Some of you probably consider the past decade of Chicago football to have been the "Brian Urlacher Era," while others think of it as the "Lovie Smith Era."
Either way, it's over.
Urlacher, an 8-time Pro Bowler, announced his retirement in May. Smith, a coach with a career record of 81-63, was fired on New Year's Eve, following a 10-win season.
The NFC North has been an arms race for a few years, and, finally — after missing the playoffs in five of the last six seasons — the Bears have decided to engage. The team addressed its offense in significant ways during the offseason. Chicago's new head coach, Marc Trestman, has a unique and impressive resume, with a deep history of coaxing quality seasons out of less-than-perfect quarterbacks.
Trestman helped guide both Scott Mitchell and Jake Plummer to playoff berths and significant yardage totals back in the day — 3484 yards for Mitchell in '97, 3737 for Plummer in '98. Later, he was on hand for the best seasons of Rich Gannon's career. Trestman was Oakland's offensive coordinator in 2002, when Gannon passed for a league-high 4689 yards and the Raiders went to the Super Bowl.
Over the past five years, Trestman has coached the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, a fact that's been met with derision and skepticism by several NFL observers. But no matter what you think of the CFL, it's tough to argue with Trestman's success. His teams made three Grey Cup appearances, winning twice, and he finished his tenure with four division titles and a winning percentage of .656. We can presumably all think of a few longtime NFL coaches who would not have done as well. (The Alouettes didn't exactly jump on the opportunity to hire Mike Tice after Trestman left, did they?)
As both a Bears fan and a fantasy gamer, I'm optimistic about the Trestman hire. He has a reputation for being an adaptable, inventive and aggressive coach, plus he has an excellent track record with flawed QBs. (And with great ones, too. He was Steve Young's OC in San Francisco in '95 and '96.) These are good things — necessary things for Chicago, considering the state of the team.
Some of you may have noticed that when Trestman is placed in front of a mic, he can be, um ... how to put this? ... vaguely unsettling. This trait may take some getting used to. He sounds at times like a visitor to our world — like perhaps he's only recently studied the ways of Earth's humans. And he'd really like to help us all self-actualize.
But no one in Chicago will care about the quirks if Trestman can just fix Jay Cutler and lead the Bears back to the postseason.
Cutler has essentially been treated like a crash-test dummy since he was dealt away by the Broncos in '09. He's been sacked 148 times over the past four seasons, leading the league in 2010 (52). He had the misfortune of running a Mike Martz system for two seasons, and of course his offensive line has been brutal. The addition of Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod will surely help this season. The team also signed a new left guard, Matt Slauson, and spent a first-round draft pick on hyper-athletic 6-foot-6 Oregon lineman Kyle Long.
Clearly, the Bears intend to create the best possible set-up for Cutler in 2013, a contract year for the QB. No one has ever questioned Cutler's physical tools; he's a mobile quarterback with absurd arm strength. But he's often recklessly aggressive, quick to flip the self-destruct switch. Chicago's offense was comically predictable last season, a problem for which both the coaches and Cutler deserved blame.
Under Trestman, you can expect a quick-hit offense with shorter drops by the quarterback and a much different tempo. Check the early reports from camp...
At one point during team drills, Trestman was unhappy with how slowly Jay Cutler and the offense were getting out of the huddle and he yelled: “It’s not a symposium. Get the play going!”
With an upgraded O-line and a more imaginative playbook, it's reasonable to expect a quality season from Cutler. I can't (or won't) make a strong case to draft him in standard fantasy leagues, because his position is loaded with talent and he's been a lousy per-game scorer since joining the Bears. Still, if all the new pieces come together and Cutler stays healthy, he has a shot to outproduce his preseason rank (No. 22 on my board) and his Yahoo! ADP (129.3).
There's really no debate about which name sits atop the receiving hierarchy in Chicago. Brandon Marshall accounted for a silly percentage of his team's total passing yardage in 2012, establishing new personal highs in every meaningful stat. He finished with 118 catches for 1508 yards. The team's next most productive wide receiver, Earl Bennett, caught 29 balls for 375 yards.
(Did I mention that the Bears were kinda predictable? Well, they were.)
Marshall has topped the 100-catch mark four times in his career and three times with Cutler, so you'd be nuts to bet against him doing it again in 2013. He's an extremely physical receiver with ideal size (6-4, 230), and he gets away with more contact than any receiver probably should. Draft him in the second round, enjoy the returns.
The addition of Martellus Bennett, a competent pass-catcher, will obviously help this team. Bennett is an excellent multi-purpose tight end, a very good blocker who can get himself downfield, creating match-up trouble for opposing defenses. He's a massive upgrade over the monolithic, drop-prone Kellen Davis. Assuming good health, Bennett is a decent bet to finish among the top-10 players at his position.
Second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery looked terrific in exhibition play last summer, but injuries and interference flags doomed him in the regular season. The offseason buzz on Jeffery has been relatively good, plus he has Marshall-like size, so don't give up on him just yet. He's a nice late-round flier, a receiver with both talent and opportunity, available at the end of your draft.
I will not even mention the other names in Chicago's receiving corps, because they might inadvertently wind up on someone's cheat sheet, where they do not belong. Here's the depth chart if you really need it, for some unknown purpose.
Matt Forte is an outstanding fit for an offense that wants to work quick and strike fast. He's averaged 53.4 catches per season over his five-year NFL career, with a high of 63 in 2008. Trestman's history suggests that he'll rely heavily on his featured back as a receiving threat — just check the work that Charlie Garner did in '02. Forte is in line for a big PPR campaign, and likely a stellar season in terms of scrimmage yards. He fought through an ankle injury last season, managing 1094 rushing yards and 4.4 per carry. And like every other skill player in this offense, Forte should be helped by the O-line improvements.
Michael Bush still lurks as a threat to see 6-10 touches per game (plus goal line action), but his presence shouldn't dim your Forte enthusiasm too severely. In standard drafts, No. 22 should go in the mid-second; in PPR, there's a case for Forte in the late-first.
The Bears defense won't abandon the principles, scheme or terminology they relied on under Lovie, so don't fret too much about a collapse of fantasy value. This defense still has talent at every level, and they're uniquely focused on generating turnovers. Chicago has intercepted at least 20 passes in each of the past three seasons. It's unreasonable to expect anything close to last year's nine defensive TDs(!), but this group should still finish near the top of the D/ST scoring leaders.
IDP owners, the Bears to target are DB Charles Tillman, DE Julius Peppers, LB Lance Briggs, LB DJ Williams and DB Tim Jennings, probably in that order. Jennings led the NFL in interceptions last season (9) while Tillman led in forced fumbles (10). So this D does not lack opportunists.
2012 team stats: 23.4 points per game (16), 206.1 passing yards per game (28), 123.1 rushing yards per game (10)
Previous Juggernauts: 32. NY Jets, 31. Oakland, 30. Jacksonville, 29. Buffalo, 28. Cleveland, 27. Tennessee, 26. San Diego, 25. Miami, 24. St. Louis, 23. Pittsburgh, 22. Arizona, 21. Minnesota, 20. Kansas City