Well, another Bears season has come to an end, and this one confounded me enough to make me want to write about it. I entered this season with low expectations for our beloved, and in that sense, the 2008 Bears were better than advertised. However, it was also a season of missed opportunities- whether we are talking about early season meltdowns versus the NFC South, crucial losses to Minnesota and Green Bay, or the last, crushing defeat at the hands of Houston. Bottom line- a mediocre NFC handed the Bears numerous opportunities to grab ahold of a playoff spot that this team really didn't deserve; in failing to take advantage of any of those chances, the Bears merely proved their own gross mediocrity.
So what now? Do the Bears blow this team up and start over? Underachievement seemed to be a theme for the Bears front line players this season, so for the first time in a few years, that is a reasonable question. I personally don't believe that the Bears are that far from contender status- but I also believe that has more to do with weak competition than it does with this team's strength. What follows is an outline, position group-by-position group, of how I would approach the Bears' offseason.
QB- Kyle Orton is going to be one of the most talked about and polarizing figures in Chicago in the coming months. I was pleased to hear that Jerry Angelo is not satisfied with the current state of this position. I do think that Orton provided some of the most consistent QB play that Bears fans have ever seen. Even his worst games did not approach some of the appalling performances we have had to witness over the years. I also think he possesses quite a few intangibles, solid leadership qualities, and a remarkable calm under pressure. In short, the Bears would be foolish to lose a football player like Kyle Orton, but that doesn't mean he should be annointed the starter. Unfortunately, I don't think Orton possesses the physical abilities that this position demands of an NFL starter. The Bears should look at the veteran options that may come available this offseason- whether they be the Donovan McNabbs or the J.P. Losmans of the world. If someone is there to surpass Orton as the starter, fine. If not, find a reliable backup and draft for the future. If nothing else, Kyle Orton is good enough to hold the position for a year or three until the Bears find a better alternative. As far as the depth chart goes, a Rex Grossman divorce is an absolute necessity, as the Bears showed they have no faith in the former starter when they rushed Orton back from his injury. Caleb Hanie should remain in the mix.
RB- Good news, Bears fans! Chicago has a high-quality starter at running back! Now that Chicago has found their workhorse, they need to find a way to lighten his load. There was a lot of talk about Kevin Jones this fall, but I didn't see anything to suggest that he is the man for the job. Unfortunately, Adrian Peterson and Garrett Wolfe don't appear to be more than special teams contributers (albeit very good ones), though it would be nice to see Wolfe get a few more opportunities. The Bears should draft a runner in the mid- to late-rounds who can complement Forte's skill set. The one area where Forte seems lacking is short yardage- part of his problem is certainly the result of an undersized interior offensive line, but Forte is also a tall back who runs upright. He doesn't excel at lowering his pad level to get the tough one- or two-yard gain. A squat, bowling ball type runner via the draft would be a welcome addition to the roster. At the fullback position, the Bears really only need to concentrate on two things- realizing their best formation is the two tight end set and that the fullback dive should be removed from the playbook. Other than that, Jason McKie is adequate.
WR- This is the position group that the fans and media seem most focused on, and with good reason. The Bears receivers were awful this season. If any position group needs an overhaul, this is the one. The Bears must find a way to get either Anquan Boldin or T.J. Houshmandzadeh in Chicago; no ifs, ands, or buts. The preference here would be Boldin, but the question in any trade is at what cost? Either player would bring the Bears a premier possession receiver who would complement Devin Hester, an emerging deep threat, on the opposite side. Boldin/Houshmandzadeh, Hester, Olson, Clark and Forte is enough talent in the passing game to make the Bears' respectable. Brandon Lloyd and Marty Booker should not be resigned- Lloyd is gone due to attitude, Booker due to ineffectiveness. Rashied Davis should be moved as far down the depth chart as possible. Earl Bennett, and particularly Brandon Rideau, need to be given a legitimate opportunity to secure the #3 wide reciever position. Finally, the Bears should look for another young wideout in the draft.
TE- Congratulations, Chicago, absolutely nothing needs to be done at this position! Olson and Clark are a rock solid combination. And frankly, it would be nice to see Kellen Davis on the field some more. The young man is a monster. More on this in a moment.
Offensive Line- No position group shocked me more in 2008, and in this case, that was a good thing. Heading into the season, the Bears' line seemed utterly devoid of talent. Despite this, the Bears had a 1,200+ yard rusher and a passer who was actually able to resemble an NFL quarterback. Keep in mind, this happened despite the fact that the Bears first-round pick and future at LT barely saw the field and another potential starter, Terrence Metcalf, was lost for long stretches as well. Still, the line needs to improve. First and foremost, the Bears need to get bigger and stronger inside. When it came time to blown an opponent off the front line and get the tough yard, the Bears struggled. With a solid running game and short passing attack, the Bears have a lot of third and shorts in their future, so they need to find some interior maulers. John St. Clair may be a potential solution with a move to guard, and regardless, should be re-signed if the price is reasonable. No one would mistake the man for a franchise LT, but more often than not, he got the job done. A move to guard would likely only increase his value and would be a better fit for his strengths. Josh Beekman looked like a football player this year after being a surprise starter to begin the season. However, he is too small for guard, and this writer believes he should be groomed at center to eventually replace the aging Olin Kreutz, who is showing some lack of tread on the tires. Still, Chicago should be able to get another year or two out of Kreutz. The same can be said for John Tait, who should stay right where he is at RT- but the Bears should recognize this will only suffice over the short term. Roberto Garza is not my ideal choice at RG, and the Bears should start to make preparations for his replacment as well. All of this points to the drafting of at least one more guard or tackle for the depth chart. Most importantly, Chicago needs to uncover exactly what they have in Chris Williams and soon. In an ideal world, he slides into the starting LT spot, enabling a move for St. Clair.
