Process of elimination will bring inevitable change

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At Lovie Smith’s season-ending press conference Monday, several questions were asked of him regarding what the team needed to do to improve for next season. Smith’s response, although vague, summed up a process that will undoubtedly bring change to the team.

“Every year there’s change,” Lovie said. “I don’t know if we’ll have change right now. I can’t comment on any of that right now. We just started our evaluation process, and we’ll kind of go from there.”

Ah, yes, the evaluation process. It’s a tedious course of action in which every coach, player, and position is heavily scrutinized to determine what areas the team needs to improve. During this process, Jerry Angelo and Smith will come to realize that the team as presently constructed will not suffice in order to move forward next year.

“Jerry and I talk about all things, all major decisions,” Lovie said. “We’re in a partnership. We talk about anything that goes on.”

One of the first topics to come up will surely be Lovie’s buddy, defensive coordinator Bob Babich. After two extremely solid seasons in 2005 and 2006 under former coordinator Ron Rivera, the Bears’ defense has regressed into a bad unit under Babich’s two seasons in charge. Is that Babich’s fault, or is it the players regressing?

If the “partnership” decides that Babich is not at fault, then the players suddenly become accountable. So, which of the 11 starters on defense become expendable?

It’s a difficult decision because nearly half of them got contract extensions within the past few years. Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Tommie Harris, and Alex Brown were the most recently rewarded players. Cornerbacks Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman were locked up for the long haul a few years back. Safety Kevin Payne played well enough to warrant keeping his spot — at least, for one more year.

That leaves Mike Brown, Hunter Hillenmeyer, Dusty Dvoracek, and Adewale Ogunleye.

Brown was placed on IR and hasn’t played a full season since 2003. But surely he warrants being kept around if the price is right and the Bears can’t find any suitable veteran replacements. Hillenmeyer was benched midseason and replaced by Nick Roach — who should be replaced by a veteran free agent or a rookie. Dvoracek hit the IR for the third straight season and wound up playing poorly, anyway. Ogunleye is still under contract and didn’t have a bad season, but definitely did not play as well as Angelo and Smith would have liked from their pass rushing ends.

Will changes to those four positions be enough? Possibly. But then there are grumblings from fans and analysts about Urlacher’s declining play and the idea of trading him while he still has some value has been brought up often. And the development of Corey Graham at cornerback has made Nathan Vasher expendable.

If Angelo and Smith feel these players are still the core of the team and drastic changes do not need to be made, then the next most logical decision is to start cleaning house on position coaches. Defensive line coach Brick Haley, linebackers coach Lloyd Lee, and defensive backs coaches Steven Wilks and Gill Byrd are the primary suspects.

Moving to the offensive side of the ball, the same process of elimination can be used.

Is offensive coordinator Ron Tuner most at fault for any or all of the offense’s struggles? In my opinion, no. Sure, I was not fond of Turner’s choice of the fullback dive so many times during the season, but given the right weapons, Turner can produce a successful offense. There are two instances to support this theory. In 2006, the Bears’ offense scored 40 or more points in three games, 30 or more points in four games, and 20 or more points four other games. And at one point this season, the Bears were in the Top 5 in points scored.

This year’s Bears offense is quite different than the 2006 team’s offense. So, we know it’s not necessarily the players that have done so well. It’s been Ron Turner’s offense that has the capability to succeed so long as the cast of characters are in place.

By eliminating Turner from the “problem” list, we move on to the players. First and foremost, the receiving corps is atrocious. The only one in recent memory that might be worse than this one is the 2004 unit that featured David Terrell, Justin Gage, Bobby Wade, and rookie Bernard Berrian. Yes, Gage, Wade, and Berrian are suitable players today, but at the time, this receiving corps had just lost Marty Booker via a trade with Miami and it caught, collectively, just 111 passes for 1,561 yards and 3 touchdowns that year. By comparison, that year’s NFL-leading receiver, Muhsin Muhammad — who joined the Bears the following season — caught 93 passes for 1,405 yards and 16 touchdowns.

The Bears incorrectly assumed Devin Hester would be ready to be a No. 1 receiver, and at Monday’s press conference, Smith didn’t sound like he was reconsidering that idea, saying he felt like Hester made great progress in his first full season at the position.

Marty Booker is under contract for next season, but the Bears may cut him loose due to injury and ineffective play. Brandon Lloyd is a free agent, but the Bears may let him walk. Rashied Davis’ drops this season surely have had Angelo and Smith considering his future with the team.

The Bears spent a third round draft pick on Earl Bennett, who saw the field on special teams but couldn’t work his way into the offense. The Bears cannot keep wasting high draft picks on players that don’t make an impact with the team. This obviously calls into question whether the scouting department needs to be revamped so personnel decisions can be properly made. Dan Bazuin, Garrett Wolfe, Michael Okwo, and Danieal Manning are just a few of the second and third round picks that wound up being poor choices. In fairness, Wolfe is a pretty good special teams player and Manning has turned out to be a good kick returner, but the Bears spent high draft picks on them.

Are Bennett and Dusty Dvoracek headed for that list, too? And how about first round draft pick Chris Williams? Is his back problem a chronic issue? Could that pick become a wasted one like Angelo’s first, Marc Columbo? It’s still way too early to determine that, but it brings us to the next problem area, the offensive line.

John St. Clair wound up playing much better than most of us could have expected, but he surely was a stopgap solution at left tackle, keeping it warm for Williams next year. Hopefully, Williams can stay healthy and become a quality player. I’ve always liked Josh Beekman, but the Bears certainly can get better at the position. Kreutz is still a solid player in the middle of the line while Roberto Garza and John Tait anchor the right side. Like the left guard position, there’s room for improvement on the right, but Garza will suffice. Tait is getting older, so the Bears need to draft a tackle and/or re-sign St. Clair to be Tait’s eventual replacement.

As you can see, there are many holes to fill — players and coaches alike — and unlike the past two off-seasons when the Bears have stood pat and did not try to alter the framework of their roster, there are certainly personnel changes waiting on the horizon.

The players all know it’s coming. As Charles Tillman said, “Something has to change. I don’t know what that is. I think something will change. It has to.”

I have every confidence that after two off-seasons of inactivity, the third time will be the charm and the Bears will look much different from top to bottom in 2009.

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