NFC North: Bears Essentials

In case you missed it, the crew over at ESPNChicago.com debated the Hot Button topic of whether Jay Cutler needs to win Sunday against the Green Bay Packers to earn a long-term contract extension from the Chicago Bears. So we’ll start today’s Bears Essentials here.

Colleagues Jeff Dickerson and Jon Greenberg agreed that one game, regardless of the stakes, won’t seal Cutler’s fate. I agree with them.

Dickerson writes: "Either the front office is comfortable enough with Cutler's strengths and weaknesses to believe he is the quarterback of the future for the Bears (a scenario many of us believe to be true) or they don't.

"One start against the Green Bay Packers isn't going to change that."

He adds: "But in all likelihood, another Cutler stinker against Green Bay is probably just costing the quarterback money and leverage in upcoming contract negotiations. If the Bears had doubts about Cutler, why in the world did they start him over reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Week Josh McCown? Unless the Bears were convinced that Cutler at quarterback gave the team its best chance to win the division and reach the postseason, the move made absolutely no sense."

Meanwhile, Greenberg writes: "Does fan support matter to the real deciders at Halas Hall? No. But it quiets the noise, noise that the Bears admitted has filtered into the locker room.

"Cutler will probably be a Bear into the future regardless of how he does this Sunday, but he needs this win for reasons outside of money."

I’ve fielded several questions on Twitter concerning this very subject. Since there are more than 140 characters here to respond, here’s what I think regarding the situation: Unless something squirrely takes place during negotiations, Cutler will be a Chicago Bear in 2014, regardless of whether he wins or loses against the Packers. It seems we want to disregard all that’s been said by general manager Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman for the better part of the season. Trestman continues to express satisfaction with Cutler’s growth, and Emery has said on multiple occasions -- including during interviews recently -- he believes Cutler is a franchise-level quarterback.

From what I know of Emery, he’s not the type of guy to say one thing -- especially in a public forum, such as an interview -- and do another. He’s expressed confidence in Cutler’s abilities and encouragement with the quarterback’s growth and demeanor, and if the Bears truly wanted to go in another direction, wouldn’t they have to have a solid Plan B? Somebody tell me what that is, please.

Discussing Cutler’s future a few weeks ago, an NFC scout explained that in his opinion, just five or six signal-callers in the NFL possessed as impressive of a physical skill set as Chicago’s man under center, making it extremely difficult for a team to part ways with such a talent. Combine that with the fact Cutler has displayed real growth in just one season (not even a complete one at that, due to injuries) with Trestman, an improved offensive line and a more talented assortment of weapons, and it’s easy to see why the organization would want to provide the quarterback even more stability and an opportunity to fully grow into his immense potential.

-- CSNChicago.com’s John Mullin explains that Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker isn’t alone in his struggles. Some of the game’s top defensive masterminds are directing units which haven’t lived up to expectations.

Mullin writes: "If coordinator Mel Tucker is the problem behind the decline and fall of the Bears' defense from 2012 to 2013, then this season has to rank as an all-timer for 'problem' coordinators who suddenly got bad or stupid."

-- Roster upheaval is imminent, writes Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune. Several players have contracts set to expire, and the team isn’t inclined to bring many of them back based on their performance, their age and other factors.

BE: Anderson's stock is up

December, 18, 2013
12/18/13
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Here are some Bears Essentials to get you going today with Chicago beginning preparations for its matchup Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.

-- ESPNChicago.com’s Jeff Dickerson puts out his latest edition of Stock Watch, and finally a Bears defensive player makes the cut in linebacker James Anderson.

Dickerson writes this about Anderson: The veteran strongside linebacker recorded a team-high and season-best 14 tackles in the win against the Browns. Anderson, along with rookie middle linebacker Jon Bostic (eight tackles), were around the football much of the afternoon. The past couple of months have not been easy for Anderson. With veterans Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams unavailable because of injuries, Anderson was thrust into the leadership role at linebacker, playing alongside rookies Bostic and Khaseem Greene.

