Chicago Bears: Roberto Garza

Brian de la PuenteAl Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesBrian de la Puente will push starter Roberto Garza in what should be spirited competition.
The addition of free agent center Brian de la Puente fills two important needs for the Chicago Bears.

In the short term, de la Puente provides the Bears with a proven and experienced center behind team captain Roberto Garza, who turned 35 years old at the end of March.

Garza has been incredibly durable throughout his career, missing just two games in nine seasons with the Bears. But in the event he suffers an injury, de la Puente can step in and fill the void. Not only did de la Puente start 44 games at center for the New Orleans Saints over the last three seasons, he should be able to quickly pick up the Bears' offense after playing for Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer for two years in New Orleans.

But even if Garza stays on the field for all 16 regular season games in 2014, as most expect him to do, the Bears eventually need to address the position long term.

Garza’s tenure in Chicago has been nothing short of terrific. That’s not an exaggeration. After the Bears signed Garza off the street in 2005, he went on to start 133 games at both right guard and center.

But the Bears will need to replace him on the field. That’s just a part of life in the NFL.

If the Bears are satisfied with the 28-year-old de la Puente next season, even if he doesn’t start a single game, the club will be in position to offer him a longer deal in the 2015 offseason. Really, inking de la Puente to a one-year contract is actually a steal for the Bears. They get a first-team caliber player at a fraction of the cost, with nothing guaranteed beyond 2014.

There is also the issue of de la Puente pushing Garza when the team returns to the field. Competition is a wonderful thing. With so many veteran players on one-year, league minimum deals, the Bears have set the stage for fierce preseason battles for roster spots at several positions. While Garza is penciled in as the No. 1 center, he is not the type of player to rest on his laurels. But even a 13-year NFL veteran can benefit from a younger player applying a little pressure behind him on the depth chart.

This is really a win-win scenario for the Bears.

Bears, TE Dante Rosario agree to terms

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
The Chicago Bears agreed to terms on a one-year contract with veteran tight end Dante Rosario, the team announced on Thursday.

Earlier on Thursday the Bears re-signed starting center Roberto Garza to a one-year, $1.5 million contract that included a $100,000 signing bonus and $75,000 workout bonus.

Rosario, a seven-year NFL veteran, was acquired by the Bears via a trade with the Dallas Cowboys on September 2. Rosario appeared in 15 games (three starts) and caught just one pass for 13 yards but did record five special teams tackles.

For his career, Rosario has 100 receptions for 1,119 and eight touchdowns in 106 games and 29 starts.

The Bears could still look to add another tight end to the mix in free agency or the NFL draft to compliment starter Martellus Bennett, who caught a career-high 65 balls for 759 yards in 2013, to go along with five touchdowns.
So what if Chicago Bears center Roberto Garza turns 35 in less than a month? The team absolutely made the right decision in shrugging off age and instead focusing on production in deciding to bring back Garza for what will be his 1oth season in Chicago.

The Bears also made the right move to come up from the original minimum offer the sides discussed shortly after the conclusion of the regular season.

A captain for each of the past three seasons, Garza has started in eight postseason contests, and anchored a revamped offensive line in 2013 that featured four new starters. The Bears finished last season as one of just three teams in the NFL to start the same five offensive linemen for all 16 games.

So bringing back Garza only enriches the continuity along the offensive line, which should be even better in 2014 in Year 2 in Marc Trestman's offensive system.

Bears general manager Phil Emery referenced Garza's consistency when discussing in January the potential difficulty of bringing back the starting center after a 2013 campaign which was arguably Garza's best in Chicago.

“A year ago, he was at 11 total [hits, sacks and knockdowns allowed] for the season,” Emery said. “This year, he was at five. So I've told him I thought he made a big push up. He got a lot better with his overall body position and his hip placement. He's obviously very important in terms of calling signals for our offensive line and making point adjustments.”

Garza also brings a selfless attitude that has proved to be contagious in the locker room. In making a decision on whether to sign the seven-year extension with the Bears, quarterback Jay Cutler talked about the desire of teammates to win championships over chasing dollars.

“I talked with [Matt] Forte, [Brandon Marshall], Garza and all the guys,” Cutler explained. “We're here to win championships, not to make so and so amount of dollars.”

It's apparent the Bears used the recent deal signed by Detroit center Dominic Raiola, who is 35, as the framework for Garza's contract. Raiola signed a one-year deal earlier in February worth $1.5 million.

So while Garza's deal doesn't exactly break the bank, it's cap friendly and rewards one of the fixtures on Chicago's offensive line who hasn't shown any signs he's regressing.
The Chicago Bears announced Monday they signed center Taylor Boggs and safety Derrick Martin to one-year contracts.

Financial terms of the deals weren’t disclosed.

A three-year veteran, Boggs (6-foot-3, 285 pounds) played in one game last season, after spending the prior two years with the New York Jets after joining them in 2011 as an undrafted free agent out of Humboldt State.

Boggs served as the primary backup last season to veteran Roberto Garza. So it’s unclear what the signing of Boggs means for Garza, a pending free agent. The club has said it would like to bring back Garza for 2014. But all indications point to the Bears wanting to do so with a veteran minimum type of deal, which means there’s a good chance Garza will wait to see if other teams are interested in bringing him in as a potential starter.

