Chicago Bears quarterly review: Debunking 4-0, assessing the scene, handing out awards

Chicago Bears quarterly review: Debunking 4-0, assessing the scene, handing out awards
Chicago Tribune photogs

It’s 7:00 a.m. Friday morning and the sun is rising slowly over Chicago. Out the window on my quiet block I can see folks heading to work, or running with their dogs, but I’m inside thinking about that fire-starter Drew Brees and his band of Saints coming to Soldier Field.

The Bears haven’t lost to New Orleans at home since September of 2002, but that was a nightmare game that I hope never to re-live. The Bears and Saints were both 2-0, meaning the Bears entered that game having won 15 of their last 17 regular season games. Didn’t matter. They even managed to jump out to a 20-0 lead ...

They lost 29-23 and never looked right again.

(I’ll let you investigate the gruesome details of the game and season on your own. I’m not up for it.)

What I am up for is knocking the Saints down a peg or two. On Sunday, sure, but let’s start now.

New Orleans is 4-0, and Drew Brees is averaging a career-high 980 passing yards a game or whatever. He’s insatiable. Meanwhile, the Saints have won their past two games by a combined 69-24 (seriously), and their defense is allowing the fewest points of any Saints team since the days of Pat Swilling, Sam Mills and Rickey Jackson. (AKA the days of Bobby Hebert, if you prefer.)

But if you’re looking for an immediate silver-lining, Bears fans, it’s this: 4-0 don’t mean diddly when determining a Super Bowl champ. And that’s what we’re all here to do, yes?

QUICK BREAKDOWN OF TEAMS THAT HAVE STARTED 4-0 SINCE 2002

No. of teams: 34

Missed playoffs: 6

Won Super Bowl: 3

Lost Super Bowl: 6

In other words, in football’s new modern era, 4-0 teams are more likely to miss the playoffs than hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

Meanwhile, 44 teams have advanced to the conference finals or beyond.

QUICK BREAKDOWN OF THE RECORDS OF TEAMS THAT, AFTER FOUR GAMES, HAVE ADVANCED TO THE CONFERENCE FINALS OR BEYOND SINCE 2002

No. of teams: 44

4-0: 14

3-1: 18

2-2: 9

1-3: 3

And since you’re probably wondering …

QUICK BREAKDOWN OF THE RECORDS, AFTER FOUR GAMES, OF SUPER BOWL PARTICIPANTS SINCE 2002

No. of teams: 22

4-0: 9 (Three champs: ‘09 Saints, ‘06 Colts, ‘04 Pats)

3-1: 9 (Six champs: ‘12 Ravens, ‘11 Giants, ‘10 Packers, ‘08 Steelers, ‘05 Steelers, ‘02 Bucs)

2-2: 4 (Two champs: ‘07 Giants, ‘03 Pats)

1-3: 0

So right there, just based on our starting records, the Bears are still a-ok (despite a hideous shellacking in Detroit), and the Saints are beatable (despite having a mutant quarterback who is dominating the NFL the way he once dominated Northwesternlest we forget).

Now, some people might argue that the Saints are the best team in the NFC, but not me. And it’s not because I think the Seahawks are the best team in the NFC, or any other squad. It’s because in today’s NFL, there is no such thing as “the best team in the league” after four weeks. A team’s record at the midway point in the season is much more important than its record after the first quarter.

In my estimation, there are three things that are important for a team to do in the first four weeks:

  1. Win games
  2. Get better
  3. Stay healthy

Let’s evaluate the 2013 Bears based on those criteria. (And for a complete Bears first quarter report from Chicago Bears Huddle, my colleague Blake Van Poucke’s got you covered.)

1. WIN GAMES

They’re 3-1. That’s the good news. The bad news is they lost a division game. The good news is that at least it was on the road. More good news than bad news = good news.

2. GET BETTER

Last week’s loss to Detroit was a regression in some respects, though there was a nice incline in performance from Week-1 to Week-3.

Pulling back and looking at the even bigger picture, this is a better team offensively than it was last year, and only moderately worse defensively, and that’s mostly due to injury.

Yes, Jay Cutler is on pace for his first 4000-yard Bears season, but that could just as easily be a result of the league’s ever-escalating passing numbers.

But check out these projected reception totals:

MARSHALL: 108

FORTE: 92

M. BENNETT: 80

JEFFERY: 72

E. BENNETT: 28

Compare that to last year’s totals and you’ll see the effects of Marc Trestman’s offense + Phil Emery’s player acquisitions:

MARSHALL: 118

FORTE: 44

E. BENNETT: 29

JEFFERY: 24

HESTER: 23

2013 looks MUCH better, right? If you were choosing from Bears teams post-’85 to assemble an ideal Bears offense, you’d want this team’s quarterback, #1 receiver, tight end, and probably its running back too. (I’ll take 2006 Bernard Berrian over Alshon for the #2 receiver, at least for now.)

