Chicago Bears: Four Downs
Our panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: The Bears made the correct decision retaining Mel Tucker.
Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and Julius Peppers all playing at an extremely high level.
But the Bears decided to let Urlacher and veteran strong side linebacker Nick Roach leave in the 2013 offseason, actions that Tucker had nothing to do with. The loss of Urlacher and Roach hurt the Bears’ defense more than the organization would like you to believe. Peppers’ inconsistent play on the defensive line also hurt the team, as did the lack of development of former first-round pick Shea McClellin, who became a liability versus the run.
Finally, factor in all the injuries: Henry Melton, Nate Collins, Turk McBride, Kelvin Hayden, Tillman, Briggs and the training camp retirement of Sedrick Ellis. NFL teams are skewered by the media and public whenever they blame injuries for substandard results, but you cannot ignore what injuries to key players does to a roster. No, the Bears are not the New England Patriots. New England is a well-oiled winning machine that has three Super Bowl championships and 11 postseason appearances under head coach Bill Belichick. New England can lose Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes to injuries, Wes Welker to free agency and Aaron Hernandez to a murder allegation and not skip a beat. The Bears, who have missed the playoffs six out of the last seven years, are not on that level. So please, don’t compare the Bears’ predicament last year to the Patriots'. Let’s see how Tucker fares with some tweaks to the system and some changes to the personnel on defense before deciding whether he is the right man for the job.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. What does it say if you fire a defensive coordinator after one season, and a season decimated by injuries, at that? It would say that Marc Trestman and Phil Emery are reactionary and needed a scapegoat after the worst defensive season in Bears history. It would be a different story if Tucker was a personal disaster, a clueless, combustible coach who has turned off players. But all signs point to him being a well-intentioned, organized coordinator who was dealt a lousy hand. He never blamed, he never panicked. On the other hand, if a remodeled Bears defense is bad this year and the young players continue to fail at improving, would it have been better to fire Tucker early rather than fire late? That’s a question to consider next season. But the Bears just hope that Tucker has better players to work with next season.
Fact or Fiction: Fired assistants Tim Tibesar and Mike Phair were scapegoats to cover up a much deeper coaching problem.
I bet Phair finds another job in the NFL. Perhaps the Bears felt Phair just didn’t have enough juice in the defensive line meeting room to reach the players. But in Phair’s defense, there is only one Rod Marinelli. Seems kind of unfair to expect Phair to coach at Marinelli’s level at this stage of his career. Tibesar was a bad hire. I’m sure Tibesar is a fine collegiate and CFL coach, but he never connected with the Bears’ veteran linebackers. His lack of NFL experience/credibility hurt him almost from Day 1.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Certainly, when two assistants are fired and the coordinator stays after a wildly disappointing season, it looks like scapegoating. Injuries to the defensive line and linebacking corps led to the season-long failures on defense, not coaching. But I’d surmise that Trestman saw coaching missteps as well. Playing for D.J. Williams and Briggs, rookie linebackers Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene didn’t improve enough by the end of the season. The defensive line was shredded early in the season, but even at full strength, the pass rush wasn’t there. It probably didn’t help that Phair was a holdover from the previous regime. I don’t think there’s a deeper coaching problem and it’s fair to say these firings were at least partially deserved.
Fact or Fiction: Corey Wootton's hip surgery diminishes the chances he re-signs with the Bears.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. For one thing, it likely lowers his asking price and interest from other teams in prying him away in free agency. The Bears know his medical history already and unless they’re uncomfortable with it, it seems like they could afford to wait out his recovery time. A locker room mainstay, Wootton sacrificed contract-friendly statistics to move inside and play tackle this season. He’s one of the few members of the defense who should be back. I could see the Bears passing on re-signing him because they need healthy bodies, but since when is health guaranteed in the NFL?
Fact or Fiction: Lovie Smith will lure several Bears free agents to Tampa.
Devin Hester to the Buccaneers also makes sense. It’s hard to envision the Bears paying Hester, a Florida native and Smith loyalist, $2.107 million to strictly return punts and kickoffs in 2014. Smith probably feels Hester can still contribute at wide receiver for all we know. That appears to be a fit. Perhaps Smith is interested in free-agent defensive tackle Melton joining star pass-rusher Gerald McCoy on the inside of the Bucs defensive line. There are plenty of possibilities and scenarios to mull over. Smith is probably in the process of doing that as we speak.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. I’d guess he’ll make a run at Peanut Tillman, maybe Major Wright or Peppers, if he sees a fit. While Smith is known for building close relationships with players and treating them like adults, the truth is Lovie was really very loyal to a chosen few players -- standouts like Tillman, draft projects like Wright -- and a typical coach to the rest, in terms of their usability at least. If they couldn’t do the job, they were gone. Smith isn’t out to create Halas Hall South in Tampa Bay, he’s there to win and to burnish his reputation. How many Bears free agents would you sign if you want to win immediately? I guess we’ll find out.
But with a new coaching staff, plenty of new faces on the roster and a quarterback facing a contract year, there are plenty of issues to address.
Our Bears writers weigh in on several during an offseason edition of Four Downs.
Fact or Fiction: Kyle Long will prove to be more of a project than impact player his first season.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Long has the athleticism to be an outstanding NFL player. That much we know. But he only played in 11 games and started four at Oregon, so how can I project him to be an impact player as a rookie? There isn't enough body of work to back up that claim. And are offensive guards ever considered impact players? In a perfect world, Long stays healthy and starts all 16 games at right guard. I believe that is attainable. If that meets you criteria of "impact player," then so be it. But I think it would be wise to preach a little patience with Long. Remember, he had to miss the entire offseason program due to NFL rules. To expect Long to hit the ground running when training camp opens up at the end of July is unfair. It could some time for him to develop. But if the Bears were correct in their evaluations, it will be worth the wait.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. While there's a good chance of Long falling behind the more experienced James Brown on the depth chart in 2013, count on the Bears giving Long every opportunity to shine from Day 1. Given Long's combination of strength, tenacity and rare athleticism, he should be able to overcome some of the technical kinks he'll show as a rookie. As the season progresses and Long takes more to the coaching, he'll sharpen up his technique. Long's offseason work with Tony Wise should help as will offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer, who has gained a reputation for developing offensive linemen. No doubt Long is somewhat raw. But he's talented enough athletically to be able to overcome that.
While the offense is generating plenty of excitement heading into camp, it will be the defense, as usual, that will be counted on to lead a successful season.
Our Four Downs panel weighs in on several defensive storylines heading into the first training camp practice on Thursday:
Fact or Fiction: Brian Urlacher will start at least 14 games at middle linebacker.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Outside of 2004 and 2009, Urlacher has been one of the most durable defenders in the NFL throughout his career. The fact he skipped the offseason program is a blessing. At 34 years old, Urlacher needs to focus on preserving his body during the offseason. It’s not like he needs to learn the defense. With two consecutive Pro Bowl berths, Urlacher has shown no signs of slowing down. Expect the Bears to be cautious with Urlacher in training camp, which should help him reach the regular season at close to 100 percent.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. The knee injury Urlacher suffered in the 2011 season finale at Minnesota shouldn’t hinder his ability to start off training camp 100 percent healthy. Besides that, nothing else suggests that Urlacher’s health will be an issue. This is a guy who has started all 16 games in nine of his 12 NFL seasons, and he’s done so by taking impeccable care of his body on a week-to-week basis. So although he’s getting older, Urlacher hasn’t shown any evidence his body is finally breaking down. Let’s remember that the knee injury suffered against the Vikings last season was somewhat of a freak accident.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Who knows, right? Urlacher’s last couple of injuries have been freakish in nature and they tend to either come early (his wrist injury in the first game of the 2009 season) or late (in the last game of last season). He should come in relatively strong after a knee injury that could have been much worse, and at 34, he knows how to pace himself by now. No reason he shouldn’t start at least 14 games.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. We keep waiting for Urlacher to fall off the cliff, age-wise, but the linebacker looks to be ready to play, despite the knee injury he suffered at the end of the season. Urlacher’s game is not predicated by freakish athleticism anymore, but his mixture of brains, experience and, well, freakish athleticism (for his age) should allow him another couple seasons of high-impact football. Plus, according to the gossip columns, which I never, ever read, his lady friend Jenny McCarthy is moving to Chicago. That should inspire him, right?
Fact or Fiction: Chris Conte and Major Wright will still be the Bears' starting safety combination by Week 8.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Just look at recent history. For whatever reason, the Bears simply cannot settle on a starting safety combination. Conte might be OK, but Wright is either always injured or out of place on deep coverage. Craig Steltz and rookie Brandon Hardin will play this season. It’s not a matter of “if,” but a matter of “when” Lovie Smith is forced to shuffle the safeties.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. That’s not to suggest Conte and Wright don’t possess the tools or talent to be the starters, but the duo has two issues going against it: Neither player has been durable throughout their young careers, and the club’s general fickleness in recent years regarding the safety position. Wright missed five games as a rookie and four more in 2011. Conte, meanwhile, finished his rookie season on the injured reserve. It’s also worth noting that just last year the Bears lined up with eight combinations of starters at safety over 16 games. So sure, injuries played a role in the changes, and the coaching staff’s dissatisfaction with the play at the position played a part, too. Because Wright and Conte are still young players, they’re going to make the mistakes that come with inexperience. At some point, those mistakes will get one or both pulled from the lineup.
Melissa IsaacsonFiction. Stability at safety has certainly not been a theme under Lovie Smith with starters changing a staggering 56 times in 128 regular-season games. Poor play and injuries have obviously made those changes necessary, but it’s hard to put too much blame on the players for inconsistent play when rarely has anyone gotten comfortable at the position. Conte and Wright, both third-round draft picks, along with Steltz, give the Bears as much chance for stability as they have had in the last few years. But while Conte and Steltz had pretty good seasons last year, Smith remains loyal to Wright and will give him every chance to succeed. A few big plays, however, generally forces the coach’s hand and for this team, keeping the same duo back there is a luxury in which they just have not been able to partake.
Jon Greenberg:Fiction. A stable safety tandem at Halas Hall? As the wise Ralph Wiggum once said, “That’s unpossible.” When it comes to his safeties, it’s coach Teenage Lovie Smith. He’s a little fickle that way. Hardin and Anthony Walters could be the starters by Week 7. Who knows? Knowing the Bears, they’ll pick up a guy off the discard pile in August and he’ll be a factor.
Fact or Fiction: Henry Melton will receive a contract extension before the end of the regular season.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Melton has definitely exceeded expectations with seven sacks in 2011, but he needs to keep working hard and not rest on his laurels. If he continues to get to the quarterback, then the Bears will be forced to address his contract before the season ends and not run the risk of being forced to overpay Melton in free agency. Urlacher’s expiring contract should be the club’s top priority, but a new deal for Melton shouldn’t be far behind.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. But that doesn’t mean he’ll sign it. During the season, the club -- under previous front office leadership -- made lowball extension offers during the season that some players liked, and others balked at signing. Melton’s impressive abilities are no longer a secret, and several scouts on other teams have taken note. So Melton might actually be better served by testing his value on the free agent market, which is something the Bears should know before they decide to make one of those cookie-cutter minimum offers similar to ones made in the past to other players. Obviously, Melton will need to perform in 2012 to maximize his earning potential. But I think he’s poised to do that with one full season as a starter now under his belt.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Though Melton is not the Bears’ top priority to re-sign, he is underpaid, and if he continues to progress as he did last season (he was actually third in the NFL among defensive tackles with seven), what he gives to the Bears in terms of starting ability as well as depth at the three-technique, makes him well worth signing to an extension before his rookie deal expires.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I don’t have a real reason for saying fiction. I just like to be contrarian.
Fact or Fiction: Shea McClellin will be an impact player as a rookie.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. McClellin must be an impact player. The Bears are in desperate need of another defensive end to apply consistent pressure opposite Julius Peppers. Even if the Bears use McClellin as strictly a situational pass rusher, it’s fair to expect the first-round pick to produce six to seven sacks. That would be considered a win for the Bears and fall into the category of McClellin being an impact player as a rookie. The fear is that McClellin becomes another Corey Wootton, the former 2010 fourth-round draft choice, who has contributed little. That would be a disaster. We’ll give Phil Emery the benefit of the doubt and assume McClellin was the correct choice at No. 19 over several more accomplished collegiate pass rushers.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. This kind of depends on the definition of “impact,” which obviously can be highly subjective. But based on history and McClellin’s position, it would be asking quite a bit for a rookie -- even a first-round pick -- to make an impact on a defense already full of impact players. More than likely, Israel Idonije will win the starting job opposite Peppers in training camp, relegating McClellin to a role as a third-down pass rushing specialist. Can he make an impact in that role? Absolutely, especially if the Bears are creative with how they deploy him. Still, my guess is he’ll need at least a season to acclimate and transition from the college game to the NFL. So if McClellin doesn’t make an immediate impact as a rookie, it doesn’t mean he’s a bust by any means. He’s still destined to be a major contributor, probably just not this season.
Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. The Bears definitely need him to be, and they certainly drafted him in the first round with that in mind, though they explored free agency and would have loved to have nabbed Jeremy Mincey. McClellin will get every opportunity to succeed and should still benefit by having Peppers on the other side. But can he be another Anderson, who had a rookie record 12 sacks as a fifth-rounder? Emery hopes so and as the situational pass-rusher McClellin will be, it could happen. But that’s a lot to expect.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I have a feeling the rookie is in for a little awakening. This isn’t Boise State, and I think all the post-draft excitement (“He’s a hard worker! He grew up on a farm! He’s country strong!”) colored the analysis a bit. Let’s see how he adapts to the speed and size of the NFL before anointing him to be any kind of impact player (like one-year wonder Mark Anderson) his first season. We’ve seen the Bears whiff on some defensive players via the draft in recent years, and while it’s a new regime at Halas, I’m still skeptical of any immediate impact by McClellin. Doesn’t mean he won’t turn out to be a good player.
