January 23rd, 2011 was a day that brought Bears fans more questions than answers.
The Bears lost the NFC Championship game by seven points to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers. There should be no shame in this result, and yet there was.
The Bears 2010 season should have provided the Bears fans and the team with a sense of pride and a image of a team moving forward.
2009 saw the Bears bring in Jay Cutler—the Bears first franchise-quality quarterback since Sid Luckman—in arguably the biggest trade of the decade, and possibly the biggest trade in Chicago Bears history, only to see the Bears flounder with the defensive loss of Brian Urlacher and with then-offensive coordinator Ron Turner squandering Cutler's abilities offensively.
The Bears would miss the playoffs with a 7-9 record and the defense would allow the sixth most points in the Chicago Bears 91-year franchise history.
Fast forward to 2010. The Bears, running short on draft picks, made a huge splash in free agency. Carolina DE/monster Julius Peppers was signed, along with mammoth blocking TE Brandon Manumaleuna and respected complimentary back Chester Taylor, on the first day of free agency.
The ejector-seat button was pressed and Ron Turner disappeared from the Bears staff, eventually replaced by former Rams head coach Mike Martz. Lovie Smith also canned himself as the Bears defensive coordinator and promoted defensive line coach and former Lions head coach Rod Marinelli to the spot. In an attempt to tune the ailing offensive line, former Vikings head coach Mike Tice was brought in to coach the offensive trench-minders.
Looking at the end result, these moves seemed to have improved the Bears team. 2010 saw the Bears adding four wins to their record over the previous season, as well as a division championship, a playoff win and an appearance in the NFC Conference Championship Game.
But a more than cursory look reveals that the Bears left serious questions that must be answered following the 2010 season, regardless of it's successes.
This is one of the most obvious questions. Are the Bears comfortable with their receiving corps or will they attempt an upgrade through free agency.
Muhsin Muhammad famously said that "Chicago is where receivers go to die."
And Muhammad may be part of the reason that the Bears have been reluctant to grab another top free agent wide receiver. While Moose played fairly well in Chicago, he never reached the heights they expected of him, partly due to Muhammad not having Steve Smith playing opposite to him and taking the attention of top corners away from him while he was in Chicago.
But are the Bears finally going to reach out and grab a top shelf receiver?
Their current roster of receivers isn't exactly bad. Johnny Knox, Devin Hester and Earl Bennett are all viable receivers in this league. The problem isn't that none are good, but that none are among the best. With the lack of a true No.1 receiver on the roster, they all face better competition than they would with a top tier receiver on the field drawing the top defender and sliding coverage their way.
The Bears are one top-level wide receiver away from a very good receiving corp. Will they make that move?
The Bears Base defense has been a focal point of questions for years.
The Tampa-2, which Lovie Smith learned as a linebackers coach in Tampa Bay and has implemented in Chicago since arriving in 2004, is seen by many as an outdated defense.
The Bears allow yards in this defense. But when the correct pieces are in place, they do not allow points.
The Tampa-2 actually more closely resembles the Cover-3 than the Cover-2 defense that it is based on. While the Cover-2 features two deep safeties covering equal zones encompassing half the width of the field each, the Tampa-2 features two safeties deep and the middle linebacker joining them, dividing the deep zone's into thirds in order to limit big play potential while keeping three defenders in the position to break on intermediate passes for interception chances.
In fact, those turnover opportunities are the bread and butter of Smith's variant of the Tampa-2. The idea behind the Bears defense is to stop the run early, forcing offenses to air out the ball. When they do, the Bears sacrifice yardage for turnover opportunities. It's a high-risk, high-reward style of defense.
That's not to say that the Bears don't try to stop opposing offenses from gaining yardage. But the idea is to allow for slightly more risk for the chance at those turnovers. The Bears run fewer blitz's in an attempt to keep more defenders in coverage to create those interception chances.
But this defense relies heavily on three positions: 3-tech defensive tackle, middle linebacker and free safety.
And this is where the questions regarding the scheme are presented. Chicago's defense struggled from 2007 to 2009 because of a lack of talent at the free safety spot and the injury decline of Tommie Harris, with 2009 being the worst of those years as Brian Urlacher played only one half of one game before his season ended.
2010 saw the Bears trade to return Chris Harris home, Urlacher return from injury, and Julius Peppers wreak enough havoc on the line to mask the sub-par 3-tech play.
But Chris Harris is reportedly being moved to his natural strong safety spot and, with Danieal Manning appearing to be headed out, it appears that either 2010 third round pick Major Wright or 2011 third round pick Chris Conte will be manning the free safety position. The two inexperienced safeties will battle out the position, leaving questions at one of the most important spots on the defense.
Tommie Harris is also notably absent, though his play has been less and less of a factor over the past three seasons. Henry Melton made small strides at the 3-Tech spot last year, and the Bears drafted DT Stephen Paea in the second round of this years draft. Who will start at the important 3-tech spot? Will they be able to take some pressure off of Peppers, or will Julius have to spend another year covering for below average DT play?
