On New Year's Eve, the Bears fired Lovie Smith after a nine-year tenure as head coach. Despite a 10-6 season, I think this was a necessary move. When you start 7-1, you have to make the playoffs. The fact that they somehow didn't, combined with the repeated offensive failures under the different offensive coordinators that Smith hired during his tenure, cost the coach his job. Yes, I know I made a Super Bowl prediction for these Bears before last season, and while they looked like real contenders at midseason, I wound up being wrong. Very wrong. QB Jay Cutler took a step back instead of a step forward. Mike Tice was overmatched calling plays. The offensive line was not even average. The tight end position literally did not exist in the passing game. The defense was great in the first half but faltered some in the second (especially the Seattle game). Special teams were not special. Even if this team had squeaked into the playoffs, there were no signs that the offense would've been able to score enough points to hang with the other NFC playoff teams. This team personified "It's not how you start, it's how you finish."
On January 16th, after a lengthy search, the Bears hired Marc Trestman to be their next head coach. To be honest, my preferred choice from the start of the search was Bruce Arians, who wound up in Arizona. Arians did a tremendous job as the Colts' interim coach while Chuck Pagano was treated for leukemia, and he had experience working with Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. My main concern about Trestman is his knowledge of today's NFL. He had been out of the league since 2004. He had success in Canada, winning back-to-back Grey Cups, but of course the CFL is not the NFL. He had success with quarterbacks like Steve Young and Rich Gannon, but that was a long time ago. Trestman said during his introductory press conference that he studied tape of the top teams in the NFL every year after the CFL season ended, but he also admitted that he needs to catch up with personnel on other teams.
Trestman was a bit vague in his opening presser about what his offense will be like (basically saying that it'll depend on his personnel), but he is a disciple of the West Coast offense, which uses short passes as an extension of the running game. Aaron Kromer was hired away from the Saints to be the offensive coordinator in name (he'll be more of a running game coordinator) and offensive line coach, but Trestman will call plays on gameday. Can a West Coast, short-passing style work in today's NFL, which has very much turned into a downfield passing league? Look at how much success Flacco had throwing the deep ball in the playoffs (what an arm that guy has)...
Cutler will be the Bears' starting quarterback in 2013. With his current contract expiring at the end of the season, if the team does not sign him to a long-term extension, whether he'll be the Bears' starter beyond 2013 is largely up to him. Cutler has familiarity with the West Coast offense from his days with Mike Shanahan in Denver, so that's a plus. Rollouts and bootlegs are more prevalent in this offense, so Jay should like that as well. This is truly the crossroads of Cutler's career, in effect his last chance. From the day the Bears made the trade to bring in Jay, I was always a glass half-full guy and supported and defended him. But even I have started to see the things that his critics have always accused him of. The lack of ideal leadership ability, the mechanics that fall apart when he's under duress... and just a general inability to fully harness his talent and fulfill his vast potential.
Will the light suddenly go on for him under Trestman? I think he'll probably have a better year than his last two, but I don't know if he'll ever become what Bears fans hoped he would when the team got him. Much was made about Trestman refusing to call Cutler a franchise quarterback during his opening presser. At this point, I'd have to agree. I would not give him an extension right now because he's still too much of a question mark. If he finally puts it all together and has a Flacco-like contact year with playoff success, he could get a nice new deal to stay here. But if he continues to regress and has another mediocre year, the Bears could find themselves starting over at this position, and that would be very difficult to say the least.
The team needs to decide whether to re-sign unrestricted free agent QB Jason Campbell as the backup. Campbell was pretty mediocre when he got on the field last season. If they don't bring him back, they could potentially re-sign QB Josh McCown (if he still wants to play) or another free agent to be the backup and then draft a developmental signal caller later in the draft.
The backs usually get thrown to a lot in the West Coast offense, so RB Matt Forte should be happy about that. Charlie Garner caught 91 passes for 941 yards for Trestman's Raiders in 2002. Forte had a quiet 1,094 yards last season as he dealt with repeated ankle sprains. He wasn't used as a receiver as much as usual because he had to stay in and block quite a bit. With Trestman calling plays, Forte could return to fantasy stud status. RB Michael Bush had a decent first year with the team, tying Forte with five TDs and rushing for 411 yards. There shouldn't be much action at this position unless the team drafts a developmental back.
