Their playoff fates had already been decided, but the whimper that Chicago ended their season with certainly didn’t signify bright hopes for the 2009 season.
Bears fans could reasonably expect to suffer another season of their quarterback “managing” a conservative offense, aging linebackers and defensive backs, and no viable wide receivers to speak of.
The sun came out in early April as Chicagoans defrosted from another brutal winter. With the birds beginning to chirp, the grass and trees beginning to green, and children once again venturing outdoors to the park, we had no inkling the greatest spring gift of all was yet to reveal itself.
Jay Cutler had arrived in the Windy City.
The rumors had been swirling for months, but no Bears fan with any common sense would dare to dream. After all, this was a city which, in recent memory, had been presented (with a straight face) Rick Mirer, Steve Stenstrom, Moses Moreno, Shane Matthews, Cade McNown, Henry Burris, Kordell Stewart, Jonathan Quinn, Craig Krenzel, Chad Hutchinson, and Rex Grossman as its starting quarterbacks.
The only rays of light in the decade had been a concussion machine named Chris Chandler, a reclamation project in Jim Miller, and Kyle Orton, whom the fans affectionately (I think) dubbed “neck-beard”.
There had always been certainties in Chicago; you would get blizzards in January and the Bears quarterback would be bad. Real bad.
Then, suddenly, and with little warning, Santa Claus visited all of Chicago-land on an early April day.
A young gunslinger from Indiana (Santa Claus, Indiana, that is) had come to town.
A quarterback who threw for 4,526 yards and 25 touchdowns was now wearing No. 6 in the Bears’ orange and blue.
Images of sugar plums and Super Bowl trophies were now dancing in the fans heads.
There is no greater joy than soaring high on the wings of dreams, except maybe the joy of watching a dreamer who has nowhere to land but in the ocean of reality.
While the addition of Jay Cutler was an excellent start, the Bears have a lot of question marks entering the 2009 season.
Who is going to catch those bullets?
Is it a good sign when your running back, Matt Forte, is your leading receiver? In the Bears case, it was understandable.
However, that has to change if they are to take advantage of Jay Cutler’s ability to stretch the field.
The Bears enter the season with Devin Hester as their No. 1 wide receiver. Not good. While nobody will doubt his exceptional speed and athleticism, we can doubt his hands and route running.
In fairness to Devin, he was a cornerback and college and return specialist in the pros. I’m not sure this is the correct recipe for your “go-to guy.”
Earl Bennett was Jay Cutler’s favorite target at Vanderbilt, which bodes well for his development. My main concern here is that the 2007 third-round pick didn’t feel the necessity to actually learn the playbook last year. Not a good start.
The rest of the Bears’ receiving corps is either unknown or unproductive. Brandon Lloyd is a career journeyman that has a hard time staying focused and on the field.
Rashied Davis has a “minor problem” being a receiver because he can’t actually “catch” the football.
Greg Olsen stands to be a huge beneficiary of Jay’s “lasers.” He is an exceptional athlete, has great hands, and needs to touch the ball more. The guy can make plays, as evidenced by his give touchdown catches last year (three in the last four games).
As it stands, the Bears are in trouble at this position. They drafted Juaquin Iglesias out of Oklahoma, but rookie wide receivers are always a crap-shoot.”
All of the available help left (Marvin Harrison, Reggie Williams, Koren Robinson, Justin McCareins, Ashley Lelie, Drew Bennett, Jerry Porter, Darrell Jackson, Terry Glenn, Eric Moulds, or Amani Toomer) has either lost a step, or never had it to begin with.
The Bears are in trouble here.
Can the Bears keep Jay Cutler off of his back?
What would have been Chicago’s premier signing of 2009 ended up being reduced to a footnote. However, the signing of Orlando Pace was a critical part of ensuring a march to the playoffs in 2009.
There has never been a question of his talent or effectiveness at left tackle. The main question is, can he stay healthy? The seven-time pro-bowler played in 14 games last year, but had only appeared in nine over the previous two seasons. If he can stay on the field, Jay’s blind side will remain turf-free.
Chris Williams is the other book end on the right side. One problem: The first-round pick out of Vanderbilt never actually stepped on the field last year.
Counting on 325 pound tackle with a bad back? Yikes. I would feel a lot better if John Tate hadn’t traded his pads for a lounge chair.
Olin Kreutz is the anchor of the line, but 12 years across from big Viking nose tackles has begun to take its toll. Josh Beekman and Roberto Garza are average guards at best.
The good news is that the mere presence of Jay Cutler should reduce the instances of the Bears facing “eight in the box.” This should help the Bears running game and reduce the stress on the line.
However, with the receivers being below average, Cutler may need some extra time to make a play. The good news is that he can move around and make plays.
Has the defense gotten too old and slow?
I’ll admit it. I was rooting for the Bears to trade Brian Urlacher to Arizona to get Anquan Boldin. It has been clear to me that the new anchor of the Bears defense is not Urlacher anymore, but Lance Briggs.
However, that is just the beginning of the problems for the Bears defense.
One of the problems Urlacher is having is that the middle of the defense, formerly a strength, has now become a weakness. Tommie Harris and Dusty Dvoracek simply cannot stay on the field, and when they have been there, have been ineffective.
Marcus Harrison and Anthony Adams were nice additions to the defensive line, but neither of them will keep blockers from further injuring their middle linebacker’s neck and back.
My advice to Tommie Harris is to spend more time rehabbing his lower body, and less time yapping to the media.
Defensive backs get old quickly. Charles Tillman is as solid as they come, but I worry that 93 tackles a year ago takes an unfair toll on a cornerback’s body.
While Nathan Vasher’s career started with a lot of promise, it has become clear that he has lost it. He has been unable to stay on the field, and has only totaled two interceptions and 29 tackles over the last two seasons.
At safety, with Mike Brown departed, the responsibilities fall to Kevin Payne and Craig Steltz. While Payne had a decent rookie season with 75 solo tackles and four interceptions, Steltz didn’t see the field much last year other than on special teams.
What really concerns me, though, is that another former area of strength, defensive end, was unproductive last year.
Alex Brown led the team with 6.5 sacks, but Mark Anderson and Adewale Ogunleye’s production plummeted.
Their sack totals dropped to six combined in 2008, down from 14 the year before.
The Bears did add Jarron Gilbert and Henry Melton in the draft to shore up this spot. If they can’t get pressure on the quarterback, it will further expose their weakness at linebacker.
How will the Bears fare in 2009?
There is reason for hope in Chicago.
Never before have they had a “franchise” quarterback capable of winning games on the strength of his arm and ability to make plays that aren’t there. If they had made this trade two years ago, they would be Super Bowl contenders right now.
Unfortunately, there are just too many glaring holes on this team. There are no Brandon Marshalls or Eddie Royals here.
Their defense is old, slow, and unproductive Their offensive line is too young in some spots and too old in others.
The good news is that going forward, they will finally have a quarterback to build around for the next 10 years. The bad news is that this year they will finish 7-9, behind the Vikings and Packers, and out of the playoffs.