It was April 15, 2000. I had recently turned 11-years-old and, as always, my entire life revolved around sports. I loved the Bulls, but Michael Jordan had already been retired for almost two years. They were truly atrocious, having combined for 45 wins in three seasons. Quite frankly, they were unwatchable.
I loved the Cubs, but they only won 67 games the previous season and would go on to win 65 the next. Sammy Sosa and Kerry Wood were the only two players an 11-year-old could actually look up to.
I loved the Blackhawks, but they hadn’t made the playoffs in four years. Hockey may have been my favorite sport at the time, but any Blackhawks fan could tell you that Tony Almonte was the only Blackhawk even worth talking about during those dark days.
That left me with the Bears, a team that had made the playoffs once in seven years and gave young kids no good reason to believe in them. The two Bears jerseys I had growing up: Chris Zorich and Rashaan Salaam. The former was out of the league after 5.5 seasons, and the latter is considered one of the biggest busts in Bears history. That’s how terrible it was. No one, not even my own father or uncle, could convince me to like them. The Bears weren’t cool to talk about during lunch and recess, because when you’re just a kid, all you really want to do is root for the good teams.
The Denver Broncos were my team back then, and Terrell Davis was my favorite football player in the world. I swore I’d never forget watching Super Bowl XXXII with my dad in 1998, when Davis came out of the locker room at half time after puking from excruciating migraine headaches, just to score the game-winning 1-yard touchdown with only 1:45 remaining. Even at such a young age, these were the moments that I lived for, that taught me what it was like to be a fighter, to never back down, and to appreciate sports.
When the Chicago Bears took some converted safety-turned-linebacker named Brian Urlacher on that gloomy April day, I didn’t really think anything of it. They were coming off a typical 6-10 season under first-year head coach Dick Jauron, and I knew nothing about the All-American out of New Mexico. As the end of training camp neared, I remember hearing about how big and fast Urlacher was – how he wasn’t your prototypical NFL linebacker because of his unique size and athletic ability. He knew how to lead, and he was apparently always in the right place on the field at the right time. Maybe, just maybe, this kid would actually live up to the hype, something that nearly every former first-round pick of the Bears over the past decade (Cade McNown, Curtis Enis, Rashaan Salaam, John Thierry, and Alonzo Spellman) had failed to do.
And live up to hype he did. After losing his starting job after Week 1 of his rookie season, then re-gaining it back Week 4 after a Barry Minter injury, Urlacher led the team in both tackles (123) and sacks (8.0). He was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and was Chicago’s lone representative in the Pro Bowl. Unfortunately, the Bears finished that season 5-11. Urlacher certainly had my attention, but the Bears still sucked. I needed something, anything, to convince me that being a Bears fan would be cool again.
Then the 2001 season rolled around, and the tide began to turn. Urlacher catapulted their defense from 20th in the league to first overall. Like every single Bears team that we can remember, the offense was mediocre at best, led by Jim Miller, Anthony “A-Train” Thomas, and Marty Booker; it was the defense that got everyone talking. In Week 3, Urlacher held some highly touted rookie quarterback named Michael Vick to 18 rushing yards in the second half and returned one of Vick’s fumbles 90 yards to the house. Three weeks later, the Bears completed one of the most memorable come-from-behind wins in franchise history, when San Francisco receiver Terrell Owens dropped the ball in overtime on a slant in an attempt to elude Urlacher. The ball fell into the hands of Mike Brown, who ran it back 33 yards for a touchdown to give the Bears a 37-31 win.
The Bears ended that season with a 13-3 record, clinching themselves the division for the first time since 1990, as well as a first-round bye. Because of their relatively weak offense, they weren’t expected to make much noise in the playoffs, especially with the St. Louis Rams and their “Greatest Show On Turf” lingering in the NFC field. Chicago eventually lost to Philadelphia in the second round, but that magical 2001 season was much bigger than a disappointing playoff appearance – it marked my first season as a true Chicago Bears fan, and Brian Urlacher was the sole reason why. He made his first of five All-Pro teams, his second of eight Pro Bowls and, along with Marshall Faulk, he led the entire league in pro-football-reference.com‘s Approximate Value statistic, which puts a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position. He was becoming an unstoppable force at the linebacker position, and kids of all ages began to look up to him as the savior of Chicago Bears football.
