Forget out of the box, the Chicago Bears went north of the border in an effort to get the most out of their enigmatic but extremely talented quarterback Jay Cutler.
When Marc Trestman was introduced as the new Bears head coach, it wasn't exactly the most popular move in the Windy City because the ex-CFL mentor was an under-the-radar candidate in a market flooded with big college names, hot coordinators and proven standbys.
Chicago, however, like just about every other franchise which was looking for a head coach, didn't seriously consider the big names. Bruce Arians, the ex- Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator and interim head coach who eventually got the Arizona job, and Seattle offensive chief Darrell Bevell joined Trestman as "finalists" after Phil Emery's exhaustive first round of 14 different interviews.
In the end Emery was just the latest NFL executive to subscribe to the theory that most of the innovation in football, especially offensive football, is taking place outside the league in places like college, the Arena Football League and Canada, where Trestman was a two-time Grey Cup winner as the head coach of the Montreal Alouettes.
Nearly 800 miles away in Philadelphia, the Eagles snared their own "innovator," Chip Kelly, who made the leap to the big stage from the University of Oregon. And Kelly opened the window to the progressive mind-set that pervades a lot of NFL front offices these days.
"Football is football," Kelly said when asked about making the jump. "This is football at its highest level, but it's still a game that's played 11-on-11. It's about putting together a great coaching staff, having a great organization behind you and having great players. Ultimately, whether it's high school football, college football or professional football, it's a personnel-driven operation."
Translation -- talent always trumps coaching in the NFL and these days, perhaps more than ever, it's about getting a guy who can get the most out of the personnel at his disposal, not a hard-headed system slave intent on pounding the square peg in the round hole.
Emery feels that is Trestman, who takes over a Bears team that went 10-6 in 2012 but missed the playoffs for the second straight season despite having one of the most talented quarterbacks around. That and the inability to beat the Green Bay Packers likely cost Lovie Smith his job in the Second City after nine fairly successful years, opening the door for the unproven commodity.
The Bears made the playoffs three times in nine seasons under Smith, losing in the Super Bowl to Indianapolis after the 2006 campaign and reaching the NFC title game following the 2010 season. The era was hardly a down time for Chicago football but the franchise couldn't shake the label of underachiever.
It will be Trestman's job to figure out how to take the next step and that means getting the most out of Cutler, who some have already labeled a coach- killer, pointing to his troubles in Denver with Josh McDaniels and Smith's departure from the Second City as evidence.
That's probably a little unfair since McDaniels' massive ego was arguably the bigger problem in the Rockies and Smith's shelf life in Chicago was past due. That said, Cutler's on-field antics and sideline pouting sessions are real and a significant problem because the very nature of his position demands leadership qualities.
Smith was always far too classy to throw Cutler under any buses, but he's Trestman's problem now, one the Minnesota native is eager to tackle.
"I can't wait to get my hands on him." Trestman said at his introductory press conference.
A long-time NFL assistant, Trestman spent the past five seasons as head coach of the Alouettes, earning CFL Coach of the Year honors in 2009 before capturing back-to-back Grey Cup titles in '09 and 2010. Prior to that he was a nondescript NFL assistant with stints in Minnesota, Tampa, Cleveland, San Francisco, Detroit, Arizona, Oakland and Miami, never lasting more than three years at any stop.
Despite that nomadic existence, which also included a brief stop in college as an offensive coordinator at North Carolina State, Trestman has always had a cult following among his peers, largely for his ability to develop successful quarterbacks.
Trestman's former boss in Montreal has no doubts the Bears found the right man, taking to the Jarrett Payton show on Chicagolandsportsradio.com to sing his praises.
"He will take Jay Cutler and he will get the best out of (him), but the entire system will be built around Cutler," Alouettes general manger Jim Popp explained. "What I do know is (the Bears) have a quarterback in the pocket to make all the throws. Jay's capable of that. Marc will devise something for Jay and they'll be successful in the offensive end."
Emery is staking his reputation on it and pointed to the hurdles Trestman has already successfully navigated.
