Chicago Bears: 2013 Four Downs
Our panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: Five years later, the Broncos are the winner of the Jay Cutler trade.
Johnny Knox) and quarterback Kyle Orton to obtain him. In that same five-year span, the Broncos have gone to the playoffs three times (Tim Tebow has been to the postseason as many times as Cutler) and are poised to win their first Super Bowl championship since the late 1990s on Sunday. I won't even bore you with the details that Denver eventually parlayed some of those picks from the Bears into wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. You know why? Because I don't need to. Success in the NFL is measured in playoff appearances and Super Bowl championships. Cutler supporters will view this as a shot at the quarterback. It's really not. I deal in reality. When a team surrenders two first-round draft picks, a third-rounder and its starting quarterback (Orton) to acquire a supposed franchise quarterback and then reaches the postseason just one time in the five years after the deal from a team that ends up reaching the playoffs three times and playing in a Super Bowl over the exact same time period, the winner is obvious: the second team. Spin it any way you want, the Broncos crushed the Bears on that trade five years ago.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. The Bears traded picks for a franchise quarterback, and that is what they have in Cutler. It hasn't been easy, but after a few stops and starts, it looks like Cutler is finally poised to live up to the expectations brought about with that trade. If he had been traded to a team with big receivers and an offensive-minded coaching staff, this wouldn't even be a question. It's a testament to the Broncos that they wisely used the picks to get Super Bowl contributors in Robert Ayers and (through trades) Thomas and Decker. When you trade a star to get draft picks, that's how it should work, a win-win for both sides. But the real key, of course, is Peyton Manning being available. Otherwise, this isn't even a debate.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears should pursue Martellus Bennett's brother Michael in free agency.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. But the problem is money. Can the Bears afford both Bennetts? Though Chicago will almost certainly have to reconfigure contracts to make more salary room, it's easy to believe that Michael Bennett will command more than the Bears can offer. And he just might want to stay in Seattle, which is in, you know, the Super Bowl. As Martellus told reporters this week in New York, his brother's best friend is going to be Benjamin Franklin, because he wants to get paid. Still, the Bears have to pursue him.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears should use all of their draft picks on defensive players.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. It's never a smart idea to enter a draft fixated on a single player or side of the ball, except of course if a team holds a top-five pick in the first round. Fixing the defense is clearly the Bears' No. 1 priority in the offseason, but general manager Phil Emery should not hesitate to devote a mid-round or later-round selection to improving the offense, if that player is hands down the best available talent on the board at that stage of the draft, and the Bears believe he can help them in 2014. Don't forget, the Bears still need another tight end to complement Martellus Bennett, and they could also be in the market for a starting center if veteran Roberto Garza finds a better offer on the open market and departs via free agency. Wide receivers and young backup quarterbacks are always considered commodities in the NFL. Eventually, the Bears will need a young quarterback on the depth chart to replace Josh McCown, or even Cutler in the future. Brandon Marshall is in the final year of his contract, and while the Bears could re-sign him or turn to 2013 seventh-rounder Marquess Wilson in the immediate future at the position, if a dynamic pass-catcher is available in the later rounds, take him. Good organizations usually share a common theme: They are flexible on draft weekend. While the Bears are likely to use some of their early picks on defense, it's best to keep an open mind when the draft reaches its later stages.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. You can't solve an immediate problem like the Bears' defense with a bunch of rookies. The Bears should look to address depth on the defensive line (cheaper than a premier free agent) and add a young safety in the first two rounds, and after that it's all about best player available and creating depth across the team. A good general manager, and Emery is one, uses the draft to help balance salaries across every position. I could see the Bears drafting another young offensive lineman, a young tight end and, yes, maybe a quarterback. It's all about finding value. But to fix the defense, the Bears are going to have to sign free agents. So the draft is not a cure-all for their ailments.
Fact or Fiction: Marquess Wilson will emerge as the Bears' No. 3 receiver in 2014.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. The Bears would be wise to rework Earl Bennett's deal and keep him around another year. Last season, they restructured the deal to save cap money, and I assume that would happen again to keep him on the roster making more than $2 million. I don't know enough about Wilson to hand him the third receiver spot a month after the season ended, and I doubt the Bears do, either. Maybe they'll see something in OTAs that will convince them he's ready to step up into a prime-time role. But the Bears should want to keep Earl around for another season, at least, as the offense continues to improve.
Our panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: Brandon Marshall will receive a contract extension before the 2014 season.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. I don't see that being the top priority before training camp, given the needs of the defense, but the Bears should work to make sure there is no distraction next season, as the Bears' best wide receiver in, well, ever, goes into a contract year. As you might know, Marshall likes to talk. He likes to express himself. I could see Emery working on a deal during the season, despite his broken vow not to do so. Marshall is already the best receiver in the organization's history. He will likely get paid accordingly, even as he moves toward 30.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears are the winners in the Jay Cutler contract.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. The Bears got their quarterback at a price they were comfortable with. If this weren't a team-friendly deal, it wouldn't have been done four days after the season was over. Yes, his cap number in 2014 looks big, but the Bears have space now to pay more money. They also are only locked in for three seasons and for a reasonable $54 million. With cap Stein at the controls, the Bears can also recalibrate his contract, spreading it out or bunching it up, if need be. Re-signing Cutler was always the right move and getting the deal done immediately now frees up the front office to focus on other needs, specifically on defense. Everyone wins in this deal.
