Bears players left and right are stating in interviews that they think this year's Bears team is going to be great. Recently, receiver Earl Bennett said in an interview that he thinks the Bears are the best team in the NFC North. Other players have expressed similar thoughts over the summer. Pro Bowl linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher have both stated in interviews this year that the 2012 Bears team is the best team they've been on, and that includes the Bears' 2006 SuperBowl run!
So are these sentiments even remotely accurate? Or are the players just a bit overconfident?
Well, in my humble opinion (as a Bears' fan), these players have every right to be excited about their team this year!
The best offense this team has ever seen?
The Bears' offense has been improved dramatically over the past few years. Jay Cutler has proven to be a dynamic play-maker and leader. His injuries in clutch situations have been disappointing (the NFC Championship game and last season's broken thumb during the playoff run), but he's given the team the explosiveness in the passing game that this offense has lacked for ... well, since forever.
Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall's reunion will hopefully light up the stat sheet and scoreboard in Chicago in 2012!
An explosive passing game? In Chicago?
Cutler's only problem has been a lack of reliable targets to throw to. Roy Williams didn't pan out as a receiver (and was not resigned), and none of the other receivers were consistent enough to be a real threat to opposing defenses. I was extremely disappointed that the Bears traded Greg Olsen to Carolina last year, and I really wish that they hadn't, especially considering that he was traded away because of concerns he wouldn't fit into Mike Martz's offensive scheme, but Martz didn't stay in Chicago after last year anyway.
I sincerely hope that Johnny Knox can make a full recovery from this horrific back injury he sustained in the 2011 game against Seattle. He showed a great deal of promise, and I would love to see him return to the team to line up in the slot position alongside Brandon Marshall and Earl Bennett.
Well now the Bears have Brandon Marshall, one of Cutler's favorite targets from his days in Denver. They also still have Earl Bennett, who played with Cutler at Vanderbilt, and who has proven to be an under-utilized asset in the passing game over the past two years. This might be the first time in the Bears' history that they have a legitimate downfield threat in Brandon Marshall. If Johny Knox can be cleared to play after his horrific back injury last year, then he and/or Devin Hester can become devastating weapons in the slot position.
My only real concern in the passing game is that Cutler will have to once again learn a new system since Mike Martz has been replaced with Mike Tice as offensive coordinator. But, since Cutler has the benefit of a full training camp this year (since camp wasn't shortened by any lockout), I'm hoping that won't be too big of a problem.
Forte is back with a long-term contract!
In addition to having a potent passing attack, Pro Bowl running back (and fantasy football stud) Matt Forte just signed a 4-year deal with the team. I'm disappointed that Forte didn't attend the voluntary spring mini-camps, but I am very relieved that he will not miss any of the mandatory sessions, and that he will be lining up in the Bears' backfield without any contract controversy. Forte is a potent runner and genuine threat in the passing game. It's going to be hard for defenses to keep up with Brandon Marshall streaking deep down the field and still keep Forte in check out of the backfield.
Matt Forte (and fans) should be smiling after he signed a 4-year deal.
Since Mike Martz is out as offensive coordinator, former offensive line coach Mike Tice has stepped up into the offensive coordinator role in Chicago. Tice has done a pretty good job making Chicago's weak offensive line competitive the past year. After giving up the worst sack record in the NFL in 2010, the Bears in 2011 managed to keep Cutler off the ground pretty well. Tice will be much more free to open up the playbook than Martz was, given that the Bears should finally have a balanced offense to work with. Opponents will have to worry about both the run and the pass on every play, which should make Play Actions, Draws, Rollouts, and Screens a major part of the Bears' offense. Screens and Draws have already been very successful plays in the playbook with Forte in the backfield, but being able to threaten with the run and then throw the ball downfield to more reliable targets should be a boon to the team.