-- Want an idea of how the playoffs will pan out? Well, you can plug in your scenarios in the ESPN.com Playoffs Machine and get all the information you’re looking for. Check it out here.

-- Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune outlines how Bears receiver Earl Bennett can earn back some of the money he lost from taking a $1 million pay cut earlier in the season. Bennett has caught touchdown passes in back-to-back games, and has a legitimate chance to make back all the money he was scheduled to earn if he comes up with 10 more catches over the next two games.

-- CSNChicago.com took the time to run down the tweets of Bears players reacting to the 61-yard field goal nailed by Justin Tucker that knocked Detroit out of first place in the NFC North and gave Chicago control of its own postseason destiny.

BE: Cutler vs. McCown edition

December, 13, 2013
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You had to know after Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman made the decision to go with Jay Cutler as the starting quarterback Sunday at Cleveland over Josh McCown, pretty much the entire country would weigh in.

So here at Bears Essentials, we've decided to give you a cross-section of some of the takes being written.

Until Cutler actually plays in the game and proves or disproves Trestman’s steadfastness in making the enigmatic quarterback his starter over McCown, nobody’s right or wrong. So let’s get into this.

-- In case you missed it, ESPNChicago.com columnist Jon Greenberg digs into the Cutler-McCown debate and makes some salient points. Nobody’s arguing whether Cutler is the better quarterback. The question is whether now is the right time to throw Cutler back into the lineup. Greenberg writes:

"Cutler versus McCown, two good friends pitted against each other in the public forum, was a fun storyline, and maybe a legitimate debate about the short-term moreso than the long-term viability of re-signing Cutler. It's not risky to start Cutler. It just might be safer to start McCown."

To me, that last line is the crux of the argument.

Greenberg adds: "Cutler should be the missing piece of the puzzle. He needs to be efficient and deadly from the opening series. 'There's pressure to make the playoffs every game,' he said. 'This is my eighth year. I've been down this road before.' That's kind of what we're afraid of."

-- The crew over at ESPNChicago.com debate on Four Downs whether starting Cutler is the right move. I think it is. Jeff Dickerson writes:

"The Bears have no reason to sit Cutler on Sunday if the quarterback is medically cleared to play. That has been the organization's stance since Cutler suffered the high ankle-sprain in the Detroit Lions game on Nov. 10. Cutler is the starting quarterback when healthy. It's too late to go back. Plus, it would be nice to see what Cutler can accomplish in the offense over the final three games given that McCown basically lit the world on fire coming off the bench. Cutler's effort down the stretch is likely to directly impact the kind of money he can demand on the open market. This is a crucial stretch for Cutler that could shape the remainder of his career. He deserves the right to play Sunday. And the Bears can always go back to McCown if Cutler struggles badly against the Browns."

-- Ross Tucker at the Sporting News believes Trestman made the wrong call in naming Cutler the starter over McCown.

-- Chris Burke over at Sports Illustrated dives into the debate, using an interesting baseball analogy to kick things off. Burke writes:

"There is a vocal group among baseball analysts who believe that the use of a closer is a fabricated, unnecessary strategy. There are inherent flaws, they argue, in using the same pitcher to attempt to finish games regardless of the situation.

"And, in essence, that’s what Marc Trestman is doing by going back to Jay Cutler for Week 15. Cutler was the Bears’ starting quarterback prior to getting hurt, players and coaches said they still considered Cutler the starter even when he was out of the lineup, and now he is back in the No. 1 role.

"Trestman has deemed Cutler his closer, regardless of what stats and possibly even common sense tells him."
Given the short week, we’re a little short on links for today’s edition of Bears Essentials. But let’s start with what’s become a hot topic: Josh McCown vs. Jay Cutler.

It really shouldn't be that way. It’s OK to appreciate what McCown has done for the Bears without it being a slight in any way to Cutler, who is the unquestioned starting quarterback of this team.

