Ten thoughts after the Chicago Bears won their season finale Sunday over the Detroit Lions 26-24 but missed out on the playoffs for the fifth time in six years, launching them into an offseason full of questions.
1. A lot of benchmarks in the NFL are not worth celebrating. Thousand-yard seasons for running backs no longer mean what they did during the era of the 14-game schedule. Although Matt Forte surpassed that plateau Sunday, hitting 1,094 with a gutsy 103-yard effort on a sprained right ankle, it requires only 62.5 yards per game in a 16-game schedule. The same thing can be said for 1,000-yard receiving seasons as well as 10-sack seasons for defenders.
Ten wins? Now, that is something to celebrate. It’s not easy to hit double-digits for victories in the NFL. Lovie Smith accomplished the feat for the fourth time in his nine seasons as head coach, but the Bears are not going to the playoffs.
It is the 21st time the cornerstone franchise of the NFL has posted 10 wins or more. The Bears did it eight times prior to the Super Bowl era and have accomplished it 13 times since with Mike Ditka leading the club to seven seasons of 10 wins or more. It’s usually a lock for the playoffs and it is what teams aim for at the start of every year. Ten wins signifies you are better than mediocre.
But here the Bears are with a host of offensive inefficiencies and a coach who seemingly doesn’t know how to go about solving them. Smith is on his fourth offensive coordinator in Mike Tice and you wonder, if Smith returns in 2013, whether he will be allowed to find a fifth play-caller or if Tice will get another shot. General manager Phil Emery surely has had time to evaluate an offensive roster that is lacking. More on that in a little bit. Did that offensive personnel get appreciably better under Emery in one year than it was under Jerry Angelo? The bet here is Angelo would have signed wide receiver Vincent Jackson in free agency had he stuck around. The Bears traded for Brandon Marshall but didn’t add much else in the way of contributors for the offense.
If Emery fires Smith for failing to make the playoffs for the fifth time in the last six years – and Emery talked on the WBBM-AM 780 pregame show about evaluating the entire body of work – Smith really is being fired at the wrong time. He won 10 games and all six losses came to playoff teams, most of which the Bears ran into when they were hot.
The time to fire Smith was a year ago when Angelo was pushed out the door. But team president Ted Phillips said all sorts of glowing stuff about Smith and said he based his decision on the consistency he brought to the job. In a lot of positive ways, he has been consistent. His offenses also have consistently struggled and then there is the whole not-making-the playoffs thing again. More than likely, Smith was paired with Emery because the Bears didn’t want to pay Smith for two seasons not to coach the club.
The time to fire Smith was after the 2009 season when the Bears started 3-1 and then lost eight of their next 10 games before ultimately finishing 7-9. The offense was jumbled and Smith’s defense got run over at times. But the Bears did not want to fire Smith – who had two years remaining on his contract – and risk paying two coaches not to coach the club in 2011 when ownership knew there would be a lockout. So, Smith was allowed to can half of his offensive staff, including coordinator Ron Turner, and a messy replacement search began and ultimately ended with his friend Mike Martz. Smith then got the team to shell out maximum dollars in free agency for pass rusher Julius Peppers to fix his defense.
Smith guided the Bears to the NFC Championship Game the following year and earned a contract extension. Now, he’s coming off a 10-win season and Emery has an opportunity to do as he pleases unless ambition from chairman of the board George McCaskey motivates him to dictate a direction for the team. But Smith just won 10 games and that’s not an easy thing to do.
If the Bears want to push Smith out the door, they will owe him more than $5 million for next season and easily over $10 million when you count payoffs for the assistants. That will be on top of an expensive renovation and expansion project that is about to begin at Halas Hall. Finances are what prohibited the move in 2009 and again last year. It can’t be something that plays a part of a decision here and now.
2. When you get beyond the moves general manager Phil Emery will or will not make with the coaching staff, there is some heavy lifting for him and his personnel staff to do when it comes to the roster. The Bears finished the season with 63 players on the 53-man roster, injured reserve, reserve/physically unable to perform and reserve/non-football injury lists. One-third of those 63 players will be eligible for some form of free agency. So, any modest cap space the Bears have will be eaten up re-stocking the roster, putting Emery in a tight spot when it comes to the possibility of freewheeling with the checkbook in free agency.
