Jay Cutler took more than his share of abuse last season, both from opposing defenders on the field and the words of an equally unforgiving media off it.
The lasting image of the Chicago Bears' 2010 campaign was a hobbling Cutler standing helplessly on the sidelines of the second half of his team's loss to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game. The polarizing quarterback's injury-induced early exit was met with a tidal wave of backlash from the local and national press, with a number of scribes publicly questioning Cutler's toughness and commitment and some even going as far to cast doubt upon the validity of his ailing knee.
Cutler's torn MCL and its resulting firestorm put a damper on an otherwise very good year for Chicago, which delivered an 11-5 regular-season record and edged the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers for first place in the NFC North. Backing up that unexpectedly strong showing will be the new mission for head coach Lovie Smith's squad in 2011, one which the Bears have had trouble accomplishing in recent years.
Chicago has alternated winning and losing ledgers in each of the past five years of the Smith regime, with the franchise's last back-to-back seasons of double-digit victories and playoff appearances taking place in 2005 and 2006. The Bears advanced to the Super Bowl in the second of those years, only to slip to a 7-9 mark the following season.
There's reason to believe such a steep decline won't take place this time around, however. For one, the Bears return essentially all the key parts to a defense that was one of the NFL's toughest in 2010, including a trio of well- established all-stars in linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs and standout end Julius Peppers.
And unlike last year, when the team had to break in two new coordinators in offensive mastermind Mike Martz and defensive architect Rod Marinelli, Chicago already has systems in place that its returning players are familiar with. That could prove to be a welcome advantage in an offseason that was radically restricted due to the league's work stoppage.
"I don't think we'll be hurt [by the lockout] mainly because we have a core group of guys back, and when you have guys who have been through the system and played the system, it does a number of things," noted defensive end Israel Idonije. Because everybody else knows what they're doing, the coaches can pay a little more extra attention to bringing [new players] up to speed. Because of that, I think we'll be in great shape."
Chicago did undergo some offseason turnover in one important area, however, making sweeping changes to an offensive line that was the team's clear-cut weak link in 2010. Including the playoffs, Cutler was sacked a league-high 57 times behind the suspect group, which contributed to the Bears finishing 30th out of 32 teams in total offense and with the fifth-lowest passing yardage total in the NFL.
"Offensively we've got to get a lot better," Cutler said. "The defense carried us all year. They were a Super Bowl defense. They had enough to make it happen. Offensively, we've got to catch up to them."
Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the Chicago Bears, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2010 RECORD: 11-5 (1st, NFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2010, lost to Green Bay in NFC Championship
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Lovie Smith (63-49 in seven seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Martz (second season with Bears)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Rod Marinelli (second season with Bears)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Matt Forte, RB (1069 rushing yards, 51 receptions, 9 total TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Julius Peppers, DE (54 tackles, 8 sacks, 2 INT)
2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 30th overall (22nd rushing, 28th passing), 21st scoring (20.9 ppg)
2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 9th overall (2nd rushing, 20th passing), 4th scoring (17.9 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: WR Roy Williams (from Cowboys), TE Matt Spaeth (from Steelers), OT Gabe Carimi (1st Round, Wisconsin), P Adam Podlesh (from Jaguars), RB Marion Barber (from Cowboys), WR Sam Hurd (from Cowboys), C Chris Spencer (from Seahawks), DT Stephen Paea (2nd Round, Oregon State), DT Amobi Okoye (from Texans), DE Vernon Gholston (from Jets)
KEY DEPARTURES: TE Greg Olsen (to Panthers), TE Brandon Manumaleuna (released), C Olin Kreutz (to Saints), DT Tommie Harris (to Colts), OLB Pisa Tinoisamoa (not tendered), SS Danieal Manning (to Texans), P Brad Maynard (to Jaguars), QB Todd Collins (not tendered), RB Garrett Wolfe (not tendered), WR Rashied Davis (to Lions), WR Devin Aromashodu (to Vikings), OT Kevin Shaffer (released), MLB Hunter Hillenmeyer (released), MLB Rod Wilson (not tendered), CB Trumaine McBride (to Saints), S Josh Bullocks (to Raiders)
QB: How Cutler (3274 passing yards, 23 TD, 16 INT in 2010) performs under center will go a long way towards determining whether the Bears can make a repeat playoff trip. The rifle-armed quarterback threw 24 touchdown passes against seven interceptions in Chicago wins last season, but produced a substandard 1-to-10 ratio in the club's six losses that included the NFC Championship defeat. He still managed to cut down on his mistakes following a rough 2009 in which the ex-Bronco was picked off a league-high 26 times, and should be even more comfortable in his second year in Martz's complex scheme. Backup Caleb Hanie showed himself capable when replacing an injured Cutler in January's conference title game, though the impending free agent is being pushed for the No. 2 job by rookie Nathan Enderle, a fifth-round pick in this past April's draft who's drawn high praise from Martz in camp.