Fact or Fiction: Josh McCown has played his way to a bigger paycheck somewhere else.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I think there's a strong chance McCown comes back with a competitive offer from the Bears. While McCown owes it to himself and his family to get as much money as he can on this deal, I assume he's smart enough to know the grass isn't always greener on the other side. This coaching staff, this offense and this team was perfectly suited to assist him in having a career season at 34. The type of team that would possibly want him as a short-term starter will likely be a mess. If he's offered a deal too good to refuse, he has to take it. But if the Bears can guarantee him more than, say, $2 million over the life of a short contract, I'll bet he stays here.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears will have two new starting safeties next season.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Emery doesn't play. Just ask Gabe Carimi and J'Marcus Webb. Heck, just ask Brian Urlacher. Emery isn't shy about making moves. I think Wright and Conte got a raw deal at times because of the myriad breakdowns in front of them, thanks to injuries and inexperience in the front seven. The previous season, when the defense was humming, they looked a lot better. Both could move on to have decent to strong NFL careers, but I think it's time to at least make a change in the starting lineup. I could see Conte hanging around as a backup, although he might want a fresh start somewhere else after the way the season ended. The Bears should draft a safety in the first three rounds and then go into the free-agent pool. There are very few keepers on the worst defense in Bears history, and these two aren't among them.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears have to score more than 30 points to beat the Eagles.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. My personal over-under for the Eagles is 27 1/2 points, give a Cutler pick-six or two. Last week, the Bears defense had a bit of a renaissance, only giving up three scoring drives -- a field goal and two touchdowns. Of course, that was the Browns and this is the Eagles. Here are some numbers to chew on: In five of the Eagles' eight wins this season, they’ve scored 30 or more points, while none of their opponents scored 30. In three of their six losses, opponents scored 30 or more. So 30 points is a pretty good barometer for a win or a loss.
Fact or Fiction: Matt Forte will have a better overall game than LeSean McCoy.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I don’t know how the Bears are going to scheme McCoy, but the inclusion of Lance Briggs, if he plays as expected, will sure help. The Eagles offense is full of misdirection and as McCoy says, once the defenses figure out where he is with the ball, he’s already in the secondary. The Eagles defense isn’t fantastic either, so I think Forte will have a solid game, but I’m guessing the Bears go to the air more and Forte doesn’t get as many carries as McCoy.
Fact or Fiction: If Jay Cutler struggles in the next two games, Marc Trestman should turn to Josh McCown.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. You can’t coach the team like a sports talk radio caller. This wasn’t even much of a decision. Cutler is the starter and he was going to start as long as he was healthy. That doesn’t mean McCown isn’t the safer option, because he is, but Cutler is their guy and if he’s healthy, he’ll play. Now if he’s struggling because he’s injured, I hope Trestman pulls the plug quicker than he did in the Detroit game. Otherwise, it’s Cutler’s time to win or lose.
Fact or Fiction: Lance Briggs is the most important player on the Bears defense.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Right now he is, anyway. This defense isn’t exactly chock full of keepers. And you can’t have two rookies start in a linebacker group and expect to succeed. The game is too predicated on instinct and experience. In training camp, Jon Bostic, a cerebral and athletic young player, told me he was in awe of Briggs, who seemed to have a sixth sense on the field. Thanks to D.J. Williams’ injury, Bostic has been thrown into the starting unit after barely playing in the beginning of the season. He can react and make plays, but he can’t sniff out what’s going to happen. While Briggs won’t be in the best shape, he can make this group respectable the last two weeks just by being on the field in place of Khaseem Greene. I’m looking to see if Briggs forces a fumble this week. The Bears haven’t had one since Week 4 when Briggs and Corey Wootton each forced one. As we know, turnovers are the key to this defense. Maybe Briggs will bring some of that spirit back to the defense.
Fact or Fiction: It's a good decision to play Cutler this week.
Jeff Dickerson:Fact. The Bears have no reason to sit Cutler on Sunday if the quarterback is medically cleared to play. That has been the organization's stance since Cutler suffered the high ankle-sprain in the Detroit Lions game on Nov. 10. Cutler is the starting quarterback when healthy. It's too late to go back. Plus, it would be nice to see what Cutler can accomplish in the offense over the final three games given that McCown basically lit the world on fire coming off the bench. Cutler's effort down the stretch is likely to directly impact the kind of money he can demand on the open market. This is a crucial stretch for Cutler that could shape the remainder of his career. He deserves the right to play Sunday. And the Bears can always go back to McCown if Cutler struggles badly against the Browns.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. This basically goes against the column I just wrote about McCown being the best option right now, but if you're going to start Cutler this season with the playoffs in mind, you have to start him now. No sense in letting him go another week without real reps. The Browns have good defensive numbers, but they're vulnerable in certain areas. If he's healthy, Cutler should be more than capable of beating Cleveland. With three games left, I have to say I'm more confident in the hot hand, McCown, than Cutler, who had back-to-back lower-body injuries. But the reality of the NFL is you stick with your starter, all things being equal anyway.
Fact or Fiction: Regardless of Cutler's status for 2014, the Bears have to draft a quarterback in May.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. I don't necessarily think the Bears have to draft a quarterback if they re-sign both Cutler and McCown in the offseason. Bears general manager Phil Emery has a ton of work to do on the defensive side of the football, and limited draft picks to do so. Of course, the Bears might swing a couple of deals and acquire more picks, a real possibility with an aggressive general manager such as Emery calling the shots. Bringing back Cutler and McCown would give the Bears more time to find a young quarterback. Sure, if the Bears have an opportunity to draft a quarterback they love in May, then absolutely, go for it. But what if that guy isn't on the 2014 board for the Bears? Then what? A good team never reaches for a player. Emery doesn't strike me as the type of general manager who would draft a quarterback just for the sake of drafting one. The player needs to make sense for the Bears and fit into what Trestman demands from the quarterback position in his offense. Cutler and McCown back in the fold next season allows the Bears to be patient. In the end, that patience could pay off for the organization in a big way.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I know there's a big buzz about this draft, given the supposed number of NFL-caliber quarterbacks, but the Bears should just commit to drafting the best available player, with an emphasis on defense. They have major holes on the defensive line and the secondary. Now if they think they can great value on a quarterback after the third round, go for it. But if you're going to re-sign Cutler, which I think the Bears will do, what's the sense in grooming an understudy so early? If he signs, Cutler will probably get a four-year deal, so in my mind you have a couple drafts to find a young quarterback to take his place.
