The Chicago Bears ended 2008 on a low note. Despite playing lackluster football for most of the year, they still ended up playing for a spot in the playoffs in Week 17. All they had to do was beat the Houston Texans.
In the end, that proved a daunting task, falling 31-24 to team that finished only .500.
Exiting that season, there were three key areas that needed to improve more than any other: quarterback, wide receiver, and defensive line.
Cutler is an instant upgrade at quarterback, regardless of whatever maturity issues he may or may not have. Watching him this preseason, I like the fire he brings when he's not holding the ball. The guy wants to win and has high standards for those around him he has to rely on. You can try, but you can't really fault the guy for that.
Compare the stats for Cutler and new Denver quarterback Kyle Orton, and it's easy to get a little excited:
Cutler: 62.3% completed, 4526 Yards, 25 TD's, 18 INT's, 7.3 yards per attempt
Orton: 58.5% completed, 2972 Yards, 18 TD's, 12 INT's, 6.4 yards per attempt
Cutler threw some picks, for sure, but he did all the other good stuff despite a merry-go-round backfield that was far from intimidating.
On Chicago's offense, Matt Forte set Bears rookie running back records last year. Can you imagine what Cutler might have been able to do in Denver if he wasn't the sole focus of the offense?
Orlando Pace was added to solidify the tackle position after the unexpected retirement of John Tait, which immediately upgrades the offensive line if he can stay healthy.
All of this creates the opportunity for some fireworks in Chicago this year.
True, the wide receiver position was not addressed through new blood except for draftees Juaquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox. However, Earl Bennett seems ready to take position as the number one receiver after struggling to digest the playbook last year.
Oh, and Bennett and Cutler were pretty productive when they played together at Vanderbilt too.
Watching the Bears play defense last year, one had to wonder if maybe the window was closing on this group. Upon further review though, it's easy to see that what the Bears were clearly lacking on that side of the ball was a pass rush.
The Bears were ranked 5th in the NFL against the run last year. Conversely, they were ranked 30th against the pass.
It would be easy to pick on the secondary, but in the NFL, if you can't get to the quarterback someone's going to be open on every play.
That's exactly what new Defensive Line Coach Rod Marinelli was brought in to do. Erase that whole 0-16 Detroit Lions mystique. There's no doubt as to Marinelli's credentials as a position coach. If he can live up to his rep and get better consistent production out of a talented group, this defense could be ready to dominate again.
Tommie Harris' health is an absolute must-have and I didn't see enough explosion in the preseason to make me believe he's ready. However, if he can return to his 2006 form, the secondary's job just got easier.
The safety position vacated by the release of Mike Brown seems to be answered by Danieal Manning, who needs to be more consistent for this defense to return to the upper echelon.
The Chicago Bears are in a very promising position, and if everything goes right, this should be a very successful season. I can honestly predict them going 14-2, barring injuries of course.
The Monsters of the Midway, as they say, have returned.