With the Cubs World Series aspirations ostensibly dead as Bill Walsh, I think it is time for us (read: me) to look forward to the 07-08 NFL season, specifically to preview the Chicago football Bears. Bears training camp came to an end in Bourbonnais, IL and 31 other teams will be breaking camp in 31 other cities and the evening news around the country will be filled with scenes of one of my favorite off-field sporting spectacles:
Giant men loading giant televisions into giant SUVs and speeding away from whatever jerkwater berg their particular training camp is held in as fast as they possibly can.
With a Superbowl loss, a tumultuous off season, a strong draft, a preseason victory and the bulk of training camp now in their rear-view mirror, the Chicago Bears are heading into the 2007-2008 NFL season as overwhelming favorites in the NFC North and certainly considered one of the favorites to win the NFC, and that is not without good reason, methinks.
First things first, the offseason. I alluded to it being “somewhat tumultuous.” For those of you who have been living in a cave on Mars with your fingers in your ears going “NANANANANANA!!!!!” for the past 8-10 months, Bears defensive tackle Terry “Tank” Johnson, who was previously most well know for having TANK JOHNSON on the back of his jersey, had himself a little legal trouble at the end of the regular season last year and it carried over into the offseason. Tank was suspended by new NFL Commish Roger Goodell for 8 games, with the possibility of reducing it to 6 if Tank behaved well and jumped through all the proper hoops. A few weeks after his suspension was handed down and he informed the media that he would strive to become the “NFL Man of the Year,” Tank was pulled over in Arizona under suspicion of DUI and the Bears released him.
The Tank saga was accompanied in the headlines by a lot of posturing and strutting by outside linebacker Lance Briggs who, after the Bears slapped the Franchise Tag on him, claimed that he would be holding out of training camp and the first 10 regular season games. He and his representative, NFL Superagent Drew Rosenhaus, were offended that the Bears did not offer him a 20 year contract worth $900 billion that included incentive clauses which granted him Power of Attorney over Virgina
Halas McCaskey if he tallied 3 QB sacks during the regular season. They claimed that Lance would never sign the one year offer that the Franchise Tag entails and that Lance would NEVER play in a Bears uniform again. After lots of smoke and little fire, Briggs and Rosenhaus realized that Jerry Angelo and the Bears had Briggs’ nuts in a vice, so they signed the tendered offer and Briggs is, unsurprisingly, a Bear.
So the first Bear didn’t want to leave, but the Bears got rid of him. The second Bear wanted to leave, but the Bears wouldn’t let him. Finally, there was a third Bear who wanted to leave and the Bears were happy to accommodate him, and that was starting running back Thomas Jones. Jones was unhappy with first round pick Cedric Benson breathing down his neck on the practice field and the depth chart, Cedric Benson was sick of not getting the chance to prove that he was worth the high draft pick and huge contract that came with it, and I was personally sick of old man Jones standing in the way of a spry and more athletic tailback. So Jones, who is a more complete football palyer, was shipped out to the Jets for a 105948th round pick and some pocket lint while Benson, who is a better running back, assumed the unquestioned role of starting tailback.
Other minor stories of the offseason include the acquisitions of TE Greg Olsen in the draft, Darwin Walker to replace Tank Johnson and Adam Archuletta to strengthen the defensive backfield. Devin Hester has been broken in on offense as a wide receiver, while Tommie Harris and Mike Brown have (supposedly) returned from season ending injuries.
Standard operating Bears talk procedure requires me to dicuss the play of one Rex Grossman. Rex has been a hot-button topic for Chicago sports fans since the time he first donned a Bears uniform, and last season’s roller coaster ride only heightened the love, the hate and the expectations for the 4 year veteran QB out of Florida. After his first 3 seasons were shortened by injuries, Grossman’s first full year as the Bears starting quarterback was all over the map. In 7 regular season games he posted a Passer Rating higher than 100, and in 6 regular season games he posted a Passer Rating lower than 65. While his playoff numbers did little to vindicate him, in my opinion he played well enough in the Superbowl to have won the game. Many have been quick to pin the loss to him, as he had 3 turnovers (2 INT, 1 fumble lost) vs. his 1 TD, but the more glaring deficiency and blame belongs to the defense who got gashed for over 400 yards and 24 first downs in my opinion.