Twelve of the 21 pending free agents started at least one game. Defensive tackle Henry Melton is going to want a big contract. Right guard Lance Louis could generate solid interest in free agency. Linebacker Nick Roach and defensive end Israel Idonije must be replaced by solid players if they are not re-signed. The decision on Brian Urlacher will at least require some thought, depending on the coach and defensive scheme being run in 2013. It’s possible the team will want to tackle a contract for quarterback Jay Cutler, whose contract expires after the 2013 season. Only 18 players are signed beyond 2013 and two of those have never played in an NFL game.
Here is a chart showing dates for contract expirations:
After 2012 (21): Armando Allen, Kahlil Bell, Zack Bowman, Jason Campbell, Nate Collins, Kelvin Hayden, Geno Hayes, Israel Idonije, Johnny Knox*, Lance Louis, Olindo Mare, Josh McCown, Henry Melton, D.J. Moore, Troy Nolan, Amobi Okoye, Chilo Rachal, Nick Roach, Jonathan Scott, Chris Spencer, Brian Urlacher
After 2013 (24): Kyle Adams, Joe Anderson, Cory Brandon, Blake Costanzo, Jay Cutler, Kellen Davis, Dom DeCicco, Jerry Franklin, Roberto Garza, Robbie Gould, Devin Hester, Tim Jennings, Pat Mannelly, Sherrick McManis, Matt Spaeth, Craig Steltz, Charles Tillman, Matt Toeaina, Harvey Unga, Anthony Walters, J’Marcus Webb, Edwin Williams, Corey Wootton, Major Wright
After 2014 (8): Lance Briggs, James Brown, Chris Conte, Brandon Marshall, Stephen Paea, Nick Peischel, J.T. Thomas, Eric Weems
After 2015 (9): Earl Bennett, Michael Bush, Gabe Carimi, Matt Forte, Brandon Hardin, Alshon Jeffery, Julius Peppers, Adam Podlesh, Evan Rodriguez
After 2016 (1): Shea McClellin
* Knox’s contract tolls so the Bears can have him back in 2013 for the same amount they paid him in 2012 ($1.26 million) if they tender him. 3. Had an interesting conversation with Doug Colletti, the man behind the statistics for the WBBM-AM 780 broadcasts. Usually we’re chatting about baseball and we did some of that but we also talked about the Bears. One topic was what would happen if you took the starting offensive lineup for the Bears and the starting offensive lineup for the Green Bay Packers and match them up side-by-side. How many starters for the Bears would replace a starter for the Packers?
There is no right or wrong answer. I would say three: wide receiver Brandon Marshall, running back Matt Forte and center Roberto Garza, especially given that Jeff Saturday was benched earlier this month. That’s about it.
Taking it a step further, match up the Bears against the playoff-bound Minnesota Vikings. The young quarterback Christian Ponder has a chance to improve, especially if they get him some badly needed help at wide receiver. But the Vikings have a superior offensive line, a better running back, a far superior tight end in Kyle Rudolph and Percy Harvin would be a starter for the Bears.
The point is offensive coordinator Mike Tice (just like Mike Martz before him) was asked to be a magician with some limited tools. Some of the onus falls on Jay Cutler, too, and more on that in a little bit. But it's unfair to say fire Tice, hire a new play-caller and off you go.
In the event the Bears retain Tice or do something not so drastic like pull a Bob Babich with him and move him to offensive line coach and make Jeremy Bates the play-caller, what needs to happen with the roster? You could put together a mighty long want list. Here is a top three need list, in order:
A) Left tackle. J’Marcus Webb improved as the season went along but two years into the position now it would be a mistake to promote him as a blind-side protector for Jay Cutler again. Webb’s worst outings were in the first half of the season but the Bears need to do something here. Contrary to those pushing for Jake Long out of Miami or Ryan Clady out of Denver (I doubt he goes anywhere), they don’t need the household name you have heard of before. But they have to nail this position down because when you look at the playoff defense and how the Bears would match up, they’re all coming with edge rushers and the Bears are not equipped to protect Cutler even if they allowed only 16 sacks in the second half of the season, including the six-sack meltdown at San Francisco on Nov. 19. That is where a division foe like the Vikings really helped themselves. They grabbed Matt Kalil in the first round of the draft last year and he could man their left tackle spot for 10 years to come. You don’t have to have a first-round pick there, either. Why? Of the last 10 Super Bowl winners, only one had a starting left tackle that was a first-round pick.
