31 Days, 31 Teams: Chicago Bears
By Jeff Falconio
In the NFC North the tiniest ripple of change could mean the difference between first place and third place. Back in April the Chicago Bears didn't make a ripple but a whole splash when they traded quarterback Kyle Orton to Denver for Jay Cutler. The Bears finished 9-7 last year but missed the playoffs and now with Cutler in the mix the Bears are looking to improve in 2009.
Cutler comes off a Pro Bowl year but moves from an aggressive, high-scoring offense to a more conservative team that loves to establish the run. Running back Matt Forte gained 1,238 yards on the ground and was the team's leading pass catcher. While more can be expected from Forte in his second year it's clear the Bears will need more production from others. Greg Olson and Desmond Clark form a very good tight end combo but the Bears need a leap of faith in their core of wide receivers. The number one receiver will be Devin Hester but he only caught 51 passes for 665 yards. The Bears will also need Earl Bennett and Rashied Davis to make more plays. To be sure the Bears should see a bump in production with Cutler but these are not nearly the caliber of weapons Cutler is used to.
Chicago finished 21st in total defense and lost a pair of crucial games down the stretch due to defensive breakdowns. While the Bears were decent against the run they got ripped apart through the air. Chicago released veteran Mike Brown and replaced him with Josh Bullocks in the secondary but more importantly head coach Lovie Smith will take over defensive playcalling duties. Without a stronger defensive effort it's not likely the Bears will win the North despite the presence of Cutler.
Burning Question: Who is Jay Cutler? Cutler put up big numbers in Denver but had the luxury of throwing it to Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal. Chicago doesn't come close to a receiver like Marshall. So the question for the Bears is did Cutler make Denver's receivers better or did Denver's receivers make Cutler better? The real Jay Cutler will be revealed by the end of the season.
The Bears will be better than last year if: Forte elevates his game to become one of the best running backs in the league with more than 1300 rushing yards. Hester, Bennett and company prove they are for real and doing so opens up Chicago's offense. With Cutler's arm and Forte's feet the Bears become legitimate on offense. Defensively the Bears return to form with their usual stinginess against the run. However with Smith, who made his name with the Tampa 2 defense, overseeing the secondary Chicago tightens up against the pass and ranks in the top 10 in scoring and total defense. If this happens the Bears can win the North.
The Bears will be worse than last year if: Cutler doesn't come close to his Denver days as Chicago's lack of a real receiving threat is exposed. Teams then focus squarely on Forte who has trouble piling up yards. Meanwhile the Bears show no improvement defensively as the veteran unit begins to show their age. Facing quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Kurt Warner becomes a tall order and the Bears finish third in the North and below .500.