Chicago Sun-Times Latest news from the Chicago Sun-Times Online en-us News Chicago Sun-Times 84 34 30 Copyright 2014 <![CDATA[Confident in the Bears? Take our test]]> Playoffs or bust.

In an unscientific fan poll by Comcast SportsNet on Monday, 50 percent of the responders said their minimum expectation for the Bears this season is to make the playoffs. That seems like a reasonable measurement of success — and failure — for the team in Marc Trestman’s second season.

The oddsmakers seem to agree. After an 8-8 season in which they had the second-highest scoring offense in the NFL and the second-worst scoring defense and failed to make the playoffs, the Bears are an impressive sixth pick to win the Super Bowl at 14-1 (along with the Colts and Saints), according to

The five teams ahead of the Bears — the Broncos (13-2), Seahawks (7-1), 49ers (15-2), Patriots (9-1) and Packers (10-1) — are established contenders who made the playoffs last season. In fact, of the 16 teams that didn’t make the playoffs last season, the Bears are the only one to rate better than 25-1 odds.

Along with the Eagles, Lions and Steelers, the Bears are one of the biggest X-factors in the NFL. They could be Super Bowl contenders if their defense improves as expected and they win the close games. Trestman won the Grey Cup in his second season with the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL. But the Bears don’t have much margin for error — a couple of key injuries or holes at defensive tackle, linebacker or safety, and they’ll miss the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years since reaching the Super Bowl in 2006.

So as usual, your optimism or pessimism is well-founded. Which side are you on? Take our annual test to find out. Rate these categories, with 10 points for an optimistic vote, minus-10 for a pessimistic vote and zero for a neutral vote.


Twitter: @MarkPotash

Jay Cutler

Optimist: With the wind at his back like never before — Pro Bowl-caliber weapons, a solid offensive line and a full year in Marc Trestman’s offense — all the pieces are in place for Cutler to finally realize his potential as a top-five NFL quarterback.

Pessimist: Unfortunately, all the pieces absolutely have to be in place for Cutler to realize his potential. One key injury is all it takes — and Cutler hasn’t played a full season since 2009. Even amid the rosiest of outlooks, Cutler is daunted by one failing: there’s always something.

Lance Briggs

Optimist: After missing seven games with a shoulder injury last year, a refreshed Briggs will regain his Pro Bowl form behind a much-improved defensive line, with a bonus in Mel Tucker’s revamped defense — a career-high eight sacks — and mentor Jon Bostic and Shea McClellin to impact status.

Pessimist: Never a workout warrior, Briggs will continue to be vulnerable to injuries as the wear and tear of 11 seasons continues to take its toll. He still will be effective — and better than anything else the Bears have — but he’ll be 34 on Nov. 12 and he won’t be the Pro Bowl-level player he was in his prime.

Shea McClellin

Optimist: Finally where he should have been all along, McClellin will blossom at outside linebacker, where his closing speed will make him the impact pass rusher Phil Emery envisioned. As his speed draws comparisons to Urlacher, the only question will be if he’s better suited for the middle.

Pessimist: He’s the ultimate ’tweener. Though McClellin has the speed to rush the passer, he will struggle to avoid blockers and will be constantly engaged. Learning curve will prove too steep, and he won’t have a lot of time because the Bears have better options in Jon Bostic and rookie Christian Jones.

Charles Tillman

Optimist: The proud 11-year pro, who loves to prove people wrong, will bounce back at 33 from an injury-shortened season and give the Bears’ defense the bite it was missing with his infectious ability to create turnovers. His mentorship also will make rookie Kyle Fuller an impact player by the end of 2014.

Pessimist: The wear and tear of 11 NFL seasons will continue to catch up with the combative Tillman, who was showing his age even before he suffered a season-ending injury last year. Still a Lovie Smith guy at heart, he’ll resist a move to safety and be replaced by Fuller by midseason.

