It was midway through the second quarter of the preseason match-up with the 49’ers and it appeared all doubts regarding Rex Grossman could be laid to rest. He had marched the Bears up and down the field, throwing for nearly 200 yards and was pinpoint in his accuracy.
Then, in a matter of minutes all that changed. A fumbled snap in one series and an interception returned for a touchdown by the Niners in the next brought back a flood of memories from the previous season where Wonder Dog’s troubling inconsistency and bonehead plays at the wrong moments made him the target of the media and fans alike who believed he could never take the team to the Super Bowl. Grossman proved them wrong – to a degree. But his sub-par performance in The Big Game brought all the questions and criticisms back in a rush.
Rex “The Wonder Dog” Grossman will be playing his last year in a Bears uniform. The standard of performance has been set so high for him by fans and the media that he will inevitably fail and be booed out of town. Nothing less than a near perfect season and Super Bowl victory is what the fans are demanding of Grossman – something he cannot possibly deliver; certainly not with the Bears having to play a first place schedule and the prospect that every team in the league will now be gunning for them. If the team manages 9 wins this year, they will be fortunate indeed. That still may be enough to get them into the playoffs considering the weakness of the NFC North Division. But it won’t be enough to save Grossman’s job or his career here in Chicago.
It is a shame. Grossman is the most talented Bears quarterback in a generation, perhaps longer. With all the injuries he suffered early in his career, last year was his first full season as a pro. It seems a little unreasonable to expect such perfection from a player with that kind of limited experience but there it is. This is the reality Grossman must deal with this year.
Coach Lovie will not be as patient with Grossman either. A couple of bad games for Wonder Dog and we will probably see Brian Griese. The former Michigan standout who spent 5 productive years early in his career in Denver only to see his fortunes plummet in Tampa Bay and Miami is a solid, serviceable pro. And that’s the best you can say about him. He will set no one’s hair on fire nor has he shown the kind of talent and leadership in his career that would give people the idea that he is anything except what he is now; an excellent back-up quarterback.
But in the end, Lovie may believe that Griese gives the team the best chance to win because the 10 year pro will be able to take care of the ball and not make game-altering mistakes. Griese, in other words, won’t win any games for you. But he won’t lose many either. That may be the determining factor by season’s end as to whether the Bears stick with Grossman or not.
As for the rest of the team, the defense should be better, the offense has been, on paper, marginally improved. And Special Teams may be down a notch or two.
Gone is durable and dependable RB Thomas Jones, replaced by the sometimes injured but hugely talented Cedric Benson. While the Bears thrived with the two backs under contract, the guys didn’t get along very well and it was proving to be more and more difficult not to make a guy they drafted higher than any Bear since 1975 (#4 overall) and who they are paying $35 million over 5 years the number one back. Benson didn’t win the job based on his performance but rather on the economics of football. Now he must deliver. He must carry 25-30 times a game, punish defenses with his size (225 lbs), catch the ball out of the backfield, and block like a tight end. In the pre-season, he looked improved as far as the latter two requirements. But his durability will be key. There simply isn’t any other NFL quality running back on the team.
The offensive line is back intact. A veteran unit anchored by perennial pro bowler Olin Kreutz at center, they must give Grossman (or Griese) time to set and throw. And a big part of that passing game will now be placed on the shoulders of the tight ends.
In the modified West Coast Offense the Bears are running, the tight end is key. He is the first option on many passing plays and an outlet receiver on many others. Desmond Clark is an adequate blocker but was never a huge part of the offense. The Bears believe they have solved that problem by drafting Greg Olsen out of Miami in the first round. The kid can play. He gives Rex a nice, big target between the hash marks and has proven to possess a good pair of hands. He also has some speed which means that Lovie will be able to slot him on occasion, putting him up against a DB rather than a LB.
Unfortunately, Olsen has a sprained knee at the moment and they will probably hold him out of the opener today against San Diego. But word is that offensive coordinator Ron Turner has a slew of special packages where they will utilize Olsen’s talents to the fullest. This is just the kind of thing that will take pressure off of Grossman and improve his performance. Wonder Dog has proven in the past that when he looks for the TE, the offense thrives. Having a huge talent at that position can only help.