Garza has started in 133 of 142 regular-season games for the Bears, and served as the leader on an offensive line that featured four new starters in 2013.

Martin, meanwhile, is an eight-year veteran who played in seven games for the Bears in 2013, primarily as a special-teamer. He produced six special-teams tackles and one stop on defense in 2013, and has played on five teams (Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, New England Patriots and the Bears) over eight seasons.

Martin has posted 66 tackles on special teams, 38 on defense, and three interceptions, eight pass breakups, a sack and a fumble recovery.

Countdown to Combine: Bears

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
With the NFL combine starting Feb. 22, here’s a look at Chicago’s positions of need and which prospects the Bears might be looking taking a closer look at in Indianapolis. Positions of need are listed in order of importance.

Position of need: Center

Finally, the Chicago Bears achieved stability along the offensive line in 2013, but that’s already in jeopardy with veteran center Roberto Garza set to hit free agency.

On an offensive line that featured four new starters in 2013, Garza was the club’s lone holdover from the 2012 team but put together one of his finest performances since switching to the center position full time. Garza received $2.05 million in base salary in 2013, but moving forward the club isn’t inclined to pay in that range for the veteran, who next month turns 35.

So given the club’s current cap situation, all indications are Garza will strongly consider moving on in 2014.

“I’ve let Roberto know that I was proud of his season and obviously we will work through it, but we would like him back,” Bears general manager Phil Emery said. "I’m sure he’ll have some choices to make and we’ll see how it goes. But very pleased with his season. We use STATS, Inc. to give us an independent source of disruptions, hits, sacks [and] knockdowns given up. A year ago he was at 11 total for the season. This year he was at five. I’ve told him I thought he made a big push up. He got a lot better with his overall body position and his hip-placement. He’s obviously very important in terms of calling signals for our offensive line and making point adjustments. He did a lot of good things. Obviously there are some dynamics about where he’s at in his career. He’s 35-years-old, not to get too far into the discussion. But Roberto knows that we want him to come back.”

Garza would like to return, too. But he’d also what he deems a fair contract.

“I’m going to definitely want to come back. I feel like I can still play. I can still go out there and help the team by going out there and playing as good as I can. So hopefully it all works out,” Garza said. “It’s the first time I’ll be in this situation since I got here. So we’ll see what happens, see what the future holds. I definitely want to keep playing.”

Outside of Garza the Bears have few options at center, which means there’s a sure bet the team looks to add at the position through the draft or free agency. Even if the team brings back Garza, it still needs to start making contingency plans for the future.

Taylor Boggs was Garza’s primary backup last season, and he’s an exclusive-rights free agent (a player with an expiring contract who has less than three accrued seasons. He can only sign with the Bears if he’s offered a one-year tender. If the team doesn’t offer a tender, he can sign with any team) while Eben Britton, who took reps at center during training camp, is set to hit unrestricted free agency.

Three players the Bears could be targeting

Travis Swanson, Arkansas: Drew mixed reviews at the Senior Bowl, where he played both center and guard. Swanson moved well during drills at the Senior Bowl, but wasn’t dominant. At Arkansas, Swanson started all 50 games of his career, becoming the first player at the school to start 50 consecutive outings. So the durability is there. Swanson was also elected a team captain in each of his last two years, which speaks to his leadership abilities. He should be an immediate starter in the NFL.

Weston Richburg, Colorado State: Like Swanson, Richburg receives high marks for durability (started every game over the last four years, including three starts at guard). He surprised scouts at the Senior Bowl with his quickness and ability to neutralize some of the more powerful interior defenders. Richburg projects to be a second- or third-round pick, but if he continues to perform the way he did at the Senior Bowl, his stock should rise.

Marcus Martin, USC: An early draft entrant, Martin isn’t as experienced as Swanson or Richburg because he played guard his first two seasons before making the switch last season to center. Martin possesses the frame scouts covet, in addition to impressive quickness, flexibility and natural leverage. Martin also plays with the nastiness coaches covet. Martin is expected to be taken in the third round or below, and could be a solid prospect the Bears could spend a year developing behind Garza, provided he’s brought back.

Melton drops weight, Bears want him back

February, 20, 2014
Feb 20
INDIANAPOLIS -- Former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton's recovery from a torn left anterior cruciate ligament has progressed to the point where Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery said on Thursday the club's preference is to re-sign Melton who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent on March 11.

"We do want to bring back Henry and we'll work through that process," Emery said at the NFL combine. "He's made progress. He's made positive progress."

[+] EnlargeHenry Melton
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastHenry Melton collected 13 sacks combined in 2011 and 2012, but played in just three games last season.
Slapped with the franchise tag by the Bears last season ($8,454,725) after posting 33 tackles and six sacks in 2012, Melton started just three games before landing on injured reserve on Sept. 27 -- Melton has 15.5 sacks in 48 career games.

After undergoing surgery and sitting out the final three months of the regular season, Melton has apparently dedicated himself to strengthening his injured left knee over the past couple of months.

