With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.
Major change has come to the Chicago Bears, one of the more stable franchises of the last decade. After nine years of great defense, powerful running, and “interesting” quarterback play under former head coach Lovie Smith, the Windy City’s NFL representative fired Smith on New Year’s Day 2013, and went in a very different direction. Instead of a promising league assistant, college coach or pro coaching retread, second-year general manager Phil Emery went with Marc Trestman, the Montreal Allouettes head coach and longtime quarterback guru. Emery, who thinks outside the box, liked that Trestman did the same.
"The thing that was most remarkable that came out in his interviews and when discussing with people who Marc is, was there's a heck of a football coach under all that quietness and confidence and intellect,” Emery said of his new coach in late January. “Do not underestimate Marc Trestman as a competitor. He's as tough-minded and football-oriented as anybody I've been around in 31 years in this game. It'll be evident when you see our team's play with the tempo they play and with the competitiveness that they play."
That’s all well and good, but some players on the defensive side of the ball -- the side Smith ruled -- seem concerned about the switch.
“The effect he had on me as a player was that he challenged me to be better than everybody else at my position,” All-Pro cornerback Charles Tillman told me last month. “He told me to be bold and brave, and I just thank him for that … He wasn't just a coach; he is a great man and a great person, and there was a friendship involved as well.”
No matter what, things will be different for the Bears. But will they be better over time?
• Biggest storyline: Can Trestman bring out the best in Jay Cutler?
When former GM Jerry Angelo traded two first-round picks for Cutler in a complex trade with the Denver Broncos in 2009, he was clearly putting all his chips on Cutler’s number. The talented but enigmatic quarterback has been hit-and-miss in his four years with the Bears, and there’s one year left on the five-year, $49.77 million contract he signed in October 2009. Trestman has a long history of working well with quarterbacks as an NFL offensive coordinator, and the Bears have made it clear -- there will be no extension for Cutler unless Trestman signs off on him as his quarterback of the future.
Trestman is all about mechanics and timing, mixing a history in the West Coast offense with the spread concepts he adopted in the CFL. Cutler is a deep-drop quarterback with a severe improvisational streak and perhaps the best arm in the NFL. He’s used that arm to get around a host of mechanical and game-management issues. Trestman has been positive when talking about how Cutler has picked up his concepts, and if Cutler can adapt, he could very well become a top-five quarterback. If not, he’ll be moving along, and the Bears will face a major reset at the game’s most important position.
• Most intriguing positional battle: Middle linebacker.
The Bears brought in former Broncos ‘backer D.J. Williams to ostensibly replace the retired Brian Urlacher, but Williams has a real fight for a starting role on the inside. Chicago took Florida’s Jon Bostic in the second round of the 2013 draft, and Bosti made a lot of waves when he perfectly read a Cam Newton pass for a pick-six in his first preseason game. In early August, Bostic was calling the defensive plays in practice while Williams recovered from a calf injury and Lance Briggs got a “maintenance day.”
‘‘There’s really no difference,’‘ Bostic said of his new responsibilities. ‘‘Make the calls, make all the checks -- so really just learn all the terminology and keep getting better at it. I don’t look at it as getting thrown in the fire. I’m out there with a lot of guys I’ve watched on TV the last 10 or 12 years. I’ve got to pick it up. I’ve got to make sure I’m in my playbook off the field so I’m not making any mistakes out there.’’
The Bears see Bostic as their middle linebacker of the future, and the future might be now.
We’re putting two guys in this spot, because that’s how horrid Chicago’s blocking was last season. Cutler was running for his life most of the time behind the NFL’s worst offensive line, and Emery tried to solve the problem by signing Bushrod, who protected Drew Brees’ blind side in New Orleans, and Bennett, who is quite possibly the best blocking tight end in the NFL. Adding Bushrod to the roster allows J’Marcus Webb to flip over to right tackle, and that’s a good thing -- he was clearly overwhelmed on the left side. Last season, he allowed five sacks and blew 18 blocks in pass protection, per Football Outsiders’ game charting. Of course, Bushrod allowed three sacks and blew 21.5 blocks in pass pro per those same metrics, so Trestman may want to go with a lot of three-step drops.
• Impact rookie: Kyle Long, OL.
Long would be an interesting story if he never took an NFL snap. The son of Hall-of-Famer Howie and brother to star St. Louis Rams defensive lineman Chris was a fireballing pitcher for Florida State until off-field issues stopped his progress. He switched to football at Saddleback Junior College and then walked on to Oregon’s offensive line in 2012, playing serious snaps at left guard and left tackle without the benefit of spring ball. Long is a humble kid who understands how much he needs to learn, and he looked pretty solid in his NFL debut against the Panthers. The Bears plan to put their first-round pick at right guard right away, but he could move to the left side over time.
• Looking at the schedule: According to FO’s projections, the Bears will face the league’s 11th-toughest schedule in 2013, and there really isn’t anything approaching a break until the end of the season.
Chicago starts off with home games against the Bengals and Vikings, followed by a trip to Pittsburgh. October starts with a home game against the Saints, followed by a visit from the Giants, and a trip to face the Redskins. The Packers and Ravens await them after the late October bye, followed by trips to St. Louis and Minnesota. December games against the Cowboys, Browns and Eagles might be easier in the abstract, but the thing that stands out about Chicago’s schedule is that every defense it faces has at least one pass rusher who can provide a lot of trouble. Emery had best hope that his fixes to the offensive line pay off, or Cutler will be pondering his NFL future from the bench.