Super Bowl XLVI Giants David Diehl, fifth round
Super Bowl XLV Packers Chad Clifton, second round
Super Bowl XLIV Saints Jermon Bushrod, fourth round
Super Bowl XLIII Steelers Max Starks, third round
Super Bowl XLII Giants Diehl
Super Bowl XLI Colts Tarik Glenn, first round
Super Bowl XL Steelers Marvel Smith, second round
Super Bowl XXXIX Patriots Matt Light, second round
Super Bowl XXXVIII Patriots Light
Super Bowl XXXVII Buccaneers Roman Oben, third round
Guess who started for the Steelers at left tackle against the Packers two years ago? Jonathan Scott. He started seven games for the Bears at right tackle and it would not be surprising if they consider bringing him back into the fold.
B) They have to add a tight end that can be a threat in the passing game. The decision to re-sign Kellen Davis was a personnel blunder assignable to Phil Emery and Lovie Smith both. He was a failure and his dropped pass Sunday of what was a tough throw in the end zone was another reason why. Davis looks the part but he’s never athletic at the point of attack. The only time the Bears could throw the ball in the middle of the field was if they lined Marshall up in the slot or dragged him all the way across the field. They don’t need Rob Gronkowski but they desperately need an upgrade here.
C) They’ve got to add a vertical threat on the outside. Alshon Jeffery got loose for a 55-yard bomb on the first play from scrimmage but that was with a double move. The Bears need a legitimate 4.3 or 4.4 wide receiver who can line up and run a nine route and be a threat. They don’t have a speed player opponents are concerned about. They need to be able to send their speed threat on a vertical route and send Brandon Marshall on a deep dig route underneath. Let the defense pick which one it wants to take away. Johnny Knox could have been that player but he was injured. Considering the serious nature of his spine injury, it would be an error to count on him returning. The Bears need to get someone else and let Knox challenge for a roster spot if he can regain his health. 4. Quarterback Jay Cutler has one year remaining on a contract that will pay him a base salary of $8.47 million in 2013 along with a $500,000 workout bonus. It represents a bump of a little more than $700,000 over what he earned this season. Common thinking has been the future of the quarterback, who turns 30 in April, will be a matter for this offseason. But coming off a year in which he didn’t play a lot of great football, it’s worth a debate on whether that is a path the Bears are prepared to go down at this point.
Cutler posted an 81.3 passer rating, the second-lowest figure of his career. Three rookie quarterbacks will start in the postseason in wild-card weekend and the Bears will be headed to year five with the quarterback who was supposed to be their missing link. He’s played in one postseason for the club. Cutler completed only 58.8 percent of his passes, also the second-lowest mark in his career. With the addition of Brandon Marshall, the Bears were actually statistically worse passing this season than they were a year ago.
To extend Cutler, he will want to be paid like an elite quarterback. The Bears could push off that decision and wait until after 2013 to make a move. If they are unable to sign him then, they could always lock him down with the franchise tag. Plus, signing Cutler for the long haul will require a lot of cash and some more cap space and needs elsewhere could be more pressing if the Bears are going to attempt to reload and not rebuild.
It’s a tricky proposition with a player at the position that means so much, but has Cutler provided evidence that he’s ready for a huge investment? The two first-round picks, the third-round pick and the money they’ve given him so far have resulted in two playoff starts.
In a lot of ways, the decision with Cutler that must be made by general manager Phil Emery is nearly as big as the decision he makes on the coach. 5. It’s impossible to say at this juncture if Brian Urlacher will return for a 14th season with the Bears. But it is unlikely they will find a player who will be as impactful for as long as he was again anytime soon. Urlacher became the face of the franchise not long after arriving and although he was never comfortable with that position, he was always comfortable leading his teammates by example. They love him and always have because he’s never put himself above them. That’s why former safety Todd Johnson thought it was important to shine a positive light on Urlacher last spring after Urlacher donated new uniforms to the high school program Johnson coaches in Sarasota, Fla.
The decision is one that will be made based on football value and cost alone. It’s a black-and-white decision and that is the way it should be. In a Cover-2 scheme, Urlacher still could have value at the right price. Because he’s unlikely to generate big interest on the open market, the Bears should be able to get him at their price if he’s willing to play for a reduction on the $8 million he made this season.
Who knows? Perhaps management has seen enough. If it is time, he’s had a remarkable run.