Fact or Fiction: Lance Briggs won't play again for the Bears this season.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. I don't particularly feel good about this one, but isn't it too early to rule out Briggs for the rest of the season? After all, Briggs did return to the practice field in limited fashion on Thursday, a good first step toward playing before the season is over. Truth be told, I'm surprised Briggs isn't back at this point. The initial timeline when he suffered a small fracture in his left shoulder Oct. 20 in Washington called for Briggs to miss four to six weeks. This is Week 8 and counting. The Bears claim Briggs' bone still isn't completely healed. I'm not a doctor. I have no other choice but to take their word for it. Briggs is one of the best linebackers in franchise history. The Bears have to hope he does everything in his power to return and help the ailing defense before the season runs out.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Briggs, who is out with a fractured left shoulder, told the Sun-Times he was evaluated by doctors on Tuesday and wasn't cleared to play. Marc Trestman told reporters Wednesday that he isn't optimistic about Briggs playing in Cleveland. There are three games left, so it doesn't look good, especially since he was thought to have a four-to-six week injury, and we're past that timeline. If they beat Cleveland, the Bears desperately need him next week in Philadelphia. The Eagles are the top rushing team in football with 2,061 yards, and the Bears are the worst rushing defense in football, having given up 2,041 yards. Briggs' absence could be key to making or missing the playoffs.
Fact or Fiction: Joe Haden will shut down Alshon Jeffery.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Hayden is a fine cornerback with 52 tackles, four interceptions and 18 pass break-ups this season, but Jeffery is on a tear with a combined 17 receptions for 333 yards and three touchdowns in the past two weeks. Hayden is 5-foot-11 and weighs 190 pounds. Jeffery stands 6-foot-3 and checks in at 216 pounds. Teams have tried to get physical this season with Jeffery, but his overall results speak for themselves: 75 catches for 1,193 yards and six touchdowns. Even if Hayden somehow stifles Jeffery on Sunday, the Bears can always just feature Brandon Marshall, who has 84 receptions for 1,090 yards and nine touchdowns. Good luck, Cleveland.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I'm not even sure Haden will cover Jeffery. The Browns might decide to sic him on Marshall. It's impossible to shut down both receivers, unless of course the Browns' defensive line punctures the Bears' pocket. But it's tough to stop Jeffery period, especially one-on-one. He's too athletic and nonpareil hands and reach. Look at his catches the past two weeks. When I told Bears cornerback Tim Jennings that Jeffery's back-corner end-zone catch at the end of the first half Monday night was one of the best catches I've seen in person, he said, "Better than last week?" These are the questions we have to answer as Jeffery's star shines.
Our panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: Using the franchise tag on Jay Cutler would be a mistake because it ties up too much cap space on one player.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. The tag is supposed to be used as a placeholder so the two sides, player and team, can hammer out a long-term deal. The tag value, rising north of $15 million, would handicap the Bears next season, especially as they try to restock the aging, flagging defense. As most everyone knows by now, the franchise tag insures that all the money is paid in one season, whereas a long-term contract allows a team to creatively structure the payouts for salary cap purposes. With that in mind, I don’t quite understand the point of tagging Cutler for the purpose of a one-year “tryout” deal. What don’t they know about him? Sure, health is a concern but that’s true of any NFL player. The one question the Bears must have had about Cutler before the season was: How would he relate to Marc Trestman? The answer seems to be: Quite well, actually. Since taking over as general manager, Phil Emery has made it a mission to give Cutler the tools to succeed, from receivers to linemen to coaches. Now it’s time to negotiate a long-term deal.
Fact or Fiction: The emergence of Alshon Jeffery might actually make Brandon Marshall expendable when his deal is up.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. While Marshall has been, arguably, the most productive receiver not named Calvin Johnson since coming to the Bears, Emery has to consider his salary cap situation when Marshall’s deal comes up. Marshall still has another year on his contract, but he turns 30 in March. He’s in great shape, it seems, but that’s the “magic number” for skill position players. So don’t be surprised if the Bears make Jeffery the No. 1 while looking for a complementary receiver. Still, I think it’s likely that they extend Marshall in a cap-friendly way this offseason. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they decide to move on early. That’s just life in the NFL.
Fact or Fiction: Jeremiah Ratliff is in for a big game against his former team on Monday.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Not sure this is a real storyline anyone cares about outside of the Chicago and Dallas media, and probably not even then. Sure, some guys play better using slights as fuel, but Ratliff just played his first game in a year last week in Minneapolis. He’s probably more concerned about just existing out there in the trenches than making a statement. But hey, there’s not much time left in the season, so a big game would be nice.
Fact or Fiction: DeMarco Murray will post just his second 100-yard rushing game of the season on Monday.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. The Bears rushing defense stinks, and their pass defense isn’t much better lately. Since linebacker Lance Briggs got injured in the Washington game, the Bears are giving up more than 200 rushing yards a game, and they’ve given up at least 100 yards rushing in every game since Oct. 10. So, yeah, start Murray in your fantasy league. I know I am.
Our panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: Adrian Peterson and the Vikings will run for at least 275 yards against the Bears on Sunday.
Jeff Dickerson:Fiction. If the Bears fail to stack the box with a minimum of eight defenders on every snap with the exception of third-and-long, then fire the entire coaching staff immediately after the game. The Vikings and Peterson are the NFL's 11th-best rushing offense (122.5) and the 25th overall passing offense (207.0). Make them throw to win. Last I checked, the Bears still do a decent job in the secondary defending the pass (No. 13), but are No. 32 out of 32 teams when it comes to run defense (145.2). If Minnesota tops 275 yards on the ground Sunday, there needs to be a formal investigation.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Peterson won't get a yard over 255. Seriously, the Bears, who have given up 123-plus rushing yards in six straight games (258 last week), will need to do some serious scheming to keep Peterson from winning this game. They've had some success in the past, but they just don't have the players. When your defensive line is Julius Peppers, projects and waiver-wire guys and your linebackers are two-thirds rookies, it's tough enough. But then you have breakdowns in gap discipline and, well, it's going to be a long day. Still, under 275.
