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.
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.
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.
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.
Everyone has a different interpretation of what a draft “steal” is. Is it someone who was drafted near the end of the draft and had a serviceable career? Is it someone who was supposed to go early but ended up slipping more than he should have? Is it someone who went after the first round? Who knows. A steal, in my mind, is someone who overcame expectations and gave his team/fans more greatness than we could have ever imagined. It’s pretty much a mixture of all the questions I just posed. For instance, a player like Brian Urlacher can’t be considered a steal because he was drafted 9th overall and was projected to be a perennial pro bowl linebacker. Marques Colston, who was drafted in the 7th round out of Hofstra, is, without a doubt, considered a steal. Aaron Rodgers, who was supposed to be a top 5-10 pick at worst, was absolutely a steal at 24, even though he was still taken in the first round. You get the point. So without further ado, here is my idea of the five biggest draft steals in Chicago Bears history:
5) Matt Forte, 2nd round, 44th overall pick in 2008, Running Back, Tulane University: Putting Forte on this list may be a bit of a stretch, but I don’t care – I love Forte and highly enjoy watching him play. When Roger Goodell called his name just four years ago, I didn’t have a clue what to think. At the time, Cedric Benson was still our running back, so it was difficult for me to understand why we’d waste our second round pick on another running back after how the Jones/Benson experiment played out. The Bears passed on two guys I loved in college to draft Forte: Desean Jackson and Ray Rice. I was pretty skeptical. However, Forte was extremely underrated in college (his senior season was unheard of) and won MVP of the Senior Bowl, so I tried to be optimistic. 2 months later, Benson was let go by the Bears, and a star was born.
During his very first game in the NFL against the Colts, Forte rushed for 123 yards (including a 50-yarder) and 1 touchdown to go along with three receptions for 18 yards. Instantly, I believed we struck gold, and that has very much been the case. After an incredible rookie campaign (1,715 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns) that would have landed him Offensive Rookie of the Year had it not been for Chris Johnson’s historical season, Forte struggled during his second season, as he and the entire offense tried to adapt to playing with a new quarterback (Cutler) and a pass-first offense that contained zero legitimate wide receivers whatsoever. Since then, though, Forte managed to finish in the top 10 in yards from scrimmage in 2010 (1,616) and 2011 (1,487) even after missing four games during the 2011 season. He has totaled 6,218 yards from scrimmage through 60 career games (4,233 rushing, 1,985 receiving) along with 29 total touchdowns. Over the past two seasons, Forte has averaged 4.7 yards per carry and an amazing (for a running back) 10.1 yards per reception. He has been as valuable to the Bears offense as any running back, and almost any player, in the league.
That being said, PAY THE MAN!
4) Devin Hester, 2nd round, 56th overall pick in 2006, CB/WR/KR/PR, University of Miami: Right after the Bears drafted Hester six years ago, I watched this like 17 times in a row. No joke. I started to fantasize about how great it would be if Hester could pull off crazy maneuvers like that for the Bears. And before I knew it, that fantasy became an incredible reality.
Against the Packers in the 2006 season opener (Hester’s first NFL game), Hester took a punt 84 yards to the house. Right then and there, everyone knew he was legit. The lightning-fast speed, the ridiculous footwork and downfield awareness, the ability to break tackles – we all witnessed it with our own eyes. It was a very magical season for the Bears, and a lot of it had to do with Hester. He returned three punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns. His 83-yard punt return TD in week 6 (Grossman turned the ball over six times that game) to beat the Cardinals 24-23 led to one of the greatest rants in sports (I’ll never forget that game for the rest of my life). He returned a missed field goal 108 yards for a touchdown in week 9 against the Giants. And most importantly, he became the first player ever to return the opening kickoff in the Super Bowl for a touchdown.
Hester became such a threat that opposing teams had to start game planning around him. That the only way to beat the Bears was to keep the ball out of Devin Hester’s hands. Think about that for a second. If you keep the ball out of the kick/punt returner’s hands, you should win. It sounds insane, but it worked a lot of the time. Hester didn’t return one punt or kickoff for a touchdown during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, and we finished a couple of unexciting seasons with a combined record of 16-16. That’s how important he has been to our franchise. He has made three All-Pro First-Teams and Pro Bowls, and he holds the record for most career punt returns (12) and total returns (17 punts and kickoffs) in NFL history. And that doesn’t even count his Super Bowl XLI kickoff return or 108-yard field goal return, either.