"He's in every day early," Bears head coach Marc Trestman said. "He's got to drive in from downtown. If you see him, you'll see that he has been training and he has been working. He's very focused. You'll see he dropped some weight. He looks very good physically right now. Obviously he's in there working the knee, but he's been on time, he's working hard with [Bears head athletic trainer] Chris [Hanks].

"As I said, I spoke with him yesterday for 30-45 minutes and he's committed to getting himself back and he's got work to do to get there, but he's in a very good place right now and we all understand the situation and we'll see where it goes."

The Bears' ability to retain Melton is expected to boil down to money. Considered one of the top defensive tackles scheduled to reach free agency, there is no way of knowing how much other teams are prepared to offer Melton when the new league year begins on March 11.

The Bears find themselves in the same situation with the other unrestricted free agents the organization wants to return, namely quarterback Josh McCown, cornerback Charles Tillman and center Roberto Garza.

While the Bears cannot officially re-sign McCown until the beginning of free agency, the team does hold exclusive negotiating rights with the veteran quarterback and can agree in principle to a new deal. McCown posted the third-highest quarterback rating (109.0) when he completed 149 of 224 passing attempts for 1,829 yards, 13 touchdowns and one interception in eight appearances (five starts).

"I talk to Josh pretty much weekly, or bi-weekly, I've talked to him two or three times anyways and I've texted with him. He's in the loop into what's going on. I've just called him on a personal level just to catch up with him and see how he sees the league and what's going on," Trestman said. "We just like to talk football. He knows exactly where he stands with us. I think that he's going to take his time, see where things are at, when he's ready to say ‘I want to come back,' I know Phil's going to do everything he can and we're going to do everything can to make sure he is."

Tillman, the 2013 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award winner and two-time Pro Bowl cornerback, has publicly stated on multiple occasions that his decision to return to Chicago for a 12th season will be determined by the kinds of contract offers he receives.

Meantime, Garza, a 13-year NFL veteran center/guard, will likely have to accept a one-year, veteran-minimum contract with a relatively low signing bonus to stay with the Bears. However, Garza is a respected team captain and the leader of the team's revamped offensive line that started all 16 games together.

"It's a tough business," Trestman said. "We want Roberto back. He knows we want him back. We believe he should finish his career with the Bears. He does so much in our community. He's such a leader in our locker room. He knows how we feel about him. We just need to let this thing evolve and hopefully it's going to work out best, No. 1 for Roberto, because that's No. 1. And from his standpoint, and it should be, he deserves that respect. And hopefully it will work out for the Bears as well. We certainly want to see him back."

Emery also praised free-agent veteran middle linebacker D.J. Williams who battled injuries for much of last season. Emery sounded as if the door is still open for Williams to return, and if he does, Williams is expected to compete with Shea McClellin, Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene for a starting spot.

"Saw a good football player [in Williams]," Emery said. "Saw a guy that has legitimately very good burst. Saw a player that has good instincts, gets around the ball and plays with a relentless style. We were not displeased with his effort. We were very pleased with where he was going and how he was progressing. Obviously, he had some injuries in camp, he had to get his feet back under him and once he did he started producing at a high level."

Other notable unrestricted free agents for the Bears include: defensive lineman Corey Wootton, defensive tackle Nate Collins, return man Devin Hester, safety Craig Steltz, defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff and cornerbacks Zack Bowman and Kelvin Hayden.

Four Downs: Go defensive line at No. 14?

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
Jernigan & Nix III & Tuitt USA TODAY SportsTimmy Jernigan, Luis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt could be options for the Bears in the NFL draft.
Decimated by injuries, the Chicago Bears' defensive line turned in a nightmarish 2013 season. The Bears allowed 2,583 yards rushing, more than 400 worse than the 31st-ranked Atlanta Falcons, and their 30 sacks were good for 30th in the NFL.

Will the Bears address their glaring need for help up front with the 14th pick in the May NFL draft? Our panel weighs in on that and more in an offseason edition of Four Downs:

First Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears' first pick of the draft will be on the defensive line.


What position should the Bears address with the 14th pick in the draft?


Discuss (Total votes: 3,022)

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Teams need to be flexible in the draft, but the Bears' most glaring need is on the defensive line. Two years ago, the Bears' No. 1 need was to find a pass-rushing defensive end, and the club selected Shea McClellin at No. 19 overall. Last year, the Bears badly needed to upgrade the offensive line and took guard Kyle Long at No. 20. While the actual picks themselves (McClellin and Long) came as a surprise to many, the Bears did target the position groups most believed they would. We are weeks away from free agency, and three months from May's draft, but there seems to be a surplus of talented defensive linemen who could be available when the Bears go on the clock at No. 14. I never rule anything out. Maybe a top-notch cornerback is still on the board at No. 14. Or a safety. We should have a better idea the direction the Bears are leaning after the club makes some moves in free agency. But this far out, it seems like a safe bet that a young defensive lineman is fairly high on the team's wish-list.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. And they better get it right this time. Premier defensive line help is expensive on the free agent market, so it makes sense to get some help on a rookie deal. Phil Emery whiffed two years ago when he selected McClellin out of Boise State to play defensive end. He should look for inside help, given the Bears' lack of depth at tackle, unless there is a can't-miss defensive end waiting for them. Every defense starts up front, and the Bears' injury problems at defensive line led to the defense's demise last season. Go big or go home, Phil.

