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Monday, December 31, 2012
Free Head Exam: Chicago Bears

By Kevin Seifert

After the Chicago Bears' 26-24 victory over the Detroit Lions, here are three issues that merit further examination:
  1. Free Head Exam
    All eyes are on general manager Phil Emery, and by extension team president Ted Phillips and chairman George McCaskey. The Bears finished with a playoff-worthy record at 10-6, even if it was after a 7-1 start, but ultimately they missed the postseason for the fifth time in six years under coach Lovie Smith. That sounds like a fair recipe for making a change, even for a coach with a career record of 81-63. But there is more gray area here than you might realize. The Bears have spent almost a decade building their defense around Smith's scheme. The chances of finding a new coach with the identical defensive approach are not high. So firing Smith is a move to overhaul the entire defense, long the lifeblood of this team. In other words, the Bears stand on the brink of a major rebuild if they fire Smith. Are they ready for that, with quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Brandon Marshall in their prime? Emery has a chance to change the direction of the franchise, but it remains to be seen whether he thinks it is necessary.
  2. This has to be the most disappointing season in Devin Hester's career. The much-heralded "Hester Package" never materialized in the Bears' offense, and none of his 64 combined punt and kickoff returns went longer than 44 yards. Cutler targeted him on only 40 of the 208 routes he ran this season, including just one over the final three games, according to EPSN Stats & Information. Hester caught 23 of those passes for 242 yards and one touchdown. This was the first of Hester's seven seasons when he was productive neither as a receiver nor as a returner. He turned 30 last month and is entering the final year of his contract. Assuming he didn't hit any of his contract escalators this year, he is signed for a reasonable $1.857 million in 2013. But you wonder what his place would be in a revamped Bears program.
  3. On the other hand, I don't think the Bears could have taken better advantage of their acquisition of Marshall. His reunion with Cutler produced career highs in receptions (118), yards (1,508) and touchdowns (11). You would have to consider Marshall's performance one of the best for an offensive skill player in Bears history. One interesting offseason discussion will be the 194 passes Cutler targeted Marshall on. It tied for second in the NFL behind the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson (205) and was nearly four times as many as the Bears' next-most targeted receiver. Was it too much? You wonder if the Bears' approach in 2013 will include a plan to target Marshall less, incorporate more players on a weekly basis and be more productive as a whole.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is a pending free agent, and it's at least worth discussing whether his career is over. He gutted through 12 games on a knee that never completely healed from a January 2012 injury, and most football people would tell you he was nowhere close to his usual sideline-to-sideline self. He is 34 and his contract status could give the Bears a relatively graceful way of moving on. Emery paved the way for that possibility by declining to extend his contract before the season. Urlacher's 2012 season made that decision seem wise. Emery can't bring Urlacher back for a competition or as a role player, however. That wouldn't be respectful to one of the best players in Bears history. It's all or nothing, and at this moment it's not clear which way he will go.