Defensive Line- This group was by far the biggest disappointment of the season. The complete disappearance of Adewale Ogunleye and Mark Anderson ensured that the Bears could not mount a consistent pass rush from their front four, and that fact alone was the death knell for this defense. Tommie Harris was simply not Tommie Harris for the bulk of the season, although he did show significant signs of life during the stretch run. Alex Brown was all-effort all the time, and one of the few bright spots on defense. The good news? The Bears were mostly stout against the run, so this line at least did that right. Going forward, there are not a lot of significant changes than can realistically be made. In my ideal football world, the Bears would make a legitimate run at UFA Albert Haynesworth. A Haynesworth-Harris interior would instantly make everyone on this defense better and cause nightmares for opposing coordinators. But that is unlikely to happen. You want realisitic solutions? Put Anthony Adams down as the starting NT- he is more durable than Dusty Dvoracek, and more importantly, the better player. See if Israel Idonije, a valuable reserve, can provide some pressure from the outside. Make Marcus Harrison, a rookie who flashed signs of talent, the top reserve at tackle. Sprinkle some magic ju-ju oil on Mark Anderson. Finally, see if a pass rushing specialist can't be found via free agency or the draft in support of and in preparation for Ogunleye's exit- which seems to be coming sooner rather than later.
Linebackers- The Bears are supposed to be in a position of strength at linebacker with one of the best units in the league. Lance Briggs held up his end of the bargain, earning a Pro Bowl bid that was deserved. Unfortunately, the formerly rock solid Hunter Hillenmeyer morphed into a liability and his replacement, Nick Roach, was not particularly impressive, either. And then there's Brian Urlacher. Urlacher played most of the season like he was trying not to get hurt. Despite a flash of brilliance here and there, the sideline-to-sideline speed was gone and he looked like a middle linebacker who would just as soon let someone else do the hitting. Not good. Urlacher was always a guy a team could eliminate with one blocker, but it used to be that you had to catch him first. This year, that didn't seem to be much of a problem. That said, he is still above average, just not all-world. The Bears can likely get a few more years out of the local icon before moving on. In the meantime, Chicago should look at bargain free agents to provide depth as well as competition at strongside linebacker.
Defensive backs- A lot of the Bears problems in the defensive backfield fall on a front seven that couldn't pressure the quarterback. Still, there were times that the Bears DBs looked like they couldn't cover their own receivers, much less ones of NFL quality. Corey Graham clearly surpassed Nathan Vasher and is at a minimum the Bears second-best corner. However, it is always troublesome when a corner's best skill is his tackling ability, because that leads to the inevitable question- why does his guy always seem to have the ball, ready to be tackled? Still, Graham looks like a reasonable approximation of a young Charles Tillman, and that is a good thing. Tillman was not any better in the coverage department, and perhaps worse, and at this point seems to wait for his man to make a catch before attempting a strip. This is not an effective strategy for an NFL cornerback. When Nathan Vasher wasn't injured, he looked uninterested. Kevin Payne is a big hitter with a nose for the football, but he is also a liability in coverage and needs to learn how to finish tackles. Danieal Manning is an emerging special teams star, but is still less than physical on defense and at times unsure about where he is supposed to be. I really enjoyed watching Mike Brown fly around the field for the majority of the season, but he doesn't fly like he used to and though it pains me to say it, the Bears should probably move on. So yeah, the secondary needs some work.
First and foremost, Kevin Payne needs to be a strong safety, near the line of scrimmage, and nowhere near centerfield. In this role, he can be a legit NFL starter. Too often, he was asked to play back so Brown could come forward, and was exposed as a result. Next, the Bears should give serious thought to moving Peanut to free safety. Put simply, the position fits his skill set, will likely extend his career, and fills a need that the Bears have been struggling to fill for some time. Then, Chicago has to pray Vasher comes back feeling like he has something to prove. If he does, and Manning figures out his nickel role, the Bears can be okay in the defensive backfield. If not, disaster is looming. A free agent at corner or safety and another in the draft would be helpful.
Special Teams- There is nothing wrong with Robbie Gould, Pat Mannelly, Brad Maynard or Danieal Manning. Maynard is a little long in the tooth, but still one of the best field position punters in the game. Devin Hester needs to stay at punt returner, and he needs to become a weapon there once again. How? I believe that all it will take is one big return, and the slump will be busted. Pray it comes early in the season.
So that's it. I am confident that if the Bears follow this path, they will be a playoff team next year. Heck, they were almost one this year, with a lot less to work with. Bear down!