After 13 years, it'd be strange to see Brian Urlacher wear anything but a Bears uniform, but that could be the case after this season. (Getty Images)
With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
It was all going so well for the Bears. After getting out to a 2-3 start, the Bears reeled off four straight wins, and were on their way to a fifth. But Jay Cutler broke his thumb trying to make a tackle on an interception return with 10 minutes left against the Chargers, and that was that for the 2011 Bears.
With Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown taking over under center, the Bears lost five of their last six. Worse yet, the injuries mounted. Two weeks after Cutler's injury, Matt Forte was lost to an MCL sprain. Two weeks after that, Johnny Knox was lost to a back injury so bad it threatens his 2012.
At full strength, the 2011 Bears were clearly better than the 8-8 team they wound up to be. If you want to project the future, don't look at the season-long stats and rankings. Look at the stats before Hanie took over a powerful ship and turned it into the Titanic.
2011 Record: 8-8 (third place, NFC North)
Key Additions: WR Brandon Marshall, WR Alshon Jeffery, RB Michael Bush, DE Shea McClellin, QB Jason Campbell, G Chilo Rachal
Key Subtractions: RB Marion Barber
Team Strengths: QB, WR, RB, DE
Team Weaknesses: OL, TE, S
Three Things to Watch:
1. How will the Matt Forte mess resolve itself?: Forte has three options: he can agree to whatever long-term deal the Bears are offering, he could sign the franchise tag the team placed on him, or he could hold out. If he's smart, he'll take the first option.
Forte will not be getting the big money he wants, not with the state of running backs today and the Bears' concerns about whether or not his knees will hold up. It may be unfair, but it's reality. And while the team struggled without Forte at the end of last season, the back is far from indispensable, and the team set itself up pretty well for the possibility of playing without him when it signed Michael Bush.
At some point, Forte is going to swallow his pride. He simply doesn't have the leverage to wait for the Bears to blink. In the meantime, while questions about Forte's contract status are far from new, his teammates must surely be tiring of hearing about it on a constant basis.
2. Can the much-maligned offensive line perform better?: As you can see by the key additions and subtractions above, the Bears added a lot of talent at positions of need, without losing much. One key area the team almost entirely ignored, however, was its offensive line, which allowed 49 sacks in 2011 (27th in the league; Football Outsiders ranked the line 31st in pass protection).
Getting second-year tackle Gabe Carimi back after an early-season injury will certainly help. Adding Chico Rachal to the depth at guard was a wise move as well; Rachal had a down year in 2011 but was better in previous seasons and at the very least is a serviceable body who can step in if needed. Beyond that, though, the Bears didn't bring in anyone to compete with J'Marcus Webb, who was dreadful at left tackle last season.
That could be a critical misstep for a Bears team that is transitioning to a pass-heavy offense. Jay Cutler will need time to find new No. 1 receiver Brandon Marshall, and the team is planning on utilizing Devin Hester more in the offense. If the team wants to hit on big plays to those two, the offensive line will need to hold up long enough for routes to develop.
3. Is this the end of the line for Brian Urlacher as a Bear?: The All-Pro is entering a contract year, and admitted a few weeks ago that the concept of free agency is "intriguing" after spending all 13 years of his NFL career in Chicago, but that ultimately he wants to retire as a Bear. So, for Chicago, the solution is simple: Don't let Urlacher hit free agency. Even at 34, the linebacker is producing at a more-than-solid rate, and the Bears have no one even remotely ready to replace him. Linebacker is, and has long been, one of the strengths of the team, but a defection from Urlacher could create a gaping void in the middle of the defense, as well as in the locker room.
Outlook: Some would say the Bears are the clear-cut third-best team in the NFC North, but that's underselling them a bit. They proved in the first half of last season that their 11-5 2010 mark was no fluke, and just because the injury bug bit hard last year doesn't change that, especially with some of the players the team has added in the offseason.
That being said, it's hard to see them unseating the Packers atop the division. They should, however, be on the right side of .500 and could give the Lions -- and the other NFC non-division-winners -- something to worry about in the wild card race.
-- By Tom Mantzouranis