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Bears’ biggest weapon no longer running or ‘D’ — it’s passing

Jay Cutler (above) has arm targets redefine Bears’ offense with passing attack. | Bill Kostroun~AP

Jay Cutler (above) has the arm and the targets to redefine the Bears’ offense with a passing attack. | Bill Kostroun~AP

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Updated: October 10, 2012 6:23AM



Are you sitting down? Excellent. Good news sometimes can be as shocking as bad news.

The Bears are all in on this thing called the ‘‘forward pass.’’

No, really.

The team will be distinguished in 2012 by its offense, not its defense, and — deep breaths, Grabowski — the passing game is going to be The Show.

I don’t want anyone to get the impression the Bears are shifting from black and blue to pastels, though I’m told Kristin Cavallari thinks fiancé Jay Cutler looks fabulous in robin egg blue. But this season is about Cutler’s arm and Brandon Marshall’s hands, and, to a lesser extent, Matt Forte’s legs. It is not about the frothing defense’s salivary glands.

That development is not by design. It’s by age. The defense is getting old. The Bears would love nothing more than to have a defense of which the 1985 Super Bowl champs could be proud. But they’re not built that way anymore. Brian Urlacher is closer to the Hall of Fame than his prime. He has a bad knee. How bad, no one seems to know.

What we do know is that he is 34, Julius Peppers is 32, Lance Briggs is soon to be 32 and Charles Tillman is 31.

We don’t know how good the defense will be. We think the offense can be very good, provided the offensive line does what it hasn’t done consistently in years: you know, block. That’s a big proviso. It will be central to the team’s chances of success and Cutler’s chances of wellness.

But for the moment, let’s take a leap of faith and say the offensive line knows what it’s doing. Cutler and Marshall were hugely successful when both were in Denver, and if they can come close to replicating that, life will be very good. Marshall’s two most productive years — 1,325 receiving yards in 2007 and 1,265 in 2008 — came with Cutler tossing him passes. Cutler’s best season as a pro was 2008, when he threw for 4,526 yards. You can see why Chicago is having a hard time keeping its knickers on.

The implied threat of Marshall might be as important as the numbers he amasses. Opposing teams, starting with the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday in the season opener, will have to obsess on him, to the point of distraction. That’s where rookie Alshon Jeffery and Earl Bennett come in. And, who knows, maybe even Devin Hester will become a factor.

‘‘It’ll be really hard for a team to really stop us with the guys we have in the locker room,’’ Marshall said.

If the line blocks and the defense doesn’t give in to osteoporosis, this should be a 10-6 team. That’s not asking too much, not from an offense with this much talent.

‘‘In past years [in Chicago], it’s been defense first, and for good reason,’’ Cutler said. ‘‘They were really good at it.’’

And now? Now the NFL is a quarterbacks’ league. The Bears figured that out three years ago when they traded for Cutler. They have taken the next logical step, belatedly, and given him better and bigger targets. Marshall is 6-4. Jeffery is 6-3.

‘‘Teams are passing more,’’ Cutler said. ‘‘With the bigger receivers, bigger tight ends, the guys who can run and catch and are still 6-3 and above, it’s hard on defenses. Offensive coordinators are becoming more and more creative in ways to get those guys the ball with one-on-one matchups.’’

We’ll find out if Mike Tice, an offensive line coach now wearing coordinator shoes, can be described as ‘‘creative.’’ With Cutler and Marshall, Tice doesn’t need to be Bill Walsh. He needs to get the offensive line figured out and give the ball to Cutler.

The Bears are not going through a culture change, or, to scare up an old Mike McCaskey description, a sea change. As Cutler says, you can bet coach Lovie Smith thinks the Bears are still a running team. But it sure doesn’t look that way going into the season.

With Marshall around, it seems safe to assume Forte won’t lead the team in receptions, as he did last year. It will be interesting to see how many rushing yards he gets with all the receiving threats lining up on the outside. Or if he remains happy.

What is that egg-shaped sphere slicing through the air? Why, it’s a football, thrown by Cutler. It will decide whether the team is special this season. A guy could get used to this.



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