Jeff Dickerson and Michael C. Wright cover the Bears for ESPNChicago.com. Jon Greenberg and Melissa Isaacson are columnists for ESPNChicago.com.
The Bears (finally) have a legitimate No. 1 receiver in Brandon Marshall, a punishing complement to Matt Forte in Michael Bush and a competent veteran backup quarterback in Jason Campbell.
Cutler and Marshall thrived with each other in the past, and the Bears are counting on the same for their Chicago reunion. Will they raise each other's games again as Bears in 2012?
Our panel weighs in on that and more in a Four Downs look at the offense heading into training camp:
Fact or Fiction: Jay Cutler will have a career season in 2012.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Check the numbers. Cutler made the Pro Bowl in 2008 for the Denver Broncos with Brandon Marshall as the No. 1 wide receiver and with Jeremy Bates on the coaching staff. The Bears, under new offensive coordinator Mike Tice, plan to tailor the scheme to Cutler’s strengths, something Mike Martz refused to do. Cutler might not eclipse the 4,526 passing yards he accumulated that year in Denver, but he could easily set career bests in touchdown passes (27), completion percentage (63.6) and quarterback rating (88.1).
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. That’s not to say Cutler won’t play well. But he won’t put together a career season in 2012 because he won’t have to. True, Cutler is surrounded by arguably more weapons than ever. But it’s important to remember that the Bears plan to revert to their running roots, which means they probably won’t rely as much on the passing game. Cutler racked up a career-high 4,526 passing yards in 2008 with 25 touchdowns. But that team finished 8-8 and didn’t advance to the playoffs. Big numbers from the quarterback aren’t necessarily indicative of a big year for the team.
Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, Bears fans shouldn’t necessarily root for a career year considering that in 2008, when he threw for a career-high 4,526 yards (with 25 touchdowns), the Broncos went 8-8, failed to make the playoffs and two days after the season ended, coach Mike Shanahan was fired. If Cutler is able to fully utilize Marshall, avoid sacks and injury (though Jason Campbell is a lot more capable than Caleb Hanie), and implement a much more friendly and familiar offense under Tice, the numbers will be there -- career-best or not -- and the Bears will benefit.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. He better, right? Even with a still-questionable offensive line -- hey, this is the Bears, don’t expect perfection -- Cutler has everything else he needs to play at his best. He’s got Marshall, Matt Forte, an offensive coordinator from Earth in Tice. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that Cutler should have the benefit of familiarity. This is his fourth season in Chicago. He seems more comfortable in his own skin. All of these things should coalesce into the season we’ve been waiting for.
Fact or Fiction: Brandon Marshall will catch 100 passes this season.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. He better. When Marshall is focused, he is hands down one of the best receivers in the NFL. It’s reasonable to expect Cutler to target Marshall an average of eight to 10 times per game. Marshall is already the best wideout in franchise history, even before catching a single pass in Chicago. So use him early and often. But as Eddie Royal showed in 2008, other receivers can have big years when Cutler and Marshall connect over 100 times in a season. Earl Bennett hauling in 70-plus catches also is not out of the question, but Marshall reaching 100 is a must.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. Marshall has pulled in 100 catches in three of his first six seasons, and he’ll come close to the century mark in 2012. But he won’t hit it. He won’t need to, similar to the way Cutler doesn’t need the quintessential “career season” for the Bears to be successful. My guess is Marshall falls into the 85-90 catch range, on the way to becoming the ninth receiver in franchise history to gain 1,000 receiving yards. There just seems to be so many other weapons in the rushing attack and receiving corps to warrant feeding the ball to Marshall. Besides that, defenses would be absolutely silly to not make stopping Marshall -- with extra coverage -- a priority.
Melissa Isaacson Fiction. If Marshall stays healthy, it’s a reasonable expectation that he will be Cutler’s favorite target and make 100 catches, which he last accomplished in 2007, 2008 and 2009. But Cutler also likes Earl Bennett quite a bit; and he’ll have promising rookie Alshon Jeffrey, Devin Hester and dare we say Kellen Davis, not to mention Forte and Bush to spread things around. So again, while it would be great if Marshall had 100 catches, it may not be necessary.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Because why not? It’s late July, time to dream big. Marshall will be a marked man, of course, but I expect Cutler and Marshall to benefit from an existing chemistry and the former’s eager arm. Marshall caught 82 passes last season in Miami. I’m not even sure the Dolphins had a quarterback.
Fact or Fiction: By the end of the season, the offensive line will go from a weakness to a strength.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. That’s too big of a leap to make before the season begins. There are plenty of concerns on the offensive line, starting with the competition at left tackle between Chris Williams and J’Marcus Webb. Neither have been world beaters in the past and protecting Cutler’s blind side is critical. There also is a little uncertainty surrounding Gabe Carimi after he missed nearly his entire rookie season with knee issues. With questions marks at both tackle spots, it’s difficult to forecast the offensive line as necessarily a strength. The Bears would be happy if it simply wasn’t a liability.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. Recent history tells us this offensive line probably won’t ever be a team strength. But the group will definitely look much better in the new Tice offense, which will eliminate the long drops and emphasize protecting Cutler over getting more targets into a route. As the season progresses, defenses surely will find ways to get pressure on Cutler. So it’s likely the offensive line will struggle on occasion. The biggest difference fans will see under Tice, though, is the Bears will correct offensive line issues much quicker than they did under Martz.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Once again, the season begins with similar questions, namely who will end up where. Beyond that, will Williams reach his potential and at which position will that happen? Will Carimi live up to the expectations of a first-round draft pick? Will Webb develop the consistency necessary to be an NFL-caliber player? And will the line as a whole protect Cutler and cut down on mental mistakes? In his final five games last season, Cutler was sacked just five times. With the Bears’ re-vamped passing game, it’s fair to expect the line to come out stronger than the beginning of last season. But it’s also fair to expect them to get better as the season goes along.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. How do you define “strength?” Forget fame and fortune, the Bears should hope the offensive line isn’t talked about at all come winter. Competency should be the first step, and with Tice installing a more normative offensive system, no more seven-step drops and midseason “Come to Lovie” meetings, the line’s individual weaknesses could be covered up and the Bears’ abysmal sack rate should go down precipitously.
Fact or Fiction: Michael Bush will have more touchdowns than Matt Forte this season.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Forte is one of the best NFL running backs between the 20s. But for whatever reason, the Bears usually prefer to let the second back do the bulk of the work inside the red zone. The Bears paid Bush good money to be Forte’s backup, so it stands to reason the organization is going to want to see a return on their investment. Letting Bush touch the ball around the goal line seems like a smart idea considering the free-agent pickup weighs in at 245 pounds. Bush also has scored 15 rushing touchdowns the past two seasons compared to nine rushing scores for Forte. However, Forte is a terrific receiver out of the backfield, and he will likely catch a few touchdowns from Cutler (Forte has eight career receiving touchdowns). But I expect Bush to narrowly edge out Forte in this department.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. This is a tough one because I certainly buy the fact the Bears will probably hand it off more to Bush in short-yardage and goal-line situations than Forte. But this season, I’m banking on Forte to score more touchdowns from 10-plus yards out. In 2011, Forte -- because of his intense training -- appeared to be a faster player than he was the previous year. I’m guessing Forte (because he trained angry due to the contract situation) will look even more beastly in 2012. In addition, look for Tice to find more ways to get Forte the ball in the passing game. Surprisingly, Forte caught just one TD pass in 2011. That number grows this season.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Potentially the best one-two running back tandem in the league, it is certainly conceivable that Bush, who was utilized in a variety of ways with the Raiders, can be used in the red zone or specifically on the goal line, where he is a strong, straight-ahead rusher. Bush gained more than 1,100 total yards in the final 10 games last season and had 13 touchdowns from 3 yards or less over the last two seasons. One way or another, after signing a four-year contract worth a reported $14 million, including a $7 million signing bonus, Bush will be used.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. It’s pretty amazing that Forte only had three rushing touchdowns. But I think he’ll benefit from the changes on offense and with Marshall in tow, the natural improvements to a lackluster red zone offense. Forte was so dynamic when he got touches, averaging nearly five yards a carry. Now that he’s getting paid like an elite back, I think he’ll finally pile up the rewards of his hard work -- the touchdowns -- be they from rushing or receiving.
Jeff Dickerson and Michael C. Wright cover the Bears for ESPNChicago.com. Jon Greenberg and Melissa Isaacson are columnists for ESPNChicago.com.
Traditionally a new GM wants to hire his own coach, but the McCaskey family made that decision before Emery was even hired, declaring that Smith will be on the job at the start of the 2012 season. After that it's up to Emery, who has the authority to hire and fire the head coach.
Does Emery's familiarity with Smith bode well for the coach and his future with the Bears? And will the Bears put the franchise tag on Matt Forte or work out a long-term deal before the Feb. 20 deadline?
Our Four Downs panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: Lovie Smith's status beyond 2012 is more secure with the hiring of Phil Emery over the other candidates.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Smith needs to make the playoffs. Another failure to reach the postseason would mark the fifth time in six years the Bears were on the outside looking in under Smith. It can't happen. Emery can talk all he wants about admiring Smith's leadership, intelligence and passion, but mark my words, Emery will be hiring a new head coach if the Bears don't win more games. Every general manager wants to hire their own head coach. Emery might have been forced into this relationship, but he does not have to stay in it forever.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. Contrary to the sentiment locally, Smith is highly regarded among his peers and Emery, and it's not hard to see why. Smith has been able to do more with less throughout his tenure, winning three division titles and taking the Bears to a pair of NFC title games over eight years. All Smith has to do to maintain his standing as the NFL's fourth-longest tenured coach is to continue fielding the same types of teams he's produced throughout his tenure: physical, hard-nosed groups that put forth maximum effort regardless of the circumstances. Emery will take care of the club's talent deficiencies, and that will only enable Smith to do his job even better. One of the most attractive aspects to the GM job for Emery was the consistency within the coaching staff. Emery won't want to disrupt that by bringing in a new coach. Besides that, it's highly unlikely Smith will give Emery a reason to go that route. Smith's ability to lead the Bears and Emery's talent-evaluation acumen will only strengthen the coach's job security in my estimation.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Sure seems to be, not just because of Emery’s brief past history with Smith when both were with the Bears when Smith was first hired, but because of Emery’s seeming need to blend in rather than rock the boat. He spoke of the importance of “consistency of teaching,” in his introductory press conference, saying that teams with less turnover on the coaching staff played faster. It would be a major upset if the Bears don’t extend Smith under Emery’s regime.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Emery wasn’t going to start his press conference by being a podium tough guy and challenge the incumbent coach, but if you listened closely he sounds amenable to long-terming Lovie. When I asked him what changed from when he left the Bears in 2004, five months after Smith took over, he said continuity. He said guys play faster when they’re comfortable. He also said that he will finalize draft plans with Smith. Sounds like he loves Lovie. I’m not sure Jason Licht would have been as amenable.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears will franchise Forte.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Perhaps the Bears eventually do work out a long-term deal with Forte. But hammering out such a complex and contested contract might take time. For that reason, it seems likely the Bears will slap the franchise tag on Forte in the allotted time period to do so according to league rules. However, the Bears could always lift the tag and sign Forte to a new deal. That should be both parties' goal moving forward.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. It sure sounded that way during Emery's introductory press conference on Monday, when he said, "It is a tool that has been collectively bargained that is fair to the player and fair to the club" when asked specifically about Forte and the franchise tag. More than likely ownership -- feeling stung by the bad public relations from last season's contentious negotiations -- increases the original offer submitted to Forte before the start of the 2011 season. But it's difficult to gauge whether Forte will accept the deal or opt to play one year under the tag. There's a chance Forte might feel so beaten down by all he's been through during negotiations that he'll accept the club's next offer. But that's highly unlikely given the stance Forte has taken since negotiations broke down. So that means the franchise tag is the next destination for the team and Forte. "In terms of using franchise tags or where we're at in that process, that's an internal manner," Emery said Monday. "We won't discuss those things. We won't discuss contract status of a player, where he's at on our team in terms of our needs and where his talent is. Those are internal matters that we will not discuss just from a competitive aspect, and now showing our opponent our cards." Is the opponent in this case Forte's agent?
Melissa Isaacson Fiction. This is an almost impossible one to predict under a new boss with no track record in negotiations to use as a barometer. On one hand, you can envision the new GM wanting to create goodwill all around by striking a deal with the Pro Bowl running back. On the other hand, Emery might agree with Angelo’s logic that Forte and his agent have over-valued him. Still, Ted Phillips seemed to indicate that he hope a change at GM will help get a deal done to keep Forte in the fold for the long term.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I think Emery is a conciliatory guy and he will work, with no baggage, on getting Forte signed. Yes, the rest of the Bears' financial braintrust is still around, but I think the Emery Era gets off on right foot with this deal. I hope it gets done, because while I support a player’s right to get paid, I’m sick of Forte’s media tour about it.
