Marc Trestman never felt like a Bears head coach. He used fancy terms like "self-actualization" and came from the CFL, basically making him Canadian. He was skinny and wore glasses. He definitely didn't have a mustache like a lot of Chicago greats. As a people, Bears fans have a predilection towards confidence and hardiness. Trestman started in Chicago having to overcome his own apparent geekiness, and then affirmed Chicago's revulsion to nerds by falling short of the job.
The Bears dipped from 10-6 to 8-8 in Trestman's first season, which was a major step back defensively from Lovie Smith but an equally big step forward offensively -- the Bears finished No. 2 in scoring and 30th in points allowed. The gulf between the offense and the defense set Chicago up to soar or sink depending on which unit moved towards the mean. Unfortunately for Trestman, his offensive unit cratered, dumping the Bears to 5-11 and a minus-123 point differential that was the sixth-worst in the NFL.
The autopsy of his regime revealed some troubling things. Trestman came off as weak-willed and overly lenient towards the people under him. Team chemistry frayed into postgame locker room fights. Perhaps most egregiously, Trestman did not discipline Aaron Kromer when it was revealed that the offensive coordinator tried to anonymously criticize quarterback Jay Cutler to the press. The implication of Kromer's words and Trestman's actions was that the organization had deep regrets about Cutler's contract. Fair criticism or not, Cutler felt undermined and hurt.
The good news is that Trestman and his staff are gone, and a solid core staff of John Fox, Vic Fangio and Adam Gase is leading the team. Now galvanized and guided by capable hands, the Bears have the potential to improve significantly beginning in Year 1.
Give Cutler a running game
Cutler's best seasons happen to coincide with great running games. Using adjusted net yards per attempt (via Pro Football Reference) and yards per rushing attempt, there's a pretty clear correlation:
|Years||ANY/A||Team rush yards (NFL rank)||Team yards per carry (NFL rank)|
|2008||6.61||1,862 (12th)||4.8 (t2nd)|
|2007||6.30||1,957 (9th)||4.6 (t3rd)|
|2011||6.25||2,015 (9th)||4.4 (t9th)|
|2013||6.23||1,828 (16th)||4.5 (t7th)|
|2014||5.57||1,441 (27th)||4.1 (t16th)|
It's dangerous to draw causation between quarterback success and rushing numbers -- after all, good passing can likewise boost the running game -- but the gaps between Cutler's best years suggest that he probably hasn't changed all that much as a player. He certainly floundered this past season, when Chicago's running game was the worst it has been since Matt Forte joined the team.
A bad running game is often symptomatic of bad teams -- if you spend a lot of time behind on the scoreboard, you're going pass more and run less. That wasn't entirely the case for the Bears, however. They juggled their starting front five throughout the season due to injuries. Matt Forte averaged just 1.8 and 2.5 yards per carry during the Bears first two wins of the season (against admittedly stout 49ers and Jets defenses, respectively) while center Roberto Garza and offensive guard Matt Slauson sat out.
Forte improved to 4.33 yards per carry over the Bears' next three wins, averaging 22 carries, so Trestman was not adverse to running the ball. The Bears were never able to do it effectively or consistently, however, and that ineffectiveness may have dragged down Cutler.
The good news is that the Bears may not have to do that much to make things right. Fox is run-first coach, and the Bears return every member of what ought to be a good line if it stays healthy. Forte certainly shows no sign of slowing down. The Lions, Packers and Vikings have all suffered losses in the defensive front seven this offseason. So goes the running game, so goes Cutler, and so goes the Bears fortunes as a team (maybe).
In fact, laissez-faire suits the rest of the team quite well. The receiving corps loses Brandon Marshall to the Jets, but Alshon Jefferey has proven he can be a No. 1 talent, and Marquess Wilson and Eddie Royal are good company. Adding versatile linebacker Pernell McPhee and defensive end Ray McDonald make the transition to a 3-4 defense more palatable, and adding Antrel Rolle makes the issues at safety less glaring. The Bears still have Kyle Fuller, who began the 2014 season earning Defensive Rookie of the Year hype at cornerback.
For all of the kvetching, the Bears are not that far from being a good team. They may have the perfect head coach in Fox, whose specialty is taking teams and not mucking them up. His best job was in Carolina when he replaced George Seifert, who had over-tinkered with the Panthers' roster and alienated those he hadn't moved. Fox inherited a roster that had just gone 1-15, losing 15 straight while starting Chris Weinke at quarterback. With the help of an all-time great 2001 NFL Draft class, Fox swung that roster into a seven-win team in his first season, and a Super Bowl berth in his second season.
Fox didn't make any sweeping personnel changes -- 20 players on the 2003 Super Bowl squad were on the 2001 team. His most impressive feat was perhaps tamping down locker room discontent. Seifert's players described him as closed and emotionless. Fox, on the other hand, endeared himself to his players in Carolina and in Denver, and was quickly successful. A warm personality may be what Chicago needs more than anything.
IF THAT DOESN'T WORK THEN PANIC
The Bears could conceivably be a disaster next season. Their biggest problem is that the team reserved its biggest plots of cap space for players who may be beyond saving.
Cutler's talent is mercurial, but his best days are an underwhelming counterpoint to his worst. The man who signed a seven-year, $126 million contract before the 2014 season, has never finished among the top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL in passer rating or adjusted net yards per attempt (minimum 200 attempts). Cutler isn't the Bears' worst player -- and he may be the best "bad" quarterback Chicago has ever had -- but at his pay grade, he's perhaps the team's most harmful player. His struggles dominated the conversation in Chicago -- not the running game, or the fall of a once-great defense. It feels like the Jay Cutler Problem is holding back the franchise from moving forward.
Cutler's cap number for 2015 is $4 million more than that of Jared Allen, who was signed last year to a four-year, $32 million contract just before his 32nd birthday and gave the Bears just 5.5 sacks in return. Allen's early season struggles were blamed on a bout of pneumonia, but when he never fully recovered concern creeped in whether he was still the hall of fame player he was in Minnesota. As the Bears transition to a 3-4 defense that may be ill-suited to Allen's skill set, one has to wonder how much longer Allen is worth keeping.
But both players have plausible excuses for their poor play -- Cutler operated in a poisoned atmosphere, while Allen adjusted to a dysfunctional new team. The Bears owe them, and themselves, at least one year to determine the exact extent that their struggles were related to the previous regime. And if the same problems crop up under Fox, then Chicago can consider cleaning house, starting with its two biggest cap hits.
Start living in the past, man. Silicon Valley may be chic, but it's still 2,100 miles from Chicago and will only move farther away once it breaks off into the ocean. The Bears' quickest path to success aligns neatly with the traditions that the team established with Ditka -- run the ball, hit hard on defense and hope the quarterback doesn't sink the ship.
Basically, the Bears need to pretend its 2012 again, a time when going 10-6 and just missing a Wild Card bid in a competitive NFC Conference was grounds to fire Lovie Smith. Bust out the #Linsanity and #Kony2012 hashtags and think back to a simpler time, when a new offensive line and some fresh ideas were all the Bears needed to be contenders again.
The Bears are facing an uphill battle to regain respectability, but they have a coaching staff that has proven it can succeed, and enough young talent to make a turnaround in Year 1. Making the correct attitude adjustment may be its toughest task. Willful self-delusion is a lot to ask of a team and a fan base, but Chicago should be eager to forget the Trestman era ever happened.