It is rare for any head coach to take his team to the Super Bowl, let alone a first-year coach. The Bears were playoff contenders almost every year under Lovie Smith, but they were only able to reach the Super Bowl once, losing to the Indianapolis Colts. New coach Marc Trestman inherits a 10-6 team that fell just short of the playoffs, and fans will look for him to return the team to the playoffs as soon as possible.
Fans and experts agree that the Bears could find themselves in the playoffs this season, but the road will be tough. Very few consider them early Super Bowl contenders, but a strong showing in the regular season could sway many opinions. Every team has Super Bowl aspirations before the season starts, but only a handful end up getting close. It takes a lot to get to that far, and nearly everything has to go right. Still, every year, two teams get there, and it’s rarely the same teams from year to year.
The Bears have a long way to go before they’re Super Bowl contenders, but it isn’t completely out of the question. There are a number of things the team has to do to get there, but here are some of the more important ones:
Maintain Defensive Excellence.
The Bears defense in 2012 was arguably the best performance we’ve seen on that side of the ball in Chicago since 1985. Usually, casual fans consider defense to be boring, but last year, it was fun to watch. Tim Jennings led the league in interceptions; Charles Tillman led the league in forced fumbles. Even a 34-year old Brian Urlacher was able to return an interception for a touchdown. Opposing offenses were genuinely scared of that defense.
Now, Lovie Smith is gone, Rod Marinelli is gone, and the team has taken a massive philosophy shift to the offensive end. Many have questioned whether new Defensive Coordinator Mel Tucker can emulate the success of last year. Tucker comes from Jacksonville where his defenses were less than impressive, furthering fans’ doubts about the defense this season. He’s known for more basic, “vanilla” defensive sets but also his versatility. The former, however, is a misconception.
In Jacksonville, Tucker did tend to use more vanilla defensive sets, but the situation restricted his creativity. His defensive personnel in Jacksonville were awful, and thus he wasn’t able to use complex schemes because the players he had to work with weren’t good enough to run them. In addition, his team’s offense was even worse, putting more pressure on a defense that was already struggling.
In Chicago, Tucker now has the personnel to get creative, and so far, he’s been taking advantage. Word out of mini-camp is that he has been unleashing a plethora of defensive line combinations, experimenting with moving Henry Melton to defensive end and rotating Shea McClellin and Corey Wootton inside to defensive tackle. He has also been having McClellin and others in stand-up position, similar to a 3-4 defensive scheme look.
Tucker’s history of flexibility is mixing with his creativity, and it is showing flashes of brilliance, especially with the defensive line. It is important to keep in mind that when he came in, he stated his desire to keep things relatively the same as last season, even keeping the same terminology that was in place from Lovie Smith’s tenure. All of this bodes well for defensive success in 2013.
Reawaken the old Devin Hester.
Devin Hester’s first and second seasons, 2006 and 2007, were two of the most magical seasons in NFL history, racking up 11 return touchdowns combined. He is the record-holder for return touchdowns, and each one was just as thrilling as the others.
Following those two spectacular seasons, he was unable to return one for a touchdown during his next two seasons. Then he appeared to find his “mojo” in the 2010 season, with three punt return touchdowns. He seemed to continue it the following year with two punt return touchdowns and one kick return touchdown, but last season he was unable to find the end zone, and he really just looked like a different guy out there.
Many have questioned whether Hester’s offensive involvement has hindered his special teams production, and general manager Phil Emery looks to answer it by completely removing Hester from offense, so all of his focus will be on special teams. He’s hoping that by removing offensive distractions, Hester will be able to find himself and score some return touchdowns. He doesn’t even necessarily need to score a touchdown, but the threat of him taking a kick all the way back makes teams kick away from him, giving the Bears much better field position. This is known as the Devin Hester effect.
The Devin Hester effect is exactly what the Bears’ new offense needs. It’s much easier to operate offensively with good field position so the team isn’t backed up to the end-zone, as was the case numerous times last season. In fact, the Bears were 30th in average starting field position in 2012, a number that needs to come up to facilitate offensive success.
Finally Protect Jay Cutler.
It has been the same story every season since the Bears acquired Cutler – the offensive line is garbage and Cutler is constantly on the ground. Since his acquisition, he has been sacked more times than any other quarterback during that span. It simply has to stop. In his first offseason as general manager, Emery did very little to improve the offensive line, and it showed during the season, with the group allowing 44 sacks.
