CHICAGO -- In my limited time covering the Chicago Bears, starting way back in Year 1 of the Jay Cutler era, I've pretty much figured out that you can't quite figure out this team. Or at least I can't. I can predict records pretty easily but can never quite figure out how the Bears get there.
That's the beauty of the NFL, though. Every team has a chance because everyone knows they don't know anything. Or something like that.
Given the amazing amount of time spent/wasted on predicting and pontificating on the Bears in Chicago, it's fair to assume a lot of our guesses will be whiffs.
(And when I say "our," I basically mean "my," but maybe also "yours." It's the universal "we.")
If you're looking for unbiased, numbers-backed, national perspective on the Bears, the kind that throws out narratives, the folks at Football Outsiders, which had the Bears winning 10.2 games last year (they went under at 10-6) have them winning 8.1 this year.
That basically fits the narrative that despite the general consensus on the end of Lovie Smith's tenure, his departure could mean continued mediocrity.
I think the Bears prove Football Outsiders wrong this time, and I say that in full awareness they are much smarter than me. I'm embracing my wrongness.
When it comes to yakking about the Bears, there is no question that the bulk of the conversation revolves around Cutler's pouty face. More than ever, the contract-year quarterback will be judged, fairly and unfairly, by his facial expressions, his press conferences and, most of all, his play. He's got an offensively-minded head coach, a new coordinator and quarterbacks coach, a new offense, an improved offensive line and Brandon Marshall.
In his first four years, Cutler has basically been the same quarterback, talented and disappointing, unable to lift up his sagging fortunes, which generally include a patchwork offensive line and a very shallow receiving corps.
We know we'll be writing about Cutler this year. We just don't know how he's going to play. I, for one, am excited about seeing him in a new offense in training camp and the preseason. It makes the onerous month of August much more exciting.
I'm also looking to see if he proves his critics wrong. I'm actually a pro-Cutler columnist going into camp, who knew? But again, I'm usually wrong.
So that begs the question: What else will I be wrong about this season?
Well, if I knew what was going to be wrong, conversely, that means I'd know what's going to be right, and we'd wind up twisting to a rhetorical death.
But here are my predictions that will most certainly be wrong. Or right. One of the two.
1. Kyle Long doesn't start Week 1 but has to replace James Brown in Week 4.: Like, well, everyone, I haven't seen much of Long in actual game action. OK, that's a reporter's lie. I've never knowingly watched a game he played. Long started six games for the Oregon Ducks and showed enough athletic talent (not to mention a famous bloodline) for Bears general manager Phil Emery to draft him in the first round as a guard. As we gleaned from his choice of Boise State defensive dervish Shea McClellin, Emery likes an athletic upside pick. He's looking for value in the first round rather than name recognition. What I do know about Long is that he's very athletic, his dad and brother were/are very good football players, and he's a great follow on Twitter and seems like a righteous dude, to quote the secretary from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." But I think if he starts from day one at guard, he'll be on the bench by Week 3 at Pittsburgh. So I think the Bears will reverse it and start him Week 4 after Brown gets manhandled in Pittsburgh. The idea of Long slotting right into an NFL starting lineup, after very little college experience, is dangerous for his own psyche, the team's expectations and Cutler's health. Hopefully, for the Bears' sake, he catches on quickly and turns out better than Jerry Angelo's last offensive lineman first-rounders. If Long starts and doesn't perform, prepare for the "same old Bears" refrain to reverberate from Halas Hall to Blue Island.
2. Jay Cutler has a great start to the season, gets major positive press as "reclamation project.": I'm a bigger fan of Jay Cutler, radio host, than I am of Jay Cutler, franchise quarterback, so while I'm ready to jump on the "I told you he wasn't great, Chicago!" criticism tour bus (too big for a bandwagon), I'm guessing that my first instinct is wrong. Now that we've all pretty much stopped expecting Cutler to transform into a mature, heady franchise quarterback, and started even debating his viability for a new contract after this season, now, he'll finally look like the ideal we had in our minds when he was traded to Chicago. Finally.
While mastering another offense won't be easy, Cutler will work well with his coaches for the first time in a Bears uniform, thanks to Marc Trestman's professorial tutoring. With his family in place, his offensive line improved (even if Long is a question mark) and his professional future perhaps hanging in the balance, Cutler's mind will allow him to fully commit to his role as Bears quarterback, and he will be good. He will get MVP votes, despite some expected hiccups. I also think we'll visit and revisit Cutler's season about four times a week.
3. The Halas Hall quiet game ends.: Now that Lovie is gone, perhaps he'll finally be appreciated for what he did quite well, which was hold a team together better than any coach this side of Bill Belichick. While there were always a number of leaks, from players complaining about playing time and contracts, you couldn't help but notice how everyone toed the line and kept the Bears locker room as respectable, and boring, as it gets. When colorful nickelback D.J. Moore dared criticize Cutler, he was called to "the principal's office," and in a surely unrelated move, benched. Players complained about Cutler off the record, but never on the record and never for attribution. If they did, they'd also be in Smith's office, which, I was told by a former player, was a very intimidating place. While Emery has shown no remorse about departing franchise icons (Brian Urlacher) and Trestman has no attachment to any players, I don't see anyone using the "Lovie Mind Trick."
Under Smith, to be a Bear was to be a team player. Smith never had to lord over the locker room because Urlacher did that, with aplomb. But with "franchise teammate" Urlacher gone, and Smith gone, if anything goes sour this season, it will be interesting to see what happens if this team implodes. Although I don't think that happens, this season anyway, I still think we see the fissures of an organization.
4. The defense doesn't rest, the offense blossoms, and the Bears make the playoffs.: One reason we love the NFL is there is no time allotted for development. There is no rebuild, at least when you have a veteran quarterback. Every season is precious, and every season is built, basically, for surprises. The Bears went 10-6 last season, just missing the playoffs despite having an absolutely atrocious offense. We kept waiting for the offense to jell, but it became obvious that it would never happen. The Lovie Smith-Jay Cutler marriage just didn't work.
While Smith and his coaches will be missed, I like the group that Trestman put together, and I think the new voices, in all three phases, will be beneficial for the veterans. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker doesn't bring a colorful style with him, which is just right for this defense. His only goal should be to put these guys in a position to succeed, and they'll take care of making plays. I bet Devin Hester digs the crazy vibe from new special-teams coach Joe DeCamillis, and I think Hester benefits from not worrying about his role on offense.
As for the offense, as I said above, I really believe Trestman will have that group organized and prepared, and after years of discordant voices, the unity of Trestman's approach will benefit everyone. Furthermore, it will take the league a bit to catch up to Trestman, who has been plying his trade in Canada and has been out of the NFL for nearly a decade. Unfamiliarity will help the Bears this season.
I'm not saying Trestman is Tom Thibodeau, an assistant coach passed over for the wrong reasons, but I think he, and the Bears, catch everyone off guard this year and win 10-11 games. Next year, as we know, is always a different story.