Fact or Fiction: Chris Conte will be a Bear in 2014.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. I understand the frustration over the safety position, but what Conte needs is competition, not to be flat-out released at the end of the season. Major Wright is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in the offseason so if he finds a team willing to pay more on the open market, let him go. But Conte's salary-cap number for 2014 is only $788,400. That's a reasonable figure for a player who will be 25 next year with roughly 40 career starts. Conte has made his share of mistakes this season, but his struggles have been magnified by the awful performance of the front seven. Were fans screaming about Conte last season when Brian Urlacher, Nick Roach and Lance Briggs were the three starting linebackers? That doesn't excuse the errors or poor angles, but Conte can be an effective free safety. However, I would strongly advocate the Bears have Conte compete for his job next summer. As we've written before, competition brings out the best in everybody.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. The Bears should have two new safeties. Look at how Phil Emery handled the offensive line this year. No more chances, no more "developing" the tackles of the "future." Just get rid of them and move on. The Bears' brain trust will say the right things now to boost up Conte and Wright, but I'm guessing we'll see a very different defense.
Fact or Fiction: Jon Bostic has shown enough to warrant a starting job in 2014.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. I put Bostic in the same boat as Conte. Bostic is clearly part of the Bears' future, being a 2013 second-round draft choice, but to simply hand him a starting job next season seems a tad premature. To put it nicely, Bostic has not played particularly well the past couple of weeks. Maybe if he closes the season out on a strong note, the Bears will feel better about handing him the job next year. But I'd make him earn it. However, this is the NFL, and the trend in the league is hand high-draft picks starting jobs, even if they don't deserve them. So it wouldn't surprise me one bit if the Bears go that route with Bostic.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Though you wonder if he'll be in the middle. The Bears need wholesale changes on defense, but Bostic will be one of the few holdovers. He's been thrust into a difficult position, especially with the defensive line turnover, but he has the spark and he has the IQ to be a starter.
Fact or Fiction: Julius Peppers is playing his final season as a Bear.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Peppers seems like a goner unless he agrees to take a drastic reduction in pay in 2014. The Bears can't afford to carry a player on the 53-man roster with a projected cap hit of $18,183,333 unless that player is a franchise quarterback. Peppers has shown the ability to still have good games from time to time, but he is no longer one of the NFL's premiere pass-rushers. If you can no longer get to the quarterback, then you can no longer cash the really big checks. For a couple million dollars, I'd bring Peppers back for another season. But not for the $14 million he's scheduled to earn in 2014 under his current deal.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. His cap number is more than $18 million next season. Peppers has already had his contract restructured twice, but I wouldn't count on a third time. Peppers was a good signing, and he still his moments but the Bears need depth. It's best to use that money elsewhere. But hey, if he wants to play for a lot less money, I'm sure the Bears would be up to re-sign him. I just don't see it happening.
Will Chris Long get the best of his younger brother? Is Zac Stacy the next running back in line for a big day against the Bears' run defense? Our panel weighs in on those questions and more:
Fact or Fiction: Chris Long will beat Kyle at least once and get a sack.
Jeff Dickerson:Fiction. If Chris Long beats a Bears offensive lineman for a sack on Sunday, it will be either left tackle Jermon Bushrod or right tackle Jordan Mills. Rams coach Jeff Fisher said on Wednesday that he does not anticipate Long bumping inside and lining up at defensive tackle, which is where he would have to play in order to go head-to-head with right guard Kyle Long. Maybe the two brothers exchange words and get tangled up after the whistle, or perhaps the younger Long is asked to help out Mills to block Chris Long, but don't expect the sibling rivalry to take place head-up in the trenches.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Chris Long has a better shot of beating tackle Jordan Mills, whom he'll mostly be matched up against in a one-on-one situation. Either way, I think the odds are decent the Bears hold the elder Long brother sack-less, if only because that's what they're good at. The Bears have given up the third-fewest sacks in the NFL and you can bet Mills, as well as Kyle Long, will be ready for him.
Fact or Fiction: Josh McCown will make the debate about a starting QB even hotter with another strong game.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Eventually McCown is going to have a mediocre game, but if the Bears can give the veteran time to throw on Sunday, he should be successful against a Rams defense that ranks No. 19 overall. Now, that's easier said than done given the presence of Chris Long (6.5 sacks) and Robert Quinn (12.0 sacks) on the St. Louis defensive line and the always productive James Laurinaitis at middle linebacker. But imagine if McCown improves to 3-0 and the Bears sit at 7-4 next Monday. Are the Bears really going to rush Jay Cutler back from this high-ankle sprain? If McCown plays well on Sunday and the Bears are victorious, the best thing for the team is to start McCown Dec. 1 at Minnesota. Why ruin a good thing?
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. McCown should have a good game, but it doesn't change the fact that Cutler is the starter. This isn't a Colin Kaepernick-Alex Smith situation. The Bears might not sign Cutler to a long-term deal this offseason, but he's not getting benched for McCown, now or later. It's not even a question, especially considering Cutler has played pretty well this season, thanks in part to the upgrades on the offensive line and the coaching staff.
Fact or Fiction: Zac Stacy will be the next running back to gash the Bears defense.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. The Bears proved again last Sunday they can't stop the run. The Ravens entered the game averaging 73 yards per game on the ground. They left Soldier Field with 174 yards. Stacy is the second-leading rookie rusher in the NFL with 537 yards and posted back-to-back 100-yard rushing games in Weeks 8 and 9. With the game being played in the controlled climate of the Edward Jones Dome on artificial turf, I expect Stacy to be next in a long line of running backs to exploit the Bears' run defense.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Well, he's next, right?
