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The Comeback Kids

Jay Cutler has led the Bears to two consecutive come-from-behind wins to open the 2013 season.

22.9: The percentage of games won during Lovie Smith’s nine-year tenure when trailing at halftime (14-47). In 2013? 1-0.

87.3: Jay Cutler’s total QBR (ESPN’s QB rating metric) in the fourth quarter since the start of last season. Significance? It happens to be the highest in the NFL over that time frame.

249: The number of yards that Devin Hester compiled on five kickoff returns against Minnesota on Sunday, breaking his own 2006 record for return yards in a single game (225). His 49.8 yards per return ranked as the third best in franchise history among players with three or more returns in a game.

After decades of inept offenses and embarrassing predictability, Phil Emery decided he’d seen enough. No more unfathomable play-calling stupidity; no more relying solely on the defense to win games. It was time to make a change. The result? Marc Trestman at the helm, an offensive genius with a true knack for keeping quarterbacks upright and ultimately transforming them into stars; a revamped offensive line consisting of players that actually care about improving their craft every day and protecting their quarterback (looking at you, J’Marcus Webb); and a tight end who can actually catch the ball and not fall down while attempting to do so (flicking you off, Kellen Davis).

So far, the outcome of Emery’s offseason decision-making has been nothing but positive for this franchise. The Bears are 2-0, having won both games in comeback fashion while giving me and other diehards alike near heart attacks along the way. The going will only get tougher from here on out, as trips to PIttsburgh, Detroit and home dates with New Orleans and New York (Giants) loom over the next four weeks (and, of course, the two inevitable games against Green Bay down the road), but there’s no reason to believe that this team can’t find itself playing football in January for the second time in seven seasons. What has led to this early season success, you ask? Let’s take a look.

The Offensive Line

I’m fully aware that newly acquired (and highly paid) left tackle, Jermon Bushrod, has been straight up bad. According to Pro Football Focus, he graded out as the worst of Chicago’s offensive linemen on Sunday against the Vikings by surrendering a sack, a quarterback hit and three hurries (he graded out negatively against Cincinnati as well). However, we’re talking about a guy with a legitimate track record, having protected Drew Brees’ blind side in New Orleans for four years and making two Pro Bowls, not a beady-eyeballed 330-pound ogre who can’t tie his own shoes, eats Taco Bell on the reg and seems to actually enjoy sucking at life. Bushrod will be fine.

The focus here is on the right side of the line, which contains two hard-working rookies in Kyle Long and Jordan Mills, both of whom dominated in the preseason. The duo did an excellent job in week one containing arguably the NFL’s best defensive tackle in Geno Atkins (he did absolutely nothing all afternoon). Surprisingly, Mills actually finished the first week of the season with one of the best games for any offensive lineman, as he posted an overall blocking grade of +3.4. He struggled a bit more against Minnesota when matched up against the underrated Brian Robison all game but, nevertheless, has yet to give up a sack from his side of the line. Long and Mills haven’t perfected anything yet – they will have their ups and downs throughout the year – but it’s certainly safe to say that the two of them have made Phil Emery look even smarter (if that’s possible) than he already is.

Another little something to point out: for the first time in god knows how long in Chicago, the coaching staff, along with the offense, has actually shown that it trusts its line. Trestman has been calling a lot of three-step drops for Cutler and keeping seven men in to block on slower-developing routes. Cutler has had faith in his O-line, demonstrating his ability to step up in the pocket, survey the field and spread the ball around to receivers other than Brandon Marshall. He is learning to trust the concepts of the offense and not force as many plays as he’s used to — all because the offensive line is finally giving him time to throw.