Second Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears will consider Missouri DE Michael Sam in the third round.

[+] EnlargeMichael Sam
Matthew Visinsky/Icon SMIMichael Sam won SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors, helping Missouri win the SEC East title.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Sam was a 6-foot-1, 260-pound 4-3 defensive end in college. Despite all his impressive accomplishments at Missouri, Sam fits the description of a tweener in the NFL. Does he have a position at the next level? McClellin is 6-3. Most would argue he is between positions in the NFL. Do the Bears really want to go down that road again? If Sam falls to the late rounds and the Bears view him as the best player available, then perhaps the team considers drafting him. That's not a knock on Sam. He is the SEC's reigning Co-Defensive Player of the Year, and the Bears, like the rest of the NFL, covet players out of that conference. But the third round sounds kind of high for a player with Sam's modest measurables.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I would love for the Bears to draft Sam. His story is inspiring, and given that Chicago has a thriving gay community, he could have a seamless transition to living as an adult in an NFL city. I also think the Bears' locker room would welcome him, and all the fears about "the NFL not being ready" would be proven garbage prognostication. But here's the thing. They already have an undersized defensive end in McClellin. The signs are pointing to the Bears moving him to outside linebacker. That's a move that a lot of NFL scouts and draftniks believe is in Sam's future. I hope he ends up here, but I don't think it happens with the Bears' other defensive needs.

Third Down

Fact or Fiction: Roberto Garza's career in Chicago is over.

[+] EnlargeRoberto Garza
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesWill Roberto Garza see a 10th season in Chicago?
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. But if you read between the lines at the Bears' end-of-the-year news conference, there is a strong likelihood the team will only offer Garza a one-year veteran minimum contract. Garza has been a great player for the Bears, but the NFL doesn't usually pay players for their past performances. You get paid in the NFL based on what the team projects your contributions will be in the future. Garza is nearing the end of an outstanding career, but if 2013 is any indication, he has more left in the tank. Personally, the way Garza keeps himself in top physical condition, I can envision him playing at least two more seasons. But just because I feel that way doesn't mean the Bears will offer Garza a multi-year deal. He'll probably have to test the market. But at the end of the day, I predict Garza returns to Chicago for a 10th season. He's built up so much good equity in the organization, I'd hate to see the sides part on less than amicable terms. But in this business, who knows?

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I think the Bears get another season out of Garza. Their offensive line thrived last season, and Garza was integral to the group's development. I think the Bears need to draft a young center, but Garza should be able to get another year out of his body. He takes good care of himself and has a fantastic attitude. Of course, Emery has shown little nostalgia in his short tenure, with good reason. So maybe they just move on and grab a veteran center in free agency. But I'm leaning toward a one-year return.

Fourth Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears will have a new No. 2 running back next season.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bush
Ron Schwane/USA TODAY SportsMichael Bush's production didn't merit his price tag last season.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Michael Bush carried the ball 63 times for 197 yards (3.1 yards per carry) and three touchdowns in 2013. He is to count $3.85 million against the Bears' salary cap next season. That doesn't add up. Either Bush takes a pay cut or the Bears need to go in a different direction, even though cutting Bush would force the Bears to carry $2 million worth of dead salary-cap space. Having a dependable No. 2 tailback behind Pro Bowler Matt Forte is important, but Bush's current contract just doesn't make much sense given his minor role in the offense. If the Bears are going to pay decent money to another skill position player, give it to another pass-catching tight end to complement Martellus Bennett. Forte stays on the field too much for Bush's deal to be considered cost-effective for the Bears.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. Bush has a $3.85 million cap hit next year. He's been a decent backup, but not for that price. The now cost-conscious Bears will likely save money by getting rid of him and finding a replacement on the free agent market or through young Michael Ford. Maybe that's the offensive position they draft. Don't rule it out. Regardless, Forte will continue to be the man in 2014. Given his dual roles as running back and pass-catcher, he looks like a bargain with a $7.5 million cap hit.
2014 free agents: Roberto Garza, Eben Britton, Jonathan Scott, Taylor Boggs.

The good: With four new faces on the offensive line, the Bears used the same five starters up front for all 16 games last season and were one of just three teams in the NFL (Washington and Philadelphia were the others) to start the same five for the entire season. Garza was the only starter in 2013 returning from the 2012 team, and the right side of the line consisted of two rookie starters in Kyle Long and Jordan Mills, who were the first rookie starters on Chicago’s offensive line on opening day since 1983. The offensive line paved the way for the team to set multiple franchise records on offense, and allowed 30 sacks, which tied for the fourth fewest in the NFL. The 30 sacks were the fewest allowed by the Bears since 2008.

