on the defensive side of the ball.
With the 19th pick in the 1st round the Bears selected Boise State defensive end Shea McClellin, a prospect that has already begun to fit into Chicago's 4-3 scheme. As a player at Boise State McClellin played with a relentless passion on a team that has become associated with winning. He has the attitude and the ability to become a force on the Bears defensive line opposite of pro bowler Julius Peppers.
McClellin will often get only one blocker as teams have so much respect for Peppers that he often draws double and triple teams. He should step in and make an impact from day one.
The Bears didn't stop with just McClellin though, they added depth at corner and linebacker with the addition of Kelvin Hayden and Blake Costanza respectively. Neither will start barring injury, but will be strong special teams performers.
But the Bears will still rely on their staples, Urlacher, Briggs, Tillman, and Peppers to carry a defense that has always been one of the best units in the NFL. Something that will continue in 2012.
3. Mike Tice
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Mike Tice joined the Bears in 2010 as the offensive line coach. After turning one of the NFL's worst offensive lines into something that resembles a decent line, he was eventually promoted to Offensive Coordinator once Mike Martz resigned.
Martz's resignation symbolized a changing of the guard in Chicago. The Mike Martz experiment was a failure and his pass heavy seven step drop scheme was not a proper fit for the Bears personnel.
With Tice, Chicago is moving towards a strong balanced attack behind the legs of Matt Forte and Michael Bush. Despite having an awful offensive line the Bears had a strong ground attack in 2011 that averaged 4.4ypc, and led the way for 10 rushing touchdowns.
With more of a focus on the ground attack, and two solidified rushers, the Bears should have no issue going back to the basics by utilizing the run, in order to set up the pass and play action.
Tice will also give Cutler more freedom on who to target and when to be audible for the Bears offense. The addition of two big targets in Marshall and Jeffery should also lead to improved red zone success as teams will not be able to stack the box, and risk 1 on 1 coverage on the outside against two 6'3" receivers.
4. Special Teams
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Fans always look at offense and defense as markers of a team's success, but players and coaches alike will tell you that their are three phases to a great football team. The third phase is Special Teams.
The Bears have long been arguably the NFL's best special teams unit. They have the 5th most accurate kicker in NFL history in Robbie Gould, and the best return man of all time in Devin Hester.
This offseason the bears lost their best coverage player Corey Graham to the Ravens, but made up for it with the addition of Blake Constanza and Devin Thomas who will primarily be only special teams players.
Thomas is another proven return man who should relieve Hester of, more than likely, kick return duty, and also allow Hester to excel at his positions as punt returner and wide receiver.
Adam Podlesh was a decent punter for Chicago netting 40 yards per punt and putting 23% of his kicks inside the 20. He should put up similar numbers this year, as he has for his whole career.
They may have lost their best special team player in Corey Graham but they signed players who can make an impact. As a result, the unit will continue to be phenomenal at returns and field goals.
5. Jay Cutler
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The Bears may have an elite running back, two new stud receivers and a completely new offensive system, but the 2012 Chicago Bears success boils down to one player... Jay Cutler.
Cutler was putting together his best season as a Bear last year before a thumb injury derailed the end of his season. As soon as he went down, the season quickly spiraled downward as well. Cutler was on pace for 3,700 yards and 21TD's before a TD saving tackle against the Chargers ended his year.
Jay is healthy for 2012, and with a retooled offense and his favorite target at his side, things may be moving in his favor. I wouldn't doubt that this will be the year where Cutler finally lives up to his massive potential and truly breaks out.
Cutler has the talent around him to put up the stats he did with Brandon Marshall in Denver. But with greater experience and improved decision making skills, this could be the year Cutler leads the Bears to the promise land, and lands himself as a Pro Bowl selection.