Saturday, September 12, 2009
While Sports Illustrated picked the Bears to win the NFC North and go to the Super Bowl, ESPN has no such love for da Bears. Just one of their 16 experts picked them to win the division, and just two others picked them to grab a Wild Card spot.
Minnesota and Green Bay share ESPN's adoration pretty equally, and while I don't fault them too much for respecting their respective rosters, the Bears' near-complete absence from their predictions seems a bit odd.
SI seems too hot on the Bears, ESPN too cold. No doubt my prediction will be juuuuust right.
The Bears finished 9-7 last year, and choked in the season's final game against the Texans with a playoff spot on the line. The Vikes won the division with a 10-6 record while the Packers went 6-10 and pulled up the rear in what essentially turned out to be a three-team division and will be once again in 2009.
The Vikings return the core of last year's 6th ranked defense, including the "Williams Wall" of Pat and Kevin Williams, who still have not served their respective four-game suspensions. In fact, it looks unlikely that the legal proceedings will be completed during the 2009 season.
Ranked 25th in passing last year, the Vikings have gotten stronger at the QB position with the addition of some guy named Brett Favre. Like the Bears, they lack a true #1 wide receiver with Bernard Berrian, Sidney Rice and Bobby Wade running routes for the 40-year-old vermin.
They do, however, have the best running back in the league in Adrian Peterson. But therein lies the problem: Will Favre be able to handle playing second fiddle to the running back all season? Can the primo primadonna of sports take the back seat? Not to mention there have already been stories about Favre not fitting in in the locker room. Things could get interesting when Favre--the QB with the most interceptions of all time--puts the ball in the hands of the defense a few too many times down the stretch. You'll recall that his Jets went 1-4 in their final five games last year, with Favre throwing nine interceptions during that stretch.
The Packers had the 8th best offense in the league last year, but were done in partly by their 20th ranked defense and mostly by suffering seven losses by four points or less. They made a bold move by moving to the 3-4 defense this season, and return most of the key players on both sides of the ball.
They figure to be able to light up the scoreboard with aaron Rodgers, Donald Driver, Ryan Grant, et al. It remains to be seen whether their new defensive scheme will be an overdue adjustment or a misguided misuse of personnel. Aaron Kampman, formerly a defensive lineman, will now be the fourth linebacker. Force him to cover a speedy tight end (cough Greg Olsen cough) and you might be able to exploit their D.
And now to the Bears. While Brett Favre's return has drawn more attention than the health care debate, the quarterback garnering the second most headlines this summer was Jay Cutler. As time went on, rumors of his prowess became exaggerated, like a senior citizen telling the story of when he singlehandedly won the state championship 60 years earlier: "I heard he once threw three touchdowns in a game ... with his left hand." "I heard he stopped eating anything yellow or green once he was traded to the Bears." "I heard he agreed to build the Olympic Village all by himself if Chicago gets the bid."
The Vanderbilt grad has played just two full seasons in the NFL, and his passer rating ranked 16th of 32 last year. Dan Marino he is not. However, he did throw 25 touchdown passes and finished third in passing yards. Cutler is young, his stock is rising, and given that Bears fans have dealt with a conspicuous lack of talent at this unfamiliar position known as the "quarterback" for the past few decades, fans have every right to be excited.
Plus, when Cutler's not slinging the ball downfield, he'll be handing off to 1,000-yard rusher Matt Forte. And having Adrian Peterson to put in there every so often is just fine with me--Peterson averaged 5.0 yards per carry last year and has averaged 4.1 for his career; Forte averaged 3.9 last year.
But lo, that receiving corps. Greg Olsen should have a great year at tight end, but I can't help but worry about a group of wideouts led by a guy who's never caught a pass in the NFL (Earl Bennett) and return man turned cornerback turned return man turned receiver Devin Hester. The first few games might be a bit of an experiment when it comes to the passing game, and if Aromashodu, Knox, Davis or Iglesias steps up big at some point, they could find themselves in the starting lineup pretty quickly.
Worries aside, the Bears are all but guaranteed to improve upon their 26th ranked offense from a year ago. They should be able to keep opposing defenses on their heels a bit more by staying out of predictable patterns such as always running on first down or always running on third and short (I refer you to Cutler's play action bullet to Desmond Clark on third-and-1 against the Broncos). And the offense should be able to move the sticks even when they can't score points, keeping the defense off the field more than they did last year when they ranked 28th in time of possession.
Speaking of the defense, they get the lion's share of my concern. They ranked in the bottom third of the league last year, and with Tillman coming off back surgery, Kevin "Missed Tackle" Payne at strong safety, and a very similar-looking defensive line as the one that invited opposing quarterbacks to enjoy a sandwich and a cold glass of milk before throwing the ball last year, you can see why I'm concerned.
The Bears had just 28 sacks last year, less than half that of the league leader, Dallas. Ogunleye needs to live up to his contract, Tommie Harris needs to get back into form, and the rest of the line needs to produce more pressure for the Bears to win.
And last, but not necessarily least: special teams. Hester looked more decisive on his preseason punt returns, and while the Bears garnered the advantage of teams kicking away from him last year, they need Hester to prove he's still an explosive threat in the return game this year in order to maintain that advantage.
Robbie Gould and his 90% success rate return this year, and there's no reason to believe he won't continue his solid footwork this season.
All in all, the Bears seem markedly improved on offense, but not to the point that they'll be one of the elite groups in the league. There's certainly room for improvement on defense if Urlacher is in fact significantly healthier than last year and the defensive line can create a little more havoc than they did a year ago, but on paper, they seem pretty similar. And their special teams could improve if Hester runs upfield instead of sideways on punt returns.
Prediction: 10-6, Wild Card berth