Monday, January 4, 2010
Bears Need to Skip Winter Hibernation
Mercifully, the 2009-2010 Chicago Bears season has finally ended.
The Bears wrapped up what was by most accounts a disappointing season with a 37-23 victory over the lowly Detroit Lions. It was the Bears second victory in as many weeks against a divisional foe.
Now the second season begins. No, not the playoffs. A return trip to Miami is not in the cards for this year's version of the Monsters of the Midway. The Bears' post-season activities will likely include a massive overhaul of the coaching staff, especially on the offensive side of the ball, and significant changes to a roster that could not stay healthy and did not come close to meeting the expectations of their coaching staff, the fans, the media or themselves.
In spite of his detractors, embattled head coach Lovie Smith will likely return for his 6th season at the helm. The 2 years and $11 million left on his contract in concert with the cost of buying out his coaching staff's contracts, hiring new coaches and the uncertain labor agreement for 2011 make it highly unlikely that the McCaskey family will eat that much dough to have Lovie pack his bags and hop the next flight back to Texas.
Even with significant changes to the coaching staff and management, the fact of the matter is that the NFL is still a player's league. Having impact players on your roster is not a sure fire guarantee that your franchise will win a Lombardi trophy but it is a step in the right direction (just ask our neighbors to the north in Green Bay and Minneapolis).
Here is where I think the Bears need to Bear Down in order to return to prominence in 2010-2011.
Better play from the quaretrback position
Much like the point guard in basketball and the goalie in hockey, improvement on a professional football team begins and ends at the quarterback position. Jay Cutler finished with the most completions (336) and interceptions (27) by any quarterback in the long and storied history of the Bears franchise. No team in the NFL can win with dualities that severe at arguably the most important position on the field.
It will be the job of the offensive staff (whomever they may be) to put Jay Cutler in schemes that accentuate his strengths (tremendous arm strength, big body, mobility). That means moving the pocket with designed roll-outs, screens, and draws. Ron Turner and his staff used these tactics in the final 3 games of the season but by then it was too little too late.
Some Aroma(shodu) Therapy
It took until Week 15 to get him on the field but when Devin Aromashodu finally stepped between the white lines he did not disappoint. Aromashodu finished with 24 receptions for 298 yards and 4 touchdowns. All 4 touchdowns came in the final 2 games of the season. If there is one indictment on Lovie Smith, Ron Turner, and Jerry Angelo (and there is more than one BTW), it's that they waited until the season was practically over to fulfill Jay Cutler's wish to see the big, physical receiver Aromashodu play a more significant role in the offense. He's no Brandon Marshall but his size and intelligence at the position will provide a sustained threat for Cutler and the Bears in 2010.
It will also be incumbent upon rookie wideout Johnny Knox (45 REC, 527 yards, 5 TDs) and veteran Devin Hester (57 REC, 757 yards, 3 TDs) to improve their skill sets in the off season to provide a sustained deep threat for Cutler. Earl Bennett (54 REC, 717 yards, 2 TDs) has finally learned the playbook and is now the reliable possession receiver that Jay Cutler knew from their collegiate days at Vanderbilt. During Sunday's Bears/Lions telecast, former NFL quarterback Trent Green talked about how rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford and star wide receiver Calvin Johnson were already discussing their plan of action for off-season workouts. It would be privy for Aromashodu, Knox, Hester, and Bennett to invest in air mattresses for overnight stays at the Cutler compound.
Building Blocks Up Front
A contributing factor to Jay Cutler's dismal turnover ratio was the fact that he had a defensive lineman covering him like a blanket on most of his dropbacks this season. Cutler was sacked 35 times with 9 fumbles (1 lost fumble), due in part to receivers that were unable to get open down field and mostly to a porous offensive line that was unable to sustain blocks in pass protection.
It became exceedingly clear early in the season that off-season acquisition LT Orlando Pace, a 10-time Pro Bowler who the Bears' brass thought had something left in the tank when they singed him to a 3- year, $30 million contract, was running on empty.
It will be important for the health of Jay Cutler, the return of RB Matt Forte to form as a significant rusher in the NFL and, not unrelated, the future success of the franchise, that the Bears' offensive line get more athletic and physical up front. This means entrenching 1st round pick Chris Williams at LT, beginning to develop a replacement for aging center Olin Kreutz, and promoting competition at RG and RT through the draft and free agency. It doesn't appear that Kevin Schaeffer and particularly Frank Omiyale are cut out to be starters in the NFL.
End the Musical Chairs on the Defensive Line
The hallmark of the Cover-2 defense is having a sustained pass rush up front to create turnovers in the pocket and in the secondary. It's nearly impossible to create the continuity necessary for a defensive line to be successful if the pieces are consistently in flux.