But ESPNChicago.com's Jon Greenberg thinks the Bears should ride the hot hand at quarterback and go with McCown for the rest of the season. Greenberg writes:
The McCown lovefest has been going on since he started, and won, in Green Bay. That's something Cutler hasn't been able to do.

The overall theme of his latest postgame news conference was veering close to: "How can we get you to say you should start over Cutler?"

"I'm the backup, Jay's our starter," McCown said Monday night. "When Jay is healthy, Jay should be the starting quarterback. That's really it. I don't go out here going, 'You know what, if I do this now I'll be the starter.' That's not my mindset. I've told you guys that. My mindset is to serve this team as the backup quarterback as best I can and play efficient football and winning football in this situation to keep us in contention. So, whenever he takes back over, we're in position to make a playoff run."

Trestman hasn't wavered from that message, either, obviously. If he did, we'd have a full-scale public relations disaster.

While Cutler, from this vantage point, is the superior player, I've got a tough time arguing Greenberg’s rationale here. It seems every time this subject becomes a conversation, it’s taken to extremes, to a black-and-white, one-is-better-than-the-other argument of absolutes. But the truth is it’s far from that. Cutler is the best quarterback on the roster of the Chicago Bears. No doubt about that. But I’m not sure he’s the team’s best option at this very moment.

Let’s remember, it’s been a month since Cutler last played in a game. What type of shape will he be in once he returns? How much rust will Cutler have to knock off to get back to playing at peak efficiency? Will knocking the rust off result in mistakes and turnovers the Bears can't rebound from at Cleveland or Philadelphia, or wherever the club decides to start him next?

The team allowed Cutler to return to practice for two days last week. Before that, he had only run on a treadmill two days before the Bears brought him back to the practice field. So even if you count those two days last week of practice, and give Cutler an additional week of work leading into Sunday’s game at Cleveland, I’d still be at least a little apprehensive about how the he would perform given the long layoff.

So take personal feelings and preferences out of the equation when looking at this thing and use common sense. McCown is on a hot streak, coming off three consecutive 300-yard passing games. And don’t give me the argument that McCown has faced a slew of bad defenses. Sure he has. But in five years with the Bears, Cutler faced horrid defenses, too. The fact is nobody in Bears history has accomplished what McCown has done over his last three starts.

Does it make him better than Cutler? No. But it might make McCown the better option right now given the situation. At the very least, he's given this staff something to strongly consider in the coming days.

-- ESPNChicago.com’s Jeff Dickerson put together his weekly Stock Watch, and surprise, surprise, receiver Alshon Jeffery’s stock continues to rise. Dickerson writes:

"Every week Jeffery seems to make a ridiculous, highlight-reel catch. The second-year wide receiver struck again Monday night when he hauled in a deep McCown pass in the back corner of the south end zone and managed to drag both feet in as he fell out of bounds with two Dallas defenders in the area. Jeffery is on fire. He has a combined 17 catches for 333 yards and three touchdowns in the past two weeks. Already with 75 receptions for 1,193 yards and six touchdowns on the season, Jeffery is playing at a Pro Bowl level. Brandon Marshall is having another incredibly productive season (84-1,090-9), but Jeffery's emergence has been the No. 1 storyline this year in the wide receiver room. The exciting part is the best is yet to come for Jeffery, who doesn't turn 24 until February."
Just in case you missed it, we’ll start Wednesday's Bears Essentials with ESPNChicago.com’s weekly feature Stock Watch, penned by my colleague Jeff Dickerson.