Emery wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. This offseason he hired an offensive-minded head coach, Trestman, who brought an offensive line coach, Aaron Kromer, with him to be offensive coordinator. The key here is Trestman’s offensive system, which focuses on keeping the quarterback safe with quick passes. Even if the offensive line does struggle, hopefully Cutler will be getting the ball out quickly enough to avoid a sack and still be able execute offensively.
But coaching isn’t the only thing that makes an offensive line good; strong personnel are needed too. Continuing with his theme, Emery signed left tackle Jermon Bushrod to a long-term deal, early in free agency. Bushrod’s signing moved tackle J’Marcus Webb back to right tackle, his natural position, killing two birds with one stone. He later signed guard Matt Slauson, and then he used a first round pick on guard Kyle Long and a fifth round pick on tackle Jordan Mills, further showing his dedication to fixing the offensive line.
It will take time for all of the new pieces to gel, but once they do, this offensive line should prove to be a much improved group compared to years past. Cutler should now have enough time to make his reads and get his throws off comfortably. Plus, an improved offensive line makes the running game better as well, lessening the burden on Cutler even more. All-in-all, things are looking up for this group.
Overcome the growing pains.
Trestman and Kromer’s offense will be the fourth one Cutler has had to learn since joining the Bears. That’s never good for a quarterback, especially one like Cutler, who always faces scrutiny from the media. With Trestman and Co. here for the long term, Cutler should have some continuity for at least a few seasons.
Cutler recently said it takes three years to master an offensive system, so it will be awhile before the offense starts clicking. This lack of experience in the system will lead to mistakes early on. There will be miscommunications and occasional trouble getting the play in. These issues are generally called growing pains because the offense is still growing and will struggle until it is mastered.
It is crucial for the Bears to overcome these growing pains. They need to learn the offense quickly or they’re going to lose some football games. In his first games under the Bears last three new offensive coordinators, Cutler was 2-1, with the only loss coming to the Green Bay Packers in Cutler’s first ever game in a Bears uniform. However, this year he faces stiff competition in his first game against the Cincinnati Bengals, a team who won the AFC North last season.
Still, growing pains aren’t the end of the world. Most teams experience them when installing a new system; they’re bound to happen. The hope is that they won’t be to detrimental and the team can still overcome them and win ball games. In every season with a new offensive coordinator on the Bears, Cutler has started 3-1, so he’s shown the ability to fight through growing pains. Here’s hoping he can do the same this season.
Take the pressure off of Brandon Marshall.
Brandon Marshall has always been Cutler’s favorite target, from their time in Denver to their reunion last season. Marshall’s three best seasons have come with Cutler at quarterback, and the two have great chemistry. It’s fantastic that Cutler and Marshall have been so successful together, but the Bears need to provide Cutler other weapons to prevent defenses from focusing all of their attention on Marshall.
Last season, no other Bears receiver was able to make much of an impact. Number two receiver Alshon Jeffery had three touchdowns, but injuries prevented him from being much of a factor. The Bears need him to stay healthy and make strides in his game in order for the offense to thrive. If he can step up, he will force defenses to cover him more closely, opening up space for other receivers.
This player is Martellus Bennett, whom the Bears signed on the first day of free agency. He is a dynamic, playmaking tight end who is a strong blocker with great hands and will open up the field for the receivers. He will likely run routes in the middle of the field, forcing opposing safeties to stay near him, diverting attention away from the wide receivers on the outside.
The concern with Bennett, however, is his lack of sustained production. He had a very good, breakout season with the Giants last season, but prior to that, he had shown very little. The Bears signed him to a four-year deal and are hoping last season wasn’t a fluke. If he can perform like he did last year, opposing defenses will be forced to pay attention to him, lessening the coverage on Marshall and the other wide receivers, giving Cutler more options.
If the Bears can get production from pass-catchers not named Marshall, the passing-game should be able to flourish. Cutler will have three or four strong options to throw to, and one of them is bound to be open on almost every play. The offense’s potential is immense.
Every team should always have its eyes set on the Super Bowl, especially the Bears. For some teams, the road to the big game looks insurmountable; for others it is manageable, but still difficult. The Bears fall somewhere in between. If everything falls into place, with a little luck, the Bears could content for a Super Bowl in 2013. It may seem like a long shot to some, but in today’s NFL, you never know what could happen. Plus, a fan can dream, can’t he?