So the Chicago Bears make the trade for Jay Cutler and -- voila! -- they're suddenly the team to beat in the NFC North. Not so fast, people. Cutler is 17-20 as a starter, has never been to the playoffs and isn't the missing ingredient here.
The Chicago defense is. The backbone of the Bears slipped a disc last season when it blew three 10-point leads and evaporated in the final 10 seconds of a stunning loss to Atlanta.
|Jay Cutler gives the Bears a pure passer, but will he have dangerous targets? (Getty Images)|
Anyway, the Bears have added a new dimension, and let's see where it takes them. They don't have a No. 1 receiver. They don't have much of an offensive line. But they have a franchise quarterback ... at least, they think they do. So he will take the Bears to the top of the NFC North when he couldn't outwit the competition in the AFC West? Call me skeptical.
Remember, one thing that doesn't change about Chicago is the weather. Not only is it cold in November and December. It's windy, raw and miserable. It's precisely the weather where you win by running the ball and locking down opponents with defense, and the Bears went 1-for-2 there a year ago. Rookie running back Matt Forte was a pleasant surprise and one of the reasons the Bears made a late-season rush for the playoffs.
But it's that defense that bothers me. Brian Urlacher wasn't himself. Tommie Harris wasn't a factor. And Nathan Vasher can't stay healthy. The Bears haven't done much to beef up what was once one of the roughest, toughest and most opportunistic defenses in the league, and that's more of a concern than what's happening at quarterback.
Lovie Smith must agree. He's going to be more involved with the defensive play-calling this season, he said, because "this is what will help us get back to where we need to be." Smith is also the guy who canned his secondary, linebackers and defensive line coaches from last season, so that tells you what he thinks was wrong with this team.
QB: Cutler is the team's first passing quarterback in years, and most of Chicago is delirious -- joyous that the Bears are back. Maybe. So he was 13-1 when the Broncos allowed 21 or fewer points; he was also 17-20 overall, hasn't had a winning season in college or the pros and threw more interceptions last year than everyone but Brett Favre. Say what you want about Kyle Orton, but the guy won -- including a 15-2 record at home. Behind Cutler there is Brett Basanez and Caleb Hanie, which means the Bears should start looking for an experienced backup.
|Bears Draft Needs|
|QB|| ||Needs depth|
|RB|| ||Needs depth|
|WR|| ||Needs starter|
|TE|| ||Needs depth|
|OL|| ||Needs depth|
|DL|| ||Needs depth|
|LB|| ||Not at all|
|DB|| ||Needs starter (cb)|
RB: When I spoke to several coaches last year following their victory over Chicago, they told me there was one, and only one, guy who scared them on the Bears' offense, and it wasn't Devin Hester or Orton or Greg Olsen. It was Forte, and here's why: He led the Bears in rushing, and he led them in receptions. He led them in touchdowns, too, with more than twice as many as the runner-up. Forte accounted for 36 percent of the Chicago offense, which meant he was the Chicago offense. Kevin Jones is little more than adequate as a backup.
WR: So the Bears have what they think is a franchise quarterback. Where's the franchise wide receiver? Hester? Please. He's a return specialist whose abilities were compromised once he moved into the offensive huddle. Rashied Davis? Nope. Earl Bennett? Wrong again. He barely played last season. So there's nobody of consequence here, which might cause a problem for a quarterback used to throwing to Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal. Dear Santa: Please send a go-to receiver by July.
TE: Olsen started only six games, but he became more and more of a factor in the passing game with time. Look for that to continue. In fact, he should be a favorite target for Cutler. Olsen had 54 catches, second only to Forte, while starter Desmond Clark -- who might be winding down in his 11th season -- had 41. Make no mistake, Olsen is the player of consequence here.
OL: John Tait is gone. So is John St. Clair. But the Bears went out and signed seven-time Pro Bowl lineman Orlando Pace, which would be good if this were 2003. But Pace is aging, injury-prone and, frankly, not the player he once was. If he were, the Rams would have kept him. Nevertheless, he's the guy the Bears count on to protect Cutler's back, and good luck. Cutler was only sacked 11 times last season and, guaranteed, that number doubles or triples here. Chris Williams moves to right tackle, provided his back holds up. Olin Kreutz isn't a top center anymore, but he's good enough to get by.
DL: The Bears are OK on the outside with Adewale Ogunleye and Alex Brown, particularly against the run, but they should be better inside. That's where Harris resides, and that's where the Bears were disappointing last season. I don't get Harris. He's young. He's talented. He has been a Pro Bowl player. But he did nothing last season, later saying that injuries held him back. Defensive tackle Anthony Adams looked good when he played and might be someone to watch. Marcus Harrison is another comer. The biggest need here is for a pass rusher. Mark Anderson has done nothing since producing 12 sacks in 2006.
LB: Once, Urlacher was an elite player, but those days might be over. He turns 31 next month and seems to be slowing down, unable to make plays he could four years ago. Big deal. It happens. Urlacher is still better than most middle linebackers; he's just not as good as he was a few seasons back. Lance Briggs is a terrific outside linebacker who led the Bears in tackles and who was named to the Pro Bowl, and Nick Roach took over for Hunter Hillenmeyer on the strong-side after he was hurt. Look for that position to be a battleground this season.
DB: If there is an area of concern this is it. The Bears were gashed again and again by opponents, ranking 30th against the pass and surrendering an average of 241.2 yards per game. Nathan Vasher was once a top-shelf corner, but that was before missing most of the past two seasons with injuries. Nevertheless, even when he was healthy he looked ordinary. Cornerback Charles Tillman is good against the run but little more than adequate against the pass. Safety could be a concern, though the club never could count on emotional leader Mike Brown making it through an entire season. Now he's gone. Safety Kevin Payne is a big hitter but marginal in coverage. Danieal Manning bounced between nickel back and safety, but his best position is kick returner. Josh Bullocks and Craig Steltz battle to start opposite Payne.
|Team Needs by Division|
|AFC East||NFC East|
|New England Patriots||N.Y. Giants|
|Miami Dolphins||Philadelphia Eagles|
|N.Y. Jets||Washington Redskins|
|Buffalo Bills||Dallas Cowboys|
|AFC South||NFC South|
|Houston Texans||Carolina Panthers|
|Jacksonville Jaguars||Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|Tennessee Titans||Atlanta Falcons|
|Indianapolis Colts||New Orleans Saints|
|AFC North||NFC North|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||Chicago Bears|
|Baltimore Ravens||Minnesota Vikings|
|Cincinnati Bengals||Green Bay Packers|
|Cleveland Browns||Detroit Lions|
|AFC West||NFC West|
|Denver Broncos||Arizona Cardinals|
|Kansas City Chiefs||Seattle Seahawks|
|San Diego Chargers||St. Louis Rams|
|Oakland Raiders||San Francisco 49ers|