Chicago Sun-Times

28 days to Camp: Reviewing the top 10 issues from a year ago

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Thought it would be interesting to turn back the clock a year and look at some of the storylines surrounding the Bears at that time and how they turned out.

We ran a list of 10 issues facing the organization entering training camp in the print edition last July. We'll include a short synopsis of each one.

1. QB derby. Amid swirling rumors that the Bears may have interest in Chris Simms as a No. 3 quarterback, we still don't know who the No. 1 will be. Leave it to the Bears to do this.

ONE YEAR LATER: What a difference that one year makes. The addition of Jay Cutler via trade with the Denver Broncos makes this the most-anticipated training camp in years. While quarterback carousels dominated camp news in the past the hope is that Cutler will lock down the position for close to a decade. That doesn't mean Cutler won't be a daily storyline in camp. Prepare for QB stories written every which way.

2. Defense first. The Bears plummeted to 28th in team defense last season and it's yet to be determined if it was an injury-induced aberration, or a signal that Bob Babich could be on the hot seat.

ONE YEAR LATER: That defense didn't perform a whole lot better in 2008 and injuries were not reason to blame. Babich has effectively been demoted and Lovie Smith will now call the plays on defense. This remains a valid question moving into 2009. Can the Bears' defense return to championship form? The Bears have tried changing players, they've invested heavily in many players and they've certainly shuffled through an inordinate number of coaches on the defensive side of the ball. Next to come under real fire could be the defensive scheme if things don't change. Rod Marinelli represents the fourth line coaching for Smith entering his sixth season as head coach. Babich will be the third linebackers coach in as many seasons. Jon Hoke becomes the fourth secondary coach.

3. Face of the franchise. This could all of a sudden become the No. 1 storyline if Brian Urlacher's ongoing contract squabble blows up. Even if he isn't in camp--and who knows what the chances are for this--he'll be game ready come the regular season because he's a workout warrior. Some have been concerned about a decline in play because he didn't make the Pro Bowl, but at the end of last season Urlacher was playing as well as any defensive player in the league.

ONE YEAR LATER: Urlacher's contract demands were met with an $18 million, one-year extension but Cutler could fast become the face of the franchise. Now two years removed from the Pro Bowl, Urlacher is being paid like an elite player. Perhaps he will benefit from Smith running the defense.

4. Line dance. None of the other rebuilding phases on offense will be particularly successful if the overhauled line doesn't mesh. Rookie Chris Williams will be the key and his development in the coming weeks at left tackle is critical.

ONE YEAR LATER: The Bears managed to do fine on the line last season and Williams had nothing to do with the success. Line coach Harry Hiestand has quietly done a terrific job for several seasons and there's another rebuilding project in the works that finds Williams on the right side this time. The key this time around could be keeping left tackle Orlando Pace healthy but the emergence of Williams is essential not just for this season but for the longterm. The good thing is the Bears have plenty of depth here.

5. Born to run. There certainly won't be a distraction this summer with Cedric Benson having to answer a myriad of questions unrelated to his failed efforts to live up to his status as the fourth pick in the '05 draft. Matt Forte certainly won't be under pressure to exceed Benson's production. It's about replacing Thomas Jones, remember him? Forte is a gifted runner who the Bears believe is a first-round talent.

ONE YEAR LATER: The Bears were on the money when they said Forte was a first-round talent. Preserving him will be key this season as he wore down by season's end. Forte can be one of the top backs in the league while still sharing some of the work with a rejuvenated Kevin Jones.

6. Hesterized. The company line is the Bears are never going to prevent Devin Hester from excelling at what he does best--return kicks. But there's an issue of how much he will be used as a wide receiver and how that will impact his availability for special teams. Hester is on a historic pace as a future Hall of Fame return man and you can understand the desire to get the ball in his hands more.

ONE YEAR LATER: As much as getting Hester back to form as a return man would help special teams, the Bears badly need him to develop as a wide receiver because they simply don't have many alternatives on their roster. Hester's role on offense is paramount and special teams takes a back seat.

