The Bears went to their eighth straight training camp at Olivet Nazarene University in far south suburban Bourbonnais with a new quarterback. More specifically, a new franchise quarterback in Jay Cutler, already a Pro Bowler at 26.
And in front of him, the Bears had a rebuilt offensive line which will have three new starters: left tackle Orlando Pace, left guard Frank Omiyale and right tackle Chris Williams.
Of greatest concern was the inexperienced, unproven and as-yet unproductive group of wide receivers that Cutler would be working with. Devin Hester was anointed the No. 1, which still appears to be wishful thinking. Hester has improved, but he is still learning the finer points of the position and does not appear capable of beating double-team coverage despite his impressive physical gifts.
Behind Hester, the wideouts are even less impressive. The starter on the other side, Earl Bennett, caught zero passes as a rookie last season. All the other wide receivers on the roster caught a combined 35 passes last season, all of them by Rashied Davis.
Cutler has been everything he was advertised the be: A tremendous talent with a golden arm allowing him to make all the throws in the book, make them quickly and make them with deadly accuracy. He also displayed the cocky attitude that borders on arrogance, but he's been more than capable of backing it up with production.
In the preseason, Cutler demonstrated the ability to move the ball and put up numbers regardless of who he was throwing to. He developed an almost immediate link with talented tight end Greg Olsen, who is expected to have his best year ever. And in veteran tight end Desmond Clark, Cutler has another reliable target, which should guarantee that the Bears continue to run a lot of two-tight end formations.
The defense, specifically the secondary, has some ongoing injury concerns, but none of them appear to be serious at this point. There is still a solid core of Pro Bowl players on that side of the ball – Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Tommie Harris – to portend a return to greatness. And the addition of veteran strong-side linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa made a potent unit better and deeper.
But the Bears need to get Charles Tillman back on the field. Their best all-around cornerback had back surgery in mid-June. He vowed to return for the season opener but did not play in the preseason and is not participating fully in practice yet. But Tillman is getting closer, and even if he is back by the second or third week, the Bears should be OK.
LB Pisa Tinoisamoa
Warren Wimmer Photography
The talk around town has been not just playoffs but a return to the Super Bowl ever since the Cutler trade was completed on April 2. That may be a bit ambitious, but if the defense stays healthy, it's certainly possible. Most of the key components from the Bears' Super Bowl XLI team are still around, and they're still at their peak or close to it.
With Cutler throwing the ball, the Bears have potentially their best quarterback since World War II, and his presence can only help do-everything running back Matt Forte, who was a revelation as a rookie in '08 and looks even better in his second season.
After Cutler dissected his old team in the first half of the Bears' third preseason game, in front of a hostile crowd that came out to abuse him, he looked exactly like a guy who knew he had made the right decision in coming to Chicago.
"We're getting there," he said after completing 15 of 21 passes for 144 yards and a passer rating of 106.1. "We're definitely in the right direction."
NEWS AND NOTES
Cutler was asked if he thought the team would consider bringing in a veteran wide receiver, considering the lack of experienced and proven talent at the position.
"It's not my call," he said. "I have no idea. But if I had to guess I would say no.
"I think if we would bring somebody in, it would be a veteran guy who has been in the league and understands what it's all about and could fit in well with this group. But right now, I think we're going to go with the guys we've got." …
Tillman "continues to get better each day," according to coach Lovie Smith, but he's looking more and more doubtful to play in the regular-season opener Sept. 13.
That's why the Bears on Tuesday signed veteran cornerback Rod Hood, a day after he was cut by the Browns. Hood started 30 games for the Arizona Cardinals the past two seasons but was released in a salary cap move.
It would appear difficult for Hood to have much of an impact at this late stage, but he's confident.
"It's as difficult as you make it," Hood said. "Football is football. At the end of the day, you have to be able to learn the system and adjust to where you're at. It's a great opportunity for me, and I'm staying positive." …
Six-time Pro Bowl C Olin Kreutz was impressed by Cutler's homecoming performance against his former Broncos teammates and a partisan crowd that booed him throughout.
"I think Jay's a Pro Bowl player, and he showed that," Kreutz said. "He's calm, and we followed his lead. He told us, 'Just relax and play our game,' and that's what we did." …
As many as 14 teams could be playing three-man defensive fronts this year, either as their base alignment or in tandem with some 4-3 alignments, but Bears Smith doesn't see that as much of a problem anymore.
"I don't know what advantage one has over the other," Smith said. "It used to be the advantage was that not a lot of teams were playing the 3-4. Now a lot of teams are. We play one this week (Denver), we play one next week (Cleveland), and of course Green Bay does it, so it's just another thing to deal with."
The Packers switched in the offseason from a 4-3 to a 3-4. In addition to the two games vs. the Packers, the Bears will also face 3-4 teams when they play the Steelers in Week T2, the Browns again (Week 8), the 49ers (Week 10) and the Ravens in Week 15.
The Cardinals (Week 9) play a version of the 3-4.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"That was a good team. I think this team is pretty good also. It's early in the game, but just on paper, we like what we have at every position. Most of the core players off that team are still here. We have a long ways to go, but I just like the progress we're making." – Bears coach Lovie Smith, when asked to compare his present team to the one that lost to the Colts in Super Bowl XLI.
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