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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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On the Marc?

Did Phil Emery strike gold with his hire of Marc Trestman? Only time will tell.

***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?

Third-and-Long… Again

Add me to the list of Kyle Long first-year doubters.

Add me to the long list of Kyle Long first-year doubters.

Stop me if this sounds all too familiar: the Bears are on the clock, and there’s a plethora of value out there. Experts and fans get fired up, discussing perfect fits and can’t miss talents. For what seems like a lifetime, Roger Goodell finally makes his way to the podium and gets booed, per usual. He announces the pick, the cameras pan to a bunch of random Bears fans with their arms out, shaking their heads, and within minutes, everyone starts calling, texting and tweeting each other to ask something around the lines of, “Who the hell is that?! What the f**k are they thinking?!”

If that chain of events does, in fact, sound familiar to you, then you’ve had the ability to follow or tune in to the first round of the last two NFL drafts (or any Jerry Angelo-led draft for that matter). And both times, you’ve more than likely ended the night with a bitter Bear taste in your mouth. I hated the Shea McClellin pick last year, and I hate the Kyle Long pick even more this year. McClellin was considered a project going into the 2012 season, a guy NO ONE in their right minds predicted the Bears to draft in the first round. He wasn’t a projected first rounder on any mock draft boards, and he sure as hell wasn’t a projected starter for that Bears defense. The Bears passed on two stud defensive ends, Chandler Jones (drafted 21st by New England, two spots after McClellin) and Whitney Mercilus (drafted 26th by Houston) to select the undersized, still-a-work-in-progress Shea McClellin. Here’s how their rookies seasons fared:

  • Shea McClellin: 14 games, 14 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 0 forced turnovers, 0 pass deflections
  • Chandler Jones: 14 games, 45 tackles, 6.0 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 5 pass deflections
  • Whitney Mercilus: 16 games, 20 tackles, 6.0 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 1 pass deflection

Now does this mean that I’m not a McClellin believer, that I think he’ll end up a bust when it’s all said and done? Absolutely not. The sky is the limit for this kid, and anything can happen as he continues to get stronger and improve his game. However, the numbers speak for themselves and prove that Phil Emery decided to place a premium on a project-type prospect in the first round of the draft as opposed to an instant-impact player, which Jones and Mercilus clearly were last season. And that is exactly what he did again last night.

Before we dive into the prospect overview, here’s the baggage that Kyle Long brings with him to Chicago: DUIs, drug rehab, flunked out of Florida State, converted from a defensive lineman to an offensive lineman just two years ago, and started a whopping five games during his final season of college football at Oregon. Emery claims Long has rebounded from the issues and is “not concerned about Long’s character.” That’s fine – maybe Emery’s right. To be quite honest, I don’t even really care about the baggage. Everyone makes mistakes – flunking out of college not typically one of them – but I care about getting pancakes and hammers out from my offensive lineman, not getting F’s in The Art of Basketweaving. It’s mainly the last two points above, the draft profile, and the absurd amount of talent we passed up for Long that are concerning.

The athletic ability that Long possesses is undeniable. He’s a 6’6, 313 pound offensive lineman with great reach and excellent mobility. He has great physical gifts, and he’s the son of Hall of Famer Howie Long and brother of former second overall pick Chris Long. The issue, however, is not his athleticism – it’s his football inexperience, especially on the offensive line, as well as his tag by many experts, including Bill Polian, as a “developmental player” (and he’s already 24 years old). This is a huge risk/mediocre reward pick if I’ve ever seen one, as Long doesn’t seem to be possess the instant-impact characteristics that Phil Emery claims he does. Apparently, just playing well in the Senior Bowl and doing well in the Combine are the key determinants for future NFL success. It doesn’t make any sense at all, as the Bears need to win NOW, not later. And the only way to do that at this point is to load this team up with as many instant-impact players as it can through the draft.

The Bears could have drafted a defensive tackle like Sharrif Floyd, the man-child out of Florida whom the Vikings potentially stole with the 23rd pick and was scouted as a top-10 talent (plausible nightmare scenario here). Or Tyler Eifert, the tight end out of Notre Dame who some experts have compared to Rob Gronkowski (his playmaking ability, NOT his partying) and drafted immediately after our pick by the Bengals. Or Alec Ogletree, the freakish linebacker out of Georgia who could’ve ended up being an excellent weak side linebacker in the Bears’ 4-3 defense (though if the Bears are able to snag a linebacker like Arthur Brown in the second round, then I won’t care). Or Xavier Rhodes, the 6’1 cornerback out of Florida State who has drawn comparisons to, and has a higher ceiling than, pro-bowler Brandon Browner from the Seahawks. Or, better yet, they could have traded down to acquire more picks and possibly select Long or another capable lineman later since a) the Bears have the least amount of picks of any team in the draft with 5, and b) Long would have absolutely lasted past round one (even he was surprised), plus there are plenty of other good linemen still out there. Instead, Emery went with the player whom many are deeming as a “project” once again, one who will certainly take time to develop and whose “still new to the game of football, and his play is still a bit unrefined.”

What you might consider pessimism, I consider realism. I may regret all my doubts a year from now, as Long’s play on the field may actually shock me more than the pick itself, and I truly hope that’s the case. Maybe Aaron Kromer has something up his sleeve and sees something in this kid that other football people do not. I want to be wrong about this. But after last year’s first round doubts proved to be valid for one season, I’m entitled to have my doubts now for similar reasons. The next two days of the draft may go better than we’re hoping. But until I see Kyle Long actually starting on the offensive line when the Cincinnati Bengals come to town on September 8th until December 29th against Green Bay, I will remain a skeptic.

Phil Emery, please prove me wrong.

Brandon Marshall: The Key to Jay Cutler’s Ignition

With Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler back together, an offensive juggernaut may be born in Chicago.

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!

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