Plenty of questions heading into Bears camp
(MCT) The Bears head to training camp July 24, and for the fifth consecutive summer, the focus will be on how much better the offense can be with a quarterback, who is supposed to guide the Bears to the top.
The team has made only one playoff appearance in Jay Cutler's four seasons, reaching the NFC championship game after the 2010 season.
The Bears failed to make the postseason in the next 2 years, and general manager Phil Emery used that as his primary reason for firing Lovie Smith as head coach.
The hiring of Marc Trestman pairs Cutler with a respected quarterback mentor and offensive mind, meaning the quarterback will work directly with the head coach for the entire week, from the formation of game plans all the way to play-calling on Sundays.
The hope is the defense can maintain the lofty status it usually enjoyed under Smith despite coaching turnover and the departure of face-of-the-franchise linebacker Brian Urlacher.
Now with one of the oldest rosters in the league, Trestman is charged with reloading, not rebuilding. That's a tall task considering the team is coming off a rare 10-6 season that did not result in a playoff appearance.
Those goals and Trestman's arrival create a long list of storylines to begin tracking with the start of camp. Here are five:
1. How much better can the offense be?
The easy answer is substantially better.
The Bears rarely were a consistent threat on offense in the Smith era. They ranked 16th in points with an average of 23.4 points per game last season, but the scoring figure was with the aid of nine defensive touchdowns (second-most in NFL history) and one on special teams.
In Cutler's four seasons, the Bears have averaged 21.7 points and 306.1 yards. In the four seasons before his arrival, they averaged 21.8 and 292.6.
2. Can the defense maintain its high level of play?
The Bears hoped to retain coordinator Rod Marinelli from Smith's staff, but he moved on to Dallas, where he will coach the Cowboys defensive line.
The Bears brought in Mel Tucker from the Jaguars to replace Marinelli and kept two position coaches – Mike Phair on the line and Jon Hoke in the secondary.
Maintaining an elite level of play will be a challenge. The Bears ranked third in points allowed last season at 17.3 per game and were fifth in total defense with 315.6 yards per game.
Under Smith, the Bears were in the bottom half of the league in points allowed only once (21st in 2009) and were No. 1 in 2005. That was when the defense was filled with elite players in the prime of their careers.
Also consider since 2004, the Bears have been No. 1 in takeaways, three-and-outs forced, third-down percentage and opponent red-zone scoring efficiency.
It's going to be difficult for the Bears to excel in similar fashion with an aging defensive core led by end Julius Peppers, linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman.
It's not a knock on Tucker and other new coaches. It's reality. Smith was a defensive-minded head coach.
3. Will the offensive line come together?
Maybe the most impressive thing about Aaron Kromer's resume was his knack for working with mid-round draft picks that turned into Pro Bowlers for the Saints. How much of that was a product of quarterback Drew Brees and the rest of the New Orleans offense? We'll find out.
The Bears will have two or three new starters on the line, with Jermon Bushrod at left tackle and Roberto Garza at center the only two spots solidified right now.
Heading into camp it looks like Matt Slauson will be at left guard and J'Marcus Webb at right tackle. The hope is first-round draft pick Kyle Long will win the right guard job, though James Brown was there with the first team for nearly the entire offseason program.
The Bears allowed 149 sacks over the previous three seasons, and there is an emphasis on Cutler getting rid of the ball quickly in Trestman's scheme.
4. How will the defense transition in the post-Urlacher era?
In a perfect world, second-round draft pick Jon Bostic will win the middle linebacker job at some point this year.
That's not because D.J. Williams, who turns 31 on July 20, cannot excel in the role. Bostic is considered a building block, and if he performs well enough to edge out a skilled veteran, that should bode well for the future of the defense.
Bostic moves well and he's intelligent, so he should pick up the nuances of the scheme quickly. He doesn't have the pressure of making calls, with Briggs handling those duties. Williams, on the other hand, is hoping that one productive season can put him in line for another solid payday before his career is over.
5. Will Matt Forte be the focal point of the offense?
One of the interesting things Emery said at the end of last season was he was disappointed in how Forte's versatile skills were not put to maximum use as he caught only 44 passes for 340 yards (7.7 yards per reception).
That was after averaging 9.4 and 10.7 yards per catch in his previous two seasons. Projecting Forte in Trestman's scheme excites fantasy players. If Trestman relies heavily on what he did while with the Raiders more than a decade ago, Forte will be a dual threat.
Trestman called former Raiders running back Charlie Garner one of his favorite players. Garner made 91 receptions for 941 yards in 2002 and rushed for 962 yards on 182 carries.
It might be asking too much for Forte to catch 91 passes, but he sure could top the career-high 63 he had as a rookie in 2008.