Fact or Fiction: Alshon Jeffery will get more receiving yards than Tavon Austin.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Austin is a dangerous home-run hitter. But Jeffery is turning into a legitimate No. 1 NFL wide receiver with 54 receptions for 818 yards and three touchdowns. He is a focal point of the Bears' offense. Jeffery has four 100-yard receiving games this season and has topped 80 yards in three of the past four weeks. Brandon Marshall is likely due for a bounce-back game after a mediocre performance against the Ravens, but even when Marshall is on a roll, Jeffery finds a way to get his touches. Expect that same exact scenario to play out Sunday in St. Louis.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Austin is coming off the best game of his young career -- 138 yards and two touchdowns, including an 81-yarder. That's the kind of explosive effort the Rams expect, and the Bears do like to give up yardage. But that's the only game he's had more than 47 yards. The Bears' secondary might be bad, but I'd put my money on another reliable effort from Jeffery. With McCown in at quarterback, Jeffery has caught 18 passes for 273 yards in 10 quarters and one series. He's a star in the making, just as Brandon Marshall has predicted. And we know Marshall is never wrong.
A year later, the Bears are poised to have two 1,000-yard receivers in Marshall and second-year wideout Alshon Jeffery. Are they the best receiver duo in the NFL this season? Marshall said Wednesday that's not even a question. Is he right? Our panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: Marshall and Jeffery are the best receiver duo in the NFL.
Jeff Dickerson:Fact. But let me throw a caveat out there: When healthy, Atlanta's Roddy White and Julio Jones are the best receiver duo in the NFL. But with White (active in Week 10) and Jones sidetracked this year due to injuries, Marshall and Jeffery top the list, combining to catch 107 passes for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns through nine games. The Denver Broncos are also in the conversation with their trio of productive wideouts, but what separates Marshall and Jeffery is their ability to single-handedly dominate a game with their size and length. Between them, Marshall and Jeffery have eight 100-yard receiving games, with Jeffery, the Bears' No. 2 wideout, setting the team's single-game receiving yards record with 218. Marshall and Jeffery have the potential to wreak havoc inside the NFC North for years to come, if Marshall receives a contract extension from the Bears in the offseason.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Their 1,521 receiving yards as a tandem leads the NFL. At the very least, they're in the team photo. What's most important is that Marshall and Jeffery believe they're the best and prepare like they're fringe guys. Both receivers have height and size, and both are solid route runners with strong hands. While Jeffery got some contrarian blame for dropping two touchdown passes in the Bears' 21-19 loss to Detroit, both difficult catches, he has shown incredible hands throughout this season. Marshall has been arguably the most productive receiver in the NFL since coming over to Chicago. His 178 catches are the most in the NFL and he has 11 100-yard games, second only to Calvin Johnson. Any NFL team would kill for this duo. It's crazy that it's the Bears -- where receivers go to die, said Muhsin Muhammad -- that have them.
Fact or Fiction: Charles Tillman has played his last game as a Bear.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. I think Tillman has several good years of football left in him, but I just don't know how much money the Bears are prepare to offer him after the season. Including a workout bonus, Tillman will earn $8,001,575 from the Bears in 2013. What will the next contract look like? Will Tillman accept a pay cut? Will another team with a need at cornerback offer Tillman a better deal? Personally, I'd love to see Tillman finish his career in Chicago. He's the greatest defensive back in the history of the franchise. However, the Bears allowed one of the greatest linebackers in the history of the franchise to leave last offseason over money. This is a tough business, especially for veterans late in their careers. History could very well repeat itself this offseason with Tillman. At the end of the day this likely comes down to money. Are the Bears willing to pay enough to keep Tillman around for another couple of seasons?
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I think the Bears make him an offer to come back for next season. It would have to be at a reduced salary, but he's basically in a "play with the Bears or retire" situation. Unless, Lovie Smith gets a head job and imports Tillman as a veteran/mentor. While he can't punch out Father Time, Tillman can still cover and he can still create takeaways. Tillman turns 33 in February and he could still have two more strong seasons left. General manager Phil Emery, who isn't nostalgiac toward veterans he's inherited, has to rebuild this defense through the draft, and it would make sense to keep Tillman to bridge the gap.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears' precipitous slide on defense has been the biggest surprise of their season.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. The demise of the Bears' defense has been terribly disappointing, but nine games into the regular season, I believe the biggest surprise has been the growth of the offense in such a short period of time. The turnaround on the offensive line has been nothing short of remarkable, even though the line struggled at times against Detroit. Marshall and Jeffery are lethal at wide receiver, while Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett are dependable weapons, capable of having big games. The mere fact that Josh McCown can step in off the bench and thrive in relief of Jay Cutler speaks volumes about Marc Trestman's offensive system. Not to take anything away from McCown, who deserves his share of credit for playing so well, but Trestman is light years ahead of what the Bears had last season with Mike Tice and Jeremy Bates.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. I expected the Bears offense to improve under Trestman. I expected Cutler to have a good, but not yet great, season. I suppose the viability of the rookie right side of the line, Kyle Long and Jordan Mills, is pretty surprising. But the death of the defense is definitely jarring. While the Bears' defense lulled a bit during the Bob Babich/Lovie Smith coordinator years, it looked like a turnkey operation for a coach like Mel Tucker. This group, led by tested veterans, figured to be stable, if not as spectacular as last season when it scored nine touchdowns. But injuries have crippled the pass rush and linebacking corps, not to mention poor play from the healthy safeties. Every bad thing that was bound to happen to such a fortunate group happened. It's time to reinvest in this unit in the draft.
