By Nick Szafranski
The 2011 Chicago Bears were 7-3 and in prime position to find themselves in the postseason when starting quarterback Jay Cutler went down for the year. Having an insurance policy at second-string quarterback could’ve saved the Bears season as they failed to make the playoffs.
Fourth-year quarterback Caleb Hanie beat out rookie Idaho product Nate Enderle during training camp for the second-string spot, and with a sufficient lack of playing experience Hanie was completely inept when thrust into the starting role in week 12.
Finishing with an 8-8 record, the Bears season not only came to a tumultuous finish but also signaled the end of an era.
In January, Jerry Angelo’s eleven-year reign as Bears General Manager came to an end. Angelo put together Bears teams that won three NFC North Division championships and made one appearance in the 2006 Superbowl. The team cited, however, that they wanted to “close the talent gap” between themselves the Detroit Lions, and Green Bay Packers, who are contending for a Superbowl annually.
Also gone, after two years, is offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Martz’s formula for a great offense was complicated; relying heavily on timing and having specific personnel. His scheme was highly successful with the St. Louis Rams in the 1999 and 2001 but as defenses evolved in recent years, he failed to adjust.
With two major vacancies in the organization, the Bears searched within and outside of the organization before landing on their choices. Phil Emery was brought on as the Bears new general manager after spending time as the director of scouting since 2004 for the Atlanta Falcons and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Looking within the organization, Emery landed on offensive line coach Mike Tice as the man to replace Mike Martz. With Emery at the helm, considerable moves were made during the offseason to drastically change the team. Although Emery’s expertise is in scouting, he chose to address several of the Bears biggest needs through free agency and trades.
Not wanting to make the same mistake Jerry Angelo made, Emery signed veteran quarterback Jason Campbell to be a solid back-up plan behind Cutler. He also added depth at running back by signing Michael Bush. However, Emery’s biggest splash was trading two third-round picks to the Miami Dolphins for to reunite Jay Cutler with standout wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
The 2012 NFL Draft for the Bears was one that came with much questioning.
With the 19th pick in the first round, many thought the Bears would go with a defensive end to help with the pass rush opposite of Julius Peppers. Many others predicted the Bears would go with the best available player, a strategy the Bears have used often in the past, to select a possible offensive lineman.However, to the surprise of most experts they selected Shea McClellin.
The Boise State product was considered one of the best outside linebacker/ defensive end specialist in the crop projecting to be a 3-4 outside linebacker. However, the Bears play a 4-3 defense, leaving McClellin a bit out of position because of his size.
Used mostly as a defensive end during the preseason for the Bears, he showed some promise. However it will be interesting to see where he will fit in during the regular season once there is a full slate of 16 games.
In Lovie Smith’s ‘Cover-Two’ defense, along with its defensive tackles, the middle linebacker is the key to the scheme. The defense has seen a decade of success, and much of that is because of thirteenth-year middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.
Urlacher’s size and ability to drop back into coverage has made him one of the best players in the NFL since he was drafted in 2000. However, Urlacher suffered a significant knee injury in week 17 of 2011, a meaningless game for the Bears.
After having several procedures done on his knee during the offseason, Urlacher was ready to go during training camp. However his knee was reaggravated in the first week and he sat out the remainder of camp.
Urlacher has gone on the record saying his knee will never be the same as it once was, but he is expected to be ready for Week One against the Colts. With Nick Roach at middle linebacker the Bears are not the same type of defense and their effectiveness drops off quite a bit.
The Bears drafted safety Brandon Hardin in the third round of the draft to hopefully find a steady player at the position, however Hardin was put on season-ending IR after sustaining a severe neck injury in the preseason.
The Bears will undoubtedly have problems finding a regular set of starting safeties after having the same difficulties in the past couple years.
The core of the defense is not getting any younger with last years Pro-Bowlers Urlacher, Peppers, Briggs and Tillman all being in there 30’s. However, if Urlacher can stay somewhat healthy on a consistent basis, the Bears defense will be amongst the top-ten in the league yet again.
However, without a consistent push from the interior lineman, and without sustainable safety play, the Bears defense won’t find themselves amongst the elite. Expect the Bears to be ranked in the upper-half of the league on defense with Peppers being the defensive MVP getting nine or more sacks.
With Brandon Marshall joining the team, the Bears finally have a wide receiver with Pro-Bowl potential.
Marshall has the ability to be the Bears first receiver with 100 receptions since Marty Booker in 2001. He is also one of only five players in NFL history to have 100 catches in three consecutive seasons.
Rookie Alshon Jeffrey, once projected as a first-round pick but drafted in the third round, adds depth at wide receiver for the first time in as long as anyone can remember.
The Bears extended running back Matt Forte’s contract during training camp after a season where he was well on his way to an ‘Offensive Player of the Year’ type season before getting injured.
Forte’s numbers will diminish now that he is not in Martz’s offense, where running backs play an integral role, and because the Bears have a bona fide backup in Bush.However, a dip in stats doesn’t mean he is any less valuable.
With better toys around him, Jay Cutler and the Bears should have no problem outperforming last season’s offense. However, questions still remain with the offensive line, which has ranked at the bottom of the league the past couple seasons.
Other than Roberto Garza at center, during the season there could be any number of switches between positions on the line. Left tackle is J’Marcus Webb’s job to lose and his potential replacement Chris Williams has been a bust in the short stints he has played there.
With Gabe Carimi returning after injury hopefully the Bears line will improve from last season. As long as the line can protect Jay Cutler from injury, and perhaps be better than the bottom the three in the league, this Bears team should see a substantial jump in offense rank now that it has Marshall, Jeffrey and Bush.
Once the bottom feeder division of the NFL, the NFC North has three teams that should compete for spots in the playoffs.
With the additions of Marshall and Jeffrey the Bears hope that an improved air-attack will keep them in games against high-flying offenses like the Packers and Lions.
The Bears need Urlacher out on the field because when #54 isn’t playing, the Bears have an abysmal 7-15, record. If Urlacher can find the field on a consistent basis, the Bears defense should have no problem keeping them in games.
While the defense is aging, and may be on the downturn, don’t be surprised if they win the Bears a game or two. The Bears depth chart lists Devin Hester, who had a great training camp, as the No. 2 receiver, but I have a hunch that Jeffrey will find himself as the Bears second guy by midseason. If that is the case Hester will be able to concentrate more on what he does best, returning kicks.
I have the Bears finishing with an 11-5 record and in second place in the division behind the Green Bay Packers.
While the Lions seem to be an up-and-coming team, their defensive woes and injures will be a problem for them all year and will hinder them from finishing ahead of the Bears.
I predict the Bears will make the playoffs as a wildcard team, and will find themselves playing in Lambeau Field for the NFC Championship game.