The offseason in Chicago usually leaves fans cringing and complaining about what the team did (or didn’t do) to “get better”. This offseason, however, has set the Chicago Bears up to take a huge leap forward this season and for many to come.
Part 3: NFL Draft
At the heart of every successful franchise is a competent front office. You never hear of any team winning in spite of their general manager.
In less than two years, GM Phil Emery has transformed the Bears front office from a liability into a strong point. Gone are the days of Jerry Angelo’s questionable draft picks and unfulfilled promises; Emery has made a point of… well, making a point.
In year one, he clearly made the point that a wide receiving corps headlined by Devin Hester simply wasn’t going to cut it. Then, in a shocking twist of events seldom seen in Chicago sports (the Blackhawks are exempt from this statement), he actually addressed that need by performing the highway robbery known as the Brandon Marshall trade.
Hmmm… addressing a pressing need with a top-flight player in a timely fashion for a bargain price. Sounds more like something you’d see from the Bears in a “Madden NFL” video game than in real life, given their track record.
But with this offseason’s spectacular follow-up act to a strong start last year, Phil Emery has shown that that type of move will be the norm, not an aberration.
And these upgrades aren’t just limited to player personnel, either.
A few weeks and a couple dozen interviews after cutting ties with former head coach Lovie Smith, Emery was able to entirely remodel the coaching staff to give the Bears a better chance to success in today’s NFL.
I’m not saying a team can’t succeed while riding on the back of their defense, which the Bears have been doing for decades and will continue to do for the most part.
But consider this: during the nine years of Lovie’s tenure, he was only able to produce an offense that ranked in the top half of the NFL in yards per game just once; the Bears ranked 15th in YPG in 2006.
During those same nine seasons, only one team managed to win the Super Bowl while having their offense rank in the bottom half of the league. That was the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers, who also boasted the league’s #1 defense.
I can throw stats like this at you all day, but the bottom line is that you need an explosive offense in this league to succeed. The strong defensive culture in the Windy City isn’t going anywhere, but knowing there will be a strong emphasis on offense in the coming years in an added dimension that is long overdue.
Almost the entire coaching staff got replaced, but the key cog is obviously new head coach and noted quarterback guru Marc Trestman.
Trestman’s track record spans back to the 80’s. At nearly every NCAA, NFL, and Canadian Football League stop he has made, he’s been able to drastically improve the play of the quarterback he has had a handle on.
In three seasons as quarterbacks coach for the Oakland Raiders, he played a huge role in Rich Gannon’s success that included two trips to the Pro Bowl, an All Pro nod, and a MVP award in 2002. In the CFL, he tutored quarterback Anthony Calvillo to back-to-back MVP Awards in 2008 and 2009.
The hope is that he can sustain this type of success with Jay Cutler, who is in a make-or-break season with the Bears. This is the final year of his contract with the Bears, and patience has grown thin waiting for him to assume the role of “Franchise Quarterback” that we’ve been eagerly awaiting since 2009.
Trestman’s retooled offensive scheme will give Jay plenty of opportunities to show off his abilities, and when it comes to raw ability and skill, there is no denying he has a boatload of it. But his success hinges on two things: 1) staying upright, and 2) having other targets to throw to when Brandon Marshall is quintuple-teamed.
Don’t worry Jay, Phil’s got your back.
The two biggest free agent splashes this offseason went directly towards addressing those exact needs.
Left tackle Jermon Bushrod piled up a few Pro Bowl berths as Drew Brees’ blind-side protector in New Orleans’ record-breaking offense. He’ll be reunited with new Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, who was Bushrod’s line coach when he was a Saint.
Bushrod will help keep Cutler off the turf so that he’ll have time to find tight end Martellus Bennett down the field, which shouldn’t be all that hard to do.
Standing at 6’7”, Bennett will be a welcome sight in the red zone. He even has enough speed to split out wide to the slot and create mismatches in the secondary with decidedly smaller defensive backs.
Emery didn’t just bolster the offense thru free agency either, even though the Bears were seriously strapped for cash. With the departure and eventual retirement of legendary middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, a glaring hole opened up in the linebacking corps. That hole was promptly “filled” (maybe not in production, but in man power) by two low-priced vets with high ceilings.
D.J. Williams and James Anderson will both be entering their age 30 seasons this year with the Bears. They have nine and seven years of experience under their belt, respectively.
Williams is a former defensive co-captain of the Denver Broncos, who spent a first-round pick on him when he came out of the University of Miami in 2004. A few off the field issues (DUI and failed PED test) have clouded his reputation, but the raw talent is there in abundance.
While Anderson didn’t have as much fanfare coming into the league, he was a solid contributor for the Carolina Panthers and has wracked up 100+ tackles twice in his career.
Alongside incumbent starter Lance Briggs, Williams and Anderson will form a starting unit that’ll stack up not only with any other unit in the NFC North, but the entire NFC.
They’ll also help ease the transition to the NFL for rookie linebackers Jonathan Bostic and Khaseem Greene. Neither will be asked to step in and start to open the season, but we could very well see both players starting by season’s end.
Both players are cut from the same fabric, as in they’re both big-bodied playmakers, can impact the pass defense with their speed, and can play multiple positions. Their athleticism and versatility (there’re those words again) give them a great opportunity to impact the team in multiple ways.
The same can be said for offensive lineman Kyle Long, the key offensive addition in the draft. His raw athleticism, pedigree (his dad is Hall of Famer Howie Long), and ability to play multiple positions along the line overshadowed his relative inexperience during his time at Oregon University.
The Bears also brought in a few cap-friendly contracts in the form of offensive linemen Eben Britton, Matt Slauson, and Jonathan Scott to stem the tide while Long gets his legs underneath him.
Let’s face it: Phil Emery put the Bears in a pretty fantastic position (health permitting, of course) heading into this season and beyond. Now, it’s all down to execution.
Jay Cutler will get more time in the pocket thanks to quick dropbacks and a bolstered line, but all that extra time won’t mean anything if he continues to make bad decisions.
The departure of Brian Urlacher will not cause the defense to implode, but who’s going to step up to help fill his production?
The rookies will not be rushed into a starting role, but will they find their niche by the end of the year?
These are all questions to be answered on the field. From his cushy office space at Halas Hall, Phil Emery has already answered every question he possibly could.Follow paulmbanks