Bears’ aggression suggests a sense of urgency

You can follow Charles Robinson on Twitter at @YahooSportsNFL

Peppers had 10.5 sacks in '09.
(Bob Donnan-US Presswire)

Two years ago, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton was sitting in a hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., combing through the finer details of another NFL season, when the subject turned to the lackluster 2007 of then-Carolina Panther Julius Peppers(notes). The prized defensive end had just put up a career-low 2½ sacks, and a visitor pontificated that maybe Peppers was a tad overrated.

“Yeah,” Payton snapped incredulously, “because he’s only averaged [double-digit] sacks his entire career. The guy is six-feet-forever and 300 pounds. What’s all that fuss about?”

The sarcasm was noted, but Payton continued, talking about coaching Peppers in the Pro Bowl after the 2006 season. He extolled how Peppers might have been the most freakish package of size, speed and athleticism that any NFL coach had seen, let alone coached. He then suggested that any NFL team – preferably one outside of Payton’s NFC South – would be “fortunate” to suit him up.

Two years later, that was the appropriate word. It took the Chicago Bears a fortune – reportedly $91.5 million for six years with $42 million guaranteed – to wrangle Peppers, along with running back Chester Taylor(notes) and blocking tight end Brandon Manumaleuna(notes), as the team dove head first into free agency Friday. It marks the second straight offseason the team has been a major player in the offseason, after putting together a trade for Jay Cutler(notes) before the 2009 season.

Suddenly the Bears have become the league’s quintessential “now” franchise, reversing a longstanding trend of conservative offseasons in favor of bold, pricey moves. That reality speaks to precisely where this franchise is at with the current regime. Lest there be any doubt, the front office and coaching staff know all margin for error in 2010 has vanished. Some of the team’s defensive pieces are aging, coach Lovie Smith has two years left on his contract, and general manager Jerry Angelo is facing increased scrutiny after the precipitous drop-off following Super Bowl XLI. A poor record in 2010 likely means a clean sweep – not only for the coaching staff, but the front office as well.

And what you see now is a resounding, unambiguous response to that, with maybe a tad of desperation mixed in, too. The latest moves suggest that Angelo knows he won’t have the opportunity to replace Smith – he has cast his lot on this coach, not to mention the success or failure of Cutler. So Angelo has to make it work now. And with no first- or second-round pick to help improve the talent base, the Bears went to the only place, and at the only pace they could: one full-throttle foray aimed at specific targets.

With no clear upgrade at offensive tackle on the market, the Bears addressed their pass coverage needs the next best way by grabbing Manumaleuna, who is a vastly better blocking tight end than anyone Chicago had on the roster last season. Essentially, the 6-2, 295 pounder becomes a sixth offensive lineman, capable of both protecting Cutler and aiding in a running game that lacked both explosiveness and consistency last year. He’s a piece that will fit nicely with Taylor, who despite his age (he turns 31 in September) still appears to have a great deal of tread left, particularly in what will likely be a split-carry, situational role next to Matt Forte(notes).

But while both Manumaleuna and Taylor are solid situational upgrades, Peppers is the game-changer. And the pursuit of him was essentially a one-team race, not entirely unlike the Washington Redskins’ press for Albert Haynesworth(notes) one year ago. Despite the buzz amongst other front offices, the Redskins never became players with Peppers. Indeed, it now appears that there may not have been another franchise that was willing to approach the plateau that Haynesworth created last season when he signed a deal reportedly worth $100 million and $41 million guaranteed.

While Peppers’ agent indicated the Philadelphia Eagles and a smattering of unknown teams also showed interest, the Bears quickly took hold, offering a deal that was in the ballpark of Haynesworth’s. A source close to Peppers also indicated that he liked the national stage offered by Chicago, as well as the reputation of defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who had his most success coaching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defensive line during their most dominant years.

So Peppers liked the situation in Chicago, and the Bears viewed him as a superstar and difference-maker. And nothing less will be expected from a team that has lacked a sustained defensive sting since the Super Bowl loss four years ago.

Lovie Smith
(Kirby Lee/US Presswire)

And make no mistake, that has become a major concern for this franchise. Its best success under Smith was when it fielded a chaotic, relentless defensive front and created turnovers. But despite tying for 13th in the league with 35 sacks last season, the Bears were never close to consistently matching what was one of the NFL’s best defenses in 2006.

Peppers will be expected to change that, becoming the focal point of a pass rush that has withered with scheming issues and aging veterans. The team’s sack leader from last season, Adewale Ogunleye(notes), is on the free-agent market and appears unlikely to return. The remaining ends, Alex Brown(notes) and Mark Anderson(notes), have been anything but consistent. And defensive tackle Tommie Harris(notes) has been hobbled and vanished for large parts of last season.

With Peppers in the fold, it allows the Bears more flexibility, using a platoon system opposite him predicated on situations and in-game adjustment. And if the team keeps Harris – which actually seems more likely with Peppers in the fold – it takes away any double-teaming that a healthy, motivated Harris could bring to the table. Plus, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher(notes) returns after missing the final 15 games last season with a dislocated right wrist.

And yet, signing Peppers is a drastic move that comes with risks. After earning $16.7 million in 2009 under the franchise tag, and Friday’s monumental windfall, Peppers is awash in money. Like the concern over Haynesworth last season, the financial carrot has essentially vanished for the rest of his NFL career. And like Haynesworth, Peppers has never been lauded as being an overwhelming leader in the locker room.

But that’s a gamble the Bears’ current regime not only was willing to take – but essentially had to. As much as we’ll talk about this being a big bet on Peppers, the front office and coaching staff are making a final, definitive wager on themselves. Bets that need to pay off starting right now.

Charles Robinson is the senior investigative reporter for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Charles a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Mar 5, 2010