6. Don't be surprised if secondary coach Jon Hoke gets consideration for a defensive coordinator position again this offseason. The Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers called on Hoke last year and two years ago the Philadelphia Eagles interviewed him for the same position.
Hoke’s resume was enhanced this season with cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings making the Pro Bowl. Naturally, Hoke didn’t want to discuss himself but he is proud of the achievements of the group.
“I am really excited and very happy for them,” Hoke said of the cornerbacks. “They deserve it. They’ve worked. They’ve studied. They do the extra stuff. All the work that they have done has paid off. That is what you are always happy to see as a coach because they’re working at it and they’re getting rewarded for it.”
Previously, Hoke had coached only two Pro Bowlers: Tillman last season and Aaron Glenn with the Houston Texans in 2002, Hoke’s first season in the NFL.
“Any time you get to go and do something like that with one of your teammates when you play the same position, I think it is pretty special,” Hoke said.
Some of the credit for the performance of the cornerbacks is owed to the safeties. Major Wright and Chris Conte were much improved over what the Bears had at the position a year ago and certainly more consistent.
“There is a lot of trust factor that goes into it,” Hoke said. “They trust Chris is going to be behind them in certain coverages. There is a trust factor from the standpoint that they will be as good collectively as they are individually. They trust Major. They trust whoever is playing the nickel. It’s a close group from that standpoint.”
Wright likely will finish the season third in tackles when coaches complete review of the game film, although he had a chance to pass Tillman for second entering the Lions game.
“Major has had a good year, the way he has learned football, the way he has improved,” Hoke said. “I don’t know if there is a better tackler out there at his position. I am biased, I am sure. But I am really impressed with what he has done in terms of tackling, just playing football.”
7. The blocked field goal that was returned for a Cardinals touchdown with 1:46 remaining in the Bears' 28-13 victory at Arizona last week might have been inconsequential in the outcome, but it was a dagger for special teams coordinator Dave Toub’s unit. The Bears entered that game ranked No. 3 in composite special teams ranking, surprising to some considering the lack of electric plays in the return game. But the touchdown for the Cardinals torpedoed any chance the team had of finishing No. 1, dropping the Bears to No. 9 and leaving Toub with the goal of finishing in the top 10 for the eighth time in nine seasons.
The composite rankings track 22 categories and the Bears entered the finale ranked in the top five in seven categories:
3rd in Kickoff coverage
1st in Punt coverage
5th in Starting point
1st in Opponent starting point
5th in Inside-the-20 punts
2nd in Opponent gross punt
“The blocked field goal, which is a takeaway, blocked kick and touchdown, those were all make-a-difference plays,” Toub said. “We hadn’t given up any of that. To have that happen just crushes you in the rankings.”
8. If you were selecting a most improved player on the roster this season, cornerback Tim Jennings would jump out. Jennings had seven career interceptions in six seasons and wound up leading the league with nine. The Bears soured on him at times a year ago because he failed to come up with takeaways when opportunities presented, but he capitalized this year, becoming a bargain signing when you consider the $6.6 million, two-year contract he inked in March.
But defensive end Corey Wootton, the fourth-round draft pick from 2010, jumps out at me as the most improved player. No, he’s not headed to the Pro Bowl like Jennings, but the cornerback entered training camp knowing he would be the starter. No one could be sure Wootton would be on the opening weekend roster when training camp opened. He finished with seven sacks and looks to be a building block for the future on the line, the player the Bears believed they were getting when they drafted him.
I asked defensive line coach Mike Phair if he’d call Wootton the most improved player in his meeting room and he wouldn’t bite because he doesn’t want to single any player out.
“He’s definitely improved and he’s done a very nice job vs. the run and pass,” Phair said. “He’s been effective. He’s worked hard. That’s one thing he’s done, he’s paid the price to get better. Watching him the way he works, he’s gotten better and he’s worked his butt off. So, it doesn’t surprise me.”
Wootton is just happy to have made an impact. He got just 65 defensive snaps last season and 84 as a rookie in 2010, rarely joining the rotation. Wootton overtook Israel Idonije in Week 11 and would project in that same position to open 2013, although the hope is first-round draft pick Shea McClellin will push for the job.
“Getting better every day and every week, that is what I set out to do this offseason,” Wootton said. “The first two years were disappointing for me, to be honest. I knew this year I really had to show out.”
Wootton knew there were questions about him, too.
