It seems that the Chicago Bears will be testing an experiment this fall. And the experiment could have long-term implications for the future of the franchise. No, it’s not Devin Hester playing quarterback in a Wildcat offense. It’s more subtle than that.
Actually, the Bears will be running two experiments: one for the offense and another for the defense. The franchise will try to prove that they have they have the right players on defense but had the wrong defensive coaches and schemes last season.
On offense, the team will prove that they had the right offensive coaching staff and schemes but lacked the proper players to execute the playbook.
A little bit of tweaking is all that’s necessary for the team to win the division and make the playoffs this season - and on an annual basis.
During the offseason, Bears General Manager Jerry Angelo added the offensive pieces needed to run Ron Turner’s entire playbook. When Angelo traded for Denver quarterback Jay Cutler, he brought in the Pro Bowl player the Bears stabilize the quarterback position.
With a strong and accurate passing arm, the ability to scramble and lengthen plays, and the size and bulk to be durable, the former Denver quarterback has the potential to be the team’s leader for the next decade.
In Orlando Pace, Angelo brought in another player needed to stabilize the offense. A Super Bowl champion, seven-time pro bowl selection, and 12-year veteran, Pace will protect Cutler’s blindside and further anchor the Bears’ offensive line.
Olin Kreutz, a six-time pro-bowler and 11-year veteran, has been the only offensive player that started in every game for the last eight years.
Those players, combined with second-year running back Matt Forte, should give Turner have the talent to improve upon last season’s 23-point-per-game average and 296-yards-per-game average, according to NFL statistics.
The Bears offense was tied for 14th in points per game last season. The New Orleans Saints offense was first in scoring in the NFL, with nearly 29 points per game and 410-yards-per-game average last year.
Bears Head Coach Lovie Smith changed his entire defensive coaching staff in January. Smith fired defensive line coach Brick Haley, linebackers coach Lloyd Lee and defensive backs Coach Steve Wilks after the Bears defense fell to 21st overall and ranked near the bottom in overall pass defense in 2008.
For the 2009 season, Rod Marinelli will coach the defensive line. Jon Hoke will manage the defensive backs.
Babich will return to handling the Bears linebackers. And Smith will develop the nickel back position and split defensive coordinator duties with Babich.
Smith and Marinelli will split head coaching responsibilities, Smith said.
In terms of defensive talent, Bears General Manager Jerry Angelo added a few lower-round draft choices and speculative free-agents. Angelo’s roster additions will need proper coaching to become valuable starters this fall.
Third-round draft choice Jarron Gilbert, an athletic defensive lineman from San Jose State, and undersized corner back D.J. Moore, a fourth-round selection, are considered the main coaches’ projects in 2009.
With all the time spent analyzing players – the draft and free-agency—it’s time to consider the Bears coaches and what will be a hands-on approach for the 2009 season.
Rod Marinelli was considered the Bears’ top free agent acquisition during the 2009 off-season, after QB Jay Cutler, and vital to energizing Head Coach Lovie Smith’s Tampa-2 defense.
Pressure from the four defensive linemen—their ability to disrupt opponents’ blocking schemes – has been the key to Smith’s defense.
"That defensive system lives off the front four (defensive linemen)," said Warren Sapp, a former seven time probowl player and Buccaneer defensive tackle, during a radio interview on Chicago’s the Score 670-AM dated Jan. 14, 2009. "If those guys buy into that, then greatness is right in front of them."
The Bears hope Marinelli can reproduce his success developing all-pro defensive linemen. Prior to being the Detroit Lions’ head coach and earning the dubious distinction of having the first winless NFL season ever, Marinelli was the NFL’s top defensive line coach.
During his ten years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Marinelli developed a dominant defensive line that led the league with 328.5 sacks between 1996 and 2005.
Marinelli "is the architect of one of the greatest pass rushes the NFL has ever known," Sapp said. "(The Buccaneers) went on a string of 70 straight games with a sack. We attacked quarterbacks like it was nobody’s business."
The Bucs’ defensive line averaged almost 33 sacks a season while Marinelli was coaching the defensive line.
