It doesn't seem like long ago that the Chicago Bears were the cream of the crop in the NFC. Well, the reason it doesn't seem like long long ago is because it wasn't.
A mere 17 months ago, the Bears competed in the Super Bowl but wound up losing to the Indianapolis Colts. Still, optimism was high in the Windy City for the 2007-2008 season as the team was able to resign free agent linebacker Lance Briggs, and add another weapon on offense in the form of tight end Greg Olsen through the draft.
In their Super Bowl season, the Bears' strength was undoubtedly their defense, which was ranked fifth in the league that year.
With everyone coming back the following year and with safety Mike Brown coming back from injury, there was no reason not to expect anything more than dominance the following season.
However, with all the optimism that seemed to be going around in Chicago, the team failed to meet expectations stumbling out to a 1-3 start and a 7-9 record overall. The team had still not found a constant at the quarterback position.
Rex Grossman, who led his team to a Super Bowl the year before, played with no consistency at all.
He followed up his mediocre Super Bowl season with a disastrous 2007 season that saw him benched in favor of veteran Brian Griese and second year quarterback Kyle Orton, neither of whom looked to be a franchise quarterback.
The running game was a disaster as well. In the offseason after the Super Bowl, the team decided to part ways with Thomas Jones after a 1,000+ yard season, and he was traded to the Jets for a second round pick.
The team was ready to hand over the reigns to Cedric Benson, the fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft. Through the middle of the season, it was evident that the team had parted ways with the wrong running back.
The receiving core was solid, but the problem was that they had no one to get them the ball on a consistent basis. Both Mushin Muhammed and Bernard Berrian had respectable seasons, and with the addition of rookie Greg Olsen, the Bears had the best tight end duo in the league with him and veteran Desmond Clark.
The offensive line was good but old and oft injured. Olin Kreutz is one of the best centers in the league, but with the starters on the offensive line coming in at an average age of 32 years old, it was evident that the line needed to be infused with some youth.
One of the most asked questions in the 2006 season was not whether the Bears’ defense was good, but rather is it the best defense ever? And although the Steel Curtain of the 70's and the 1985 Bears defense was undoubtedly better, it still paid testament to just how good this unit was.
Fast forward a year and the Bears had people asking another question. How good such a dominant unit look so god awful just a year later? The answer can be attributed to several things.
First off, the Bears lost defensive coordinator Ron Rivera to the Chargers, and it's no coincidence that the Chargers’ defense became one of the top units in the league in 07.
Rivera did wonders for the Bears. His scheme was tailor-made for the Bears’ linebackers and secondary. It seemed like when he left, the defense was lost and had no idea where to go or when to blitz.
Another reason the d struggled was because of injuries. Mike Brown who, when healthy, is one of the best safeties in the game missed virtually all of the season again with a torn ACL. Just how valuable is Mike Brown to the Bears?
Consider this. The Bears are 14-2 in the last 16 games Brown has started and haven't lost a game in which he started and finished since October 9, 2005 against Cleveland.
Cornerback Nathan Vasher also missed most of the season. If the defense can stay healthy, there's no question that the Bears can regain their dominance. The problem is that that's a very big if.
The one constant for the Bears through the rocky season has been one, Devin Hester. Hester is without a doubt the best return man in the game, and probably in history.
Without Hester, the Bears can say goodbye to at least five wins from the past two years. No other return man has been as valuable as Hester has been for the Bears. Ever.
With Lovie Smith now incorporating Hester into the offense more, there is reason for optimism in the Windy City once again.
2008 Season Lookout:
The 2008 season should be interesting in Chicago. Barring a miracle this would figure to be the final year of the Rex Grossman era in the Chicago.
The team did lose Bernard Berrian and Mushin Muhammed, their two leading receivers. Enter former Bear Marty Booker, and former Redskin Brandon Lloyd. They will be expected to be the go-to guys this year.
A dark horse at receiver is Hester. Lovie Smith has come out and said "we plan to use Devin more than ever on offense this year." If Smith can somehow find a way to get Hester the ball 10-15 touches a game, the offense will become much more exciting.
Second year man Greg Olsen looks to keep up his development. There's no doubt that he can develop into a top five tight end in the league. The problem is that he needs to get someone to get him the ball.
The line was able to get younger with the addition of first round pick Chris Williams.
As for the defense, the key is health. If the Bears can stay healthy, you'd be hard pressed to find a better unit in the NFL. The thing that the Bears like is that their defensive line is so good, they can afford to drop guys like Urlacher and Briggs into pass coverage.
With Tommie Harris, Urlacher, and Briggs, the Bears have a nucleus that they can build around for years to come. They will have to improve their run defense.
They were gashed by Adrian Peterson for over 200 yards and finished in the bottom half of the league in run defense.
The Bears are fortunate. As discombobulated as they seem, they are lucky that they play in such a bad division. The Vikings are probably the clear cut favorite to win the division this year, but there is certainly no dominant team.
If the Bears can find consistent play on offense and stay healthy on defense, look for the Monsters of the Midway to be back in the playoff hunt.
08-09 Projected Record: (9-7) NFC Wildcard
@ COLTS, 7:15 PM
@ PANTHERS, Noon
VS. BUCCANEERS, Noon
VS. EAGLES, 7:15 PM
@ LIONS, Noon
@ FALCONS, Noon
VS. VIKINGS, Noon
VS. LIONS, Noon
VS. TITANS, Noon
@ PACKERS, Noon
@ RAMS, Noon
@ VIKINGS, 7:15 PM
VS. JAGUARS, Noon
VS. SAINTS, 7:15 PM
VS. PACKERS, 7:30 PM
@ TEXANS, Noon