Jared Allen

Optimist: Re-energized at 32 on a team with a high-scoring offense that provides numerous pass-rushing opportunities, the effusive Allen will have a Reggie White type of impact on a team desperate for real leadership. He’ll have 15-plus sacks and will be on the cover of Sports Illustrated by Thanksgiving.

Pessimist: Struggling to fit into a defense that doesn’t quite know where it’s going or what it wants to be, Allen will show his age and suffer through a difficult season with single-digit sacks and ultimately wilt under the public and media pressure to produce. This ain’t Kansas City. And it ain’t Minnesota.


Optimist: Free safety Brock Vereen will start from Day 1, and Kyle Fuller will be in the cornerback rotation to give the Bears’ secondary an immediate lift. Will Sutton or Ego Ferguson will be a starter. Punter Pat O’Donnell will make the all-rookie team. Linebacker Christian Jones will be a steal. Jordan Lynch will be a special-teams star.

Pessimist: Fuller will struggle to adjust to the speed of the NFL and push Pro Bowl cornerback Tim Jennings into a nickel-back position he isn’t prepared for. The green Vereen will be no more effective than Chris Conte. Sutton and Ferguson will be injured. Pat O’Donnell will be beaten out by Tress Way.

Special teams

Optimist: A deeper roster will give veteran coordinator Joe DeCamillis much more to work with. There are upgrades at almost every special-teams spot except long snapper. Rookie punter Pat O’Donnell will be a big hit. The winner of the kick-return derby will be better than Devin Hester was in 2013.

Pessimist: With too many rookies and second-year players on the roster, the loss of three key special-teamers will be felt — kick returner Devin Hester, leading tackler Blake Costanzo and long snapper Pat Mannelly. That’s too many new faces to be the difference-making unit it used to be.

Wed, 23 Jul 2014 10:07:21 -0500
<![CDATA[4 position battles to watch during Bears camp]]> As coach Marc Trestman often says, the Bears didn’t ‘‘anoint’’ any starters during their offseason work, especially when it comes to their most compelling position battles. The real work begins when training-camp practices start Friday in Bourbonnais and intensifies when the pads are put on Sunday. With much to be settled, here are four competitions we’ll be watching closely:


It once was thought that Jordan Palmer had a strong, if not insurmountable, hold on the backup job behind quarterback Jay Cutler. But Palmer’s shoulder injury and Jimmy Clausen’s late arrival altered everything.

Clausen, a former Notre Dame star, comes with a pedigree and more NFL experience. He was more of an observer than a participant during organized team activities and still earned a room for camp.

Clausen won over Cutler and coach Marc Trestman in the quarterbacks room, a factor that shouldn’t be overlooked. The backup job seems his to lose now.

‘‘That room is hugely important,’’ Trestman said. ‘‘The chemistry, the karma — whatever you want to call it — the communication has got to be good. Jimmy has done a very good job, very maturely fit in.’’

Josh McCown’s success last season in the first run of Trestman’s offense and Cutler’s injury history only add drama to the competition.


Veteran Adrian Wilson, a late signee, might not be in his Pro Bowl prime, but he still will push Ryan Mundy, who was locked in at strong safety throughout the offseason work.

Three-year starter Chris Conte’s return from shoulder surgery might not happen during camp, but his goal is to be ready at some point in the preseason. When he does come back, the onus will be on rookie Brock Vereen and former Packer M.D. Jennings to hold him off at the free-safety spot.

But could a starting pair of Wilson and Mundy emerge as an option during camp?

‘‘The more guys you add to the mix, the more competition there’s going to be,’’ defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. ‘‘It’ll be a fluid situation.’’


In his revamped and retooled defense, coordinator Mel Tucker might have enough jobs and snaps to make D.J. Williams, Jon Bostic and Shea McClellin happy alongside Lance Briggs. But that doesn’t mean Williams, Bostic and McClellin won’t do everything they can to show that their snaps make the defense work best.