The entire Bears defense only had 28 total sacks in 2008, despite continually sending linebackers on the blitz.
Defensive End Alex Smith led the Bears with six sacks last season.
Marinelli chose the Bears because he wanted to return to his role as a teacher and motivator, according to Chicago Sun-Times sports reporter Brad Biggs in a January 11 blog.
In addition, Marinelli was at his best teaching technique to linemen, but was not very good at developing defensive schemes, according to Biggs’ source with the Detroit Lions.
“When (Marinelli) gets finished with (the Bears defensive linemen) they are going to come out like a pack of wild dogs,” Sapp said. “They’re going to be the defense you know and love. He won’t accept anything else.”
If that is true, Smith may have added the best possible coach for the Bears defense.
Marinelli will split head coaching duties with Smith, Smith said during a January 14 press conference. The lighter head coaching burden will allow Smith to become more involved in developing the Bears’ defense.
Despite Chicago fans demanding that he be fired, Babich retained part of his duties as Bears defensive coordinator and Smith assigned him to coach the linebackers.
Smith will assume defensive play calling responsibilities during the season and will split defensive coordinator duties with Babich this fall.
Some criticize Babich for the decline in the Bears’ overall defensive ranking, falling to 21st in the NFL at the end of the 2008 season from fifth overall when the Bears went to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2006 season.
Smith promoted Babich to defensive coordinator after the Bears lost Super Bowl XLI to the Indianpolis Colts 29-17. Smith and General Manager Jerry Angelo decided not to renew then-Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera’s contract after the loss.
In his two seasons as defensive coordinator, Babich decided to move toward a run-blitz defensive scheme and away from the Tampa-2 scheme that was used in previous seasons.
Babich’s scheme placed eight to 10 players on the line of scrimmage with an emphasis on stopping the opponent’s running game. If the opponent did not call a run play, then the defense attacked the quarterback.
The scheme was effective against the run—the Bears were the fifth best defense against the run in 2008 —but failed to stop opponents’ passing strategies.
The Monsters of the Midway had the 30th out of 32 pass defenses last year, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 62 percent of their passes for almost 3,900 yards.
By relieving Babich of some of the defensive coordinator duties and returning him to his original position as linebackers coach, Smith hopes that the defense will improve.
While he was the Bears linebackers coach, Babich developed Lance Briggs, a 2003 third-round draft choice from the University of Arizona, into a four-time pro-bowl outside linebacker. During his tenure, either Briggs or Urlacher, both Babich’s players, have led the team in tackles each season, with an average of 163 tackles per season, according to the Bears’ Web site.
Smith’s reason for keeping Babich is his ability to create turnovers. The Bears forced 32 total turnovers in 2008—22 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries—second only the Baltimore Ravens’ 34 forced turnovers.
Since 2004, the Bears defense has led the league with 172 forced turnovers, according to the Bears Web site.
Hoke will replace Steve Wilks as the Bears defensive backs coach this fall. Released after a seven-year career with the Houston Texans, Hoke was the last remaining coach from the Texans’ original 2002 staff.
Although fans may question hiring a defensive coordinator from a perennial losing team, last season, Hoke led a Texans pass defense that was ranked higher than the Bears.
Hoke’s defensive backfield was the 17th overall pass defense in 2008, despite losing cornerback Dunta Robinson, the Texans’ best cornerback and 2004 first-round draft choice, to a knee injury at the beginning of the season.
The Bears, by comparison, were rated the 30th pass defense in the league last season.
Then consider that Hoke’s Texans had less defensive talent than the Bears. The Bears could have a top five defensive backfield, if Hoke can teach his technical expertise to the team’s veterans.
Regarded as a hard-nosed coach by Biggs, Hoke’s main contribution to the Bears may be his ability to develop starting players from lower-round draft choices.
“I think there’s guys that have pieces; they may not be whole yet,” Hoke explained in a video posted on Houston Texans Web site Feb. 28, 2008. “If you can get them coached the right way and taught the right way, you can get a lot of upside from some of those players.”
The best example of Hoke’s coaching abilities may be Texans’ starting cornerback Fred Bennett, a fourth-round draft pick in 2007. In Bennett’s rookie year, he led the team in interceptions, forced two fumbles and had 49 solo tackles.
