Lovie Smith won 81 games over his nine years as Bears coach, with four double-digit victory showings and a Super Bowl berth. He also missed the playoffs five times from 2007-12, prompting the Bears to eschew his defense-first mentality for a more exciting brand of football.
The ploy worked ... sort of.
Armed with the offense Smith's replacement, Marc Trestman, had honed in the CFL, Chicago finished second in the league in points scored last season. Six times, the Bears scored 30 or more in a game; three times, they topped 40 (once in a loss, 45-41 to Washington). Unfortunately for them, without Smith's guidance, the defense regressed at a comical rate, landing at No. 30 both in yards and points allowed.
The focus was clear during the recent free-agent period and draft: fix that D. The solutions were rather drastic, with the Bears waving goodbye to Julius Peppers, Henry Melton, Corey Wootton and Major Wright, among others. The projected starting 11 on that side of the ball now features DE Jared Allen, who has long been terrorizing NFC North QBs as a Minnesota Viking, as well as former Raiders DE Lamarr Houston. Chicago also used four picks in the opening four rounds of the draft on its defense, the pièce de résistance coming in the form of Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller.
He alone offers hope for a bounce-back effort in 2014. A physical, polished product, Fuller injects some youth into a secondary paced by 33-year-old Charles Tillman and 30-year-old Tim Jennings. Should any of his fellow draft mates emerge in the coming months, Chicago would be thrilled. On that list are DTs Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton and S Brock Vereen. It is Vereen who may be closest to the starting lineup.
The offense again should be potent, with the arrival of center Brian de la Puente helping to strengthen the line. Chicago's success, though, ultimately will come down to defense. Is it better than it was in 2014? Maybe. It definitely is different.
Best acquisition: Lamarr Houston, DE
For as stunning as it was that the Raiders did not use their franchise tag on OT Jared Veldheer this offseason, the franchise's decision to let Houston walk unimpeded may have been equally head-scratching. Publicly, the Raiders talked about wanting Houston back, but Houston himself speculated that he wasn't a perfect fit for "what they want for their system and their scheme."
Oakland's loss is Chicago's gain.
To cut right to the heart of it, the Bears' front seven was a disgrace last season. The team managed just 31 sacks (tied with Jacksonville for least in the league) while serving up an alarming 2,583 yards on the ground -- that's 410 more than the next worst run defense, Atlanta. The dramatic overhaul of the D-line that followed was not by accident, and though Allen was the headliner, Houston could be the key.
He is coming of a season in which he delivered a career-high six sacks. More importantly, he has experience playing both outside at end and sliding inside to help at tackle, with the ability to defend against the run or pass.
"I liked that versatility, liked the fact that he can slide inside and rush," Bears GM Phil Emery said. "He's rushed at the three-technique and the nose and right [end] and left [end].
"That type of versatility really fits into where we're trying to go with our defense. This is a strong, tough, physical long-armed player who can play multiple positions, which helps you in terms of disguising what you're going to do. You don't have to substitute for him."
Allen's remaining skill paints a different picture. He still can get to the passer, as evidenced by his 11.5 sacks last season, but he is a growing liability against the run. Chicago may mix and match then on early downs, with ex-Lion Willie Young and possibly 2013 sixth-rounder Cornelius Washington providing some run support. If all goes according to plan, Houston will lead the defensive linemen in snaps ... with the production to match.
Biggest loss: Henry Melton, DT
Perhaps no injury in the NFL last season stung a team as badly as the ACL tear that sidelined Melton for his team's final 13 games. From Weeks 1-3, with Melton in the lineup, the Bears' defense allowed an average of 88 rushing yards per game; over Weeks 4-17, sans Melton, it coughed up 178 per game.
The Bears were unable -- or unwilling -- to re-sign Melton, allowing him to head off to Dallas. They did retain Jay Ratliff plus drafted Ferguson and Sutton, two high-upside rookies, to round out the DT position. No one from that group -- nor incumbent starter Stephen Paea -- offers a Melton-esque influence as of yet. Melton delivered a Pro Bowl season in 2012, establishing himself as one of the game's top three-technique tackles.
Surely, the added depth in the trenches will provide D.C. Mel Tucker a better chance of succeeding this season. But unless Ratliff rediscovers his form from three or four years ago, or the Ferguson-Sutton duo exceed expectations, Tucker will continue to find it hard to move on without Melton.
Underrated draft pick: Ka'Deem Carey, RB
Opinions were split on Carey entering the draft, despite his incredible production for Arizona over 2012-13: 3,814 combined yards rushing, 42 receptions, 44 touchdowns. This should be a pretty decent landing spot for him, though.
Matt Forte's grip on the starting job has not loosened at all, so Carey will battle Michael Ford for the backup spot. Last year, Michael Bush carried the ball 63 times while holding down that role -- a number that would have been larger had the Bears trusted Bush for anything more than short-yardage situations. Carey is capable of more when Forte needs a breather. He will catch a few balls out of the backfield and can grind inside if needed. And the spread-out Chicago attack means Carey will see some of the same defensive looks he saw working from Rich Rodriguez's scheme with Arizona.
"He's a north-and-south runner, meaning when he decides to put his foot in the ground he doesn't dance, he just goes," offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said following Chicago's rookie minicamp, via Bears.com. "He's gaining yards, and that's what we like about Ka'Deem: he makes a cut, he gains yards. That's what we're looking for."
Hold off on planning your fantasy football draft strategy around him right now (unless you want Forte's safety net), but Carey could emerge quickly as a reliable weapon in Chicago.
Looming question for training camp: Who will start at safety?
Last year, it was Major Wright and Chris Conte. This year, well ... who knows.
Conte was a 16-game starter in 2013, but he's working his way back from April shoulder surgery and was as culpable as anyone for Chicago's defensive woes; for as porous as the front seven proved itself to be, neither Conte nor Wright offered much support. Wright reunited with Lovie Smith in April, signing a deal in Tampa Bay with the hope that he can return to being at least an average NFL safety.
Conte may still be in the mix for his old starting job. In his absence, rookie fourth-rounder Brock Vereen has climbed the depth chart rapidly. Of course, it is an extremely cluttered depth chart, also featuring Ryan Mundy (if the season started today, likely one of the starters); ex-Packer M.D. Jennings; and veteran Adrian Wilson, who signed with Chicago only last week, after the Bears had wrapped their final OTA of the offseason.
Wilson is an intriguing wild card. Following 12 seasons and five Pro Bowls in Arizona, he landed a three-year contract with the Patriots prior to the '13 season. He then tore his Achilles and landed on injured reserve, before being released. At 34, he's unlikely to find his pre-injury gear again. Even at less than top form, however, Wilson may be able to push the rest of Chicago's safeties for playing time.
This has been a problem spot for the Bears for some time now, and the headaches appear set to continue.