All three have different skills. McClellin can rush the passer, Bostic excels in coverage and Williams is strong against the run.

Second-year man Khaseem Greene also has impressed his coaches this offseason.

‘‘It’s a fight, a battle,’’ linebackers coach Reggie Herring said. ‘‘The way they have responded is the way you want them to as a coach.’’


Coordinator Joe DeCamillis has to find replacements for two longtime stalwarts on the Bears’ special teams: returner Devin Hester (Atlanta Falcons) and long snapper Patrick Mannelly (retired).

Chad Rempel, a former Olympic bobsledder, and Brandon Hartson will snap away to replace Mannelly, who was the longest-tenured player in Bears history. But replacing Hester should make for a show, with Eric Weems, Chris Williams, Micheal Spurlock, Armanti Edwards and Michael Ford all expected to get their shots during camp and in exhibition games.

None of them can do what Hester did. Is returner-by-committee an option?

Wed, 23 Jul 2014 10:07:12 -0500
<![CDATA[Cliff Stein is the Bears’ money man]]> The maitre d’ at the Ritz-Carlton was right: No one could overhear their conversation.

Three men sat in a glass-enclosed room in March at a tapas bar in Orlando, Fla., miles from the fancy hotel crawling with NFL executives and media members.

Bears general manager Phil Emery dined with agent Ken Harris, whose client, defensive end Jared Allen, was a free agent. Harris had been smuggled out of the hotel, whisked behind a pillar at the valet parking station to avoid the eyes of an ESPN reporter and the Cleveland Browns’ staff.

The third man at the table was an essential piece of the Bears’ offseason plan who has — by choice — avoided the spotlight for years: chief negotiator Cliff Stein.

A former agent, lawyer and prosecutor, Stein is the Bears’ vice president of football administration and general counsel. He oversees the Bears’ salary cap and, with approval from president Ted Phillips and Emery, the financial side of player contracts.

‘‘I don’t think any of us were drinking wine,’’ an amused Stein told the Sun-Times in a rare interview, ‘‘but we were in a wine vault.’’

‘Tremendous respect’

The Bears spent a year crafting options for one of the busiest and most important offseasons in their history — ‘‘We always overplan for a number of scenarios,’’ Stein said — but signing Allen seemed implausible.

‘‘That plan always incorporates some things you might not expect,’’ Stein said, ‘‘[such as] when we traded for Jay Cutler or Brandon Marshall or, this year, the signing of Jared Allen. When those things become available, you can’t always predict and plan.’’

Over small bites, the sides laid out their motivations: Allen’s agent said his client wanted to play in Chicago. The Bears wanted him to take less money in the first year in exchange for more guaranteed in the second.

‘‘You don’t always get that flexibility in a free agent that has options,’’ Stein said.

Eventually, they had a four-year, $32 million deal.

‘‘A lot of that is Cliff’s understanding of the cap and all the consequences of where we were at and where we could go with it in the proceeding years and the amount of guarantees,’’ Emery said. ‘‘That’s just a credit to his ability to make that all come together.’’

Stein, a 47-year-old father of two, communicates with the NFL about rules, waivers and employee contracts in addition to negotiating deals.

‘‘Once the plan is laid out, I get a tremendous amount of autonomy,’’ said Stein, who was born in Philadelphia and graduated from Temple. ‘‘I’m really fortunate to work with some great leaders.’’

His dry wit is legendary at Halas Hall. He sums up tense negotiations by sending video clips from the ‘‘The Sopranos’’ or ‘‘Goodfellas’’ to Bears staffers.

‘‘He’s got a tremendous amount of respect throughout the NFL,’’ Emery said, ‘‘both from personnel people — in terms of his knowledge base and what he accomplishes with contracts — [and] among the agents. Because Cliff was one of them, they all recognize that.’’

A dealmaker

If signing Allen was a surprise cap to the Bears’ offseason, the cornerstone was Cutler, whose seven-year, $126.7 million contract is the largest in team history. The deal was finished four days after the 2013 regular-season finale.

