I’m not going to sugarcoat it; when the team you’re covering—especially when that team also happens to be the team you root for—starts an over-hyped season 7-1 and then loses five of its last six, dangerously flirting with missing the playoffs, it’s hard to lace up the boots and come to work. Damn hard.
At this point, what can I tell you? Sure, I can tell you that the Bears may win their last two games this season, but I don’t know that they will. Even if they do, I don’t know—none of us do—that it will get them into the postseason. And even if it does, who thinks a team that currently can’t score any points is really going anywhere through the month of January?
Oh, sure, I could talk about possible replacements for Lovie Smith, but I’m somewhat of a stickler for waiting until there’s an actual job opening before talking about who might fill it. But that’s where you guys come in. You see, when it’s just you and I, a couple of beers in hand, talking Bears, all rules are laid to rest and we can just shoot the proverbial shit.
And that is ever so much fun.
So, how about it, let’s talk some football. (Oh, by the way, you can always catch the entire Reader Q&A series right here in case you ever want to go back and see how brilliant or stupid I was about something you asked.)
. . .
How far do you think the Bears would have to go in the playoffs for Lovie Smith to keep his job? – Lorin Cox, via Twitter
I won’t pull any punches here, Lorin. I think—and this is strictly a guessing game—that Lovie Smith would have to win something of significance to keep his job in 2013. At this point, the only two things of significance he can win are the Conference Title and the Super Bowl. This is just me talking here, but I don’t think there are a lot of people out there who believe this team is capable of doing either anymore. A part of me even believes that nothing short of a Super Bowl victory can save his seat.
There are two things I was told about this team from folks in the know prior to the 2012 season: The Bears believed there was a window of opportunity to win a Super Bowl in 2012. Period. They also believed said window was closing, and whether a championship was won in 2012 or not, some form of “rebuild” would need to take place soon. I believe Phil Emery is a guy not afraid to build this team his way, and knowing everything I know, why wouldn’t he start doing that in 2013? I can’t think of a single worthwhile reason.
Which big-name players need to treat the next couple games as an audition for keeping their jobs next season? – Joshua Catlow, via Twitter
Josh, a couple of players who immediately come to mind are: Earl Bennett, Devin Hester, Julius Peppers and J’Marcus Webb. A guy like Kellen Davis I won’t mention beyond this because I believe he has already sealed his fate, regardless of the final two. I’ll start with Bennett . . .
Bennett is overpaid as a wide receiver and a player. He hasn’t played a full season since 2009, plagued by injury, and his numbers are not worth the nine million in guaranteed dough the Bears shelled out for him. But here’s the catch: Bennett was paid a six million dollar signing bonus as part of his guaranteed money, and his salaries through 2012 and 2013 are the other guaranteed portions of the full nine million. So, while he’s due some decent cash in 2013, the Bears are going to pay it whether he’s on the roster or not, so why not keep him and potentially move on in 2014? Having said that, Bennett is still a player who will forever be expected to live up to a deal he probably shouldn’t have been handed so long as he’s here.
Devin Hester has very large “deescalating” roster bonus due in 2013 that has led many to believe he won’t be retained. But the bonus figures go down significantly if by this point in his career as a wide receiver, he hasn’t garnered number consistent with a “No. 1 WR.” As we all know, he hasn’t done that. So while Hester isn’t going to be an enormous cap hit, you have to ask yourself what his value to this team is, because this season it doesn’t exist. BUT, now just imagine if he cracks off a TD return or two in the Bears’ final two. Now the question becomes more difficult, and it’s why he could do himself a LOT of favors in these final couple contests.
The problem with Julius Peppers is simple: it all comes down to money. Peppers’ initial contract guaranteed him $42 million in cash (okay, he probably got it in check form). Since he was signed in 2010, he’s been paid a good majority of that $42 million in bonuses. And while I don’t have the exact figures, because of incentive options, I can guestimate that after this season he’ll have been paid about $40 million of the original guarantee figure. Considering the Bears only owe him a few more million, and he’s due $13 million if he’s on the 2013 roster, it’s hard to believe the 32 year-old defensive end will be retained. All that said, he may consider a restructure.
Finally, there’s Webb. My problem with Webb is only this: He’s Lovie Smith’s project—you can throw him on Tice too if you want—and he’s the kind of guy who makes most offensive line coaches want to puke. If a new coaching staff comes to town, he could easily be a casualty. However, as witnessed by Bears fans this season, offensive tackles are hard to find, and Webb can play okay from time to time. He’s also fairly affordable and could make this team as a swing tackle if they find someone to replace him.
If Lovie is fired, Cutler’s coaches will have changed nearly every season. How does Phil Emery justify that? – Jeff Parker, via Twitter
I feel you, Jeff; I really do. In fact, I wrote an entire column about it here. I’d make an argument that the inconsistency has been just as detrimental to this offense as has anything else since 2009. The problem is that Phil Emery can’t be afraid to make a move and ignore failure in the face of that. Jay Cutler will be 30 years-old to start the 2013 season, and I think you look at him and say that if he’s your QB of the future (more on that below) you still have time to build a winning team around him—but only if you do it now. New coaches will be given the time to build that consistency; a guy who’s failed to get it done for nearly a decade has to know his time to do that has come and gone.
Who is more to blame for the Bears’ offensive woes: coaches or players? I know it’s both, but pick ONE! – Andy O’Halek and Jake Kappel, via Twitter
Damn you, Andy and Jake.
