By Brian Tucker
It would have been a fun, easy story to write.
"Bears third-string QB Caleb Hanie led the Bears to an improbable, electric comeback win in the NFC championship game against longtime rival Green Bay. …"
Had that happened, we'd have mostly been spared the comments from Bears meatballs — they don't deserve to be called "fans" — and ill-informed, Jay Cutler-hating media types/former players who question the toughness of a quarterback who, for the past two seasons, has been treated by opposing defenses the way my dog treats his favorite chew toy. For the record, question his surly, arrogant persona or penchant for hand-delivering interceptions to opponents, but don't let your disdain for the man cloud the judgment involving his toughness.
Instead of looking forward to another trip to the Super Bowl, Bears fans are left looking back at a 2010 season that leaves more questions than answers. You might not expect a team that finished the regular season with an 11-5 mark and reached the NFC championship game to be in this predicament, but that's precisely the unfortunate position the Bears find themselves.
Brian Urlacher once again played like Brian Urlacher. Free agent Julius Peppers didn't take plays off (as was alleged during his stay with the Panthers) and proved himself to be just as ferocious against the run as the pass.
Jay Cutler rebounded from a disastrous campaign last season and responded to his many loud critics with a relatively strong, consistent season. Matt Forté ran faster and harder than ever before. Devin Hester once again displayed his innate and uncanny ability to torture opponents returning punts and kickoffs.
These loud and clear answers, along with a relatively weak schedule, few, if any, serious injuries and some good fortune, allowed the Bears to overachieve this season. However, Bears GM Jerry Angelo and head coach Lovie Smith had best not plan long vacations because the to-do list is long and imposing.
Because I know Angelo, Smith and team president Ted Phillips are enormous fans of media types who seemingly have all the answers, I'll gladly offer my help in answering the key questions. Consider it my "thank you" for a surprising, exciting season.
Can Jay Cutler lead the Bears to a Super Bowl?
It depends. See below.
Did the offensive line make meaningful improvement the second half of the season or simply benefit from a simplified playbook that relied more on the run than pass?
Think about their performance against elite teams like the Patriots and Packers and you'll find your answer. The Bears need two quality starters to solidify this position and give Cutler the ability to use that big arm and safely make an occasional deep drop. They also need to find a suitable long-term replacement for Olin Kreutz this offseason because he's going to retire to Hawaii at some point, isn't he?
What do the Bears have in OL Chris Williams?
Hopefully, this former first-round pick at left tackle will become a slightly above-average left guard. If I'm the coach and GM (which I believe I should be), he gets one more year to prove himself at guard or it's time to ship him out of town.
Are the Bears set at the wide receiver position?
I know Angelo insists that he likes this group of receivers, but he's just using that devilish sense of humor of his, right?
On the positive side, Devin Hester and Johnny Knox are physically gifted receivers with elite speed and Hester even managed to improve his route running to an average level. Earl Bennett is sneaky quick with great hands and would make a great No. 3 receiver for a Super Bowl-contending team.
Those positives aside, only Bennett seems to aggressively pursue the ball when it's in the air. You can rely on speed and wait for the ball to come to you when you're playing the likes of Carolina, but not against the best teams in the league that play physical with receivers. Bennett could pass for a No. 2 and Hester/Knox for a No. 3, but Angelo needs to find a big, physical receiver who is willing and able to fight a corner for the ball during the biggest of games.
Is Mike Martz the right offensive coordinator for this team?
There's a little-known, little-regarded football theory (mostly because I just made it up) called "Fat people like to eat cupcakes." It goes something like this. When you're fat, as I once was, you crave things like cupcakes. Even while you're eating a cupcake, you're thinking about the next one. Sometimes you can show enough willpower and avoid the tempting thought for a while, but it never really leaves you.
In the case of Martz, he was able (with a not-so-subtle prodding from Smith) to resist his cravings for passing the majority of the time the second half of the season. However, think back to the first half to see what he really wants to do. Even with an offensive line that had never played together as a unit (and was devoid of meaningful talent), he had Cutler taking five- and seven-step drops and his receivers running deep routes. That's who Martz is at his core. He might be able to avoid the temptation next year, but he's not the long-term solution as offensive coordinator.