"The mental toughness that it takes to go into a place that you've never been before (Montreal) where they don't know you or anything about you, where they speak a foreign language in a game that's different than the one you've been coaching (is impressive)," Emery said.
The understated Trestman is no Mike Ditka. There will be no bluster or bravado, just a low-key approach and scholarly attention to detail.
"This (is) clearly a franchise that has the highest expectations for its team, where winning consistently is a standard," Trestman said. "When you do win consistently, you play for championships on a yearly basis. I confidently embrace (the challenge)."
The rest of Chicago hesitantly awaits the results.
2012 RECORD: 10-6 (3rd, NFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2010, lost to Green Bay in NFC Championship
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Marc Trestman (first season with Bears)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Aaron Kromer (first season with Bears)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mel Tucker (first season with Bears)
KEY ADDITIONS: LB James Anderson (from Panthers), TE Martellus Bennett (from Giants), OG Eben Britton (from Jaguars), OT Jermon Bushrod (from Saints), QB Trent Edwards (street free agent), FB Tony Fiammetta (from Patriots), DT Corey Irvin (from Bucs), DE Kyle Moore (from Bills), LB DJ Williams (from Broncos), S Tom Zbikowski (from Colts), OG Kyle Long (1st round, Oregon), LB Jonathan Bostic (2nd round, Florida)
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Jason Campbell (to Browns), OL Game Carimi (to Bucs), TE Kellen Davis (released), LB Geno Hayes (to Jaguars), DE Israel Idonije (to Lions), WR Johnny Knox (retired), OG Lance Louis (to Dolphins), CB DJ Moore (to Panthers), LB Nick Roach (to Raiders), HB Evan Rodriguez (released), TE Matt Spaeth (released), OL Chris Spencer (to Titans), LB Brian Urlacher (retired)
QB: In four seasons with the Bears, Cutler has established the top passer rating in franchise history and is second in everything from completion percentage (59.6) to touchdown passes (82) and passing yards (12,292). The Vanderbilt product has one of the game's best pure arms and his mobility is also a bit underrated, often enabling him to slide in the pocket and extend plays. Perhaps the truest indication of his value to the Bears has been the team's performance when he's off the field. That said, Cutler must take the next step and make this team his own.
"I have a sense for when (Cutler) gets frustrated and when it's not going the way he wants it to go," said Trestman. "But his demeanor has been outstanding."
Chicago wasn't comfortable with either Josh McCown or Matt Blanchard as backups so they brought in Trent Edwards and Jordan Palmer in recent days in an effort to create a little competition. McCown is in his 11th NFL season and has started 33 games but Edwards probably has a little more juice at this stage and may be the better emergency option.
RB: Matt Forte will enter his sixth season with the Bears as one of the better dual-threat backs in the NFL. He is one of just three players in franchise history with 5,000 rushing yards and 2,000 receiving yards, joining Neal Anderson and Hall of Famer Walter Payton. Forte is also fourth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage, eighth in rushing yards and third in receiving yards among running backs since entering the league in 2008. Forte is just a solid all-around back who is really good as just about everything but not great in any one category.
Backup Michael Bush is in his second season with the Bears and offers a change of a pace as a competent 245-pound bruising back.
During the offseason, Chicago signed veteran fullback Tony Fiammetta, a 6- foot, 250-pound lead isolation blocker who the Bears hope to turn into a Jerome Felton-type.
WR: Four-time Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall is coming off a spectacular season, rewriting the Bears record books with 118 receptions for 1,508 receiving yards and a career-high with 11 touchdown catches. The 6-foot-4 wideout is a matchup nightmare outside the numbers and also has the size, strength and body control to do the dirty work inside. Marshall is also extremely consistent and one of just two players in the NFL, along with Roddy White, to have over 1,000 yards receiving in each of the last six years.