‘‘When you have two sides highly motivated, it’s really not that difficult,’’ Stein said. ‘‘None of these have to take months, and none of these have to take weeks. All of these can be simple when you have both sides with a shared interest and one side’s not trying to do something unreasonable.’’

Cutler’s contract ‘‘had ramifications on everything else,’’ Emery said, because it ‘‘gave us a road map as to what was possible’’ with other free agents.

From the last week of the regular season to the start of training camp this week, the Bears signed 40 players — not counting draftees, rookie free agents and reserve/future deals — and gave Marshall an extension.

‘‘That’s why we were able to get all those contracts done at the end of the year,’’ Emery said. ‘‘He’s relentless in his effort.’’

Before being hired by then-GM Jerry Angelo in 2002, Stein described himself as a ‘‘no-name agent’’ for eight years. He said his wife, a lawyer at a large firm, took on the role as breadwinner while he pursued his agent ‘‘dream.’’

Stein, then, can sympathize with agents. About 55 percent of them don’t have an active player.

‘‘Coming to each situation with the understanding of their role is helpful, having done what they’re doing and understanding the challenges and difficulties in their life,’’ Stein said.

Stein ‘‘doesn’t try to embarrass you,’’ a prominent agent said. ‘‘He tries to make you look good in front of your client. He’s all about the win-win.

‘‘Some teams want to crush you. Some guys, it’s like playing tennis and they want to beat you. Cliff is more like playing in a best-ball golf tournament.’’

Sense of fairness

Angelo tells the story with wonder and respect. Before draft-pick salaries were codified by the collective-bargaining agreement, the Bears agreed to terms with a high selection who had a relative serving as his agent.

After other picks in his round had signed, it was clear the Bears were paying about $200,000 below market value. They knew the agent would look bad and the player would be shorted.

‘‘Cliff came to me and said: ‘Jerry, we gotta do something about this. We cannot embarrass this guy. We certainly can’t make the player feel like we took advantage of him,’ ’’ Angelo said.

The Bears didn’t have to do anything — the agent wouldn’t represent another player — but Stein suggested the contract take on a different structure to make up the difference.

‘‘Ninety percent of the teams would never have done that and just would have let it go,’’ Angelo said. ‘‘That was the integrity he had when he did contracts. That’s where he got that trust level.’’

Years later, that trust still is paying dividends.

‘‘That’s why he’s the best in football,’’ Angelo said.


Twitter: @patrickfinley

Tue, 22 Jul 2014 12:56:50 -0500
<![CDATA[Why the Bears will go 10-6 this season]]> Because you didn’t ask, I have the Bears going 10-6 and winning a playoff game this season.

My predictions have not always been what some sticklers would refer to as “accurate,’’ so if you’re a Super Bowl-dreaming Bears fan, you shouldn’t be too worried. If, on the other hand, you’re a realist who has seen too much mediocrity from this franchise, you now have reason to believe I’ve been hitting the medical marijuana hard.

Some of you might have accidentally misplaced last year’s prediction column, the one in which I said the Bears would go 8-8. At the time, fervor was running high for the team and new coach Marc Trestman, which would explain the unkind emails I received from Bears fans.

In something of a double miracle, the Bears did go 8-8 last season. It was a miracle I was right and a miracle they ended up winning eight games. Jay Cutler and Lance Briggs got hurt, and, by all rights, the season should have gone down the tubes. I even asked Trestman at a news conference what gave him any reason to believe the Bears could win games, given that two of his best players were injured. Again with the nasty emails from fans. You might be noticing a trend here.

Then came Josh McCown. I’ll go to my grave saying that no one in the world, not even McCown’s family on a vision quest, could have seen his performance coming. But he was beyond good enough, to the point where there was serious public debate about whether he should remain the starter when Cutler returned. It wasn’t a serious debate inside Halas Hall, but it was a reflection of just how successful McCown was.

