Ah, smell that? That, my friends, is the smell of football season coming around the bend. We still have about four months until the season starts, but if the old adage about time flying is true, the Titans and the Steelers will be meeting at Heinz field on Sept. 10 in no time!
And, with the start of a new season comes expectations. Every team starts the season with the same record, and the same prospects for making the playoffs, and possibly even winning the Super Bowl.
But, how many teams are being realistic when they proclaim their chances of winning it all to be good? Do the Bears have that chance in 2009?
My hope: Yes.
My prediction: No.
The Bears have definitely made waves during the offseason, which is completely unlike the Bears I have come to know, and love. In Chicago, we are used to a minuscule free-agent signing here, and a minor trade happening here, and some of our best players ending up in trouble with the law.
But this year, we actually had something to cheer about, and I'm not talking about finishing the season 9-7 and out of the Playoffs.
I'm talking about making a trade for a legitimate quarterback (the first legit QB of my lifetime to put on a Bears uniform), signing offensive lineman when that is exactly what we needed to do, and drafting smartly. I'm starting to think I don't even know these Bears.
I know you are all wondering what my outlook for the 2009 season will be with all the hoopla around the team this offseason. Well, I will break it down for you, point by point.
Obviously, this is the position we switched up the most during the offseason. By now, we all know about the trade with the Broncos for Jay Cutler. But, what exactly will Jay Cutler bring to the table? He is an obvious step up from Kyle Orton. I don't mean to take anything away from Kyle Orton.
Kyle was an excellent game manager, who did absolutely everything he could not to lose games, but didn't exactly do anything to win games, either. I believe Kyle's peak has been reached, and he won't get much better than he already is. He is not mobile, doesn't have fantastic arm strength, and plain out just makes bad throws.
I think he learned when not to throw the ball, and that is what caused so many three and outs for the Bears offense last season.
He just became too timid, and partly for good reason, considering most the throws he thought about making probably would have ended up ten yards in front of our receivers or in the hands of the defense. With Cutler, those throws can be made, and will be made.
The thing I am most excited about with Cutler, that not many people are bringing up, is his ability to scramble out of the pocket, and make throws on the run. When a QB scrambles out of the pocket, there are two types of receivers you would like to have; one being a smart receiver, and the other being a fast receiver.
If one receiver had both skillsets, that would be even better, but the fact that the Bears have speed at the WR position is going to allow Cutler to make beautiful plays while on the run, after escaping a sack.
With Hester, Davis, and even the youngsters Bennett and Iglesias, the Bears have a few options who can break their routes after seeing Cutler scramble and head down field for a big gain. Cutler's passer rating is the highest in the NFL outside of the pocket. And, it's not too shabby when he stands in the pocket, either.
Outside of the WR corps, I believe Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark are going to be key to the offense, and Jay Cutler's effectiveness.
With Clark and Olsen's ability to catch the ball, and make plays after the catch, it is going to allow the Bears offense to spread the field more, which then allows Cutler several options on where to go, which decreases the chances for interceptions.
And, when you are not throwing interceptions, the offense remains on the field, and obviously has a better chance of scoring some points, which is something the Bears offense had trouble with in the past.
Also, not throwing interceptions allows the Bears to control field position by punting the ball away, instead of handing it over to the opponent on your own side of the field.
And, having a good pass catching running back is something that will help our offense beyond belief. Last year, Forte caught 63 passes. Most of those passes were caught due to the inefficiency of Kyle Orton, and Ron Turner understanding that.
This year, I expect Forte to catch around the same amount of passes, but only because it is going to fit the offensive scheme, and not just be a play to make sure Orton doesn't throw an interception or take a sack. I fully expect Forte to have a breakout year, and become one of the best running backs in the NFL.
Speaking of Forte...
RUNNING BACKS POSITION
Matt Forte was incredible last season. He rushed for over 1,200 yards and was close to 500 more in the passing game.
And, with the addition of Jay Cutler, and a full season of Hester at WR, along with him getting some help (hopefully) from Iglesias, Davis, and Bennett, the defenses will not be able to stack the box against the Bears, which will open up more holes for Forte to run through.
Not that he needs the extra help, but with one, or two less men in the box against the Bears, Forte will be free to make those devastating cuts he makes with his great vision, and break five yard gains for 10 or 15 yards, possibly even breaking them for longer.
His 3.9 yards per carry average will increase to the mid 4s, which can help push him closer to a 1,500 yard rusher, as long as Ron Turner utilizes the run the same way he did last year. Of course, having Cutler, most teams are going to assume we are going to pass more often, but I don't believe that is what the Bears need to do.
Handing the ball to Forte will open up the pass game for Cutler, allowing the Bears to have a nice balance on offense, much like the New York Giants do.
