Chicago Bears: 6 Reasons to Be Excited for the 2011 Season
The locked-out players and the NFL owners are reportedly readying to vote to end the NFL Lockout and begin preparations for the 2011 season.
That leaves hope that the Bears will still be able to play at the Hall of Fame Game the day after Richard Dent is finally enshrined in Canton. That's pretty exciting, ladies and gentlemen.
There are plenty more reasons to be excited for the upcoming season in Chicago. Last year ended on a low note but we were left with plenty of reasons to feel enthusiastic for the 2011 Chicago Bears.
With an end to the madness peaking over the horizon, let's take some time today to rev up the band and gander at why we, as Bears fans, have plenty to look forward to with child-like glee.
Martzfense Year Two
Mike Martz's horizontal approach to The Coryell Offense is a complex beast. In the first year of this offense, the Bears and Jay Cutler only managed a few points more over the season than they did the previous year under Ron Turner.
But take heart. The offensive system implemented by "Mad" Mike takes time to learn. The offense will be better this year.
All of the offensive woes weren't the fault of a new system, of course. The Matadors of the Midway did little to keep Jay Cutler upright long enough for plays to develop, especially early in the season.
But the system itself was part of the issue.
First, it was Cutlers third system in as many years, and as Dan Fouts could tell you, even Hall-of-Famers have problems when they are forced to learn different offenses so frequently.
And remember that Martz had to learn his players, as well. The Bears are well set up for the offensive style Martz implements, with Hester, Knox and Bennett all being typical Martz style receivers and Matt Forte possibly being the most suited running back in the league for Martz. But Martz still had to learn the capabilities and limits of his players in his first year in Chicago.
The offense saw improvement as the year wore on, and that is a good indicator for what is to come. The offense will be better in 2011.
An Improved Offensive Line
Has there been a worse performance by a line unit than what was put up by the 2010 Chicago Bears offensive line? I'd say that there is a strong argument that there hasn't been.
So why are they on this list?
Because they showed improvement as the year went on and after line coach Mike TIce finally settled on the starting unit.
Of course, Olin Kruetz has to be re-signed. He is the cornerstone of this line and his leadership is necessary.
But that aside, the line allowed 61 total sacks in 18 games including the playoffs. But 31 of those came in the first seven games before the Week 8 bye. In other terms, the Bears allowed 4.4 sacks per game before the bye and 2.7 per game after that point. The line showed improvement.
Add to that improvement the addition of rookie Gabe Carimi and the Bears look like their unit could pull a Green Bay style turnaround.
In 2009, the Packers gave away 51 sacks, but showed improvement as the year went on. In the offseason they inserted Bulaga in at right tackle and relinquished only 38 sacks in 2010 en route to a Super Bowl.
This unit was trending upward as the season ended. Chris Williams seemed to be learning the LG position and improving each game and raw rookie right tackle J'Marcus Webb was growing by leaps and bounds.
It will be interesting to see if the Bears pursue any more help for the line through free agency. If they do, I would expect them to look in the direction of the left guard. They may finally be willing to pull the plug on Chris Williams.
But I think it just as likely that they throw their lot in with the concept of continuity and leave the line mostly in tact, with Carimi's insertion being the lone change.
Either way, the line will be better. And with that the offense will be better.
Devin Hester Will Still Be Ridiculous
The league's all-time leading returner will be eyeing becoming the sole holder of the record for most punt return touchdowns, an honor he currently shares with Eric Metcalf.
Martz and teh Bears seem to understand that Devin is more help to the offense in the field position battle and scoring on returns than he is as a full-time receiver. The diminished role on the offense last year led to the return of the Windy City Flyer.
Hester makes you hold your breath every time a kick is in the air in a way that no other return man has even done.
With 17 total returns for touchdown, including a field goal return, the opening kickoff in Super Bowl XLI and a Pro-Bowl return in which he made Troy Polamalu miss twice, Hester scores the daylights out of opposing special teams coaches and he is sure to give us more exciting moments in 2011.
