Chicago Bears at a Crossroads in 2009

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Chicago Bears at a Crossroads in 2009
(Photo by Jim Prisching/Getty Images)

Undoubtedly the defining move of the Chicago Bears 2009 season was the decision to trade for Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler. However, lost in the vast shadow of that move was a January announcement that could have nearly as large of an impact: Lovie Smith will take over as defensive play-caller.

That decision, whether we acknowledge it or not, officially started the clock on Smith’s tenure as the Bears head coach. If he can’t turn the defense around this year and take the Bears to the playoffs, he’ll probably be shown the door.

It’s important to remember that when both Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith were given extensions, Angelo’s extends through 2013, two years beyond Smith’s.

Now that Angelo has put his own neck on the line by acquiring Cutler, bringing the Bears into a new and more aggressive era, he’s not going to wait around with a failing head coach.

Its playoffs or bust for Lovie Smith and Co., so how good are their chances to stick around?

Considering the Bears managed to eek out a 9-7 record last year despite a defense and offense both ranked in the 20’s the upgrades to the roster, not the least of which is a franchise quarterback, bodes well for their chances.

Throw in several games that slipped away in the final moments last year along with the easiest schedule in the NFL this year and an 11-5 record seems very much within reach.

The biggest keys to success this season will be the integration of Cutler into Ron Turner’s offense and the revitalization of the Bears pass rush.

All the reports up to this point have been that Cutler is working daily with Turner and his receivers both on the field and in the film room, getting comfortable in the offense and building a rapport with his new weapons. The focus for Cutler will be improving the Bears third down conversion rate and cutting down on his own turnovers.

The Bears offense faded over the second half of last year as their third-down conversion rate plummeted. Part of it was opposing defenses stacking the box against Matt Forte, and part was Kyle Orton’s ineffectiveness.

Cutler’s 63 percent completion rate is markedly better than Orton’s, so he should do a better job keeping defenses honest and getting the Bears into third and short and then converting.

Winning the turnover battle is essential in the NFL and Cutler’s 32 interceptions over the last two seasons are a red flag. Many of those INTs came inside the red zone, which can be looked at two ways:

  1. Cutler makes poor decisions at the worst times. It’s back breaking to turn the ball over when headed in for a score, or
  2. Being without an effective running game in Denver forced him to throw in a smaller area packed more tightly with defenders. The Bears run game should elevate that pressure and decrease the number of interceptions.

Bears fans need to pin their hopes to reason No. 2.

All that being said, this is an offense that managed 375 points while being led by a hobbled Kyle Orton or Rex Grossman for a decent portion of the season, and  has been significantly upgraded along the offensive line with the signing of Orlando Pace and a healthy Chris Williams.

If Cutler can’t improve on last year’s performance then the Bears have much bigger concerns than simply his "integration."

On the defensive side all hope rests in the hands of Rod Marinelli. Coming off a disastrous tenure as head coach of the Detroit Lions, Marinelli is back to doing what he does best: coaching the defensive line.

Often credited with the success of Warren Sapp and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defensive line—which led the league in sacks during his tenure as line coach—he will need to bring some of the same magic to Chicago.

Marinelli will need to find a way to get Tommie Harris, Adewale Ogunleye and Mark Anderson back to 2006 form. Considering the contract implications: Ogunleye and Anderson are free agents, Harris’ contract could make him a cap casualty given injuries and waning performance—there should be plenty of motivation for the coach to work with.

Twenty or more sacks from those three players are a must because no one wants to be pinning their hopes on draft picks Jarron Gilbert and Henry Melton this early.

The lack of pressure from the defensive line last year forced the Bears to blitz more than any other team in the NFL. That, more than anything else, led to overexposure of a banged up secondary and a 30th ranked pass defense.

While the Bears need healthy seasons from Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher, rookie D.J. Moore and second-year defensive back Zack Bowman provide the most adequate cornerback depth the Bears have seen in some time.

That has allowed the staff to move last season’s breakout star Corey Graham to safety and upgrade that position with the range and coverage ability it hasn’t had since before Mike Brown’s string of injuries.

Still, a repeat of the Bears inability to get to the quarterback could mean that no matter how healthy the secondary is, or how well Cutler adapts to the Bears offense, the defense won’t be holding up their side of the bargain.

But perhaps the biggest aid to Lovie Smith’s playoff quest outside of Jay Cutler is the Bears 2009 schedule, ranked easiest in the NFL based on 2008 opponents winning percentage.

Of note is the degree to which having the 0-16 Lions on their schedule twice skews that ranking: the Packers and Vikings have the next two easiest schedules in the league. Still, Lovie couldn’t have asked for much more.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t precarious parts to the Bears schedule. How the Bears perform during the first two games and the last four games of their 16 game, 17 week marathon will go a long way to determining where they finish the race.

First and foremost they can not afford to start the season 0-2. Every year during week three FOX and CBS trot out the stats of how many teams make the playoffs after starting the year 0-2; it’s not good.

Opening on the road in prime time against the Packers and then coming home to face the defending Champion Steelers raises a stiff challenge for the Bears to avoid that “0’fer fate”. T

he Bears would be wise not to dismiss the Packers because of their 6-10 record, especially given how they were dismantled up in Lambeau last year. And the Steelers bring a pass rush that will put the aging Orlando Pace and in-effect rookie Chris Williams to the ultimate test.

It’s hard to predict which games the Bears will win, but it’s safe to say they must win at least one of these two.

The other major test for the Bears will be the closing stretch, which brings them three divisional games with a road trip to Baltimore mixed in. It should be a brutal and physically demanding stretch that will likely determine the winner of the NFC North.

However, the scheduling Gods did smile upon the Bears a little during this string, as both the Packers and Vikings will be making their annual trips to Soldier Field. Unfortunately, splitting those games with a road game against the Ravens means it’ll likely be a physically drained bunch heading to Detroit for the final game of the year.

While no one can truly see that far into the future, the Bears will likely need to win at least three of those last four games to secure a playoff spot, especially given how competitive the division could be.

The biggest game will be December 28, Vikings at Bears. In the Monday Night Football finale two rivals could be squaring off to claim the divisional crown.

Throw in the potential of Brett Favre running out of the tunnel wearing purple and you have the kind of thing ESPN Executives dream of—and perhaps the defining game of Lovie Smith’s season.

It seems like the Bears are set up for success: a franchise quarterback, the best defensive line coach in the business, and the easiest schedule in the NFL. That’s why they should be headed for a 10+ win season and a return to the playoffs.

That’s also why anything less could spell Lovie’s end.

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