by Andy Benoit
(Ed. Note: Thanks to The New York Times for allowing us to re-run Andy Benoit's annual team previews. Please be aware that these previews are more scouting-oriented than what we run in Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, and they represent one man's opinion so they may differ from the forecast from our statistical team projection system. -- Aaron Schatz)
The Chicago Bears’ president, Ted Phillips, decided after last season that he was seeing the third cycle of a pattern that his team had been stuck in since former general manager Jerry Angelo arrived in 2001.
The pattern? The Bears ascend to the near-summit of the NFL mountain, only to immediately slide back down to the middle. In Angelo’s first year, the Bears came from out of nowhere to go 13-3. But they went 4-12, 7-9 and 5-11 the next three years. In 2005, under second-year coach Lovie Smith, they blossomed into an 11-5 playoff team. The following season, they went 13-3 and represented the NFC in Super Bowl XLI, but the three ensuing seasons produced records of 7-9, 9-7 and 7-9. This past year, after the Bears followed up a 2010 NFC championship appearance with a disappointing 8-8 campaign, Phillips fired Angelo.
Whether this third cycle of the pattern was Angelo’s fault is debatable. Yes, the Bears stumbled in 2011, but if quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte (two stars Angelo acquired) hadn’t gotten hurt, this team probably would have at least reached the postseason. The Bears were 7-3 under Cutler, who went out with a broken thumb, and they lost Forte to a sprained MCL two games later. Nevertheless, Angelo’s track record was not quite sterling enough for his termination to prompt much fan backlash. It was a calculated decision for Phillips. After all, if Phillips were really an impetuous decision maker, then wouldn’t Angelo’s firing have come sometime during one of those three-year stretches of mediocrity? Wouldn’t Smith have been canned by now? In all likelihood, Phillips is one of the few bosses in history who actually mean it when they tell a fired employee that they just want to take the company in a different direction.
Leading this different direction is first-time general manager Phil Emery, a well-respected scout who built his résumé under Rich McKay in Atlanta (2004-8) and Scott Pioli in Kansas City (2009-11). Emery wasted no time getting his hands dirty. He traded a pair of third-round draft picks to Miami for Brandon Marshall, whom the Bears expect to be their first 1,000-yard receiver since Marty Booker in 2002. He signed Forte to a four-year, $32 million deal ($17 million guaranteed), trusting that Forte, 26, won’t wear down and have to retire at 28 the way Marion Barber just did.
Emery also spent $14 million over four years ($6.45 million guaranteed) to bring in ex-Raiders running back Michael Bush to handle some of the load. He signed another ex-Raider, quarterback Jason Campbell (known for changing systems as frequently as most people change clothes), as insurance in case Cutler goes down again.
Emery focused on keeping the perennially solid defense intact for the short term. Outside linebacker Lance Briggs was re-signed. The underrated defensive end Israel Idonije was brought back on a one-year contract. And instead of seeking a replacement for the 34-year-old middle linebacker Brian Urlacher (who missed most of the offseason recovering from a knee injury), Emery used his first-round pick on Boise State end Shea McClellin, in hopes of immediately reinvigorating the four-man pass rush that Smith’s defense is utterly dependent on.
Emery knows he’s not there to get this team to the top; he’s there to push this team over the top. His first-year job performance will be largely influenced by Smith. The defensive-oriented Smith, 54, has also recently made drastic changes to the Bears’ foundation. During the course of last season, Smith liberalized his defense by drifting a bit from some of the outdated principles of his longstanding Tampa-2 scheme. More importantly, immediately after last season, he de-liberalized the offense by replacing coordinator Mike Martz, a high-stakes passing maharishi, with Mike Tice, a meat-and-potatoes offensive line coach.
The same argument that was made about Angelo can be made for Martz: his plan was working until Cutler and Forte were hurt. But Martz was reportedly underwhelmed by a middling one-year contract extension the team offered him at the end of 2010 and had philosophical differences with Smith. So when his contract expired at the end of 2011, so did his Chicago tenure.
Just because Mike Martz was a downfield-pass-oriented play-caller and the new coordinator, Mike Tice, is an offensive line instructor, doesn’t necessarily mean the 2012 Bears are going to pretend this is 1972. As Dan Pompei of The Chicago Tribune noted back in May, Tice's reign as head coach in Minnesota involved him letting offensive coordinator Scott Linehan call plays that fit the team’s personnel. With Randy Moss and Cris Carter at wide receiver and the cannon-armed Daunte Culpepper at quarterback, Linehan went to the air 48 percent of the time on first down. (Last season, the supposedly pass-happy Martz called a pass on 41 percent of first downs.)
With Brandon Marshall and second-round rookie Alshon Jeffery coming aboard, and Earl Bennett and Devin Hester still around, Tice has what should be at least a fairly formidable receiving corps. More importantly, he has another cannon-armed quarterback in Jay Cutler. Expect Tice to be just as willing to throw as Martz was.