3) Olin Kreutz, 3rd round, 64th overall in 1998, Center, University of Washington: When the Bears and Kreutz decided to part ways last summer, I was legitimately upset. He stuck with this franchise through thick and thin and was our most consistent offensive player throughout the 2000s decade. It’s tough for anyone to justify how truly good a center or offensive lineman is because most people don’t understand what their statistics mean. So, if you look at the accomplishments that Kreutz made as a Bear, you should understand exactly why he’s on this list. As a six-time pro bowler (2001-2006) and a four-time all-pro center, Kreutz started 159 out of 160 games from 2001-2010 and did every single thing the Bears asked of him and more. He also secured a spot on the NFL 2000s all-decade team. He was irreplaceable and, at times, under-appreciated. Any team would be lucky to have a player like Olin Kreutz.
2) Lance Briggs, 3rd round, 68th overall in 2003, Linebacker, University of Arizona: After the 2006-07 Super Bowl season, Lance Briggs became a free agent. Everyone wanted to see him back in a Bears uniform, but no one knew what was going to happen. The Bears franchise tagged him a couple of weeks later, but he made it known that he was upset with the amount of money he was earning and didn’t feel the Bears wanted him in their future plans.
Soon after that, I saw him at the movie theater with his girlfriend. At that moment, I went from a (really cool) 17-year-old high school senior to a pubescent 12-year-old girl. I got so nervous, had butterflies in my stomach and couldn’t get this stupid little smile off my face. As he walked past me, I managed to maintain some composure and said “Hey Lance, I just want you to know how much we love you here in Chicago. Please come back, we need you more than you can even imagine.” He proceeded to stick his fist out, give me a pound and said “I’ll do what I can, my man.” True story.
It wasn’t until a year later that Briggs’ value to the defense surmounted the absurd stinginess of Jerry Angelo and the McCaskeys, when they finally offered him a much deserved 6-year, $36 million deal. But, I can’t help but ask: was it because of me, and me alone, that Briggs decided to stick it to the man, be patient and play (at a pro-bowl level, mind you) through the entire 2007-08 season with these contract distractions? Or was it because of Urlacher, who was willing to take a pay cut to keep Briggs on the team, and the rest of the players that he decided to stay in Chicago? Probably the latter. But do I try to convince people that it actually was because of the me? Absolutely.
Anyways, Briggs belongs on this list for a variety of reasons. He has made seven consecutive pro bowls dating back to 2005, and he’s a three-time all-pro linebacker. Briggs has only missed four games in his entire nine-year career. During that period, he has recorded 969 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 13 interceptions (three for touchdowns), 14 forced fumbles, 7 fumble recoveries (one for a touchdown), and 64 pass deflections. I defy you to find any great Bears linebackers who were drafted as late as Briggs and have had the kind of success that he’s had. You can’t. He deserves the 2 spot on this list.
1) Richard Dent, 8th round, 203rd overall in 1983, Defensive End, Tennessee State University: A 2011 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, Richard Dent is, by far, the biggest draft steal in Bears history. He was, and still is, widely considered the best player on the greatest defense of all time. The Bears finished 15-1 during the 1985 season and shut out both of their opponents in the playoffs en route to a monstrous Super Bowl XX defeat over the Patriots. With a league-high 17 sacks during the regular season, Dent performed in what’s believed to be the most impressive defensive post-season performance in NFL history: 7 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles in the divisional playoff game against the Giants. Legendary. Dent went on to win Super Bowl XX MVP, and he remains one of six defensive players ever to do so.
Throughout his career, Dent made four pro bowls and five all-pro teams. He recorded 137.5 sacks, making him one of only 27 players to be a part of the 100 sacks club. How many 8th round draft picks can say all of this for themselves? Well, not many considering there are only seven rounds in the draft these days, but you know what I mean. Richard Dent was an absolute steal if I’ve ever seen one.
Honorable Mentions: Mike Singletary, Linebacker; Doug Plank, Safety; Johnny Knox, Wide Receiver
Stay tuned for the 5 Biggest Draft Busts: Chicago Bulls Edition.