After having a 2011 season brimming with promise ruined by a ruthless rash of injuries, the Chicago Bears are hoping better depth will lead to a deep playoff run this time around.
The 2010 NFC North champions appeared poised for a second consecutive postseason trip after winning seven of their first 10 games last year, but that path to potential glory became completely derailed when quarterback Jay Cutler fractured his throwing thumb in November. Chicago went on to lose its next five contests with its offensive leader out of commission, failing to score more than 21 points in any of those defeats.
A knee injury to Matt Forte that sidelined the do-everything running back for the final four weeks and a career-threatening spinal fracture to deep-threat wide receiver Johnny Knox in mid-December also contributed greatly to the Bears' offensive demise, and prompted new general manager Phil Emery to spring into action during an active offseason.
Emery's first major move was to trade for hulking wideout Brandon Marshall, giving Chicago the high-impact No. 1 receiver it's so sorely lacked during head coach Lovie Smith's eight-year tenure provided the behaviorally erratic former Miami Dolphin can keep his head on straight. His next one was to sign quarterback Jason Campbell, a capable veteran who brings a major upgrade from what the Bears had behind Cutler last season.
Running back Michael Bush, who tallied nearly 1,400 yards from scrimmage with Oakland in 2011, was also brought into the fold to bring a bruising complement to the versatile Forte, now healthy and content after landing a lucrative four-year contract just prior to the onset of training camp.
"I'm very excited about the moves," Smith said. "In the offseason you're trying to improve your ballclub. We've done that, starting off with signing some of our own players. That was big for us to bring back some of our guys, and then some of the new additions. We feel like we have a special group."
Marshall's arrival has especially created a great deal of buzz in the Windy City, primarily due to his outstanding history with Cutler. The duo combined for 206 receptions, 13 touchdowns and just shy of 2,600 yards while paired together in Denver over the 2006 and 2007 seasons.
"He changes games. He changes defenses," said Cutler. "Defenses have to approach us differently now. I told [Emery] I needed an 'X' [receiver] and he went and got one of the best in the game. He definitely makes our offense click and go in a different direction."
While the offense, now under the command of onetime Minnesota head coach Mike Tice, will have a host of intriguing new parts, the Bears have remained mostly status quo on a defense that's traditionally been tough in the Smith era, with familiar and established names such as linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, end Julius Peppers and cornerback Charles Tillman once again spearheading the team's efforts on that side of the ball.
Add it all up, and it's no surprise that the Bears have big plans in store for 2012.
"Expectations are going to be really high, but that's fine," said Cutler.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Chicago Bears, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 RECORD: 8-8 (3rd, NFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2010, lost to Green Bay in NFC Championship
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Lovie Smith (71-57 in eight seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Tice (third season with Bears, first as OC)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Rod Marinelli (third season with Bears)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Matt Forte, RB (997 rushing yards, 52 receptions, 4 total TD)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Julius Peppers, DE (37 tackles, 11 sacks)
2011 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 24th overall (9th rushing, 26th passing), 17th scoring (22.1 ppg)
2011 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 17th overall (5th rushing, 28th passing), 14th scoring (21.3 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: WR Brandon Marshall (from Dolphins), TE Evan Rodriguez (4th Round, Temple), QB Jason Campbell (from Raiders), RB Michael Bush (from Raiders), RB Lorenzo Booker (from Vikings), WR Alshon Jeffery (2nd Round, South Carolina), WR Eric Weems (from Falcons), WR Rashied Davis (from Lions), OG Chilo Rachal (from 49ers), DE Shea McClellin (1st Round, Boise State), DT Brian Price (from Buccaneers), DT Nate Collins (from Jaguars), DT John McCargo (from Buccaneers), OLB Geno Hayes (from Buccaneers), MLB Blake Costanzo (from 49ers), CB Kelvin Hayden (from Falcons), CB Jonathan Wilhite (from Broncos)
KEY DEPARTURES: WR Roy Williams (free agent), QB Caleb Hanine (to Broncos), RB Marion Barber (retired), OT Frank Omiyale (to Seahawks), DT Amobi Okoye (to Buccaneers), DT Anthony Adams (released), CB Zackary Bowman (to Vikings), CB Corey Graham (to Ravens), S Brandon Meriweather (to Redskins), S Winston Venable (released), LS Chris Massey (free agent)
QB: Cutler (2319 passing yards, 13 TD, 7 INT in 2010) had been in the midst of perhaps the best of his three seasons in Chicago prior to getting hurt, and the Bears' subsequent free-fall in the wake of his injury greatly underscored his importance to the team. The six-year pro has dramatically reduced his turnover total since a forgettable 26-interception output in 2009, and there's little doubt he possesses the arm strength and athleticism to be an elite quarterback if his decision-making continues to improve. After fielding arguably the league's worst backup at the position last year in the since- departed Caleb Hanie, the Bears now sport one of the best in Campbell (1170 passing, 6 TD, 4 INT), an accurate and reliable owner of 70 career starts with the skills and experience to step in if need be. Journeyman Josh McCown (414 passing yards, 2 TD, 4 INT), signed off the street following Cutler's season- ending broken thumb in November, showed enough in a pair of late-year emergency starts to be retained as the No. 3 signal-caller.