What will be different is the way Tice throws. With Martz, throws often came in bunches, and many of them involved seven-step drops and slow-developing routes. The Bears’ offensive line never had the pass-blocking aptitude needed to play that way; the offense surrendered a league-high 105 sacks over the last two years.
Tice has removed all seven-step drops from the passing game. Everything the Bears do now will be on three-and five-step timing. That means Cutler will have to improve his diagnostic skills, in the pocket and especially at the line of scrimmage. An underrated athlete blessed with arguably the league’s strongest arm, Cutler, though no dummy, has never had to rely heavily on his mental aptitude. Martz’s system may have been complex, but because it was so rigid and rule-oriented, Cutler didn’t always have to be much of a decision maker. He didn’t even have the power to change protections, let alone call an audible. Martz focused more on working with Cutler’s mechanics, and though they have improved, they can still be too inconsistent from play to play.
Tice will undoubtedly ask his quarterback to be more a thinker and less of a reactor, though he won’t try to make Cutler become Peyton Manning. To highlight Cutler’s strengths, Tice will incorporate more moving pockets (bootlegs, rollouts, etc.) into the passing game.
A moving pocket can help an offensive line tremendously, as virtually every defensive blitz is designed to attack a stationary pocket. A moving pocket also naturally puts a quarterback in an elusive mindset, which is good because, friendlier system or not, this is an offensive line that is still likely to struggle in 2012. The feet of left tackle J’Marcus Webb are too slow for him to consistently play on an island. He got better last year, his second season, but still led the league with 15 offensive holding penalties. At right tackle, Gabe Carimi is coming back slowly from the knee injury that cost him most of his rookie season. The Bears are moving left guard Chris Williams back to tackle, and he’ll start on the right side should Carimi not be ready or possibly push Webb on the left. Williams was originally supposed to be a left tackle when he was taken in the first round back in 2008, but he’s never shown good lateral agility as a pass blocker, and he’s not a road grader in space.
Stepping in at left guard will be Chris Spencer, who has more north-south run-blocking prowess than Williams. Spencer’s primary position is actually center, but the Bears were happy with the way the veteran Roberto Garza performed in his first year at that position last year. At right guard will be Lance Louis, who is a slightly better athlete than serviceable run blocker Edwin Williams and a more reliable technician than disappointing ex-49er Chilo Rachal. Louis can play tackle in a pinch, though it would have to be a significant pinch given to overlook how much he struggled at that spot in 2011.
Whoever is at tackle for the Bears should have an easier time this season because a defining characteristic of Tice’s system is two-tight end sets. Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth entered training camp at the top of the depth chart, but both players are better blockers than receivers. That’s not necessarily damning: Tice often employs his tight ends as movement-oriented H-back types (think Jim Kleinsasser, from his time in Minnesota), but it will be a hindrance to the passing game if the tight ends aren’t at least respectable receiving threats. The Bears are hoping that the undrafted second-year pro Kyle Adams and the fourth-round rookie Evan Rodriguez (who is more suited to catching than blocking) can fulfill those duties.
The moving tight ends will give more dimension to the rushing attack, which can only be a good thing as long as the ever-so-fluid Matt Forte is in the backfield. Forte is crucial to the Bears. His new backup, Michael Bush, though fervid between the tacklers, is not a genuine outside runner or receiving threat. Bush has a little more wiggle than you’d guess, and he’s a decent pass blocker, but Forte can be a lethal weapon anywhere on the ground or through the air.
The hope is that the receiving group will be improved enough that Forte won’t have to be such a significant pass-catching weapon in 2012. In the two years that Brandon Marshall played with Cutler in Denver, he averaged 103 catches and 1,295 yards a season. He is not particularly fast, but he manages to get downfield well. He has a very natural feel for winning positioning battles. Obviously, the reason Chicago was able to trade for Marshall is that he can be a head case. But when your best receiver (Johnny Knox) suffers what might prove to be a career-ending back injury, and your playmaking receiver (Devin Hester) is still really a return maestro and gadget-play specialist, it becomes very easy to talk yourself into a character-risk star.
Marshall isn’t the only risky new receiver. There are many who believe that rookie possession target Alshon Jeffery will be too lazy and moody to live up to his second-round billing. If he is, the Bears could be in a bit of trouble because the reliable veteran Earl Bennett is not as effective outside as he is in the slot, and intriguing second-year man Dane Sanzenbacher lacks the size to play on the perimeter, at 5-foot-11, 180 pounds.
Make no mistake: the Bears still play a Cover-2 defense. Or, more accurately, a Tampa-2. The difference between the two is that in a base Cover-2, the middle linebacker patrols just the shallow middle zone, while in a Tampa-2, he patrols the entire middle zone, playing as deep as the deepest inside receiver goes. The Bears will probably use a Tampa-2 defense for as long as Lovie Smith is the head coach. But last season, Smith, as well as his fellow Tampa-2 acolyte Rod Marinelli, showed a newfound willingness to deviate from his traditional scheme. The Bears played a lot more single-high safety, which meant more Cover-3 zone looks and even some man-to-man (once unheard of in Chicago).