In this week’s edition, Dickerson rightfully gives receiver Alshon Jeffery some love for his outstanding performance in Sunday’s loss to Minnesota. Dickerson writes:

"Marc Trestman's questionable decision-making in the 23-20 overtime loss to the Minnesota Vikings obscured Jeffery's brilliant performance in the Metrodome, in which he caught 12 passes for a team-record 249 yards and two touchdowns. In just his second year in the NFL, Jeffery is only the eighth player in NFL history to have two 200-yard receiving games in one season. On the year, Jeffery has 70 catches for 1,109 yards and five touchdowns, not bad production from a second-round pick who some viewed as a malcontent coming out of South Carolina. Jeffery and Brandon Marshall are rewriting the Bears' record book at wide receiver, and the duo has been together for less than two seasons."

Hopefully Jeffery and Marshall can stay together a few more seasons. Let’s not forget Marshall’s deal is up in 2014, and the club would be wise to try to re-up with him before that contract actually comes up on its final season.

-- Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times believes Jay Cutler is the better quarterback for the Bears at this point than backup Josh McCown, which is obvious. But the difference between the two isn’t as night-and-day as you might think. Yes, with McCown under center the Bears are gaining more yards but scoring fewer points than they did with Cutler running the show. But all the variables need to be taken into account when looking at the situation, instead of relying solely on statistics. See, the Bears scored four of their five touchdowns on defense this season with a healthy Cutler starting at quarterback, which skews the scoring average somewhat. With McCown under center, the Bears scored one defensive TD, on David Bass’ interception return against Baltimore. Taking that into account, which means we subtract the defensive TDs and freebie extra-point kicks, the Bears averaged 21.75 points with Cutler engineering the offense and 19 with McCown at the helm. And just two games -- one Bears win and one loss -- this season were decided by two points or fewer.

We won’t even get into comparing the turnover numbers.

When Cutler first went down against the Redskins on Oct. 20, he had completed 3 of 8 passes for 28 yards, with an interception and a passer rating of 8.3, before leaving the contest with 9:56 left in the first half. McCown led Chicago’s offense to 24 points in that 45-41 shootout. Then, when Cutler went down again Nov. 10 at Detroit, the Bears trailed 21-13. So McCown accounted for six of the club’s points in that loss by virtue of an 11-yard touchdown pass to Marshall in the final minute.

If we’re looking at it from the standpoint of physical skill set, sure, Cutler undoubtedly is the man to lead the Bears over the next four games, provided he’s healthy. But McCown certainly hasn’t been a slouch, and he deserves some credit. He’s played well, generating a passer rating of 103.6 and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 9-to-1 that supports that assertion.

-- CSNChicago.com’s John Mullin ponders whether the loss of Cutler to the offense was more significant than the loss of linebacker Lance Briggs to the defense.
Here are a few Bears Essentials to get you started before the Thanksgiving holiday.

-- Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com puts together his weekly Stock Watch, and it seems all too common this season to see defensive end Shea McClellin make the list as a player whose stock is falling. Dickerson writes:

"Almost every member of the Bears' front seven on defense, with the exception of [Corey] Wootton, is a candidate to be mentioned in this space, but McClellin's failures in the run game were the most glaring. Time after time, McClellin crashed down from his defensive end spot only to create massive running lanes for the Rams to bounce the ball back outside and hit the edge. There is nothing wrong with McClellin being aggressive off the snap, but at some point he needs to diagnose the play and figure out where the football is headed. McClellin potentially altered the NFC North landscape with his hit on Aaron Rodgers on Nov. 11, but he doesn't have much to show for his season besides that game."

Can’t say that I disagree with a single word of Dickerson’s assessment. The team simply needs a much more significant contribution from McClellin than what it is getting.

-- Mark Potash runs down all that ails the Chicago Bears, especially on defense.

-- NBC's Cris Collinsworth thinks it’s time for the Bears to revamp their aging defense:

"Not much of a believer that there is some scheme that is the magical elixir that is going to fix everything," Collinsworth said, via CSNChicago.com. "There are not many offenses or defenses that haven’t been seen by this point in the season and careers of some of these coaches. Typically, it's when you go through the major changeover and you knew it was going to happen to this defense eventually. They really relied on a core of 4 older players on the defense."

