Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Was the Bears' Loss an Aberration?

We've seen a lot from the Bears this season. There's been the turnovers, both on offense and defense. There's been the defensive touchdowns, which have practically given the Bears a second offense the entire season. There's also been the revelation of each position group on offense, from the brilliance of the secondary to the dominance of the defensive line. Included in this has been the emergence - at least to those outside Chicago - of Charles Tillman and the resurgence of Tim Jennings. Then there's been the offense. We've seen the Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall connection play out like we wanted to. We've seen spurts of excellence. But at the same time, we've seen woeful stretches of inadequacy and an underutilization of Matt Forte. All of this begs the question - will the offense's inconsistencies prevent a potential Bears' championship?

Or how about another question - what is the real Bears offense? Is it the choppy, uneven mess that we saw for most of the game before Cutler got hurt? The unorganized, confusing, unrhythmic playcalling that we saw the entire game? Or is it the stretches of brilliance where we see a cohesive balance between the running game and passing game?

For me, I think it's somewhere in between. If there was one word to describe this Bears offense it would be streaky, and that's no recipe for success. On any given night, we don't know if we're going to see spotty playcalling, a lack of commitment to the run, forced balls to Marshall, or turnovers in general.   We don't know if it's going to click and the Bears can seemingly move the ball at will. One thing we do know is that the Bears can't rely on their defense to score every game. Fans held their collective breath for the entire Texans game, wondering when the defense would score to bring the Bears back, and it never happened. Sure, Houston has a great defense, but if the Bears are going to be considered an elite team, they have to at least look competent against them.

And really, it shouldn't be that hard. I really feel that the Bears sometimes get too preoccupied playing with their flashy new toy (Marshall) instead of going to what works (Forte). I'm not saying to break the offense down to a level similar to San Francisco, where the offense runs through Frank Gore, but I am saying to develop some balance. Right now, Forte only has 123 carries for 578 yards. He ranks 21st in total carries and 15th in rushing yards. He does have a 4.7 yards per carry though, which tells us that the Bears just aren't using him enough. Is it that difficult for Mike Tice to institute some sort of balance? It would take a lot of pressure off a Bears offense that really appears to be pressing.

Marshall's production has been amazing
Obviously, it wouldn't matter as much if Cutler was producing at an elite level. His connection to Marshall is, to be sure, one of the best in the league. Marshall has 67 catches for 904 yards, putting him on pace for the best season a Bears receiver has ever had. He's second in the league in receptions, and third in the league in receiving yards. Any way you measure it, whether from statistics or his sterling off the field behavior, the Marshall trade has been a resounding success.

The problem is, though, the rest of the offense. Marshall's receiving yards make up almost exactly half of Cutler's 1814 passing yards, and Marshall has 7 of Cutler's 12 passing touchdowns. Aside from Marshall, Bears receivers have done nearly nothing. The next leading receiver on the team is Earl Bennett, who has a grand total of 17 receptions for 187 yards. After that is Alshon Jeffery, who hasn't played in over a month. The lack of an additional receiving target is the problem. Either it stems from Cutler's near-obsession with Marshall on offense, or his lack of confidence in the remaining receivers on the team. The latter seems unlikely, considering his familiarity with Bennett and what had been the emergence of Jeffery before he got hurt. But at the same time, none of the other targets have done much of anything when targeted to show Cutler that he can come away from Marshall when throwing the ball.

Part of the problem will be resolved when Jeffery is healthy, as he was really coming into his own before he got hurt and provided Cutler another huge target besides Marshall on the field. But what the Bears need, and more particularly, Cutler, is a philosophy change. Cutler needs to spread the ball around more and the plays need to be structured in this regard. Tice can even use Marshall as a decoy on set plays to open up the field for other receivers. And really, why have the Bears gone away from Forte in the passing game, when he seemed to be such an integral part before? These easy steps will help the offense function much more smoothly.

It certainly doesn't help that a lot of Cutler's throws are rushed or hurried because of a collapse in protection. Or that his tight end, Kellen Davis, seems to be dead weight in every facet of the game. Tight ends in the modern NFL give the QB a safety blanket, and without a legit option for Cutler, that option is forcing the ball to Marshall every time. This of course has led to his high interception totals, or incompletions, either of which stall drives and give us the stagnant offense we're currently watching.

All told, I'm sure the Bears are aware of all of this and are attempting to work it out. The first priority is ensuring that Cutler is healthy, and finding a way to keep it that way. We saw nothing from Jason Campbell to indicate that he's anything more than a placeholder, so it looks like for right now the Bears will be relying on the defense to carry the team. But there will be a time this season when the defense hits a wall and the offense will be called upon to make plays and win the game. It happened this past week against Houston, and the Bears' offense couldn't execute. We've seen an amazing, historical season from the defense. It's time the offense did something to reward them.