While the fans, talk show hosts and columnists have been unable to come to a consensus on Rex, and it is a little too early to say for sure one way or another whether or not Rex is going to be at the helm of a football dynasty, Grossman has had unwavering and loyal support from his whole team through all the ups and downs. Rex has the arm strength, and I think that going 23 straight pre, regular and post-season games without an injury has done well for his confidence on the field. Most reports from camp and the first preseason game showed a Grossman who was more comfortable in the pocket, going through all of his progressions and reads without panicking. Grossman also showed that he was able and willing to check down underneath or even tuck it and run a little instead of forcing throws or instead of scrambling 15 yards into the backfield and being tackled by the entire defensive line. I expect improved consistency and decision making from Grossman, and that is where he has the most room for improvement.
Grossman has a new offensive weapon in his arsenal this season in the form a big athletic tight end named Greg Olsen, whom the Bears drafted in the first round out of the University of Miami. Olsen has been touted primarily as a receiving tight end, which is the nice way of saying his blocking needs to improve, but the Bears have lacked a receiving threat at the position for a while now, and having a big target like Olsen to split the seam or take crossing routs underneath should help open up the field for Muhammad and Berrian. Also added to the offense in the offseason was special teams wunderkid Devin Hester. I find it unlikely Hester will see more than a handful of offensive snaps every game, but he has proven to be a threat any time the ball is in his hands, and his speed, strength and creativity make him an ideal candidate for wide receiver screens, reverses and, of course, the good old fly route. His biggest impact should still be as a return man, so if he ends the season with 0 catches, 0 yards and 0 injuries, I will be happy.
The Bears, which had been one of the best, if not the best, defense in the league throughout the bulk of the regular season, started to show the cracks in it’s armor at the end of the regular season and into the playoffs. With the loss of stud defensive tackle Tommie Harris to a hamstring injury, the pressure generated by the defensive line dropped and the unit became much more vulnerable to the pass. The defensive side of the ball underwent nothing but upgrades during the offseason, though. In the box the Bears are very deep. Young phenom Mark Anderson (MANDERSON) has bumped Alex Brown down the depth chart, and if it turns out that MANDERSON can’t handle the rigors of being an every down DE, there is a capable, proven veteran behind him, as well as rookie Dan Bazuin whom they are very high on. The interior of the line is as strong as ever, with Tank Johnson out and 8 year veteran Darwin Walker in. Tommie Harris has has yet to play in the preseason but claims to be 100% and Dusty Dvoracek, who was hurt during the presason last year, is back from injury and looking impressive as well. Role players Anthony Adams and Antonio Garay fill out the defensive tackle position making for a line that should be steady and deep.
After Lance Briggs realized that he had absolutely no leverage on the Bears and would have to play as a Bear under the stipulation of the collectively bargained Franchise Tag, it became obvious that, at worst, the Bears would play the status quo game at linebacker this year. The otherworldly Brian Urlacher still leads the until from the middle, with Briggs on the weak side and Hunter Hillenmeyer the strong. Jamar Williams, in his third year, is making a case for his increased use. He has taken snaps at all 3 positions while Briggs was holding out, while Hillenmeyer had a tweaked ankle and when Urlacher was playing the “I’m the best player on the team and not playing in some stupid preseason game” card and most reports from training camp have him playing very capably and pushing Hunter Hillenmeyer.
The Bears locked up starting cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher to long term deals in the offseason, with Trumaine McBride and Ricky Manning Jr. serving as backups. Tillman is a big, physical corner who has trouble covering small, quick, shifty receivers and hopefully Nathan Vasher can develop that ability, as Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Bob Babbich consider their cornerback positions interchangeable. Vasher is a ballhawk, but still not the most technically sound CB in the league. The combination of Tillman and Vasher is a good one, though.