If the Bears can keep the ball in Forte's hands, and allow the run game to open up the pass game, I don't see why Forte couldn't have an 1,900 or above total yard type season. And, we all know how teams do when they have a RB who can rip yardage like that.
At the end of last season, I would have said this was the team's biggest liability. During the offseason, the Bears went ahead and shored up the holes. They signed All-Pro Orlando Pace, to hold down the station at left tackle. Even though he will turn 34 during the season, I still believe he has another year or two left in the tank.
If we are wrong, it could mean trouble for Cutler, but just the fact that they signed him speaks volumes for Chris Williams' future.
Most young lineman have footwork issues, coming out of college, and Orlando Pace has some of the best footwork the offensive line has ever seen, so I have no issues with Chris switching over to right tackle, because I know he is going to be able to take from Orlando, and learn the position well.
On top of the Pace signing, the Bears also signed tackles Frank Omiyale and Kevin Shaffer from Atlanta. After seeing what the Atlanta run game was like, and the protection they gave Matt Ryan (a rookie) last year, I am excited about the prospects of having them as our backups.
And, we all know how great Kreutz is in the middle. He is one of the League's best centers, along with Garza at right guard. Beekman may be our only question mark on the line, but with Kreutz and Pace standing next to him, I have no reason to believe he isn't going to have the needed help, along with the needed intelligence to learn from.
Last year, the Bears line gave up 29 sacks and opened holes for 105 rushing yards per game. This year, I would expect the number of sacks to be closer to 20, with the experience of the line and the ability of Cutler to not be a sitting duck behind them. And, I also expect that 105 to be bumped up closer to 125-130.
On paper, our WRs are the weakest part of our offense. With a lineup of Devin Hester, Rashied Davis, Earl Bennett, rookie Juaquin Iglesias, rookie Johnny Knox, and rookie Brandon Rideau, we aren't going to be scaring the opposing defenses.
But if Hester can improve his route running, and hands, he will be more than just a legitimate deep threat on offense. With the size and speed, the comparison everyone wants to make is Steve Smith, but that's just not happening. I can see him becoming a poor man Steve Smith, like the Giants version Steve Smith.
We really don't know what to expect from the rest of the crew. Everyone on the team is unproven, which is why I would suggest running a two tight end style offense, and then lining up only two WRs.
At this point, from what I am hearing about Iglesias, and how they want to morph him into an outside WR, I would say him and Hester can be on the outside, with Hester more of a slot style WR, even though he would be lined up on the "outside." With the abilities of Olsen and Clark, it seems almost the right way to go.
The safeties would still need to respect our TEs abilities to get behind them, so they still wouldn't be able to crowd the line to stop the run. But, hopefully Davis, Bennett, Knox, or Rideau can step up and be a viable third option for Cutler to go to after Hester and Olsen.
I believe I have said how I felt about our TE situation. And, I haven't even mentioned Kellen Davis. His big body and good hands add depth to the position.
I am expecting a big year from Olsen. I don't want to blame his mediocre season on Orton, but just the added confidence he can have in knowing his QB can get him the ball at anytime should build up his psyche and allow him to have the breakout season we were all expecting last year. If it doesn't happen this year, I don't think it will.
I'm not saying he will be a bad TE, but he was expected to be special tight end in the NFL. He draws comparisons to Kellen Winslow and Tony Gonzalez, with his pass-catching, and playmaking abilities, so I'm hoping he steps into that role more.
He could have a 70 catch, 900 yard, 7 TD season or a 50 catch, 400 yard, 3 TD season, just as easily. Let's hope for the former.
What used to be the strong point of our team became a weak point last season. Not our weakest, but compared to what they were before, they seemed to have disappeared. Mark Anderson was a shell of his former self. The man who came out of nowhere with 12 sacks in 2006 was limited to one in 2008.
Adewale Ogunleye and Alex Brown seemed to get less pressure off of the ends. Tommie Harris wasn't breaking through the line as often. It just seemed like every offensive line had figured our guys out and knew exactly how to stop them.
In our lines defense, though, they were good at stopping the run. There was no doubt about that. But, most of that was because teams knew to pass against us. And, they were successful at doing so, partly because our line could not get pressure on the opposing quarterbacks.
In order for our defense to get back to the stature they were at in previous years, our defensive lineman are going to have to protect our secondary by getting to the quarterback.
It's one thing for the line to say they stopped the run and did their job, but it's a completely other thing to say we have a complete line, who not only did its job, but helped the rest of our defense be better at their job. The game is played in the pits.
The play of the lines, on both sides, dictates how the game is going to go, so our first line of defense is our most important, and hopefully the addition of Jarron Gilbert can spark a level of play in our guys that was seen back in 2006.
Let's give our entire team a reason to jump out of the pool.
