Bear With us While we Make Some Changes: Chicago Bears 2016 Preview
In 2015, The Chicago Bears started a pretty epic rebuild on both sides of the ball, with new weapons, a new defensive scheme, new GM and new coaching staff. Somehow though they managed to get a team together that exceeds expectations. So in 2016, can the Bears take the next step? Can Jay Cutler lead an overpowered Bears offence, without Adam Gase? And can the Bears defence improve to a level accepting by Bears fans. Let’s take a look.
After the disappointing reign of Tressman and Emery, the Bears went in a completely different direction, hiring Ryan Pace as a GM, John Fox as Head Coach, Adam Gase as Offensive Coordinator and Vic Fangio as Defensive Coordinator, a group that resembles the Travelling Wilburys of NFL coaching. With the appointment of new coaching came new schemes. The offence didn’t change a great deal other than there was an influx of positivity, the defence however was a more complicated matter. Fangio brought with him the blueprints for a dominant 3-4 defence. Unfortunately the Bears previously ran a 4-3 leaving Fangio facing a “square pegs, round holes situation” and for a chunk of the season it seemed to take the team a while to find their feet, which saw with it a number of players being released, most notably Jared Allen, who went on to play for the Panthers. After the initial cull however, the defence seemed to find its feet. The signing of Pernell McPhee might have been one of the top off season pickups, after spending several seasons in the shadows of an exceptional Ravens line-backer group. McPhee came in and made an immediate impact on a defence that started the season a little lost, picking up 6 sacks and leading a defensive unit that was ranked 5th in yards allowed. Eddie Goldman came in, in the draft and made an instant impact at nose tackle, a position the Bears otherwise had no answer for. In the secondary the Bears managed to strike gold with a resurgent Tracy Porter and picking up Adrian Amos, who in the 5th round was an absolute steal. Whilst the Bears managed to keep the yardage down, they were susceptible to big plays and ranked 25th in the league for TDs through the air.
The Bears offence had a good season. Adam Gase seemed to be saying all the right things to keep Cutler on track. Rarely did we see Cutler’s head drop, followed immediately by 4 interceptions. Instead we saw a more focused Cutler who actually seemed to be enjoying himself, making use of a deep group of weapons. Despite the array of top talent around Cutler the Bears season was hindered from the start, with Kevin White, the Bears 1st round pick, missing the Season with a shin injury and with Marshall now at the Jets, the Bears didn’t have quite the depth at receiver they had grown used to, at times lining up with Eddie Royal as their number one. In these instances tight ends, Zach Miller and Martellus Bennett filled in admirably. At running back it was the beginning of the end for running back Matt Forte as he saw himself get gradually replaced with new recruit Jeremy Langford. The 2 split time and Forte in fact remained Cutler’s go to receiver.
For a year that was set to be the 1st in a giant rebuild, the Bears did surprisingly well, holding their own for a good chunk of the season. The changes all seemed to be positive, although more changes were on the horizon.
Goodbye Adam Gase
There is little question about the positive effect Adam Gase had on Cutler and the Bears offence, raising Cutlers passer rating to a career high 92.9. So evident was it in fact that Gase managed to pick up the vacant Dolphins head coaching job, leaving the Bears with another offensive coordinator role to fill. After Cutler had spent the season singing his praise, the obvious choice was QB Coach Dowell Loggains, who comes in with the specific job of not rocking the boat too much and providing minimal change from the framework that Gase had installed. Loggains will be somewhat up against it however with the loss of 2 of the Bears top weapons in Matt Forte (Jets) and Martellus Bennett (Patriots), both had been excellent safety valves for Cutler when he was having some of his more wayward patches. The loss of Matt Slausen and Jermon Bushrod from the offensive line, might hit them hard too, but the addition of Bobby Massie at right tackle should ease a few concerns. Massie is the standout addition on offence through the off season, but having Kevin White come back fit and healthy will feel almost like an extra 1st round pick, who has an awful lot to prove.
Coming into the off-season, after releasing and trading a number of high ticket players, the Chicago Bears had a little spending money for the 1st time in a long time. This was spent mostly, on bringing defensive pieces that fit the 3-4 defence and I think most would agree that they succeeded. Inside line-backer has been an issue since Brian Urlacher retired and if you thought they lacked talent on the inside running a 4-3, they had no one that could fill either of the spots in a 3-4. Enter underrated Super bowl winning ILB, Danny Trevathan and key Indianapolis piece Jerrell Freeman. In these 2 pieces Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio finally has his centrepiece players. Fangio comes from a San Francisco team where he helped forge the career of 2 of the best inside line-backers in recent history, Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman. In Trevathan and Freeman, he might finally have his Willis and Bowman. The rebuilding didn’t stop there though. The Bears free agency spending continued with the pickup of the ex- Patriots Akiem Hicks who brings some much needed experience to a young, hungry defensive line. This is Hicks’ 3rd team, but outside of Goldman, he’s the most talented Defensive lineman they have. If free agency was where they replaced some lost pieces, the draft was where they improved. 1st round pick Leonard Floyd was the Bears finishing touch on a line-backer group that could be one of the best in the league. Floyd will line up as the Bears only true out and out edge rusher. Jonathan Bullard was a steal in the 3rd round and when he’s NFL ready he could be the missing piece in a defensive front 7 that was in tatters last year. In the 4th round the Bears addressed the secondary, picking up Deon Bush and Deiondre Hall. The buzz around the Bears is that Deiondre Hall has the potential to mirror ex-Bears CB Charles Tillman. Deiondre Hall is 6’2 and 200 lbs and saw Charles Tillman as a role model throughout college. Deon Bush was considered a “hit-man” in college, lighting up tight ends and receivers that dared to cross the middle of the field, a level of aggression the Bears could use amongst their safeties.
With all these additions the Bears are dangerously close to being relevant… right?
The Bears have a young defence with an insane amount of potential, led by Vic Fangio, one of the most talented line-backer groups in the league and some actual depth at defensive back. So what could hold them back? Well there are a lot of unproven elements to this Bears team. Even though the optimist in me believes they can eventually get it together, I’ve got to think they’re still at least a season away. The improvements they’ve made are good ones and definite steps in the right direction, but there are still so many question marks. Cutler is the biggest of them all? With flashes of genius, an insane arm and athleticism out of the wazoo, it’s beyond frustrating when we see him almost give up when the going gets tough. If Loggains can keep him on track then they’re on to a winner, but if he’s not the QB whisperer that Gase is, the offence could be set for a giant fall. The defence comes in with little expectation other than the feeling that they’ll improve. I however think they can be something special. The Bears defence joins a group of teams who could be set for a sneaky elite group, with the likes of Washington, Tennessee, Tampa Bay and San Diego. Fangio has a group of players that he hasn’t seen in 4 years and has to be licking his chops at the thought of what he can do with it. Although the secondary is unproven, they are vastly improved, with Porter, Amos, Fuller and Callahan giving them a decent (yet not elite), group of starters.
With an improving NFC North, the Bears will struggle for relevance, but I have to think they’ll improve. Chicago just need to remember this is a long term rebuild and an elite playoff worthy team, seems to be on the horizon.