7. Special stuff. While the Bears took a step back on defense, at least temporarily, and have never gotten their act together on offense under Lovie Smith, the one area you have always been able to count on is Dave Toub's special teams unit. There are two concerns now, topped by the dilemma involving Hester. Second, while there are a lot of potential replacements, losing Pro Bowl stalwart Brendon Ayanbadejo creates a hole on the coverage teams.

ONE YEAR LATER: With a lot of inexperienced players, Toub still managed to finish in the top 10 last season. There's no question Ayanbadejo's playmaking ability and leadership was missed. They'll continue their search for a replacement this season.

8. Catching on. Expectations are created by two things: contract status and draft position. That helps you shape your vision for the corps of receivers. None are highly paid or came highly drafted. Bernard Berrian is gone after developing into a fine deep threat and the Bears don't have a No. 1. The question is do they have a No. 2 or a team of No. 3's.

ONE YEAR LATER: As much as things change, they remain the same. This storyline is magnified now with the arrival of Cutler. Earl Bennett is being counted on for major production and after him the Bears are looking at rookies or perhaps Brandon Rideau along with Rashied Davis.

9. True leader. Veteran Mike Brown is beloved by Bears fans for all the right reasons. He's the emotional leader of the team and an outstanding player when healthy. The Bears are 14-2 in the last 16 games he's started and haven't lost a game he's started and finished since Oct. 9, 2005 at Cleveland, the loss that led him to assess that the team "sucked" at the time. But it's almost shocking the club has stuck with him as long as it has. As much as you'd like to dismiss his injuries as happenstance and bad luck, there's a track record here. He's never had a problem making it to the regular season healthy and his body must hold up. The question here is do the Bears have another free safety?

ONE YEAR LATER: We'll find out for sure this time around. Craig Steltz is being promoted by the team heading into camp but he was drafted as a strong safety. Stay tuned.

10. Return to form. As much as Brown's absence plagued the defense you can make a case the team missed cornerback Nathan Vasher more when he was sidelined 12 games with a torn groin muscle. Vasher is at full strength and should look like the Pro Bowl player he's been in the past. The defense also needs right end Mark Anderson to bounce back from a second-half slump.

ONE YEAR LATER: The Bears are still waiting for Vasher and Anderson to return to form. Vasher looks to have some positive momentum moving toward training camp. Anderson will find out what it's like to go to work for new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli. If both bounce back it will be a big step for a defense looking to get its swagger back.

Some of these will no doubt wind up on the top 10 list going into camp later this month. We'll get into that more as the month moves along.

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It's interesting to note how many defensive coaching changes have taken place. It very could be that lovie is a bad judge of coaches, or...there doesn't seem to be a coach that knows how to coach a lovie designed defense....or...the lovie defense is not coachable...just a figment of his imagination.
Either way...this could be the year that lovie finally has a chance to look for another job elsewhere. You should note that no team last year made it to the championship game playing the cover-2 (what I call the prevent defense)defense. Tampa, the team that designed that defense, has dropped that scheme altogether...along with the coach.
The league has figured out how to play against that defense.
If that defense doesn't work again this season, there will be no time to change mid-stream during the season.
Therefore, expect the defense to be the same a lovie gone after the season.
You should also note that lovie is the defensive coordinator this year because his career is on the line.

Brad Briggs delivers the sort of reporting on the Bears that makes the Suntimes a must read for all Bears fans. This article is typical of the quality insight he provides and has provided for some time. Good job Briggs.

The Colts ran a hybrid Tampa 2 and they beat the Bears version of the Tampa 2 because the Bears had Grossman the Colts had Manning you do the math. The Bears are not actually in the cover-2 but 10-15% of the time but with no pass rush which is the key component it's hard to say. But the way to beat it is the slants and YAC thats really what beats it. Corners playing so far off the ball is the worst possible scenario and the chronic symtom last season.

Brad - Great article as always.

Nice stat on M. Brown about the undefeated record in games that he start/finished. By chance do you know the Bears record in games that he did not play at all??

