It was probably the oddest firing of an NFL head coach since A.J. Smith canned Marty Schottenheimer after Martyball led the San Diego Chargers to a 14-2 record in the 2006 season. When the Chicago Bears let Lovie Smith go on New Year's Day, the franchise had just finished a 10-6 season, and hadn't had a losing season under Smith since the 2009 campaign. Add in the fact that Smith is a defensive coach at heart, and his defenses were always great in Chicago, and the move seemed even stranger. But second-year general manager Phil Emery had a different way he wanted to go. Emery is well-acquainted with the new analytics and metrics, and he's known as a guy not afraid to think outside the box. So, as opposed to some head-coaching retread or promising young assistant, he hired longtime quarterback guru and recent CFL legend Marc Trestman to replace Smith.
Before he became the first head coach in Montreal Alouettes history to lead the franchise to back-to-back Grey Cups, Trestman worked as an assistant with the Minnesota Vikings, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, Oakland Raiders, and Miami Dolphins. He also recruited Russell Wilson to North Carolina State during his two-year term there, and that's really Trestman's specialty -- he understands how to maximize the potential of any quarterback under his tutelage.
In that regard, it's a good time for the Bears to have Trestman, because quarterback Jay Cutler is a remarkably talented and inconsistent quarterback with perhaps the best arm in the NFL -- and unquestionably some of the strangest mechanics. Under his previous offensive coordinators in Chicago, Cutler was often asked to take seven-step drops and read his receivers behind the worst offensive line in professional football, which led to a lot of little disasters. Trestman is well-versed in the mechanics of the West Coast Offense and the timing-rhythm quarterbacks who best personify it, and he has one season to see if Cutler can fit that suit. Cutler is in his contract year, and Trestman has said -- as the Baltimore Ravens did with Joe Flacco in 2012 -- that he wants to see his quarterback's best before the organization takes a huge financial plunge. It's a smart take, but if Chicago's defense regresses, and Cutler isn't the man long-term, the Bears could take a huge step backward -- and Emery will have a lot of explaining to do.
Is the roster better, worse or about the same? Better at the most important position group. In 2012, Chicago's offense line closely resembled two trains, carrying dumpster fires, ready to collide head-on. To solve that obvious problem, Emery stole tackle Jermon Bushrod from the New Orleans Saints, signing the free agent to a five-year, $35.965 million in March. Nobody will mistake Bushrod for Ryan Clady or Joe Thomas, but he's a better-than average blindside blocker, which makes him an enormous upgrade over J'Marcus Webb, who will move to the right side. Former New York Jets guard Matt Slauson may take the left side alongside Bushrod, but watch out for first-round draft pick Kyle Long out of Oregon. The son of Howie and brother of Chris has limited experience, but his athleticism is off the charts. Center Roberto Garza was the only bastion of stability last year, and he's the only guy on this line who will retain his position.
Best offseason acquisition: Tight end Martellus Bennett. As important as the Bushrod and Long acquisitions were to Cutler's health, Bennett has also proved in recent years that he is an exceptional blocker at his position -- outside of Rob Gronkowski, there may not be a better blocking tight end in the league. Expect the new Bears to use a lot of tight end protection, and expect Bennett to excel in that role. It's an underrated skill in this era of "big receiver" tight ends, but you can bet that Cutler will appreciate it from Day 1.
Biggest hole on the roster: It's easy to say middle linebacker after Brian Urlacher's retirement, though the future Hall-of-Famer was a pale imitation of his former self last season. The question is, who will replace him? Ex-Denver Bronco D.J. Williams is the short-term solution, but Chicago also selected Florida linebacker Jon Bostic in the second round, and that could pay long-term dividends. Bostic doesn't have the dropback ability and lateral agility that Urlacher had at his best, but he's an excellent downhill thumper who can make some plays in space. More than ever, veterans Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman will run the defense on the field as Urlacher used to.
Position in flux: Receiver. Isn't it always? Brandon Marshall is the lead dog here, but he's coming off his third hip surgery in four years. Earl Bennett and Alshon Jeffrey have some potential, but as much as Cutler's mechanical nightmares and protection issues have bedeviled him through his time in Chicago, the lack of a true consistent deep threat also gnaws at the big picture. With Trestman's affinity for West Coast concepts, don't be surprised if running back Matt Forte is Cutler's leading target in 2013.
Player you might not have heard of yet, but will soon: It would be nice if defensive tackle Henry Melton got some more love. The longtime Greg Cosell favorite received the franchise tender from the Bears, so the front office realizes the need to keep him around, in the short term at least. Only Julius Peppers had more quarterback hurries for the defense last year than did Melton. He's more a penetrator against the pass than a pure run-stuffer, but his skill set would make him valuable in any defense.
Stat fact: Despite the fact that the Bears brought six or more pass-rushers on 8.4% of their defensive plays (ninth-most in the league last year, per Football Outsiders), only 7.3% of their sacks came from linebackers, and not a single sack came from their secondary. Chicago used to like to bring Urlacher and Briggs on dual-A gap blitzes for a lot of that pressure, and it will be interesting to see how their blitz schemes change now.
This team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: Trestman turns Cutler into the guy we always thought he could be, the offensive line maintains any level of consistency, the defense holds up, and the Packers somehow regress. If all those things happen, Chicago could take the NFC North. If the Packers don't regress (and I think Green Bay looks like a freakin' juggernaut this year), Da Bears could at least contend for a wild card spot.
And here’s the nightmare scenario: Cutler gets all emo and sulks his way through his contract year, Trestman's concepts prove to work better north of the border, and the defense takes a number of age hits. If this happens, the good news is that there should be a number of interesting quarterbacks in the top half of the 2014 draft.
The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: Without question, it's Cutler. Trestman will be smart enough to understand that the surprisingly mobile quarterback is best-served by a heavy diet of play-action and rollout passes, where he can elude pressure, condense his reads, and zip the ball downfield. Cutler will have to meet that understanding halfway with a commitment to minimizing his mistakes.
The Shutdown Countdown previews you might have missed
32. Oakland Raiders
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
30. Arizona Cardinals
29. Buffalo Bills
28. Cleveland Browns
27. Tennessee Titans
26. Kansas City Chiefs
25. New York Jets
24. San Diego Chargers
23. Philadelphia Eagles
22. Miami Dolphins
21. St. Louis Rams
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
18. Dallas Cowboys
17. Detroit Lions
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. Indianapolis Colts
14. New Orleans Saints
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