Fact or Fiction: Emery’s familiarity with many of the Bears' scouts is a good thing.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. No question about it. Emery is a career scout who held the title of college scouting director for a pair of NFL teams (Atlanta and Kansas City) so he should know a good scout when he sees one. He should also know a bad scout when he sees one. But scouts are paid to give input, not make final decisions. That is the job of the general manager. So were the Bears scouts giving Angelo sound advice and he simply chose not to listen? Or were they pounding the table for Dan Bazuin, Michael Okwo, Juaquin Iglesias, Jarron Gilbert, Marcus Harrison and the other mistakes over the years? Tough to say. But we should have a better idea after the regime change.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. Emery spoke highly of the team's scouting staff Monday, and for good reason: it's a good staff. Many don't realize how small a world the scouting community is. But Emery's familiarity with the Bears' staff not only stems from his time with the organization in the past, but also from his time spent out on the road working alongside them. Like pretty much everything else, there's a ton of gossip circulated throughout the scouting community, and word travels fast when a team's personnel department is incompetent. But that's not the buzz around the league regarding the Bears, which Emery well knows. Given this team's track record over the years throughout the draft and free agency, it's definitely fair to question some of the moves made. But even that should be scrutinized with a grain of salt. One thing I did hear during Senior Bowl week from several personnel staffers around the league was that the team's former general manager, Jerry Angelo -- partially because his extensive experience in personnel -- often didn't follow the recommendations of his scouting staff. That won't transpire with Emery as the GM partially because of his familiarity with Chicago's scouts, but also because of his philosophy of empowering the folks working underneath him and holding them accountable.
Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. Again, could go either way. Yes, Emery will be able to judge his staff’s abilities a bit quicker than someone who has never worked with them. On the other hand, this could have the Lovie effect, meaning that Emery may be hesitant to make changes even if they’re needed (though he did, by mutual agreement, presumably do that with Tim Ruskell). There’s also something to the old saying that familiarity breeds contempt and that too much of a history may undermine Emery’s authority.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. He’s been gone for awhile, so I think he can look at them with a clear eye. After this draft, he plans to change the system to be more like the “Patriots way” he learned in Atlanta and Kansas City. Basically, it’s a different way of grading and organizing players. Emery has shown that he won’t be beholden to the past, judging by the quick exit of his former boss, Tim Ruskell.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears’ top priority in free agency should be a No. 1 receiver.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. The Bears can go a variety of different ways at No. 19 in the upcoming draft (provided they select an impact player) but in free agency, the team needs to spend money to land a top-flight wide receiver. There is a good chance, barring a surge in the use of the franchise tag, that numerous upper-echelon wideouts will hit the open market. Earl Bennett is a solid receiver. Johnny Knox, whose health status is a mystery, is a weapon when used properly. But after those two, the Bears need serious help at the position. Look at the NFL landscape. The good teams have multiple threats in the passing game. The Bears need to catch up, and it starts in free agency.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. I view this similarly to buying a Ferrari (Jay Cutler) and putting tires from a minivan (Chicago's receiving corps) on it. You just don't do it. For the Bears to see the type of return on their investment in Cutler they desire, they have to protect him -- which they've done -- and put dangerous weapons around him. Until then, Cutler's production on the field won't ever match up with his immense physical gifts. In 41 games with the Bears, Cutler has posted a franchise-best 82.1 passer rating, throwing for 9,259 yards and 63 touchdowns with 49 interceptions. Now go back to the receivers he's thrown to since 2009, and honestly tell me that Cutler's numbers wouldn't be much higher with at least one legitimate game-breaking target. The encouraging aspect of all of this is the fact recently-promoted offensive coordinator Mike Tice has been somewhat vocal about the team's need to add a dynamic threat to the group of receivers. Adding just one makes the current group even better because the Bears can move players around such as Earl Bennett and Devin Hester to take advantage of matchups with teams being forced to devote more coverage to the No. 1 receiver. As it stands now, opposing defenses can play man to man against Chicago's receivers and win most of the individual matchups. Emery and the coaching staff know that, and will act accordingly.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. ES. Get the best player available come draft time. In free agency, go for needs and need No. 1 for the Bears is a top-flight receiver, which also happens to be a position in which you’d rather have a veteran than a rookie. The window for your franchise quarterback is a fragile proposition and the best teams in the NFL have shown clearly that a superior passing game is a must. So yes, the Bears should and obviously will keep their eyes open for deals on offensive linemen, defensive lineman, safeties, corners and perhaps a tight end, if his name is Jermichael Finley. But for the love of all that is sacred, find a receiver this offseason.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. That should be the focus in the draft too, as Emery has to decide where he should allocate money for a Cutler target. Would it make more sense to spend a valuable pick on a receiver, dole out money for whoever’s on the market, or look for a receiver in a trade? Chicago should be a top landing spot for a free agent receiver, so this shouldn’t be as hard as Angelo made it in the past.
But will the 60-year-old coach really retire? Our Four Downs panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: Mike Martz will never coach again in the NFL.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. This is not a voluntary retirement. Martz certainly did not sound like a coach who wanted to call it a career after the 2011 season. In fact, his name continued to pop up in connection with college and NFL jobs up until last week. But let's face it, Martz's best days are behind him. Nobody can take away the success he had in St. Louis as offensive coordinator and head coach, but the Mike Martz system did not work in Chicago, and he proved incapable of adapting. His total disregard of the tight end position in the passing game seems out of touch with the current landscape in the league. Still, Martz will be remembered as a brilliant offensive mind who helped guide the Rams to two Super Bowl appearances and one championship during his time there. It's just too bad we never saw that Martz in Chicago.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. Interestingly, Bears coach Lovie Smith receives tons of criticism for his defense being supposedly outdated (although there are still successful teams running very similar schemes). But it’s Martz’s system that seems to be outdated. The Greatest-Show-on-Turf days passed Martz by a long time ago, and he never exercised the flexibility to make that pass-happy scheme jibe with the talent on the roster. In my mind, Martz has committed one of the cardinal sins of today’s NFL, and that’s placing importance on the scheme over the players executing it. That approach just doesn’t work in today’s NFL, and is part of the reason Martz’s name hadn’t come up for any potential openings prior to him announcing his retirement. Had Martz demonstrated a desire to be more flexible with his scheme when he met with Smith, I’m almost certain he’d still be with the Bears today.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Otherwise, we’re calling him a liar, right? I suppose if the right offer from the right team comes along, Martz, like anyone, could be convinced to go back on his word that the Bears offensive coordinator position is his last job. Football coaches don’t tend to retire easily. But making it easier for Martz is that he isn’t likely to be offered a head-coaching position again, and even he seems to realize that his best coordinating days may have passed him by.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. I just don’t see who would hire him. He has very few allies and no coaching tree fraternity. He’s not that old either. But he refused to change. Good coaches grow and evolve with the time, but Martz was adamant that his system was the best, and the only way he would work. His offense does work, but his rigidity just doesn’t fly in the NFL. We groused a lot about Martz, but before his injury, you could see Cutler was pretty comfortable in the offense, sideline expletives notwithstanding.
Fact or Fiction: There is a large gap between the Bears and the eight NFL teams in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Sorry, but it all comes down to offense, or a lack thereof right now with the Bears. Even defensive- and special teams-minded San Francisco was able to outscore the high-powered Saints offense because of dynamic tight end Vernon Davis. The Bears had Kellen Davis, not Vernon, on the roster this season. Sure, the Giants can run the ball with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, but New York also has serious threats in the passing game with Hakeen Nicks and Victor Cruz. In fact, Mario Manningham would look pretty good in a Bears uniform next season, and he's the Giants' third option at receiver. The Bears already lost in the regular season to Green Bay (twice), New Orleans and Denver, albeit an argument could be made the Bears might be better than the Broncos. The Texans also appear to be a more complete team than the Bears, and New England is head and shoulders better than Lovie Smith's crew. But the good news is the Bears have an opportunity to make the necessary upgrades in the offseason, but much work needs to be done to bridge the gap.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. Absolutely not. The Bears defeated Atlanta and Detroit in the regular season and took the Broncos to the wire on the road with a backup quarterback and a running back that somehow lost all common sense in the clutch. I’ll buy that a talent gap exists between the Bears and most of those teams, but I’m not quite ready to call it a large one. Because of the team’s disappointing finish, it’s easy to lose sight of its 7-3 start. What this season has taught everyone more than anything is that the Bears need depth and youth in a few spots, a weapon or two for quarterback Jay Cutler, and a legitimate backup for him. But this team isn’t far off from being where it needs to be, and I sense ownership is committed to doing what’s necessary to make that happen.
Melissa Isaacson Fiction. Obviously it depends on which playoff team we’re talking about and which Bears team we’re talking about. But if we’re referring to the worst of the playoff bunch -- Denver -- and the Bears as they looked before Jay Cutler’s injury, then no, they’re not far off at all. This should not, however, be interpreted as a vote of confidence for a Bears team as currently constructed. Gaping holes, which still includes the front office, will need to be filled before even a smaller gap can be closed at all.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. The Bears were right there after week 11. But great organizations can overcome injuries, and the Bears couldn’t do that. Still, how many teams can survive six games without their starting quarterback? Quick, name New Orleans’ backup? I had to look it up. It’s Chase Daniel. The Bears have their fair share of depth issues, but if Cutler had played the last six games, the Bears would have made the playoffs.
Fact or Fiction: Ex-Bucs OC Greg Olson would be a good choice for Bears quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. The Bears would be wise to continue interviewing candidates once the coaching staff returns from vacation, but Olson represents a solid upgrade over what the Bears had at that position the past few years. Olson, the former offensive coordinator for Detroit, St. Louis and Tampa, brings an impressive amount of experience to the table, plus a track record of installing easy-to-understand and easy-to-install passing game concepts. The shakeup Tuesday in Indianapolis might give the Bears an expanded pool of candidates to choose from, but Olson is without doubt a qualified contender to fill the vacancy.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. But is a “good choice” the best choice? That’s the question the Bears need to answer in making a decision on that position should recently-promoted offensive coordinator Mike Tice remain with the team after his interview with the Oakland Raiders. Olson definitely built a track record of success on the collegiate level, where he worked with Saints quarterback Drew Brees at Purdue, and in the NFL, with multiple teams. Olson directed an offense the last three years for a Tampa Bay team which fielded one of the youngest rosters in the league, and was led by standouts such as quarterback Josh Freeman, receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn and running back LaGarrette Blount. So undoubtedly, Olson would be a good choice for this team. Bears receiver Roy Williams worked with Olson in Detroit and called him a “great teacher.”
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. OK, sure. Olson has some decent credentials, having developed Brees at Purdue and Freeman in Tampa Bay, and he would be helpful in working with the Bears backup, whomever ends up in that role. But frankly, based on the track record of Bears quarterback coaches, it doesn’t seem to matter who they hire as long as he can get play calls in on time and generally stay out of the way of Cutler.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Cutler and Olsen got along well early in their shared Bears career … Oh wait, this is the other guy. Yeah sure. He sounds great. The Buccaneers had a pretty efficient offense in 2010, judging by Football Outsiders’ numbers, but were subpar in 2009 and 2011, which spans his three-year reign as offensive coordinator there. Really, it doesn’t matter about the numbers or what scouts say about him. It’s all about his relationship with Cutler. Is he a guy who speaks Jay’s language? Do the Bears know how to work for their quarterback? These are big questions.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears were wrong to prevent Jon Hoke from interviewing for the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator position.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Hoke will probably get over it. He seems to enjoy coaching in Chicago, has a family that has begun to put down roots in the area, and will more than likely get a nice pay bump out of the whole deal. But the concept of preventing a coach from potentially advancing up the ranks is unsettling. I realize Minnesota is a division rival, but to deny somebody the chance to interview for a better job seems unfair. The NFL needs to look into changing that rule in the future.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. And I’m only saying this is fact because the team’s decision to prevent Hoke from interviewing totally defies what Smith said in his season-ending press conference. Smith said that “every coach on our staff … you would like to see them take another step. Hopefully we’ll have guys on our staff get an opportunity to move up, whether that’s assistant coaches moving into coordinator roles.” Well, that’s exactly what Hoke was attempting to do by interviewing with the Vikings. Now on the flip side of that, it’s certainly understandable for the organization to prevent a coach from joining a divisional rival. There are just too many trade secrets Hoke could give up to the Vikings that would put the Bears at a competitive disadvantage. I’m a little on the fence about this one. But ultimately, a man’s word is his word. Smith said he wanted to see his assistant coaches move up the coaching ladder, and that’s not what the team is doing by stopping Hoke from interviewing elsewhere, division rival or not.
Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. Morally wrong or ethically wrong? Obviously you don’t want to help a division rival in any way, but Smith has always preached that he wants the best for his staff and whoever made the decision not to let Hoke interview for a better job in Minnesota was not exactly making Halas Hall look like a swell place to work. This is particularly the case now that they have denied staff members a chance at career advancement for the second year in a row after telling the Titans they could not interview Tice. Bottom line, however, is that Hoke is still under contract and the Bears have every right to hold him to it.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Let’s not pretend the NFL is the real world. It’s a secretive and gossipy, congenial and cutthroat. As a scout told me the other day, to succeed in the NFL, you have to be a different breed. And most front offices are so wary about their secrets spilling out, they don’t let coaches go to rivals when they can help it. And since Hoke is under contract, it’s no surprise the Bears blocked him from a promotion in Minnesota. It’s sad, sure, but it’s not unfair given the law of the jungle.
But given his close ties to the previous administration, should he be considered? Our Four Downs panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: Ruskell should be a viable candidate for Bears GM
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. It sounds as if Ruskell is the Bears' absolute last resort. Which he should be. How can you sell the fan base on the idea of closing the talent gap within the division if you simply promote Angelo's right hand man? If Ruskell ends up with the job, why did they fire Angelo in the first place? Say what you want about Angelo, he won four division titles and made the Super Bowl during his tenure in Chicago. It wasn't all bad. Angelo was a much more accomplished NFL general manager than Ruskell, who had success early in Seattle after he walked into an excellent situation with a Super Bowl-winning coach (Mike Holmgren), but after a rough 2008, was forced out 11 games into the 2009 season. Ruskell landed in Chicago the following spring and has been a mystery to those of us covering the team. He's been made available to speak to the media only twice. What does he do? How involved has he been the past two years? We simply don't know. All we know for sure is that Ruskell is an Angelo guy. Which is why it makes no sense for the Bears to hire him for this job.