"Craig Steltz is being promoted by the team heading into camp ..."

Does this mean that the Bears have already given up on the idea of using Cory Graham at free safety? I think he'd make a much better free safety than Steltz who, as you pointed out, is really a strong safety and does not have the speed to be effective at free.

OK, since it's not going to happen with the Suntimes (I understand papers are hurting these days) ... Let's make it happen. I will setup a private chat board somehwere. If you guys are interest my e-mail (as far as you know) is ... Please put the subject to something like BEARS or TAILGATE just so I know I won't delete it or if it's in my spam messages I'll know to read it.

We'll find a day. Tailgate. Have many drinks in Brad's honor. And watch a REAL NFL QB who's gonna be our boy for the next 10 years! Hope to hear from you all! Bear down.

OK, since I spent last night watching Roseanne reruns and counting the number of cockroaches that ran across my floor, I realized just how badly I need friends. My wife left me and I've shunned human interaction for the past few months. You guys on this blog are the closest thing I have to a family so hey, how about we meet up for a tailgate? Let's make it happen. My e-mail is Hit me up cool dudes and I'll bring the beer! Anything to make sure someone at least shows up!

// guys will probably have to bring your own beer. No, no, I've got plenty. It's just that with the horrible wreck my life has become, I estimate drinking it all, crashing my car in a ditch off of Lake Shore Drive, and passing out for a good hour or two(I call it a typical Sunday). Come to think of it, will someone bring some extra beers for me?
//STFU!!CIA!!AIG!! Oh yeah, we'll be playing plenty of games where we have to make up our own acronyms. Courtesy of me and how clever I am.
//Sweet, sweet alcohol. Only you can take away the pain I feel...

Bears offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has certainly done a fine job with the personnel he's been given to work with in Chicago. The line should be pretty good this season. You got Pace on the left side and Chris Williams on the right side at tackle. The Pace signing will allow Chris Williams to get his feet wet on the right side before eventually moving over to the left side. Chris Williams should prove to be a long term solution at tackle, although, next off-season the Bears still need to bring in another young tackle prospect.

Inside the Bears are looking pretty good also, at left guard you got either 3rd year pro Josh Beekman or 5th year pro Frank Omiyale. Either way their getting younger at left guard. On the right side Roberto Garza should be able to hold his position down, if not, Chicago has 6-4 320lb Dan Buenning maybe pushing Garza. Another young prospect inside is 7th rounder Lance Louis, the 6-3 303lb guard who ran a 4.8 40 and has a 30-inch vertical jump, he could be someone to watch down the road.

Bottom line with the line is, Chicago has a nice mix of younger players like Williams, Omiyale, Beekman, Buenning, and Louis. And a nice set of vets in Pace and Kruetz. I look for the line to have a pretty nice season opening up holes for Matt Forte and allowing Jay Cutler to tear apart teams like the Pack as they try to run the 3-4, should be a nice season for us Bear fans GO BEARS!!

Brad - great job as always - best coverage of the Bears hands down. Safety is a gaping hole. Mike Brown was worth $900K as a low risk transition for another year ... Steltz couldn't handle FS last year ... hope they have plan b, c and d.

The cover2, Tampa2, Lovie2, whatever you will call it is just verbage. Lovie said himself that they run true cover2 part time. We need to stop blaming the past 2-yr's of defensive struggle on the scheme and put the blame on the players and the play calling. The scheme is fine, it's the players being discaplined in their responsibilities that matter.

Every defense has a hole, a weakness, an area of the field that just can't be covered adequately. When opposing Offenses begin to exploit the weakness it is up to the DC to adjust, and it just didn't happen when BFF Bob Babbich was calling the plays.

Lets see how Lovie calls HIS defense before we throw Lovie and the scheme under a bus !!

As far as Mike Brown goes it was time to part ways. Brown managed to start (15) games and finisehd (13) of them and our defense still sank to 28'th in the league WITH Mike Brown on the field. It's time to accepth the fact that Mike's best days are behind him and if he could have played FS uo to his potential last season then Lovie wouldn;t have had to switch Kevin Payne around and screw him up like they did with Daniel Manning. Payne was having a heck of a season playing SS and he declined when he was put in at FS so Brown could support the run and have less coverage responsibilities since he obviously lost a step...

