The instant that the Bears acquired Jay Cutler in a Bronco-bustin' trade last month, everyone from fans to media have been overcome by a wild fit of optimism the likes of which haven't been seen or heard in recent memory, maybe ever.
Who could blame these people, really? Chicago has a franchise quarterback every Halley's Comet or so, and the mere thought of a Pro Bowler behind center was enough to trigger visions of victory celebrations and Super Bowl parades in the years to come.
Whoa there, Bronko. Remember, last season this team ranked 26th in yards per game and 14th in points per game on offense, 21st in yards allowed and 16th in points allowed on defense and failed to make the playoffs in a Bounty-soft division. If there are two things that Cutler cannot do, then it's 1) catch his own pass for substantial yardage, and 2) intercept one within the rules on the bench.
So put the navy blue-and-burnt orange Kool-Aid in the fridge for the moment. Unless something drastic comes about between now the regular-season opener —Anquan Boldin, anyone?—these are the realistic expectations for the Bears in the 2009 season.
A more balanced offense. The Bears ranked higher in pass yards per game (21st) than on the ground (24th) last season, but the numbers are a bit deceptive. Because the offense had no deep game to speak of—it didn't produce a TD pass of more than 51 yards until the 12th week of the season—opponents crowded the of line scrimmage like the front door of an unemployment office.
Enter J.C. Superstar and his golden right arm.
Cutler won't put up the 4,500-plus yards and 25 touchdowns that he did with the Denver Broncos last season. In fact, he may not come close. In a more run-oriented offense, Cutler won't put the ball in the air nearly as often this season. Plus, the Bears lack the kind of accomplished receivers that he had a year ago.
Even so, Cutler has the mobility and arm strength to take the pass game to a level that hasn't been witnessed since...since...the Erik Kramer days? What's more, the threat of Cutler with the ball in his right hand should make the ground attack that much better. Because feature back Matt Forte won't have to run against eight defenders in the box nearly as often, a 1,500-yard season isn't out of the question for him.
An improved pass rush. For all the negative talk about the offense last season, the defense failed to get 'er done too many times as well. In particular, the lack of a consistent pass rush was a problem. The unit accounted for only 28 sacks, the ninth-lowest total in the league. Only three players had as many as four takedowns and none had more than a half-dozen.
The inability to pressure the quarterback in pass situations had a ripple effect on the rest of the unit. No defense in the league blitzed more than this one, and the decreased numbers in the secondary left it vulnerable especally against short-to-medium routes.
In ends Alex Brown, Israel Idonije and Adewale Ogunleye, tackles Dusty Dvoracek, Marcus Harrison and Tommie Harris and weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs, the front line packs enough talent, experience and numbers to bounce back this season. There should be no shortage of motivation, either, as the contracts of Idonije and Ogunleye are scheduled to expire after the season.
The NFC North championship. In each of the last six seasons, either nine or 10 victories were enough to win the division crown. Figure those to be the magic numbers again, as the competition appears to be more balanced from top to bottom this time around.
Given their manageable schedule, only health problems may stand between the Bears and 10 victories. In addition to the six games versus division rivals, they are scheduled to play against the NFC West teams (Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams), the AFC North teams (Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers) in addition to the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles.
At this point, only the dates with the Cardinals (home), Eagles (home), Falcons (road), Ravens (road), Steelers (home) and Seahawks (road) appear to be difficult ones.
If the Bears can split the half-dozen toughies, take 4-of-6 in the division and win three of the other four, then that adds up to 10 victories and a division championship in all probability.
One the top three conference postseason seeds. OK, let's be positive here. Suppose the football gods are kind enough to hand the Bears an 11th victory. In all likelihood, that leaves them at no worse than the No. 3 seed in the conference playoffs, a bye in the first round and at least one more game at home.
A postseason victory would be a giant step forward for the Bears in general and Cutler in particular. The guy has zero playoff victories in his three-year career— or the same number as Kyle Orton, the quarterback for whom he was traded. Cutler needs to silence the wolves that question his leadership abilities, and the sooner he does it, the better it will be for him and his team.
The Super Bowl XLIV championship—but only if the Cubs win the World Series first.