Michael C. Wright: Ruskell’s batting average in talent acquisition and retention isn’t good enough for me. Sure, Ruskell started his tenure as Seattle’s president and general manager with the best run of postseason success in franchise history, which included four playoff victories from 2005 to 2007. Upon Ruskell’s ousting, however, the Seahawks had stumbled to an 8-19 from 2008 to his departure. In addition, the Seahawks yielded only one Pro Bowler (LB Lofa Tatupu, who is no longer with the team) in five drafts presided over by Ruskell.
Ruskell didn’t perform better outside of the draft, either. In his second season, the Seahawks let all-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson walk for no compensation, then re-signed aging running back Shaun Alexander to a huge contract, only to cut him two years later. In an attempt to remedy the Alexander fiasco, Ruskell brought in T.J. Duckett and Edgerrin James. Uh, no; that’s not going to get it. Considering Chicago’s need at the receiver position, we can take a look at Ruskell’s track record there, too. In 2006 Ruskell gave up a first-round selection in the 2007 draft to sign Deion Branch. After surrendering the first-round pick, Ruskell signed Branch to a six-year, $39 million extension. Branch, in turn, gave the Seahawks five forgettable seasons in which he never started all 16 games. He never caught more than 53 passes in a season for the Seahawks or gained more than 725 yards. So if Phillips values job security, he’ll pass on Ruskell.
Melissa Isaacson Fiction. To make a major move and fire Angelo, only to replace him by Angelo’s recent hire, good friend and someone with less-than-stellar reviews in his last job would not be the change Bears brass have promised. And how can the Bears feel that Ruskell would give them his complete loyalty? Weird that he is even being considered.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. New blood means new blood. At the goodbye Angelo press conference, Bears’ Head Accountant Phillips said what fans have been saying for years: The Bears need to better utilize the draft to build the team, and Ruskell’s record is spotty. Not terrible -- he hit on some picks in Seattle -- but it’s far from sterling. At this point, the Bears need to start fresh with some fresh eyes, not settle for Angelo’s hand-picked deputy.
Fact or Fiction: Lovie Smith hurts the Bears' chances of landing a prime GM candidate.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. I think Reggie McKenzie settled that debate out in Oakland. General managers want to hire head coaches, not inherit them. Angelo felt the same way about Dick Jauron when he took over the Bears in 2001, but was forced to extend Jauron's contract after a surprise division title that first year. The McCaskey family's mantra that Smith be retained in 2012 makes the job much less appealing to potential candidates around the NFL. That's just reality. Now, the Bears could still end up getting the right guy despite the head-coaching road block, but if Lovie was out of the way, GM candidates across the league would be fighting to get to Halas Hall for an interview. It's still a good job, but it could be so much better.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. Part of me definitely sees Phillips’ point of Smith being an actual selling point to the general manager post. The ownership-imposed caveat on any potential GM of retaining Smith as the head coach might turn off some candidates. Just as easily it can be seen as a positive. Smith receives hefty criticism for a variety of issues, but his ability to hold together a team in difficult circumstances is unquestionable. The players respect Smith immensely and will always play hard for him, as seen during the disappointing end to this past season. Besides that, ownership’s one restriction is that Smith remains the head coach in 2012. Phillips and chairman George McCaskey never said the coach has to remain beyond next season. So surely prospective GM candidates would have leeway to jettison Smith if, for whatever reason, the two can’t co-exist or the 2012 campaign is unsuccessful.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. If not, then he should. Why would a GM with a mind of his own -- the type the Bears should be looking for -- want to come in with the strong impression left by management that not only will Smith take part in the hiring process but also wield the kind of power that leads to conflicts? Yes, the new GM will apparently be told he can also fire Smith after next season if he wants, but that essentially turns the head coach into a lame duck and that’s not the ideal situation to walk into either. Not allowing a new GM to hire his own head coach is not a good way to start a new regime.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Smith is signed for two more years, and he’s only guaranteed to be around in 2012. For all Smith’s flaws, he’s still the right coach for the team in place. It’s his defense, and the players respond well to Smith’s leadership. I see no reason why he’s an albatross. The only sticking point is, how much sway does he have over the McCaskey family and Phillips? If a GM senses that Smith is out to win a power struggle first, then he might have some concern.
Fact or Fiction: Wide receiver is the Bears' biggest need in the offseason.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Just look around the league. The 2011 NFL playoff teams all have legitimate playmakers at the wide receiver position. The Bears must look to upgrade that spot either via the draft, free agency, or both. It's a very good crop of free agent receivers expected to be on the market, including Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Wes Welker and Marques Colston. If the Bears stay at No. 19 in the draft, they could select Notre Dame's Michael Floyd, Baylor's Kendall Wright or South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery. Although everybody hopes Johnny Knox will recover from a major back injury in time for training camp, the Bears need to protect themselves at the position and find at least two new quality wideouts. If the new GM has the green light to spend money, the Bears should be able to accomplish that goal.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. Recently-hired offensive coordinator Mike Tice has repeatedly talked about the need to exploit matchups, whether it’s through the running game or the passing game. Well, when the roster doesn’t contain any potential matchup problems for opponents at receiver, that eliminates one facet -- a major one at that -- in Chicago’s potential attack. So receiver is absolutely the biggest need at this point because, realistically, running back Matt Forte is the only consistently dangerous threat teams must always account for. By acquiring a legitimate receiving threat, the Bears actually add multiple weapons to the arsenal in the form of their other receivers such as Earl Bennett and Devin Hester. That’s accomplished in a number of ways schematically. If the Bears acquire a legitimate receiver (he doesn’t necessarily have to be a true No. 1), based on Tice’s track record, look for the team to start using Hester -- because of his deep speed -- in the slot more to take opposing safeties out of the tackle box, which opens up the run for Forte and takes pressure off the outside receivers.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. How about two or three wide receivers? Though the Bears certainly have other needs, wide receiver has to move up on the list of priorities for several reasons. One, it is unlikely they would find the top-flight receiver they need in the lower rounds of the draft (even though Angelo kept trying) if that’s the route the new GM decides to take. But more importantly, the team needs to give Jay Cutler every chance to reach his full potential while he’s still in his prime. And with the NFL clearly becoming a passing league, the Bears have to at least make an effort to stay competitive.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. There are myriad positions that need addressing on both sides of the ball, but it is past due to give Cutler an elite weapon. The offense is dependent on Cutler, as we found out in the aftermath of his injury, and while he can make average receivers better, it would be nice to give him a taller receiver that can stretch the field vertically. Offensive line, safety, defensive line and linebacker are other positions that require scrutiny.
Fact or Fiction: Forte should skip the Pro Bowl.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Go ahead, Matt, knock yourself out. Who wouldn't want a free trip to Hawaii for a week? I've been to the Pro Bowl (2002), and trust me, it's a blast unless you head across the Pacific in search of competitive football. The game itself is a joke. The risk of Forte getting hurt or re-injuring the ankle is extremely small. If the Bears had made the financial commitment to Forte and signed him to an extension, then I would advise against Forte participating in the Pro Bowl. But Forte is still without a new deal. He doesn't owe the Bears anything. He can do what he wants.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. I understand his importance to the team. But I also think it’s important to give Forte the opportunity to bask in this opportunity/honor/experience. There was a time during contract negotiations the front office used the fact Forte hadn’t made a Pro Bowl as a bargaining tool for a lesser deal. Surely that’s in the back of Forte’s mind as he prepares to play in this Pro Bowl. Besides that, who knows whether he’ll ever make another Pro Bowl? Obviously, there’s an injury risk associated with playing in this game. But for the most part, Forte has already assumed that injury risk over four years and 62 games while playing on a bargain-basement contract. One more game -- in which players don’t typically go full throttle -- isn't going to hurt anything.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. You have to admire Forte for wanting to work hard, rehab his injured knee and play in the Pro Bowl. And you have to appreciate the fact that he’s excited to play in his first one. But you wonder what else he’s thinking. Surely, if he were to re-injure the knee, it would do nothing to help his bargaining power. But the decision to play seems to suggest that his desire to prove something to the Bears and the rest of the league is his main motive and that just doesn’t seem worth the risk.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Yes, the Pro Bowl is stupid. Yes, Forte is coming off a knee injury and looking for new paper. But as long as he doesn’t play flag football on the beach like Robert Edwards, I think his knee will hold up fine in Hawaii. If the doctors give him the OK, he can play. It’s a right he’s earned, even if it means absolutely nothing. It’s also a nice how-do-you-do to the Bears front office, who absurdly used his lack of Pro Bowl credentials in their contract negotiations.
Our Four Downs panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: The Bears would have won at least two games with McCown starting after Cutler’s injury.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. That’s impossible to say for sure. How can we know if McCown would have been ready to start before the Packers game? He was coaching high school football until late November. Plus, McCown did not fare well in practice prior to the week of the Packers game, so I don’t blame the coaching staff for sticking with Caleb Hanie until Sunday. If McCown would have played the kind of football he did against Green Bay in those contests versus Kansas City or Denver, then sure, the Bears win. But there is no guarantee it would have happened.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. If you saw McCown shortly after his arrival with the Bears, you would have wondered what he was doing on an NFL roster. It looked that bad at practice, and several players confirmed McCown had been struggling. So I won't question the coaching staff's timing as to when they decided to make McCown the guy. It took McCown some time to get acclimated to playing in the NFL again, and reacquainted with Mike Martz's scheme. Had the Bears gone with McCown sooner, the results would likely have been as disastrous as what we all saw with Hanie under center.
Melissa Isaacson Fiction. Hate these questions! Yes, I said with Donovan McNabb they could have won one or more but wasn’t willing to go any further than one. So am I willing to say McCown would have led the Bears to two victories against the Raiders, Chiefs, Broncos or Seahawks? In the final analysis, it’s not all on the quarterback, which we saw clearly against the Packers. So no, the Bears needed and need more.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. There’s something about a backup performing at a mediocre clip that turns Chicagoans into dreamers. I’m not saying he wouldn’t have been better than Hanie, but it’s not like McCown lit the world on fire against Green Bay. He just wasn’t awful. Maybe the Bears win a couple games with him, but I’m not convinced.
Fact or Fiction: The blame for another season missing the playoffs falls more on the front office than the coaching staff.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Teams win as an organization, and they lose as an organization. It’s just like blaming Hanie for the Bears failing to miss the playoffs. It’s not just the responsibility of one player, one coach or one front office member. Everybody needs to do their job better in 2012, from the top on down. The front office needs to sign and draft better players, the coaches need to put the players in a better situation to win and the players need to execute better. Blaming just one aspect of the organization is the easy way out. The Bears need to show significant improvement on all fronts. Otherwise, the club will be forced to make radical changes after the 2012 campaign.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. The injuries definitely don't fall on the coaching staff. But the ability to evaluate and acquire quality replacements is the responsibility of the front office, which failed on that front with the backup quarterback situation. The front office seemed to be so hung up on acquiring a player with knowledge and experience in Martz's offense that it reduced the talent pool of potential quarterbacks. You could also look at the contributions of the team's free agent acquisitions in assessing the job done by the front office.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Though it's not all on the quarterback, GM Jerry Angelo and his staff simply did not leave the Bears with an adequate backup plan. And they did Jay Cutler no favors with a sub-par receiving corps and offensive line, which was painfully obvious after he was sidelined. The coaching staff is certainly not blameless (someone should have reminded Marion Barber to stay inbounds, for example) but the front office is ultimately where the buck stops.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I think the blame should be equally dispersed between the two camps. The front office deserves blame for not improving the offensive line and adding a better wide receiver. The coaches deserve blame for not adequately preparing a game plan to put Hanie in the right situations. And if Hanie wasn’t capable of running an NFL team, then the coaches should have made sure Angelo understood that.
Fact or Fiction: Kahlil Bell has shown enough to be the No. 2 running back in 2012.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Bell plays like a winner. He runs hard, shows good vision and can help out on special teams. He is far more valuable than injury-prone Marion Barber. I’m not sure how comfortable I’d feel entering the season with Barber as the No. 1 in the event Matt Forte is traded or holds out, but as a complement to Forte, Bell is ideal. Another good game Sunday versus the Vikings will no doubt hammer home the point to any Bears fans still on the fence.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. In two starts Bell has performed with significant workloads. But what's also promising is the fact he's so similar to Forte in terms of what he brings to the offense. Like Forte, Bell can be somewhat of a slasher who can also contribute as a threat in the passing game. Bell has also shown he can be an inside runner that can move the pile in short-yardage situations.
Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. Love what Bell has shown so far, but have we not learned enough about backups in meaningful positions to at least have some healthy competition in training camp? Yes, Bell has looked promising and it will be fun to see him in another starting role against the Vikings, but don’t get too carried away with his 121 yards (on 23 carries) against the Packers either as the Bears media guide is full of guys like Brock Forsey, who in 2003 rushed for 134 yards (on 27 carries).
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Bell is fast and Bell is hungry. He could be a No. 1 back in the right system (think Denver during Mike Shanahan’s run), and he easily could be a factor for the Bears next season. And I guarantee you this, Bell will talk to the media after the game.