New coaching, some new players, a real QB and a retooled O-line should all play a part in helping the defense stay off the field more, remain fresh, healthy and return to pre-2007 form.

Go Bears !!

Well since posting my e-mail about a possible tailgate I've had an alarming number of messages about Cialis ... Not sure what to think about that.

I also had this little gem:

Dear Da Coach,

I know you've noticed me on the message boards. I know I've noticed you. I live right by Olivet and would love to cum to a practice ... but only if it's me amd you. Just throwing it out there but I have mom's basement all to myself, SUPER Tecmo Bowl, and a toy shaped like Mike Ditka's fist. Don't deny your feelings!!!

Da Cult of Da Clown (name redacted)

// That should teach me never to post my e-mail.
// STILL looking forward to meeting you all and will have a message board setup soon for those who've e-mailed so we can pick a date.
// And yes "Da Cult" is correct ... "sweet, sweet alcohol" is on me. In this day and age I'm lucky enough to have a good job and great family so I have no problem donating to the cause.
// I'm sure "Da Cult" will chip in some Boone's farm wine for anyone "interested" ... not that there's anything wrong with that! :-)

I'll say this, we have great coaching staff.Ron kept our offense out of last (considering we had the worst talent).Lovie kept our Defense out of last place (considering we are the only team running cover 2 without any elite pass rushers).Toub is a SPT genius.

It would be interesting to see a comparison of the number of defensive coaches that Tony Dungy went through during his run with the Colts. Maybe its the players they had in Tampa and not the coaches.

While Harris has had a couple of very good years the last two were average. Warren Sapp put up very consistent numbers year after year. It all starts up front with the big guys!

A. Excellent piece Brad. Always incite full.

B. Kevin Armstead - excellent comment on H. Heinstad.

C. Cover 2 in question.

In general, I'm very pleased with the performance of the Angelo-Lovie team. Its useful to reflect back on the years of M.McCaskey. Sure I'm missing A LOT - Dave Wanne, Dick Jarone, D. Terrell. With the exception of (1) trading down for Grossman and Pitt DE when we could have had T. Suggs and (2) the Captn. Cedric Benson debacle - they've done an adequate job. But, the focus needs to be on (1) trying to acquire the talent they need for their system and then (2) adjusting their schemes to fit the talent they land. I think this years off season address (1) very well. Now lets see how the staff addresses (2) in the season.

This will be another fun year! The NFC North s/b very entertaining offensively, especially when the vikings place #4 on the field. Can't wait. Prediction: Bennett will be this years' Matt Forte. Now pass me more of that cool-aide. :-)

1.Good job w/ cutler
2.Bob Babich shouldnt even b there niether should Ron Turner
3.Cutler and Urlacher is good...
4.Hope Williams dose good. Good job with Big O'Pace
5.Matt forte is awesome no prob with run game.
6.Do not agree i think hester should b back on sp teams and someone else should emerge or wait he is too good at what he did.
7.Toub was best coach on bears last year
8.Still would have liked to see cutler and berrain anyway...
9.Brown was great wont b replaced.
10.Vasher better man up as some would say lol...I think Tommie Harris is a bigger issue than anderson and vasher tho.

I think one big issue i have was not getting rid of Ron Turner and Bob Babich ...why did they keep them? And i dont care what some of you kevin and wrigley bear might think i DO NOT LIKE RON TURNER.You guys must b getting him confused with his bro Norv? He's a good Of-Coord.And demoting Babich? Should have Been fired alot with Turner.And if Lovie keeps calling dumb plays at end of games like he had been get rid of him too!!!

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This page contains a single entry by Brad Biggs published on July 3, 2009 5:58 AM.

Bears do solid job minimizing wasted space under salary cap was the previous entry in this blog.

27 days to Camp: Breaking down the quarterback position is the next entry in this blog.

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