2013 Team Preview: Chicago Bears

Chicago Bears (previously known as the Decatur Staleys and Chicago Staleys)

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  • 2012 Record: 10-6 (3rd in NFC North)
  • 2012 Point Differential: +98 (6th out of 32)
  • 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): +0.8 (13th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 4.52 (24th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 3.89 (1st)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 3.97 (31st)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 4.30 (3rd)

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 288.42 points

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 318.80 points

The thing Jay Cutler has perhaps proven best at during his Bears career, now entering its fifth season, is getting people fired. His disastrous initial 2009 season with the team, in which he threw 26 interceptions and was less effective than the quarterback the Bears traded to get him, got offensive coordinator Ron Turner fired the day after the season ended (although, to be fair, Ron really did deserve it). His sometimes prickly relationship with Mike Martz caused the team to not renew the former Greatest Show on Turf conductor’s contract following two up-and-down seasons in which Cutler occasionally played brilliantly, occasionally played horrendously and also occasionally got injured.

And in 2012, even after a 10-6 season in which the Bears defense arguably reached its highest point since the glory days of the ’80s, Lovie Smith got fired for his inability to ever get the Bears offense anywhere close to their defensive counterparts’ level. Offensive coordinator Mike Tice got his walking papers, too, bringing the tally of dismissed coaches during Cutler’s Bears career to one head coach, three offensive coordinators and three quarterbacks coaches. It’s not quite Jason Campbell-on-the-Redskins levels of instability, but it’s close.

Now, as Cutler enters the final year of a contract extension he signed back in his first year with the club, GM Phil Emery has hired the team’s first head coach with an offensive background since Mike Ditka to see if someone, anyone can work with Cutler and finally wring out all the potential that he possesses. And in order to find someone that Cutler hasn’t alienated at this point, all Emery needed to do was this: locate a coach who had been out of the NFL for the entire time Cutler’s been in the league and, preferably, lived in another country so the odds of a prior chance encounter with Cutler on the street would be diminished.

That last sentence is (kind of) a joke – Cutler seems like the prick with a heart of gold who’d been fun to hang out with in a large group of people. That Emery felt former Montreal Alouettes coach Marc Trestman – last seen in the NFL in 2004 trying to make A.J. Feeley look like a viable starting quarterback – was the best candidate available to salvage Cutler’s career speaks to the depths the Bears have scavenged through to find the right offensive fit for their mercurial quarterback. So far in Cutler’s tenure, the Bears have tried a fairly traditional West Coast offense under Turner, a mad scientist-on-crack’s version of the Air Coryell offense under Martz (who, to his credit, did scale some of the seven-step drops back once he realized he no longer had Orlando Pace as his left tackle) and…well, who knows what the hell Tice was trying to run – for now, we’ll call it the Stick in the Mud Offense.

Now with Trestman calling the plays this year, they’re back to a West Coast-based scheme. Trestman’s probably best known in the NFL for his work as offensive coordinator for the 49ers in 1995 and ’96 after Mike Shanahan left for Denver and in Oakland in 2002 when he was OC for the Raiders the year they got to the Super Bowl and Rich Gannon won MVP. Trestman had considerable amounts of success in those two locales because his quarterbacks, Gannon and Steve Young, were among the best ever at anticipating receivers and hitting them in stride on timing routes. His current quarterback, on the other hand, is lousy on both those counts.

Cutler has a lot of strengths and there are usually two or three games a season where he puts the Bears offense on his back and wills them into scoring outputs they have no business getting to. His arm strength is obviously well-known and that attribute allows him to fit passes into very tight windows – an extremely important function on a Bears offense that didn’t have any receiver that could consistently create separation last season. He’s also very mobile – another important attribute when your team’s offensive line’s quality usually ranges between “dog crap” at the high end and “horse crap” at the low end. When he’s completely locked in, he’s able to make legitimately awe-inspiring throws from all sorts of weird angles and body contortions (supporting examples here, here aaaaaannnnd here). At those times, Smokin’ Jay seems like a bad ass and not someone likely to develop lung cancer in twenty years.

Of course, Cutler also has a bunch of glaring weaknesses; if he didn’t, Lovie Smith would still be liking his football team and would still have a lotta football left to play. Cutler’s prone to bouts of inaccuracy and generally holds onto the ball too long, especially on an offense with a line as bad as his. Even on his good days, he’ll throw one or two completely baffling throws straight into the teeth of a defense – you just have to hope the defense drops those interceptions and you can live another day.

