2013 will mark the beginning of a new era in Chicago Bears football. Gone is Lovie Smith and his defensive mind, and in is offensive-minded Marc Trestman.
The Bears, on paper, look very similar to the team that went 10-6 last season. But upgrades along the offensive line and their linebacking core could help catapult this team into the playoffs in 2013.
With training camp expected to start in just over two weeks, here are five things that every fan needs to know about the 2013 Chicago Bears.
General manager Phil Emery thought outside of the box with the hiring of Marc Trestman. A longtime NFL assistant, Trestman headed north to the CFL and was the head coach of the Montreal Alouettes for five seasons before Emery and the Bears made him the team's head coach on January 16th of this year.
Despite the dominance on the defensive side of the football for the past several years, the Bears offense has failed to match the defense's production.
Trestman brings a West Coast-style offense to the Bears, and his stellar record with quarterbacks in the past has many believing that he can make Jay Cutler an elite-level quarterback.
While the offense certainly has the opportunity to improve on what it has done in recent years, fans just need to learn to temper their expectations offensively for the 2013 season. Cutler has the weaponry (Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte, Martellus Bennett) and improved offensive line, but it will continue to be a work in progress while the players and Trestman learn what is best for the team.
After 13 seasons, in which he went to eight Pro Bowls, received five All-Pro nods and won a Defensive Player of the Year Award, Brian Urlacher officially retired in mid-May.
Despite losing the face of the franchise and arguably the heart of the defense, the Bears defense is still full of veteran leadership.
Lance Briggs is expected to take over as the leader of the huddle on defense and will be making the defensive calls on the field come this fall, according to Kevin Patra of NFL.com. Entering his 11th season, Briggs understands the way the Bears and new defensive coordinator want to run this defense, and he has the ability to become the new defensive face of this Bears team.
Veterans Charles Tillman (entering his 11th season, all with Chicago) and Julius Peppers (entering his 12th season, fourth with Chicago) also bring experience and knowledge of this Bears defense. And even with Urlacher gone, they can help fill the void that he leaves both on the field and in the locker room.
In Jay Cutler's four seasons with the Chicago Bears, he has averaged over 3,070 yards passing, 20 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. While not terrible, Cutler's numbers put him in the middle of the pack in terms of efficiency in the NFL during that period of time.
For years, fans have been told that Cutler possesses all of the traits of an elite quarterback. But that has failed to translate on the field during his time in Chicago.
2013 looks to be a big year for Cutler now that he has an offensive-minded coach and more weapons to choose from. While there still may be an adjustment period for this offense, he has the opportunity to not only improve his status as an elite quarterback, but also the opportunity to cash in on a long-term deal with his contract set to expire at the end of the 2013 season.
Joe Flacco was in a similar situation with the Baltimore Ravens last season before exploding in the playoffs for 11 touchdowns and no interceptions on his way to winning the Super Bowl. He then cashed in on a six-year contract worth $120.6 million dollars. While it would be unlikely for Cutler to have that sort of run in 2013, he has never had this much help around him while in Chicago and he has a chance to settle in as the Bears' quarterback for the next several years.
Not only is 2013 a big year for Jay Cutler contract-wise, but 10 other expected starters are set to become free agents after the 2013 season: cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, defensive linemen Henry Melton (franchise-tagged) and Corey Wootton, offensive linemen Matt Slauson, Roberto Garza and J'Marcus Webb, linebackers D.J. Williams and James Anderson and safety Major Wright.
Other notables with expiring contracts at the end of the 2013 season include returner Devin Hester, long snapper Patrick Mannelly and kicker Robbie Gould.
Guys like Slauson, Williams and Anderson were signed to one-year deals before 2013 and could be viewed as short-term fill-ins at their respective positions. But the remaining guys all are expected to have a big impact on the upcoming season.
Much like Cutler, this group of players has an opportunity to cash in heading into the 2014 season and the ability to continue contributing for many more seasons.
Despite losing its middle linebacker (Brian Urlacher), defensive coordinator (Rod Marinelli) and defensive-minded head coach (Lovie Smith), the Bears defense is expected to continue to be one of the league's best in 2013 under new coordinator Mel Tucker.
He has experience in both a 4-3 and 3-4 defense, but he's expected to continue to use some of the same Cover 2/Tampa 2 philosophies that Smith and Marinelli used during their tenure in Chicago.
Despite getting older, the argument can be made that the defense has gotten better heading into 2013—particularly in the linebacker core with the addition of veterans D.J. Williams and James Anderson and rookies Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene.
While the team will likely stick to what has made it great the past few years, expect Tucker to throw in some wrinkles, particularly with Shea McClellin and his ability to play both with his hand on the ground in a two-point stance and to continue to make a conscientious effort to take the ball away from the opposing offense.