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Chicago Bears Preview
by Tom Stryker - 07/08/2008
Chicago Bears fans are biting their fingernails.
Looking ahead to August, those fans donâ€™t have a good feeling about whether the 2008 version of Chicagoâ€™s storied NFL franchise will resemble the 2006 Super Bowl team or the ramshackle 2007 version that lost nine games.
And there are plenty of reasons to support those worries or fears.
The 2006 team reached the Super Bowl (a loss to the Colts) with a strong running game, an incredible game-changing defense, and plenty of smoke and mirrors. Head coach Lovie Smith was hailed two seasons ago as a saviour. Last season was the usual post;-Super Bowl honeymoon. But he knows his own reputation â€“ and that of the Bears is on the line in 2008.
Reality set back in 2007 when the running game almost vanished (the Bears averaged only 83.1 yards rushing â€“ 30th in the league). And when Chicago needed it most, the once-vaunted defense did its own disappearing act. The Bears allowed 21.8 points a gam â€“ 16th in the league â€“ and gave up 354.7 yards each outing â€“ a miserable 28th in the NFL.
There are more question marks. Rex Grossman, sometimes brilliant, sometimes miserable, appears to be back at quarterback. Grossman was barely the Bears second-best signal-caller a year ago, completing 122 of 225 passes for 1,411 yards but only four touchdowns.
Brian Griese, meanwhile, no longer a Bear, was 161 of 262 last fall for 1,803 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Griese is gone, Grossman is healthy, and Kyle Orton wants a chance of his own. The Bears insist there is no quarterback controversy and everyone will get a look, but everyone also knows Grossman will be under center for the start of the season.
Who the Bears quarterbacks throw to is another issue. Veteran Muhsin Muhammad was cut in February and speedy Bernard Berrian was lost via free agency. Those two receivers combined for 110 catches, 1,518 yards and eight touchdowns in 2007. The leading returning receiver is a running back, Adrian Peterson.
Yet the Bears do return tight end Desmond Clark, second-year receiver Greg Olsen and even have plans to use the electric Devin Hester more often on the offensive side of the ball. Hester, many feel, could have the same impact at wide receiver as has Carolinaâ€™s speedy Steve Smith.
Hesterâ€™s specialty, of course is in the return game. He averaged 15.5 yards per punt return a season ago, and ran four of them back for touchdowns. He is the most feared kickoff returner in the NFL.
The Bears offensive line has some holes and has to protect the quarterback â€“ especially if the Chicago running game does not get rejuvenated. Center Olin Kruetz and tackle John Tait are two linemen that would be welcome on any NFL roster.
Cedrick Benson, in and out of trouble with the law all offseason, has been cut. Though he only gained 674 yards last season, there are still big shoes to fill and have been ever since the Bears got rid of Thomas Jones two years ago.
Second-round selection Matt Forte has been impressive â€“ even to grizzled Bear veterans, but itâ€™s tough to put a lot of stock into a running back still waiting for his first professional carry. The versatile Peterson, who ran for 510 yards and added another 420 receiving yards, could continue to develop into a first-rate back.
If the Bears are to get back to being a dominant defensive team, it likely will start with linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Briggs recently was signed to a lengthy contract, while Urlacher and the Bears have been talking about modifying his contract. Urlacher and Briggs were the two leading tacklers a year ago, posting 123 and 102 stops respectively.
The return of healthy Mike Brown at safety should help the Bears defense, too.
One strong point for Chicago is kicker Robbie Gould, who was perfect on 33 PATs and was 31 of 36 in field goals. Also helping the special teams is veteran puter Brad Maynard, who averaged 4.18 on 88 punts last season.
Certainly playing in the NFC North wonâ€™t hurt the Bears. With Minnesota, Green Bay (likely minus Brett Favre) and Detroit the primary opposition, fear doesnâ€™t really fit into the equation. Chicago doesnâ€™t have to play in a division with teams like Indianapolis or New England.
But speaking of Indianapolis, the Bears will open the 2008 campaign at Indianapolis when the Colts dedicate their new NFL (Lucas Oil) stadium. Chicago will need to be ready â€“ and fast.