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New Bears, same as the old

8/16/2013

Tell me again how the Bears are supposed to be new and improved? Tell me how they're different from last year or the year before or the year before that?

OK, perhaps they will be on Sept. 8 when football is played for real for the first time this season. Maybe Marc Trestman has it all under wraps for now, and his offense will look like Chip Kelly's at Oregon once everything counts. But for now, halfway through the preseason, they look like, you know, the Bears.

That's to say the defense still forces a bunch of turnovers, which the offense sometimes converts but too often leaves Robbie Gould to finish up by making short field goals and we spend weeks on end talking about what the offense could look like one day ... maybe.

It's nothing new to see Bears laying people out on defense, even if the names change from Urlacher to McClellin and Bostic. The defense has that force-of-nature look again. Even so, what matters this season is whether the Bears can field a 21st century offense, one that is superior to the junk Mike Tice threw out there last season. Two preseason games in, we have no idea whether Trestman can do that.

The newly revamped offensive line allowed a sack-fumble on the second play of the game, and Jay Cutler hung on to the ball too long and took a sack on the third play of the game. We've seen that before. Cutler threw a first-quarter interception into double coverage. We've seen plenty of that. Matt Forte busted a third-and-1 carry for 58 yards to set up a touchdown. We've seen a lot of that. Cutler completed four passes to Brandon Marshall, which would be fine except that Marshall is the only receiver Cutler completed a pass to and we've seen way too much of that.

What we didn't see were any passes to tight end Martellus Bennett, whom the Bears paid big bucks to provide an offensive presence in the middle of the field. Through two preseason games, the Bears still don't have an offensive presence in the middle of the field because not only does Bennett have zero catches but he hasn't even been the target of a throw.

What we didn't see was any inclusion of Alshon Jeffery or this kid Joe Anderson from Texas Southern whom you'd like to see have a chance to distinguish himself before the real season begins. What we didn't get to see was whether Trestman's offense is special in any way, whether he's going to play with greater pace or spread the field to get beneficial matchups for Marshall and Jeffery and whether Cutler will roll out of the pocket more than a time or two even though he seems both comfortable and adept at doing so. What we're still unsure of is whether that new right side of the offensive line -- rookies Kyle Long at guard, Jordan Mills at tackle -- is anywhere near ready to start a season, much less protect the franchise quarterback (even though they were rock solid Thursday night to the point of being downright impressive in the first series).

What we've seen is a team that looks a lot like Lovie Smith's teams, which is to say they're damn good on defense and special teams but really middle of the road offensively. It's amazing that one franchise, no matter how many times it fires and hires new coaches and changes philosophies over seven decades, could find itself in the same pattern no matter what.

Once upon a time that might have been enough. In today's NFL, great defense + great special teams + unimaginative offense = nine wins, give or take a game.

OK, it's early, really early, and you'd have to be a moron to make grand pronouncements off what you see in the preseason.

But it's OK to be left with impressions, like ...

Kyle Long is going to be a great draft pick, and right away.

There are young beasts on defense, mashers. I know rookie Jonathan Bostic is ticketed for the bench if D.J. Williams is healthy to start the season, but Bostic knocks the snot out of people. So does the other rookie linebacker, Khaseem Greene. The Bears have two young defensive ends, Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin, who, using completely different styles, can totally disrupt quarterbacks. Rookie C.J. Wilson looks like he could be ready to provide some depth at cornerback.

Special teams looked just as good, with a long kick return by Michael Ford and a blocked punt.

If Brandon Marshall catches 119 passes again, the offense will have failed.

This is the age-old story with the Bears, isn't it? Young defensive studs and special teamers coming out of the woodwork to challenge for playing time while the offense struggles to find the right system, players who fit and a coach who can get the best out of Cutler. Are the Bears starting the season with these themes again?

Conventional thinking is that this season is entirely on Cutler, this being his contract season and perhaps the swing season in his career. Certainly a quarterback who has been a starter for six full seasons with only one playoff win has a ton to prove. But the person with even more on the line is Trestman, a man who inherited a 10-6 team, a team that would run into a burning building for Smith. Are the Bears going to commit to Trestman the way they did Lovie?

It's Trestman who has to get Cutler to another level if the offense is going to be special. It's Trestman who is going to have to figure out how to let Cutler keep his gunslinger personality while getting his quarterback to eliminate the forced throws, such as the one that resulted in the interception in the first quarter.

When someone asked Cutler if a misread led to the interception, Cutler said, "I didn't misread it. I knew what I was doing." Now, reading too much into a preseason interception would be mostly stupid, except that it's a pattern Cutler has fallen into, which has undermined the team more than once. Trestman did a nice job, postgame, of saying that while Cutler picked completely the wrong spot (double-coverage) to force that pass to Marshall, Trestman has to do a better job of coaching Cutler to not make that particular mistake -- and that now wasn't the time to go ballistic about it anyway.

The Bears have too many really good players to squander this year, but they may not have enough time to get everything in place, which is often the reality when you make a head-coaching mistake, especially one as dramatic as Lovie to Trestman. When I asked Cutler how long, ideally, it takes the essential players to get a new offense, he talked about the third season of the offense he ran in Denver. Three years. He acknowledged the Bears have a mere three weeks since starters rarely, if ever, play in Week 4 of the preseason. That ain't optimum.

The thing about Cutler that serves him and the Bears well is that he doesn't sugarcoat. Some see that as sour -- maybe it is -- but it's also necessary, especially in a circumstance like this one. When Cutler says Trestman, in meeting rooms and video study, is "very, very, very specific on each play with what we want or don't want," he's giving us a little bit of a look into the urgency and detail with which the Bears new coach is trying to install this offense. And there's no magic in fast starts, not around here since the Bears have blown consecutive good starts. Nonetheless, it's hard to imagine the offense coming out gangbusters for the opener against the Bengals.

But these Bears are going to be judged, and probably fairly, on the revamped offensive line's ability to protect Cutler, whether Cutler is moving toward "elite" in this league and whether the Bears can crawl into the modern age of averaging closer to 30 points per game than 20.

Two weeks remain in the laboratory that is the preseason, but really there's only one since Week 4 is about final roster spots and not risking the veterans. That's one dress rehearsal Friday night in Oakland, which hardly seems enough.

What I'm going to remember from Week 2 of the preseason, besides Bostic and McClellin looking like how young Bears defenders are supposed to look, is Trestman saying, "We've got a long way to go offensively." If not exactly a new sentiment around here, at least it's entirely honest.