The weeks leading up to this Bears season opener almost feel like the weeks before Christmas, complete with a present under the tree: It sure looks pretty, but what's inside? You can't wait to find out.
The answer that begins Sunday with the Indianapolis Colts at Soldier Field, of course, is how will the Bears do this year? It seems that I, as a reporter, am supposed to know what their record will be when they finish the season at the end of December — and hopefully play into next year. I must be carrying a crystal ball, I guess. . . .
Expectations have been high, mostly because it felt like the 2011 season ended when quarterback Jay Cutler injured his thumb just as the team was surging with a 7 and 3 record. When Cutler went down the team was averaging 28 points a game. This team may be better than that — and it may have to be.
One of the casualties last season was General Manager Jerry Angelo; now the club has Phil Emery calling the shots, but he has a head coach in the final year of his deal. That means the season has plenty at stake for Lovie Smith: Is it playoffs or bust? Or will Smith survive without making the post-season?
When you look at the moves made and drafting done to fill out this 53-man roster, there is plenty of room for optimism. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall, for example, has had plenty of “off the field” issues; but the team believes he has addressed his struggles with borderline personality disorder and will be a huge positive this season. Of course, Marshall’s biggest advocate on the team is the guy throwing the ball to him, and Cutler seems very content with his former Denver teammate. Marshall has also built connections with other receivers and the team will be using tight ends again.
The other dismissal of note last season was offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Although the Bears offense was clicking last season before the Cutler injury, Martz was not a good fit. Who can forget during the Minnesota game when Cutler was caught on camera yelling profanity at Martz? This season Cutler has his former Denver coach Jeremy Bates as an assistant and it appears that offensive coordinator Mike Tice is inclusive with his quarterback designing plays. Will it be a happy marriage? Really, Cutler’s success will likely be determined by the biggest question mark: the offensive line. Will they get enough protection from the two tackles, J'Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi, as well as the rest of the line? Cutler's health depends on it. Tice is still the line coach, too, and he knows it’s their number one priority.
The Bears’ running game should also be interesting — if Forte can produce another Pro-Bowl season with former L.A. Raider Michael Bush as the back-up. Both will have to be part of the scheme to help protect Cutler with their blocking. Why would the offense have to be highly functional, you ask? The NFL goes through cycles and now it’s the high scoring teams with good, not necessarily great defenses. The exceptions are teams that can rush the quarterback and deal with one-on-one coverage — The New York Giants ferocious pass rush helped them win the Super Bowl. (That and the fact the past two years the hottest teams at the end of the year won it all. Who can forget Green Bay doing it two years ago?)
With this in mind, Bears defense may be a concern. We did not see much of their schemes during the pre-season. The Bears front four must have the strength to get a good push and seal the running lanes and get to the quarterback. They need to have Julius Peppers dominate and be a big play maker. If he can get the attention for constant double-teams, someone will be unblocked to get to the quarterback.
This is especially important as the team has suffered injuries to the secondary and defensive line. One injury has been a special obstacle — and has brought a spotlight is shining big time down on Brian Urlacher. He had been sidelined for such a long time and the mystery of his treatment and speculation about his health reached almost at tabloid levels. Will the face of the Bears be able to play at his high level on Sunday? Will he be able to recover between Sunday’s contest and game two on Thursday in Green Bay? Will he be a Bear after this year since he will be a free-agent? Why did he break up with Jenny McCarthy? Oh dear, I crossed the line. . . .
Okay, fine. Looking into my crystal ball I see ten wins for the Bears and playoffs. That present under the tree will be opened at noon on Sunday.
Follow Cheryl on Twitter @Crayestout.