Of course, the Bears didn’t make the playoffs for another four years, but as a fan, I never looked back. They had finally become my team, my Denver Broncos, and Brian Urlacher had become my favorite football player ever. It’s impossible to pinpoint one moment in Urlacher’s career as his greatest, as the list is never-ending, but his most memorable season in the NFL does happen to coincide with one of the greatest years in my life: 2006-07, the year the Bears made an unfathomable run to the Super Bowl – the year I graduated high school.
It wasn’t necessarily because I was graduating that made that year so great for me; it was because, as a senior, I knew it may be my last chance to spend countless hours with the guys I grew up with talking sports on a daily basis. So every Sunday (or Monday), we took extra advantage, watching as many Bears games together as possible, cherishing every moment that we could. The night the Bears went into Arizona, trailed 23-3 late in the third quarter and won 24-23 remains, to this day, my most memorable Bears moment. Sure, everyone remembers Rex Grossman’s six turnovers, the Mike Brown fumble recovery, the Charles Tillman fumble recovery, the Devin Hester punt return and infamous Dennis Green “crown their ass” post-game tirade. But, to me, as my friends and I huddled around the TV with our arms around each other, it was Urlacher’s second half performance on that crazy, miracle night that will always stick out. As Peter King explained it, in the last 16 minutes, “Urlacher choreographed the Bears D into a scheme that led to one touchdown, had 10 tackles and two passes defensed and a forced fumble. He had five tackles of [Edgerrin] James after a one-yard gain or less.” He single-handedly took over that game, imploring as much will and as much determination as he could to carry us to an impossible comeback victory. That game, above all else, epitomized Brian Urlacher as a football player.
Urlacher may not have accomplished his one main goal of bringing a championship to Chicago, but his impact on football fans all over can never be understated. A likely first-ballot Hall of Famer, he will go down as one of the greatest linebackers to ever live. He set a Bears single season-record with 151 tackles in 2002, won AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2005, won the Ed Block Courage Award in 2011, holds the crown for most tackles in Bears history (1,358 combined tackles) and made the NFL 2000s All-Decade Team. Urlacher was an extremely rare breed of a football player and will always be known by Bears fans for the fear he instilled in opposing quarterbacks, the leadership he displayed on and off the field, his unteachable work ethic, and his utmost loyalty to his teammates, coaches and fans.
The fairytale 2006 season was one of the greatest times in my life, but had Brian Urlacher never been drafted by Chicago, or had he spurned the city at any point in his career for a better chance to win, who knows where my allegiance would stand. I owe my Bears fanhood to him, and to be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Next season will be strange without no. 54 roaming the middle and calling the plays, knowing he will never put on the blue and orange again. Like everyone in that locker room, we will miss him. But we will never forget him.
Once word got out that Matt Forte and the Bears had finally agreed on a long-term contract (four years worth roughly $32 million with roster bonuses and incentives), it felt as if the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders. It scared the living shit out of me that the most important player in our offense (other than Cutler) was just hours away from holding out. With him, we’re a Super Bowl contender. Without him, we’re not. It’s as simple as that. And to the people who previously thought that Forte’s presence is overrated and that Michael Bush can easily carry the load: stop talking. Right now.
Forte’s uncanny athleticism and versatility are what separate him from today’s mediocre running backs and make him one of the best in the biz. I understand that the last two Super Bowl champions had gotten less production out of their backfields than the Bears have gotten from their offensive line (Giants ranked dead last in 2012, Packers ranked 24th out of 32 in 2011), indicating that the NFL has rapidly transitioned into a passing league, but why does that matter? Without Forte, this is an offense without a true identity. ESPN Chicago’s Michael C. Wright did him justice in coming up with these stats:
Since entering the league in 2008, Forte ranks sixth in the league with 6,218 yards from scrimmage and is the only player in NFL history to gain 900 yards rushing and 400 receiving in each of his first four seasons. Forte is also one of four Bears to gain at least 4,000 rushing yards (4,233) and 1,500 receiving yards (1,985) in his career.