Perhaps his biggest failing, however, comes in the area where Trestman’s system demands greatness: timing and anticipation. Cutler generally needs to see a receiver open before committing to throwing the ball; if he doesn’t see one open, he’ll dance around in the pocket until he sees a receiver in a one-on-one matchup and subsequently lobs out a freelancing throw that places the onus on the receiver to come up with a completion. This is a particularly bad tactic when none of your receivers save for one are capable of consistently making routine plays, let along spectacular ones.

In Cutler’s dream world, though, every other player on his offense is just as supremely gifted as he is and no plays are ever called ahead of time. Instead, Cutler just drops back and steps to the side of a rushing defensive tackle to improvise a 45-yard throw across his body to a Calvin Johnson or Demaryius Thomas-type. There’s no need for slavishly analyzing the minute details of a defense or spending thousands of hours in the spring developing consistent throwing mechanics. Instead, the NFL is a glorified sandlot and the biggest, strongest and fastest kids all choose to be on Cutler’s team – because in the sandlot NFL, making memorable plays and showing off superior athleticism is just as important as actually winning games.

Until that dream world becomes a reality, however, Cutler will be stuck in the real world: a place where he is one of the least precise quarterbacks in the NFL playing in a system that demands precision. Maybe Trestman really will be the coach who unlocks all the cheat codes rattling around in Cutler’s video game console and 2013 really will be the year where Smokin’ Jay turns from Pro Bowl talent and sometime Chicago folk hero to Pro Bowl quarterback and Chicago icon. There’s four seasons of evidence, however, to suggest that transformation is never coming.

And so the Bears seem likely to waste another of the twilight years their great defense has left and finish a disappointing third yet again to Green Bay and whichever one of Detroit and Minnesota wants to be above .500 this year. It’s in this way that Emery’s firing of Lovie Smith seems most odd: the Bears will likely suffer through some growing pains transitioning to their first new coaching staff in ten years…and yet the current core’s days seem very much numbered. Why not just run Smith back for one more year with that defense and completely clean house if they miss the playoffs again in ’13? Apparently, Emery still holds out hope that Jay Cutler can be salvaged. Optimism may be an admirable trait and a breakout season from Cutler would be a sweet, sweet victory for Bears optimists everywhere who have been waiting for a true franchise quarterback since World War II. Unfortunately for those fans, more often than not realism is a better predictor than optimism.

Offense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Scored
4.33031 -1.65 0.994554 +0.062585 288.4179

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: TE Kellen Davis, G Lance Louis, G Gabe Carimi, G Chilo Rachal, C Chris Spencer

2013 notable offseason additions: TE Martellus Bennett, T Jermon Bushrod, G Kyle Long, G Matt Slauson, G Eben Britton

It’s terrifying to think how low the Bears offense would have fallen without Brandon Marshall last year. He caught 118 passes (second-place on the team: Matt Forte, with 44) and, even with 192 targets and no other viable receiver around him for most of the season, still managed 7.9 yards per target (the Bears as a team averaged 6.8 yards per attempt). He was everything the Bears wanted him to be in his first season coming over from Miami and it’s a good thing he was, too, because the supporting cast around him fell apart. Earl Bennett, very effective the two years prior as the Ricky Proehl-type receiver in Martz’s offense, demonstrated an acute inability to get open in Tice’s new system when he wasn’t injured; Alshon Jeffery showed above-average speed for a 6’5″ receiver early in the year, but was mostly invisible after breaking his hand in October; and Devin Hester performed so well at receiver that the new regime is having focus solely on returning in 2013. Don’t even bother asking about Kellen Davis. The Bears signed Martellus Bennett to fill the giant, gaping hole at tight end that’s existed since Greg Olsen’s trade, but otherwise the same general group of receivers is back for 2013. Which, you know, crap…The Bears had more turnover on their much-maligned offensive line in the offseason, letting last year’s top lineman (for what that’s worth) Lance Louis sign with the Dolphins and replacing him with Matt Slauson and first-round pick Long. The J’Marcus Webb Experiment at left tackle also appears over, as the Bears signed former Drew Brees blindside protector Jermon Bushrod to take over at that spot and shift Webb over to right tackle, where he hopefully won’t be the equivalent of pouring gasoline on a raging tire fire. Long has incredible physical gifts but is raw and Bushrod got tight end help on passing plays way more than you would expect an elite left tackle to receive when he was in New Orleans. Bottom line: three-step drops might still be your best pass protection this year, Jay…

