Six years is a long time. In the NFL, it might as well be a geological era. It probably feels even longer to Chicago Bears fans, who last saw their team in a Super Bowl following the 2006 season where they lost to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
Every since, the Bears have been trying to get back there. They swung a deal to get a bona fide quarterback in 2009, sending Kyle Orton and a heaping helping of draft picks to the Broncos for Jay Cutler, who lead the Bears, along with a stingy defense, to the NFC Championship in 2010, losing by a touchdown to the Packers. Injuries kept them from challenging the Packers last season. Cutler, Brian Urlacher and the rest of the Bears are ready to try again this year.
Skeptics look at the Bears' offseason and wonder if they can legitimately challenge the Packers or even an up and coming Lions in their own division. Despite a flurry of offseason moves, there are still questions. Is the offensive line good enough? Can they resolve a contract dispute with Matt Forte, who has a different perception of his long-term value than the Bears? Finally, can Jay Cutler lead the team as far as it wants to go?
The Bears battled through an identity crisis through a 2-3 start. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz wanted to recreate his high-flying offense, but the Bears lacked the receivers and the kind of pass protection needed for seven-step drops. The lack of carries during the early part of the season left Matt Forte unhappy. Finally, Chicago flipped the script and started leaning more on Forte. They won four straight, culminating in a win over the Chargers that put their record at 7-3.
And then it happened.
Cutler helped stop Chargers defensive back Antoine Cason from returning an interception for a touchdown, but broke his thumb in the process. The Bears were forced to turn to backups Caleb Haine and Josh McCown. They lost their next five games.
That alone should have silenced the debate about Cutler. Stating the obvious, the Bears were clearly not the same team without him. Through the first four games of the season, Cutler was completing 54 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and four interceptions. In the six games before he was injured, Cutler completed more than 60 percent of his passes, and threw eight touchdowns and three interceptions.
Best Free Agent Pickup
I would say the decision to trade for Brandon Marshall highlighted the Bears' offseason. Cutler knows him from their days together in Denver, and he adds a true starter to a rotation of receivers lacking one.
However, because of the Matt Forte situation, running back Michael Bush may be the best free agent move Chicago made this spring. The former Raider is more than capable of carrying the load, and the Bears have another good runner in Kalil Bell.
Adding Jason Campbell as the backup quarterback should keep things humming if they lose Cutler for any stretch.
2012 NFL Draft
Reaction to the Bears' decision to draft Boise State outside linebacker Shea McClellin was mixed. He will be playing defensive end in Chicago, an adjustment. Still, the decision to add a pass rusher was a good one. The Bears defense has been lacking a threat to opposing quarterbacks beyond Julius Peppers, who turned 32 this year.
They took a big risk in the 2nd round when they grabbed much-maligned receiver Alshon Jeffery. The South Carolina product showed flashes of brilliance that put him in consideration as one of the country's top receivers in 2010, but a down season, rumors of weight problems and questions about work ethic sent his stock tumbling. If Chicago can keep Jeffery hungry, he should be a very good receiver.
Half of the Bears' six draft picks were defensive backs, an area of real need. Third-round pick Brandon Hardin, a safety from Oregon State, missed all last season with a broken shoulder, causing some to label this pick as a reach. Nevada cornerback Isaiah Frey, 6th round, could surprise some people in Chicago's Cover-2 defense.
The only question mark hanging over Chicago's draft class is the decision to forego any offensive line picks. They probably needed to try and find some talent on the second and third day of the draft to shore up depth needs and find young players to groom.
Related: Bears NFL Draft Grade
From SB Nation's Windy City Gridiron:
If it's okay, I'll put my head on the block here, and say that I don't think the Vikings will be competing for the NFC North title this season. But I think it will be very tight between the Bears, the Lions and Green Bay. Looking at both of their schedules, it's easy to see them each having around 10-12 wins. Which is what I still believe the Bears are capable of as they look to make return to the playoffs.
They Make The Playoffs If ...
This is really the big question for Chicago, isn't it? As mentioned above, the Bears offense was humming right along last season before Cutler went down. Marshall and Jeffery in the mix should really help the offense, especially if they get into basketball games with the Packers and the Lions.
For the Bears to do anything, the offensive line is going to have to hold up, and that starts with getting Gabe Carimi healthy and learning the ropes on the left side. The Bears cannot afford another season of J'Marcus Webb protecting Cutler's blind side.
Motivation may be as much of a factor as anything for the Bears. The defensive cornerstones are all over 30, including Lance Briggs, Peppers, Charles Tillman and Brian Urlacher, who is now in the walk year of his contract.
Overtaking the Packers is going to be difficult, so the Bears need to fend off the Lions and not take any missteps against lesser teams along the way.