“It was definitely motivation,” he said. “Not only just me getting better as a player, that was reality for me. A lot of people had me slated to not even make the team. So, I knew this is what I had to work toward. I think I have gotten better every week. I am excited for the future here.”
9. Zack Bowman isn’t the first one of the 21 free agents the Bears will want to make a decision on. But Bowman has been better in his second tour with the team than he was in his first and entered the season fiinale with 10 special-team tackles, ranking second on the team.
Bowman didn’t sign with the Bears until Week 7, so he’s piled up his statistics in only 11 games. He’d been a steady special teams player before but never outstanding. Bowman signed with the Vikings during the offseason and wound up being cut before the start of the season.
“To be honest with you, I don’t even worry about (next season) and that stuff,” Bowman said last Thursday. “I just go out there and try to make as many plays as I can. I am trying to stay in this game as long as I can. I have to go out there and make the plays I am supposed to make.”
He’s been at his best covering punts. Bowman made 10 tackles for the Bears in 2011 (in 16 games) and had six in 2010. He’s gotten better in the open field, which isn’t easy to do.
“That’s one thing I focused on this offseason,” he said. “Last year, I would be in position. I would be at the point of attack but I wouldn’t make the play. So, this year I focused more on my technique and when I’m at the point of attack, make the play.
“When I was in Minnesota and they did this drill called long stride, short stride ... before, I used to just run and then shoot my gun and the guy would step to the side. But when I got up there we did a thing called long stride, short stride, which long stride you are running and running and then right when you get to the point of attack you go to short strides and then accelerate through. That has helped me out a lot.”
Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub said he’s going to look into the drill Bowman describes during the offseason and consider implementing it and borrowing from Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer.
“He is having a great year. He’s been consistent,” Toub said of Bowman. “He’s better than he was before. No question. They definitely taught him some things at Minnesota. It has definitely made a difference for him. There’s something to it." 10. The Bears’ schedule for the 2013 regular season has been determined. Along with the traditional home/away games against NFC North foes, the Bears will have home games at Soldier Field vs. the Cowboys, Giants, Ravens, Bengals and Saints. They will have road games at the Eagles, Redskins, Browns, Steelers and Rams. Right now, that doesn’t look like an easy schedule but it’s way too early to look that far into it. Typically, the NFL releases the official schedule in mid- to late-April.
10 a. By virtue of having the best record of the 20 non-playoff teams, the Bears will hold the 20th pick in the draft. The last time they had that pick was 1978 and they traded the selection to the Cleveland Browns for quarterback Mike Phipps. He played in parts of four seasons, had a 14-6 record as a starter and threw 15 touchdown passes with 27 interceptions.
10 b. Punter Adam Podlesh really turned around a rough start to the season to finish with a net average of 39.4 yards. Opponents gained only 84 yards on punt returns over the course of the season – an average of 5.25 per game. That’s a credit to Podlesh and the coverage unit.
10 c. I would expect the Bears to seek a more fiscally conservative backup quarterback in 2013 after paying Jason Campbell $3.5 million.
10 d. The Bears trumpeted reaching 2,000 yards rushing last season for just the second time since 1990. They nearly hit it again as the offense gained 1,970 yards on the ground.
10 e. Bears tight ends totaled 29 receptions. That is the lowest production for a tight end group across the entire NFL.
10 f. The defense’s 41 sacks tied previous highs under Lovie Smith from 2005 and 2007.
10 g. Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings are the first teammates to be named starting cornerbacks for the Pro Bowl since 1988 when the Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield of the Cleveland Browns had the honor. I remember talking to former Bears secondary coach Perry Fewell (2005) about Tillman. At the time, Fewell compared Tillman to Dixon, who was 5-11 and 186 pounds in his playing days. Tillman is even bigger but Dixon was similarly known as a tough, physical competitor.
10 h. It was nice to see former Bears linebackers coach Dale Lindsey (1999 to 2001) be named the head coach at the University of San Diego. Lindsey was Brian Urlacher’s first position coach in the NFL and had a big impact on him at the start of his career. San Diego is where 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was before he went to Stanford. Lindsey is proof that some football coaches never lose the desire to work their craft. He turns 70 next month.
10 i. Also worth noting former Bears offensive line coach Harry Hiestand (2005 to 2009) is in the BCS National Championship Game. He coaches the line at Notre Dame. Nearly all Bears players who played for Hiestand speak highly of him.
10 j. Thanks for reading and all the input this season.