RB: The Bears should have options aplenty in a backfield that rates as one of the team's true strengths. Forte (997 rushing yards, 52 receptions, 4 total TD) became the first player in NFL history to gain 700 rushing yards and 400 receiving in his initial four seasons last year, and the 2011 Pro Bowl honoree accounted for nearly 40 percent of the team's offensive production before suffering his MCL sprain. He won't have to carry as much of the load now with Bush (977 rushing yards, 37 receptions, 8 total TD with Raiders), a 245-pound physical force who can catch the ball as well, on the roster. The free-agent signee particularly excels in short-yardage situations, an area where Chicago has struggled in recent years. The club also re-signed Kahlil Bell (337 rushing yards, 19 receptions, 1 TD) after he filled in admirably for Forte down the stretch, though concerns over ball security and Chicago's strong depth may prevent him from carving out a meaningful role if the top two are healthy. Fullback Tyler Clutts also returns as the main lead blocker and a special-teams contributor, though his roster spot isn't assured since Tice has shown a preference for using multi-tight end sets in the past.
WR: Chicago hasn't had a 1,000-yard receiver since Marty Booker in 2002, but that drought could very well end with the high risk/reward acquisition of Marshall (81 receptions, 1214 yards, 6 TD with Dolphins). The 6-foot-4, 230-pound target has eclipsed that mark five straight seasons and caught over 100 balls three times in his six-year career, though he's also been prone to drops at times and comes with some concerning off-field baggage. If properly focused, he's still a matchup nightmare who can be a true difference maker to a corps that's been very pedestrian the past few years. Knox averaged nearly 20 yards per catch in 2011 as the group's best big-play threat, but his back issues have placed his availability for the coming season in jeopardy, meaning the team will likely turn to inconsistent return specialist Devin Hester (26 receptions, 1 TD) to fill the void. No. 3 receiver Earl Bennett (24 receptions, 1 TD) is a quality option out of the slot with a great rapport with Cutler, as the two also played together collegiately at Vanderbilt, while the unit added another possible big-bodied weapon to the mix with the second-round selection of South Carolina standout Alshon Jeffery in April's draft. The talented rookie has very good hands and the size to be an immediate factor in the red zone. Ex-Falcon Eric Weems (11 receptions) was signed in the offseason to round out the cast, though his main duties will likely come on special teams.
TE: This position was woefully underutilized in former coordinator Mike Martz's system, with tight ends producing a mere 25 catches a year ago. Returning starter Kellen Davis (18 receptions) did lead the Bears with five touchdown grabs, however, and the staff believes the athletic 6-foot-7 specimen could be primed for a breakout year. The Bears also have high hopes for rookie Evan Rodriguez, a fourth-round draft choice who's drawn comparisons to New England star Aaron Hernandez for his good speed, soft hands and ability to be deployed at a number of positions on the field. Second-stringer Matt Spaeth is mostly used as an extra blocker whose value in that area is enhanced by Chicago's longstanding problems in pass protection, while second-year man Kyle Adams made the roster as an undrafted free agent last season and has a chance to stick again as an H-back type.
OL: Chicago's biggest area of concern remains a front line that's permitted 105 sacks over the past two seasons, the most in the NFL during that period, but there's a belief that alarming total will decrease drastically with the scrapping of Martz's system, which was based on deeper drops by the quarterback and longer patterns from the receivers. Having a healthy Gabe Carimi, the team's first-round pick in the 2011 draft who had his rookie year cut short after just two games by a knee injury, back to man the right tackle spot should help matters as well. The situation is a bit more shaky on the left side, where returning starter Ja'Marcus Webb has struggled against the league's better speed rushers and his main competitor, 2009 first-rounder Chris Williams, failed in a previous trial run at the all-important position. There's better stability at center, where 11-year vet Roberto Garza adjusted fairly well to the middle after working most of his career at right guard, while left guard Chris Spencer offers both experience (84 lifetime starts) and versatility as well. Carimi's return allows Tice to re-insert Lance Louis, forced to start 11 games out of position at right tackle last year, to his more natural post at right guard, though he'll need to ward off a challenge from ex-49er and free-agent pickup Chilo Rachal. The loser of the battle figures to provide adequate depth along with Edwin Williams, a seven-game starter at left guard last season who can also handle center.