Fact or Fiction: Barber and Roy Williams won’t be back in 2012.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Williams is gone. Let’s move the drill. But I can’t totally write off Barber until I know what is going on with Forte. Barber performed at a decent level before the meltdown in the Mile High City, and even in that game he rushed for 108 yards. If Forte gets a new deal, I immediately kick Barber to the curb and draft another running back or perhaps take a closer look at Armando Allen. However, as long as Forte is hanging in limbo, I probably keep Barber and his $1.9 million base salary in 2012.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. My head tells me both won't be back, but my gut says the Bears may try to re-sign Williams as insurance. Williams played his best game as a Bear against the Packers, and really he's been a fairly decent third-down receiver. If the Bears decide to totally revamp the receiving corps, I don't think Williams will be back. But my guess is the Bears won't be willing to spend the money it takes to do that. So if the club adds one or two more receiving threats, it might be a good idea to keep Williams if the front office can get him to agree to a veteran minimum type of deal. As for Barber, I think Bears coach Lovie Smith pretty much said good-bye to him on Monday without actually saying it. He's missed too much time because of injuries, cost the team two games with bone-headed plays, and has been outplayed by Bell, who will wind up being a cheaper option for the team.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. If Williams is back, then the entire front office needs to go, and I’d be a little worried about Angelo. Williams is an easy call as he was a relatively small ($1.5 million), one-year investment and the experiment obviously did not pay off. As for Barber, the Bears owe him approximately $2 million next season and the Bears will be in for a $2.875 million cap hit. But the injury-riddled Barber has missed four games with a bad calf and had as many negative moments as positives (with the mental gaffes against Kansas City and Denver enough to get a lot of players cut on the spot). There’s not a Bears fan around who wouldn’t say that it’s worth it to eat the $2 million and get rid of two more ex-Cowboys in one fell swoop.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. I don’t see any reason to bring both back. Mental gaffes aside, Barber has been solid, but I think Bell can back up Forte. Williams, a great postgame quote, hasn’t done much to elicit a return. I think the Bears can finish 8-8 without these two. And why wasn’t Sam Hurd included in this question?
Our Four Downs panel weighs in on the Bears' predicament:
Fact or Fiction: Donovan McNabb or Brett Favre would have won at least one or two of the last four
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Forget about Favre. He last played in an NFL game in 2010, so he was never an option, even though he privately expressed interest in speaking with the Bears after Jay Cutler got hurt. McNabb is another story. He started games for the Vikings this year, and I'm quite confident he could have won at least one of these last four games, especially the one versus Kansas City. Failing to take a chance and sign McNabb seems like a costly mistake in hindsight.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. Nobody wants to hear that, but it's absolutely true. Let's look at this realistically. Aside from the beatdown at the hands of Seattle, the Bears were in the position to win games against Oakland, Kansas City and Denver. You can't convince me that McNabb wouldn't have won at least two of those three games. Despite Favre's age, I think he could've won at least one of those outings. So say what you want about those guys being over the hill. But the Bears made the mistake of not seriously considering how much experience could have factored into all of this. The team got too hung up on Martz's complex offense. If it's so complicated it cuts off the talent pool, change it. The Bears chose the system over the players, and honestly, I haven't seen near as many "systems" win football games as I have players. It's the whole Jimmys and Joes vs. X's and O's argument. I think we now know which side wins.
Melissa Isaacson Fact. Considering that one victory in the last four Bears games is not that high a standard, yes, I think one of the two -- even out of shape and not exactly in their prime -- could have eked out a victory against the Chiefs or Seahawks, maybe even Denver or, given the momentum at the time, Oakland. Did I advocate for either of the two at the time? No. But in hindsight, one victory -- which probably would not have been good enough for a playoff berth anyway -- doesn't sound like a tall order for a professional or even formerly professional quarterback.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. I think you could take Brett Favre off his tractor, dress him in tight Wranglers, and he'd still be better than Caleb Hanie. Yeah, yeah, the offense is too difficult. Football is football and two veterans like those could've figured something out. As lousy as McNabb has been the last two years, he's still better than Hanie. I'm not saying the Bears erred by not signing McNabb or trying to lure Favre out of retirement, the timing wasn't good, but let's not pretend they couldn't be better than Hanie.
Fact or Fiction: Jerry Angelo's legacy will list not having a good No. 2 quarterback as his biggest mistake.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Angelo has won four division championships during his tenure as Bears general manager, so let's not make it sound as if there were no positives during his tenure. That's unfair. But if you're looking to pinpoint the biggest mistake; that would be evaluating college players leading up to the draft. There have been way too many misses over the years, particularly in the early rounds. However, I stand by Angelo's decision to begin the year with Hanie as the No. 2 quarterback. The problem was failing to sign an accomplished veteran (McNabb) later in the season.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. Absolutely, it will, right next to the lack of receivers, refusal to budge in the Matt Forte negotiations, and his decisions to not address issues on the offensive line in a timely manner. Having covered the NFL for a long time, I've never seen a collapse this significant. All of it can be traced back to this team's personnel decisions. I'd be lying if I didn't admit that Angelo's free-agent acquisitions have helped this team. But it's been minimally. And get this: Angelo signed Sam Hurd to a deal -- counting the receiver's signing bonus -- that would pay $1.985 million in 2011. Meanwhile, Forte is making $600,000 and begging for a fair-market deal. Not to get too slang here, but where they do that at?
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. But only because he has done it on a number of occasions (though it was obviously most glaring this season). Angelo's biggest mistake, however, is not so easy to narrow down with the number of draft missteps (i.e., Cedric Benson, Marc Colombo, Michael Haynes, Dan Buzuin); offensive line, defensive secondary and wide receiver woes and general bungles. It might not even be his biggest mistake this acquisitions (see: Roy Williams and Brandon Meriweather) but ok, I'll go along with it.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I think his failure to surround Jay Cutler with a better offensive line and one legit go-to receiver are far more egregious wrongs. I know we're provincial here, but there are plenty of lousy backups out there. That's not to say Angelo shouldn't be judged for this obvious mistake, but I think the dearth of pass-blocking linemen and game-breaking wideouts is worse. You have to plan for success as well as failure. Angelo did neither well.
Fact or Fiction: The fallout from the Sam Hurd arrest impacted the Bears on Sunday
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Sam Hurd was an excellent special teams contributor. Right now, you've got several rookies contributing on special teams who really have no business being on the field. Hurd was also the personal protect on punt, an important job in the grand scheme of things. So his loss hurt the Bears on the field versus Seattle. Plus, the whole idea that an accused drug dealer was your teammate for the last five months probably affected some of the players. The whole thing was a major distraction at a time when the Bears simply could not afford another distraction. Hurd didn't cause the loss, but he contributed to it.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. Interestingly, a former Bears player called the day after the Hurd arrest and predicted this would happen. He said to watch the game closely to see if the Bears would make huge mistakes on what should be routine plays. That's exactly what this team did. Once the whistle blows and the players get in between the lines, off-the-field distractions aren't an issue. But where the Hurd arrest came into play in this is in the team's preparation. The fallout from the Hurd arrest hit Halas Hall on a Thursday, which is one of the heavy days of a team's preparation for an opponent. So Hurd affected the cerebral element of this team's preparation. On Thursday and Friday, the Hurd arrest was the talk of the locker room. Players were even asking reporters for details about the arrest. So don't think for a minute that this didn't impact the product on the field Sunday.
Melissa Isaacson: Fiction: Impossible to prove. I may still be persuaded to believe it, however, if not for the fact that the Bears, in their current form, were fully capable of losing to Seattle with the week running smoothly. That said, it was the last thing they needed.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I'm sure it didn't help the team's focus during the week, but the writing was on the wall well before we found out Sam Hurd was trying to relive "The Wire." Hurd was the one who got caught up in the "trap game." The Bears just stink without Cutler.
Fact or Fiction: Nathan Enderle should start at Lambeau.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction: If Cutler can't go, start Josh McCown and bring in Enderle if things get out of hand. Enderle wasn't a first round pick. He's not the quarterback of the future. He's a fifth-rounder who's never taken a real NFL snap. Don't throw the guy to the wolves and ruin his confidence moving forward. I agree Enderle should play some this year, just not in the first half at Lambeau Field. And that's how it looks like it's going to play out judging from practice this week.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. My belief is you're conceding the season if you go this route. Look, Enderle is a rookie and shouldn't be given his first action in an environment such as Lambeau Field. That could be overwhelming for a rookie who hasn't yet played in a regular-season game, and damaging for his psyche. The Bears are still in contention for a postseason berth, and until they're out of it, they should be doing everything they can to capture a victory. That means the team should go with the quarterback that gives them the best chance to win. If they truly believe Enderle is that guy, then go with him. But I don't think the Bears are thinking along those lines. Now, if the Bears lay an egg at Lambeau on Sunday, which would put them out of the playoff hunt, I think the team should then see about taking a look at Enderle.
Melissa Isaacson: Fiction: I'd rather see Josh McCown considering that there is little to no chance Enderle will be in the running for back-up duties next season. And throwing in the rookie on national TV Christmas night feels cruel and unusual. McCown was signed presumably to go in if Hanie couldn't do the job. The Bears obviously waited a little long on that one, but let's see him in action already and let Enderle get some time against Minnesota.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Why not? We've all seen enough of Hanie to know he's not the answer. Starting Josh McCown isn't the answer either. The Bears drafted Enderle for a reason, I assume. You can always replace him with Hanie, if it doesn't work out, which I'm assuming it won't. Heck, I'd like to see Adam Podlesh at quarterback. Maybe he can provide a Hanukkah miracle.
Would the Bears' situation be different if general manager Jerry Angelo had acquired a veteran backup quarterback either before the season or when Cutler went down on Nov. 20? Our Four Downs panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: Jerry Angelo’s biggest mistake was not having a proven backup quarterback this season.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Caleb Hanie's performance in the NFC Championship Game last year earned him the right to serve as the Bears No. 2 quarterback heading into 2011. While Hanie deserves some blame for the Bears' three-game losing streak, he is not the sole reason for the club's decline since Cutler broke his right thumb against San Diego. The Bears' quarterback mistake came when the team failed to sign Donovan McNabb after he was released by the Minnesota Vikings. McNabb would have provided a quality option after Hanie on the Bears' depth chart, an option that does not exist on the 53-man roster.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. Sure the Bears drafted Nathan Enderle, but the team needed to acquire someone experienced to compete with Hanie for that No. 2 job. Competition likely would have even made Hanie a better player. Perhaps the lockout affected Angelo’s decision-making process somewhat. Maybe he figured that bringing in someone new with no offseason, no organized team activities or minicamp would be worse than not acquiring someone at all. But the team should have learned from last season’s NFC title game that Cutler isn’t invincible, despite his reputation for toughness and durability. So it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to make a move for a quarterback. Surely the team couldn’t have been convinced that Hanie was a legitimate No. 2 based solely on practice and his limited action in the playoffs last year. But I do understand the team’s thinking on this. More and more around the league, teams are carrying just two quarterbacks on the roster. The Bears started the season with three, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t want to do that.
Melissa Isaacson Fiction. This has been a weakness of the Bears GM since he has been here. But unfortunately, he has made bigger mistakes than that this season like failing to strengthen the wide receiving corps. Roy Williams wasn’t much of an investment, but it still hasn’t exactly paid off like Angelo thought it would. The offensive line is actually over-achieving. Linebacker is thin. Marion Barber had been OK, but if the final analysis says that he cost the Bears a shot at the playoffs, that isn’t OK.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Look around the league. Every so often, there is a T.J. Yates, or a Matt Cassel-type or even Kurt Warner, but there’s also no shortage of awful quarterbacks. It’s mystifying why, in a country that treats football as the official religion, there aren’t enough quarterbacks for the highest level of football. I blame it on the complicated offenses that teams run, and in this case, Mike Martz’s system. Warner was a once-in-a-lifetime type backup. Hanie is more of the reality. Angelo’s biggest mistakes were not paying for better receivers and linemen.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears should bench Caleb Hanie.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. With Cutler on the shelf, Hanie remains the best healthy quarterback in the building. Despite all the poor passing numbers, the Bears have been in position to win every game with Hanie under center. Of course, the Bears need better play from the quarterback position, but it's not coming from Josh McCown or Enderle. This is where the Bears need a veteran such as McNabb on the bench in the event Hanie starts to turn the ball over against Seattle. That could work and be a way for the Bears to stay afloat until Cutler is ready to return. But given how the roster stands, the Bears need to stick with Hanie and hope for the best.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. What other options are there other than a rookie (Enderle), and a guy that hasn’t played in the NFL since 2009 (McCown)? If the Bears decide to bench Hanie, it’s my opinion that it would come off as an admission the season is over. Well, there are still three games left to play, and the Bears aren’t out of contention. So the Bears shouldn’t rock the boat now because, believe it or not, Hanie played better against the Broncos than he did in his first two starts. Now, if the Bears end up losing Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, in my opinion, all bets are off. You might as well see what you’ve got in Enderle.
Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. What, and start McCown -- who obviously hasn’t been good enough to this point to convince coaches he has to be in the lineup -- from scratch, where he is bound to similarly struggle for the first few games? The problems with Hanie are no different than with most quarterbacks making their first NFL starts but obviously, there is no room for growing pains. Unless there is a clearly better alternative, however, I say stick with him and hope he -- and Martz -- can pull themselves together while also hoping the defense can continue to put the team in position to win.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. For whom? Hanie is the ugly reality of this season, as we’ve seen how valuable Cutler really is. McCown isn’t going to run the table. Hanie is doing the best he can. Unfortunately, we’re seeing the results of that effort. Reality, in this case, bites.
Fact or Fiction: Kahlil Bell should get the majority of carries over Marion Barber.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Bell needs more carries, but not the majority of the attempts. Barber ran for 108 yards and a touchdown in the loss to the Broncos, so to remove him from the game plan this week might be a rash decision. Three brutal mistakes in the span of two weeks should result in Barber losing playing time, but Bell has never been a featured back in the NFL. Can he handle 20-25 carries in a game? Will he be productive? If the Bears were totally out of it, I'd bench Barber, but the playoffs remain technically within reach. Barber can still be the No. 1 running back with Bell taking on an increased role.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. Barber’s miscues (three big ones over the last two games) are inexcusable for a seven-year veteran. But the team has to go with Barber’s experience in the heat of battle. Besides that, I’m not sure Bell is built for 20-plus carries. Barber pounded the Broncos for 108 yards on 27 attempts, and his style wears down opponents. But I’d like to see Barber’s attempts come down some and have Bell’s increase. Bell gives you that elusive, home run element that Barber doesn’t demonstrate consistently. So while Bell -- who actually speaks with the media, win or lose -- deserves more carries, I don’t think he should get more than Barber. I understand Barber has played a role in costing the Bears two games in a row. But he’s also part of the reason the team was in striking distance in those games.
Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. Why? Because of Barber’s boneheaded moves from last week? If you don’t trust him anymore, you cut him, you don’t reduce his carries. And while Barber never was a featured back, he can still gain 100 yards as he has proven. Giving Bell more carries wouldn’t be a bad idea, if only to keep defenses off balance. And if Bell continues to earn it, give him more carries.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Barber was running hard all game until his late meltdown cost the Bears the win. Even after that game, and skipping out on his duties with the media, Barber can be very effective, and he and Bell should be sharing the carries. Bell should be getting around 10 a game, though, if not more. Let’s see what he can do.
Fact or Fiction: Jay Cutler made Earl Bennett.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. I have no idea what's happened to Bennett the past three weeks, but he can still play regardless of who's lining up at quarterback every week. Sure, Bennett is Cutler's preferred target, especially on third down, but it's not as if Bennett depends on Cutler to be an NFL receiver. Cutler and Bennett spent just one season together at Vanderbilt before the quarterback was selected in the first round of the 2006 draft, which means Bennett had two highly productive years in college after Cutler left school. It's difficult on the receivers when a team is forced to turn to its No. 2 quarterback. Just look at Reggie Wayne in Indianapolis. He caught at least 100 balls from Peyton Manning in three of the past four years. This year he's made 56 receptions through 13 games. That's simply life in the NFL.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. But it sure looks that way, doesn’t it? Bennett caught 14 passes for 251 yards in the last three games that Cutler played. In the three games Cutler has been out of the lineup, Bennett has caught just two passes for 10 yards. A big part of Bennett’s lack of production is the fact teams are now gearing up to shut him down. Because of his unbelievable chemistry with Cutler, Bennett has been an integral part of the offense, despite being a supposed lesser talent. But make no mistake, Bennett is a self-made guy. If you look at a lot of the receptions he’s had over the past two years, many of them have been short-to-intermediate passes that Bennett turned into big gains. So in a way, I think both Cutler and Bennett make one another. It’s just a shame that Hanie doesn’t look Bennett’s direction more often.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Not a bad theory. While Bennett is certainly a pro’s pro, Cutler has brought out the best in him, often finding Bennett on second and third options because he simply did not trust his other receivers. Because the two developed a rapport at Vanderbilt, they had a headstart and Cutler made it possible for Bennett to become the go-to receiver he has become. Would he have achieved that under any other quarterback, or been rewarded with a four-year, $18 million contract (as he was earlier this month)? Not likely.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. It’s not Bennett’s fault that Hanie isn’t very good. He’s not even getting looks, because Hanie can’t handle the pace of an NFL game. Earl is probably getting overpaid in his new deal, but he could be a solid option on any team. He just can’t get the ball.
Our Four Downs panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: The Bears misjudged what they had in Hanie.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. The Bears knew exactly what they had in Hanie -- a quarterback light on experience who has the ability to make plays, but has also shown a tendency to turn the ball over. Obviously Hanie must perform better Sunday in Denver, but it would be nice if the rest of the offense helped him out. Don't forget that if a seven-year veteran running back (Marion Barber) knew how to line up properly or if an eight-year veteran wide receiver (Roy Williams) would have caught a perfectly thrown ball in front of the end zone, the Bears beat the Chiefs, despite pass protection issues up front. The Bears continue to believe they can win games with Hanie at quarterback, otherwise Lovie Smith would have made a switch this week.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. The Bears used the only measuring they could in judging Hanie’s potential to fill in for Jay Cutler, and that was his practice performances over the years and how he played last season in the NFC title game. Going off those criteria, the Bears didn’t expect Hanie to be the team’s savior. But they certainly expected to him to get the club a few victories with Cutler out. I haven’t yet given up on Hanie because I believe he’s got it in him physically to lead this team where it needs to go. Now it’s just a matter of doing it. Hanie has put together two horrid performances so far. After three it’s no longer aberration. It becomes your body of work. So hopefully, Hanie makes me look smart this week.
Melissa Isaacson Fiction. According to Smith, the Bears knew exactly what they have in Hanie, and they are satisfied that he is a better alternative than anyone else on the market. Although I thought Hanie would look better than he did in the loss to the Chiefs, I don’t necessarily disagree. And while last year’s NFC Championship game is probably not a fair gauge of Hanie’s true ability, it obviously showed enough, along with his work with the scout team, to tell them he is an adequate No. 2. This is a tough test for any backup, and while Hanie has not been impressive, I believe the Bears thought that with support, he would be enough to get them to 10 wins.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I think Mike Martz was pretty sure what he had in Hanie. He’s an undrafted free agent playing behind a pretty durable quarterback (these last two injuries notwithstanding). There aren’t a lot of really good backup quarterbacks out there, and Hanie benefited from, well, already being here. It’s not for nothing the Bears have drafted quarterbacks the last two drafts.
Fact or Fiction: Josh McCown is still a better fit as a backup for the Bears at this point than Brett Favre or Donovan McNabb.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Forget about Brett Favre. Even though the future Hall of Famer had been sniffing around the Bears quarterback situation the past two weeks, he was never seriously considered. However, I can make a strong argument the Bears depth chart against the Broncos should read: 1. Hanie 2. McNabb 3. McCown. I hope Nathan Enderle turns out to be an excellent NFL quarterback, but after dropping two straight, the Bears simply can't afford to turn the offense over to a rookie. McCown has value because of the experience factor and familiarity with the Martz system. But if Hanie ever got hurt, McNabb would be the best choice to step in and finish out a game, regardless of the fact he spent his career in a West Coast offense. He's Donovan McNabb. He can run 10-15 plays in an emergency appearance in his sleep.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. This comes off like we’re bashing McCown, but that’s really not the case here. Ultimately at some point it comes down to the players more than systems or their familiarity in those systems. Much is made of McCown’s experience in Martz’s system. But how much experience did McCown actually gain? McCown worked just one year under Martz (2006), and actually caught more passes (2) as the third receiver than he threw (0) as a quarterback. So in my estimation, that doesn’t give McCown much of a leg up on Favre or McNabb in Martz’s scheme, which moves us to the next tie breaker: big-game experience. Favre has seen it all and done it, but may be washed up at 42 years old. McNabb, meanwhile, has also participated in several big games. Regardless of McNabb and Favre’s lack of familiarity in Martz’s system, I’d rather go down with them than McCown if my playoff life is on the line.
Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. The fact that Smith still considers Enderle to be the Bears’ No. 2 quarterback, ahead of McCown, is not exactly a ringing endorsement for McCown, even after just two weeks on the roster. An emergency signing is just that and should be able to come in with minimal preparation and manage the team well enough to win. That is not to say McNabb (Favre is a flier in every sense of the word) would march the Bears to the Super Bowl, but his experience and professionalism alone makes him worthy of at least the No. 2 role.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I know both quarterbacks would be a major PR hassle for the team, and possibly one of those dreaded “distractions,” but either of those guys, even at their current stages of decay, could fake their way through Martz’s offense better than McCown. I know I’m in the minority here, but I’d like to see this ship really hit a iceberg, rather than sink quietly in the sea.
Fact or Fiction: Matt Forte will play again this season.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. This type of MCL sprain usually takes four weeks to heal. However, the Bears don't have that kind of time, so I expect Forte to return to action well before the knee is 100 percent. Extension or no extension, Forte wants to keep playing and will do whatever rehab is necessary to be active in a few weeks. I can't guarantee Forte is going to play well with a sprained knee, but I'd be surprised if he didn't at least give it a try against Green Bay or Minnesota.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. But I think that’s contingent upon the Bears winning their next two games against the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks. If the Bears fall out of the playoff hunt, then you have to question what incentive Forte has to return. Forte suffered a similar injury in 2009 and played through it, only to undergo arthroscopic surgery -- according to the Chicago Tribune -- at the conclusion of the season. Forte certainly won’t let his contract situation affect his decision making about returning from the injury. But if the team is out of contention, why lay it on the line for the team when in the offseason it could turn around and use the knee injury to devalue you?
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Tough one to guess unless you are actually inside Forte’s head (and knee). But if he recovers quickly from a Grade 2 sprain and the Bears can still use his help, the latter of which is likely, I think he could return for the last game against Minnesota, if not sooner. If he is not risking serious injury -- which does not seem to be the case -- he’ll be back.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. I believe Forte will rejoin the team in Green Bay on Christmas Day. If he was the recalcitrant sort, he would have held out in training camp. Forte is a gamer, and he wouldn’t let down his teammates. He will do two weeks of rehab for his sprained MCL and then try to give the Bears a little help for their final two games.
Fact or Fiction: Martz will not be back next season.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Why else would Martz's name begin to surface for job openings at UCLA, Arizona State or the Jacksonville Jaguars? It's not like he's done a smashing job calling plays for the Bears the last two years. By allowing his name to be floated out there, Martz is likely preparing himself for the next stage of his career. Make no mistake about it, Smith is loyal to his friends and has control over the coaching staff. But this scenario is a tad different because Martz's contract expires following the season. That makes parting with the veteran coach much easier.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. Martz’s name has been linked to seemingly every coaching vacancy out there, but something about it all seems manufactured, which is something that often takes place at this time of year. Martz’s offenses with the Bears haven’t ranked in the top half of the league in two years. So what makes him such a hot coaching commodity that someone would want to bring him in as a head coach? Smith called the rumors “made up” on Monday, and has intimated that he’ll look to bring back his entire coaching staff -- if they’re not poached by other NFL teams or colleges -- for 2012. The Bears don’t want to put Cutler in a situation where he’d be forced to learn his third offense in four years, and the quarterback even expressed reservations about being thrust again in such a scenario. So although Martz’s contract expires at the end of the season, I see the Bears making an effort to bring him back. Besides that, there might not be many options out there for Martz, regardless of what’s being said.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. It seems an odd fit to picture Martz as a head coach of a major college program at this stage of the game. But it would be even odder for the Bears to make a strong contract offer to have Martz back after two years of tension and uneven results on offense. Even Cutler made it sound like he’d be OK with Martz moving on and if Mike Tice steps up, which would be more in line with Smith’s vision, it wouldn’t have to be a difficult transition.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Martz’s contract is up and the offense has never really coalesced, has it? In fact, the Bears’ offensive troubles are even more frustrating, given the presence of Cutler and Forte, before now anyway. Sure he’s only had two years to instill his byzantine system, and the so-called mad scientist has been given a second-hand laboratory, but the fit isn’t quite there. Where do you think all those college coaching interest leaks are coming from? I think everyone is pretty aware this is Martz’s last stand. I’m on the Norv Turner bandwagon, once he gets fired from San Diego. It’ll be Norvember four to five months a year!
So what can Bears fans expect out of Hanie in starth No. 2? Our Four Downs panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: We've seen the worst of Caleb Hanie already.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. There is no excuse for turning the ball over three times in a half of football, but it's important to remember Hanie was making his first career NFL start in a very difficult road venue. He'll learn from the experience and be a much better quarterback when the Bears face Kansas City Sunday at Soldier field. He can play. Now it's a matter of being a better decision maker, which generally comes with increased playing time. We've seen the worst of Hanie, hopefully we can see the best of Hanie before Jay Cutler returns from thumb surgery.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. For the team’s sake, that better had been the worst. I think it’s fair to cut Hanie a little slack for his shaky debut as a starter. When Jay Cutler first suffered his injury and it was announced he’d miss time, everyone started looking at the next several games on the schedule to see how Hanie would fare. I think everyone considered Sunday’s outing at Oakland to be potentially the most dangerous for Hanie, and despite the rocky start, he played fairly well once he settled in. For me, there are positives to draw from that loss for Hanie. Let’s not forget that the Raiders are a 7-4 team with a young, attacking defense and stout front that is playing good football, and Hanie took their best shot on the road in a hostile environment. If anything, Hanie’s ability to bounce back from early adversity in that game should give him confidence over the long haul. Hanie will be fine, and Cutler will play an integral role in making sure he is by relaying his experiences to the new signal caller.
Melissa Isaacson Fact. It’s pretty likely Hanie will throw another interception before his shot as the Bears starting quarterback is over. But all you have to do is look at the fourth quarter of Hanie’s regular season debut as starter last Sunday in Oakland to see the potential for improvement. After throwing all three of his picks in the first half -- two that were awful and one that should at least in part be attributed to the heady play of two Raiders linebackers -- Hanie did not throw another in the second half and completed 10 of 18 passes for 175 yards in the final quarter alone for a 107.4 quarterback rating as the Bears scored 13 points to keep them in the game. Granted, the Raiders were trying to protect their lead and playing a softer zone defense in the fourth quarter, but Hanie settled down and there is every reason to believe he will reduce mistakes with more experience and practice with the first team.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Hanie’s first half was abysmal. He improved in the second half, but still didn’t look sharp. Yes, he hit on a home run pass to Johnny Knox, but the deep ball is down my list of quarterback qualities. Hanie showed promise in other areas, too. He just needs to put it all together. I still have faith he’ll get better, but more game tape might equal more struggles.