Cardiac Cutler

It isn’t always pretty, but for whatever reason, Jay Cutler knows how to win games late. His decision-making will never be perfect (he has too much confidence in his arm and his receivers to ever change his ways), but he is playing as well as we’ve ever seen him play in a Bears uniform. Sure, the interceptions will almost always make me want to pull my eyebrows out,. But with the game on the line and defeat staring him in the face over the last two weeks, Cutler has delivered. He’s registered a game-winning 8-play, 81-yard touchdown drive and a game-winning 10-play (including a spiked ball), 66-yard touchdown drive in back-to-back weeks by overcoming the adversity of multiple turnovers and staying cool, calm and collected in both the huddle and pocket. I hate on Cutler far more often than I support him, but it’s moments like these that take me back to the excitement I felt the day Jerry Angelo traded for him. He deserves all the credit in the world for the fourth quarter greatness he has displayed, so here’s to hoping 15 more weeks of working with Coach Trestman will continue to bring out the best in our quarterback.

Devin Hester

Ladies and gentlemen, Devin Hester is officially back, and all it took was a little confidence. It only took six years for someone within the Bears organization (Phil Emery, Marc Trestman, and Aaron Kromer) to realize how stupid it was to try turning Hester into a receiver; it just wasn’t made to be. Fans knew it. Players knew it. Analysts knew it. But naturally, the coaching staff did not. The man needed to continue to focus on returning kicks and returning kicks only. None of that slant-over-the-middle-and-try-not-to-get-obliterated bullshit; none of that streak-down-the-field-and-tiptoe-the-sideline nonsense. Just. Return. Kicks. After a mini-hiatus from the kick return spotlight (his longest kick return last year was 40 yards), Hester now has gained his mojo back, averaging nearly 47 yards per return and consistently answering opponent touchdowns with very favorable field position. The 2013 Devin Hester highlight reel is already in progress; there’s no doubt there will be a bunch more to add by season’s end to his case for the Hall of Fame.

Sex, Drugs and Turnovers

The void left by Brian Urlacher will be tough to fill for a long time, but with the Cover 2 still in tact and Lance Briggs now calling the plays, the defense is still doing what it does best: forcing turnovers. The Bears rank only behind Seattle in the takeaway department with six (three interceptions, three fumble recoveries), and it all starts with, you guessed it, the formidable cornerback combo of Peanut Tillman and Tim Jennings. Tillman picked up week one right where left off with two interceptions (had a touchdown called back) and two passes deflected, as he continues to add to his legitimately realistic Hall of Fame case as well. Jennings did the same, finishing off the first two weeks of the season with an interception return for a touchdown, a forced fumble and two passes deflected of his own. Tillman may have had a hard time defending A.J. Green while throwing up on the sideline during breaks (due to dehydration) last Sunday, but overall, these two men continue to provide unheralded consistency for another rock solid Bears defense. I may not ever know what I’m going to eat for my next meal until ten minutes beforehand, but I am always certain of one thing days in advance: the Bears will force a turnover or three come Sunday (or Monday), and I’ll never stop appreciating that.

On top of that, Briggs has solidified himself as the true leader of this defense and simply hasn’t missed a beat since taking over play-calling duties. He continues to grade out positively in coverage (+3.2 against Minnesota according to Pro Football Focus), disrupting any passes thrown within his vicinity and adding 17 tackles to the mix. Some things never change.

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Amongst all of the positive play the Bears have shown us on both sides of the ball, not everything has been smooth sailing. The defensive line has been shockingly horrendous in both games so far, and it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why. Some feel Julius Peppers and Henry Melton aren’t in the football shape they need to be in to have any sort of success; others are making excuses for Peppers, who experienced flu-like symptoms throughout Sunday’s game. Whatever the case my be, it’s time for this entire unit to get its act together. Outside of Stephen Paea, who has been very productive (specifically in stopping the run), no one has shown any signs of life whatsoever. Shea McClellin, who continues to vastly underachieve given his draft position, and Corey Wootton have done next to nothing, while Pro Bowlers Peppers and Melton have been even worse. I’m confident Peppers will find his stride and start getting to the quarterback, but Melton has only given us one great season to feel the same way. If he’s looking to get paid as much as he was expecting to this past summer, then it’s time to stop partying at John Barleycorn (saw him at the River North one twice this summer) and start focusing on pressuring and sacking the quarterback (he has zero pressures so far). Get your shit together, Henry. You too, Julius.