The Bears need Tommie Harris to stay healthy and cause havoc on the interior line for 16 games if they have any plans to be a playoff caliber team. Anthony Adams and Marcus Harrison have both emerged as nice compliments to and, at times, replacements for Tommie Harris. It is unlikely that unrestricted free agent DE Adewale Ogunleye (38tackles, 6.5sacks) will return next year to the Bears. That means that Alex Brown (48tackles, 6.0 sacks) and Mark Anderson (28 tackles, 3.5 sacks) will be expected to step up their play.
Expect late season acquisition DE Gaines Adams, who the Bears forfeited a 2nd round pick for now valued at selection 10 or 11 pending the result of a coin flip with Jacksonville, to be in the mix for a starting job come traing camp. 2009 3rd round pick Jerron Gilbert is also expected to add depth and versatility on the defensive line, possessing the size and strength to play defensive tackle with the speed and burst to take some snaps at defensive end.
A Healthy Brian Urlacher
Arguably the biggest loss for the Bears in 2009 was that of 6-time Pro Bowler and defensive captain MLB Brian Urlacher. Urlacher was placed on injured reserve and lost for the season in Week 1 against Green Bay with a dislocated right wrist. Hunter Hillenmayer performed a better than average job filling in for Urlacher, amassing 90 tackles and 2.5 sacks in addition to his duties as the captain of the defense. Lance Briggs had yet another stellar season, becoming the Bears' lone 2009-2010 Pro Bowl representative. Briggs led the team with 118 tackles while also becoming the team's vocal and emotional leader in Urlacher's absence. Nick Roach, the Northwestern product, took over for an injured Pisa Tinoisamoa after 2 games and went on to amass 74 tackles, good for 5th on the team and 3rd amongst Bears' linebackers.
If there is any one strength on this Bears team moving forward it is the depth and experience that the team possesses at the linebacker position. In addition to Urlacher, Hillenmayer, and Roach, Jamar Williams, Tim Shaw (the special teams leader in tackles), and Darrell McClover are all likely to compete for significant playing time in with the Bears or another team in 2009-2010.
The Secondary is Primary
If you look at the good defenses around the National Football League, they all have cornerbacks and safeties that can be left to defend on an island, are capable of playing man-to-man coverage - allowing their defensive linemen and linebackers to focus on stopping the run and rushing the passer instead of dropping back to fortify the coverage - while also showing up as factors in run defense. Look at Charles Woodson in Green Bay, Antoine Winfield in Minnesota, Daryl Revis in New York, and Ed Reed in Baltimore to name a few.
The Bears ranked 13th in the league in pass defense, giving up 211.4 yards per game. Nathan Vasher looks to have played his final game in a Bears uniform. Vasher was relegated to nickel duty and as a back-up at free safety after a disappointing training camp and pre-season. Charles Tillman was once again Old Reliable at corner, amassing 77 tackles and 2 interceptions in 15 games before being lost for the season after sustaining broken ribs late in the game against the Vikings. Zack Bowman was the unsung hero at corner this year. The 2nd year player out of Nebraska played in all 16 games, icluding 12 starts, and had 66 total tackles and a team high 6 interceptions. Bowman and rookie D.J. Moore, who did not record a tackle in the 4 game sin which he played, will look provide depth a corner next season for the Bears.
The safety position is one of the most important in the Cover-2 defensive scheme that Lovie runs and was the most volatile for the Bears in 2009. With the Bears choosing to part ways with veteran SS Mike Brown, veteran DB Daniel Manning had to step up along with 5th year player Josh Bullocks, 3rd year man Kevin Payne, 2nd year player Craig Steltz, and rookie Al Afalava to fill the void left by Brown's departure. Daniel Manning was Mr. Everything in the secondary, spliting time at corner, safety, and in the nickel and dime packages in addition to his duties as a kick returner and coverage man on special teams. Manning led the secondary with 92 tackles, 1.0 sacks, and 2 fumbles, which included a sack of Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers for a safety in Week 1. Manning became a restricted free agent after Sunday's game. It would be nice to see the Bears bring an explosive and versatile player like Manning back in 2010.
Afalava and Payne combined for 99 tackles and 2 sacks and provide speed and hard hitting in the secondary. Their inexperience was evident as they were a bit of a liability in pass defense. I think that can be improved with more reps in practice and coaching up of their technique and recognition. Bullocks played in 12 games for the Bears, including 4 starts, where he amassed 23 tackles. He was sidelined for most of the year with injury. Craig Steltz played in 12 games ,with 2 starts, and had only 11 tackles. Steltz appears to have below average speed and recognition. His biggest hit of the season may have been the one that ended Charles Tillman's season where he fractured several of Tillman's ribs in a spat of "friendly fire".
Give Superman His Cape Back
Two things are for certain after watching Devin Hester playout his first full season as a wide receiver. 1. He will never be a "Number 1" receiver like Steve Smith in Carolina, Steve Smith in New York, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin in Arizona, or Brandon Marshall in Denver(to name a few) and, 2. Hester is more of a help to the Bears and more of a hinderance to Bears' opponents as a full-time kick/punt returner.
