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Building the Bears: How Chicago's offense flipped things around

By Will Brinson | NFL Writer

The Bears offense will be humming again in 2014.
The Bears offense will be humming again in 2014. (USATSI)

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You rarely see a 180-degree turn like the Bears pulled off in 2013. Chicago's identity -- for years, leading back to 1985's G.O.A.T. unit -- was its defense. And in what felt like the turn of a single calendar year, Phil Emery flipped everything.

2012's rendition of the Bears, coached by Lovie Smith and winners of 10 games, ranked third in points allowed, fifth in yards allowed and was Football Outsiders' top-ranked overall defense. The offense ranked 16th in points, 28th in yards and 26th in DVOA, a decidedly below-average unit.

Enter Mr. Hyde: 2013's Bears, coached by Marc Trestman and winners of eight games, were pathetic on defense, ranking 30th in both points and yards allowed, along with 25th in defensive DVOA. The offense was a revelation though, scoring the second-most points in the NFL and producing the eight-most points en route to becoming a top six unit in DVOA.

This was not your father's Bears or even your older brother's Bears. So how did we get here?

It all starts with Emery, who recognized the importance of offense in today's NFL when he took over.

“Our No. 1 goal always has to be to win championships, and to win championships we have to be in contention on a consistent basis, and to be in contention we have to make the playoffs on a consistent basis," Emery said the day he fired Smith. "We've had defensive excellence, but during the course of coach Smith's years here, we've had one offense that was ranked in the top 15."

Offense, clearly, became a priority.

Lovie Smith is a very good coach and a defensive guru -- the Bears won fewer games last year! -- but an offensive savant he is not. In my opinion, you need quality production on offense to consistently win football games. I'm not alone in thinking that; Emery clearly agrees.

Enter Trestman, a quarterback whisperer who coaxed an impressive half season out of Josh McCown (ironically now Smith's starting quarterback with the Buccaneers) in 2013.

But it wasn't just a coaching change that precipitated the improvement. Emery said then the Bears needed to "build" around Jay Cutler, the theoretical franchise quarterback acquired in a blockbuster 2009 deal from the Broncos.

Emery wasn't kidding.

That's the five-year breakdown of the Bears current offensive roster. Orange shade means the player is under contract, blue text means the player can't negotiate at all and blue shade means a team option year.

All but one of those players -- Cutler -- was acquired by Emery over the past three offseasons. Emery did sign Cutler to a recent lucrative extension, as well as locking down Brandon Marshall, who he acquired in a 2012 trade with the Dolphins that now looks like an absolute steal.

The amount of churning he did on the roster in such a short span is fairly incredible. Rebuilding an offense on the fly is incredibly difficult; setting it up for the long haul is even harder.

Emery did it without anyone really noticing.

Alshon Jeffery (a home run of a draft pick) and Marshall create the best wide receiver duo in the entire NFL. Combine the pair of "rebound receivers" (Marshall is 6'4", Jeffery is 6'3") with Martellus Bennett (6'6") and Matt Forte (6'2") and you're giving Cutler a quartet of massive targets at the skill positions.

Is every guy filling a position elite? Not at all. Roberto Garza is older but the Bears have depth with the very capable Brian De La Puente behind him. But the offensive line as a whole may be the biggest improvement, roster-churning wise, Emery made.

Remember, this unit was terrible in 2012. After ranking 24th in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate two years ago, Chicago climbed to fifth in 2013. Kyle Long's future looks incredibly bright and Jordan Mills could be a steal. Matt Slauson doesn't miss games. Jermon Bushrod might find it tough to live up to his $36 million deal but he's still an upgrade over what the Bears had before.

Jay Cutler seems happier at least.

Philosophically there are some smart things going on here too. We noted the size of the players involved; it's not a dissimilar approach to what the Seahawks did in building their Super Bowl-winning defense and has some "Moneyball" tendencies, at least in terms of exploiting a market inefficiency (in this case size).

Most of these players aren't signed past their prime. Forte's a free agent at age 30 and by then the Bears will know if Ka'Deem Carey can step in. Only four guys -- Garza, Cutler, Marshall and Bushrod -- are in their 30s.

There's significant wiggle room thanks to the new CBA; several of the key players involved here aren't even eligible for extensions. That's just good drafting.

Every key offensive player save Garza (and Josh Morgan if you're being picky) is under contract for the next two years or longer. The Bears offense which, again, was second-best in terms of scoring points last year, isn't going away any time soon.

We're only talking about a .500 team from 2013, of course. The defense has to improve.

I'd argue, however, the defense's collapse doesn't correlate (at all) with the offense's success. If anything Smith was coaching up a dangerously aging defensive roster highly dependent on luck-driven stats like fumble recoveries.

People were holding their breath for years on the Bears defense ceasing to dominate. That it didn't cause this team to finish with a top-five draft pick is a testament to the offensive success.

They should be better than 2013 anyway. Emery made strides by bringing in Jared Allen, LaMarr Houston and Willie Young and then drafting a pair of defensive tackles in Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton. He addressed the secondary in the first round by selecting Kyle Fuller.

Every guy would need to make an immediate impact for this unit to turn things around immediately. But at the very least, Chicago should have, over the next few years, the thing Emery sought the day he took the job: offensive consistency.

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