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Sunday, January 1, 2012
Bears hoping for limited turnover

By Michael C. Wright
ESPNChicago.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Chicago Bears players quietly celebrated Sunday's win over the Minnesota Vikings that snapped a five-game losing streak, but a strong sense of trepidation about the future permeated the visitor's locker room.

"It's always like that," receiver Devin Hester said, before letting out a sigh.

The players understand change is on the way. They just hope there's not a ton for this team that started off 7-3, before injuries chewed through the promise of what likely should have been Chicago's second consecutive postseason appearance.

In the aftermath of the 17-13 victory over the Vikings, questions remain. Does the team bring back receiver Roy Williams, and running back Marion Barber? Does the front office look past current backup quarterback Josh McCown to find a No. 2 for Jay Cutler? Will the team bring in new receivers?

Have certain long-time players participated in their last games as Chicago Bears?

"Things are gonna change, and hopefully not many," said center Roberto Garza. "We have a good offense. We can go out there and move the ball. We obviously have to go out and execute, but when we do that we're a damned good offense. If we could keep that continuity going, that would be great."

It's also not realistic. Although it's likely the team brings back most, if not all, the core players on both sides of the ball, Bears coach Lovie Smith indicated after the game.

Throughout the week, he stressed the season finale would serve as an evaluation tool for decision-making purposes.

"Our plans from here: we are going to enjoy this win and of course go back tomorrow, and then kind of start the evaluation process and see what we need to do to take that next step and to get back where we belong," Smith said. "We are a good football team, and we are going to try and keep as many of our coaches and players as possible together."

Does Williams fit into that group? He certainly thinks so, after finishing with 10 catches for 141 yards and a touchdown over the final two games. Nagging injuries slowed Williams early on in the season, as he caught 16 passes over the first eight games and 21 over the last eight.

Williams finished with 50 yards receiving or more in six games, but frustrated fans with occasional drops.

"I have no idea [whether I'll be back]," Williams said. "I'm gonna continue to say I think I played well this year. You can look at all the negatives if you want to. But I think I had way more positives than negatives; in run blocking as well."

Earl Bennett and Hester agreed with Williams. Hester said the entire receiving corps fought through nagging injuries throughout the season that affected their productivity. Naturally, Hester pointed to the Nov. 20 victory over the San Diego Chargers as the turning point of the season, because the Bears lost Cutler with a fractured thumb.

The disappointment about what transpired afterward even took enjoyment from the win in Minnesota.

"The last time I looked at our record, we were 7-3," Hester said. "From that moment on, everything just came tumbling down like a small snowball into a huge snowman; from the injuries to the off-the-field issues, et cetera, et cetera. We won the ballgame, but we still feel like we've left a lot out there [from losing games] that we should have won. Key guys went down early, and Roy [Williams] was banged up early in the season. We were never 100 percent, but we did give 110 percent effort every time we were out there. We've got to make sure things like that don't happen again next season."

That means changes, no matter how hard Smith tries to keep the team together. Several players' contracts expired after Sunday's game. The group includes defensive ends Israel Idonije and Amobi Okoye, cornerbacks Zack Bowman, Corey Graham and Tim Jennings, safety Craig Steltz, running back Kahlil Bell, tight end Kellen Davis and quarterback Caleb Hanie.

Said Bell: "I don't want to go anywhere. I love this city," adding that, "I also do want to play."

Jennings cracked jokes, saying, "If you all find out [what happens for me in free agency], will you please tell me?"

Smith knows the immense challenge this team might face in the coming months, with the front office looking to upgrade talent in some areas, while fighting to hold on to other key contributors that might have multiple suitors in free agency.

"We don't want to tear this team down and start over," he said. "This is a good football team, and we are going to win a lot of games with this core remaining the same."

Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.