Now he’s a Tampa Bay Buccaneer with a nice contract. He will be missed here. That’s the ultimate compliment for a backup quarterback.

Can Cutler stay healthy? That’s the ultimate question for the season.

On paper, the Bears are improved heading into training camp, which opens Friday with the first practice in Bourbonnais. (Wouldn’t it be great if, just once, they actually played an NFL season on paper? Oh, wait, that’s fantasy football, also known as, “Who needs a love life?’’) General manager Phil Emery spent the offseason trying to fix a defense that was simply awful in 2013. He rebuilt a defensive line with the signings of Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston. It’s the reason for the raging optimism around town.

The Bears need their defense to be middling. If that sounds like a low bar, then you’re blocking out the memory of how bad things were last season. The Bears finished 30th out of 32 teams in total defense. Emery’s additions will offer immediate improvement, but no one can be sure how much. New, yes. Improved, yes. Good? Let’s not get carried away.

It’s hard to see 33-year-old cornerback Charles Tillman staying upright the entire season. If he can’t, we might get a chance to see whether first-round pick Kyle Fuller is NFL-ready as a corner. Briggs, by the way, turns 34 during the season. Thirty-four in linebacker years is like 94 in human years.

The Bears’ offense has come so far under Trestman that we assume it will be among the elite in the NFL. Not just hope it will, but know it will. Amazing after just one season of the guy. After all those years of praying for an offense that would make the defense proud, the Bears now are coming off a season in which they ranked fifth in passing offense. Year 2 of Trestman, Cutler, Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte figures to be better. See how easily that rolls off the tongue?

The Green Bay Packers figure to be better, too. So do the Detroit Lions, but they always figure to be better and rarely are.

The Bears have something those teams don’t: a new motivational tool at their disposal. It’s called Mike McCarthy. Last week, the Packers’ head coach flew in a B-17 bomber to honor his 96-year-old grandfather-in-law, who had fought in one during World War II. Before boarding, McCarthy said, “All right, let’s go bomb Chicago.’’

I’m sure that will find its way onto a bulletin board. Trestman will dismiss it for what it is, a playful poke at a rival, but some less-enlightened coaches inside Halas Hall will see it as an opportunity to light a fire under the team. Bomb Chicago? The insensitive brute!

Who knows, it might even be worth an 11th regular-season victory.

Tue, 22 Jul 2014 12:56:33 -0500
<![CDATA[Jay Cutler has never been in better position to succeed]]> There are all sorts of reasons Jay Cutler has won only one playoff game in eight seasons in the NFL, the last five with the Bears. And let the record show most of them aren’t his fault:

1. Bad protection.

2. Poorly conceived offense.

3. Bad defense.

4. No go-to receiver.

5. Not enough go-to receivers.

6. Bad rapport with his offensive coordinator.

7. Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers.

8. ‘‘We’re in the first year of the offense.’’

9. Untimely injury.

10. Wrong place at the wrong time.

And that’s just off the top of my head.

But in the last two-plus years, the Bears have addressed and rectified nearly every one of those maladies. From president Ted Phillips hiring general manager Phil Emery; to Emery hiring coach Marc Trestman, trading for receiver Brandon Marshall, drafting receiver Alshon Jeffery and rebuilding the offensive line; to Trestman hiring offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer and quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh and providing offensive production and stability, the Bears have given Cutler the comfort zone he needs to win big.

‘‘For sure, for sure,’’ Cutler said when asked if he felt more comfortable than ever heading into this camp. ‘‘With all the guys around me, with coach Trestman and the rest of the coaches and everybody in place from last year, there’s definitely a comfort there. Not only me but the rest of the guys, as well.’’

In 2013:

† The Bears solved Capers, scoring 27 and 28 offensive points in two games against the Packers after averaging 13 in their previous nine games against them.

† The 6-4 Marshall and 6-3 Jeffery combined for 189 receptions, 2,716 yards and 19 touchdowns.

