- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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Following a promising 2013 campaign when the offense ranked No. 2 in scoring during Marc Trestman's first year at the helm, the Chicago Bears entered 2014 with sky-high expectations, only to experience a colossal letdown with five consecutive losses to close the season. Ownership had no other choice but to clean house.
The Bears signed Jay Cutler last January to a monster seven-year contract worth $126.7 million only to bench him 14 games into the new deal in favor of backup Jimmy Clausen. The club's top acquisition in free agency, Lamarr Houston, finished 2014 on the injured reserve after tearing his right ACL celebrating a sack when the Bears were behind significantly in an Oct. 26 beatdown at New England. Brandon Marshall, who signed a three-year, $30 million extension last offseason, also finished on injured reserve because of rib and lung injuries; he failed to gain 1,000 yards receiving for the first time since his rookie season (2006), as did surprising free-agent acquisition Willie Young, who suffered a season-ending torn Achilles in a loss to the Detroit Lions.
Chicago finished the 2014 season as arguably the most underachieving club in the NFL, given all the talent on offense.
MVP: Matt Forte missed earning the nod for his second consecutive Pro Bowl, and it's worth pondering whether play calling prevented that from happening. Going into the season finale, Forte ranked No. 3 in the NFL in all-purpose yards (1,772). And although Forte caught a team-high 94 passes through the first 15 games, running backs prove their mettle running the ball. Too bad the Bears too often refused to do so. Forte hit 100-plus yards on just three occasions, but the running back was by far this team's most consistent skill-position player on offense. Arguably the league's best all-around running back, Forte carried the ball just five times in a Thanksgiving loss at Detroit. It's a shame this coaching staff didn't properly utilize him.
Best moment: Chicago's 28-20 win in Week 2 over the San Francisco 49ers registers as this team's top moment because at the time, the 49ers were still considered a Super Bowl contender. Receivers Alshon Jeffery and Marshall suffered injuries in the season opener, and in the minutes before the first regular-season game at Levi's Stadium, there was quite a bit of uncertainty about whether the duo would be healthy enough to play. Just before kickoff, the club announced Marshall and Jeffery would play, and Marshall sparked a 21-point fourth quarter in the team's comeback win. The Bears trailed 20-7 to start the fourth quarter, but the Bears took advantage of a couple of interceptions by rookie corner Kyle Fuller to take the victory. Marshall caught three touchdown passes in that game.
Worst moment: Aaron Kromer's anonymous criticism of Cutler for an NFL Network report and subsequent admission could go in this place. But Trestman's benching of Cutler in favor of Clausen after a Dec. 15 loss to the New Orleans Saints represented the low point of the coach's tenure. Trestman undoubtedly fractured the relationship with the quarterback, but the move called into question general manager Phil Emery's skills as a personnel evaluator, considering he was the driving force in signing Cutler to his big contract last January. Trestman's decision to bench Cutler casts doubt on the quarterback's future, and the huge financial commitment makes trading him this offseason a difficult proposition.
2015 outlook: Decisions regarding the new general manager and coaching staff seem like just the beginning. The Bears need to upgrade the talent on both sides of the ball. The only encouraging sign regarding personnel is that the Bears played 2014 with an NFL-high 17 rookies on the roster. Still, the Bears need to overhaul virtually the entire secondary and add at linebacker. But most important, the Bears need to figure out what to do with Cutler, whose $15.5 million salary for 2015 is fully guaranteed and who is set to earn another $10 million in guarantees for 2016 if he's on the roster on the third day of the new league year. So if the plan is to move Cutler, the Bears need to set upon that task quickly, and there's sure to be a market for the quarterback. If the plan is to keep Cutler, the organization needs to repair the relationship, which was damaged after the club's decision to bench him due to a horrid showing in a Week 15 loss to New Orleans.
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