If this Bears defense can start getting some pressure on the quarterback with its four-man front (Pittsburgh’s completely depleted offensive line should be a great place to start), this team can be as dangerous as anyone. The rest of the team has shown new signs of life under Marc Trestman and his coaching staff, giving fans every reason to believe a playoff berth is within reach. With a relatively tough four-game stretch coming up, the true identity of the 2013 Chicago Bears will become much clearer.

Until then, see you in Pittsburgh.

Can’t wait.

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Will Charles Tillman Be a Hall of Famer?

Seriously, why not Charles Tillman?

Wait, what? Did I really just ask that question? Charles Tillman, a Hall of Famer? Am I out of my mind? Maybe. Maybe not. As of today, I will admit that there is probably zero chance, given how extremely difficult it is to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, that Charles Tillman will be inducted into Canton. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be the homer than I am and make the case anyways.

Peanut is arguably the most under-appreciated cornerback of our generation, having been to one Pro Bowl his entire career and never making it onto an All-Pro team, and he will continue to be for the rest of eternity. Whether the lack of appreciation or career accomplishments will be his kryptonite, I’m not sure. Only true Bears fans, like ourselves, and Tillman’s teammates can acknowledge all the little things he has done on a weekly basis since the day he stepped onto Soldier Field for the first time in 2003. Whether it be punching the football out of a receiver’s grip with Ivan Drago-like strength or exemplifying himself as a role model of inspiration, sportsmanship and courage on and off the field (recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award in 2009; finalist for Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2011), there is nothing that Charles Tillman has done to disappoint me  in his 10+ year career. Sure, he’s had some bad games over the years, such as the 2006 NFC Divisional Game against Carolina (to Tillman’s defense, it was a poor collective effort from both him and Nathan Vasher; Steve Smith led the league in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns that season – he was simply unstoppable), but what cornerback hasn’t? Like the rest of this ageless Bears defense, Tillman refuses to regress and has shown that, at 31 years of age, he is more than capable of playing another three, four or even five years in the NFL.

So, where does this whole Hall of Fame argument come from, you ask? Well, I decided to put together the statistics of every cornerback currently in the Hall (there are only 15 of them) and compare them to Tillman’s, which I pro-rated  through the 2015 season (assuming the Bears re-sign him or give him an a two-year extension before he becomes an unrestricted free agent after next year). In other words, forget Pro Bowl appearances and all that bullshit: if Tillman continues to record the same number of interceptions, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, tackles, passes defended and total touchdowns that he has averaged throughout his career for the next 3.5 seasons, how will his numbers measure up to those of the greats? Let’s dive in.

As you can see, tackles and forced fumbles did not become recorded statistics until relatively recently, so it’s more difficult to compare Tillman’s potential statistics at career’s end than anticipated. Nevertheless, we’ll compare anyways.

Clearly, the interceptions aren’t as high most of the studs on this list, but interceptions have never really been Tillman’s staple. He has never been the shut-down corner that you’d expect out of a Hall of Famer. Instead, he has made his living by forcing an incredible amount of turnovers and limiting his counterpart’s yards after the catch. What Tillman lacks in speed, he makes up for in strength. He has forced more fumbles at this point in his career than ANY defensive back in the history of the NFL, including Rod Woodson, Deion Sanders, and Ronnie Lott (also tied for 5th in forced fumbles among all positions). He is the second player since 1991 (the other being Brian Dawkins) to record 30 interceptions and 30 forced fumbles. He is the ONLY player since 2005 to record 25+ interceptions and 25+ forced fumbles. He is tied with Donnell Wolford for third in Bears’ history with 32 interceptions (Gary Fencik is the leader with 38), and he ranks first in Bears’ history with seven defensive touchdowns. You get the point.

Tillman also ranks third amongst these Hall of Famers in total defensive touchdowns and can easily tie or surpass Deion Sanders by career’s end, and his 10 fumble recoveries is equal to, or more than, seven of the players on the list. Pretty amazing.