Those numbers, by themselves, should indicate how impactful Matt Forte is on the football field. His incredible ability to protect Jay Cutler, catch 50, 60 or even 70 balls out of the backfield, and his knack for breaking off long runs (especially last season) will ultimately be the offense’s biggest assets yet again. Except this time, there will be more playmakers to help this team score points and no Mike Martz to call atrocious plays. The additions of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Earl Bennett’s great health will force defenses to pick their poison with this offense. No more worrying about whether or not Roy Williams, Johnny Knox and Devin Hester can run the correct routes and hold on to the football anymore. The threat of Forte opens up the field for our everyone and vice versa, putting less pressure on Jay Cutler and much more pressure on opposing defenses. The legitimate balance in our offense should also keep the defense off the field more, giving them the opportunity to make stops more efficiently, and allow the punting unit to stay on the sidelines longer, meaning that opposing offenses won’t have as many short fields to work with. One little thing Forte does on the field can positively impact a number of different facets of the game.
The deal Forte signed was great for both sides. The Bears locked up one of their most valuable players for four years, and Forte gets insurance and nearly $18 million guaranteed until the age of 3o, which is known to be the age in which great running backs lose whatever ability they used to have and become backups or platoon candidates at best. Some may argue that Forte got shafted and deserves more money (which he very well may), as he was originally seeking a contract comparable to that of Darren McFadden ($10 million/year, $26 million guaranteed) or Chris Johnson (9.17 million/year, $30 million guaranteed). But, given the amount of leverage the Bears had in this negotiation (Forte was more than likely going to be franchise tagged again next season), this is probably the best deal that he could have gotten. It makes him one of the six (or so) highest paid running backs in the league, ahead of the likes Frank Gore, Maurice Jones-Drew and Michael Turner and in the same ballpark as Ray Rice, Steven Jackson and Marshawn Lynch. Not too shabby of a list, that’s for damn sure.
After the way last season ended in such disappointing fashion, the only way for this team to go is up. Locking up Forte was a major step in the right direction and should give Bears fans the optimism we’ve lacked since Cutler broke his thumb. Not only is Forte a great player, but he’s also a great teammate and professional. He couldn’t have handled this situation any better by playing out his contract and doing what was best for the team, unlike what many football players would do. Forte’s presence alone should put the Bears in position to make a run in the playoffs next winter, and I’m confident he’ll live up to the expectations of his contract and then some. September 9th can’t come any sooner.
The Chicago Bears had arguably the worst corps of receivers in the NFL last season. Even after missing four games, Matt Forte still led the team, from the backfield, with 52 receptions. The top two receivers on the depth chart, Johnny Knox and Roy Williams, caught 37 balls a piece, good for 109th in the league. Knox finished with a team-high 727 receiving yards. More importantly, the Bears haven’t had a single 1000-yard receiver since Marty Booker in 2002. In fact, this franchise has only produced 11 1000-yard receivers EVER. The Arizona Cardinals had three of them on THE SAME TEAM just four years ago. I can go on and on about this, but one thing is clear: the Bears have lacked a playmaker (outside of running back) for as long as most of us can remember. It’s probably no coincidence that we’ve only won one Super Bowl in its 46-year existence (and that happened to be the best defensive team in the history of the NFL). Jerry Angelo, the worst man ever, didn’t seem to understand this. Hence his firing after the season.
Insert Phil Emery. What was his first move? He went out and got us a dangerous playmaker in Brandon Marshall. And Jay Cutler went from a very unhappy person to just an unhappy person, which says a lot. With the news of Marshall finally being cleared of any wrongdoing for a nightclub incident in March, I figured there’s no better time than to breakdown what kind of impact he should have on Cutler and this Bears team going forward. Below is a chart of Marshall’s numbers over the past five seasons:
The touchdown numbers may scare you, I know. However, that has more to do with Cutler, Orton, Henne and Moore, all of whom are known to be poor red zone quarterbacks, than it does Marshall. He finished in the top five in both targets and red zone targets during his three full seasons in Denver, and he finished in the top 12 in targets and top 6 in red zone targets during his two seasons with Miami. Simply put, quarterbacks trust Marshall, especially inside the 20 yard line. The numbers alone show you that he is as reliable a wide receiver as there is in this game. It is very difficult to maintain the consistency that Marshall has at the professional level. Even with terrible quarterbacks throwing him the ball in Miami, he still managed to put up very solid numbers.