The defensive backfield may very well be the weakest link on the defense. The starting tandem Adam Archeletta and Mike Brown are solid veterans who both play very well against the run, but both are also coming off of injuries and a year longer in the tooth. I have full confidence that both players know the coverages and know where they are supposed to be on the field. My confidence wavers when I consider the possibility of either Brown or Archuletta having to rundown and tackle a fast receiver. Hopefully, though, the combination of pressure from the line and effective jamming and coverage from the corners will limit the amount of chasing they do so they can stick to what they are best at: laying the wood to unsuspecting receivers and intercepting passes.
It seems a tad unlikely to me that we can expect as exciting a year from Devin Hester as we got last season. He will have his moments, but I think the league knows better know and will be kicking away from him whenever possible. Same goes for Robbie Gould. He proved that he can kick in this league, but I will not be shocked if he misses a little more frequently than he did last season. As long as he converts the important ones and continues with the deep kickoffs, I will be happy.
The Schedule. People love to run down the schedule before the season starts and try to predict wins and losses. I am not one of those people, really. I do not follow the rest of the league nearly close enough to accurately analyze and predict match ups, but, what the fuck. For the sake of the internet blogosphere, I will take a crack at guessing how the season will play out.
Sunday September 9 @ San Diego Chargers
LOSS. Some people have made a big deal out of a Nike commercial that features one LaDainian Tomlinson shredding through the entire Bears defense for a touchdown. That is dumb. It is a commercial. That commercial will have NO BEARING on this game. Tomlinson is the best running back in the league and one of the greatest of all time. A tough test right out of the gate for the Bears. Victory is not impossible, but definitely (on paper) the biggest challenge for the team.
Sunday September 16 vs. Kansas City Chiefs
WIN. Damon Huard. Have fun with all that, KC.
Sunday September 23 vs. Dallas Cowboys
WIN. Tony Romo. Have fun with all that, Big D.
Sunday September 30 @ Detroit Lions
WIN. John Kitna. Have fun with all that, Detroit Rock City.
Sunday October 7 @ Green Bay Packers
WIN. Packers are bad. Favre is bad and most of their other impact players, at least from the offense, have jumped ship. Their defense is slightly improved, but not enough to overcome how bad the rest of the team is.
Sunday October 14 vs. Minnesota Vikings
WIN. Vikings, like the Lions, are awful.
Sunday October 21 @ Philadelphia Eagles
LOSS. The Eagles are one of the powerhouse teams in the NFC, and the combination of a healthy Donovan McNabb & home field advantage leads me to give the win to the Eagles, although if this were in Chicago, I would probably reconsider.
Sunday October 28 vs. Detroit Lions
WIN. Lions will still be bad at this point in the season, and as a matter of fact, Jon Kitna may be dead by this point.
Sunday November 11 @ Oakland Raiders
WIN. Sorry Mr. Somewhere…Old Plastic Pants’ Raiders are still bad.
Sunday November 18 @ Seattle Seahawks
LOSS. I think the Bears are better than the Seahawks, but there are always one or two games in a season that a team just loses, and I think this might be one of those games.
Sunday November 25 vs. Denver Broncos
LOSS. Denver is a solid team. I could be wrong about the loss prediction. Just my gut feeling.
Sunday December 2 vs. New York Football Giants
WIN. I am not yet a believer in Eli Manning and I refuse to believe the Bears will stand for losing three in a row or two consecutive home games.
Thursday December 6 @ Washington Redskins
WIN. Skins are bad and hampered by the fact that they need to keep pumping fresh formaldehyde through Joe Gibbs on the sideline.
Monday December 17 @ Minnesota Vikings
WIN. See a pattern forming? Bears should not lose a game in the division this season.
Sunday December 23 vs. Green Bay Packers
WIN. See above.
Sunday December 30 vs. New Orleans Saints
WIN. It is completely moronic to try and predict the winner of the last regular season between any two teams because the most important factor at week 17 are injuries. I am giving the nod to the Bears here because of the home field advantage.
So there you have it. I have the Bears at 12-4. Probably too ambitious. There will probably another loss or two in there somewhere, and it all depends on injuries and weather and the odd bounces of an oddly shaped ball, but I think the Bears are an improved team over last year’s squad and I think the idea of them winning the NFC is incredibly realistic.
P.S. Sorry for lack of links and any spelling, grammatic and punctuational errors. No time to proofread.