In order to give ourselves another perspective, I figured it might be beneficial to compare Tillman’s numbers to those of two cornerbacks that are still currently playing and are considered to be instant Hall of Famers by a majority of fans and nearly everyone within the NFL circle: Ronde Barber and Charles Woodson.

There are a couple important things to keep in mind when looking at these numbers: 1) Barber is more than likely going to retire after this season, so his career statistics (besides tackles) shouldn’t change that much going forward, and 2) Charles Woodson has another two years remaining on his contract after this season, so his numbers will certainly improve. That being said, he’s a banged up 36-year-old cornerback-converted-safety, so exactly how much those numbers will improve is really difficult to project. He will also have played a lot more NFL seasons than I have projected Tillman to play. Analyze his statistics however you see fit.

Based on these projections, Tillman should have nearly the same amount of tackles and interceptions as Barber by career’s end. The lack of passes defended compared to these two should be completely negated by the absurd amount of forced fumbles that Tillman may potentially end up with, as well as the ten or so total defensive touchdowns. You’ve got to remember now: Barber and Woodson are locks for the Hall of Fame. If all goes according to plan, Tillman’s numbers will be right up there with the likes of those two, so who’s to say that he doesn’t belong in the same breath as them?

Peanut Tillman’s production as the Bears’ top cornerback for the past ten years and counting can’t be understated. He’s as underrated as any player you’ll ever find, and he’s a major reason why the Bears defense has had so much success implementing the unpopular Cover 2. He does all the little things necessary to win football games, and he’s as smart as anyone on the field. Most importantly, his numbers will be right up there with some of the all-time greats at his position. Tillman likely won’t make the Hall of Fame when it’s all said and done, but he sure as hell should never be an afterthought.

Chicago Dominates Dallas in All Facets of Monday Night’s Game

Tony Romo is terrible. The Chicago Bears are not.

**I realize it’s been a couple of months since my last post, and I apologize. I got busy and I got lazy, but Monday night’s win gave me some of my mojo back. After two long months, the hiatus has been lifted for the time being, starting with a recap of the Bears’ beat down of the Cowboys.**

Punt, punt, punt, pick six, touchdown, pick, pick six, field goal, pick, pick. This is how each of the ten Tony Romo-led drives ended for America’s beloved Cowboys on Monday night. It was a statement game for both Chicago and Dallas, and it was Chicago who rose to the occasion and then some. The Bears simply embarrassed the Cowboys, and it all started with a defense that continues to shit in the mouths of any and every doubter that said it’s too old to continue its greatness this past off-season.

In a three-hour clinic, the grizzled veterans of the Chicago Bears defense let the world know that age doesn’t mean jack. Sure, Urlacher, Briggs, Peppers and Tillman are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning, but with age comes wisdom, and it’s that very wisdom and knowledge that has helped this defense make up for any lost speed and athleticism.

Briggs and Tillman took two of Romo’s five interceptions to the house, while Urlacher and Peppers continued to hold down the fort and establish themselves as two of the greatest defensive leaders that we have in this game. They’ve anchored a front seven that has been in complete shut-down mode since Week 1, allowing a measly 67.2 rushing yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry to opposing running backs, good for third in the NFL. That front seven includes third-year tackle Henry Melton, who has been bull rushing his way through offensive lines like this streaker through a tennis court had he been successful (I may or may not have forced that analogy just so you can watch that video – it’s too funny). He recorded a team-leading fourth sack Monday night, as well as a tackle for a loss, and he was the direct cause of the Briggs interception to top it off. Dude’s been a beast. Straight up.

The younger guys in the secondary, including Tim Jennings (single-handedly caused another interception) and Major Wright (two interceptions) are playing out of their minds, and it doesn’t seem like they’re going to stop. Before Monday’s game, Tim Jennings was arguably the best cornerback in football over the first three weeks; opposing quarterbacks had posted an absolutely ridiculous passer rating of 4.9 when throwing his way. Through four games, he has four interceptions, nine pass deflections and 16 tackles. He may not have been as impressive in Dallas, but he sure as hell has been as important as anyone to this unit’s success thus far. I can’t say enough about how far that man has come. As for Major Wright, he’s finally healthy (fingers crossed). Maybe that’s all it takes for him to play good, smart football.