Defense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Allowed
4.042608 2.6875 1.005446 +1.861272 318.7998

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: DE Israel Idonije, DT Matt Toeaina, ILB Brian Urlacher, OLB Nick Roach, OLB Geno Hayes, CB D.J. Moore

2013 notable offseason additions: DE Jamaal Anderson, DT Sedrick Ellis, ILB D.J. Williams, ILB Jon Bostic, OLB James Anderson, OLB Khaseem Greene

The Bears had the top-ranked defense in the league in 2012, according to Predictive Yards per Play and if you look at other defensive metrics that value turnovers more highly, the distance between them and whoever comes in second becomes gargantuan. There was a fair amount of turnover in the offseason, however, starting of course with the decision not to offer Urlacher a contract and Urlacher’s eventual retirement. The former Bronco Williams will get the first crack at replacing the likely future Hall of Famer, but second-round pick Bostic is being groomed as the long-term replacement. Aside from that, the Bears lost a fair amount of depth at linebacker and on the defensive line that could turn into a major problem should Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and/or Henry Melton miss time with injuries…Former Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker replaces the highly-regarded Rod Marinelli, who left to work under his old boss, Monte Kiffin, in Dallas after Smith’s ouster. Tucker likes running the Cover-2 even more than Smith and Marinelli did by the end of their tenure, so the transition period should be relatively smooth for the veteran defense. The main thing Tucker will have to get ironed out with his defense is deciding how often to play straight-up Cover 2 (which is essentially the only coverage his secondaries played in Jacksonville) in comparison to Cover-1 or Cover-3 techniques (which were coverages the Bears were running as often, if not more often, than Cover-2 in the last few years of Smith’s stay)…And, finally, one last time: Peanut Tillman Ball Punch.

Special Teams/Schedule/Miscellaneous

1 September 8 Cincinnati Bengals
2 September 15 Minnesota Vikings
3 September 22 @ Pittsburgh Steelers
4 September 29 @ Detroit Lions
5 October 6 New Orleans Saints
6 October 10 New York Giants
7 October 20 @ Washington Redskins
8 Bye Week
9 November 4 @ Green Bay Packers
10 November 10 Detroit Lions
11 November 17 Baltimore Ravens
12 November 24 @ St. Louis Rams
13 December 1 @ Minnesota Vikings
14 December 9 Dallas Cowboys
15 December 15 @ Cleveland Browns
16 December 22 @ Philadelphia Eagles
17 December 29 Green Bay Packers

2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: +1.92 points per game harder than average (3rd-toughest)

The Bears’ special teams were merely good last year, which is a solid C- by their usual standards and Smith’s departure also meant the exit of highly regarded special teams coach Dave Toub, who now holds the same position under Andy Reid’s new regime in Kansas City. 25-year veteran coach Joe DeCamillis comes over from Dallas to fill Toub’s void on the Bears and his main charge will be returning Hester to his 2010-11 form (or, if we’re getting a little starry-eyed, his 2006-07 form). Hester will solely focus on special teams this year, which is all good in the hood – the next bubble screen the Bears throw to Hester to “get him in the open field” on offense will be too soon…Robbie Gould missed the end of last season with a ruptured tendon in his leg that required surgery in the offseason. How that injury affects one of the best kickers in the league will be one of the more important things to watch this summer for the Bears…Predictive Yards per Play considers the slate of offenses the Bears’ defense will face this year to be the toughest any defense will face and only Minnesota and Washington rated out as having harder schedules overall. Take any preseason strength of schedule ranking with some heavy grains of salt – last August, Denver was considered to have one of the toughest schedules in the league and wound up with one of the easiest – but certainly on paper the Bears look like they’re going to face a lot of good quarterbacks in 2013 – the one in Wisconsin they’re always stuck facing twice a year being foremost among them.

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 7.2 wins (3rd in NFC North)

Trestman becomes merely the latest coach to not wring stardom out of Cutler and the Bears defense can’t fully make up for their offense’s shortcomings against one of the toughest schedules in the league.

2013 Subjective Prediction: 7-9 (3rd in NFC North)

Another mediocre year from Cutler leads to his departure in the offseason and the beginning of a wholesale rebuilding project in Chicago.

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