We don't have much depth at LB, so if Urlacher goes down, or if Briggs goes down, we could be in trouble. Our LB crew used to be the staple of our defense, but now that Urlacher's back is dying, and Hillenmeyer seems to have lost four steps (and his job), our linebacking crew isn't as scary to opposing offenses.
Every game, it seemed like each of them would miss tackle after tackle, and that is not what we were brought up seeing in this crew. Briggs is an obvious star, but even he seemed to have lost something in his play. Maybe it was all that money, or maybe he was just worried about crashing another Lambo on the highway. Who knows.
All I do know is that, like our defensive line, our linebackers are going to need to become what they used to be in order for our defense to play its part in our team becoming a realistic threat to win the NFC.
If they don't, Jay Cutler will be playing for the Broncos 2.0 this year where he will put up plenty of offense, but the defense won't be able to hold the opponents down long enough to pull out the victory.
Oh, dear God, do I have to talk about them? Is there one guy in our secondary who is not injury prone? Can you name me one without mentioning the name Craig Steltz? I do like our safeties, Payne and Bullocks (a good addition, although not the quality of Mike Brown).
Both are HARD hitting players, who in the Bears defense, have the ability to make some plays on the ball, seeing as how our corners can't stick with anybody. If they both stay healthy, I can see them being a second-tier safety group.
With Steltz and Manning as their backups, I feel safe having the depth, and knowing that the backups are of starter quality. With the Bears being thrown on left and right last season, and most likely again this season, these guys are going to be busy.
Their best bet will be to knock a few people out to put the fear into the opposing WRs and TEs that they don't want to come across the middle or go deep on us.
But they will be able to, no doubt, seeing as how often Peanut Tillman falls for the double moves. You have to love his enthusiasm, but he's like the Joakim Noah of the Bears. He doesn't offer up much to the team other than his energy.
Sure, he'll make a good play here or there, but more often than not, you are shaking your head and cussing at him under your breath for the dumb mistakes he makes.
On the other side of him is Mr. Injury, Nathan Vasher. He had an All-Pro-like year back in 2005, but ever since then, he has done nothing but confuse the fans, and get injured. I guess the hopes is that DJ Moore can come in and be effective right away, because he is going to need to be.
The other backup CBs for the Bears aren't even worth mentioning. And, if you think they are, you are crazy.
You don't give up almost 250 yards in the air, on average, and tell me that the CBs do a good job. And, those numbers are skewed, because the Bears played against a BAD bunch of QBs in 2008. Had they had a more difficult schedule, they would have been the last ranked secondary in the league, without a doubt. Without. A. Doubt.
I only need to say one thing here. Please let Devin Hester return kicks and punts this season. Please.
I like the addition or Rod Marinelli. I think that a change on the defensive line coaching was much needed, and from the soundbytes the lineman are giving this early in the preseason, it sounds like he is getting them back on track to be the force they used to be.
Ron Turner is the key to the Bears 2009 season. He needs to open up the playbook to Cutler and Forte, and allow them to dominate the games.
In the West Coast offense, I understand that it's up to the players to make a play after they catch the ball, but I think he needs to draw up some plays that get the players the balls in spots where they can do something with it. You can't throw screen passes the entire game, and expect Forte and Hester to break tackles each time.
It's not going to work. I am hoping that Turner was only on that, because he knew he didn't have an option with Orton's poor throwing, and now that he has Cutler, he is going to allow the offense to use the entire field to run a play.
Orton barely made a completion passed 15 yards, but Cutler has the type of arm where he only makes completions that far down the field, and it's far easier for a player to break a tackle that deep down the field, when he is one-on-one, than it is when he's behind the line of scrimmage and has to break through the lineman, linebackers, and secondary to make a play.
It's simple semantics.
The Bears open the season with two difficult games. I say the Packers are a difficult game, only because it's a rivalry. Nobody ever knows what to expect from an opponent during a rivalry game.
Plus, it's the first game of the season, so it's difficult to gauge what your opponent is going to do. After that, they play the Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
Write that up as a loss. But, after that tough start, we get a break the rest of the season, with a "tough" game thrown in here and there. The only tough games I see on the schedule are with the Falcons (Game Five), Fitzgerald and Boldin (Game Eight), the Eagles (Game 10), and the Ravens (Game 14).
Throw in two games against AP, and the two rivalry games with the Packers, and you might be able to consider those tough games. But, with the weaknesses of those teams, a rivalry and one player aren't going to be able to weigh them into the "tough" game division.
We have the easiest schedule, by opponents winning percentages of last season. And, judging by those teams outlooks, they aren't going to be any better, so I don't foresee this schedule becoming tougher than it looks on paper.
I am torn between 9-7 and 10-6, but I am saying 9-7. They will win the NFC North by two games over Minnesota. They will lose to the Eagles in the first round of the Playoffs. And, we will HOPEFULLY make a play for a good WR in the draft the year after that, or go after the top CB.