RB: Cutler may be the most valuable piece to the Chicago offense, but running back Matt Forte (1069 rushing yards, 51 receptions, 9 total TD) isn't far behind in terms of importance. The versatile fourth-year pro blossomed into one of the league's premier all-around backs in 2010, placing fourth in the NFC in yards from scrimmage and tying for the team lead in receptions while emerging as the unquestioned centerpiece of Martz's attack. The Bears didn't get much production out of backup Chester Taylor (267 rushing yards, 3 TD, 20 receptions), however, and may deem the well-paid veteran expendable after bringing in former Cowboy Marion Barber (374 rushing yards, 4 TD, 11 receptions) as a free agent. The one-time Pro Bowler should help solve one of the Bears' biggest deficiencies from a year ago, an inability to convert in short-yardage situations. Seldom-used reserve Kahlil Bell has also impressed during the preseason, which could place Taylor's already-tenuous roster spot in further jeopardy. 2010 practice-squad member Eddie Williams is the leading candidate to stick as a fullback, a position that isn't utilized much in Martz's offense.
WR/TE: The Chicago brass believed last year's offense was hindered by the lack of a true No. 1 receiver that Cutler could rely on. Whether or not that's still the case entering 2011 remains to be seen. Ex-Dallas disappointment Roy Williams (37 receptions, 5 TD) was signed in late July to presumably assume that mantle, and the organization is hoping a reunion with Martz -- who oversaw Williams' banner 2006 campaign while then the offensive coordinator in Detroit -- will turn around the enigmatic wideout's career. His addition likely means a reduced role for speedster Johnny Knox (51 receptions, 5 TD), who averaged nearly 19 yards per catch as the starting split end last season but now looks to be behind Williams, return-man extraordinaire Devin Hester (40 receptions, 4 TD) and sure-handed slot receiver Earl Bennett (46 receptions, 3 TD) in the pecking order. The Bears also bid adieu to talented tight end Greg Olsen, trading the former first-round pick to Carolina just prior to camp to provide more of an opportunity for third-year man Kellen Davis, who owns just 10 career catches but four that have resulted in touchdowns. Free-agent pickup Matt Spaeth (9 receptions, 1 TD with Steelers) will serve mainly as a blocker in two-tight sets, with Sam Hurd (14 reception) -- yet another former Cowboy added over the summer -- was signed to lend further wide receiver depth and assist on special teams.
OL: Last season's poor showing triggered a major makeover to the offensive line, with left guard Chris Williams the lone regular from the 2010 unit slated to remain at the same position this year. The most significant change comes at the center spot, where esteemed veteran Olin Kreutz was not retained after 13 seasons and 183 career starts with the organization. The Bears intend to shift longtime right guard Roberto Garza into the middle and give Lance Louis, who began last season as a starter but was benched after four games, another chance at Garza's old post, though the acquisition of ex-Seahawk Chris Spencer -- owner of 65 career starts at center -- provides the team with a contingency plan. Chicago also added some needed talent through the draft, selecting former University of Wisconsin mauler Gabe Carimi in the first round. The 2010 Outland Trophy winner will begin his pro career working at right tackle, with promising sophomore J'Marcus Webb switching to the left side in the new arrangement. That would leave Frank Omiyale, who struggled guarding Cutler's blind side as the left tackle last year, as a swing reserve at both outside spots.