Fact or Fiction: Mike Martz has to alter his game plan to suit Hanie.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Martz called a decent game in Oakland. There wasn't a play he called that Hanie is incapable of executing. The problem with Martz is every week, without fail, he loses his mind at some point and calls a terrible play given the situation. A tight end screen on second-and-1 from the Raiders' 7-yard line with :35 seconds left in the first half? Come on, just run the football and settle for a field goal if necessary. Don't get me wrong, Hanie needed to put more zip on the pass that was deflected by Aaron Curry and intercepted by Kamerion Wimbley, but the call was silly. Martz doesn't need to alter the game plan to suit Hanie. He needs to stop trying to be so cute in these key moments.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. Actually, this is partly fact and partly fiction. See, Hanie is capable of doing everything Martz’s offense calls for. But the offensive coordinator should be mindful of not putting Hanie into bad situations, such as calling a throwback screen -- which the team has shown a tendency on film to run near the goal line before halftime, according to Oakland linebacker Aaron Curry -- on second and 1 from the 7. I think it’s important for Martz to gradually ramp up Hanie’s game by calling for shorter passes early on that would allow the quarterback to get into a rhythm, before rattling off all the big-boy plays. At the same time, you can’t deny that Hanie’s mobility should make it enticing for Martz to cater the game plan to take advantage by utilizing the quarterback more on bootlegs to give him somewhat of a run-pass option.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. This isn’t really about the run vs. pass debate that feels age-old when it comes to Martz. It’s more about common sense when dealing with a quarterback making his first NFL regular season start. Did Martz really need to call pass plays on 20 of 33 plays in the first half? Did he need to call a pass play on a second-and-1 from the Oakland 7 with 35 seconds left in the second half? Hanie showed his run ability Sunday with 50 yards on five attempts and though not every one demonstrated the best judgment, you’d like to see Martz utilize his live legs and cut down the odds for key interceptions.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Martz now has a better idea of how Hanie fares against NFL talent. I think he knows what plays to throw away now, and what plays suit Hanie’s strengths. The problem is that Martz is dedicated to his system and that familiarity often takes precedence over reality.
Fact or Fiction: Johnny Knox can be a No. 1 receiver for the Bears.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. From a talent standpoint, Knox can absolutely be a top wide receiver. But a No. 1? I'm not so sure. When I think of smaller No. 1 wideouts, the first guy who comes to mind is Steve Smith. But he's crazy and tough as nails. Knox isn't that sort of player. He relies on speed and quickness. The good news is Knox possesses a ton of talent. He simply needs to become more consistent. When/if that happens, we can discuss whether or not Knox can be the Bears best receiver. Right now, it's too premature.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. But that can’t and won’t be accomplished during Hanie’s stint as the man under center. Knox flashes those elite-receiver skills, but I don’t see it consistently enough to put him in that No. 1 category just yet. And I don’t see him all of a sudden turning it on over the next five weeks of the season. Knox has shown the desire to improve his game, based on the way he bulked up his upper body last offseason to improve his ability to beat the jam at the line (he also needed to improve lower-body strength, but didn’t). Knox would definitely benefit from spending an offseason working out with someone like Cris Carter to take his game to the next level, and I could see the receiver doing that. I just don’t see it happening this season.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Knox still needs to cut down on drops -- he missed three he should have caught on Sunday -- but ironically, he may have a better chance of shining with Hanie than he did with Cutler. While Cutler’s preferred target was Earl Bennett, Hanie favors Knox, with whom he worked a lot in training camp while both were on the second team, and with whom he showed some nice chemistry against the Raiders.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. There isn’t a No. 1 receiver on this roster, so let’s not force the issue. Knox has gained 242 yards and two touchdowns -- his only ones of the season amazingly -- in the last two games, but he could just as easily disappear next week. Bennett had 251 yards in his previous three games and then caught one ball for 5 yards last week. Now that Devin Hester is seemingly being phased out of the passing game, Knox should see more looks, but he’s still not a No. 1 type.
Fact or Fiction: Marion Barber deserves to cut into Matt Forte's carries.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Keep Barber at 10-12 carrier per game. That's the perfect workload for a veteran who's dealt with a variety of injuries the past few years. Forte, on the other hand, needs 20-25 rushing attempts every week. He's still the same guy who carried the offense for the first eight games of the season. Why cut into his carries? I want more Forte, not less, regardless of how Barber is running the football.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. Not only does he deserve to, but the current situation demands that Barber shoulder some of the burden. Forte has already racked up tons of touches, and the Bears run the risk of wearing the guy out by the end of the regular season if they continue to dish out the current workload. It’s commendable that Forte has played at such a high level for so long, and still appears to have fresh legs so late in the season. But why waste away another fresh-legged running back on the bench that adds a different style that might make it difficult for defenses to adjust to? As Bears coach Lovie Smith admitted on Monday, Barber was “feeling it” against the Raiders and is “a weapon that we need to use.” So when the head coach says something like that, I expect the words to be put into action.
Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. While it does not have to be a knock on Forte to give more opportunities in the right situations to Barber, who runs hard and provides the always appreciated change-of-pace that can keep a defense off-balance, it should be just that -- situational. Against Oakland, the duo teamed for 122 yards on 22 carries, an average of better than 5 yards per carry, but the Raiders were a good matchup for Forte, who got only 12 carries (along with six catches for 25 yards) and wasn’t thrilled about it. Forte also doesn’t appreciate when he is taken out on the goal line, but that’s why Barber was brought in and has five touchdowns from 3, 3, 12, 2 and 1 yard to show for it. Sunday’s game against the Chiefs appears to be the perfect opportunity for Forte to have a breakout game. Here’s hoping he gets the chance.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Forte should be getting 15-20 chances a game, be they runs or receptions, but it’s obvious that Barber can still truck down the field. Let’s be real, the Bears aren’t going to run 35 times a game under Martz, even with Hanie under center, so Forte’s going to get a few less carries. As a competitor he must hate this, but it’s probably a good thing to take fewer hits, especially when he’s still getting paid like a rookie.
With Jay Cutler's broken thumb sidelining him likely for the rest of the regular season, Hanie gets the start against the Oakland Raiders Sunday, his first significant action since the NFC title game against the Packers. He was forced into action in that game when Cutler went out with a knee injury early in the third quarter and led the Bears to a pair of scoring drives but also tossed two interceptions.
So what should Bears fan expect of Hanie on Sunday? Our Four Downs panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: Caleb Hanie will be more than just a game manager.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. He has to be. While the Bears will lean on their defense and special teams, Hanie must display the ability to hurt opposing defenses when they stack the box to stop Matt Forte. If the NFC Championship Game last year is any indication, Hanie is capable of guiding the Bears' offense down the field and hitting on the occasional big play. The offense can't just be along for the ride until Cutler comes back. Hanie needs to contribute, while at the same time protect the football. The quickest way for the season to end is for the Bears to starting losing the turnover battle. It's a fine line Hanie has to walk, but handing the ball off 45 times a game is not a realistic option.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. Hanie plays with such moxie that my prediction is he’ll provide somewhat of a spark. He has a strong arm, good athleticism and leadership skills. Expect the Bears to rally around the fourth-year veteran. With Hanie at the controls, you can also expect the offense to move a little more like a Mike Martz system should. Hanie’s arm isn’t as powerful as Cutler’s, but the backup compensates for that by anticipating throws. You’ll see Hanie throwing more balls before the receivers come out of their breaks than Cutler, who has such a strong arm, he could get away with waiting for a receiver to come open before making the throw. Last year’s NFC title game gave us a glimpse of what we can expect from Hanie. Sure, he threw a pair of costly interceptions, but he rallied the Bears to a pair of scoring drives.
Melissa Isaacson Fact. Even if that was the most prudent thing to do, can you picture Martz having the patience to do that for the rest of the season? From what coach Lovie Smith said, the Bears certainly will emphasize the run and hope Forte can find some air with teams stacking the box against them. But he also said they’re not going to change the offense and even playing on the conservative side, expect Hanie to move the ball down the field with passes he is going to be forced to throw.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. He'll have to try, won't he? Martz doesn't run a conventional offense, and defenses will stacking to stop the run. Hanie is going to have to try to make plays. Whether he makes enough will tell the story of how the Bears finish.
Fact or Fiction: The defense will be able to offset the loss of Cutler.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. If core members of the defense stay healthy and aren't forced to be on the field for 40 minutes every game, the defense will continue to do its part. Its part. Not the part of the offense and special teams. It's going to be a group effort to get the Bears into the postseason, so you can't simply rely on the defense. This isn't 2005 or 2006. The current defense is good, but has still seen its share of breakdowns. There are still issues when it comes to defending the tight end and generating consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback, to name a few. There are weeks when the defense can force six turnovers and win a game virtually on its own. But you can't expect it happen every week for the remainder of the season.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. The good thing is the defense probably won’t have to. But if it comes to that, the unit is more than capable of shouldering the load. The reason for that is the defense’s knack for forcing turnovers. The Bears have forced nine turnovers in the past two games alone, and when the team comes out on the positive side of the turnover margin, they’re 11-1 over the past two seasons. Chicago’s defense also knows how to put points on the board. When they do that, the Bears are 3-0 in 2011, and 14-1 since 2005.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. They are certainly capable and the urgency will be there. They likely will have more trouble against the Packers and Aaron Rodgers on Christmas Day but barring injuries of their own, the Bears’ defense has the personnel capable of at least keeping the Bears in every other game.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. If the Bears, under Hanie, can't sustain long drives, the defense is going to feel the effects. But given the quality of quarterback the Bears will be facing, the defense and special teams could put Hanie in some prime scoring situations.
Fact or Fiction: As long as Johnny Knox and Roy Williams play like they did Sunday, Devin Hester should be used exclusively as a return specialist.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Hester doesn't need to be exclusively used on special teams, but his role on offense should continue to be limited. But Hester is so gifted in the open field, there must be a way Martz can use him in the passing game. Throw the ball deep to Hester three times a game. How about that? Don't get me wrong, Hester's primary focus should always be on the return game, but he does have 13 career touchdowns on offense. Bennett, Knox and Williams (every now and then) afford the Bears the opportunity to be selective with Hester, not eliminate him entirely at wide receiver.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. No doubt the performances of Knox and Williams make you say, “Devin who?” But at the same time, you can’t deny that Hester’s presence alone changes the way defenses play the Bears. Even if used as a decoy, Hester opens up things for other players because defensive coordinators will always respect his speed, and make sure there’s someone accounting for the receiver deep. Besides that, counting the $1.5 million roster bonus Hester received just before the season, he’ll earn more than $3 million in 2011. That’s not the type of money a team pays a return specialist, which makes it doubtful the Bears ever truly make him exclusively a return man.
Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. That sounds good, but the old argument isn’t getting any better. Hester can score whenever he’s on the field, so why remove him for most of the game, especially if teams punt away from him as they logically should? With Cutler out, it is going to be tougher to keep everyone involved, which is a shame because the receiving corps seemed to finally be finding a groove. But that’s all the more reason to keep them all eligible and allow Hanie to find his own favorites.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Hester makes people nervous. If healthy, he should see a handful of passes a game. Hester isn't a No. 1 receiver, but he is a playmaker. Why shouldn't he see some action?
Fact or Fiction: The Bears should keep trying trick plays like fake punts.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. I love trick plays on special teams, but without Cutler for an extended period of time, the Bears can't risk giving a team good field position if the misdirection fails to work. Tuck the trick plays away for a rainy day in 2012. What the unit needs to concentrate on is punt/kickoff coverage, the return game, and making sure the organization properly replaces veteran long snapper Patrick Mannelly. Every play is critical from here on out, so the Bears can't endure any poor snaps. Mannelly going on injured reserve due to a torn ACL is terrible. Replacing him with someone who isn't prepared to handle the assignment would be criminal. The Bears must get it right at long snapper.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub has devised some of the most innovative things I’ve ever seen in the third phase. But man, stop showing this stuff right now; wait until the team actually needs it. Whether it’s the fake punt against the San Diego Chargers or that incredibly tricky punt return on Sept. 25 against the Green Bay Packers, the Bears have put a couple of things on tape for opponents to prepare for over the past six games of the season. You just hope Toub has a few tricks left up his sleeve over the latter part of the regular season and the playoffs. On offense, all I can say about the reverses and running back passes is, “Stop it. Just stop it.”
Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. Considering the way it turned out Sunday when they tried it, with Adam Podlesh overthrowing Craig Steltz from the Chargers’ 45-yard line and the Bears leading by 11 with two minutes to go, um, no. Only Corey Graham’s interception made it less dumb. But based on the questionable judgment involved in making that call, there’s no telling how and when it might occur the next time.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Stick to the basics. If there's a hole in some team's coverage scheme, sure, take advantage. But no more Wildcat, for all our sakes.
Rivers has struggled this season, leading the NFL with 15 interceptions while Cutler has been inconsistent. Which quarterback is better? Our Four Downs panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: Jay Cutler is better than Phillip Rivers.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. At this exact moment, Cutler is a better quarterback than Rivers. If the question centers around overall body of work, Phillips wins the argument based on three Pro Bowl berths (2006,09,10) and playoffs victories. But Rivers is having a rough 2011, already committing a league 19 turnovers (15 interceptions, four fumbles). Cutler, on the other hand, has done a much better job protecting the football, while commanding a respectable passing attack without the benefit of star caliber receivers. But I had to start one of the two in a game tomorrow, it would be Cutler, based on how events have unfolded up to this point of the regular season.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. Winning percentage isn’t a true barometer to judge quarterbacks, but Rivers has a .663 winning percentage as a starter, compared to Cutler at .519. But let’s look at the raw numbers. Despite playing in the NFL two years longer, Rivers has thrown 12 fewer interceptions than Cutler, in addition to compiling a 95 passer rating with 149 touchdowns, while completing 63.4 of his passes. Cutler, meanwhile, has completed 61.2 percent of his passes for a passer rating of 84.3 with 115 TDs and 85 INTs. In Cutler’s defense, Rivers has had more stability in terms of schemes and coaches. Cutler hasn’t been able to settle into any scheme the way Rivers has over his six seasons. In fact, considering all the tweaks the Bears have made, I’d say Cutler still hasn’t been able to settle into this scheme. So although I consider Rivers to be the better quarterback, he hasn’t experienced the same challenges as Cutler.
