Second City is still Second City, with the Chicago Bears politely stepping to one side and ushering Green Bay to the 2010 NFC championship.
All together now: We're number two! We're number two! OK, we get it. Now the question: How and when do the Bears take the next step forward?
I'm not sure they do. First of all, they play in the same division with the Super Bowl champions, and Green Bay will only improve this season. Second, the Bears rode a wave of good fortune to get where they were, and good luck lasts about as long as a Bill Belichick handshake. Third, and most important, there's the Jay Cutler fallout, and let's be honest here: It's the elephant in the room.
Nobody wants to talk about it, but everybody recognizes that Cutler is, well, an issue. I don't care where you stand on the guy. He's a lightning rod for reaction, and he got plenty of it when he bowed out at halftime of the conference championship game. People tell me the Bears would've won had he stayed in, but I'm not so sure: In two-and-a-half games last season he produced one offensive touchdown vs. Green Bay -- or one less than Caleb Hanie did in two quarters.
Anyway, the Bears will have to deal with Cutler. They'll have to deal with Green Bay. And they'll have to deal with a season where the breaks may not fall their way. Can they? Sure. Cutler produced his first winning season since high school and won a playoff game, so that's a start.
|Five possibilities: Bears|
Derek Sherrod, OT, Mississippi State: The Bears need a left tackle, and this guy is big, smart and ready to step in immediately. Sounds like a good fit.
Athony Castonzo, OT, Boston College: He's big, smart and made steady improvement the last three years. One problem: He may not get to the Bears.
Corey Liuget, DT, Illinois: With Tommie Harris gone, the Bears need inside help on the defensive line. Liuget is the best pass-rushing defensive tackle in the draft.
Mikel LeShoure, RB, Illinois: It's time to find relief for Matt Forte, and LeShoure could be the guy. A powerful back who gets the tough yards, he's a perfect complement to Forte.
Jon Baldwin, WR, Pittsburgh: Chicago can always use another receiver -- especially one who makes spectacular catches. Poor last season may scare Bears off, though.
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But will they? That's why they play the games, folks.
QB: Form your own conclusion about Cutler. I have, and I'll leave it at that. Nevertheless, Cutler took the team to the NFC Championship Game, and the Bears say they're sold on him. So let's leave it at that. Now what happens for a backup? Caleb Hanie looked decent in the NFC championship game, so he should be OK. But maybe, just maybe, the Bears look for another young arm to groom behind him.
RB: Matt Forte looked more like the back he was in 2008 than the back he was in 2009, and that's good. He was a productive runner, a productive receiver and a legitimate threat -- all of which he was not the year before. Forte was especially good in the second half of the season, averaging over 5 yards a carry. But where's the relief? Chester Taylor was disappointing, averaging 2.4 yards a carry in a limited role, and he's 31. Garrett Wolfe did little beyond special teams.
WR: If you have a franchise quarterback you equip him with a franchise wide receiver, preferably a wide receiver with size ... and the Bears have not. Johnny Knox is close, finishing just 40 yards shy of 1,000 yards, but he's the lone ranger. Devin Hester is a dangerous deep threat but inconsistent, and Earl Bennett has the best hands of this group. But the Bears still don't have a receiver opponents fear. Knox may be that guy, but he's not there yet, and it's time someone emerges as a big-time threat; someone who makes defenses back off, makes the tough catches and makes Cutler a more accurate quarterback. Essentially, the Bears need a big, physical receiver who can serve as a red-zone threat. For now, tight end Greg Olsen is that guy, and that's not enough. I like Knox on the outside, but I'd like him more if he had a physical wideout to complement him and Hester.
TE: I just mentioned Olsen, so no need to elaborate. Good receiver and a better blocker in Mike Martz's scheme. The best blocker here is Brandon Manumaleuna, who is listed as a fullback but serves more as an H-back. Kellen Davis is a bit of a mystery. He had that 38-yard TD catch in the playoffs, but that was just his second reception all year.
OL: You don't have to watch the Bears long to know they need help everywhere here. Center. Guard. Tackle. You name it, they want it. The Bears' offensive line is inadequate, and credit line coach Mike Tice for getting these guys to pass the audition last season. Now, Chicago must do a better job of pass protection for Cutler, sacked 52 times during the season, including nine times in one half against the Giants. Moving Chris Williams to left guard was smart and effective, but the Bears have issues at tackle where Frank Omiyale and J'Marcus Webb allowed a combined 18.5 sacks, with Omiyale's 9.5 the team high. I don't know if the Bears are sold on Williams as a guard, but if not they can look for an interior lineman. Otherwise, I'd start at tackle and work my way in. Center Olin Kreutz turns 34 in June. Right guard Roberto Garza is 32. Webb showed promise as a rookie, but he may not be the long-term answer. Neither may Omiyale. I think you get the idea. Someone dial 911.
DL: Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije are solid outside pass rushers, but move inside and the picture's not so rosy. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris is gone, and while he played well in the playoff defeat of Seattle, he was hurt much of last season and, frankly, underperformed when he did show up. So the Bears decided to let him go -- and if he returns it's only at a significantly lower cost. Of course, if he doesn't the Bears have a hole, especially with Anthony Adams, a 16-game starter, a free agent. Matt Toeaina looks like a keeper, and apparently Chicago thinks so, too. He started 10 games in place of Harris and played so well the Bears signed him to an extension. But then what? Well, then we're down to Henry Melton, and, sorry, he's undersized for the position and looks more like a situational pass rusher. Marcus Harrison, a third-round pick in 2008, may have a shot at either tackle spot, but he's been a big disappointment. In short, the Monsters of the Midway need a Monster Masher. Qualified candidates are urged to apply.
LB: Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher reached the Pro Bowl, and for good reason: Both were difference makers who helped put the Bears back on the map. But Pisa Tinoisamoa was not, missing parts or all of seven games, and the team's backups are unproven -- with Brian Iwuh more of a special-teams performer.
DB: When I watched last year's defeat of the New York Jets I was appalled how many New York receivers were open -- particularly on crossing routes -- and it got me to thinking: What in the name of Lovie Smith is going on with the secondary? Playmakers, that's what. The Bears don't have enough of them here. Charles Tillman played well at cornerback, but Tim Jennings -- who replaced opening-day starter Zackary Bowman -- did not. In fact, the Bears were victimized again and again by not having a second cornerback who could play at Tillman's level ... or, worse, close to Tillman's level. The Bears must find that guy, and maybe it's Bowman, maybe it's Jennings or maybe it's D.J. Moore, who seems better suited as a nickel corner. All I know is that when you're in a division with Aaron Rodgers, you can't have enough good cornerbacks. Otherwise, get used to a lifetime of standing in line behind the Packers.
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