† With all five offensive linemen starting all 16 games, the Bears were fourth in the NFL in sacks allowed.

† Being in the first season of Trestman’s offense didn’t seem to matter much, with the Bears finishing second in points and eighth in yards.

† The Bears even thrived at quarterback after Cutler suffered two injuries.

But in Cutler’s star-crossed career, there always has been something. The Bears’ embarrassingly poor defense was the culprit in 2013. The Bears ranked 30th among 32 teams in total defense, last in yards per play and last in rushing yards per game and rushing yards per attempt.

It will be better this season — and not just because it can’t get worse. Though it’s only July, it’s a pretty good bet that Emery’s rebuilding of the line — starting with the monumental acquisition of end Jared Allen — sufficiently has fortified the defense. It might not be back to Lovie Smith-era levels, but it’s good enough to give the Bears a chance to beat anybody on their schedule, given their offense.

The rest is up to Cutler, who will be in the second season of an offense for only the second time during his tenure with the Bears. Super Bowl or bust? We should know by now that’s not Cutler’s style.

‘‘We did OK last year for the first year [in the offense],’’ Cutler said last month at minicamp. ‘‘We have the same guys we had last year, which is always good. Talentwise, it’s hard to top our O-line and some of the guys we have on the outside and [running back] Matt Forte, who is hugely underrated.

‘‘Talentwise and being in the system two years and the way the guys work, all that adds up. Hopefully we can stay healthy and see where this thing goes.’’

We’ll see about that. Trestman’s magic with Josh McCown notwithstanding, Cutler’s durability is an issue heading into the season. He was injured twice last season, missing one game with a torn groin muscle and four with a high ankle sprain. He started 53 consecutive games through 2009, his first season with the Bears. Since then, he has missed 13 games in the last four seasons.

‘‘For a while, it was a hit parade back there,’’ Cutler said, referring to poor protection, including 52 sacks in 2010. ‘‘It takes its toll from time to time. With the offensive line we’ve got here, the guys are doing everything possible. Last year was last year, kind of two freak injuries. I don’t really foresee that happening again.’’

Nobody ever does, of course. That’s why No. 10 on the Cutler list looms largest of all this season. With so many of the pieces in place — ominous phrasing, I know — Cutler has to hope against hope he can avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If fate moves its huge hands, there’s nothing Emery or Trestman can do about it.


Twitter: @MarkPotash

Mon, 21 Jul 2014 13:36:48 -0500
<![CDATA[A look at Jay Cutler’s first 8 seasons — and the finishes]]> ARE ALL THE PIECES FINALLY IN PLACE?

In the ninth season of Jay Cutler’s heretofore up-and-down career, the stars seem aligned for him to have the ‘‘breakout’’ many have been predicting for years. In his first eight seasons, Cutler never has had a passer rating higher than 89.2 and has started only two playoff games, finishing one.

A look at Cutler’s first eight seasons and the circumstances behind eight disappointing finishes:

2006 Broncos (9-7) 88.5 rating, 9 TDs, 5 INTs• Needing a victory in Week 17 to make the playoffs, the Broncos lost to the 49ers 26-23 in overtime. Cutler, a rookie making his fifth start, was injured after a sack, returned to throw a pick-six, then threw the tying touchdown pass with 1:30 left. The Broncos stalled on two overtime possessions.

2007 Broncos (7-9) 88.1 rating, 20 TDs, 14 INTs• The Broncos were 5-5 before losing four of their next five games, starting with a 37-34 loss to the Bears. Cutler threw for 302 yards in that game, but the Broncos allowed two kick-return touchdowns to Devin Hester. The Broncos’ defense allowed the fifth-most points in the NFL (26.5 per game) that season.