Interestingly, going into the 2012 season former Bears coach Lovie Smith hoped to start the process of reloading on defense, but the organization’s philosophy had already started to shift to more of a focus on offense. General manager Phil Emery has done a solid job of building up the offense, and he’s already started to put together a foundation for the future on defense with draft picks such as Jon Bostic, Khaseem Greene and Cornelius Washington. He’ll now need to look this offseason for a couple of free agents capable of helping out immediately as impact players. I’d be shocked if Emery doesn’t pull off a surprise or two with additions on defense during free agency.

-- Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Tribune thinks the Bears have become soft on defense, which is something of a slap in the face to the proud tradition of tough defense established by this franchise.

BE: Bass up for Rookie of the Week

November, 20, 2013
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Let’s start this edition of Bears Essentials with rookie defensive end David Bass, who batted a Joe Flacco pass on Sunday and hauled it in for a 24-yard touchdown in the club’s win over the Baltimore Ravens.

After the game, Bass explained how he made the play.

“It’s tackle down. My initial read was to close. After that, I saw the fullback and the running back came,” Bass said. “The fullback went to the flat and the running back came to cut. I didn’t see the quarterback do a legitimate play-action [fake]. I was told to beat the cut to the outside so I could keep contain. When I saw him throw it up, I just threw my hands up.”

ESPNChicago.com’s Jeff Dickerson put together this week’s edition of Stock Watch, and he gives Bass credit for that interception return for a touchdown. Bass was nominated for Rookie of the Week, and if you’d like to vote for him, you can do that here.

Dickerson writes: “A seventh-round pick of the Raiders in 2013 out of Missouri Western State who was claimed by the Bears off waivers, Bass made the biggest play of his young professional career on Sunday, intercepting a Joe Flacco pass at the line of scrimmage and returning it 24 yards for a touchdown. Bass' pick-six changed the momentum of the game, and without it, the Bears likely don't crawl out of the 10-0 hole they dug for themselves before Sunday's lengthy weather delay. At 6-foot-4, 256 pounds, Bass isn't built like a prototypical 4-3 defensive end, but he's shown promise this season in six appearances. In addition to the interception, Bass finished the Baltimore game with four tackles and one tackle-for-loss. Expect Bass to keep himself in the mix at defensive end, especially with Shea McClellin dealing with a hamstring injury.”

- Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune follows the team’s tornado relief efforts in Coal City. Kicker Robbie Gould, linebacker Blake Costanzo, cornerbacks Zack Bowman and Sherrick McManis lent a hand along with former Bears Anthony Adams, Rashied Davis and Tom Zbikowski. Too often players receive headlines for all the wrong reasons, but it’s refreshing to see players get out and do some good in the community. They do it quite a bit more than is publicized, and deserve some credit for making a family’s day just a little brighter.

- CSNChicago.com’s John Mullin takes a look at how Stephen Paea’s turf toe injury further depletes an already shaky Bears run defense. From this vantage point, if Paea can’t play Sunday at St. Louis, you have to ask whether the run defense could get any worse than it already was.

-- Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times outlines some of the ways the Bears have overcome injuries on defense. One of the developments not given much attention is the fact defensive coordinator Mel Tucker moved from the coaches’ booth down to the field on game days to help the defense communicate more efficiently. A little-known fact about Tucker is he’s an excellent motivator and has a knack -- especially in stressful situations -- for getting more from players than they believe they’re capable of. Tucker has worked from the field instead of the booth in each of the last three games, and it has resulted in gradual improvement from Chicago’s beat-up defense.
Let’s start off today’s Bears Essentials with a look at Herm Edwards’ list of top 10 cornerbacks around the league.

Bears cornerback Charles Tillman checked in at No. 6 Insider, one spot behind Tampa Bay’s Darrelle Revis, and one slot ahead of Miami’s Brent Grimes.