WR Brandon Marshall had a truly mind-boggling, record-breaking season with 118 catches for 1,508 yards and 11 TDs. He stayed out of trouble off the field and was an absolute beast on it. The problem? Not nearly enough production from anyone else. WR Earl Bennett struggled with injuries and was mostly ineffective when he was on the field (29-375-2). WR Alshon Jeffery also battled injuries but showed flashes when healthy (24-367-3). WR Devin Hester was practically an afterthought on offense and was rarely a threat as a return man either. He was very frustrated after Lovie Smith was fired and even threatened retirement, saying that he wasn't having fun playing anymore. He also said in subsequent interviews that a change of scenery might be best for both sides, and if he does return, he only wants to be a return man. Devin is under contract for one more season at a reasonable salary, and the Bears likely would not be able to get much in return for him, so I think it makes sense to keep him and hope that he comes around. If he does play any receiver at all, I think it should be in the slot, and only part-time.
WR Johnny Knox retired after the Bears terminated his contract on February 12th. Despite intense rehab, he just couldn't get back in football shape after his traumatic back injury in 2011. All the best to him. The team badly needs a speedy deep threat like Knox to take the top off defenses and get them to back off Marshall and Jeffery. Mike Wallace from the Steelers would be perfect, except that he'll probably get a pretty big contract and the Bears are already paying Marshall a lot of money. With the team having only around $11 million in cap space, bringing in a high-priced free agent is not likely. A second or third day draft pick is more likely (hello Tavon Austin or Marquise Goodwin). By the way, Marshall had hip surgery in early January but said that he should be able to start running in a few weeks.
TE Kellen Davis had an awful season, and TE Matt Spaeth is mostly a blocker, so the Bears need a legitimate receiving tight end badly. With no effective slot receiver or receiving tight end, the team really lacked big plays (or any plays at all) in the middle of the field. None of the free agent tight ends look particularly appealing to me (mostly solid but unspectacular players like Dustin Keller, etc.), but the Bears could have some interest in bringing one of them in. Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert would be #1 on my wish list. He has the size, good speed, leaping ability, blocking ability, etc. But as the top tight end in the draft, the Bears would likely have to take him at #20 with their first-rounder. We'll see how free agency affects this position.
T J'Marcus Webb was arrested on Sunday after police found marijuana in his SUV when they pulled him over for speeding. As if his job wasn't already in jeopardy... There are a number of good potential free agent left tackles, but whether their teams will franchise tag them is another question. The Broncos' Ryan Clady is likely to be franchised. The Saints don't want to tag Jermon Bushrod, so he could be a top target for the Bears if he does not re-sign with New Orleans, especially since Kromer has experience with the two-time Pro Bowler. The Chiefs' Branden Albert is another possibility, but he has had back issues in the past (he only allowed one sack last year though). The Dolphins' Jake Long might be the best of this bunch (along with Clady), but he has battled injuries the past two seasons and might be out of the Bears' price range. Bushrod seems like the most likely to wind up here, and signing him would allow the team to draft a playmaker like Eifert at #20 overall. As for the rest of the line, the team needs to decide whether to re-sign G Lance Louis, who is coming off a torn ACL. The Bears also hope that T Gabe Carimi can get stronger and return to his rookie form, and they could re-sign T Jonathan Scott as insurance. G Chris Spencer is also a free agent.
The big question here is whether the Bears will franchise tag DT Henry Melton. It would cost $8.3 million to do so. With only about $11 million available, that would be tough. But whether it's the tag or a long-term deal, I think they need to bring him back. A disruptive three technique tackle is one of the main building blocks of the Cover-2, and new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said that his defensive scheme will be much the same as Lovie Smith's. GM Phil Emery said that he'll try to re-sign free agent DE Israel Idonije. According to the Chicago Tribune, to get some cap relief, Emery could take some of the $12.9 million owed in base salary to DE Julius Peppers this year and turn it into bonus money, prorating that money over the last three years of his deal. Or Emery could give CB Charles Tillman an extension to reduce his 2013 $8 million cap hit. LB Nick Roach is also going to be a free agent. Then there is the small matter of deciding whether to re-sign LB Brian Urlacher. Unless the team is strongly considering drafting Notre Dame's Manti Te'o at #20 (I wouldn't), I think it makes sense to try to bring back Urlacher on a short-term deal. He's not what he used to be, but he should be healthier and his leadership in the locker room is important (look at what Ray Lewis meant to the Ravens).
Overall, Emery has a lot of work to do, and Trestman has a lot of studying to do. When I first saw Trestman at his introductory presser, he immediately reminded me of a Clark Kent-type character. If he can bring offensive innovation and production to Chicago while maintaining a solid defense and special teams, the fans here will look at him like a superhero.