Fine-tuning in Chicago

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

I was trying to conjure an appropriate metaphor for the Chicago Bears' philosophy these days when I noticed a bright yellow sticker on the side of an old television. It read, "Jerry's TV and Appliance Repair." (I'm not making this up.)

A television repair service. How quaint. Apparently there are still a few people who try fixing their set rather than replacing it when encountering a deficiency. In a corny sort of way, that's how I feel about Chicago's approach to 2009. Rather than overhaul their roster after missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons, the Bears have opened the back console and are picking through the tuners and coils to patch up their current wiring.

Take a look at depth charts to your right. You won't see many new names. The Bears have limited their activity in the free-agent market to a pair of little-known players, guard Frank Omiyale and safety Josh Bullocks. If they've hosted any other visits, no one knows about them. Otherwise, the Bears are counting on more than 80 percent retention in the 26 primary positions. There likely will be only one new starter on defense and perhaps one new skill player on offense.

Coach Lovie Smith attributes that approach to an organizational conclusion that "we're real close," as he put it last month at the annual scouting combine. General manager (and lead repairman) Jerry Angelo said "we have a pretty good nucleus" after reviewing last year's 9-7 campaign. The solution, Angelo and Smith agree, is to get their incumbent players to perform better.

A cynic might suggest both men are taking a company line after having the checkbook closed by team ownership, a circumstantial conclusion that carries no actual proof. But whether it is by choice or edict, the Bears have set out to repair their team rather than enhance it this offseason.

Smith, for example, acknowledged the Bears "haven't played defense the way we should play defense in a few years." Rather than add new players, however, Smith shuffled his coaching staff. He referred to new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli as "the best free agent on the market" and dismissed only one starter: oft-injured safety Mike Brown.

The Bears' lineup is so set that Smith went ahead and scheduled his mandatory mini-camp for this week, a time when most NFL teams are just beginning their strength and conditioning programs. Smith was quoted on the team Web site suggesting camp will be devoted to "fundamentals" and there will be relatively few "team" periods where actual plays are run.

I suppose fundamental drills can help the Bears improve. But in reality, Smith sacrificed many of the traditional benefits of minicamp -- among them, giving rookies a head start in assimilating to NFL practices -- to send one symbolic message. As he put it:

"The point we're trying to get across is that it wasn't good enough last year. This is the first time we can do something about it, and we want to take advantage of that."

In other words, Smith wants his players to take a look around them this week. They should realize no dramatic help is on the way. Three seasons removed from a Super Bowl appearance, this is largely the group the Bears will take to training camp and expect to challenge for the NFC North title.

All of which puts a substantial load of pressure upon Smith, Marinelli and the rest of the Bears' coaching staff. During a recent interview with Chicago-area reporters, Angelo minced few words while assessing the Bears' talent pool and expressing his expectations:

"In our situation, it starts with our present cast. We've got a pretty good nucleus. ... I'm counting on the fact that we're going to do a better job of coaching, and that in itself is going to make us a better football team, irrelevant of what player personnel that we infuse in our football team this year."

Make no mistake. Barri
ng a major shift in philosophy, there will be no infusion. Angelo hasn't added to his shallow pool of receivers. To this point, he has indicated no plans to add a veteran backup behind quarterback Kyle Orton. He passed on all of the starting-quality safeties available to replace Brown, instead taking a flyer on Bullocks, and has taken no steps to improve the personnel involved with a pass rush that was so weak that it forced the Bears to blitz more than any other NFL team last season.

Angelo and Smith both believe that Marinelli will improve the pass rush more than any free agent could. According to Angelo, "attitude and coaching" are the only repair tools needed, especially along the defensive line.

Angelo: "I think both those things could get our defense back and going and being a very good defense. ... But I certainly feel like we have a pretty good nucleus and there's no reason to believe that we can't play good defense this year and be the defense, maybe not what we were a few years ago, but certainly be a more consistent defense and be a more opportunistic defense. I feel very strongly about that, and it starts with the front. There's no reason to believe that we don't have the talent up front to do that, and the front drives the train, we know that, particularly in our scheme."

Angelo made that statement well before free agency began. The Bears' position on the free-agent sidelines should be no surprise. They're reaching for their tool belts, not their wallets.