DL: The Bears shelled out big bucks to land Peppers (54 tackles, 8 sacks, 2 INT), the most sought-after defender on last year's free-agent market, and the freakishly-gifted end proved to be worth every penny in his first season in the Windy City. The five-time All-Pro was a force against both the run and as a pass rusher, and his constant commandment of double teams helped lead to a career year for left end Idonije (49 tackles, 8 sacks). The tackles weren't quite as effective, with declining former Pro Bowler Tommie Harris losing his starting job to the less-credentialed Matt Toeaina (24 tackles, 2 sacks) for a time before eventually being released in February. Toeaina will rotate with veteran returnee Anthony Adams (37 tackles, 2 sacks) at the nose this year, with fast-rising third-year man Henry Melton (13 tackles, 2.5 sacks) tabbed to take over Harris' role as the three-technique. Chicago also drafted Oregon State tackle Stephen Paea, best known for setting a record for bench-press repetitions at this past winter's combine, in the second round of April's draft and added another intriguing name to the interior mix with the offseason signing of ex-Texans starter Amobi Okoye (44 tackles, 3 sacks). The athletic 24-year-old is one of two former first-round picks to join the roster, with Jets washout Vernon Gholston (12 tackles) trying to revive his career as an understudy to Peppers.
LB: Middle linebacker Urlacher (125 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT) and weakside starter Briggs (88 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) may both be on the wrong side of 30, but neither displayed signs of age in spearheading last year's stout defensive effort. The duo's range and experience was instrumental towards Chicago's No. 2 overall ranking in run defense (90.1 ppg) and the team allowing the fourth-fewest points in the league in 2010, and each was named to the Pro Bowl for their efforts. Nick Roach (11 tackles) is set to man the strongside position full time after sharing those duties with offseason departure Pisa Tinoisamoa a year ago, with special-teams ace Brian Iwuh (17 tackles, 1 sack) back as the group's primary reserve. A pair of rookies, sixth-round draft choice J.T. Thomas (West Virginia) and free-agent Dom DeCicco (Pittsburgh), appear to have the inside track on the remaining backup spots.
DB: A stingy secondary that had a hand in Chicago's 2010 defensive dominance returns three of four starters for the upcoming season, with safety Danieal Manning exiting for Houston via free agency. The Bears believe they have a ready-made replacement in youngster Major Wright (21 tackles), a third-round pick in the 2010 draft who showed good instincts and tackling skills in limited time as a rookie, and will line him up next to physical vet Chris Harris (70 tackles, 5 INT) in the back end. Established playmaker Charles Tillman (82 tackles, 5 INT, 14 INT) will once again headline a solid contingent of cornerbacks that contains two other seasoned holdovers in Tim Jennings (54 tackles, 1 INT) and Zackary Bowman (28 tackles), while third-year pro D.J. Moore (42 tackles, 4 INT) is coming off a strong season as the team's nickel slot defender. Depth at safety was brought in with the selection of California's Chris Conte, a converted corner with an impressive size/speed combo, in the third round of April's draft.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This area has almost always been a difference-maker under Smith's watch, and that figures to be no different in 2011. The Bears are unrivaled in the return game, with the explosive Hester a three-time All-Pro who averaged an NFL-best 17.1 yards per runback on punts and scored three special-teams touchdowns last season and Knox (22.8 avg.) having previously made the Pro Bowl as a high-impact kick returner in 2009. Kicker Robbie Gould has been a model of consistency during his six-year tenure in Chicago, having connected on over 85 percent of his field goal attempts over that span and drilling home 25-of-30 three-point tries last season, including a career-long 54-yarder. The Bears will have a new punter after signing ex-Jaguar Adam Podlesh to a five-year contract in July, and the 28-year-old should provide an upgrade over the aging Brad Maynard after tying for fourth in the league in net average (39.2) last year. With Kreutz now in New Orleans, long snapper Patrick Mannelly now stands alone as the longest-tenured Bear, having served ably in that capacity since 1999.
PROGNOSIS: Sustaining success has been a problem for the Bears in the past, and that could once again be the case in 2011 if the team isn't able to sort out its troubling offensive line situation or if a defense that's now a year older can't match its outstanding level of play from a year ago. There are questions among the receivers as well, as it's debatable as to whether Roy Williams can undergo a rebirth in Martz's offense following three straight mediocre seasons in Dallas, while the surprising trade of Olsen has rid the offense of one of its better weapons. Still, how Cutler performs will ultimately be the deciding factor as to whether the Bears sink or swim this season. If the unpredictable quarterback turns his considerable talent into consistently elite production, Chicago will once again contend in the NFC. If he resembles the turnover-prone 2009 version, odds are the Bears won't.