Considering the Bears’ preference for developing cornerbacks selected from lower draft rounds, Hoke seems to be a solid addition to the team’s coaching staff.
Smith, who will coach the nickel back position, will work closely with Hoke to assure that he understands the defensive backfield’s responsibilities in the Tampa-2 defense.
Drake and his wide receivers will face the most scrutiny during the 2009 season. In Jay Cutler, the Bears have a quarterback who can throw for more than 4,000 yards a season.
The question is whether Drake can provide reliable wide receivers to catch Cutler’s passes and allow Ron Turner to operate his entire playbook.
It’s possible that Drake’s best NFL receivers are playing for other NFL teams. Three receivers—Bernard Berrian with the Minnesota Vikings, Justin Gage with the Tennessee Titans and Mark Bradley with the Kansas City Chiefs—joined the Bears in 2004, learned Drake’s lessons for three or four years, left the franchise and then became productive contributors to new teams.
Some fans have argued that Drake, or the Bears offensive schemes, inhibited Gage’s and Bradley’s productivity. Berrian was productive in his fourth and final year with Drake.
But he left the Bears after the team couldn’t match the Minnesota Vikings free-agent contract worth $42 million over six years.
In Drake’s defense, few rookie wide receivers are immediate contributors on the field. It takes at least three seasons for a wide receiver to learn to play in the NFL.
In college, wide receivers simply run a route, separate from their defender and catch the ball. If they have the opportunity, a receiver gets to break a tackle and run for extra yardage after the catch.
In the NFL, the defenders are bigger, faster and more agile.
There is less physical separation from defenders during the game and the hits are more vicious. Pure talent is rarely enough to succeed at the professional level.
Successful NFL receivers learn to think like their quarterback. They study defenses, train to defeat a variety of press-coverage techniques and learn how to select the proper route to bailout the offense.
There are “a lot of reads, a lot of little feel routes, a lot of slants, and little hot throws (that a receiver needs to know),” said Brad Scott, Clemson University’s offensive football coordinator, in an October 6, 2003 Sports Illustrated article.
The complexity can slow a player’s thought process and prevent him from being on the field.
“Eventually, (the Bears receivers) are going to be able to go out there and play freely and not have to think,” Drake explained in an interview posted on the Bears Web site August 4, 2008. “You just want to be able to go out there and just be able to let it happen and let it flow.”
Currently, two of Drake’s wide receiver projects are still with the Bears. Devin Hester and Rashied Davis, both players that have been converted from defensive cornerback positions, have made steady improvement toward becoming NFL receivers.
Last season, Hester doubled his receiving yardage and catches to 665 yards and 51 receptions, and will be entering his third year at the position. Davis doubled his receptions and tripled his yardage in 2008 from the year earlier.
Both players may have breakout seasons with Cutler throwing accurate passes in 2009.
If second-year receiver Earl Bennett, the all-time SEC receptions leader, has a good training camp this fall and plays during the regular season, Drake’s coaching ability may finally be appreciated by Bears fans.
Smith has had mixed results when he changed his coaching staff in the past.
Babich replaced Ron Rivera. Ron Turner replaced Terry Shea, a former Kansas City Chiefs coach who led an explosive offense in the late 1990s.
There were three defensive line coaches and three defensive backs coaches prior to Marinelli and Hoke.
And Smith has had roller coaster results after changing starting players. When he switched starting quarterbacks, to Rex Grossman from Kyle Orton, the team had a more explosive offense but it was inconsistent in points production.
And every Bears fan can describe the changes between the Thomas Jones to Cedric Benson to Matt Forte eras at running back.
Now that the Bears have the pieces in place for the 2009 experiment, hopefully, Smith can bolster his reputation for improving a team.
In 2004 Smith was hired to turn around a 7-9 Bears team that missed the playoffs for two consecutive years. The 2009 season seems eerily similar to the 2004 season.
But with Cutler and Marinelli on board, and a 9-7 team from last season, Smith seems to have a better beginning point now than he did five years ago.
Time to go into the season and test the Bears’ experiments.