The other addition to the offense is moving return phenom and reserve nickle back Devin Hester to the offense as a receiver. This is a dubious move for the simple reason that the kid is liable to get dinged up at WR which will slow him down when he goes back on punts (Lovie will evidently not use him on kickoffs). And there is always the chance for serious injury as well. Hester won’t duplicate his 6 return touchdowns from last year. But if he can get a handful of TD’s catching the ball, then the experiment will prove to have been worth it.
Gone is problem child Tank Johnson (cut for bad behavior) as well as DT Alfonso Boone and Ian Scott lost to free agency. But the Bears replaced that trio with three other excellent defensive linemen in Anthony Adams, Dusty Dvoracek, and veteran Darwin Walker. Adams is a load at NT and should be an excellent run stuffer at 300 lbs. Walker was a fixture for 7 years on the Eagles D-line and is one of the best in the business. And Dvoracek, last year’s 3rd rounder for the Bears who was forced to sit out the entire year with a knee injury, is being whispered as a potential Steve McMichael clone. Mongo was a fan favorite and there are some at Bear’s camp who are saying the kid reminds them of him.
Back from injury are DT Tommie Harris and FS Mike Brown. When Brown went down early in the season, the Bears defense was ranked number one in football. By year’s end, they had dropped to fifth. This was no accident. As good as Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are at LB, it was Brown who was quarterbacking the defense. It was he who called the coverages and would audible so effectively at the line of scrimmage. Clearly, if Brown stays healthy, the defense will be improved.
Harris will give Lovie the flexibility on the D-Line to keep running 8 or even 9 linemen out there during the course of the game. This has a telling effect on the opposing O-Line and by crunch time, the Bears can dominate the line of scrimmage late in the game. Rookie sensation Mark Anderson (12 sacks) has been moved up to a starting position at the end which may help Adewale Ogunleye. Teams can’t double team both ends at the same time which will leave one or the other with single coverage.
LB Lance Briggs is a wildcard. Will he let the bitter feelings of being slapped with the “Franchise Player” tag affect his play? After swearing he would never play another game in a Bears uniform, Briggs signed late in July and was doing fine – until he wrecked his $150,000 car and left the scene. Hopefully, that is not a harbinger of things to come as the Bears need the talented OLB - especially in pass coverage.
The defensive backfield was bolstered with the addition of SS Adam Archuleta who played well for Lovie in St. Louis but was a bust when he signed a huge free agent contract with the Redskins last year. A hard hitting run stopping and blitz specialist, Archuleta will be shuttled between SS and nickel back. The guy had a nose for the quarterback in St. Louis and he may be one of the big, pleasant surprises of the season.
The Bears are deep and talented on defense. They will probably be called upon to win games by themselves as they did last year.
Which Rex will show up on any given Sunday will determine the success or failure of the team this year. But more than anything, Wonder Dog must take care of the football. I think Lovie will put up with sub par performances as long as he doesn’t turn the ball over – and the team is winning.
Can Benson stay healthy and beyond that, fulfill his enormous promise? Much depends on that too.
Can Mike Brown and Tommie Harris come back from injury and lead the defense back to dominance?
Can Lance Briggs grow up and play ball?
Will Archuleta continue to be a bust? Or will he regain the form that made him one of the best defensive players in the league 3 years ago?
Questions that can only be answered on the field. What we are sure of is that My Beloveds have a killer schedule, playing the Chargers, Eagles, and Redskins on the road while hosting the Cowboys, Broncos, and Saints at home. And with divisional opponents Green Bay and Detroit much improved, the division will be no cakewalk either.
I’d love to see the Bears back in the Super Bowl but recent history shows that teams who were runners up in The Big Game rarely even make the playoffs the following year much less return. But if the Bears remain reasonably healthy, they have a good chance of beating the odds and winning the division.
And in the playoffs, anything is possible.
The Chargers had 11 pro bowlers last year and feature the best offensive player in football, RB LaDanlian Thomlinson as well as perhaps the best defensive player in football in LB Shaun Merriman. They may be the best team in football as well.
The Chargers are playing at home and are hungry. Expect a close game for at least a half or perhaps two and a half quarters before the Bears defense wears down and San Diego runs away with it.
Final: San Diego 31 Bears 13.