Fact or Fiction: Marc Trestman should continue to be aggressive on fourth down.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. For years, Bears fans complained about Lovie Smith's conservative style of coaching. Now all of a sudden, the same people want Trestman to take his foot off the gas pedal? The Bears have converted 67 percent (6-of-9) of their fourth-down conversion chances. Trestman knows what he's doing. I didn't have a problem with the Bears going for it on fourth-and-1 against the Lions, but I did take issue with the play call. But that's an entirely different argument. Trestman is a confident head coach. I'd hate to see him loose that edge by second-guessing himself.
Jon Greenberg: Fact, fact, fact. Going for it on fourth down is in vogue as more and more teams pay attention to statistical evidence that it's often the smart move over "playing it safe." Patriots coach Bill Belichick has been doing it for years. Even when the numbers don't overwhelmingly support it, like that call in the fourth quarter in Green Bay, I love that Trestman doesn't waver from this aggressiveness. I love it. As we've addressed, the defense isn't the reliable Bears defense anymore and the offense has weapons and proper coaching. I don't doubt Trestman at all in this regard. Sorry, Adam Podlesh.
This week our panel weighs in on the importance of a Bears win over the Lions, the Cutler decision and more:
Fact or Fiction: The Bears will go on to win the NFC North if they beat the Lions on Sunday.
Jeff Dickerson:Fiction. It's way too premature to declare the Bears king of the NFC North if they knock off Detroit. If the Bears do improve to 6-3, they definitely will have positioned themselves to be a strong contender to win the division, or at the very least qualify for the playoffs. But let's not write off the Green Bay Packers just yet. Rodgers' fractured collarbone is a tough pill to swallow for Green Bay, but the Packers still have a good amount of talent on their roster, and expect several key players to return from injuries in the next couple of weeks. If Green Bay can just get adequate play from Seneca Wallace, or whomever they start at quarterback until Rodgers returns, then I believe the Packers remain contenders. So are the Lions, even if they lose on Sunday at Soldier Field. I have a feeling the race for the NFC North is going down to the wire.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. With Cutler back and a bunch of mediocre to lousy teams left on the schedule, I think the Bears finish strong, despite a porous defense. They hope the signing of defensive tackle Jeremiah (formerly Jay) Ratliff shores up the defensive line, which finally brought consistent pressure at Green Bay last week. That win over Green Bay is important for the Bears for tiebreaking rules. Detroit will play host to Green Bay on Thanksgiving, presumably without Rodgers, while the Bears likely will have to face him at home in the season finale. For a team that looked hopeless after the Washington loss, the Bears' future is bright again.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears should protect Cutler and start Josh McCown on Sunday.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Cutler is in the final year of his contract. The Bears don't owe him a cent beyond 2013. If Cutler struggles in the first quarter, then McCown needs to come off the bench and finish the game. This really isn't about protecting Cutler. This is about protecting the team. Does a healthy McCown give the Bears the best chance to win against the Lions? I believe he does. But Cutler pushed hard to return for this game. I think it could be in the best interest of coach Marc Trestman to be ready to give him the hook at a moments' notice.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I argued the opposite in a recent Hot Button, but Cutler believes he can go so you have to let him start. This is reality in the NFL. No team would dare bench a starter for more rest to play a journeyman backup, even one as solid as McCown. This isn't a Colin Kaepernick-Alex Smith situation. In the NBA or any league with a long, drawn-out schedule, you rest your stars. But in the NFL, if a doctor clears you, you play.
Fact or Fiction: Ratliff will make an impact for the Bears' defensive line this season.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. It's impossible to sign off on the idea of Ratliff making an impact until we actually see him on the field. Ratliff told ESPN 1000's "Waddle & Silvy Show" that he is still a couple of weeks away from returning to the field, so it sounds as if he might not make his Bears debut until Nov. 24 at St. Louis at the earliest. When healthy, Ratliff was one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL. But he hasn't played in a game since November 2012. That is a concern.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. He will play at some point soon. If he doesn't suit up, that's a pretty big blunder for a team stretching the salary cap as it is. At 32, Ratliff certainly isn't in the prime of his career, but I'll take a big body and veteran savvy any day. The Bears need help, any help, on that depleted defensive line, and I think the former Pro Bowler can provide it, even if it's in spurts.
Fact or Fiction: Calvin Johnson will have more than 200 yards receiving against the Bears.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Johnson will be his usual dangerous stuff, but he's not going over 200 receiving yards on the Bears. Now, is it possible that Reggie Bush rushes for more than 125 yards? You bet it is. And that's a major issue, because the Bears had all kinds of problems stopping Green Bay running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks on Monday. Charles Tillman's knee isn't 100 percent, so that will be working in Johnson's favor Sunday, but I can't see him replicating the kind of game he had against Dallas two weeks ago with 14 catches for 329 yards. I predict the Bears hold Johnson to 150 yards receiving and one touchdown. Consider that a moral victory.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Sure, he's coming off a 329-yard game and sure, the Bears' defense is a train wreck. But while Johnson is a decent bet to break his single-game mark against the Bears -- 133 yards -- I don't think he'll crack 200 for the second straight week and fourth time in his career. The key, of course, is the Bears defensive line. If they can pressure Matthew Stafford like they did to Rodgers and Wallace, Johnson will be lucky to get past the century mark.
