The projections for next year's Cal football team seem to inevitably come back to one question: "Will Kevin Riley play well enough at QB for the Bears to win?"
While no one is going to argue that the quarterback is a critical position and that last year's performances by Riley and Longshore left much to be desired, the folks who are fixated on Cal's QB play would do well to keep Kurt Warner in mind.
Kurt Warner came into the NFL and promptly became the league's MVP in leading the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl win. His release and accuracy were picture perfect and the offense he ran could not be stopped.
Fast forward three years and Warner was suddenly incapable of avoiding bad interceptions, was missing wide open WRs and was holding onto the ball too long.
Eventually, St. Louis let him go and he followed that with a miserable stint with the NY Giants followed by a couple of mediocre campaigns with the Cardinals.
At that point, it was easy to write off Warner as a flash in the pan, a guy for whom lightning struck but eventually came back to earth as an NFL journeyman.
Only as quickly as you can say Trent Dilfer, it all changed again. In 2009, Warner was back to his 2001 form, leading Arizona to the Super Bowl.
As if by magic, the quick-fire release was back, the uncanny accuracy and the solid decision making returned and Warner was once again an elite NFL quarterback.
The truth is none of what happened to Warner is in the least surprising. American's obsession with quarterbacks has became so myopic as to make them forget that (gasp) football is actually a team game with all of the interdependencies implied with 22 men running around at full speed in organized chaos.
Warner was great early with the Rams because he played behind the league's best offensive line, who afforded him all day to survey the field and find the league's best cadre of offensive weapons: Marshall Faulk, Issac Bruce, and Torry Holt.
With the comfort and confidence that comes from being able to grab a beer and a brat before being hurried by a pass rusher and getting the ball to a bunch of Olympic track athletes, Warner became an MVP.
The recipe was nearly identical this year as Arizona's offensive line became one of the league's best in protecting the passer, while Bolden and Fitzgerald caught anything and everything thrown their way, allowing Warner to once again became Dan Marino.
And for those of you who think Warner is some kind of anomaly, how do you explain Tom Brady going from future hall of famer to truly awful in his last Super Bowl performance. The Patriots sieve-like offensive line had him running for his life and even when he did have time, his rhythm and confidence were shot.
Which leads us back to Cal. Last year's passing game woes were a diabolical mixture of poor QB play, the worst pass protection (you need to look beyond sacks allowed to include hurries and flushes, of which there were many) in the Tedford era and a group of receivers who couldn't get open, much less catch the rare perfect passes they were thrown.
Playing quarterback is the most mentally and emotionally demanding position on the field. Finding a comfort zone and building confidence are critical. Even if you aren't being sacked every play, hurries are ever bit as daunting.
Forcing balls in because your receivers have not gotten separation and then seeing them drop balls that are right in their hands impact the psyche of the quarterback.
The bottom line is that the reasons the Bears passing game was stuck in neutral last season went far beyond Riley and Longshore's struggles.
So what does all this mean for the 2009 campaign? On the surface of it, good news abounds. Starting off up front, where the Bears return eight players who have started including their best past protector from 2007, LT Mike Tepper.
Tepper's return is even bigger than his 335-pound frame might suggest. Tepper will protect Riley's blindside providing Riley with a sense of comfort missing all last season and allowing Schwartz to move to RT where his still evolving pass blocking skills can be worked on with much less pressure.
Even if the injury bug hits the OL as it did in 2008, Cal's combination of talent, experience and depth have never been better. It's hard to imagine the boys up front not providing significantly better protection this year than last.
As for the receiving corps, this news there is equally positive. All three starters from the Emerald Bowl return, including Verran Tucker, who established himself as the Bears most consistent wideout.
Experience is huge at WR as players get used to the speed of the game and fully understand the concentration required to succeed. Expect Boateng and Tucker to take big steps forward.
Joining that duo are two youngsters who actually proved to be more impressive this spring than the incumbents. Sophomores Marvin Jones and Alex Lagemann are poised to become Kevin Riley's security blankets with their combination of size and sure hands.
Add in stud sophomore Michael Calvin, who the Bear coaches considered their best receiver going into 2008 and who missed almost all of last year with a knee injury and you suddenly have a WR group that goes at least six deep with a nice blend of experience and young talent.
Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen are both exceptional pass catchers out of both the backfield and the slot providing Riley with good check down options when his primary receivers are covered and giving him the ability to throw five-yard passes that go the distance, always a favorite of quarterbacks everywhere.
No doubt Kevin Riley is going to have step up in all phases of his game. He has to hit the open receiver consistently, something that he failed to do last year.
He needs to get rid of the ball quicker and most importantly rediscover the swagger and playmaking moxie that marked his 2007 debut. Riley knows this offense cold and he has the line and playmakers around him to succeed.
His biggest challenge may be ignoring the Bear fans and pundits who want to put all of the responsibility and weight of the upcoming year on his shoulders.
If Kevin can close his ears and open his eyes to how his teammates are putting him in a position where he just needs to be average to get them to a BCS game, he will almost certainly relax and once again we will see the Kevin Riley who led Cal to the comeback win against Air Force in 2007.
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