Second-year wideout Alshon Jeffery is looking to build off a solid rookie season in which he recorded 24 receptions for 367 yards and three touchdowns in 10 contests. Chicago wants Jeffery to start opposite Marshall but he's a little too much like the All-Pro physically, standing 6-foot-3 and lacking true home run speed.
Veteran Earl Bennett, Cutler's teammate dating back to Vandy, remains the third receiver while Joe Anderson, a second-year undrafted free agent out of Texas Southern is being given a chance to step up now that Devin Hester has returned to his wheelhouse, the return game.
The Bears really need a deep threat to step up here.
TE: On the first day of the 2013 free agent period, the Bears signed tight end Martellus Bennett, who had a breakout season with the New York Giants a season ago. Bennett has always had the physical gifts and finally put it together with Big Blue, snaring a career-high 55 balls for 626 yards and five touchdowns. A traditional tight end, Bennett can hold his own in the pass game and as a blocker but more than a few are concerned about his effort level, especially now that he has signed a big money deal.
In their effort to remake the position, the Bears also added third-year tight end Steve Maneri, a big blocking type from the Kansas City Chiefs. Maneri isn't going to help much as a receiver but at 285 pounds can serve as almost an extra tackle in certain situations.
OL: Revamping this unit may be the most important aspect of improving Cutler's play. Chicago's offensive line allowed 44 sacks last season and Cutler has been dumped 148 times in his 56 games as a Bear.
"You get rid of the ball," Cutler said when talking about Trestman's offense. "You're not back there going through reads. It's quick. It's just quarterback- friendly."
The Bears' line has been among one of the NFL's worst groups for a few seasons but it is finally moving in the right direction.
The Bears had to overpay to get a slightly above average answer at left tackle in ex-Saint Jermon Bushrod but plus play at the position will have most Chicago fans thinking they got Willie Roaf. Bushrod is extremely adept at pass blocking for a quick release signal caller but is just a guy as a run blocker.
Chicago also signed Matt Slauson away from the Jets this offseason and he is slated to slip in next to Bushrod at left guard. Slauson is an underrated player and he did not allow a sack in 2012 while starting all 16 contests. Thirteen-year NFL pro Roberto Garza will anchor the line at center while rookie first round pick Kyle Long figures to step in at right guard with either J'Marcus Webb or fellow rookie Jordan Mills handing right tackle.
Garza is a smart guy with declining physical skills, while Long is athletic but very raw and may not be ready by Week 1. Webb is trying to hold off ex- Jags tackle Eben Britton and Mills after starting at left tackle for all 32 games in 2011 and 2012.
"We're very confident in the five guys that we have right now," Cutler said of his offensive line. "I think (Aaron Kromer) is doing a heck of a job with those guys. He's one of the best offensive coaches that I've been around. He's a great teacher and he's doing the best work he can possibly do with those guys."
DL: Julius Peppers remains one of the game's elite playmakers on the defensive line. His 111 1/2 career sacks are second most in the NFL since joining the league in 2002 and his 37 forced fumbles are tied for fourth during that same span. The 6-foor-7 Peppers has added eight interceptions, 48 pass break ups, 13 fumble recoveries, seven forced fumbles, three return touchdowns (two INT and one fumble) and 11 blocked kicks in his already Hall of Fame worthy career. He's also very versatile with the ability to line up all over the front in an effort to prey on the biggest mismatch the Bears can find.
The other difference maker up front is three-technique tackle Henry Melton, a 2012 Pro-Bowler, who ranked third among defensive tackles with six sacks and set career-highs in tackles (33) and forced fumbles (two).
At just over 300 pounds nose tackle Stephen Paea isn't the stoutest guy in the world but he is tough on single blocking so he can command a double-team more often than not.
Corey Wootton, who is expected to start at end opposite Peppers, is a long and lanky player who has some pass rush ability but former first-round pick Shea McClellin is slated to have an extensive role in the rotation in his second NFL season.
For depth the Bears added veteran Kyle Moore this offseason and the freakishly athletic Cornelius Washington through the draft.