The bad: Despite the improved sack numbers, the argument could be made they were a result of the quarterbacks getting rid of the ball quicker than they had in the past. At Philadelphia, the offensive line gave up five sacks, and on occasion, the group struggled to provide sufficient push in short-yardage situations. After all the punishment Jay Cutler has taken over the years, it’s hard to find much “bad” about the 2013 offensive line. Perhaps the most concerning issue the group will having moving forward is whether the front office will bring back Garza, the quarterback of the offensive line, who is set to become a free agent.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Jermon Bushrod ($7.3 million), Matt Slauson ($2,747,500), Long ($1,886,580), Mills ($536,200), James Brown ($570,000), Gaines Rogers ($420,000), Joe Long ($420,000).

Draft priority: Moderate. Even if the Bears bring back Garza, they’ve got to start thinking about the future of the position, and they can possibly address that with a mid-to-late-round pick. Boggs served as Garza’s primary backup in 2013 as well as the top reserve at left guard. But Boggs is about to hit free agency. So the Bears need to decide whether to bring him back, along with pending free agents Britton and Scott, who have proved to be quality backups capable of starting. Reserve right guard James Brown is entering the final year of his contract as well. So while the starting offensive line for the most part appears set for the next couple of years (starting left guard Matt Slauson recently signed a new deal), the Bears might need to start developing younger players at the backup positions that can eventually become starters.

The next big thing: Bears

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
The Chicago Bears took care of some of the heavy lifting by signing quarterback Jay Cutler to an extension, in addition to bringing back guard Matt Slauson, cornerback Tim Jennings and kicker Robbie Gould.

The Bears now need to turn their attention to three areas: their own free agents, unrestricted free agency and the NFL draft, with drastic improvement of the club’s struggling defense as the No. 1 underlying factor. In all, the Bears have 25 free agents they’ve got to decide whether to bring back, a group that includes key players such as center Roberto Garza, cornerback Charles Tillman, defensive tackles Henry Melton, Nate Collins and Jeremiah Ratliff, along with backup quarterback Josh McCown, linebacker D.J. Williams and defensive end Corey Wootton.

Limited salary cap space will be the main hindrance to bringing back some of their own, as well as any plans to improve by making acquisitions on the open market. Bears general manager Phil Emery admitted the club’s cap space will be tight, but added the team should still be able to improve the roster.

The club has ways to free up space, such as converting Cutler’s $22.5 million base salary for 2014 into a signing bonus it can prorate over the life of his deal or asking other veterans such as Julius Peppers, who counts $18,183,333 against the cap in 2014, to restructure.
With the season over and the cupboard bare in terms of Chicago Bears news, I decided to try my first Twitter mailbag to answer some of the questions you guys had.

Throughout the offseason, we'll try to knock out at least one of these per week.

So let's get into this:

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Brandon Marshall broke down the history of the quarterback-starved Chicago Bears franchise on Monday when asked whether Jay Cutler should be brought back in 2014 on a new contract.

With Chicago’s season coming to an end Sunday after a 33-28 loss to Green Bay, Cutler’s contract situation remains a hot topic because the quarterback is not signed beyond 2013. As the players cleared out their lockers at Halas Hall following final meetings with Bears coach Marc Trestman, Marshall provided his take on Cutler.

“One thing I know about Chicago: It’s been a long time since we had a quarterback like Jay Cutler,” Marshall said. “So all your stories this offseason, I think that should be the headline or that should be the story written this year: ‘Oh, how we love Jay Cutler,’ because it’s been so long. His first few years here he hadn’t gotten it done, and I think that’s not all on him. There’s some on him, but then you look around and he’s one of the most beat-up quarterbacks around; didn’t have adequate coaching on the offensive side of the ball. Every year I think he had a different offensive coordinator. Now that you have continuity, not only upstairs, but in the locker room or the room with the wide receivers, offensive line, running back position, it’s set up for him to be successful. The steps he’s taken this year in leadership, and even growing as a quarterback, mentally and physically, we saw those things.”

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhQuarterback Jay Cutler thrived this season under head coach Marc Trestman.
Despite Cutler’s record of futility against the Packers continuing on Sunday, the quarterback performed well in the loss. Cutler passed for 226 yards and two touchdowns to go with a passer rating of 103.8. In doing so, Cutler completed three passes for 30-plus yards, including a 67-yard connection to Alshon Jeffery, a 37-yarder to Marshall, and a 33-yarder to Matt Forte.

In eight previous games against the Packers, Cutler completed 142 of 257 passes for 1,702 yards, nine touchdowns, 16 interceptions and a passer rating of 61.5. Against the rest of the NFC North over that same span, he had thrown for 33 TDs and 16 INTs.

So despite a season hindered by Cutler missing time due to injuries, there’s no doubt that the quarterback showed growth under first-year Bears coach Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. In four seasons with the Bears prior to this season, Cutler had generated a passer rating of 81.9. In 2013, Cutler produced a career-high passer rating of 89.2, the quarterback’s best since his rookie season (2006).

“The man’s 30. Jay’s like 30 years old, ain’t he?” tight end Martellus Bennett asked. “How much development do y’all expect him to do? I haven’t really talked to him too much today. But he’s been an awesome teammate since day one for me. So I don’t know the Jay you guys [keep] talking about and all the [expletive] you guys write all the time, talking about Jay [has] changed. I only met one Jay Cutler, and he’s been awesome from day one.”