Oh, here's a can of worms...
Jay left the NFC Championship game after the first series of the second half with what was later determined to be a Grade 2 MCL sprain, sparking a firestorm of criticism.
Almost immediately, his peers, the media and fans began questioning his toughness, his heart and even his injury.
Several players took to twitter to publicly question Cutler. Players like Maurice Jones-Drew, who himself missed the final two games of the Jaguars playoff run—which the Jags lost, subsequently missing the playoffs—took to twitter to proclaim that Cutler quit and they would have played through the injury.
Media personalities did much of the same in the wake. From legends in their own time like Deion Sanders to legends in their own mind like Trent Dilfer—who claimed he would have played and had played with the injury but failed to note that the very same injury kept him sidelined while he was with Seattle—the blood was in the water and the Sharks were on the attack.
Yet there was a backlash. Players like Aaron Rodgers and Cutler's long-time bitter rival Philip Rivers quickly came out in support of Cutler. The second wave of media coverage of Cutler's injury—those who where prudent enough to wait until they had all of the information—felt almost like a counter-attack on those who jump to conclusions about Cutler.
But there were legitimate questions to be asked.
Not involving Cutler's toughness, of course. The Bears young quarterback took a massive beating during the season behind an atrocious offensive line—including the record setting nine sacks he took in the first half of their Week 4 contest with the NY Giants.
And not involving his will to continue. All one needs to do to answer the question of whether Cutler will keep throwing the ball even in a bad performance is to watch his Week 7 performance against the Redskins that resulted in DeAngelo Hall entering the record books with four interceptions
The real questions that arise are how Cutler will handle this criticism.
Will Cutler lose confidence and decline? Will he come back in 2011 feeling like he has a chip on his shoulder and something to prove? Will that result in him trying too hard and failing or will it result a deepened determination and focus that drives him to greater success? Or will it all role off of his back, resulting in much ado about nothing?
As goes Cutler, so go the Bears. So where does Cutler go from here?
Mike Tice was brought in to improve the Bears offensive line in 2010.
Sadly, the line ended up being the biggest disappointment of the season, and might be the single biggest reason for the losses the Bears took.
Five changes to the starting lineup made it very difficult for the line to gel. A lack of development and an almost criminal negligence in replacing talent on that line also made Tice's job very difficult.
How bad has the re-infusing of talent been? The only player drafted higher than the 7th round by Jerry Angelo that started a game on the line was former first round Chris Williams, who is quickly approaching the "bust" zone.
The Bears added Wisconsin road-grader Gabe Carimi to the mix with the 29th pick in the draft. But will they rest on that acquisition, or will they seek a replacement for the ineffective Chris Williams or the aging Olin Kruetz and Roberto Garza?
And what of Mike Tice? Was the line's failure last season just the result of poor talent, or was coaching a factor, too. Tice is considered one of the better line coaches in the league, but there are question to be answered about why the line needed to be rotated five times. Chris Williams early-season injury was part of that, but that doesn't account for most of it.
Was Tice's talent evaluation off? Was there a conflict between what he saw as the best lineup from his standpoint and what the best lineup would be in offensive coordinator Mike Martz's system?
If the Bears are going to have success in 2011, it will all start on with improvement to this line unit. Which means that these questions must be answered.
Has the game passed Mike Martz by and can he adapt?
Watching last year's offense, the answer to those two questions might have more impact on this team's future success than any even the offensive line does.
Last season, the Bears became the first team Martz coached that didn't show significant offensive improvement.
Why? Why did Martz's offensive system not run effectively in Chicago? Why did Martz fail to use his best weapons effectively? Can Martz adapt to the changes that have overtaken the game and to the shortcomings of his roster?
And Martz brought these questions upon himself. His inability to tap Greg Olsen's potential because of a stubborn and outdated notion that tight ends are for blocking brought questions. His aversion to rushing the ball, even as his franchise quarterback was getting mugged behind the league's worst offensive line brought more questions. And his stubborn reliance on Jurassic quarterback Todd Collins, even after his blindingly bad performance against league doormat Carolina, as his top backup to Jay Cutler brought still more questions.
Martz's system can work in Chicago.
There are roadblocks, including the aforementioned Truly Offensive Line, the condition of the playing surface and the lack of a No. 1 receiver.
But the set of receivers he does have are all well suited for his offense and he has probably the best running back in the league for his system in Matt Forte. The Bears did manage to score a few more offensive points in 2010 than they did the previous season under Ron Turner.
But for Martz to get this offense in it's current form to the next level he's going to have to answer the question of whether he can adapt his system to make use of the team's best receiver, TE Greg Olsen, and to use the rushing offense more than he would like.
Will he be able to do this? Time will tell.