Bears brimming with optimism about talent level
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. (MCT) — If Charles Darwin were around to study these Bears, he surely would come up with a theory because things evidently are evolving on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University the way he determined things were on the Galapagos Islands.
Yes, it seems one species can evolve into another, even the Ursus family.
The Bears that have been witnessed lately can throw the ball with the best of them. They take great precautions to protect the passer.
Same old, same old on offense, Lovie Smith?
“We’ll get off the bus running — and passing,” the Bears coach said in an admission that may stun some. “I still think there is a place for the run, but it’s about balance as much as anything.”
Welcome to the 21st century, Chicago Bears.
And to the NFC North.
The key here is the Bears are equipped better than ever to pass. But they still plan to take advantage of what defenses give them.
They can ram it down your throat with Matt Forte if you like. Or they can try to imitate the Packers and Lions and wear out your cornerbacks.
The big difference is the presence of wide receiver Brandon Marshall, whom new general manager Phil Emery acquired in a March trade. The wide receiver has been an absolute sensation in training camp.
“I can’t think of a day when I didn’t watch him in practice and say, ‘Thank you God,’ “ Smith said, gazing to heaven. “We have not had a receiver like Brandon here before.”
Marshall should make Jay Cutler a considerably better quarterback, in part because they have a special chemistry that was evident when both were rookies on the Broncos in 2006, and in part because Marshall stands 6 feet 4.
And he isn’t the only big new target for Cutler. Second-round draft pick Alshon Jeffery is only one inch shorter than Marshall.
“He has caught everything, everything we’ve thrown at him,” Smith said. “And the guys like him a little more every day because they see what he can be.”
Marshall and Jeffery were part of a talent influx that also included backup quarterback Jason Campbell, backup running back Michael Bush, defensive end Shea McClellin and cornerback Kelvin Hayden.
And despite their 8-8 finish, the 2011 Bears were a very talented group, at least when healthy. These Bears are more talented, and better equipped to weather an injury storm like the one that hit last year.
“We’ve had good teams before, and that’s not putting them down,” Smith said. “But we are expecting big things from this team.”
In addition to the newcomers, he cited Cutler and Forte being better than ever, cornerback Charles Tillman taking his game to a higher level and the big three on defense of Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers and Lance Briggs.
But the availability and the effectiveness of Urlacher will be in question because he missed a chunk of training camp and had knee surgery this week. Considering he remains the heart of the defense, this is no small issue.
His teammates profess unrelenting faith in Urlacher’s ability to come back strong.
“He’s going to ball,” Briggs said. “I know he’s going to ball. He’s going to will himself to do it. That’s the type of person he is, regardless of what’s going on with the knee.”
Urlacher’s situation underscores a concern for this team: The defense could use a little Just For Men. The four best players, Urlacher, Peppers, Briggs and Tillman are 34, 32, 31 and 31 respectively.
The good news is each was outstanding last year.
“I don’t think you see a player have a career year and then they fall off a cliff,” Smith said. “To say their play will decline that much, I don’t think so.”
The Bears’ hope is the presence of fresh-faced rookie McClellin will help keep the defense young. It has been hard not to notice the 23-year old’s energy, hustle and speed.
“We talk about all the athletic quarterbacks out there,” Smith said. “This (McClellin) is what you need against them — athletes who can run down guys.”
Of course, none of this will matter much if Cutler is getting run down as much as he was two years ago, when he was sacked 52 times.
The Bears will be as good as their offensive line allows them to be.
“It starts with us,” said center Roberto Garza, the rock of the line. “If we don’t do our job, this team doesn’t go anywhere.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Tice promises to help his linemen with scheming and play calls. Especially his left tackle, whomever that will be.
These Bears have their flaws. But they also have the capacity to expose the flaws of their opponents.
2011: 8-8, third place in the NFC North.
Key additions: Quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates, running back Michael Bush, quarterback Jason Campbell, wide receiver Rashied Davis, cornerback Kelvin Hayden, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, wide receiver Brandon Marshall, defensive end Shea McClellin, tight end Evan Rodriguez, wide receiver Eric Weems.
Key losses: Defensive tackle Anthony Adams, running back Marion Barber, cornerback Zack Bowman, cornerback Corey Graham, quarterback Caleb Hanie, offensive coordinator Mike Martz, safety Brandon Meriweather, defensive tackle Amobe Okoye, offensive lineman Frank Omiyale, wide receiver Roy Williams.
August stars: Marshall has dominated camp as few players can. It has helped that Jay Cutler has delivered the ball so well. Rookie Jeffery also has stood out, catching almost everything. Dane Sanzenbacher has stood up to the challenge. Matt Forte looks strong. Defensive backs Tim Jennings and Chris Conte have stood out. And defensive end Corey Wootton has come on. The sleeper who has caught some eyes is wide receiver Brittan Golden.
On the hot seat: The Bears have given Cutler his handpicked quarterbacks coach and his handpicked wide receiver. His contract is up after the 2013 season and if he wants to be paid like an elite quarterback, he has to perform like one — and win.
Camp oddity: This has been one of the most physical camps in coach Lovie Smith’s tenure with the Bears. The practices have been longer than ever, usually going every bit of 21/2 hours. And there has been more hitting. On several occasions, Smith even has had the guys on the bottom of the roster go live. “In certain years, you have a different theme,” Smith explained. “We have some young guys up front on both sides. Guys need more physical work.”