As the start of summer approaches, it is an exciting time to be a sports fan for many reasons.
The Stanley Cup playoffs are in full force with a Crosby/Ovechkin series to headline.
The NBA playoffs are in full force as people are anxious to see if this is finally the year that LeBron James will get the ring that has eluded him so far. O this is the year Kobe Bryant can prove, once and for all, the he can shoulder the weight of a team and win his first Shaq-less ring.
These two exciting playoffs coupled with the start to the MLB season gives the sports fan plenty to watch in the coming weeks. However, sadly enough, the playoffs will be over in several weeks and the dog days of the MLB will set in—leaving us with perhaps the most boring stretch of the calendar year into July and August.
But among everything that is going on right now, the start of NFL training camps is enough to get the football fan aroused.
Led by a stout defense and bruising running attack, the Bears were able to conquer the NFC and advance to the Super Bowl. Although they lost to the Colts, there was much optimism for the team headed into the next couple of years.
For the first time in a while, the quarterback situation seemed stable as Rex Grossman—who at times was still turnover prone—was able to lead the team to a Super Bowl.
The core of the defense was to remain. The only player who was not going to return was running back Thomas Jones who was traded to the New York Jets for draft picks.
The Bears haven't been able to regain their Super Bowl swagger since their appearance in the game's biggest stage.
But going into this season, there is hope once again in the Windy City that their beloved Bears can make it back to the postseason. Here are five story lines to watch coming into the season.
The Cutler Effect
New Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels and the quarterback were never on the same page. After weeks of speculation about whether he would be the Broncos starting quarterback at the start of the season, the team finally dealt him to the Bears for their 2009 & 2010 first round picks as well as current quarterback Kyle Orton and a 2009 third round pick.
While most will say that the Bears gave up too much to get a quarterback who has a career winning percentage of .500, I would counter by saying this.
Never in Chicago have the Bears had a quarterback the caliber of Jay Cutler.
He is a perennial pro bowler who amassed over 4,000+ yards through the air last year. The Bears have never had a quarterback who has sniffed 4,000 yards in a year.
For the first time in franchise history, the team has a franchise quarterback.
The best part?
Virtually every season has seen the Bears go in with a question mark at quarterback. This year, it can be argued that no position is more solidified than the quarterback position going into the season.
But who will he throw to?
If there was a weakness on the Bears, wide receiver would be it. If not for tight ends Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen, the Bears might have the worst receiving core. The passing game will continue to rely on the tight ends.
Greg Olsen is one of the up and coming stars at TE in the league, and there is reason to believe that he will only continue to get better now that he has Jay Cutler throwing him balls.
The wide receivers on the team are suspect at best. The Devin Hester experiment is coming into the third year with mixed results for the last two. While an undeniable talent blessed with blazing speed, Hester has still not become the go—to receiver that the Bears thought he would.
Now, like most recievers on the roster, he will be helped immediately by Cutler, though the questions still lingers. Should the Bears continue to use him at receiver?
This year will be a big barometer of whether or not Hester will continue to be used at receiver.
In addition to Hester, the Bears will send out Rashied Davis, Earl Bennet, and draft picks Juaquin Iglesias, Johnny Knox and Derek Kinder—none of which are bound to strike fear in the hearts of opposing defenses.
Bennet is an intriguing prospect if not for the sole reason of being Cutler's go—to target when they both played at Vanderbilt. Cutler still owns most of the passing records at Vanderbilt while Earl Bennet still holds most of the receiving records. Whether their success at the college level translates into success on the professional level is yet to be determined.
A person that many people forget about in the passing game was conincidentally the Bears leading receiver last year—running back Matt Forte. Forte led the Bears in receptions last year and led all rookie running backs in all—purpose yards.
He figures to be a key ingredient in the passing game this year again. Jay Cutler can only do so much though. It will be interesting to see who will step up and be Cutler's main guy this year.
How will the protection be for Cutler?
Now that the Bears have their franchise signal—caller, they better do everything in their power to protect him.
Last year the team spent its first round pick on tackle Chris Williams, another Vanderbilt prospect. But he was hindered for much of the season due to back surgery.
Gone are veterans John St. Clair, John Tait and Terrance Metcalf. They have anchored the Bears line for several years now. Replacing them figures to be Williams, along with free agent signees Orlando Pace and Frank Omiyale as well as John Beekman and Roberto Garza.
As stated before, the line expects to be completed with the additions of Pace and Omiyale at the tackle positions and Beekman/Garza and Chris Williams at the guard positions.
While the starting lineup at offensive line seems to be relatively solid, it is the depth that raises concerns. Behind the starters lies little experience with the exception of Kevin Shaffer. If the line can stay healthy, the Bears will make the playoffs. If not, Cutler could be in for a rough year.
Can the D regain its swagger?
Not long ago, the Bears had the most feared defense in the league—bar none. They were being compared to some of the best defenses of all time and deservedly so.
However several years later, the same Bears defense has lost its swagger and is not getting any younger.
Some would claim that injuries are merely the reason the defense has struggled the past years. While injuries are also a big part of the equation, the Bears have clearly still not recovered from the loss of then defensive coordinator Ron Rivera.
Gone are the enigmatic blitzes and schemes he once threw at opposing quarterbacks. Now it is all about sitting in a zone and waiting instead of attacking.
The Bears have recorded fewer sacks each of the past three years. During the offseason, the Bears brought in former Lions head coach Rod Marinelli to coach the defensive line. Getting pressure with the front four is key if the Bears want to stay healthy.
Injuries to Tommie Harris, Brian Urlacher and Nathan Vasher have killed the defense in the past, but have yet another chance this year to regain the dominance they once showed a mere three seasons ago.
However, the Bears window is certainly shutting.
Urlacher is not getting any younger and it is only realistic to think that his production will soon start to fall off. If Tommie Harris can stay healthy, there's no question that he can be almost Haynesworth dominant. Up until he was hurt in the Super Bowl year, an argument could be made that no defensive player was playing at a higher level than Harris.
Another key player that has seen an alarming drop—off in production the past couple of seasons is defensive end Mark Anderson. Anderson exploded onto the scene recording 12 sacks in his rookie campaign. Expect the arrival of Marinelli to help all of the line, but especially Anderson who has had only five sacks since his rookie season.
The secondary has been riddled with injuries the past several years as well.
Now departed safety Mike Brown was almost guaranteed to be on the IR for a window of about two seasons. Nathan Vasher has also been a constant on the injured list.
With the departure of Brown, the Bears lost a leader for their defense. Second year safety Craig Steltz and rookie cornerback D.J. Moore may be asked to step into roles that asks them to play significant time this season.
Expect Zachary Bowman to surprise people, and maybe give Vasher a run for his money for a starting spot, especially if Vasher struggles out of the gates.
Strength of Schedule?
The Bears play in one of the weaker divisions in the NFL with two games a year against the Lions, Packers and Vikings—none of which strike the fear in anyone's eyes.
In addition to playing in one of the admittedly weaker divisions, the Bears play four games against teams that picked in the top six of this year's draft as well as the rebuilding 49ers.
The Bears need to be able to take advantage of one of the weaker schedules in the NFL.
In the end, I think the Bears, being blessed with a weak schedule and an improved team, sneak into the playoffs winning the division in a tiebreaker.
There's still too many questions surrounding the quarterback situation in Minnesota, and Green Bay needs to show that it can actually stop someone this year. Look for the win total to be in the neighborhood of ten and a home game in the division round.
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