2008 Broncos (8-8) 86.0 rating, 25 TDs, 18 INTs• Needing one victory in their final three games to clinch a playoff spot, the Broncos lost all three, including a 30-23 home loss to the Bills in which they wasted a 13-0 lead. Cutler had ratings of 74.3, 72.4 and 74.9 in the final three games, but the Broncos allowed 30, 30 and 52 points.

2009 Bears (7-9) 76.8 rating, 27 TDs, 26 INTs• Brian Urlacher’s season-ending wrist injury in the opener took some of the bite out of the Bears’ defense, which finished tied for 21st in points allowed. After a 3-1 start, Cutler threw 20 interceptions and was sacked 23 times in a 10-game stretch in which the Bears went 2-8 to fall out of contention.

2010 Bears (11-5) 86.3 rating, 23 TDs, 16 INTs• With a chance to knock the Packers out of the playoffs, Cutler struggled (43.5 rating) in a 10-3 loss in Week 17 at Lambeau Field. He was great (111.3 rating) against the Seahawks in the playoffs but suffered a knee injury after a poor start (31.8 rating) against the Packers in the NFC Championship Game.

2011 Bears (8-8) 85.7 rating, 13 TDs, 7 INTs• Cutler was on a roll and the Bears were heading to 7-3 with their fifth consecutive victory when Cutler suffered a season-ending broken thumb while chasing the Chargers’ Antoine Cason, who had intercepted a pass after Johnny Knox fell down. The Bears lost their next five games and were eliminated from playoff contention.

2012 Bears (10-6) 81.3 rating, 19 TDs, 14 INTs• The Bears were 7-1 after beating mostly losing teams when Cutler, who was sacked 28 times in the first eight games, was injured after struggling early (16.7 rating) in a loss to the 7-1 Texans. Cutler missed a 32-7 loss to the 49ers and also was injured against the Vikings as the Bears lost five times in a six-game stretch to doom their playoff hopes.

2013 Bears (8-8) 89.2 rating, 19 TDs, 12 INTs• Cutler was eighth in the NFL in passer rating (95.2) when he was injured after a poor start (8.3 rating) against the Redskins. He also was injured against the Lions and missed five starts. But his best season ultimately was doomed by a 30th-ranked defense, right down to a fourth-quarter misplay in a 33-28 loss to the Packers in Week 17.

Sun, 20 Jul 2014 22:40:12 -0500
<![CDATA[10 Bears on the spot in 2014]]> The embarrassing moments seemed endless for the Bears’ once-respected defense in 2013. Meanwhile, the impressive moments for the offense seemed boundless, regardless of who was at quarterback.

If some balance is restored, the Bears can be a formidable team in 2014.

“You’ve got to move forward,” linebacker Lance Briggs said.

That the Bears do, especially on defense. So it’s you, Mr. Briggs, who tops the Sun-Times’ list of the 10 most important players to the Bears’ success.

1. LB Lance Briggs

The Bears believe a new scheme under coordinator Mel Tucker and several personnel changes will bring dramatic improvement.

“Everything we did was almost all atrocious,” Briggs said of last season.

Making the defense — which was last against the run, last in sacks and second-to-last in scoring — respectable again will require an exceptional season by Briggs.

In the final year of his contract and his first in a new scheme, Briggs has to make the calls for a defense with many new faces.

Staying on the field is priority No. 1 for Briggs. The defense’s demise intensified last season after Briggs was lost with a fractured shoulder.

2. QB Jay Cutler

If Jay Cutler stays healthy, his elite talents finally should turn into elite numbers, surpassing 30 touchdown passes and approaching 5,000 passing yards.

This isn’t crazy Kool-Aid talk, either.

Cutler won over coach Marc Trestman, a renowned quarterback guru, and was rewarded with a seven-year, $126.7 million contract. He has the best receiving tandem in the league, a star running back, a coach and a scheme he believes in and an offensive line that put an end to the self-described “hit parade” he endured.

It’s Pro Bowl or bust (or injury) for Cutler.

