In football, as in romance, lofty expectations can be dangerous.
And for the Bears this season, expectations are higher than they’ve been since 2006.
Just ask them.
“Super Bowl or bust,” Lance Briggs pronounced this week. Brandon Marshall invoked the same four words early in training camp, and the usually cautious head coach Lovie Smith praised Marshall for his ambition.
There’s good reason for the optimism. Given the strides the Bears were making last season (five-game winning streak) before injuries hit, along with some shrewd and expensive offseason moves by new general manager Phil Emery, nothing less than a deep playoff run will satisfy. There are no more excuses for Smith, quarterback Jay Cutler, or anyone else. It’s win or go home.
The team has been almost completely rebuilt since its last Super Bowl appearance. Smith remains, but the rest of his coaching staff is new. Linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs still steal headlines, but nobody on defense makes a bigger impact than defensive end Julius Peppers, who was signed in the spring of 2010.
Gone are the offensive playmakers of ’06: Running back Thomas Jones, wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, and quarterback Rex Grossman. In their place are upgrades at every position: Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, and Cutler.
Before, the roster was top-heavy, unable to withstand injuries or setbacks when star players went down. Now, there’s more depth, from Player One through Player 53.
Player One is Cutler, the star QB who despite some impressive play, has yet to fully live up to the massive expectations heaped on him when the team acquired him four seasons ago. Some of that has been a result of injuries, both to his teammates and himself, along with a sub-par supporting cast and an ex-offensive coordinator (Mike Martz) who never took advantage of Cutler’s best attributes as a signal caller.
Cutler has no excuses now. He has his favorite receiver (Marshall), favorite coach (ex-Broncos QB coach Jeremy Bates), and favorite runner (Forte).
Only Smith will face more scrutiny than the QB this year. The fact that the Bears have made the playoffs only once since reaching the Super Bowl doesn’t reflect well. Nor does the fact that the man who said his top priority was to beat the Green Bay Packers has lost four straight to the Cheeseheads.
But the greatest pressure may come from Emery, who committed to Smith only for the 2012 season.
The trial begins Sunday at Solider Field, against the Indianapolis Colts. Indy rookie quarterback Andrew Luck will one day be a star, but not in his first career NFL game leading a team that went 2-14 a year ago. If the Bears are the championship-caliber team they say they are, this is a game they win, and easily.
Is it unfair to demand a blowout? The Bears better get used to it. They asked for the expectations. As you watch Sunday’s game, look for these five signs. If the Bears check these boxes, it’s a good omen for January–and maybe even February:
Protect Cutler: Wonder why Cutler always has that grumpy look on his face? It’s not just because he married a reality TV star. You try getting sacked 110 times in three years by guys the size of Winnebagos. The Bears once again failed to significantly upgrade the offensive line in the offseason, instead assuming that fixes in the coaching staff and the improved health of some key players would make the difference. We’ll see. The Colts have two elite pass rushers in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. If Cutler doesn’t get protection, he’ll be the grumpiest new daddy in Chicago.
Keep Urlacher healthy: Despite missing all four preseason games and most of the training camp practices over the past five weeks–while at the same time making headlines for a controversial knee procedure he underwent this offseason in Europe–Urlacher has vowed to be ready for the Colts game. Watch and see how well he moves sideline to sideline and straight back in pass coverage to evaluate how that knee is doing. If he’s not right, neither is the D.
Get rookie results: It’s been a long time since the Bears expected and received big year-one impact from their top two draft choices. But defensive end Shea McClellin and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery are both being asked to play important roles early in their careers. Many believe McClellin won’t be a defensive end his entire career, but for this season, the Bears want his focus solely on rushing the quarterback. Jeffery is a tall and physical target who can create matchup problems for defenses in the red zone. Both players will see the field often against the Colts.
Think safety first: From Adam Archuleta to Al Afalava to Brandon Meriweather, the Bears have held an annual scavenger hunt for safeties to play in Smith’s Tampa-Two defense. This year, the team is banking on two former third-round picks, Major Wright and Chris Conte. Both have flashed potential, but both leave serious room for improvement. Luck will test the back end of the secondary, especially in throwing at go-to wideout Reggie Wayne. With Aaron Rodgers and the explosive Packers on the schedule just four days after the Colts game, Wright and Conte need to prove they can contain a team that wants to throw. If Luck picks them apart, think what Rodgers will do.
Take to the air: Smith says he still believes the Bears are a run-first team, which means a lot of carries for running backs Forte and Michael Bush. But with weapons like Marshall, Jeffery and Earl Bennett on the outside, along with the cannon-armed Cutler in the pocket, the Bears are poised to join the rest of the NFL in the 21st Century and take to the air. The final tallies may be skewed if the game turns into a route, but watch the opening few series to see whether offensive coordinator Mike Tice attacks through the air or on the ground.