I come to you today from sunny San Antonio where I have a belly full of queso and a bit of a tequila buzz on.  Good times.  While the talk among the locals here pertains to all of the fires across the state, I can’t help but be transfixed by the smoke emanating from the TV in my hotel room.  That’s right, I’ve waited until the 11th hour to write my Bears season preview and so I’m digging in while the Packers and Saints offenses absolutely torch the grass at Lambeau tonight.  As I watch this game unfold all I keep thinking to myself is, the Bears can’t do that.  Those are our next two opponents.  This year is going to be a disaster.

However as I switched from margaritas to water my vision has cleared (I hope) and I realized that the way tonight’s barn burner is playing out is not the way our Monsters of the Midway play the game.  As much as I’d like to cheer for a team straight out of Tecmo Bowl, that’s not the way the Bears have been constructed in the eight years during the Summer of Lovie.  The Bears are built on defense and winning games 17-14, it ‘aint sexy but you dance with the girl who brung ya. 

With that said, let’s get into the season preview shall we?  Some of this may get a bit technical or fall into the category of “more than I really wanted to know” for a lot of you so I’ll pepper in some random Quick Quips for a jolt of entertainment when I think I may be losing you.  Enjoy…

Offense

Welcome to Year 2 of the Mike Martz Experience.  Martz was brought in as the conductor of the Greatest Show on Turf with the Rams ten years prior and really hadn’t done a whole lot since.  The Bears promptly dropped to 30th in total offense in 2010 versus 23rd in the same ranking under the unbearable Ron Turner in 2009.  The good news is that in Martz’s previous stops the second year has been when the offense really kicks into gear, when he gets invited back that is. 

The Bears are all in on Martz this year for better or worse.  They’ve tailored the offense to fit his design from bailing on any semblance of a pass catching tight end (read: Greg Olsen) to investing their first round pick in the offensive line.  Olsen and Dez Clark were passed over in favor of players that list “tight end” as their occupation but really play the role of an extra offensive tackle.  The thinking here is that Martz believes if we’re going to send someone out on a pass pattern why not use the fastest guy with the best hands we have for it – meaning a wide receiver instead of a tight end.  It makes logical sense but there’s a reason that the tight end position exists in the league in my opinion.  Keeping a tight end in the game forces the defense to keep an extra linebacker on the field due to the threat that the offense will run the ball.  What it really boils down to is match ups – is the margin between my slot wide receiver over your nickelback greater than that created by my tight end over your strong side linebacker?  Martz has answered that question with a definitive ‘yes’ everywhere he’s been.  It’s a fundamental part of his offense.  The problem is that if this is Martz’s last season in Chicago (for good or bad) next year the Bears will be looking for a pass catching tight end in the mold of the recently departed Mr. Olsen, much like the rest of the league. 

Regarding the offensive line, I think the Bears are in better hands this year.  Don’t get me wrong as I think there are a lot of sacks awaiting Jay Cutler this year but I don’t envision a lot of nine sack performances like the Giants delivered last year.  I’m still not enthralled with Roberto Garza at center as I think Lance Louis would look much sharper over on the sidelines so Garza could take the right guard spot which would open up room for Chris Spencer at center.  He’s getting $3 million this year and next to watch from the sidelines?  I don’t think so, we’ll be seeing Spencer on Sundays before too long so why not just start now?  I’m a Gabe Carimi believer as well if for no other reason than he’s a former Badger and his nickname is the Bear Jew (which is just fantastic).  Jamarcus Webb on the other hand… the jury is still out. 

  • Have you caught on to the song “Pumped Up Kicks” by the band Foster The People yet?  While not technically being “good” music I find it incredibly addictive.  In today’s society, isn’t that what pop music is all about though?  In all honestly my biggest regret with this song is that it didn’t come out when I was in college.  During my formative year I was the member of a fraternity and one of the games we played during pledge hazing was getting the kids drunk and making them perform interpretative dances to various selections of music.  In 2011, “Pumped Up Kicks” would have been my interpretive dance go-to song but alas, I will never get to see this come to fruition.  It would have been epic.

For our skill positions I like but don’t love the young men who will trot out on the field in navy and orange.  I will start by going against the grain here and plant my flagpole as the only writer I have found that thinks Jay Culter is going to have a very good season.  His mechanics have drastically improved, it’s his second year in the offense, he dropped the celebrity wannabe fiancée, and with the departure of Olin Kruetz he is now the official leader of the offense.  I’m expecting 3,800 yards and 28 touchdowns from Jay.  Even The Wife, an adamant Culter hater since his Chicago arrival, has made comment that he looks better this year.  He’s lost some weight, got a haircut, and reportedly is hung like a zebra.  I’m not quite sure where she got some of her facts but I’ll take her word for it. 

