Baseball's no fun from now until September, and we can only watch old NFL highlights on YouTube for so long before we need to start prognosticating on the '06-'07 NFL season. Fall can't come soon enough. In the meantime, here's the sixth of our 32 team previews for the upcoming season, the Chicago Bears.
TOM'S TAKE: Remember our Carolina preview, in which I stated that it was refreshing to see the Panthers actually make an effort to improve in the areas they needed improvement in, because it's strangely not something teams do? Case in point, the Chicago Bears.
The Bears of 2005 won the NFC North on the strength of a dominant defense, but in spite of a pitiful offense that had to see the above-depicted Kyle Orton take over play-calling duties, to ugly results, after Rex Grossman was knocked out for the year early last season. So, while retaining all 11 starters on defense, you'd think the Bears would have used free agency and the draft to bolster their offense. Instead, they were curiously quiet in free agency and went mostly defense in April's rookie selection.
After seeing Grossman go down in two consecutive seasons, the Bears were wise to sign Brian Griese to play a support role. Bears coaches are infatuated with Grossman's ability to read defenses and his NFL-ready skills, but hardly enough of him has been seen to consider him a legitimate starter. If his play isn't what is expected, or he gets hurt again, Griese will provide a stable presence. Whoever is under center has to make due with a unremarkable group of receivers. Muhsin Muhammad won a big payday with the Bears last offseason on the strength of a breakout (READ: contract) year with the Panthers, but looked incredibly pedestrian while catching 750 yards in his first year with Chicago. He's 33 now and that one great year with the Panthers seems like an aberration. Mark Bradley, a second-year receiver, looked like an emerging star last season before tearing his ACL. If he can bounce back, he might step into the go-to role Muhammad failed to grasp last year. This would help Grossman, who lacks a viable safety valve at tight end, where the Bears sport one of the league's worst units. The team will have to worry about appeasing Thomas Jones, who isn't happy with his salary after rushing for over 1,300 yards last year. They don't seem too concerned, with second-year back Cedric Benson and special teams standout Adrian Peterson able to split duties, but while Peterson's 5.1 ypc last year was impressive, Benson's another giant question mark.
The Bears spent a lot of money and effort this year into bolstering their secondary, spending their first two picks on Danieal Manning and Devin Hester, two cornerbacks, and signing restricted free agent nickleback (and nerd hater) Ricky Manning Jr. away from the Panthers. For this year, at least, the Bears defense should be among the top in the league, but dissention with the front office could lead to distraction this year and outright emmigration in 2007. Lance Briggs, Nathan Vasher, and Charles Tillman, three incredibly valuable pieces of the Bears defense, all feel insulted by the Bears lack of motivation in signing the group to new contracts, and as a result they could all be gone next year.
In order for the Bears to win 11 games last year, they needed perfect performances from their defense every week. With no obvious improvements on offense, they might need the same contributions. I'm not sure that the defense can play up to such a near-flawless level again this year. WIth another year of maturation for the Bears young three (Grossman, Bradley, Benson), the offense might be at least serviceable enough to win the division, but their are far too many uncertainties for me to feel comfortable with. The team has a history of spinning one great year between four awful ones, and I found them to be remarkably close to crashing back to Earth at points even last season. Each year there is a team that comes from nowhere (the Cardinals hardly count this year, they're the en vogue "sleeper" pick), and I think that team is Detroit, who'll shock an underwhelming NFC North, leaving the Bears alone in the cold Chicago winter, doing the Super Bowl Shuffle in front of the mirror in their sad, lonely mansions.
KYLE'S TAKE: I'll admit, I'm a Lovie Smith fan from his days as defensive coordinator in St Louis. And he's got the name Lovie. His name is Lovie and he's not a professional dancer at some dive joint in the Lower East Side. He's cool by me.
The city of Chicago is cool by him too. He's turned around a Bears team that was bad just a few years ago. He put in a nice defense that dominated teams. They have defensive player of the year in Brian Urlacher. Alex Brown was sick at defensive end. They have a good secondary with corner Charles Tillman, who had 93 tackles and five interceptions and Nathan Vasher, who set an NFL record for longest play with a missed field goal returned for 108 yards and a TD. He was also a Pro Bowler with eight picks. I've always loved the addage, "Defense wins Superbowls." And that's true.
However, Chicago proved last year that an excellent defense means nothing when there's no offense to speak of. I'll give them a good running game with Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson. Jones was ninth in the league with total yards (1335). Benson was injured most of the season, but when he was starting, often he was putting up nice averages. Adrian Peterson contributed as well.
But the quarterback situation sucked. Kyle Orton was a waste of time. He threw nine touchdowns in 15 games. Chicago was winning on the defense getting them good field position. Then, when Rex Grossman came back and didn't suck as bad, all the announcers were on his nuts. Anyone would look better than Kyle Orton, but the truth is Grossman's best rating was 68.4 against the Packers.
The Bears went out and picked up Brian Griese, who played last year for Tampa. He got hurt mid-year, but until then, he showed enough poise and made enough good plays to keep Tampa rolling. He'll be going to a similar team in Chicago and should fit in nicely. Unfortunately, the Bears have him behind Rex Grossman. Hopefully, personnel will figure out their mistake soon enough and start Griese, because they'd have a nice chance to challenge any NFC team. If Griese doesn't get to play or gets hurt, look for them to take an easy division (their only other threat is Detriot), but once again, get dominated in the playoffs. If the Bears can't get their offense running, they're going to relive last year and leave the city of Chicago disappointed in January once again.