By Michael Wilbon | ESPNChicago.com
It's not something anybody's had any real practice doing, talking about the Bears' offense in superlatives. To say it's a first might not even be an exaggeration. At the end of a conversation the other day with Ron Jaworski, who has been paying close attention to the Bears for 40 years, the first 15 as an opposing NFL quarterback, I asked him the last time he recalled the Bears' offense being this potent. Jaworski paused, laughed and finally said, "You're taxing my memory."
It's a season that will begin like few, if any, others ... the defense likely pretty good but the offense, even with questions about the offensive line, a monster, a powerhouse. Trent Dilfer, like Jaworski a quarterback-turned-ESPN-broadcast analyst, said: "We're going to be talking about the Bears' offense a lot. They'll be on everybody's radar, a hot-button topic. They'll do some awesome stuff, probably roll some people. Seriously, I think they'll run some people over."
What Jaworski can't recall, specifically, is a Bears offense ever having this many dimensions. "What drives defensive coordinators crazy all week," he said, "is multiple dimensions ... if you can throw it down the field, if you can throw it short, throw it horizontal, throw the intermediate routes, if you've got a good speed back, a good power back. And the Bears seem to have all those dimensions in place."
It's also necessary because while a great defense can still have several big-hitting games and impact, the days of the NFL being ruled by dominant defenses -- as Jaworski faced in the 1970s and 80s -- are gone. "The rules," as Jaws said, "have put the defense at a disadvantage. The days when a team can consistently win games 14-10 are over."
In other words, the Bears' signature approach to the game, where a team built on defense and a power running game can win a championship without a sophisticated passing attack, has been legislated out. So the Bears have little choice but to take a different tack. And while new general manager Phil Emery pulled off a remarkable makeover in precious little time during one offseason, giving Jay Cutler an array of weapons, Jaworski said: "I want to give a lot of credit to Lovie Smith. Defensive coaches don't like to make those kind of big sweeping changes, especially a change in philosophy. But here's a case of a defensive-minded coach rolling with the changes in the game."
Like everybody else who has paid a speck of attention to the Bears this summer, Dilfer and Jaws see Brandon Marshall, Earl Bennett, rookie Alshon Jeffery and Devin Hester as being about the best group of pass-catchers the team has had in forever. And it's not only the addition of Marshall and Jeffery, but re-casting Hester from a No. 1, which he surely was not in this day and age, to what looks to be a change-of-pace defense wrecker. How many defenses are even capable of covering Marshall, Forte, Hester and Bennett if Cutler has time to find them? Both Jaworski and Dilfer love the addition of Michael Bush in the backfield. Jaws points out: "Bush brings a whole new dimension. On third-and-one he can move the pile. With a minute and a half left to play, you're up three facing a third-and-one and you need to ice the game, Bush will help them. My last season (as a player) I was with Marty Schottenheimer and he told the team, 'I don't care if we rush for 200 yards; I need to run the ball with two minutes left in the game when 70,000 people know we're going to run and everybody on both sides of the ball knows we're going to run.'"
Dilfer sees Bush helping the club protect its new investment in the newly signed Forte, who should be fresher going into December and the playoffs than he would be if he otherwise had to carry too much of the load.
And there's the arrival of Jason Campbell, who almost certainly would have gotten the Bears to the playoffs last year had he, and not Caleb Hanie, been Jay Cutler's backup.
But it's not to say the Bears don't have issues, with the obvious one being the offensive line, particularly the left side. It's the one area the Bears needed to upgrade in the offseason and didn't. "That's the question going in," Jaworski said. "When I look at the offensive line I'm not concentrating on how many All-Pros it has ... but can they play together, those five guys? The Patriots never had the best offensive line talent in the league, but they had the best line play, the group that played the best together."
It's probably worth noting that the line, which was a disaster at the start of last season, was at the very least solid during the five-game winning streak. If you accept that Mike Tice, whose specific expertise is offensive-line play, can coax the best out of the group, its not unreasonable to think it could play its way into being somewhere between good enough and an asset. There's a feeling in pro football circles that although Tice is unproven as an offensive coordinator, he's just the person to organize the assets, that he's a foundation-layer who'll very likely have everybody moving enthusiastically in the right direction. Of course, Tice's partner in all of this, the one who actually has to be better than good enough and turn all of these dimensions into points is Cutler, who to this point has won a grand total of one playoff game, a home game two years ago over a really blah Seattle team. Jaworski has Cutler ranked as the eighth-best quarterback in the NFL going into the season, behind all of the Super Bowl winners (Rodgers, Brees, Brady, Manning & Manning, Roethlisberger) and Phillip Rivers. Dilfer is a little more skeptical; he says he has Cutler ranked as a "top 12 quarterback who should be top four."
And therein lies the issue, not a ranking, but what it reflects, the feeling by some people who study quarterbacks for a living that Cutler could take advantage of all these weapons he has ... but might not.
Dilfer says he can see the Bears going 11-5, even 12-4 in the regular season but that a lack of what he calls "graduate level study" is what could continue to cost Cutler.
"His biggest weakness is third-and-medium, third-and-long, tight red zone (throws) ... We're talking places were timing, footwork, anticipation are tested at the highest level," Dilfer said. "Look, you can disguise some weaknesses on first and second downs ... but not third-and-seven with two minutes left and you're down four and can't settle for a field goal. I think we're going to see the Bears have some 35-10 games, some 31-17. But late in the season or playoffs people will try to pin the Bears back, play the field position game, then use a soft, passive defense ... And the question will become whether they can put together a 10-play offense. They'll have four-, five-play scoring drives; the question is whether they'll convert enough third-down plays to hold onto the ball for 10 plays. They'll be a big-play offense, explosive plays. But eventually you'll face a soft, passive defense ... You have to look at what are called the critical downs, where that graduate level expertise is required."
Dilfer isn't predicting doom. In fact ,he says, "They've all got all the key ingredients ... I think they could be real contenders ... " But Dilfer and Jaworski, as former quarterbacks who make a living studying and evaluating offense, make clear that Cutler's ability to consistently play at the level he did during last year's five-game winning streak and the offensive line's ability to enable that will determine whether the Bears can put together a championship-caliber offense that in today's NFL is the No. 1 requirement to be a real contender.