3. WR Brandon Marshall

It appears Alshon Jeffery will be nearly unstoppable, making catches in leaps and bounds. But Brandon Marshall still is Cutler’s go-to guy on the field and confidant off it. He’s the elite receiver that Jeffery still has to prove he can be, producing season after season.

At this point last year, Marshall still was feeling out what was expected of him in Trestman’s offense. He turned out to be the top target and the top decoy who allowed Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett to flourish.

In Year 2 with Trestman, Marshall could improve on last season’s numbers (100 catches, 1,295 yards, 12 touchdowns) even if Jeffery continues his rise.

4. DE Jared Allen

Quarterbacks weren’t exactly shaking in their cleats last year against the Bears, who tied the lowly Jaguars with a meager 31 sacks.

Enter Allen.

A five-time Pro Bowl player, Allen won’t shudder at the mention of replacing Julius Peppers. Allen actually will be an upgrade in sacks. He’s had 56½ to Peppers’ 37½ over the last four seasons, during which the Vikings totaled 166 to the Bears’ 139. His gregarious personality will help, too.

5. DE Lamarr Houston

Houston was the Bears’ marquee free-agent signing before they added Allen. The Bears see a star in the making in Houston, whose strong play got lost in the black hole that is the Raiders these days.

Tucker and line coach Paul Pasqualoni are excited about his potential. Whether it’s at left end or at three-technique tackle, Houston can be used in different ways. He also has a nasty edge that can spur a group that seemed void of emotion at times last season.

6. RB Matt Forte

Quarterbacks weren’t the only ones to benefit from a regime change at Halas Hall. Forte finally was used last season as he should have been for years, putting up star numbers and negating talk about the devaluation of running backs in the game.

Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer unleashed Forte upon the NFL, changing the running scheme and using him in the passing game. Forte fell 67 yards short of 2,000 total yards last year. Can he top it in 2014?

7. CB Charles Tillman

Kyle Fuller might be Tillman’s eventual replacement, but in 2014, Tillman still will be tasked with covering top receivers. Let’s be honest: Fuller isn’t ready for Calvin Johnson.

Tillman was on course for his third consecutive Pro Bowl before injuries derailed him last season. His three interceptions and three forced fumbles in eight games are numbers that other starting corners only can dream of for a full season.

8. WR Alshon Jeffery

Jeffery’s breakout campaign helped keep the Bears’ offense churning when Josh McCown played last season. Jeffery will bear the expectations of repeating, if not besting his success (89 catches, 1,421 yards, seven touchdowns). But everything is pointing up for Jeffery, who continued his offseason work with Marshall.

9. RT Jordan Mills

Any criticism of Mills’ rookie season requires perspective. He went from a late Senior Bowl invite to an unheralded fifth-round pick to a 16-game starter for the second-highest scoring team in the league.

If Mills cuts down on the hurries he allowed and keeps his foot healthy after breaking a bone in it, the Bears’ well-coached offensive line (which allowed the fourth-fewest sacks in the league) will be even better.

10. DT Jeremiah Ratliff

Ratliff last played a full season in 2011, but if he’s anything close to the Pro Bowl tackle he was for the Cowboys, the Bears’ defensive line will gain traction.

The 10-year veteran will tutor the Bears’ rookie tackles, but he also is determined to show that he can be the penetrating, block-eating tackle he was years ago. A productive Ratliff will ease concerns about the linebackers and safeties.


Twitter: @adamjahns

Tue, 22 Jul 2014 12:57:09 -0500
<![CDATA[NFL Draft will be in Chicago or Los Angeles]]> NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league has narrowed its choices to host the 2015 draft to Chicago and Los Angeles, removing New York from the running.

The draft has been in New York since 1965, but it was forced to move because Radio City Music Hall isn’t available in April or May. The draft, which might be extended to four days, is expected to be held either April 22-25 or April 29-May 2.

Goodell wouldn’t say when a decision will be made.

Thu, 17 Jul 2014 20:12:56 -0500