At running back we can only hope that Matt Forte’s contract extension – or lack thereof – creates more of an angry-runner- ready-to-prove-himself rather than a pouting-runner-trying-not-to-get-hurt.  As for the rest of them, letting Chester Taylor go was the right idea (despite the Bears finding a way to screw that up as well).  However, let’s all pump the brakes on the hoopla surrounding Marion Barber.  If you play fantasy football you’ve had Marion the Barbarian on your team at one point or another in the past five years.  And if he’s been on your team you know that he comes with a lot of hype and a very little supply of actual production.  I guess what I’m saying is let’s not be expecting too much of Marion (he of the calf strain already) before we get going here.

Mike Lombardi of the NFL Network made a poignant argument on Bill Simmons’ B.S. Report podcast a few weeks ago when he said that you need to think of a wide receiver group like a basketball team.  You need the shifty little point guard that can get into the small places (prototype: Wes Welker); a solid two-guard that make the catch/knocks down the corner three when called upon (prototype: Donald Driver); an athletic wing player that can out run or jump over the competition (Miles Austin); and a power forward/center type that has size and can just post up a defensive back and win jump balls in traffic and in the end zone (Plaxico Burress circa 2008).  I agree wholeheartedly with this philosophy but Lombardi said it in a public forum first so I must pay homage.  I think the Bears have some of these pieces on the roster but maybe are not using them properly.  I think on the Bears roster today Dane Sanzenbacher fills that point guard role to a ‘T’.  The concern however is that I’m not sure how often he’s going to see the field.  The two-guard on the roster is Earl Bennett, who I would say is the best wide receiver we have but again probably won’t get the number of snaps he deserves.  Johnny Knox probably is the closest thing the Bears have to that small forward/wing player due to the pure speed he oozes.  Finally Roy Williams was brought in to be that power forward with size but I’ll save a lot of frustration and just summarize my thoughts by kindly saying that I don’t think Roy is going to bring that much to the table for the team this year.  I leave Devin Hester off this list because after three full years I just don’t think he’s a receiver.  They’ve given it a valiant effort but it’s just not going to take fellas.  Given the new kickoff rules, if you’re not going to make Hester purely a special teams ace, then I think he’s one of those assets that you try and get as much for as you can in a trade and cut ties now.  Otherwise I think outside of Sanzenbacher and Bennett every position could be improved upon and this will be an area of focus for the thirteenth straight offseason next spring.

  • I have no sympathy for people who get bitten or suffocated via constriction by snakes.  Why in the hell would you get close enough to one for them to bite you?  Snakes were not created by my God. 

Defense

Unlike the offense and its perpetual state of re-organization, the Lovie Smith defense is tried and true.  At this very second the Packers know exactly what they’re going to do to attack the Bears version of the Cover-2 (shouldn’t we have our own name for this after nine years?) in Week 3.  And the Bears are ok with that.  They’re convinced that with their talent and their scheme they can take the field and beat any comers straight up.  It’s the opposite philosophy of the Rex Ryan generation who take pride in being smarter than their opponent and coming up with new ways to attack the offense each week and blitz from all over the field.  The Bears use more of an old school, here we are, come and get us approach which actually is pretty cool when you think about it.

The key to this season on defense will be how the old guard holds up and how the next generation step up.

On the defensive line I’m very high on Henry Melton and Amobi Okoye inside.  The best Bears defense in the past ten years was the one from the Super Bowl season when Tommie Harris was an absolute terror on the interior before getting hurt (most people have forgotten that Tommie missed the playoffs that year).  With a solid push up the middle the Cover-2 defense plays to its strengths forcing the opposing quarterback to curl out to one side where the fast ends should be converging or hurry a throw where the defensive backs can intercept it.  Without a pass rush the Cover-2 can be picked apart which Brett Farve and Aaron Rodgers have been happy to point out several times a year this century.  At defensive end, nothing would make me happier than Corey Wootton emerging as a legitimate starting caliber defensive end this season.

The linebacking group will most likely look at 2011 as their swan song season one way or another.  Next year Briggs (assuming he’s back) will be 31 and Urlacher will turn 34.  It’s been a fantastic run for each of them to date and it’s not as though either will be retiring next year but Briggs has done just about enough to purchase his own ticket out of town with his contract demands and father time is going to be coming for Brian before too long.  It’s inevitable.  Over these past number of years I think these two warriors have proven that it really doesn’t matter who lines up as the third linebacker next to them but the fact remains that someone has to.  I’m not sure the Bears have that someone this year.  Nick Roach gets the nod by default this season but after years of keeping Roach on the roster and openly looking for someone to start over him (this year included) it indicates there’s room for improvement.  I think the Bears get by this year with what they have but at the end of this season you sell Briggs for draft picks and take Urlacher’s eventual replacement in the historic middle spot to be groomed over the next year or two eventually moving Brian to the tackle-count-friendly weakside position.  I’d also like to note that Urlacher has made a habit of sustaining a serious injury every other season for the past four years and he was healthy all of last year.  I’m just saying…

  • Do you think birds wish they could cross their legs?

