Crosstalk: Was The Bears’ Season A Total Loss?

[from The A.V. Club Chicago, with Andy Seifert / January 11, 2010]

Andrew: Andy, as you well know, our lowly third-place Bears just finished out a pathetic 7-9 season with a cakewalk over the Lions, a sad team that ended the year exactly as far behind the Bears as the Bears ended up behind the first-place Vikings. That says a lot about where the Bears are, but says just as much about exactly where they always were and most likely will be a year from now. Distanced from the dregs of the NFL, but still with so much work to do before they can even think of competing with the big kids.

Think back to last spring, and to those countless yahoos calling up sports radio to talk about the foregone conclusion of the 2009-2010 NFC North: “We got Jay Cutler! WOOOOO!!! SUPER BOWL BABY!!!!” Yet no one—fans, team management, major sports publicationsBears wide receiver Rashied Davis—ever bothered to consider to who, exactly, Cutler was supposed to pass and, with the offensive line as miserable as it has been since those bygone days of 2006, what the Bears had beyond a single-weapon running game in the promising yet totally unproven hands of Matt Forte. Daring to ask such things incited, without fail, a refrain of the yahoo call above (coupled with some all-too-Superfanesque proclamations of inevitable greatness), and it pained me to no end seeing my fellow Chicagoans so blind in their optimism. And yet here we sit, another year gone with the team outside the playoffs and looking up at the Packers, and can anyone really be surprised? The week 16 de-wrangling of Brett Favre aside, you have to agree the Bears might as well have sat the season out. (They’ve even admitted as much themselves.)

Andy: Andrew, of course I agree that the 2009 season was a pathetic, occasionally calamitous showing for the Bears, but let’s look on the bright side: As I write this, Ron Turner is being dismissed from his duties as Bears offensive coordinator. How can one possibly be dour when the architect of the Bears’ insipid running attack, disorganized passing game, and altogether identity-lacking offense these past five years is currently packing up his things in Halas Hall? If it took the martyrdom of Matt Forte’s career and the weekly occurrence of Jay Cutler throwing aimlessly into the secondary then looking at the sideline all mopey and confused to finally kill off Turner, then so be it. Assuming the Bears don’t hire offensive “mastermind” Mike Martz to run his Rubik’s Cube of a system, the Bears will almost certainly look more competent, maybe even decent, on that side of the ball in 2010.

Also, I think you’re disregarding just how dangerous Cutler will be once his teammates play at least average ball (case in point, fifth-stringer Devin Aromashodu tearing up the vaunted Vikings defense, just by running the correct routes). I agree with one writer, who, back in October, said that Cutler had “completely redefined the Bears,” that he was a “player capable of elevating the team to contender level” and that “wide receivers Earl Bennett (a free agent after the 2011 season) and Johnny Knox (under team control through the 2012 season) are poised to flourish under Cutler’s watch.” Oh hey, that was you, Andrew Reilly! What a happy coincidence. And you (at least your October self) are totally right. Patience, Bears fans, ol’ Jay will be killer in 2010.

Andrew: I’m glad you mention Cutler, because the key phrase there was “elevate to contender level”—a feat only possible because of the Bears’ existence as a playoff outsider. When I wrote that piece back in October, the Bears were 3-2 and had yet to fully reveal their mediocrity. Cedric Benson had not yet exacted his revenge on the coach that wronged him in his younger days; the 49ers’ horrible, 20th-ranked pass defense hadn’t yet shamed Cutler with five interceptions; the Cardinals hadn’t yet ground the Bears’ bones to dust. Things were looking up heading into the sixth game of the season, but things look up for everyone heading into the sixth game of the season. Three months on, my point makes itself.

That said, I admire your optimism about next year and really do want to share it. By bolstering the offensive line, exploiting next year’s theoretically favorable schedule, properly utilizing their promising young running back and wide receivers, and making some sensible changes to the coaching staff, we could be talking about how the 2010 Bears . . . well, actually, we’d be talking about how little ground they’ve gained, because these were all positive steps whose benefit they had their best chance to reap after last season. A year later, facing a weaker free-agent class, with no trade bait to dangle, and with no picks until the third round of this year’s draft, I’m curious to hear how you think new coordinators on either side are going to find winning talent where clearly none yet exists (and no, Andy, banking on career games from backup receivers is not the path to victory). They’ll remain a middling team, but in light of the young players learning a new game as the old players get a little older, they’ll at least be taking a step forward—if all goes well, a non-embarrassing, non-spectacular 8-8 season is totally possible.

Andy: See, I think the talent is there on offense, it’s just been hidden under the malaise of Turner’s system. Just look at what freaking Cedric Benson accomplished once he was cut. Cedric Benson! The receiving core will get better with experience (remember that Aromashadu, Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett, and Greg Olsen are all either 25 or under) and by subtraction — hopefully, the new coordinator will understand Devin Hester will never be a legit wideout. Matt Forte can’t possibly be as bad as he was this year; I don’t think it’s irrational to expect him to at least return to his rookie year production. Defensively, I’ll admit, there are holes everywhere. The Lions could trot 42-year-old Jeff George out there and he’d still tear the secondary apart. But Urlacher will be back, and even though he always looks mostly ineffectual, for whatever reason the defense tends to function better with him (I believe the Bears record without him is now 7-15). Lovie’s defense was so solid in 2006 — I say Urlacher and friends have one last hurrah in 2010, sort of their farewell tour.

Call it a hunch, but I forsee a wildly exciting 10-6 season, full of trick plays, a revitalized Jay Cutler (who’ll only throw into double coverage, instead of triple or quadruple coverage), a large heaping of luck (the Bears are due for some) in the form of close, undeserving wins, and Gaines Adams breaking Brett Favre’s pelvis. Only 101 days until the draft!