There will surely be moments this season where the Chicago Bears look like contenders — legit contenders. They will look this way because of their offense, which is loaded with top-tier talent at quarterback (Jay Cutler), tailback (Matt Forte) and wide receiver (Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery). In fact, the Bears may look their very best when they are behind and it’s time for Cutler and Co. to pass Chicago back into the game.
Assuming the 2014 Bears stay healthy on offense, they are going to have more than enough highlights for the annual NFL Films season-review video. But can the Bears do enough in the other phases to be a playoff team? Are they going to be a lamentable 8-8 or a you-don’t-want-to-face-them-in-January 10-6 or 11-5?
Here are five questions to weigh about these intriguing Bears:
1. Will Jay Cutler be named to the Pro Bowl for the second time in his career?
We hear you: The Pro Bowl doesn’t matter, you say. Look at some of the recent rosters — the game has lost luster being moved a week before the Super Bowl, which precludes players from the conference winners playing in the NFL’s all-star affair. And what’s the deal with the new captains system? Why not call it the “Rock N’ Jock Football Jam” and get it over with?
Well, in the case of Cutler, a Pro Bowl selection would be a big deal. And we’re talking about a selection right off the bat, not an addition to the roster because of injuries/defections at the position.
Here’s why this would be notable:
It means he played all or nearly all of a full season. Considering he’s missed at least five games in two out of the last three seasons, 16 Cutler starts would be a welcome development for Chicago.
It means the Bears’ offense likely would have met the high expectations set for the group entering this season. There haven’t been many, if any, Chicago offenses with this much talent. If Cutler shines, the Bears’ skill position players should stand out, too.
He would have beaten out several other capable quarterbacks along the way. Consider the NFC’s depth at the position: Aaron Rodgers. Drew Brees. Russell Wilson. Colin Kaepernick. Nick Foles. Tony Romo. Cam Newton. Matt Ryan. Matthew Stafford. Robert Griffin III. Eli Manning. If Cutler is one of the NFC’s top three initial selections at the position, he likely will have had a monster year.
2. Was the Bears’ preseason debacle at Seattle an aberration — or a chilling hint of where the club fits in the NFC’s pecking order?
In the third preseason game for both clubs last Friday, Seattle converted all seven third-down attempts in the first half, running out to a 31-0 halftime lead on Chicago. Yes, it was just an exhibition, but it was the most important of the preseason games — the closest to a real dress rehearsal. And under the somewhat-bright lights, Chicago wilted. At best, it’s a throw-out performance, one not to be taken at face value. At worst, it’s a loss that suggests Chicago’s ceiling isn’t at high at all.
3. Is Chicago’s defense materially better than a season ago?
It better be. The Bears’ run defense was the NFL’s worst a season ago — and the pass defense wasn’t much better, frankly. Chicago spent big in free agency to improve the defensive line, signing defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young. Then, in the draft, the club added secondary help in Round One, selecting Kyle Fuller.
The moves were a nod to the obvious — the Bears needed to get deeper and more talented on defense. If indeed the Bears have succeeded in this regard, it should show up early in matchups against the Bills (Week One) and Jets (Week Three) — clubs without much offensive punch.
4. Will the special teams be a weakness?
For years, the Bears’ special teams were a major strength, but entering 2014, they are, at best, a question mark outside of steady kicker Robbie Gould. The Bears’ coverage units are worth monitoring; Chicago really struggled in his regard at Seattle. The Bears also need a returner to emerge to replace Devin Hester. And Chicago is untested at punter and long-snapper, too.
5. Can the Bears survive their first nine games?
After beginning their season at home vs. the Bills on Sept. 7, the Bears then play 6-of-8 away from Soldier Field, with road trips to the 49ers (Sept. 14), Jets (Sept. 22), Panthers (Oct. 5), Falcons (Oct. 12), Patriots (Oct. 26) and Packers (Nov. 9). This will be a test of the Bears’ resolve and their readiness. They probably will have to shake off some adversity and perhaps steal a road game or two early to give themselves a chance to make the most of having five of their last seven at home. If the Bears are truly playoff contenders, they can emerge from these first nine games with a winning record. However, if they start slowly, it’s probably unreasonable to expect a strong stretch run.