LB: The divorce was messy and the last remaining member of Chicago's famous linebacking firm of Butkus, Singletary and Urlacher is now out of the Windy City after 13 often brilliant seasons.
Brian Urlacher declined what he called an "insulting" offer from the Bears and is now an analyst with FOXSports. It's not his Defensive Player of the Year award, eight Pro Bowl appearances, nor his 1,358 career tackles that the Bears will miss most. After all, Urlacher finished just fourth on the team in tackles last season but his presence in the defensive meeting rooms, his leadership in the huddle and his ability to make everyone around him better will be difficult to replace.
The Bears took to a quantitative approach to replace Urlacher by signing D.J. Williams and James Anderson in free agency as well as drafting Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene in the second and fourth rounds. The declining Williams remains the leader in the clubhouse but Bostic will eventually be the guy.
Seven-time Pro Bowl weakside linebacker Lance Briggs will be asked to fill some of that leadership vacuum and is expected to team with Anderson on the outside because his running mate from a year ago, Nick Roach, left for Oakland in free agency.
DB: Two-time Pro Bowler and playmaker Charles Tillman teams ups with Tim Jennings to give Chicago a pair of elite corners. Tillman is on another level when it comes to punching out the football when a ball carrier or receiver is being careless. Jennings, on the other hand, made his first Pro Bowl last season after leading the NFL with nine interceptions and is actually the team's best pure cover corner.
The nickel is a concern after Kelvin Hayden was lost for the season during training camp due to a hamstring tear. Veteran Zack Bowman has never stood out and Isaiah Frey has yet to play in an NFL regular season game.
Safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright often pack a wallop but are liabilities in coverage. Veteran Craig Steltz, a solid special teamer, offers depth.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Devin Hester is a bad wide receiver but he's a great kick returner and he's now back where he belongs full-time. Hester has already established an NFL record with 17 career kick return touchdowns (12 punt and five via kickoff). His 18 total return touchdowns (adding Hester's missed field goal return touchdown) are second most in NFL history to Hall of Famer Deion Sander's 19, and that number does not include Hester's Super Bowl XLI kickoff return touchdown.
Kicker Robbie Gould is one of the NFL's more underappreciated legs and is the fourth-most accurate kicker in league history. The fact he's done that in a bad weather city tells you just how consistent and important Gould has been over the years.
Adam Podlesh is a solid situation punter who already has the Bears' single- season record for net punting average (40.4 in 2011). In 2012, he set a career-high with 34 punts landed inside-the-20, which was fourth most in the NFL.
Patrick Mannelly is the Bears all-time leader in games played and has been one of the NFL's best long snappers for years.
COACHING: Trestman has been a part of 19 winning seasons, 16 playoff appearances and three championship teams and did hire two strong coordinators in Kromer, who helped lead the Saints through the Bountygate scandal in 2012, along with former Jags head coach Mel Tucker, a far more aggressive defensive mind than Smith.
THE SKINNY: Innovator is a tough tag to live up to but that's what Trestman must tackle in one of the country's largest media markets. He helped tutor quarterback Anthony Calvillo to back-to-back CFL MVP's in 2008 and 2009 so we are about to find out if "football is football" at any level.
If Trestman unlocks Cutler's supposed endless potential, the sky is the limit but the Chicago signal caller is starting over again and will be playing under his fourth coordinator in five seasons, Moreover should the "P" word still be play when talking about a 30-year-old veteran?
"We've got to keep that perspective and we've got to look at the big picture right now and we'll see what happens as we move down the road," Trestman said. "But (Cutler's) on top of it. He's doing everything he can to get better."
Trying to turn the defensive-minded Bears into an offensive-minded football team in a cold weather city when the strengths of the team still lie on the defensive side sounds like a recipe for disaster in what is shaping up as a very tough NFC North.
"We're moving along," Cutler said. "I don't think I can pinpoint exactly where we're at, but we're definitely getting better each and every day. There are ups and downs and there are positives and negatives. We're trying to look at the negatives and try to fix those as quickly as possible and continue to find more and more positives each and every day."