Urlacher, Peppers and Briggs, Oh My!
The Bears defense has some concerns. Anthony Adams, Pisa Tinoisamoa, Nick Roach and Danieal Manning are all free agents.
In fact, the Bears currently have only two linebackers under contract—Urlacher and Briggs.
Adams might be the most under-rated DT in football, and losing him would hurt the Bears run defense in a big way.
And Danieal Manning is almost as over-looked as Adams is. It is no coincidence that from 2007 to 2009, the Bears had serious issues with the safety spot.
The safety tandem that started the Super Bowl for Chicago in the 2006 season was Danieal Manning and Chris Harris. But Lovie Smith had eyes on Adam Archuleta, who played for him in St Louis, and traded Chris Harris to Carolina for a draft pick that would become Zach Bowman.
Meanwhile, the Bears secondary had so many holes and Danieal Manning was so versatile that the Bears moved him to literally every position in the secondary over the next three years. This severely hampered his development.
But three years and many wasted draft picks later, the Bears traded LB Jamar Williams to Carolina in order to return Harris home and correct their mistake. The outcome was a return to the Super Bowl safety tandem and a marked increase in the efficiency of the unit.
Now, the Bears seem ready to watch Manning walk away in favor of a competition between 2009 third-round pick Major Wright and 2010 third-round pick Chris Conte.
Add in the uncertainty at the strong side linebacker spot, and what you get is a big question mark for a defense that was fourth in the league in scoring, third in the league in quarterback rating allowed and first in the league in passing touchdown percentage.
Yet there are still plenty of reasons to be excited. Urlacher looked better last season than he had in years, Lance Briggs is still the best in the league at what he does. And Julius Peppers is arguably the best and most complete defensive end in football.
There's still tons of talent beyond them, too. Charles "Peanut" Tillman is absolutely the ideal type of corner for the Bears defensive scheme. Chris Harris was as clutch as they come in his return to the Bears in 2010. Israel Idonije was fantastic opposite Peppers last year. Henry Melton and Corey Wootten showed youthful promise.
It will be interesting to watch what the Bears defense does to try and repeat their success from 2010.
A Chip on Cutler's Shoulder
Last season did not end well for Jay Cutler.
He was (inexcusably) questioned for his exit from the NFC Championship game due to injury, and he didn't play well in that game before his departure.
Despite the idiocy of questioning Cutler's toughness when he left the game because of an ACL tear after watching him take a pounding throughout the year and keep coming back for more, players and journalists felt the need to do exactly that.
Maurice Jones-Drew chose to question Cutler's toughness on twitter, yet missed the final two games of the season, when his Jaguars were in the hunt for the playoffs and needed him most, due to knee injury.
Deion Sanders, who missed games for turf toe, said nothing would have kept him out.
And Trent Dilfer, who said he played games with similar injuries, questioned Jay's fortitude while failing to mention that he, himself, had missed games for that very injury, suffered in practice.
You have to expect Cutler to come into 2011 looking to not only silence his critics, but to make them eat crow.
Last year, the Bears were within one touchdown of returning to the Super Bowl for the second time in five seasons.
Consider this: The Bears were routinely criticized for their lack of a number one receiver, for the lack of protection for Jay Cutler, for the misuse of players like Greg Olsen and for the lack of ability shown by Mike Martz to adjust to those things.
Yet the Bears were in a position to advance to the Super Bowl in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game facing the eventual Super Bowl winners with their third string quarterback under center.
The Bears line can only get better, as previously outlined and Cutler will feel like he has something to prove. Additionally, the Bears will have a ton of money that they reportedly will have to spend in free agency with the proposed salary floor.
Add in some very good draft choices and your looking at a Bears team that has improved before free agency has even begun.
With the Lions steadily improving and the Packers coming off of a world championship, the Bears will be in for a fight to repeat as Division Champions, but they haven't rested on their laurels, either.
This is going to be one fun and exciting season.
Now it's you turn. Step up on that soapbox below that we call the comment thread and let us know why your excited about the Bears, or why your concerned if that's your take.