We can go on and on about the Bears’ defense and their inspired efforts, constantly keeping us in games over the years even when we have no business winning. However, I can’t move forward without mentioning the solid (not fantastic, but solid) performance by the offense. Most people who know me know I’ve never been a Jay Cutler fan. The fact that we are both Type 1 Diabetics is the only thing that keeps me sane when talking about him sometimes (people don’t realize how unbelievably impressive and tough it is for anyone to play quarterback in the NFL with a disease like that). That being said, I really only care about the Bears scoring points and winning football games, and Cutler has proved very little throughout his career from a success standpoint (1 playoff appearance, 1 playoff win). I want to see a Super Bowl appearance before I start fully supporting him after the awfulness and poor demeanor he displays on the field sometimes.

With that awfulness, though, comes occasional greatness (read Grantland’s Bill Barnwell’s dead-on perception of Cutler from the other week here). Monday night was one of those occasions. It was one of Cutler’s most efficient performances in a Bears uniform, as he completed 75% of his passes (18 of 24) and threw two touchdowns to give him a passer rating of 140.1 and a QBR (ESPN’s QB Rating metric) of 81.1. Time and time again, he found Brandon Marshall over the middle of the field (Marshall reeled in seven of his eight targets), allowing the offense to move the chains and maintain a consistent offensive balance (28 rushes to 24 passes). The running game may have been a little weak (3.7 YPC for the running backs), but given the fact that Forte re-tweaked his ankle on his first run and is still trying to get his rhythm back, I can live with it.

The offensive game plan was nothing short of magnificent, so for the first time this season, I applaud Mike Tice (the beat down of the Colts doesn’t count; it’s not hard to score points on that horrendous defense without its best player in Dwight Freeney). He called a flawless game, and most importantly, he found a solution to the offensive line woes (at least for the time being) that every fan has been begging for: use our tight end blocking machines, Matt Spaeth and Kyle Adams, to help chip in during pass protection, otherwise known as “Max Protect” (essentially dedicating more personnel to protecting the quarterback and taking pressure off the offensive line). There was no doubt in my mind that Tice would eventually figure it all out, like he did as our Offensive Line Coach the past two years, but it takes balls to swallow your pride, realize what you’re doing wrong as a coach/coordinator and actually fix it.

If Tice hadn’t finally implemented this game plan, the NFL’s best defensive player in DeMarcus Ware (yes, the best defensive player – 104.5 sacks in just over seven seasons is no joke, people) would’ve made J’Marcus Webb his personal bitch. I legitimately lost sleep all last week thinking about Ware ripping Cutler’s head off and posting it on a stick for Kristen Cavallari and their newborn son to come home to, Joffrey Baratheon-style (Game of Thrones reference and spoiler alert; do yourself a favor and watch that show if you don’t already). But thankfully, that wasn’t the case. Besides one sack and a forced fumble that happened to be Cutler’s fault and not Webb’s, Ware, along with the rest of the Dallas front line, mind you, was relatively quiet all night. Snaps to Mike Tice for finally implementing a game plan that played to the strengths of the offense and covered up the glaring vulnerabilities that it has demonstrated. Here’s to hoping he and the rest of the unit continue down this path to collective stardom. The sky is the limit for this offense, and accomplishing what it did against a very underrated and much improved Cowboys defense should make us all feel comfortable.

We’ve all seen this before with the Bears – looking terrible one week and fans acting like the world is about to end, then winning a huge game in extremely convincing fashion the next – I get that. But so goes the roller coaster that is Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears’ offense. The lows get so low that we actually feel like vomiting, while the highs get so high that we never want to get off and can’t help but feel better about our lives – there’s never a medium. As long as we can accept that, let’s all just buckle up for the ride, pray the offense can continue playing like this consistently and allow the defense to remain our blueprint. If all goes well, this ride may very well lead us straight into the Superdome on February 3rd.

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