DL: The Bears boast one of the game's premier defensive ends in Peppers (37 tackles, 11 sacks), an imposing physical presence with seven double-digit sack seasons to his credit and the bulk and power to dominate in run support as well. The team lacked a difference-making pass rusher opposite the seven-time Pro Bowler last season, however, but that problem may have been solved with the choice of high-motor Boise State product Shea McClellin in the first round of this past draft. The energetic rookie will start out his pro career primarily in nickel packages, with reliable mainstay Israel Idonije (52 tackles, 5 sacks) utilized mostly on running downs while occasionally kicking inside. Athletic tackle Henry Melton (24 tackles) will also factor heavily in the equation after notching seven sacks in a solid first season as a starter in 2011, and the team is counting on a big leap forward on the nose from Stephen Paea (14 tackles, 2 sacks), an exceptionally strong second-round pick last year with a higher upside than steady run-stuffer Matt Toeania (16 tackles). Another able body was added into the interior rotation when the team traded for Brian Price (24 tackles, 3 sacks), a second-round selection by Tampa Bay in 2010 who made 14 starts for the Buccaneers a year ago.
LB: Entering their 10th season together, the incredibly accomplished duo of Urlacher (102 tackles, 3 INT) in the middle and Briggs (105 tackles, 1 INT) on the weak side received their eighth and seventh Pro Bowl citations, respectively, last season and continue to go strong, though there have been a few subtle signs of Father Time finally catching up to the thirty-something tandem in camp. Urlacher, 34, played through a balky knee for much of the 2011 campaign and underwent an arthroscopic procedure during the preseason, but still expects to be ready to take his customary place in the lineup for the opener. The Bears do have alternatives just in case, as unheralded strong-side regular Nick Roach (38 tackles) is capable of taking over in the middle and the acquisition of speedy ex-Buccaneer Geno Hayes (64 tackles, 1 INT) adds a starting-caliber player that can fill in at either outside flank. The remainder of the reserve ranks, a group headed by newcomer Blake Costanzo (12 tackles with 49ers) and second-year man Dom DeCicco (12 tackles), are noted for their prowess on special teams.
DB: The combo of Tillman (99 tackles, 3 INT, 12 PD), who earned a well- deserved Pro Bowl nod in 2011 after years of being overlooked, and the small but feisty Tim Jennings (77 tackles, 2 INT, 10 PD) gives the secondary a sound pair of cornerbacks who excel as open-field tacklers, but there's less certainty at the safety positions that have been a constant sore spot for much of Smith's reign and were a prime culprit in the Bears' lackluster No. 28 ranking in pass defense last season. Projected starters Major Wright (58 tackles, 3 INT) and Chris Conte (30 tackles, 1 INT) have the traits to become an effective team on the back end, with Wright possessing good instincts and Conte above-average range, but the two young players exhibited some growing pains and missed time with injuries in their 2011 looks. Chicago does have a good No. 3 safety in fifth-year pro Craig Steltz (53 tackles, 1 sack), who doubles as a core special-teamer, and added an intriguing prospect to the mix in rookie Brandon Hardin (3rd Round, Oregon State), a converted corner with excellent size but who had durability issues in college. The nickel back spot is in good hands with holdover D.J. Moore (44 tackles, 4 INT), who's come up with eight interceptions over the last two years, while free agent Kelvin Hayden (24 tackles, 2 INT with Falcons) brings extensive experience in Chicago's Cover 2 scheme from his days as a starter in Indianapolis.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Bears have historically excelled in this phase of the game during Smith's reign as head coach, and the talent that's on hand suggests that will be the case once again. Hester is perhaps the greatest return man the sport has ever seen, owning an NFL-record 18 touchdowns on kickoff and punt runbacks in six seasons after taking three to paydirt in 2011. He averaged a modest 20.7 yards on kicks last year, however, and will likely yield those duties to Weems (23.5 avg.), a Pro Bowl selection as a returner in 2010 who's averaged over 25 yards in that department as a pro. Kicker Robbie Gould returns for his eighth season with the organization and has made good on nearly 86 percent of his field-goal tries, an impressive success rate considering he plays half his games in the treacherous conditions of Soldier Field. The 30-year-old was in top form last year, hitting on 28-of-32 three- pointers and going a perfect 6-for-6 from 50 yards or more. Punter Adam Podlesh (43.9 avg.) thrived as well, placing third in the NFC in net average (40.4 avg.) with just four touchbacks in 89 attempts. Long snapper Patrick Mannelly, who'll be suiting up for his 15th season in Chicago, holds the franchise record for games played (215), though his streak of 147 consecutive appearances ended when he was placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL in November.
PROGNOSIS: The offseason reinforcements should have the Bears better equipped to withstand the injury issues that caused them to wilt down the stretch of last season, and the additions of Marshall and Bush create potential for a more wide-open offense that will have greater effectiveness in scoring situations. With the defense and special-teams already pluses, that alone could provide the two or three-win increase necessary for a legitimate playoff bid. Questions do remain along the offensive line and age is beginning to creep up in certain spots, therefore overtaking a formidable Green Bay team in the NFC North may still be too tall an order. A wild card berth should be well within reach, however, if the Bears can manage their health better and continue to play sound football.