Peter King doesn't like the Bears' acquisition of Jay Cutler.
He loves it.
Weighing in this morning in his Monday Morning Quarterback segment for Sports Illustrated, King lists the Bears fourth in his post-free agency, post-draft power rankings.
That's a major step up in class for a team that has not reached the playoffs the last two seasons and has struggled with consistency on defense. The Bears missed the playoffs last season because they couldn't hold big leads in several games, and couldn't come up with key plays in some big games down the stretch--see Minnesota and Houston as examples. Few people doubt that Cutler is going to energize the Bears' offense, but it's pretty much the same characters on defense, one that slumped again in 2008 and led to a shakeup on the coaching staff.
But King points out that the Bears did well in three key statistical categories--yards per rush, turnovers and yards per pass. The Bears were also pretty solid on third down, ranking fifth in the league. But as the old saying goes, figures lie and liars figure. The defense may not have given up the big runs or the big passes, but it couldn't get off the field at critical times and you cannot come up with a single statistic to mask what was an abysmal pass rush. The Bears blitzed more than any team in the league, a lot of them run blitzes to help out a front that couldn't stop the run on its own. The Bears succeeded vs. the run because they stacked an eighth defender in the box. They struggled stopping the pass because of it. They didn't give up the deep ball often because that is what the Tampa Two stops. They did get picked apart by short passing attacks.
The bottom line is the Bears have reason to be optimistic, though, and King certainly has lofty expectations for them. Here is what he says:
I may not like how Jay Cutler babied his way out of Denver, but by Labor Day, the football world will have forgotten, and by Thanksgiving, the most popular baby name in Chicagoland will be Jay. (Unless it's Jerry, as in Angelo, the man who stuck his neck out and made this deal.) Cutler's a big-time player, and I suspect we'll find out over the next few years if he has nerves of steel and can win the big game.
Now, there's two things we don't know about Cutler and this offense. There's not a great receiver in the house and no promise of one on the way (Angelo should have guaranteed Torry Holt more money to get him to come to the Windy City). So Cutler's going to have to make do with the Devin Hesters and Rashied Davises, apparently. (Not that there's anything wrong with Hester. But he should be a third receiver, using his speed to game-break.)
Two: How good of a leader can Cutler be, coming in with the knock that he chafes on some teammates. It'll be interesting to see if he meshes well with Brian Urlacher; I don't take for granted that he will. Because of the Cutler factor and because I don't love the defense the way I did two or three years ago, I didn't want to leap the Bears over so many other teams. But then I went back and looked at their 2008 numbers. The bedrock stats for a good defense, I've always thought, are opponents yards per rush, turnovers forced and opponents' yards per pass. The yards per rush, 3.4, was excellent, third-best in the league. Turnovers forced, 32, was very good, second in the league. And yards per pass play by foes, 6.20, was eighth in the league. All good. If Cutler can lead an offense that puts up 400 points, only a point and a fraction more than a year ago, the Bears should win 12.
For what it's worth, King ranks Green Bay next in the NFC North at 14th. Minnesota follows at No. 15.