Now, think about the impact Marshall had on Cutler. During their two full seasons together in Denver, Cutler targeted Marshall an average of 186 times. That’s unheard of. Consider the fact that Denver was 10th in the NFL in total yards per game (346.3) in 2007 and 2nd in 2008 (395.6), and you realize that the Cutler-Marshall combo is a perfect marriage (if you think a supporting cast of Eddie Royal, a running back by committee and Tony Scheffler is scarier than Forte/Bush, Alshon Jeffery, Earl Bennett, Devin Hester and a healthy Johnny Knox, you’re sadly mistaken). With Cutler at the helm during his first three seasons in Chicago, the offense averaged just 217.1, 194.1 and 231.9 yards per game, respectively. His completion percentage went from 62.9% as a full-time starter for the Broncos to 59.9% with the Bears. And finally, his interception rate has gone from 0.89 picks per game to 1.20. The argument can be made that the Bears offensive line has been horrendous, so obviously Cutler’s numbers were going to take a hit. However, a lot of that had to do with the way Mike Martz ran his offense. His outrageous stubbornness to establish a balanced offense and actually allow the Bears to play to their strengths (running the ball) put a ton of pressure on Cutler, leading him to force throws way more often than he should have. There will also be no more seven-step-drops, so the sack/rush/hurry numbers will undoubtedly go down.
Just having Marshall on the field completely changes the way defenses will have to game plan for us. Plus, the Bears did themselves justice by going out and signing Michael Bush, the former Oakland Raiders running back. He’s a straight beast inside the 5-yard line, something Matt Forte certainly can’t consider himself thus far. Adding these guys will only take the pressure off of Cutler and Forte to carry the load. Marshall will help stretch the field and open up opportunities for other guys to make plays. With extra weapons and more time in the pocket without Martz calling the shots, there will be less forced throws, so Cutler’s decision-making, particularly in the red zone, should (hopefully) improve (he ranked next-to-last in bad decision rating in 2011). No more holding our breath, praying our below-average receivers run the correct routes and make the plays that NFL receivers are supposed to make. If Alshon Jeffery lives up to his potential (put up 88-1517-9 during his sophomore season with South Carolina), the Bears could own one of the scariest offenses in the NFL. Consider this stat that Peter King came up with in yesterday’s Monday Morning Quarterback:
The Chicago Bears could field the tallest set of receivers in club history — and, in fact, one of the tallest ever to take the field — this year, depending on the play-calling whimsy of offensive coordinator Mike Tice.
If the Bears line up in a five-receiver set, with two tight ends and three wide receivers, here’s how they could threaten the opposition:
At wideout: The 6-4½ Brandon Marshall and 6-3 rookie Alshon Jeffery could line up split out, with 6-0 Earl Bennett or 5-11 Dane Sanzenbacher the third receiver; Sanzenbacher is more suited to play inside. This is dependent, too, on the recovery of 5-11 Johnny Knox from a severe late-2011 back injury.
At tight end: Returning are 6-7 Matt Spaeth and 6-6½ Kellen Davis, who could be used as sixth, or sixth and seventh linemen to buttress a shaky line. And fourth-round pick Evan Rodriguez, an athletic 6-2 tight end, could get some playing time if he proves his worth as a receiver too.
Conjures memories of the Chargers two years ago, when they could send three receivers 6-4 or taller downfield — Vincent Jackson, Malcolm Floyd and tight end Antonio Gates — with the 6-2 Legedu Naanee in reserve.
That’s pretty incredible to think about. Provided Cutler and Marshall don’t skip a beat, Mike Tice patches up the offensive line, and Forte’s knee heals up, the Bears offense will finally be able to keep the defense off the field longer and may very well turn itself into a juggernaut.
Only 2.5 months ’til training camp. CAN’T WAIT!