Friday, May 25, 2012

Focus on Bears as Rest of Chicago Sports Suffer

You could make the argument that Chicago is, always has been, and always will be a Bears town. Sure, the Bulls are supremely popular, just as they were in the Michael Jordan era. But I personally know plenty of people who don't care for the NBA, so I'm assuming that this is a normal trend. You could also make a case for the Blackhawks, who have an enormous following. Yet, how many of those fans watched the team before they got popular again? I'm talking the days of not having home games broadcast on TV, or getting student discount tickets for practically nothing. I think that alone puts them slightly behind the Bears. Baseball can't come close, because Chicago has two teams that divide the city. The Cubs have a large fanbase, but the team stinks every year and a ton of fans show up to Wrigley for the experience, not the baseball. Thus, this year, as the Bulls and Hawks both made an early exit from the playoffs, the Cubs are woeful and the Sox are just ok, the Bears are going to bear the brunt of the attention from a rabid sports city.

I guess it's a good thing, then, that the Bears have had such a successful offseason. It provides some storylines for Chicago fans to follow until the games actually start, with the first preseason game still 76 days from now. Training camp doesn't even start until mid July. So here we are, towards the end of May, focusing on the Bears offseason, their draft, and the Organized Team Activities. Dig in; it's going to be awhile until anything happens sports-wise in our city.

Bears fans can't wait to see this connection
The offseason started with a bang with the departure of Jerry Angelo as General Manager, replaced by Phil Emery. Emery, a long time scout, brings some fresh perspective on personnel decisions to an organization that was in dire need of it. And boy, did we see it right away. First, Emery swung the huge trade to grab Brandon Marshall from Miami. This is the kind of move that Bears fans have wanted Jerry Angelo to make for years; adding a massive, elite receiver to give Jay Cutler another weapon to work with. You'd think that this move would have been made awhile ago, at least in conjunction with the acquisition of Jay Cutler a couple years ago, but it took a new general manager to get it done. More than just Marshall, though, Emery recognized, unlike his predecessor, that depth needed to be bolstered at several positions, especially QB. So, he let the disappointing Caleb Hanie go and signed Jason Campbell to backup Cutler. Campbell could probably start for a few teams, so he is going to be an outstanding option for the Bears should Cutler get hurt again.

How those two players, plus the other acquisitions and/or departures, play with the players who return to the roster will be one storyline to watch. Another is the ongoing contract saga of Matt Forte. The Bears tendered Forte the franchise tag, and brought in Michael Bush to either supplement Forte or replace him should Forte hold out. That's what will be so interesting. Is Emery going to cave and give Forte the contract he wants (and deserves)? I certainly hope so; it doesn't seem like Forte is going to balk at missing any time, especially after seeing the contracts that DeAngelo Williams, Adrian Peterson, and Chris Johnson got last year, and a more pertinent and comparable contract that the Eagles just gave LeSean McCoy. The Bears are a franchise that typically plays hardball with their contract negotiations - just ask Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Olin Kreutz, and now, Matt Forte. Here, though, I hope they don't play too hard. Forte is a player who carried nearly the entire load of the Bears' offense last year, and it did so for around $500,000 a year. It's time the Bears stepped to the forefront, recognized the value Forte brought to the Bears, and pay him accordingly. The Bears consider Forte to be an elite running back; time to pay him as such.

It'll also be interesting to see how the players Emery selected in his first draft transition to the team. First round pick Shea McClellin is intriguing, given that it was a choice many pundits considered a reach. Personally, I feel that McClellin will fit in nicely as an additional athletic edge rusher to use opposite Julius Peppers. Not only will it put pressure on Israel Idonije to amp up his production from last year, but it gives the Bears yet another talented player in the pass rush, arguably the most important facet of the defense in the modern NFL. I figure McClellin to fit in with the Bears in the same mold as Clay Matthews does with Green Bay, only because the Bears don't run a 3-4, McClellin will play with his hand on the ground the vast majority of the time. In particular, though, I LOVED Emery's selection of Alshon Jeffery, because I think the Bears will be getting the talented WR from the 2010 college football season, not the out of shape talent from the 2011 season. If you remember back, Jeffery was a college football beast in 2010. Just watch this:

Jeffery gives Cutler yet another weapon
Those are all highlights from 2010. He wasn't entirely unproductive in 2011, but he showed up to the combine overweight and performed poorly. Once he slimmed down for his pro day, he was back into good shape and performed great, running 4.4-4.5 in the 40. And at 6'4, 220 pounds, Jeffery in good shape is an elite weapon that would have been a first round pick this year. I couldn't be more ecstatic about the pickup, not just because it's a great weapon for Cutler to use, but it shows a marked trend for the Bears to actually embark on improvements to the skill positions of the football team. As for the rest of the draft, it was a little puzzling. The Bears took Brandon Hardin in the third round, yet ANOTHER safety. The Bears have been taking safeties in every draft for what seems like the last 20 years. Why take Hardin when you just drafted Major Wright and Chris Conte? Both have struggled, but both have also showed the skill and athleticism necessary to take the leap. Perhaps the Bears recognize the importance a ball hawking, athletic safety can play in their defense and simply want to provide competition and depth. After Hardin, the Bears took Evan Rodriguez, an athletic FB/TE hyrbid. That would seem fine, until you realize that Rodriguez is only 6'2, greatly undersized at TE. I imagine they're thinking of the versatility he provides, but I wonder why they made the choice to begin with. The Bears finished their draft with two defensive backs, Isaiah Frey and Greg McCoy, both of whom are athletic and fit the mold of undervalued corners the Bears seem to go after in the draft. I like McCoy as the bigger sleeper of the two, based merely on his speed.