Hester was prodded back into duty on Sunday in Detroit in part because his brother pointed out that Browns KR/PR/WR/RB/QB/Equipment Manager Joshua Cribbs is not-so-quietly becoming the best special teams player in NFL history and an all around threat on the field. While Hester's return against Detroit was far short of stellar, the prospects of Hester returning to full-time active duty should give Bears' 2010 opponents something to rue over during the long off-season.
Still as Good as Gould
Place kicker Robbie Gould was 24 of 28 in field goal attempts including a career long 52 yard field goal and a perfect 33 for 33 on extra points. Gould is by far the most consistent and reliable player on the Bears' roster.
Punter Brad Maynard punted the ball 77 times for an average of 41.4 yards. 26 of those punts landed inside the 20 yard line, a staggering number for an NFL punter. Maynards accuracy and expertise at directional kicking consistently gives the Bears the advantage in the field position game.
The kicking game will be solid going into the 2010 season.
Overall, the Bears' 7-9 record can be attributed to failures at all levels of the organization - bad management, worse coaching, inconsistent play, injury, and underachievement by key players.
There is no doubt that the offensive coaching staff has to be overhauled, if not for the lack of creativeness inherent in their schemes, certainly for their inability to adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of the personnel that they were given by general manager Jerry Angelo in a timely fashion. Who knows how the season would've turned out if Devin Aromashodu had been placed in the lineup in Week 4 instead of Week 14 and if Ron Turner had decided to roll Jay Cutler out of the pocket after the first 15 interceptions.
Lovie Smith will also have to surrender his defensive play calling duties so that the Bears can bring in a defensive coordinator with more bullets in his arsenal than the Cover-2/Tampa-2 defense. The Bears just do not have the personnel to run Lovie's favorite scheme at an optimal level anymore. In addition, NFL teams are sophisticated enough to find holes in any one system and game plan to exploit those deficiencies from week to week. As Jerry Angelo is fond of saying, there has to be some ice cream with a swirl or some sprinkles on it.
Jerry Angelo will have to (creatively) make moves to fill glaring gaps in the roster with players that fit the prototype for character and style of play as dictated by the direction that the franchise chooses to move in. There also has to be competition created and encouraged at positions that are crucial to the function and success of the team.
In the end, however, managers manage, coaches coach, and players play. The Bears' players have to perform better on a consistent basis in order to compete in a NFL and, particularly, a NFC North that is brimming with talent and becoming more competitive year after year.
That better, more consistent and competitive play must necessarily start with Jay Cutler and the quarterback position. It is nearly impossible for any team to win with the quarterback making costly mistakes, especially mistakes in the red zone. Cutler will have to take better care of the ball, throwing the ball away or running when plays break down, and curtailing his desire to show coaches, teammates, fans, and the other team how strong of an arm he has by throwing passes into double and triple coverage.
The burden should not be placed solely on jay's shoulders. The big nasties up front on the offensive line have to be more physical, moving their feet and using their athleticism and massive paws to sustain blocks up front.
The wide receivers have to work with Cutler in the off-season to develop timing and repore in addition to learning the playbook so that they are where Jay expects them to be when he expects them to be there. When plays break down in the secondary, the wide receivers have to possess the awareness to run to open windows and extend the play.
The imperative for the Bears defense is to stay healthy. A good Tommie Harris is a healthy Tommie Harris and a healthy Tommie Harris runs rough shot over offensive linemen. It will be an absolute necessity that Anderson, Adams, and Gilbert get better faster so that they can shoulder the pass rush load along with Alex Brown.
The same goes for the linebacking core. If Brian Urlacher is healthy, there is no better linebacking tandem than the one created between himself and Lance Briggs.
There is talent in the secondary but they need to learn to read coverage and be in the right place at the right time. If you're in a two- deep zone with coverage over the top and a receiver stops short, your corner that has underneath coverage is going to stop and drive on the short receiver. The safety needs to be over the top of his cornerback to cover the free running receiver. I know that and I've never played organized football at any level. The Bears' safeties need to know that in and out, awake and in their sleep.
Re-signing Daniel Manning and allowing him to play a full season at free safety will improve the secondary immensely. In addition, the Bears' corners need to be more physical with opposing wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. This will take some pressure off of the safeties in pass coverage while also allowing their defensive lineman time to attack the quarterback. The Bears' cornerbacks will also be more of a factor in helping to stop the opponents running game.
If the Bears' management is unable to manage, coaches do not coach up their players, and players are unable to perform any of these critical functions in 2010, their record will not be any better than the dismal 7 wins that they posted this season and it will be highly unlikely that any of personnel will be around to mull over the 2010-2011 off season.
It's time to Bear Down Chicago Bears!