Expectations are a funny thing when it comes to the Chicago Bears. Since I became a devoted fan in 2001, things have often gone the opposite way of what I envisioned.
When I expect the team to be awful, the Bears pleasantly surprise (2001, 2005, and 2008 seasons come to mind). If I have high hopes for a season, the Bears have done their best to disappoint (2002 and 2007 especially).
So what should we expect from the Bears in 2009? With a legitimate quarterback for the first time in decades, it is hard not to shoot for the stars.
When you compare the 2008 Bears with the 2009 Bears, they have made improvements or remained the same at the majority of the positions, the exceptions being wide receiver and safety. The potential addition of linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa would add to an already strong and deep defensive unit.
The defensive unit will also be improved by the change in play calling responsibilities. Head coach Lovie Smith will take over this job from defensive coordinator Bob Babich, which will hopefully remedy many of the issues the defense has dealt with over the last two seasons.
With an improvement at the most important position on the field and the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL (thank you Detroit), the Bears should most certainly improve upon last season's 9-7 finish.
Missing the playoffs in the NFC North would be a massive disappointment. With arguably the second-weakest division in the conference behind the West, it is also reasonable for fans to dream of a top-two seed and first-round bye in the playoffs.
It is fun to imagine winning a Super Bowl victory during the summer; it is another thing to expect it. If Jay Cutler leads the Bears to a championship in his first season in Chicago, he will be a legend in the Windy City forever. But to go into a season with expectations of winning a title is only setting yourself up for disappointment.
For the Bears to exceed all expectations and bring home a ring, a few things need to happen. Certain key areas on offense, defense, and special teams will need to be addressed. If the Bears do not get the necessary production in the following areas, it will be another long winter by the lake.
First, Cutler will need production out of his wide receivers. If no veteran is signed between now and the start of the season, Rashied Davis will be the team's leader in receptions at the position with a whopping 74 for his career.
The team is currently penciling Devin Hester at No. 1 on the depth chart, with Earl Bennett as the No. 2. Hester is talented but his receiver skills are still raw. Bennett has yet to make his first catch as a pro, as issues learning the playbook limited his playing time last season.
The Bears took three receivers in this year's draft, but it is likely that only one third-round choice Juaquin Iglesias will be ready to produce in '09.
The wideouts will have help from Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen at the tight end position but will need to develop a rapport with Cutler during training camp for the Bears to be successful on offense. The Bears may "get off the bus running," but without wide receivers it won't be enough to win a championship.
Another crucial aspect of the Bears' success this season is a strong pass rush. The Monsters of the Midway recorded just 28 sacks last year, good for 22nd in the league. A successful pass rush is vital to the Bears' Cover Two system working as designed and 28 sacks just do not cut it.
Despite his struggles due to battles with injury last season, Tommie Harris will remain a fixture on the defensive line this year (if he can stay healthy). The Bears have a plethora of options for Harris' partner on the line. Dusty Dvoracek, Marcus Harrison, Anthony Adams and potentially rookie Jarron Gilbert all will be vying for playing time.
Having depth at tackle is important, but the Bears also need better production from their ends. Alex Brown was great last season, but Adewale Ogunleye left something to be desired. Ogunleye had a career-high 62 tackles, but just five of them were sacks.
The Bears should leave Ogunleye in on rushing downs, but can spell him in passing situations with Mark Anderson or even Israel Idonije, who has dropped 30 pounds this offseason and is catching the eye of defensive coaches, evident by the two-year extension he received today.
The Bears have nearly the same personnel on the line as last season, so the key could be the hiring of Rod Marinelli as the defensive line coach. Marinelli understands the scheme, having worked with Smith under Tony Dungy for five years in Tampa.
Regardless of why the production improves, whether it is a better rotation, better coaching, or simply staying healthy, it is vital to the success of the Bears in 2009.
The other defensive position that needs to show up in 2009 is safety. The depth at safety for the Bears leaves something to be desired. Mike Brown was replaced with free agent Josh Bullocks, who did not inspire confidence in his last stay in New Orleans.
The rest of the safety corps is comprised of Kevin Payne, Craig Steltz, converted cornerback Corey Graham, and free agent signing Glenn Earl, who has not played in a regular season game since 2006.
The Cover Two defense employed by the Bears is built around not giving up the deep ball, and the Bears must limit the time for routes to develop and have good coverage over the top. The Bears' safeties must step up and produce, otherwise all the offense in the world will not be enough.
One other area of concern is the health of the secondary. The Bears opted not to re-sign injury-plagued safety Mike Brown but still face concerns at the cornerback position.
Neither of the starting cornerbacks, Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher, have played a full season in the last three years. In fact, Vasher has only played in 12 of a possible 32 games over the last two seasons.
The Bears are currently practicing without Tillman and Trumaine McBride, both recovering from offseason surgeries.
The Bears have a fair amount of depth at the position, but there is a significant drop off from their starting cornerbacks to their backups, especially if the team sticks with the decision to switch Corey Graham to free safety.
The Bears will need improved play from their offense and defense, but just as importantly, consistent play from their special teams unit.
The Bears have taken their great field position for granted the past few seasons. Opposing teams have kicked away from Devin Hester and Danieal Manning, allowing the Bears to start possessions as far up as their own 40-yard line.
With what should be a more potent offense, opponents will have to respect the Bears and kick deep more often than they would like. The NFL passed a rule change in the offseason that essentially eliminated the wedge formation on kickoff returns.
Dave Toub's special teams unit will need to adjust, step up, and make opponents pay for kicking deep by producing the way they have in the past.
Expectations for the Bears in 2009 are as high as they have been in recent memory. With a brand new Pro Bowl quarterback and left tackle, a stud second-year running back, and a defensive unit posed to return to prominence, some Bears fans have their hopes set on the ultimate prize.
If the Bears can get some production from their WRs, a pass rush from their D-Line, and win the field position battle, all while limiting injuries and the big play; they might just have a shot at achieving their goal.