Most importantly, though, what about the action on the field? That is going to be the most compelling storyline to follow. Starting on offense, there is no bigger signal of the "new" era of Bears football than the departure of Mike Martz. For me, it's simple addition by subtraction. No one frustrated me more than watching Martz attempt to relive the Greatest Show on Turf glory days with a Bears offense that couldn't come close to making it happen. Consistently forcing Cutler into 7 step drops, making the receivers learn and memorize complicated timing routes that they couldn't pull off, and undervaluing a run game dominated by Matt Forte drove me, and other Bears fans, crazy all year. He didn't even let Cutler audible! I thought the Bears pulled off a great move by simply promoting Mike Tice to offensive coordinator, for it will ensure a simpler, more cohesive offensive scheme that will fit to the personnel on the field. Even better is the hiring of Jeremy Bates to be the quarterback's coach. Bates, who spent last year out of football, was Cutler's QB coach in Denver for his most successful season, and will be able to work closely with Cutler and already know exactly how the QB's mind works.

Cutler has to be happy with the new situation, and he's already expressed as such. For the ongoing OTA's, voluntary workouts, and training camp, we'll be able to see Cutler given all the chance in the world to show he's an upper-echelon QB. The only question mark, of course, is the offensive line. It's one area that the Bears, in mystifying fashion, didn't upgrade besides the acquisition of Chilo Rachal in free agency. Perhaps the Bears feel comfortable with J'Marcus Webb, Chris Williams, Roberto Garza, Lance Louis, and Gabe Carimi, among others. Who knows. But if there is any coach that can make the most out of that group of players, it's Mike Tice. The Bears hired Tim Holt to replace Tice as OL coach, but you have to figure that Tice will still be doing plenty of coaching in that area. Even so, the OL played much better down the stretch last year, and with an offensive scheme that will probably not require so much pressure to be placed on the line, the team should be much more productive as a whole on offense.

McClellin will be counted on to provide pressure
On defense, I'm expecting to see more of the same. I hope the next few months before the season starts show some improvement on the defensive line, because that is the cornerstone of the entire Bears defense. The Bears drafted McClellin to provide some support for Julius Peppers, but it's going to be a group effort. I can't wait to see the strides that Henry Melton has made in the offseason. Obviously, the Bears feel as strongly about Melton as I do, as they released Anthony Adams to make Melton the centerpiece at defensive tackle. I didn't understand why they let Amobi Okoye go, as I felt that he was great last year, but I think the Bears are going to let his spot be filled by Stephen Paea, the second round pick from last year. Also in the rotation at defensive tackle will be Matt Toeaina, who has also played well for the Bears. DT is such a key position for the Bears, so production from those players is a must. As for the rest of the defense, I figure that the rest of the offseason will be largely a tuneup for the veterans players who already occupy those positions. Hopefully the defense can continue to play at the high level they have for years, because it is certainly not getting any younger.

All told, you know it's a rough part of the Chicago sports season when you're focusing on the Bears in May. Still, it's almost as if the Bears have accommodated that by providing us fans with a plethora of storylines to follow. Over the next couple of months, until football actually starts to get played, we're going to see how the rookies integrate into the team, how Phil Emery continues to establish a foothold over the team, how Lovie Smith responds in a hot seat year, how Matt Forte's contract issues play out, and how Jay Cutler responds to having two 6'4 monster receivers to finally work with. Even more than that, we have the health of Brian Urlacher and Johnny Knox to monitor. These may not be the most thrilling of general sports storylines, but it's all we got. Instead of hearing about an upcoming revenge match between the Bulls and Miami, we have the Bears offense to pore over. Instead of competitive baseball (at least for the Cubs), we have the health of key Bears' players to think about. And instead of watching the Hawks progress through the playoffs, we have to sit idly by and wait for any updates on Forte's contract situation. It's not the most exciting thing in the world, but the general level of excitement towards these rather routine storylines (that make it seem like the Bears have the greatest team in the NFL, much like every other team in the middle of OTAs), shows the fervor this city has for its Bears. Let's hope it all pays off once the season kicks off.


Anonymous said...

Rodriguez is "greatly undersized at TE" Aaron Hernandez is? Wake up dude and watch football in the modern day.

Dave Johnsen said...

Hernandez is the exception to the rule, and the Pats use him in the backfield and spread him out. Do the Bears run that sort of offense, ever? Yeah, I don't watch modern football and all those "modern" tightends like Rob Gronkowski, who is 6'6, Jimmy Graham, who is 6'7, Jason Witten, who is 6'5, Tony Gonzalez, who is 6'5, Dallas Clark, who is 6'3, Vernon Davis, who is 6'3, Jermichael Finley, who is 6'5, Dustin Keller, who is 6'2, Marcedes Lewis, who is 6'6, Heath Miller, who is 6'5, Greg Olsen, who is 6'5, Brandon Pettigrew, who is 6'5, Kyle Rudolph, who is 6'6, Ben Watson, who is 6'3, or Kellen Winslow, who is 6'4. You're right though, I don't watch modern football.