State of the Franchise: Chicago Bears
March 2, 2011 Leave a comment
Like every other team in the NFL this upcoming season, the biggest hurdle to be cleared is the Collective Bargaining Agreement. But, again, let’s examine this ball club by separating them from the true league-wide issue at hand.
In 2010, the Bears had a resurgence under head coach Lovie Smith and new offensive coordinator Mike Martz. The team got off to a hot start, then after a brief two-game skid at the end of October, caught fire for the remainder of the season, ending in an 11-5 record. It would mark the first time since 2006 that the Bears won the NFC North outright, and the team secured the second overall seed in the NFC Playoffs.
The team defeated the Seattle Seahawks in the second round, but fell to the Green Bay Packers in the Conference Finals in a game that would remembered more for Jay Cutler’s knee injury then the final score. After a twitter explosion that had notable players from around the league criticizing Cutler for not playing through the pain, the Bears players rallied around their beleaguered quarterback and blamed those on the outside looking in for not fully understanding the severity of the injury.
Moving forward from that, the Bears have specific areas to improve this roster and get over the hump next season. First and foremost, the team re-upped head coach Lovie Smith, who was on the hot seat before have a resurrection this year, to a two-year contract extension and elected to retain offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who guided Cutler to a rebound season in 2010.
Now more than ever, the team feels confident in the direction Cutler is heading in. After his first season in Chicago in which he through a league-high 26 interceptions, Cutler limited his picks to 16 while connecting for 23 touchdowns in an offense that lacked a true number-one receiving option. Cutler’s passer-rating also rose from 76.8 to 86.3. By the end of the year, wide receiver Johnny Knox had become Cutler’s favorite target, grabbing 51 receptions for 960 yards, both team highs. Tight-end Greg Olsen established himself as a dangerous red zone receiving threat, pulling in five touchdowns, which tied him with Knox for the team lead.
Running back Matt Forte had a bounce-back season as well. Forte suffered a sophomore slump in 2009, rushing for only 3.6 yards-per-carry and held to only 929 yards on the ground. With the offensive guru Martz now coordinating the offense, Forte found his niche with the club in 2010. He got his yards-per-carry average up to a career-high 4.5 and rushed for 1,069 yards plus six touchdowns. More impressively, Forte picked up his performance in the receiving game out of the backfield. He grabbed 51 receptions for a career-best 547 yards and three touchdowns.
Defensively, an area that the Bears have historically been strong, lived up to their own expectations. The unit was second in the league against the run, holding opponents to 90.1 yards per game on the ground. As he has throughout his career, linebacker Brian Urlacher led the way defensively with a team-leading 125 tackles and a team-best 10 tackles for a loss, including four sacks. Off-season acquisition defensive end Julius Peppers provided the pop on the line the Bears were hoping for, leading the team in sacks with eight and led all down-lineman for the Bears with 54 total tackles.
In the secondary, the Bears weren’t as strong as they were hoping to be. They ranked 20th in the league in opposing passing, allowing a pedestrian 224.3 yards-per-game. What strong play the team did receive from the secondary came from cornerback Charles Tillman, who led all secondary players in tackles (82), defended passes (14) and tied for the team lead in interceptions (five).
Heading into next season, the Bears have two specific holes the team would love to fill either through the draft or free agency.
The first, this team needs to find a reliable wide receiver that can be paired with Johnny Knox along the wings and take some of the load off of Knox and Greg Olsen. While improving his efficiency this past season, Cutler also threw for a career-low 3,274 yards. With the talents that Cutler possesses, it is imperative for the Bears to give him the pieces to get back to the level he once was at with the Denver Broncos in 2008, a year in which he threw for 4,526 yards and 25 touchdowns. That year, Cutler had receiver Brandon Marshall at his disposal, by all means a true number one wideout in the NFL. The Bears must find someone with similar talents that can carry the load for the offense through the air.
Second, the Bears must shore up their team secondary. It appears that safety Danieal Manning is on his way out of Chicago after he rejected the Bears extension offer and stated his desire to test the free agent market this summer. That leaves the Bears with cornerback Charles Tillman, 30, and safety Chris Harris, 28, as the only proven assets in the secondary. Tim Jennings had a promising season lining up on the opposite side of the field from Tillman, but at only 5’8″, Jennings is considered small at the cornerback position. The Bears need to inject youth into this unit, and need to plug some holes. The Bears have the run defense on lockdown with their strong defensive front seven. But, in order to compete in the NFC, especially with the pass-heavy Green Bay Packers, the Bears will need younger, talented legs matching up along the wings.
Lastly, with the release of three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommie Harris (which we covered more extensively earlier this week), the Bears will look to add depth at the defensive line position through the draft. The team has a talented unit already under contract at each defensive line position, but the team has stated that they would like to add some youth across the board. It wouldn’t surprise many to see the Bears take a lineman in one of the first three rounds of the NFL Draft in April.
To summarize, the Bears are in a promising position. They feel confident in both Jay Cutler and Matt Forte to continue to develop and morph their games under guru Mike Martz. Lovie Smith has finally removed himself from the hot seat with a great 2010 season and looks to build off that success for a more sustainable run at the helm.
However, while the Bears won the NFC North, it was division rival Green Bay Packers walking away with the Vince Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season. There’s work to be done if the Bears fancy themselves on the level of the Packers.