Learning from last year's mistakes, but injuries may still be a problem on defense
Last year, the Bears' championship hopes were ground to a halt due to injuries to Jay Cutler and Matt Forte. Assuming that both these players can stay healthy, and that the Bears' aging defense can do the same, then the team should definitely be a contender for the division title, and even the SuperBowl!
RB Michael Bush and QB Jason Campbell from Oakland will provide offensive depth for the Bears this season.
But even if these guys don't stay healthy, the Bears are not going to let the mistakes of last year and the year before continue to plague them. New General Manager Phil Emery signed quarterback Jason Campbell and running back Michael Bush out of free agency, giving the Bears experienced veteran backups at both positions. I'm a little bit concerned at the team's depth on defense though. Particularly, the linebacker position. If Urlacher or Briggs goes down, the team doesn't have any immediate replacement.
An elite defense that won't need to carry the team on its back!
Speaking of defense, the Bears still have an elite one! This defense is full of elite veteran talent. Linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher have over 20 years of NFL experience between them, and neither has shown any signs of slowing down. Defensive End Julius Peppers has a talented young draftee to play opposite him on the defensive line, as the Bears drafted Shea McClellin out of Boise State with the first round pick. McClellin had played all four years at Boise, was a 2011 Pre-season All American, and a candidate for the Lombardi Award. Assuming he can stay healthy (he has a controversial history of concussions), he and Peppers should be able to get plenty of pressure on the NFC North's other contender quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Stafford. In fact, both the Packers and Lions have had trouble the past years at protecting their QBs, so the Bears should be able to exploit this!
Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs, and Brian Urlacher are all multiple Pro-Bowlers and anchor the NFC North's only elite defense.
The Bears are also returning some talented veterans in the secondary. Primarily, Charles Tillman will be returning as Cornerback. Tillman is a pretty good cover-guy, and is probably the single best ball-stripper in the league. I look forward to him creating plenty of turnovers this year. The Bears also finally found some stability in the safety positions last years with Major Wright and Chris Conte. Hopefully, those two will continue to be successful in their respective positions.
The Bears are the only team in the division who can brag about having an elite defense. The Packers, Lions, and Vikings each have elite players on their defense (Clay Matthews for Green Bay, Ndamukong Suh for Detroit, and Jared Allen for Minnesota), but none of these teams' defenses are particularly great as a unit. In fact, Green Bay is conventional wisdom's favored team to win the division, but their pass defense has been abysmal. Unless any of these teams have a dramatic defensive turn around, then the Bears retain the decisive advantage in this department. When you factor in that the Bears will no longer be forced to rely on their defense to shoulder the burden of carrying the team, that makes them a dangerous team in the division.
Let's not forget about Special Teams!
But if having an elite defense and, possibly, an elite offense (finally) doesn't sway you into the Bears' camp, then consider that the Bears also have possibly the single best special teams unit in the league. Devin Hester is god-like at returning punts, and I am hoping that the Bears will keep him focused on return duty now that they have other viable weapons at wide receiver. If Johnny Knox returns, then he can provide some valuable relief duty for Hester in the return game as well.
Special teams coordinator Dave Toub is a genius at utilizing talent in the return game. And he has been known to pull out a miracle trick-play every once in a while too!
One of the most brilliantly-planned special teams plays I have ever seen! This is what having two stand-out return guys can do for you! Too bad the play was called back on a penalty.
Kicker Robbie Gould has also been one of (if not the) most consistent kickers in the league the past few years. He should have plenty more opportunities to score in 2012, as the Bears will almost assuredly be moving the ball down field quite well.
Are the Bears the most well-rounded team in the league?
After years of having a lackluster-at-best offense, the Bears are finally on track to having their first-ever "elite" offense. When you combine that with their existing elite defense and game-changing special teamers, it's hard not to wonder if the Bears might end up being the single most well-rounded team in the entire league in 2012. The Bears are poised to excel in all three phases of the game: offense, defense, and special teams; which should give them a huge advantage towards claiming the 2012 divisional title and making a playoff run!
I can't wait for football!