When you consider this team went 6-1 down the stretch last season, before losing their quarterback, without Brandon Marshall, Michael Bush and Alshon Jeffery, it’s hard to place the majority of blame on the players. When you see the same player-to-player miscommunications on offense over and over again into the month of December, it’s hard to not want to smack the receivers upside the head and tell them to go clear out their lockers. But, when it’s the coaches who put those players in those positions, believing they could be successful, it changes the perspective yet again. And when you see a player like Kellen Davis miss opportunity after opportunity, and begin to wonder why he’s even in this League, the perspective changes again. And when you remember who told you he’s just as good as the other elite tight ends out there, your head just continues to spin.
You’re right. You see, it is both. But in my world, the buck stops at the top, and while Phil Emery may be the guy at the top of football operations, he inherited this coach and these players, and all I can do is look to Lovie Smith and say, “sorry, bud, but this time it’s your turn to be held accountable.”
Is Jay Cutler the future of the Chicago Bears? If so, than what is missing to get this team to a championship? If not, why keep him? – Jeff Parker, via Twitter
Here’s how I would answer this question: There are players you look at and can see that they will put a team on their back and carry them to greatness. Generally speaking, in the NFL those players are almost always quarterbacks. There are other players whose raw ability you marvel at, while simultaneously making excuses for why they fail to get it done. Jay Cutler has been the latter. The Bears can win a Super Bowl with him, I believe that. But it’s going to be harder to do, and they’re going to have to have more pieces in the right places than a team led by a guy like Aaron Rodgers.
But quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning are so few and far between that when a team gets one as talented as Jay Cutler, it’s worth hanging on to that player. I think Phil Emery will take the position of building around Cutler. So, to your second point, I think the two main components missing are consistency from your offensive line and consistency from your scheme. Give Cutler those things, and he’ll do well. Hopefully, it will be well enough.
Of the Bears’ 2013 free agents, who do you think is retained and who is allowed to walk? – Lorin Cox, via Twitter
The Bears are in okay shape in terms of 2013 free agents; most of their big names are up in 2014. So I’ll focus on the two biggest names: Brian Urlacher and Henry Melton. Melton has had a couple of nice seasons in Chicago, and he’s going to get a decent contract because of it. The Bears have to be leery, however, of overpaying. The other question that comes into play for both players is scheme. If Smith is indeed fired, now you have to wait and see if Melton and Brian Urlacher fit into the defense the new head coach will want to run. I think, of the two, Melton is more interchangeable. Really, it’s hard to answer this question without first knowing who will be conducting OTAs in the 2013 offseason.
Chester Taylor, Marion Barber and Michael Bush were all signed to back up Matt Forte in successive years. Why have they struggled here after having success elsewhere? – Rick, via Twitter
Well, you could go a couple directions with this, Rick. Considering the fact that both Chester Taylor and Marion Barber’s careers essentially ended shortly after they left Chicago, either they were near done when they got here, or the Bears ruined them. I would vote that they were near done when they got here. Oh, and the Bears overpaid to get both. I think Michael Bush had some success this year, but you have to consider that he was in a limited role. The Bears have also continually put an emphasis on a running game, as proven in free agency, while not committing to it on game-day—that also hurts RBs. Throw in a poor offensive line with little-to-no-push, and you have a recipe that looks just about perfect to bake the cake we’ve dined on in recent years.
What will Phil Emery do to improve this team in the offseason to get the Bears to a Super Bowl? We all know everything can’t be fixed in one season. – Tracy Sykora, Via Facebook
One thing I think I can say is to not expect him to be a huge player in free agency. Teams simply cannot build and sustain success that way. He wants to build this team through the Draft and will continue to try and do that, adding pieces along the way. I think what you and I see is what Emery sees, and I think a commitment to the offensive line and an overhaul in the coaching staff is in the cards.
Will Evan Rodriguez get a chance at tight end? – Steve Augustyn, Via Facebook
I think that if the Bears thought he was an option for them as a pass catching tight end, or at least ready to take on that role, they would have gone to him by now. The reality for this team this season was that they needed their tight ends to block on a lot of downs—particularly on passing downs—and they needed Rodriguez to block out of the backfield in the full back role. I think he’ll get more opportunities in the offseason, but I don’t believe anyone thinks he’s the answer at the position.
And, finally, the question on everyone’s mind: If Smith is fired, who are the top candidates for the job? – A bunch of you, via Twitter
Of course, everyone will jump all over the Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher and Sean Payton bandwagons, forgetting that, while all of these are good names to put on your candidates list, no coach in NFL history has ever won a Super Bowl with two separate teams. The notion that, “sure we can get rid of Lovie, but what happens if we get someone worse?” is one that irks me to no end also. There are guys in this League right now in the coaching tree who are ready to step into roles as head coaches, do what Lovie Smith has failed to do, and bring Chicago a championship. You can’t be afraid to give one of them that opportunity. Here’s a name I’ve thrown out there a little bit, and once I’ve done so here, I’ll leave it at that for a while: Rick Dennison. Dennison is currently the offensive coordinator for the Houston Texans; a team enjoying marked success with a great offensive scheme. He is a guy on a lot of general managers’ up-and-comer lists. He also just so happens to be the guy who coordinated Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall to Pro Bowls with the Denver Broncos, kids. Just sayin’.
Filed under: QandA