Bears regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
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Final Power Ranking: 20
Preseason Power Ranking: 13

[+] EnlargeCaleb Hanie
AP Photo/Paul SakumaCaleb Hanie was ineffective after taking over for an injured Jay Cutler in late November.
Biggest surprise: The Bears installed little-known Henry Melton into the critical "three-technique" position on their defensive line, hoping that the converted running back/defensive end could play the role of interior playmaker last filled by Tommie Harris about five years ago. Melton had his ups and downs, but he finished with seven sacks in 15 games. The only defensive tackle in the NFL with more sacks was Tommy Kelly of the Oakland Raiders, who had 7.5. Melton will have to even out his game to be a long-term starter, but no team is going to turn down seven sacks from an interior defensive lineman.

Biggest disappointment: Backup quarterback Caleb Hanie spent nearly four years in the organization before the Bears called on him for extensive service. No matter the situation, that's a reasonable timeframe for a quarterback to develop into a useful asset. When Hanie took over a 7-3 team, it was fair to think he could navigate the Bears toward the playoffs. Instead, he was benched after four consecutive losses, punctuated by nine interceptions and 19 sacks, and helped scuttle the Bears' postseason hopes. You can't blame Hanie for everything that went wrong during that stretch, but the quarterback is the most important player on the field and Hanie obviously didn't do enough to win a game. The Bears deserve some blame for failing to develop him, but in the end the responsibility lies with the player.

Biggest need: Amazingly, it's a toss-up between two positions that annually draw offseason discussion around this team: receiver and safety. Quarterback Jay Cutler has obvious chemistry with receiver Earl Bennett, but it's also clear that Devin Hester is best left primarily as a returner and that veteran Roy Williams is on his last legs. The Bears traded away tight end Greg Olsen because he didn't fit into now ex-coordinator Mike Martz's system, and they enter this offseason with a far-too-limited number of reliable pass-catchers. Meanwhile, there is reason to believe that 2011 third-round pick Chris Conte merits a look as a starting safety in 2012, but 2010 third-rounder Major Wright hasn't shown much progress and the Bears desperately need a playmaker in the back end.

Team MVP: Part of me wants to say that tailback Matt Forte deserves the award. Amid a public negotiation about his expiring contract, Forte was leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage when he suffered a season-ending sprained knee in Week 13. But the Bears' collapse after Cutler's injury, especially before Forte was sidelined, demonstrated how valuable he really is. The Bears averaged 32 points per game during a five-game winning streak prior to his injury. In a 1-5 finish, they averaged 14.2 points per game. Sometimes, as they say, you don't know what you've got until it's gone.

Whither Hester? In Week 10, Hester returned a punt 82 yards against the Detroit Lions for his 18th career touchdown return. That left him one behind Deion Sanders' NFL record. But illness and a sprained ankle dramatically limited Hester's impact thereafter. He caught only four passes in the Bears' final seven games, and over that stretch he managed three returns for more than 30 yards. Hester is the type of player who could have helped overcome the ineffective offense Cutler left behind. His disappearance is a little-mentioned, but highly important, factor in their 8-8 final record.

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