The Bears defensive backs have met as much criticism as the offensive line of late by the media.  Much like the O-line I think the situation is better than many give it credit for.  Charles Tillman is one of the more underrated cornerbacks in the league.  Now keep in mind he is not in the same class as Darrell Revis or Nnamdi Asomugha, but for what is expected of a cornerback in the Cover-2 I do not think there is one better.  On the other side Tim Jennings could definitely be improved upon.  What happened to all the buzz about Zack Bowman being our number one cornerback on the special “left” side last training camp.  He gets kicked by a mule and loses his starting job, falls down a well and can’t win it back? 

At safety I’m a Major Wright believer.  If you look at the screen at the end of every play on defense, you’ll find that Major Wright is involved in just about every tackle regardless of where it is on the field.  That’s instinct and can’t be taught.  Don’t get too caught up on that missed tackle of Brandon Jacobs in New York three weeks ago.  I’m also a fan of anyone that you have to say their full name when you talk about them.  If I referred to him just as “Major” or “Wright” would you know who I was talking about? 

The Brandon Meriweather signing is a bit surprising as I appreciate taking on talent when it’s available but I also think this means the end of Chris Harris.  I like Chris Harris.  One can only assume the Bears are saving the money they currently have under the salary cap for these type of opportunities to pick up talented players that get cut elsewhere but if that’s the case, why only sign him for one year?  Perplexing.  Hopefully Meriweather gets his act together and returns to Pro Bowl form and he and Major Wright carry the position for the next 3-5 years.            

Special Teams

I have very little to say about the special teams this year.  With the kickoff rule changed I think one of the Bears biggest advantages since Devin Hester arrived is getting kicked to the side.  The Bears as much as any team are going to feel the effects of the increased number of touchbacks this season.  As for the kicking game, The Wife is still in mourning over the release of Brad Maynard and so I will quietly pay my respects at the casket containing Maynard’s Chicago career and move on.

Overall

Are you still with me?  Well you’ve made it to the end, congratulations.  My sleep schedule is going to be out of whack after this opus so I appreciate your taking the time to at least skim through all of the above and at minimum skim for the dick jokes.  I guess in summation what I’m getting at in all of this is I think the Bears are going to take a step back but remain competitive this season.  Vegas opened the Bears over under win total at 8.5 last week and the betting has been so heavy on the “under” side of that bet the line has actually moved down to 8.  This is a way of saying that the gambling public are quite adamant that they Bears are going to stink and win seven games or less after an 11-5 campaign in 2010.  I don’t think they’ll be that bad.  I think if they can get out of these first three games with a 2-1 or 1-2 record they’ll be setup to be competitive throughout the year. 

Rather than guessing a final win total my bet for the Bears is that they’re in the running for a playoff spot in Week 17 (the last week of the year).  Every year there is a group of teams that are vying for the 5th or 6th playoff spot and need to win their game (control their own destiny) or rely on a series of other results to make it to the dance.  Usually this group ends up with 9-7 or 10-6 records and I’d say that’s certainly feasible.  What I’m interested in is, assuming this comes to fruition, how the Bears respond?  In 2009 the Bears were in a similar spot as that described above only needing to win their last game (in Houston) or relying on Philly to lose their game.  The Bears pooped the bed and lost their game and didn’t make the playoffs because of it.  I’d like to see the Bears have a chance to control their destiny and take the bull by the horns and win that game this year.  That’s what Brady would do.  And Manning.  It’s time Jay Culter put the team on his back and proclaimed it his own.  This will be the litmus test to see if he’s ready for that or not.  Anything after that is gravy.  That’s how I see 2011 playing out, and I’m looking forward to the ride.

  • In TV and film, when casting children, directors and producers often lean towards casting twins to play the same role so that on any given day at least one of the two actors will be able to film a scene.  On the show Full House this is how the Olsen twins got their start.  However, in the Lindsey Lohan version of the movie The Parent Trap, the casting director went in the opposite direction and cast one child actress (Ms. Lohan) for both child roles – kind of like how black comedians make movies today.  Does this mean that Lindsey Lohan is twice the actor that the collective Olsen twins are?  What does that say about their skill level?  If you think about it, it’s pretty insulting to the Olsens.  Someone must have sat them down somewhere along their career path and had a serious heart to heart about their future.  I bet this is why they both chose to get into the fashion industry for their adult careers.  To make matters worse, when Uncle Jesse and Rebecca had twin boys on the show, they only cast a pair of twin actor boys when using their previous math they should have been searching for identical quintuplets right?  Those Olsen girls must have been bitches.

P.S. – As a new Friday feature I will list my pick and score for the Bears game at the bottom of each column.  This way you can see if you’d like to invite me to join your office pool next year. 

September 11, 2011:  Falcons 21 – Bears 17