What should the Bears do with Tommie Harris and the rest of the defensive line?
Breakups are never easy, but it's time to end the relationship with the seven-year veteran Harris. I don't care how you do it (use the "it's not you, it's me" line if you need to), but sever it immediately … and ask him to take Marcus Harrison with him in the divorce.
Besides the fact that Harris is due a $2.5 million bonus on June 1, just look at his production in the most important season of his career — career lows in starts (six) tackles (13) and sacks (1½).
As for the rest of the line, Matt Toeaina and Anthony Adams are hard-nosed, high-effort players. You could live with one of them as a starter, but not two. The Bears will need to bring in a veteran and, once again, spend another draft pick on a defensive lineman.
Can Urlacher repeat this year's performance?
Barring injury or a breakdown in his fitness regimen, it's reasonable to expect Urlacher to perform at this year's level for another year or two. However, as with Kreutz, I'd make it a priority to look for a mid- to late-round backup in this year's draft. Any chance the Bears can get their hands on Packers GM Ted Thompson's draft board so they know who to draft?
Are the Bears set in the secondary?
In an ideal world, Chris Harris would be the strong safety and Charles Tillman would be an excellent ball-hawking free safety. Major Wright, who played very little because of injuries in his first season, would make a perfect fit as the No. 3 safety and learn under two true professionals.
There's just one problem with that. How does "Your starting cornerbacks are Zack Bowman and Tim Jennings" sound? Didn't think you'd like that. Realistically, Angelo needs to sign a starting corner to play opposite Tillman (who can still play at a relatively high level for another year) and then use a high draft pick for a corner to eventually replace him. Angelo also needs to be in the market for a third corner and then make Jennings your fourth. Jennings played above his pay grade this season, but the Colts don't make many personnel mistakes. There's a reason they cut him and a reason the Packers targeted his side of the field on Sunday.
Should Smith get a contract extension?
I haven't been the biggest Lovie supporter over the years. He has proven to be too loyal to certain players and coaches whose production doesn't match the hype — remember Bob Babich and the "Rex is our quarterback" mantra? — and too arrogant to consider other defensive schemes when his personnel was ill suited for his vaunted Tampa-2 scheme. Additionally, his sleep-inducing press conferences make Dick Jauron look like Eddie Murphy circa 1987, but that's just my personal preference for a little more give and take from a coach.
Having said that, it's hard to argue with his production in a year where he was under the gun.
I didn't hear too many pundits predicting an NFC championship appearance for the Bears this season, considering they were coming off of a disastrous season by Cutler and had a new offensive coordinator, a subpar offensive line and a shaky WR group. There was some good fortune with the schedule, health and injuries to opponents, but these things typically play a significant role in any team's success.
Perhaps Smith's most impressive feat since taking over in January of 2004 has been his knack for keeping his locker room under control. Even in the dreck that was the prior three seasons, how often did you see a player talk out of school? He has always kept his house in order, something undeniably difficult with today's athlete and the immediacy of technology. So yes, Lovie has earned himself another three years, which is more than I can say for …
Should Angelo keep his job?
How do I say this delicately? … Hell no. Without going into the list of high-round picks he has missed on (while fun, at this point it's just piling on), just consider the teams he has given Smith the past few years. You could make a really strong argument that he has never given Lovie an offense that an opponent has to respect, much less fear.
Additionally, since the last Super Bowl run, Angelo has made two mistakes a GM should never make. He has overvalued his own talent (see offensive line and wide receivers) and neglected to identify and then draft stars-to-be on either side of the ball. With the exception of Cutler and the part-time Hester, the team's best players are on the wrong side of 30.
One more thing, Jerry — sometimes quarterbacks get hurt in the brutal NFL. As a result, it's a good idea to have a better backup than one whose best role should be as the quarterback of a Thanksgiving Day pickup game played with hung-over, 30-year-old former high school standouts.
That's your homework, guys. I've given you the answers, but my guess is you'll have your own take on the many unanswered questions. Take the weekend off and then get to work.
Brian Tucker is a freelance writer based in Chicago.