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.
***This article was written by former sports columnist of the Pioneer Press, Scott Gutmann – his debut on The City of Broad Shoulders***
It took just one swing to learn a lot about Marc Trestman’s golf game at last month’s Encompass Championship in Glenview. The Bears’ new head coach chose to hit an iron off the first tee, a 424-yard par-4, during the Champions Tour pro-am event. Trestman obviously isn’t too fond of his driver, and he later acknowledged that as a golfer he’s a pretty good duffer.
Bears fans hope he’s better as a football coach, but don’t blame them if they’re about as confident in Trestman as he is in his driver. After all, the Bears’ fourteenth head coach in their illustrious history has not worked in the NFL since 2004 and spent the last five years in the Canadian Football League, aka pro football Siberia. And yet somehow, when Bears General Manager Phil Emery seemingly endless parade of candidates finally reached the finish line, it was Marc Trestman who hit the tape first.
Trestman had served as an NFL offensive assistant for seventeen years with nine different organizations. He is credited with helping nurture the likes of quarterbacks Steve Young and Rich Gannon. In 2002 Trestman was the Oakland Raiders’ o-coordinator as they led the NFL in total offense and passing yards per game. Gannon was the league’s MVP and the Raiders made it to Super Bowl XXXVII.
That was then, this is 2013. There are 32 NFL franchises, and for reasons unknown not one chose to employ Marc Trestman the past eight seasons. Not as a head coach. Not as an assistant coach.
Makes one wonder why the hell not.
In his maiden search for a head coach, Emery interviewed no fewer than thirteen candidates. He wanted a coach who would be more media friendly than predecessor Lovie Smith, who seemed to have a genuine disdain for the main conduit between him and the general public. Emery also said he was looking for someone who was very organized, positive and synergistic. Maybe he confused football coach with investment banking COO.
Emery eventually cut his pageant of coaching candidates to three finalists: Trestman, Bruce Arians and Darrell Bevell. Arians merely was 2012 NFL coach of the year in an interim role with the Indianapolis Colts. Bevell’s Seattle Seahawks offense made the Bears look like they were wearing roller skates in a crucial Soldier Field matchup last December.
Why Trestman? Maybe Emery was swayed by the two Grey Cups and 59-31 record in five years of coaching the Montreal Alouettes. He could have liked the fact Trestman didn’t insist on bringing in his own defensive staff as Arians (who eventually landed as the Arizona Cardinals’ boss man) reportedly did. Or perhaps Emery and Trestman hit it off over a steak dinner, boom. (After all, Jim Hendry’s five-star dinner date with Milton Bradley led to a three-year deal for the latter . . . and a death sentence for the 2009 Cubs.)
Or maybe the ultimate reason Emery chose Marc Trestman is he believes Trestman is the man with the brainpower to do what other coaches have not: turn Jay Cutler from a top-15 into a top-5 quarterback. Good luck with that — after seven NFL seasons, Cutler still makes rookie-caliber mistakes. Perhaps Trestman will have the temperament and game plan to succeed where Lovie Smith and his three o-coordinators in the last four years failed.
Lots of questions await Trestman, Emery and the rest of the Bears organization as they approach the 2013 season’s first tee time. Most important: Will Marc Trestman be a capable driver?