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With healthy Cutler and Forte, and reliable backups, Bears are Packers' biggest worry

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Forte finally has his long-term deal, and the Bears have a reliable backup if he goes down again. (Getty Images)  
Forte finally has his long-term deal, and the Bears have a reliable backup if he goes down again. (Getty Images)  

Green Bay wide receiver Greg Jennings recently wondered if the Detroit Lions can keep their composure on or off the field, and I wish I had an answer. But I do have a suggestion: Forget about Detroit. You should be more concerned about the Chicago Bears, Greg, and not because of their composure.

Because of their talent.

I know, Detroit has a raft of gifted young players, a quarterback who just threw for more than 5,000 yards and the best wide receiver in the game. But it's the Bears ... not the Lions ... that should squeeze Green Bay the hardest this season in the NFC North.

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That doesn't mean I see Detroit or Chicago catching the Packers, because I don't. But I do see the Bears passing Detroit and closing the gap with the defending NFC North champions ... and let me explain why:

1. Their quarterback: I'm not a Jay Cutler fan, but he seemed to grow up a year ago and started playing the position like a quarterback instead of a passer -- and, yes, there's a difference. Rewind the videotape of the victory against Philadelphia, and you'll see what I mean. Cutler made critical plays and smart decisions and finally started acting like a leader. The guy seems to have grown up, and hallelujah. It's about time. He's always had the talent. Now he might have the intangibles to be something more than someone with a big arm and zero personality. It looks as if that 2010 playoff run made a difference.

2. Their backup quarterback: This might be the offseason move I like most. When Cutler bowed out with a season-ending injury in 2011, the Bears were 7-3. They would win one game afterward, and that's what happens when you have Caleb Hanie as Plan B. OK, so Hanie looked decent in the 2010 conference championship game, responding after he was called off the bench at halftime, but he fizzled a year later. I don't want to be too harsh on the guy, because he might've made it if the Bears didn't lose Matt Forte, too. But they did, and we all know what happened. So Chicago learned from its mistake, signed veteran Jason Campbell, and now is prepared to wheel out a proven quarterback if Cutler is re-injured. Basically, where they were hurt a year ago they won't be hurt again, and that's smart thinking.

3. Their running back: Making Forte happy with a long-term extension not only is good for the team's most effective weapon, it's good for the team, period. It guarantees there won't be distractions involving the guy, and it should guarantee maximum effort and, one would hope, productivity. Forte gained a career-best 4.9 yards per carry last season and produced nearly 1,500 yards rushing and receiving before he was hurt. Plus, he led the league in carries of 20-40 yards and is only 26. The club demonstrated it values Forte. Now it's up to Forte to prove he's worth the investment.

4. Their backup running back: If there was an offseason move to rival the signing of Campbell, it was the signing of Michael Bush. The Bears were 1-3 without Forte last season, and, as I said, you can make the argument that had he not bowed out they would have made it to the playoffs. All I know is that Forte wouldn't have run out of bounds in Denver, and neither will Bush. The guy could start for almost anybody, but sat behind Darren McFadden in Oakland -- that is, until McFadden would get hurt ... which was often. Then the Raiders would turn to Bush, and he responded by running for 2,221 yards, gaining 4.1 yards a carry and producing 19 TDs the past three seasons. All I know is that his addition prevents a collapse similar to last season. Plus, it gives the Bears another weapon and someone to relieve Forte, keeping him fresh.

5. Their wide receiver: No, I'm not a big Brandon Marshall guy, either, because of character concerns that keep driving him to another area code. But I do know one quarterback who can thrive with him, and it's the same quarterback he had in Denver when he caught a career-high 104 passes in 2008. Cutler hasn't had a target like Marshall in his three years in Chicago, and it handicapped him and the team. Now that he does, the Bears have a bona fide outside threat who should draw double coverage, open the field for other targets, and make the Bears a more dangerous -- and effective -- passing offense.

6. Their special teams: People tell me kickers and punters and returners don't matter, but if that's the case, then what kept San Francisco and Baltimore from Super Bowl XLVI? The Bears are loaded in this area and just added returner Eric Weems to a cast that already features Devin Hester and his 17 touchdown returns, Johnnie Knox, Robbie Gould and Adam Podlesh. Weems' value was compromised by the NFL moving kickoffs to the 35-yard line, but I remember what the guy did against Green Bay in the 2010 playoffs -- and I bet the Packers do, too. The rich just got richer.

7. Their defense: This is where the Bears and Lions diverge most. Chicago can beat you with a defense that includes four Pro Bowl selections. Detroit? Not so much. The Lions were gashed for 550 yards and six touchdown passes in the 2011 season finale ... by a backup quarterback. The Bears ranked 14th in points allowed, Detroit ranked 23rd. OK, so Chicago could improve its pass rush. It just did with the addition of rookie Shea McClellin.

Bottom line: The Bears were a playoff team waiting to happen a year ago ... only it never happened. Had they not lost Cutler and Forte, they would have made it. Instead, they collapsed, dropping five of their last six, and finished 8-8 -- one game out of the picture.

Well, that's not going to happen again. First of all, they have a healthy Cutler and Forte. Just as important, they have a backup plan. If either or both are hurt again, the Bears can do what they could not in 2011, which is to turn to reliable and experienced understudies to prevent another catastrophe.

Someone better tell Greg Jennings.

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