COMMENTARY | Kermit the Frog said it's not easy being green.
For the Chicago Bears, it has not been easy being in the same division with the Green Bay Packers. That was evident when Lovie Smith took over as head coach in 2004. He made beating the Packers a priority.
He also made winning a priority. Among other accomplishments, he got the Bears to Super Bowl XLI and within a game of the Super Bowl in 2010 (a loss to the Packers in the conference championship game).
Last season, the Bears finished 10-6, the same record as the Super Bowl XLVII champion Baltimore Ravens. But it was not good enough to edge out the 11-5 Packers or 10-6 Minnesota Vikings for a playoff berth. And since that 10-6 came after a 7-1 start, the season was deemed a failure and Smith was let go.
Enter new head coach Marc Trestman. And onto 2013, and here we will take a look at five players who could be critical to the team's success this upcoming season. While in some cases the obvious will be stated, in other instances the focus will be on a newcomer to the team or a performer looking to rebound from a disappointing year.
So here are five players to keep an eye on this season when it comes to the Chicago Bears:
QB Jay Cutler: Over the last three seasons, the strong-armed quarterback owns a 27-13 record as a starter, throwing 55 touchdown passes compared to 37 interceptions. He has also missed eight games over that span (six in 2011) and has not started all 16 contests since his first year with the Bears in 2009. Running back Matt Forte remains a huge part of the offense, but Cutler is the catalyst of this unit and has proved his worth when he has not been available at times the last three seasons.
WR Alshon Jeffery: Where's wideout Brandon Marshall? Probably busy catching balls from Cutler, which was certainly the case in 2012. This past season, the Pro Bowl performer caught 118 passes for 1,508 yards and 11 scores. Conversely, the rest of the team totaled 169 receptions for 1,788 yards and 10 touchdowns. Jeffery was limited to just 10 games during his rookie campaign and caught only 24 passes, three for scores. The former second-round pick needs to make a much bigger impact in his second season. New tight end Martellus Bennett (New York Giants) could be a factor as well.
LT Jermon Bushrod: Keeping Cutler upright has been a major problem in the Windy City. So why not sign someone that has spent plenty of time protecting one of the most prolific passers in the league in recent seasons? Bushrod comes over from the New Orleans Saints and earned Pro Bowl invitations the last two years keeping Drew Brees safe. The Bears also added free-agent left guard Matt Slauson (New York Jets) and rookie right guard Kyle Long, a first-round pick in April, in an attempt to keep their quarterback out of harm's way.
OLB James Anderson: Conventional wisdom had outside linebacker Nick Roach moving to the middle with the Bears opting not to bring back linebacker Brian Urlacher. But Roach took the free-agent route to Oakland. Enter Anderson, who was a surprise released by the Carolina Panthers this offseason. The productive linebacker could wind up leading the Bears in tackles this year, especially if free-agent pickup D.J. Williams (Denver Broncos) doesn't hold on to the middle linebacker job for one reason or another.
CB Charles Tillman: The veteran defender comes off a tremendous year in which he returned all three of his interceptions for scores, knocked down 16 passes and forced 10 fumbles. In 10 seasons with the team, Tillman has been the ultimate disruptive force, picking off 33 passes (eight of those interceptions returned for scores) and forcing 39 fumbles. He along with veteran linebacker Lance Briggs and defensive end Julius Peppers still give the Bears a lot of veteran leadership on the defensive side of the football.
So what can we expect from the Bears in 2013? How many wins will it take to reach the playoffs this season? And who else will play an extremely pivotal role in the team's fortunes this season? It figures to be very competitive in the NFC North once again.
Russell S. Baxter has spent the last 40-plus years watching football. He is the founder of ProFootballGuru.com, writes for numerous websites and publications across the country and is blessed with an encyclopedic memory. Ready to talk NFL? Follow him on Twitter at @BaxFootballGuru.
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