With Cutler's contract up at the end of the season and the prospect of getting him back for just a few more games, have the Bears seen enough from him to commit to a long-term deal? Our panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: Cutler's future in Chicago is much more uncertain now that he is expected to miss most of the rest of the season.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. On one hand, Cutler has likely shown the Bears enough this season (91.7 quarterback rating) to merit the franchise tag designation in the offseason, keeping him in Chicago at a minimum through 2014. But on the other hand, it probably will be difficult for Cutler to secure a long-term extension because of the recent groin injury. Are seven games under Marc Trestman really enough to convince the Bears that Cutler is the right guy for the new regime? That's tough to say. But I don't buy the whole argument that Trestman's system is the star and not the players in it. Cutler is talented. He looked to be much more comfortable running this offense -- a better supporting cast no doubt played a role -- than he had in four previous seasons with the Bears. But the franchise tag allows the Bears the opportunity to take one more look at Cutler in 2014 before ultimately deciding whether to break the bank. There is a possibility that Cutler lights it up when he returns and leads the Bears to the playoffs, although the defense is still a major concern. But if that were to happen, I can envision the Bears and Cutler still getting a new deal done in the offseason. However, the odds seem better that Cutler is franchised in 2014.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. If you want evidence that Cutler's future is in Chicago, just look around the league. Mike Glennon? Christian Ponder? The Cleveland Browns' tire fire under center? For a country where seemingly every athletic kid wants to be a quarterback, there aren't a lot who can play this game, well anyway, in the NFL. Cutler isn't going to be Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, not even the mid-to-late 30s versions. But he's a much better alternative than what's out there and the Bears know this. All he needed to prove this season was that he could get along with Trestman. That's worked out fine. The Bears loaded up on offense since Phil Emery took over general manager to complement Cutler. Why dump him now? They won't.
Fact or Fiction: Lance Briggs is a bigger loss to the Bears than Cutler.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Both players are vital to the Bears' success and will be missed, badly. But at least the Bears still have Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte, Martellus Bennett and a decent offensive line around new starting quarterback Josh McCown. I doubt McCown can run the offense with the same efficiency as Cutler, but at least he has a fighting chance to do so. On defense, the outlook is bleak. The Bears couldn't stop anybody with Briggs. What's going to happen without him? There is still Pro Bowl talent on the defense, but Charles Tillman is banged up. Tim Jennings, like all cornerbacks, isn't nearly as effective without a pass rush. And Julius Peppers has one sack in seven games. This could get ugly.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I was wobbling on this fence this week, but I'm coming down on Cutler's side, if just barely. I just can't argue against a guy who has the ball on every play against a guy who might make 10 tackles a game. The defense is already horrible with Briggs, and they won't get better without their best performer. They'll miss more than his tackles -- leadership, play recognition, etc. -- but a defense can cover up for one player through schemes. You can't cover up for a quarterback. We have no idea how McCown will do as Cutler's replacement. Maybe he'll be great, and I'll be proven wrong as running backs and tight ends attack Briggs' replacement. But I'm sticking with the quarterback.
Fact or Fiction: Brian Urlacher is right, Shea McClellin is miscast as a defensive end.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. The conspiracy theorists will say that Urlacher only made those comments because he dislikes Emery, the man responsible for drafting McClellin at No. 19 overall in 2012, but I'm not on board with that idea. Sure, Urlacher has issues with Emery (that's their business), but it doesn't change the fact that Urlacher was a master of this defense and knows exactly the types of players it needs to succeed. I believe Urlacher when he says that McClellin is miscast as a defensive end. We all see it every week. McClellin is a good athlete and works hard. He has value. But he looks overmatched at defensive end. Emery has drafted two studs on offense the past two years (Jeffery and Kyle Long), but I just don't understand the McClellin selection. Chandler Jones already has 6.5 sacks in seven games for the Patriots, bringing his career total to 12.5. McClellin has 3.0 career sacks. Both were available at No. 19.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. McClellin gets shoved around by tackles and tight ends. He's not strong enough, maybe not confident enough, to play defensive end on an every-down basis. He's got moves and he's got speed, so it's not like the guy is a bust. But he couldn't gain the weight necessary to play the position while keeping his speed. Emery tried his best to defend him this week, noting his run defense has improved. He's an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense or a situational pass-rusher. Not much debate here.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears will still make the playoffs.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. As it currently stands, the Bears look like the third-best team in the NFC North. And how is this for a cruel twist of fate: The Bears' first two games without Cutler are against the two teams they're chasing in the division, Green Bay and Detroit. I just don't see how the Bears are going to stop anybody on defense without a decent defensive line. There will be games where the Bears can outscore the opponent. I still expect this team to win around eight games despite the injuries to key players. But it doesn't feel like a playoff team. And it certainly doesn't look like a playoff team on the defensive side. I realize this is a league based on offense, but teams need to at least have a respectable defense. The Bears' defense was anything but respectable in the Washington game, and I don't' believe that's about to change anytime soon.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction, but just barely. Look at the competition. Throw out the NFC East teams, they're no good. Carolina, now 4-3, isn't for real. San Francisco and Seattle will both make the playoffs out of the West. That basically leaves Detroit as the Bears' sole competition for a wild card, if you believe Green Bay wins the division. Detroit has the edge with one win over the Bears and the second game coming with Cutler presumably still out in two weeks. Looking at their schedules, I see each going 5-4 down the stretch, with the optimistic thought Cutler comes back after four games. That means if the Lions win at Soldier Field and my guesses are correct, they'll get in with the head-to-head tiebreaker. So that game could define the season.
What can be expected of the second-round pick who has played almost entirely on special teams to this point? Our panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: The Bears won't lose much with rookie Jon Bostic taking over for the injured D.J. Williams.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Everyone was excited in the preseason because Bostic is athletic and knows how to play in an aggressive, takeaway-hungry defense. But this is about more than storylines and draft status. Bostic lacks Williams' experience in the NFL. That's a pretty simple statement, but it's the real issue. Bostic can't learn experience, that intuition you earn by playing in enough games to let muscle memory take over. Bostic told me in training camp about watching Lance Briggs with admiration, as the veteran knew exactly where the play was going. Bostic doesn't have that yet, and the Bears have to hope he's a quick learner so he can realize the right fits between the gaps. Williams knew them. After missing the entire preseason, he slid right in without missing a beat.
Fact or Fiction: The Lions are a bigger threat to the Bears in the division than the Packers.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Both are threats, of course, but the road to the division goes through Green Bay. Detroit obviously has the edge on the Bears, but they still have to win at Soldier Field. The Bears need to take one of two against the Packers this season. And if Cutler can just play a clean game in Green Bay in two weeks, that will exorcise some of his demons with the NFC North titans. Cutler needs to aim for the Packers.
