Until Jay Cutler got hurt last year, the Bears appeared to be heading to the playoffs. They were 7-3, playing very well on both sides of the ball, and looking like a wild card team that could make some noise in January. Then Cutler went down, running back Matt Forte got hurt as well, and the offense simply couldn’t do anything as the Bears stumbled home to an 8-8 finish.
That .500 record made 2011 a disappointment in Chicago, but it also gives some hope for 2012: If the Bears get good luck on injuries where they got bad luck last year, and if Cutler finds a new rapport with his old Broncos teammate Brandon Marshall, there’s every reason to believe that the Bears will play like a playoff team for a full season this year.
The Jay Cutler-Brandon Marshall combination has the potential to make the passing offense one of the real strengths of the Bears. Before he got hurt last year Cutler was off to a solid start with 2,319 passing yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions, and that was in an offense that lacked a real No. 1 receiver. Now he has been reunited with his favorite receiver from his Denver days. With Matt Forte signed, the Bears also have one of the best pass-catching running backs in the NFL, not to mention a good ball carrier who has a good backup in Michael Bush behind him.
Chicago’s defensive front seven has three elite talents in Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, and the only concern there is that all three of them are older than 30. Sometimes a defense with a core group on the wrong side of 30 gets old in a hurry, but as long as Urlacher is fully recovered from the sprained MCL and PCL he suffered in Week 17, the Bears’ defensive front should be strong again. In fact, if rookie Shea McClellin, a defensive end/outside linebacker from Boise State, is ready to make an impact immediately, the Bears’ defensive front could be even better.
Special teams are a huge strength for the Bears. Devin Hester is probably the best return man in NFL history, and he was outstanding again last year, leading the league in punt returns with a 16.2-yard average and scoring three touchdowns, two returning punts and one returning a kickoff. But it goes beyond Hester. Free agent signing Eric Weems is an outstanding special teams player who can fill in on kickoff returns if the Bears decide they don’t want to spread Hester too thin. Kicker Robbie Gould had another very strong season, making 28 of his 32 field goal attempts and going 6-for-6 from beyond 50 yards. Adam Podlesh gets great hang time on his punts, and the Bears have strong coverage units. Special teams don’t get much better than they have in Chicago.
The offensive line is a concern in Chicago, especially because of the importance of keeping Cutler upright. The Bears desperately need either last year’s first-round pick Gabe Carimi or 2008 first-round pick Chris Williams (or preferably both) to emerge as the kind of consistent starter former G.M. Jerry Angelo thought they would be when he drafted them.
The Bears’ secondary — made up of starting cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings and starting safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte — can be picked apart, although that’s often hidden by the front four bringing pressure, and by the fact that Chicago’s linebackers are good in coverage. The Bears drafted three defensive backs — safety Brandon Hardin in the third round, cornerback Isaiah Frey in the sixth round and cornerback Greg McCoy in the seventh round — and would love to see them develop well enough to improve the depth in the secondary.
It’s not often that we start talking about offseason improvements by mentioning the signing of a second-stringer, but acquiring backup quarterback Jason Campbell was a significant move for the Bears. Last year, a competent backup quarterback behind Jay Cutler might have had the Bears in the playoffs. Unfortunately, the Bears had Caleb Hanie at No. 2 on the quarterback depth chart, and he fell far short of competent. This year, the Bears have a solid backup in Campbell, who has started 70 games in his career, has an 82.8 passer rating and can step in and play well when called upon.
Brandon Marshall’s arrival could make a major difference in the passing game, and so could the departure of Mike Martz, the offensive coordinator for the last two seasons, and the promotion of Mike Tice to replace Martz. Tice has made some strategic changes aimed at getting the ball out faster — including the elimination of seven-step drops — but giving Cutler a go-to receiver was by far the biggest change the Bears made.
J’Marcus Webb is penciled in as the starter at left tackle, although it would be good news in Chicago if Chris Williams could demonstrate in camp that he’s worthy of the most important job on the offensive line. Injuries have plagued Williams since the Bears drafted him with the 14th overall pick in 2008, but if he’s healthy this could finally be the year that he becomes the starting left tackle the Bears have wanted him to be for four years.
Israel Idonije started all 16 games last season at left defensive end, but this year he’ll have competition from first-round draft pick Shea McClellin, who if he doesn’t earn a starting spot is expected to get plenty of playing time as a situational pass rusher. Third-year player Corey Wootton is also expected to compete for more playing time, although probably not a starting job.
Bears coach Lovie Smith needs to get back to the playoffs, where he’s taken the Bears only once in his last five seasons. After they missed the postseason last year it was General Manager Jerry Angelo who lost his job. If they make it five out of six seasons outside the playoffs this year, it could be Smith who loses his job.
But Smith will probably keep his job because the Bears will probably be in the playoffs. If the Bears are as good a team in 2012 as they were in 2011 — only this time they don’t have to go six games with a CFL-quality quarterback — then they should have a winning record. And with a big-time playmaker in Brandon Marshall now added to the offense, there’s a real chance that the Bears will be better in 2012 than they were in 2011.
Beating out the Packers in the NFC North would be a tall order, but the Bears appear poised to earn a wild card berth. This has the look of a playoff team.