This is probably just a natural response to pro football’s evolution. In short, because the Tampa-2 is so widespread, simplistic, and passive, offenses have designed plays that are exclusively tailored to exploit it. For a lot of teams, the Tampa-2 has become more a type of prevent defense than anything. The only reason the Bears have thrived with it for so long is that they’ve had an incredibly talented front seven that not only fits the scheme, but also understands its every nuance.
That front seven remains as strong as ever. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher is getting old, but it rarely shows in his performance. If (and when) he does lose a step, he’ll still have a sharp football IQ to help him compensate. Weakside linebacker Lance Briggs is at the top of his game. That could soon change, given that he’s 31 and, in this scheme, has to cover an inordinate amount of ground. But there’s yet to be any sign of his decline, which is why he got a new deal. At strongside linebacker, the secretly explosive Nick Roach should be able to fend off the newcomer Geno Hayes.
Roach won’t play true starter’s snaps, though, because Chicago’s opponents will be more inclined to spread out and pass given how good this defense is against the run. Urlacher and Briggs aren’t the only staunch run stoppers. We think of end Julius Peppers as an elite pass rusher —- which he is —- but really, Peppers’s greatest strength is defending the run. He consistently penetrates the backfield if he's not double teamed, and his sinewy strength allows him to destructively work down the line of scrimmage when he is. Teams would purposely run to the opposite side of Peppers if he weren’t so good at chasing down ball carriers from the backside.
It can be tough to run away from Peppers, anyway, given that Marinelli wisely moves him around. Peppers will even play defensive tackle if the opposing team’s guard is particularly vulnerable. Opposite Peppers, Israel Idonije is a very crafty and versatile force. He does as good a job as any end in football at helping his teammates with stunts and crashes. With Idonije and Peppers bookending the front line, defensive tackles Henry Melton, Matt Toeaina and Stephen Paea should flourish. Melton, a former running back at Texas, is a gifted one-gap shooter. Toeaina can be that, though at 308 pounds, he’s a more innate clogger. The really interesting player is Paea. He played somewhat sparingly as a rookie last season but flashed the power-quickness combination that made him a prized second-round pick. The Bears use him at nose tackle and as a three-technique. Also in the mix is former Buccaneer Brian Price, a second-round pick in 2010 with great size but also a reputation for inconsistent output.
Last season, the Bears ranked 19th in the NFL in total sacks, but their front four ranked sixth among all defensive lines, with 30 sacks. Still, Emery and his staff justifiably felt that the pass rush needed to be even more dynamic. With backup end Chauncey Davis as almost a strict run anchor, and his fellow backup Corey Wootton‘s having played just 13 games in his first two seasons, the new general manager surprised people by spending his first-round pick on Shea McClellin. An outside linebacker at Boise State, McClellin will have to learn to play near the trenches with his hand in the dirt. The Bears don’t need him to be a starter right away, but they do need him to be a potent edge rusher on passing downs.
Though Smith has been willing to use more coverages and even blitz out of the increased single-high (i.e., eight-men-in-the-box) looks, he doesn’t have the personnel to play this way every down. Cornerback Charles Tillman is not fast or fluid enough for bump-and-run coverage. He can defend the opposing team’s best receiver, but only in off-man or zone. The No. 2 corner, Tim Jennings, is serviceable —- perhaps even better than serviceable -— but his occasional inconsistency can drive the coaching staff nuts. If nickelback D.J. Moore weren’t suited only for the slot, Jennings might have lost his job last season. Jennings will spend this training camp fending off the free-agent pickup Kelvin Hayden, a Tampa 2 veteran from the Colts. What could save Jennings is the fact that he, like Tillman, is a very good run defender, which is important for a corner in this scheme.
The safety position has always been a revolving door in Chicago, though there seems to be some trust in Chris Conte, a third-round pick last year, as a deep center fielder. Conte’s ability to attack from the third level was most likely part of the reason that Smith and Marinelli felt comfortable sliding Major Wright down in the box more often. After starting 10 of the 12 games he played last year, it’s safe to say Wright, a 2010 third-round pick, has officially beaten out special teams contributor Craig Steltz. Despite that, the Bears used yet another third-round pick at safety this season: Oregon State’s Brandon Hardin.
The Bears are one of the few teams that make special teams part of their foundation. Thirty-one other teams would do this, too, if they had a return artist like Devin Hester. His presence alone can drastically alter field position. Like its return and cover units, Chicago’s kicking game is stellar at worst and spectacular at best. Kicker Robbie Gould has improved his range the last few years without sacrificing accuracy. Punter Adam Podlesh ranked sixth in the NFL with a net average of 40.4 yards last season.
The philosophical change on offense should serve this team well. Things weren’t broken under Mike Martz, but Tice’s system better fits Chicago’s personnel. Defensively, if the pass rush picks up just a bit, this can be a top-five unit. "If" has become a dicey word with this team, though. Too often, "if" hasn’t gone its way.