If not for a freak thumb injury to Jay Cutler’s throwing hand in a Week 11 victory over the San Diego Chargers last fall, it’s possible the Bears would have made a deep playoff run that would have saved general manager Jerry Angelo’s job.
And yet, it’s possible that had that scenario played out, Bears fans might be feeling much less optimistic about the 2012 season than they currently do.
How’s that for irony?
Because Cutler’s injury revealed a deep chasm of talent at the quarterback position and various holes all over the depth chart, Angelo was consequently fired and new GM Phil Emery came in looking to put his stamp on the organization and resupply a roster with fresh young talent.
The most significant reason Angelo lost his job was because the McCaskey clan recognized a “talent gap” when compared to other teams in the league, but more specifically to NFC North rivals Green Bay and Detroit. It was not, however, a lack of talented starters as much as it was problem areas from the middle of the roster down.
To his credit, Emery identified what it takes to win games in today’s NFL and he attacked those areas from the beginning of the offseason. The best teams in the league are those that can pass the ball and put up big points as well as those that can rush the passer on defense.
If the worst should happen and Cutler were to go down with an injury again, Emery went out and signed a capable backup with experience as a starting quarterback in Jason Campbell. And should Matt Forte hold out, go down with an injury, or even if he shows up and plays a great season, Emery added depth to the position by signing running back Michael Bush, a hard-nosed, between-the-tackles runner with deceptive foot speed.
Cutler and Forte can’t do it all alone, though. Without a true No. 1 receiver, Emery made a bold move to acquire the talented and enigmatic Brandon Marshall, a favorite of Cutler’s from their days together in Denver, from the Miami Dolphins. And Emery didn’t stop there. It’s not enough to have one good receiver, so Emery traded up in the second round of the draft to select Alshon Jeffery, who arguably had the best hands in the draft, and also brought in a pair of receivers with special teams talent in Eric Weems and Devin Thomas. Suddenly Dane Sanzenbacher, the undersized hero of training camp last year, doesn’t look so secure in his job — as it should be.
With a pair of 6-4 receivers in Marshall and Jeffery, a dynamic playmaker in Devin Hester, and a sure-handed target in Earl Bennett, suddenly wide receiver is a position of strength — or, at least, it could and should be. Throw in a Pro Bowl running back in Forte and a bruiser in Bush and the Bears have a complete arsenal of offensive skill players.
Defensively, the team needed to get younger and deeper and Emery achieved that objective. They addressed the pass rush with their first round selection, Shea McClellin, a guy with a non-stop motor and a nose for the football. They drafted an intriguing cornerback-turned-free safety in the third round in Brandon Hardin, a guy with big size for a safety and good football instincts. Additionally, the Bears added depth to the cornerback position with the addition of veterans Kelvin Hayden and Jonathan Wilhite and drafted rookies Isaiah Frey and Greg McCoy. Charles Tillman called this collection “the best group of corners we’ve had in just overall talent” in his time with the Bears.
Sure, the Bears haven’t seriously addressed their offensive line in the past two years outside the selection of Gabe Carimi in last year’s first round. But Carimi missed most of last year, and should he happen to stay healthy this year, that’s an improvement right there. And as we’ve all heard from the Bears, the simplification of the offense under new coordinator Mike Tice, in which more five- and three-step drops will be employed as well as rollouts to utilize Cutler’s strengths, will help improve the line’s protection as well.
There’s no reason for Bears fans to temper their enthusiasm about this year’s team. And yet, many naysayers out there will focus on the empty half of the glass instead of the full one. They’ll complain of offensive line deficiencies, the contract standoff and potential holdout of Forte, the knee rehabilitation of Brian Urlacher, and an aging defense that is one injury away from being a liability. Last I checked, some of the top teams in the league had the worst defenses last year, namely Green Bay and New England. What got them victories was an offense that could put points on the board. And while Cutler isn’t Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, the Bears are at least headed in the right direction and big plays and high scores are on the way.
So wear your heart on your sleeve, Bears fans, and set that proverbial bar high. There’s no reason this team can’t get to the Super Bowl as presently constructed. Just ask the normally reserved Lovie Smith, who compared this year’s squad to the 2006 version that reached Super Bowl XLI. While some members of the Chicago media might try to hold you down so as to set you up for an “I told you so” moment in the future, there’s no harm in believing this team can reach the pinnacle of success.
As long as the injury bug doesn’t once again bite them hard.