NFL executives and coaches descended on their annual meetings last week, just three months removed from the most prolific passing season in NFL history. Quarterback play has never had a more direct link to team success, and Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith could stride confidently through the halls of the Breakers Hotel knowing he has a high performer who should be entering the prime of his career.
Which brings up an interesting dichotomy. Smith, of course, is the coach who for years described his team as one that "gets off the bus running." He appeared to change course in 2010 by hiring pass-happy offensive coordinator Mike Martz, but for two years he and Martz played tug-of-war over the Bears' schematic focus. Martz is now retired, replaced by former offensive line coach Mike Tice -- who once famously referred to Chicago as a "tough guy town" that required a power running game to succeed -- and the Bears appear headed for another offensive re-set.
So here's the question: How much will the Bears pull back on their passing attack to satisfy Smith's philosophical requirements in the running game? The Bears' offseason moves to this point don't give us a clear idea, so the owners meetings seemed like a good time to ask Smith directly.
Yes, the Bears acquired Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall, giving quarterback Jay Cutler the first true downfield threat of his Bears tenure. But they also guaranteed $7 million to their new backup tailback. New general manager Phil Emery would not have allocated the resources it took to sign Michael Bush if he weren't confident that Smith needed two high-quality running backs (along with starter Matt Forte) for his offense.
He didn't say it in so many words last week, but it seems clear that Smith wants to open the 2012 season with the compromise he eventually worked out with Martz in each of the past two seasons. In 2011, in fact, it led to almost a 50-50 pass-run ratio that corresponded with a five-game winning streak.
"During the course of the season," Smith said, "our offense had a different look from time to time. When we leaned on the run, we could move the ball as well as anyone. … As far as how much different it will look, I think we'll just see consistently what we want to be, a little more than occasionally. More that as much as anything."
You might remember that the Bears threw on a higher percentage of their plays last September than any team in the NFL. Smith and Tice eventually persuaded Martz to balance his play-calling, and as the chart shows, the Bears didn't throw more than 32 passes in any game during that winning streak. But they also didn't tilt too far toward the run, with the exception of a windy Week 10 blowout of the Detroit Lions.
If I had to guess what the Bears will try to accomplish this season, that five-game window is the snapshot. If anything, Smith wants to maintain the course correction that Martz accepted only in fits and starts over the past two years. Tice has a professed love for the power running game, and Smith said simply: "Our philosophies mesh."
Smith added: "[Martz] and I had a long background together. So I knew what I was getting at the time. So, when I say 'philosophies mesh,' I'm talking about the direction I want to go now as we go forward. I knew what we were getting into. I wanted Mike, and I knew exactly what he would bring to the table. No more than that. Going forward, I felt like that was the direction we wanted to go with personnel and our running back position, and what I felt we needed to do to get back to where we belong. So, no more than that."
That's about as close as you're going to get to hearing Smith say he plans to do something differently. I don't mind saying I was in favor of Smith's initial decision to hire Martz, mostly because the Bears weren't in a position to make a gradual shift to an untested offensive coordinator or scheme. I just thought Smith would achieve better and more consistent oversight than he did.
That shouldn't be a problem with Tice, who is as strong-willed as Martz but more likely to push in Smith's direction.
The Bears are competing in a division that features two of the most explosive passing offenses in the NFL, the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. I'm not sure whether the Bears will be able to compete throw for throw with either team, but I'm positive they don't want to. What the Bears hope to achieve is the NFC North's most balanced offense. They are well on their way.