But center Roberto Garza senses a change in Cutler.

“It’s unbelievable,” Garza said. “To put up the numbers we did with that offense we had, and the playmakers we had week in and week out, it was a great thing to be a part of. To see Jay go out there and play like we know he can was good to see. It’s definitely something they are going to build on for the future.”

But will Cutler be back in 2014?

“There’s a lot of uncertainties,” Garza said. “But he’s a great quarterback. He deserves to be here and I’m sure that will all work out.”

Marshall admitted his input ultimately won’t sway general manager Phil Emery's decision. But Emery has mentioned on multiple occasions that he considers Cutler a franchise-level quarterback, and it’s unlikely the season-ending loss to the Packers changed that.

“Phil is smart. He’ll get it done. He’ll do what’s best for the team, and I think Jay is what’s best for the team,” Marshall said. “When was the last time you had a Jay Cutler? When was the last time you had Jay Cutler with Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte, [Matt] Slauson, [Jermon] Bushrod, [Kyle] Long, Garza, Trestman, Kromer, [receivers coach] Mike Groh, Phil Emery? The pieces are there.”

Hester, Peppers unsure of futures

December, 29, 2013
CHICAGO -- Three-time Pro Bowl return man Devin Hester wants clarity on his future with the Chicago Bears.

Hester, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after earning $2,107,523 in the final year of his contract, hopes to hear in the near future if he fits into the Bears’ plans beyond 2013.

“I really want to know right away,” Hester said following the Bears’ 33-28 loss to the Green Bay Packers. “I am the type of guy, I don’t want to go through the whole offseason not knowing where I am going to be at. I want to retire as a Bear. I put in too much hard work here and did a lot of things around here. I am pretty sure the fans want me back, so who knows.”

One of the organization’s most popular players since he debuted in the league in 2006 as a second-round pick out of the University of Miami, Hester said he’s currently in the dark regarding the Bears’ offseason intentions.

“To be honest, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hester said. “It really hurts walking off the field knowing that this could be my last time wearing a Chicago Bears uniform. It’s the most hurtful feeling that I have right now. This is where I was born and raised (as an NFL player). It’s not like I played three years somewhere else or six years somewhere else, but I know this is a business.

Everything I had in me I left it all on the field tonight. We just came up short.”

Hester returned a punt 49 yards in Week 17 while also handling five kickoffs for 127 yards. In his first season of being exclusively a return man, Hester finished 2013 with a 27.7 yard average on kickoff returns and 14.2 yard average on punt returns, including an 81-yard touchdown.

He joins a long list of prominent Bears players with expiring contracts. Among the players on the list: quarterback Jay Cutler, cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, defensive lineman Corey Wootton, safety Major Wright, center Roberto Garza, linebacker James Anderson and left guard Matt Slauson.

The future of veteran defensive end Julius Peppers is also in doubt. Although Peppers is under contract through 2015, he is currently projected to count $18,183,333 against the Bears’ salary cap next season. Peppers lead the Bears this year with 7.5 sacks, but he didn’t look nearly as dominant as he had in previous seasons.

“I’m not sure, I don’t know [what’s going to happen],” Peppers said. “I’m in a contract. You’ll need to talk to a decision-maker about that.”

The Bears failed to extend player contracts for almost the entire season until they re-signed kicker Robbie Gould and fullback Tony Fiammatta in the week leading up to the Packers game. General manager Phil Emery is expected to work quickly in the coming weeks to try to re-sign some of his own free agents that he views as long-term parts of the team.

Five things we learned vs. Packers

November, 5, 2013

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Here are five things we learned in the Chicago Bears’ 27-20 victory over the Green Bay Packers:

1. Josh McCown a solid investment at No. 2: The job McCown has done the past two games is nothing short of remarkable. Reserve quarterbacks pressed into action rarely have this level of success. Let’s put McCown’s performance Monday in perspective: He completed 22 of 41 passes for 272 yards, threw two touchdowns and zero interceptions and did it on the road -- in a place where the Bears seldom win, against a quality opponent. Seneca Wallace had no shot to lead the Packers to a victory after Aaron Rodgers suffered a left shoulder/collarbone injury in the first quarter. McCown, on the other hand, inspired confidence all night. Another stellar game by the offensive line and Matt Forte rushing for 125 yards certainly helped, but the star of the game from the Bears’ perspective has to be McCown. As I wrote last week, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. McCown treats every single person at Halas Hall with respect, and for that reason he has the entire organization on his side. This is a win Bears fans will remember for a long time, and it could be the turning point of the season.

2. Momentum is now on the Bears’ side: Chicago's once-promising season looked as if it was about to go off the tracks after the Bears dropped three of four games. But Monday's victory at Lambeau Field changes everything. Now sitting at 5-3 and 2-1 in the NFC North, the Bears return home Sunday to face a Detroit Lions squad that is much more vulnerable when playing on the road, away from the controlled environment of Ford Field. Following the Lions game -- a crucial matchup, considering that Detroit knocked off the Bears on Sept. 29 -- Chicago has winnable games against the Baltimore Ravens and St. Louis Rams. If the Bears play their cards right, they could finish November somewhere in the 7-4 range, or perhaps even better. That would put the Bears in prime playoff contention entering the final month of the season. Monday night was a swing game for the Bears -- and the season has now swung back in a positive direction after some scary moments of late.

