EMBARGOED until Thursday: It’s now four years since the Chicago Bears reached the Super Bowl. They haven’t reached the playoffs since. They’ve been unusually bold in trying, trading for Jay Cutler last year and making a $91.5 million free-agent splash on Julius Peppers this winter. Yet for all their efforts, the Bears open training camp Friday in Bourbonnais with as many questions as ever. Here are the top seven, one question for every victory last year.
Editors: Story embargoed until Thursday.
It’s now four years since the Chicago Bears reached the Super Bowl. They haven’t reached the playoffs since. They’ve been unusually bold in trying, trading for Jay Cutler last year and making a $91.5 million free-agent splash on Julius Peppers this winter.
Yet for all their efforts, the Bears open training camp Friday in Bourbonnais with as many questions as ever. Here are the top seven, one question for every victory last year:
7: Forte or Taylor?
In his sophomore year, Matt Forte fell from a star who set franchise rookie records of 1,238 yards rushing and 1,715 yards from scrimmage. Supporters blame it on spotty offensive line play, but his backups did fine. Forte gained his 929 yards by averaging 3.6 per rush. Everyone else on the team was 4.3 or higher.
Because the backups (and quarterback Jay Cutler) ran so well, Chicago actually increased its average from 3.9 yards to 4.0 last year. But the Bears fell to 29th in yards rushing (1,492), 29th in touchdowns rushing (six) and 23rd in fumbles as the formerly sure-handed Forte dropped the ball literally as well as figuratively.
Chester Taylor lacks Forte’s explosiveness, but the free-agent signee is also a former 1,200-yard rusher and accomplished receiver. If he supplants Forte, it could give the Bears a better inside running game. Or maybe his challenge will bring the best out of Forte again. Chicago needs one of those two things to happen. The Bears won’t make the playoffs if they are again saddled with a bottom-five running game.
6: Does Olsen have a role?
No Bears draft pick in the last decade was greeted with more praise by fans and media alike than Greg Olsen. Chicago, for the first time since trading Mike Ditka 40 years earlier, would have a star pass catcher at tight end.
Only it hasn’t worked that way. Olsen has averaged 526 yards in three seasons. And the former No. 1 pick is a substandard blocker. A year ago, Olsen’s bond with new quarterback Jay Cutler was the talk of training camp. He did catch eight TDs, after totaling seven his first two years, but averaged only 10.2 yards per catch — and often couldn’t hold on to the ball in traffic. New offensive coordinator Mike Martz has never had use for tight ends who don’t block well. Olsen needs to improve, both as a blocker and a receiver, or lose his starting job to free agent Brandon Manumaleuna.
5: A mad genius or just mad?
Mike Martz doesn’t throw to tight ends; no tight end has ever caught 40 passes in his offense. He likes to throw deep. He likes to throw often: 46 passes vs. 13 rushes in his Super Bowl victory, 47 passes vs. 22 rushes in his Super Bowl loss. And that’s when he had Marshall Faulk, one of the greatest running backs in NFL history.
Mike Martz coming to the Bears is as jarring as the Nebraska Cornhuskers junking the option and going to a pro-style passing attack several years ago. The Bears needed a change. Chicago has ranked in the bottom 10 in the NFL in total offense nine of the past 10 years. But will Martz be the right change? Or will he just make things worse on an already turnover-prone team?
4: Will the line hold?
Frank Omiyale, a bust at left guard, has been moved to right tackle. Chris Williams, a No. 1 draft pick in 2008, will get his first full season at left tackle. Olin Kreutz, a 13-year veteran, is coming off his worst season at center. Ditto for 10-year veteran Roberto Garza at right guard. Josh Beekman, whose ultimate future may lie at center, will get first crack at left guard.
A nondescript line that far outplayed its pedigree was the foundation to Chicago’s back-to-back division titles in 2005-06. Chicago’s line has been below average ever since. Any hopes of a return to at least average start with Kreutz returning to form and Williams playing like a No. 1 pick under the tutelage of new line coach Mike Tice.
3: The Peppers effect
The Bears have had more than 41 sacks only once in the last 16 years; they had 48 during their 13-3 season in 2001. The Bears spent $91.5 million on Julius Peppers to fix that. Peppers has had double figures in sacks seven times. Only one of the seven teams with more than 40 sacks last year had a losing record. The Bears need Peppers to not only make the Pro Bowl for the sixth time but to anchor an otherwise unproven defensive line and make Tommie Harris, Mark Anderson and his other linemates better.
2: Urlacher’s health
After missing 15 1/2 games with a wrist injury last year, Brian Urlacher can’t be expected to register more than 90 solo tackles, as he’s done seven times. But even a return to his 2008 form would be a big boost. He was merely solid that year, with the occasional big play, but those big plays — five interceptions and five sacks — were huge difference-makers.
1: Cutting Cutler’s mistakes
Even in a bad year, Jay Cutler passed for 3,666 yards, second in Bears’ history. With Mike Martz calling the plays, Cutler is a cinch to become Chicago’s first 4,000-yard passer if he stays healthy. But he has ranked first and second in interceptions the past two years. That can’t continue.
Good Jay/Bad Jay won’t play in Chicago.
Neither will a fast-aging Urlacher. Or a blockable Peppers, a porous line, an out-of-control coordinator, a fallen tight end or a runner who can’t run.
Bourbonnais is where Chicago fans begin to learn whether the Bears have answered all those questions. Testing begins Friday.
Matt Trowbridge can be reached at 815-987-1383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.