Fact or Fiction: Marc Trestman's system is most responsible for Cutler being sacked only nine times this season.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Of course his play calling, getting the ball out quicker and such, is a big factor, but you can't discount the play of the offensive line and Cutler's trust in his receivers. While coaching is a bigger factor in the NFL than in the other major professional sports, the guys on the field are still the ones who have to execute. For most of the first six games, Cutler has had time to throw because his linemen, and additional blockers, have held up their end. It helps that Cutler isn't locking in on one player or one option. Kromer has certainly helped there, too, but give credit where credit's due here.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears will beat the Redskins if they hold Robert Griffin III in check.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Griffin showed more athleticism last week, albeit in a loss to Dallas, but he's scary because of his arm, not just his legs. With time Griffin is still very, very dangerous. And the Bears' defense is giving quarterbacks time with a flaccid pass rush. With their ballhawks in the secondary, the Bears need to force him into some quick decisions, and they especially need to force him into some third-and-long situations. Julius Peppers, for one, needs to make an impact this week.
Is he just acting like any other star receiver, or is there reason for concern ahead? Our panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: Brandon Marshall's frustration will become a problem for the Bears.
.Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Marshall seems like the type of player who is only happy when he sees the ball 10-15 times per game. That's probably not going to happen every week because the Bears actually have other people on offense capable of making plays in Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte, etc. I understand when Marshall says that every legitimate No. 1 wide receiver wants the ball all the time. But Marshall has spent an inordinate amount of time the last couple of days discussing his level of frustration, don't you think? Marshall leads the Bears with 31 catches. He's on pace for 99 receptions. The team is 3-2. So what's the issue? Imagine if Marshall has a couple more average games by his standards. What's going to happen then? Marshall also wants a new contract, which further complicates the matter. Unless the Bears start ripping off victories, this might not end well. And even if the Bears win games, Marshall had better get his targets. That's been made abundantly clear.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. But it's not because of the news conferences. Marshall admitted that the real battle is not letting his frustrations affect his play. If he's dropping passes because his mind isn't into it, then it's a major problem for the Bears. Marshall seems to recognize that. For all the criticism he gets for courting media attention, he seems to have a good read on his own feelings and how to control them. Now it's up to him to make himself more "quarterback friendly," as he says, and limit his internal distractions.
And after the first quarter of the season, what’s the takeaway on their veteran defense and quarterback Jay Cutler?
Fact or Fiction: The Bears’ 3-0 start against mostly inferior competition is being exposed.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. The Bears don’t have to apologize for beating two lousy teams in Minnesota and Pittsburgh and outlasting Cincinnati. But last week showed how the Bears’ weaknesses, already exposed, can be taken advantage of by more credible teams. The problems that looked fleeting early have become critical -- bad tackling, special-teams blunders, light defensive line pressure and offensive turnovers. That’s not to say this isn’t a playoff team, because it very well could be, but there are concerns to be addressed.
Suh might not have gaudy numbers against the Bears -- three sacks and 13 tackles in his career -- but he applies plenty of pressure and disruption to the offense. Oh, and big hits like when he slammed Jay Cutler to the turf last season, leaving the Bears quarterback with bruised ribs.
How will the revamped line, including Long, fare against Suh? Our panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: The Bears' offensive line will neutralize Ndamukong Suh on Sunday.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. I'll never understand why Suh behaves the way he does. He is one of the most athletically gifted defensive tackles in the game. He doesn't need to take cheap shots. So why go down that road? All the negativity surrounding Suh makes people forget how good he really is. He had 8.0 sacks last season. The Bears offensive line has done a terrific job protecting Jay Cutler, but Suh is expected to be a tough assignment on Sunday. When the Lions are good, which isn't often, the indoor atmosphere at Ford Field is a tough venue for road teams. Expect the crowd to make it difficult for the Bears to hear Cutler at the line of scrimmage. That little extra edge for Suh could make a big difference in the game. Suh enters Sunday with zero sacks on the season. My best guess is he probably doesn't finish the game with zero sacks.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Though with Suh, neutralize is relative. I like what I've seen out of the first three weeks from this group, and furthermore, I like what I've seen out of Cutler. His decisiveness is making his line look good. [Coach Marc] Trestman has been calling quick throws, which means the line doesn't have to hold their blocks for an ungodly amount of time. There is a synchronicity to this group right now. Suh will get some pressure and I'll bet he records at least a couple hits on Cutler. But I think the rookies Jordan Mills and Long will hold their own, with Cutler's help.
He returned five kickoffs for a Bears-record 249 yards against the Vikings in Week 2 -- including a 76-yarder and an 80-yarder -- and brought back his only kickoff return 31 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1.
If Hester, who will be a free agent after the season, continues to be a difference-maker for the Bears in the return game, will his career in Chicago extend beyond this season?
Our panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: Devin Hester will play his way into a new Bears contract after this season.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. A confident and healthy Hester is a great weapon for the Bears to have under contract moving forward. If Hester has a Pro Bowl caliber year returning kickoffs and punts, why wouldn't the Bears make an attempt to re-sign him in the offseason? The question, of course, is compensation. Hester is making a total of $2.1 million in 2013 to be strictly a specialist. Are the Bears comfortable paying him the same amount in a new contract? Will Hester want more? These are difficult topics to discuss because we really don't know how it's all going to shake out. But put it this way: After two weeks Hester has done nothing to hurt his chances of landing a new deal from the Bears in free agency, or maybe even before that.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Like Marc Trestman, I'm an admitted Hester fan. Watching him return kicks is like watching Derrick Rose drive the lane, pure athletic joy. But I don't know that the Bears will be able to afford a full-time kick returner. I think Hester will have a very good season, and I think he's worth a good deal just as a return man, but I bet the Bears let him get that money on the open market and invest in other positions. It'll be a sad day when Hester is no longer a Bear, so enjoy him now.