3. Defensive ends produce: A consistent pass rush had eluded the Bears virtually the entire season, until defensive ends Julius Peppers (one) and Shea McClellin (three) combined for four sacks versus the Packers. Peppers also had an important interception, while McClellin delivered the hit that knocked Rodgers out of the game. Corey Wootton even contributed a sack late in the game from his defensive-tackle position. While there are many things the Bears can still improve upon on this side of the ball (the run defense and tackling among them), Peppers and McClellin finally delivered the kind of effort Chicago fans were desperate to see. Perhaps this game can serve as a springboard for McClellin, who said in the locker room that his effort definitely helped his confidence. This is the kind of production Bears general manager Phil Emery envisioned when he drafted McClellin No. 19 overall in 2012. Better late than never. And if it turns out to be an isolated occurrence, at least McClellin had the monster game against the Packers.

4. The offensive line is for real: The Packers game should only serve to reinforce the turnaround on the Bears’ offensive line from 2012 to 2013. McCown was sacked just one time in 41 pass attempts. Forte averaged 5.2 yards per carry, while the team overall rushed for 171 yards. This group has the perfect balance of youth and experience. Roberto Garza receives some credit for his effort his season. The Bears investigated drafting a center in last year's draft. But now it looks like the team should offer Garza a one-year deal in the offseason to keep him on the roster in 2014. Left guard Matt Slauson also seems worth a new deal. Marc Trestman, Aaron Kromer, Pat Meyer and Emery all deserve praise for turning one of the Bears’ greatest weaknesses into a strength in just one offseason.

5. Special teams slipped: What is going on with special teams? First, Adam Podlesh has a punted blocked for the first time in his NFL career, then Green Bay is able to recover a surprise onside kick in the second half. Special teams have been a staple in Chicago for years, but this season the group has not been as effective. With the defense still struggling in many aspects (Green Bay rushed for 199 yards), the Bears can not afford to make gaffes on special teams as they push for a postseason berth. Time to clean it up in the game’s third phase.

Josh McCown shines in Lambeau victory

November, 5, 2013

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Aided by terrific protection from the offensive line, Josh McCown pulled off a rare feat for a Chicago Bears’ quarterback on Monday night: win a game at Lambeau Field.

For the second consecutive game, McCown displayed remarkable poise and confidence in relief of Jay Cutler, completing 22 of 41 passes for 272 yards and two touchdowns for a quarterback rating of 90.7, guiding the Bears to a 27-20 victory -- their win in Green Bay since 2007.

“It would be hard to find a (better win), but they are all special through every level from back at high school to Sam Houston to now,” McCown said. “They are all special. This is neat. This is really neat because it means so much to our team, because it is a divisional opponent, and it is for the divisional lead. All those things factor into this. So it is special and I am very thankful.”

[+] EnlargeJosh McCown
Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago TribuneJosh McCown completed 22 of 41 passes for 272 yards and two touchdowns against Green Bay.
McCown, sacked only one time, appeared to be in complete control of the offense from the opening kickoff, leading the Bears on two separate scoring drives that consumed 10 or more plays, including a marathon final drive in the fourth quarter that ate up 8:58 worth of clock (18 plays and 95 yards including penalties) that resulted in a 27-yard Robbie Gould field goal.

“He’s got a lot of energy in the huddle,” Bears center Roberto Garza said. “Every now and then we have to calm him down a little because he starts screaming and we don’t want the defense hearing the play. But we had a lot of fun and he did a great job leading us. That is what this game is all about; you prepare and when it’s time to play you go out there and let loose. We were able to do that today.”

On the season, McCown has connected on 36-of-61 throws for 476 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

According to Bears rookie right tackle Jordan Mills, McCown’s experience and understanding of the offense had a calming effect on the team the entire evening.

“Josh is a 12-year veteran,” Mills said. “He’s been through everything and has experienced all the ups-and-downs and has learned from it. He’s a true leader. Just to see him stay poised and calm in the pocket like that and show no fear towards anyone: that just left me speechless.

“I knew that he could do it. He knew that he could do it. But we had to show the world that he could do it. After seeing on Monday night how he is able to stand in pocket as cool as a summer’s day, it was really calming for me.”

Four Downs: Minimal dropoff with Bostic?

October, 17, 2013
Jon BosticAP Photo/Scott BoehmJon Bostic will make his first NFL start on Sunday against the Redskins.
While veteran D.J. Williams recovered from a calf strain that kept him out of the preseason, many clamored for rookie Jon Bostic to win the middle linebacker job. Now with Williams shelved for the season because of a torn pectoral muscle, Bostic is getting his chance.

