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Bears Offseason Leads to Cautious Optimism
Bears Offseason Leads to Cautious Optimism
Friday, June 24, 2005
By John M. Crist
The Chicago Bears are coming off yet another disappointing season, a 5-11 campaign that was one of the ugliest in recent history. The artists formerly known as the Monsters of the Midway were nothing short of atrocious on offense and wrapped up 2004 in the NFC North cellar.
Rookie head coach Lovie Smith knew he didn?t have an offensive juggernaut on his hands, but the loss of second-year quarterback Rex Grossman in Week 3 proved to be catastrophic for a team that was going to have trouble putting points on the board anyway. The front office took a fair amount of heat for not signing a veteran backup QB before last season, apparently because they didn?t want Grossman to worry about being benched every time he made a poor decision. To put it very lightly, Jonathan Quinn and Craig Krenzel were not up to the task of replacing him, and the Bears even brought in Dallas Cowboys reject Chad Hutchinson and reluctant retiree Jeff George by the end of the year.
Grossman is still rehabbing his ACL injury, but it appears that he will be ready to go for the start of the ?05 season. The Bears made him a 1st round selection two years ago because of his strong arm and Favre-like moxie, not his mobility, and he returns to an offensive line that set a dubious team record for sacks allowed a year ago. Grossman still has only six career starts under his belt, but for the first time, it appears that he may have some weapons around him capable of carrying the load.
The late great Walter Payton still casts a very long shadow at Soldier Field, yet the Bears are very confident they have their running back of the future in rookie Cedric Benson. The former Texas Longhorn was incredibly productive throughout his collegiate career, and despite the fact that Thomas Jones played fairly well in Terry Shea?s dink-and-dunk offense a year ago, Benson has the tools to be a workhorse in the NFL. Ron Turner returns to the Windy City after running the show in Champaign, and as the offensive coordinator, he should be very happy with his new tailback?s toughness and nose for the end zone.
The Bears have lacked a serious threat in the passing game since Marcus Robinson set a team record for receiving yardage with 1,400 back in ?99. Former first-rounder David Terrell is officially a bust after being released in the offseason, and youngsters like Justin Gage and Bobby Wade are yet to prove that they can be go-to guys at this level. Second-year man Bernard Berrian showed flashes of his speed-demon ability last season, but this was a team in desperate need of a reliable #1 receiver.
Enter Muhsin Muhammad, an imposing, physical player who ripped up opposing secondaries to the tune of 1,405 yards and 16 touchdowns in ?04 with the Carolina Panthers. The Bears were the surprise winners for his services in free agency, signing the veteran to a six-year deal worth $30 million. Perhaps more than anything else, a money player on the outside could be the single most important factor in Grossman developing into a legitimate NFL quarterback.
The play of the skill-position guys is obviously paramount, but if the Bears don?t get better down in the trenches, the offense will continue to shoot blanks. Fred Miller comes over from the salary cap-ravaged Tennessee Titans and will be a welcome addition at right tackle, and nasty center Olin Kreutz continues to be one of the best at his position. With veterans John Tait and Ruben Brown protecting Grossman?s blind side at left tackle and left guard, respectively, a group that seemed overmatched last season appears to be vastly improved.
On the other side of the ball, the defense showcases a solid mix of proven experience and promising youth. The defensive line in particular has the potential to be very good. Adewale Ogunleye pairs with Alex Brown for a formidable one-two punch on the outside, with Michael Haynes providing some quality depth behind them. In the middle, Tommie Harris looks to be a star in the making, and both Ian Scott and Tank Johnson are good young players with high ceilings.
Needless to say, Brian Urlacher is one of the most terrorizing linebackers in football who can single-handedly change a game if he has space to operate. Lance Briggs was a pleasant surprise on the weak side last season, tallying over 100 tackles to lead the team. Marcus Reese is currently penciled in as the starter at strong side linebacker, but Joe Odom figures to get his fair share of playing time, as well.
In the secondary, a healthy Charles Tillman at cornerback will make the loss of R.W. McQuarters to free agency much easer to swallow. With Jerry Azumah on the other side and Nathan Vasher contributing at nickelback, the pressure will be squarely on this unit in a very pass-happy NFC North. Losing Mike Brown at free safety so early last season was disastrous, and the defense will need his leadership and penchant for big plays if Chicago is going to take a step forward this year.
On paper, the Bears did a respectable job patching up their holes through the draft and free agency. Trouble is, the rest of the division looks to be better, as well. Minnesota dealt the mercurial Randy Moss to Oakland, yet they made a quantum leap on defense in the offseason and will be a trendy pick to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XL this February. Green Bay is always a threat with Brett Favre under center despite a questionable defense, and Detroit suddenly has as much young talent on offense as any team in the league.
Even with key injuries to Urlacher, Ogunleye, Brown, and Tillman, the Bears were a very capable defensive team in ?04. Assuming those players spend less time in the training room and young bucks like Harris, Briggs, and Vasher continue to improve, this crew has the potential to be one of the best in football. Coach Smith was known as a defensive wizard in Tampa Bay and St. Louis, and it didn?t take him long to start waving his magic wand at Soldier Field.
The key to this team will be on offense, no question about it. No one is expecting Grossman and Company to light up the scoreboard every Sunday like Peyton Manning and the Colts, but they need to find the end zone more often and sustain drives to keep the defense well-rested and off the field. If Benson can effectively carry the rock 20 times per game and Muhammad can bring some legitimacy to the passing attack, a shot at the playoffs in a mediocre NFC could be well within sight.
There are few things that enrapture the city of Chicago like a cool autumn filled with Bears victories, and quite frankly, I miss that feeling. Hopefully, so do the guys wearing the helmets down on the sideline.