The Chicago Bears looked like one of the top teams in the league at times in 2012-13. They won seven of their first eight games and seemed a shoe-in for the playoffs. Then the wheels came off, the offense forgot how to score and the defense couldn't carry the load alone.
Chicago went on to lose five of its next six games, finishing out the season with a 10-6 record. That might be enough to make the playoffs some years, but not when two members from the NFC North were ahead of them and the other Wild Card team, the Seattle Seahawks, had 11 wins.
So the Bears missed the playoffs, and were wondering where they go from there. Head coach Lovie Smith was relieved of his duties in favor of a relative newcomer and unknown in Marc Trestman. Now the Bears are hoping to be right back in the thick of things.
Let's take a look at ways the team can be successful, ways they can falter and what constitutes a a successful season.
3 Steps to Success
1. Get strong play from Kyle Long
The Chicago Bears were expected to spend a high pick on an offensive linemen, and guard Kyle Long out of Oregon was that player. Long is expected to earn a starting role, and the Bears absolutely need him to come out and be a solid player from the get-go. Jay Cutler needs him. Running back Matt Forte needs him. Chicago had one of the worst lines in football last season and that has to change.
2. Disrupt the NFC North
As noted above, the Bears were in a division that saw the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings both make the playoffs. Minnesota actually bested Chicago near the end of the season. Minnesota and Green Bay may have improved this offseason, so if Chicago is to make it to the playoffs, winning solely outside the division simply won't cut it.
3. Have a receiver, preferably Alshon Jeffery, step up
Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery struggled at times last season, and was injured at others. He had a lot of hype his rookie year, and he still has to live up to it. Fortunately, he's got a lot of tools and seems to be headed in the right direction. The Bears don't just want him to step up, though -- they'll need him to step up. Brandon Marshall can't be the only target for Cutler.
3 Feats Toward Failure
1. Forcing Cutler into panicking
Jay Cutler is one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL, but he's not the greatest under pressure. Don't misunderstand -- he runs away well and gets the ball out -- but the issue is that he's often getting the ball out in the wrong ways. Cutler can orchestrate a 40-point beatdown on his best day and throw five interceptions on his worst. Chicago needs to turn up the heat on that offensive line and keep Cutler comfortable in the pocket.
Also important to note: this is the last year of Cutler's contract with the Bears.
2. Failure to establish offensive identity, maintain balance
Nobody is quite sure what kind of coach Marc Trestman will be. He's implementing his schemes in minicamp and training camp, but the Bears are a complex team with many weapons on offense. Both Cutler and Forte are capable of carrying a football game, and neglecting either would be a big mistake. The Bears have to come out and be a multi-faceted team if they are to succeed next year.
3. Injuries or regression in the secondary
The Bears don't have the most depth when it comes to the secondary. They've got some aging cornerbacks in Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman, and can't afford injuries. They're getting younger at linebacker as they try and revamp that front seven, but the wheels could really come off if the secondary isn't as good as they were at the beginning of last season, whether they regress or suffer injuries.
So, what constitutes a successful season for the Bears in 2013-14?
For the Bears, contending for a Super Bowl is definitely a goal. But given that they didn't make it into the playoffs last season, it might be a little much to expect. Then again, with a 10-6 record, simply making the playoffs next season may not be enough.
Instead, we'll set a couple goals. For one, the Bears winning the NFC North would be a huge step in the right direction. Second, the team should progress and show positive signs under their new coaching staff. Most importantly, the Bears need to set themselves up for future success with a strong season.