After enduring eight different starting quarterbacks in 11 years, Bear Nation finally has its marquee quarterback in Jay Cutler—the first since the leather-headed era of Sid Luckman.
The Cutler craze has deviated the media attention from other pressing concerns, particularly at wide receiver and in the secondary. Those units were among the worst in the NFL last season, and neither has received much help from free agency.
But who am I to kill everyone’s buzz? Let’s start with the positives.
Cutler has arguably the strongest arm in the league (and before you say JaMarcus Russell, re-read “in this league.” Raiders don’t count). He is also nimble enough to have only been sacked 11 times last season.
Of course that is also a testament to the Broncos’ strong line; but the Bears should also have a formidable front, bolstered by the additions of Canton candidate Orlando Pace at left tackle and a healthy Chris Williams at right tackle.
Cutler may not have better receivers in Chicago, but the running game is certainly superior. Second-year back Matt Forte excelled last season, not just as a between-the-tackles thumper but also as a receiver and pass blocker.
Defenses keyed on Forte and TE Greg Olsen in ‘08, paying little respect to Kyle Orton's fluttering deep balls. Cutler, however, has the potential to stretch defenses, which will provide less congested running lanes for Forte and more space over the middle for Olsen.
I’d love to continue channeling my inner Richard Simmons. But not all offseason storylines in Bears’ camp are positive—and I’m not just referring to that Bad News Bears receiving corps.
The Bears’ Tampa-2 had a rocky 2008 campaign, finishing 20th in total defense. To be fair, this unit suffered a slew of mid-season injuries in 2008: DT Dusty Dvoracek, OLB Hunter Hillenmeyer and CB’s Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman, to name a few.
Still, there is sentiment out there that the Bears will never return to their dominant form of two years ago with the same nucleus of players. LB Brian Urlacher is not the same game-changing linebacker (maybe he needs to apply more Old Spice Swagger).
The once-promising cornerback tandem of Tillman and Vasher has been plagued by lingering injuries and inconsistent play. They were on the wrong side of too many big plays in ’08, a season in which the Bears ranked 30th against the pass.
Questions about durability and productivity abound on a defense with so many players returning from offseason rehab. Perhaps the biggest question of all is whether DT Tommie Harris can re-establish himself as a dominant interior pass rusher.
Just as Cutler greatly improves the Bears’ offense, a healthy Harris could do wonders for the defense—if he’s healthy. And of course, that’s a big "if" for a guy who has yet to recapture his dominant form since suffering a knee injury in 2007.
Harris—more so than WLB Lance Briggs—has the ability to galvanize the Tampa-2, which generates the bulk of its pass rush through the front four. During Harris’s Pro Bowl seasons of ’06 and ’07, a disruptive front allowed the guys behind it to fly around the field and force turnovers.
But when the front four fell flat last season, coach Lovie Smith was forced to blitz far more than he’d like. It didn’t help much: the Bears finished 22nd in sacks in ’08.
The Bears’ brass was wise to keep the defense’s core nucleus together. This is, after all, the same group that led the Bears to the Super Bowl just over two years ago.
Do the Bears improve on last year’s 9-7 record? With a massive QB upgrade and the NFL’s easiest schedule based on 2008 winning percentage (.412), I’d say a division title is in the cards.
And if they can’t get it done in 2009, they have plenty of salary cap space—sixth most in the NFL—to work with next year.
But who cares about “next year”? The Bears are basking in the national spotlight for a change, with five prime-time games on tap. Can Cutler live up to the lofty expectations? We’ll see. If I was a betting man, I’d like my chances of a J.C. playing savior.