Edwards wrote this about Tillman: “This is another player who I don't think gets enough credit. He's simply a complete corner. He gets pegged as Tampa 2 CB, but they don't play nearly as much Tampa 2 in Chicago now. He's physical, we know what he can do in terms of stripping the ball (three forced fumbles this season and 10 last year) and he's probably the best tackler on this list. He had been a little nicked up with a knee issue, but still had three picks this season before going on injured reserve this week with a triceps injury.”

It’s concerning to think Tillman may have already played his last game as a Chicago Bear, but if the organization lets the cornerback hit the market, there should be some suitors out there.

-- ESPNChicago.com’s Jeff Dickerson puts together this week’s Stock Watch. Stock in Josh McCown, Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall is rising.

-- In case you missed it, here’s an incredible in-depth piece on former Bears receiver Sam Hurd, written by Michael McKnight of the MMQB. It details the entire Hurd drug case, and even delves into how the receiver became dependent on marijuana. The piece really falls in line with what I've thought about Hurd and the case all along, based on my interactions with the receiver when he was with Chicago, and some of the court documents I've obtained since the news first broke. It seems that Hurd, in his naiveté, talked a much bigger game in terms of the drug trade than he actually knew, and he could wind up paying for that with a life term in prison. He’ll be sentenced on Wednesday.

“Whatever was considered the loudest weed in California—I wanted a notch above that,” Hurd says in the story. “I had educated myself on different strains and potencies and growing techniques. I was very selective. It was like wine.”

There’s tons of interesting nuggets in this story. I encourage you to take the time to read this long piece.

-- CSNChicago.com’s John Mullin considers the Bears' postseason prospects to be difficult at best because of its 3-4 conference record. Can’t say that I disagree here.
In case you missed it, we’ll start this morning’s edition of Bears Essentials with my ESPN colleague Michael Wilbon’s assertion that the Bears should play it safe Sunday and start backup quarterback Josh McCown against the Detroit Lions instead of Jay Cutler. This isn’t about a quarterback controversy or anything like that. Wilbon, like me, believes it might be too early to expose Cutler to injury, especially with McCown playing so well right now. Why not let Cutler regain full health before putting him back into the lineup, minimizing the risk of a setback to what might very well be your franchise quarterback of the next several years?

Wilbon writes: "But McCown ain't [Caleb] Hanie. And Cutler is coming back from a groin injury, perhaps the most nagging injury an athlete can have in any sport. Do you really want to expose your franchise quarterback, the guy you could be about to invest $100 million in, to tangle with Ndamukong Suh so soon after suffering a groin injury? Have we learned nothing from 18 months of talking about Derrick Rose? Haven't we learned it's hard enough to play the position healthy, and that the Bears should take every precaution to make sure Cutler is ready and then some before they put him back out there?

"I'd start McCown against the Lions, and I'd have Cutler warming up in the bullpen with no reservation about having a quick hook."

That’s actually a pretty good idea.

Here’s the link. Let us know what you think.

-- CSNChicago.com’s John Mullin suggests the Bears are finally gaining on the Packers, which is probably true. But Chicago needs to get a few more strong drafts under general manager Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman to make a definitive call on this. Sure, Chicago’s win Monday night at Lambeau Field was significant, and I’ll buy that the Bears are gaining on the Packers some. But there’s still a way to go for Chicago.

-- Bears running back Matt Forte receives some well-deserved credit for his role in the win over the Packers. Forte is quietly putting together a strong season, and is on pace for a career-high 1,316 rushing yards. Forte hasn’t eclipsed the 1,200-yard rushing mark since he was a rookie in 2008.

Against the Packers, Forte ran seven times for 44 yards during an 18-play scoring drive that chewed up 8 minutes, 58 seconds and spanned 80 yards, with Robbie Gould sealing the victory with a 27-yard field goal.

Forte has averaged 5.7 and 5.2 yards per carry in his last two outings, and he finally left Lambeau Field with a victory for the first time in his six-year career.

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