Melissa Isaacson Fact. A lot easier to say this recently as the two rivals are headed in different directions. Rivers, still the fifth-rated passer in the league, is having the worst year of his career with a career-high 15 interceptions and career-lows in touchdown passes (13) and quarterback rating (80.2). While Cutler (the 12th-rated passer) has exercised better judgment this season and is much-improved in getting rid of the ball sooner, Rivers, whose team has lost four games in a row, is doing the opposite and getting beat up with 25 sacks (third-highest among NFL quarterbacks).
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. If you’re going by career, Rivers still has the edge. He’s also been on better teams, so it's a little unfair. Rivers is having an awful season (15 interceptions) for Norv Turner’s kooky bunch, so he makes Cutler’s slightly-above average season seem that much more impressive. Cutler has only thrown six picks this year, but Rivers still has a higher completion percentage (61.4 to 58), despite throwing more passes (352 to 283). Honestly, I can’t say which of the two quarterbacks I’d rather have, but, all things remaining equal, I’d probably take Rivers.
Fact or Fiction: This Bears team is better than last season’s team.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. If the Bears qualify for the NFC Championship Game, perhaps we can jump to that conclusion. There are numerous similarities between the two squads, but this year’s version of the Bears' offense remains a question mark after the line suffered yet another injury (Chris Williams) in the victory over Detroit. Barring an unexpected collapse by the Packers, the Bears will not win the NFC North and not have home field advantage in the postseason. So to call these Bears a better team after nine games, to me, is a stretch.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. In my mind, this starts with Cutler and the offensive line. Cutler hasn’t performed consistently, but one major difference I see is he’s playing with a resilience I haven’t seen from him the past couple of years. If the situation calls for putting the game on Cutler’s shoulders, I’ve got more confidence in him now than last season. He’s playing with a by-any-means-necessary style, which bodes well moving forward. Besides that, the offensive line is doing a better job -- not to mention putting forth a much stronger effort -- of protecting Cutler. Defensively, the Bears seem to be getting a little more production from the secondary, which was exposed way too many times last season.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. The Bears are better statistically in every major offensive category this season, but defensively are still suffering from its slow start. They are now ranked 25th in total yards allowed per game (376.3) compared to a No. 4-ranked unit last year (301.9). The 2011 team was ranked 2nd in rush yards per game (82.3) compared to 13th this season (106.7), and 16th in pass yards (219.6) compared to 29th (269.7) this season. Still, the Bears have been outstanding defensively over the last four games, playing one of its best games in years against Detroit in takeaways (six) and defensive scores (two). As for special teams, though Hester was on a roll at this time last season, returning two kickoffs for a combined 100 yards against Minnesota in the Bears’ ninth game, he had “just” one punt return for a touchdown (in Week 3 against Green Bay) compared to two punts and one kick return for a touchdown this year.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Though in reality, they’re very, very similar. The safety position, still unproven in my mind, is the only factor that makes me think otherwise. A lot of that has to do with the lessons learned last season, and the experience gained under the restructured coaching staff. Cutler is more comfortable in Martz’s offense, even if the results haven’t been mind-blowing, and the offensive line quickly got their act together after a slow start. Defensively, the Bears were victimized for some big plays, but that seems to have settled down. Last season we kept waiting for the floor to give out, but going into the 10th game, I think we know what kind of team this is, and what to expect.
Fact or Fiction: Chris Williams is a big loss for the Bears.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact, just because the offensive line had finally seemed to settle on a permanent starting five up front. Although reserve Edwin Williams has experience, it’s unclear how he’ll hold up the rest of the year at left guard, or if he even will. If you had to lose one guy on the offensive line, Williams is probably the easiest to replace; since the Bears certainly can’t absorb another serious injury at tackle, or lose captain Roberto Garza, or versatile guard/center Chris Spencer. But as Mike Tice said last week, it’s all about continuity on the offensive line, which Williams’ wrist injury seriously effects.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. Williams was quietly putting together a solid season, and his loss means the team goes into Sunday’s game with its sixth combination of starters up front, after rolling with the same group for four consecutive games. So that will disrupt chemistry somewhat. Offensive line coach Mike Tice said that Williams was one of the most intelligent players he’d ever coached. So his consistency in knowing assignments and ability to help center Roberto Garza with the pre-snap line calls will be missed tremendously.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Earlier in the season, the answer might have been different. But since the offensive line has stabilized and improved its pass protection (with some help from the tight ends and running backs) with five sacks allowed the last four games after allowing 18 over the first five, any loss among the five starting linemen is big. And Williams, who has started 20 straight games at the same position, has done a solid job of late.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. I don’t think we’ll ever say he lived up to his draft slot, but Williams was turning into a pretty good interior lineman. He was the only guy to return to his same position on the line from last year to this year, and the best thing I can say about him is that I’ve rarely had to utter his name in a press box. The more the Bears have to dip into their reserve linemen, Edwin Williams is the new Williams at left guard, the worse off the team will be. Depth is key. Just as the line stopped being a regular cause for concern, this happens. I hope Cutler remembered to put me in his will.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears' offense is a cause for concern.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. The Bears didn’t require the offense to win the Lions game -- the defense and special teams took care of that -- but that won’t happen every week. It’s not like the offense hasn’t shown up this year -- it operated at a high level against Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia. Still, another injury on the offensive line, plus the lack of any real consistent threat at wide receiver other than Earl Bennett, is concerning moving forward.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. It definitely appears that way after watching how the unit performed against the Detroit Lions. But Detroit’s defense is definitely no slouch, and you can’t diminish the fact the Bears spent the whole game playing with a big lead. In addition, it’s worth pointing out the team put points on the board (10 off the first two turnovers) when they needed to. But with the team playing with such a big lead, the offense wasn’t really under pressure to produce. Its job was to control the clock and not turn over the ball (the unit did lose one fumble). So as of right now, I’m not worried about the offense. I think the defense and special teams gave the unit a day off against Detroit. Let’s see how things unfold in the next few weeks. But I have a feeling this offense will respond when it needs to.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Compared to how the defense is playing right now, the offense can certainly be more dependable game to game, and Sunday against the Lions was disappointing. The offensive line could be a problem in the immediate wake of Williams’ absence and before Gabe Carimi settles in again. And while the offense is much better than it was last season at this time, it would be nice to see Jay Cutler, after nine games, have more confidence in receivers not named Earl Bennett. As for the run game, we’ll assume it will bounce back after a rare clunker on Sunday.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. Cutler has 11 touchdown passes through nine games, and he has one good wide receiver in the resurgent Bennett. Matt Forte has been nothing short of spectacular, but aside from him, the offense is devoid of star power and consistency. Sure, Cutler didn’t have to do much in games like Chicago’s 37-13 pasting of Detroit, and he did throw some really nice passes, but Mike Martz’s gameplan often lacks rhythm and isn’t causing any nightmares. Here’s the thing though: The Bears basically have five games to gain confidence, now that Bennett is back, until they face the Packers on Christmas. There’s still time to improve.
Fact or Fiction: Urlacher is getting better with age.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact: We're not saying Urlacher is better now than he was in 2005 or 2006, but at 33, the middle linebacker shows no signs of slowing down. Maybe the season-ending 2009 wrist injury was a blessing in disguise. A fresh Urlacher made the Pro Bowl in 2010, and appears to be headed toward a similar fate in 2011. With 66 tackles, three interceptions, five tackles for a loss and a pair of pass breakups through eight games, Urlacher is a major reason why the Bears' defense has settled down the past few weeks. Whatever Urlacher and Ray Lewis are taking, please send me some, because both linebackers continue to play the position at an elite level despite their respective ages.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. Players all over the league openly discuss exactly what’s happening with Urlacher right now. As a player ages, his physical skills diminish, while the mental aspect of the game improves. But what often takes place is a player’s physical skills diminish so much that later in their careers they have to rely on the mental aspect to make up for the loss of athleticism. Well, with Urlacher, his physical skills haven’t diminished much. So combine that incredible athletic talent with his experience and mental sharpness, and Urlacher’s game rises to a new level, which is very rare in what we all know is a young man’s game.
Melissa Isaacson Fiction: He certainly is not getting markedly worse. His nose for the ball is as good as ever, as are his hands when he smells an interception. But Urlacher built his Hall of Fame career with uncanny speed for his size, particularly laterally, that just naturally is going to decrease after 12 years in the league.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction, but only because he was really, really good a few years ago. He certainly hasn’t lost it after 30, though. Age has taken away some of Urlacher’s physical abilities but experience has made up for some of what he’s lost. He’s certainly still got it, and he still makes amazing plays that brings you back to his salad days as the young heir apparent to Butkus and Singletary.
Fact or Fiction: The Bears have become a better team than the Lions since they played last.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction: Let's wait to see what happens on Sunday. We can argue the Bears have become a much better team since they faced Detroit a month ago on Monday night football, but we won't know for sure which is the better team until after the rematch at Soldier Field. But the return of Earl Bennett, the improved offensive line, the lack of big defensive breakdowns and the overall excellent play of Cutler the past few weeks should have Bears fans excited about their prospects of knocking off the Lions. But let's not jump the gun.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. No doubt about it, the Bears are rolling both offensively and defensively. The Lions, meanwhile, have gone the other way. Sure they thumped the lowly Denver Broncos right before taking a week off for the bye, and will be well prepared when they face the Bears. But the Lions won’t have the home-field advantage they enjoyed the first time these teams met. Earlier in the season, when Detroit was performing its best on offense, the team feasted mostly on big plays, but hasn’t been as potent lately, while Chicago’s defense has started to eliminate explosive plays. Defensively, the Lions rank 28th against the run, and that doesn’t bode well when you’re facing a running back like Matt Forte.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact: Statistically speaking, the Bears, who have won three straight games since losing to the Lions on Oct. 10, have shot up in nearly every category -- offensively from 26th to 17th in total yards (308 to 342); 20th to 11th in rush yards per game (96 to 121); 30th to 22nd in sacks per pass attempt (.103 to .074); and defensively from 31st to 23rd in yards allowed (426 to 374). But the eye test will also tell you both offensively and defensively that the Bears are operating more efficiently.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. That 24-13 loss was the nadir of the season, thus far anyway. But in another way, it almost felt like the Bears had to hit bottom. Six false start penalties in a half? An 88-yard untouched touchdown run by Jahvid Best? Monday Night madness consumed the Bears, but they still only lost by 11. The next week, Chicago destroyed Minnesota, and we’ve seen positive changes, especially from the offensive line. Cutler seems to be on the verge of a breakout as well.
Fact or Fiction: Bennett is the best receiver on the Bears.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. A no-brainer. Bennett has been the best receiver on the roster since 2009. Bennett isn't a converted defensive back or a track star, he's a professional wide receiver who's played the position this entire life. He was the all-time leading receiver in SEC history, so he knows how to get open, and more importantly, how to catch the ball. Nobody is putting Bennett in the Pro Bowl, but if he stays healthy, there is no reason why he can't be a 60-70 catch guy per year in the NFL.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. Absolutely, Bennett’s the best receiver on the roster. Veteran Roy Williams even admitted that shortly before Bennett’s return to the lineup. Bennett’s most valuable attributes are his chemistry with Cutler, and his run-after-catch ability. The Bears use Bennett primarily in the slot, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start lining him up all over the field, and calling more plays designed to get the ball into his hands. From the sounds of things, that might be what the Bears are planning to do over the second half of the season.
Melissa Isaacson:Fact. All you’ve had to do is watch Cutler’s timing and confidence in throwing to Bennett over the past three years, and see the state of the Bears' passing game in Bennett’s absence this season to make the argument. Do Johnny Knox and Devin Hester have better speed downfield? Sure. But for a combination of route-running, sure-handedness in traffic and instinct, Bennett, like it or not, is the Bears’ best receiver.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. In other news, I’m the tallest person in my house, with a wife who’s 5 feet tall and a 14-month-old son. Bennett proved his rep as Cutler’s third down guy wasn’t just hype against Philadelphia. He’s easily the best wideout on the team, and the Bears missed him desperately. He’s not the fastest, and he can’t jump the highest, but he does what he does better than anyone else at that position.
Fact or Fiction: Cutler is as good as any QB when he has time.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Cutler has the arm to make every throw in the book. When he has time, he's deadly. However, this is the NFL, you can't expect to be given much time to deliver the football. That's life. What Cutler is starting to do is make great throws on the run or when he's being pressured. That's the sign of a great quarterback. And that is what the Bears believe Cutler can eventually become.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. He’s certainly trending that way, but I’m not ready to heap on a ton of praise after just a couple of good games. Throughout Cutler’s career, there hasn’t been much of a correlation between his passing numbers and sacks. For instance, in 2007, Cutler was sacked 27 times, but completed 63.6 of his passes for a passer rating of 88.1. The following year, he was sacked just 11 times, completing 62.3 percent of his passes for a passer rating of 86.0. Not much difference, right? Cutler played lights out against the Lions in Week 5, and again Monday night against the Eagles. But I need to see Cutler perform like the guy the Bears expected to get when they gave up two first-round picks on a more consistent basis. He appears to be close, but not there yet.
Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. He sure has looked that way lately, particularly on Monday night, but let’s not get carried away. He has to put together a sustained effort which, yes, requires the offensive line to keep up their current level of play. His receivers also need to hold onto the ball. As Cutler himself said it when he considered midway through the Eagles’ victory that he had not yet been sacked: "Let’s not jinx this ..." .
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Let’s not get crazy here. I could think of a handful of quarterbacks I’d take over Cutler in any situation. Maybe two handfuls. He could throw three picks Sunday with normal protection. But I’ll say this, against Philadelphia, with no sacks, he showed he could be the quarterback the Bears have been waiting for. I’m interested to see how he plays under severe duress. I thought he handled himself pretty well against Detroit last time.