What can be expected of the second-round pick who has played almost entirely on special teams to this point? Our panel weighs in on that and more:

First Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears won't lose much with rookie Jon Bostic taking over for the injured D.J. Williams.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Bostic
AP Photo/Scott BoehmRookie Jon Bostic showed his hard-hitting style in the preseason.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. The Bears were pleased with Williams at middle linebacker. The veteran shook off the rust that plagued him in the first couple of weeks to record, by the team's count, 35 tackles, two tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble. Williams is the fifth-leading tackler on the team after six games, even though he was primarily used as a two-down linebacker, coming off the field in nickel situations. Williams is an experienced and savvy veteran. Bostic is a rookie. There are going to be bumps in the road. He is extremely athletic and has shown an ability to make big plays, but at his core, he is still a rookie. Bostic will make mistakes. The Bears just hope those mistakes don't result in touchdowns. The Bears always viewed Bostic as a future starter, but the plan was for Williams to handle middle linebacker in 2013. Now that plan is null and void and the team will have to adjust. Bostic is a good option, but he's not the best option. At least, not this season.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Everyone was excited in the preseason because Bostic is athletic and knows how to play in an aggressive, takeaway-hungry defense. But this is about more than storylines and draft status. Bostic lacks Williams' experience in the NFL. That's a pretty simple statement, but it's the real issue. Bostic can't learn experience, that intuition you earn by playing in enough games to let muscle memory take over. Bostic told me in training camp about watching Lance Briggs with admiration, as the veteran knew exactly where the play was going. Bostic doesn't have that yet, and the Bears have to hope he's a quick learner so he can realize the right fits between the gaps. Williams knew them. After missing the entire preseason, he slid right in without missing a beat.

Second Down

Fact or Fiction: The Lions are a bigger threat to the Bears in the division than the Packers.

[+] EnlargeNick Perry
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsThe Packers handed the Lions one of their two losses this season.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. The road to the NFC North title still runs through Green Bay. Until the Bears prove they can beat the Packers, Marc Trestman's team cannot be considered one of the NFC's elite. Jay Cutler is having a solid season, but he needs to defeat Green Bay to truly get over the hump. Cutler has one victory over the Packers since he arrived in Chicago in 2009, and if the Packers don't commit a staggering number of penalties that 2010 night at Soldier Field, Cutler would be winless against the division foe. This is still Green Bay's division. The Lions like to run their mouths, but that franchise has accomplished next to nothing. The Bears have a great shot to knock off Detroit in November at Soldier Field. But can they do the same against the Packers? That remains the larger unanswered question.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Both are threats, of course, but the road to the division goes through Green Bay. Detroit obviously has the edge on the Bears, but they still have to win at Soldier Field. The Bears need to take one of two against the Packers this season. And if Cutler can just play a clean game in Green Bay in two weeks, that will exorcise some of his demons with the NFC North titans. Cutler needs to aim for the Packers.

Third Down

Fact or Fiction: Marc Trestman's system is most responsible for Cutler being sacked only nine times this season.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJay Cutler has been sacked nine times this season, tied for second-fewest in the NFL.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Trestman's desire that Cutler get rid of the ball in a timely fashion definitely helps. But to attribute the improved pass protection primarily to the system is unfair. The Bears are simply better up front. Why it took the organization so long to assemble a good offensive line is beyond me, but general manager Phil Emery accomplished in one offseason what the previous administration failed to do in the post-Super Bowl years of 2007-2012. Let's give some credit to Roberto Garza, Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson, Kyle Long and Jordan Mills for keeping Cutler upright. Aaron Kromer also deserves a mention. Although Trestman runs the offense, Kromer controls the offensive line and has played an important role in developing the two rookies on the right side. Cutler himself has done a nice job avoiding the rush, and the receivers also play a role in protection. This has been a collective effort since the start of the season. If it continues, the Bears' offense will only get better.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Of course his play calling, getting the ball out quicker and such, is a big factor, but you can't discount the play of the offensive line and Cutler's trust in his receivers. While coaching is a bigger factor in the NFL than in the other major professional sports, the guys on the field are still the ones who have to execute. For most of the first six games, Cutler has had time to throw because his linemen, and additional blockers, have held up their end. It helps that Cutler isn't locking in on one player or one option. Kromer has certainly helped there, too, but give credit where credit's due here.

Fourth Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears will beat the Redskins if they hold Robert Griffin III in check.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
AP Photo/Richard LipskiHaving to dig out of deficits all season, the Redskins and QB Robert Griffin III have been especially pass-heavy on offense.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. The Bears are just a better team. However, Griffin remains a wild card. I have a ton of respect for RG III and the way he returned to the starting lineup only eight months after suffering a serious knee injury that required surgery. But he just doesn't quite look the same this season. As a rookie, he was a dynamic multipurpose threat. This year he's been more of a pocket passer with a 59.8 completion percentage and 80.4 passer rating. There is always a chance RG III has a big game against a shaky Bears defense. But if the Bears keep RG III in check, it's hard to imagine the Redskins doing enough to win the game, even with it being at FedEx Field.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. Griffin showed more athleticism last week, albeit in a loss to Dallas, but he's scary because of his arm, not just his legs. With time Griffin is still very, very dangerous. And the Bears' defense is giving quarterbacks time with a flaccid pass rush. With their ballhawks in the secondary, the Bears need to force him into some quick decisions, and they especially need to force him into some third-and-long situations. Julius Peppers, for one, needs to make an impact this week.