And if you had to choose anyone calling plays in that era, you’d want Trestman, right?

As for the defense, they’ve been slowed by injuries. (We’ll cover that in a second.) But the biggest significant change to a unit has been a positive one: the Bears are simply faster and more athletic at linebacker than they were a year ago. Every Bears defender I spoke with last year said that just having Brian Urlacher on the field — even at 70% — made the D run smoothly.

And Nick Roach was another guy teammates loved because he plays smart and he plays hard.

But there’s no question that James Anderson and D.J. Williams have been all over the field this season. Anderson is third on the team in tackles, Williams has two sacks, they’ve both been involved in takeaways, they’re rarely out of position, and teammates love them. It’s another example of this team’s improved personnel balance.

BUT WAIT!!!

We didn’t even talk about special teams yet.

The loss of Dave Toub has been noticeable on coverage. The Bears allowed a 105-yard kick return to open the Vikings game, and were killed by a 57-yard punt return from Detroit’s Micheal Spurlock. How notable was that return? Here’s the list of 20+ yard punt returns on Adam Podlesh during his Bears tenure, 2011-present, prior to Spurlock's return:

  1. Leon Washington, Seattle, 2011, 36 yards.

That’s the list.

On the flip side, Devin Hester and Robbie Gould look like they could be settling in for career years. Hester’s going to get two touchdowns somewhere this season to break Deion’s record for career non-offensive touchdowns. I’m sure of it. He’s leading the league in kick return yards and hasn’t broken out on punts yet, and overall is probably the biggest reason that the Bears are winning the field position game.

Meanwhile, Gould is perfect on his seven field goals, including a franchise-record 58-yarder against the Bengals. These guys could both be headed back to the Pro Bowl this year. We’ll keep an eye on ‘em.

3. STAY HEALTHY

1ST QUARTER INJURED RESERVE: Henry MeltonKelvin Hayden

1ST QUARTER PROBLEMATICALLY DINGED UP: Charles Tillman, Julius Peppers

1ST QUARTER BODIES TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Martellus Bennett, Earl Bennett, Stephen Paea, D.J. Williams

So pretty good. Of the five 4-0 teams, three of them (New England, Denver, New Orleans) already have at least seven players on IR.

TIME FOR SOME AWARDS

CHICAGO BEARS 1ST QUARTER MVP: JAY CUTLER

You could say this is Matt Forte’s award, and I wouldn’t argue. The man is on pace for a career high in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and receptions. He’s probably the key piece to the offense.

But I’m going to give this to Jay Cutler, if for no other reason than that Jay Cutler being a Bears MVP candidate is in itself MVP-worthy. Strip away the stats and just think of Jay with the ball. He’s getting hit less and coached better, and — at least from a distance — appears to be smarter, calmer, more reliable and less skittish. He’s playing to the level of talent around him.

And think about how you feel when watching him play. Aren’t you more confident than in years past? More patient and trusting? That’s always a good measure of a quarterback’s effectiveness: if his fans can relax while watching him.

CHICAGO BEARS 1ST QUARTER OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: MATT FORTE

Forte, with Brandon Marshall a close second. What I like about both of these guys is that they are complete players. Forte can run, catch and block. Marshall can catch, run and block. Look at these two blocks Marshall made on the Lions last week: one on Forte’s 53-yard touchdown run last week, and another he had on Jeffery’s 27-yard reverse.

So I’ll go with Forte, reluctantly. Or maybe even co-MVPs with Marshall. I like that too.

CHICAGO BEARS 1st QUARTER DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: LANCE BRIGGS

Briggs has been masterful, and is another veteran Bear looking for a return trip to Honolulu after an absence. He’s leading the team in tackles and has one sack, two forced fumbles and five passes knocked down.

CHICAGO BEARS 1st QUARTER SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR: DEVIN HESTER

It’s a coin toss for now between the placekicker and the kick returner. I’ll take the returner. It’s all about yards conquered, especially on kickoffs, and Hester’s the best.

CHICAGO BEARS 1st QUARTER ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

This one will be an actual tie: offensive linemen Kyle Long and Jordan Mills. They’ve been a revelation on the right side since preseason and have given Jay not just time to throw, but time to relax. Nice job on run blocks too.

CHICAGO BEARS 1ST QUARTER NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR

Another tie: linebackers James Anderson and D.J. Williams, for all the reasons listed above.

CHICAGO BEARS 1ST QUARTER BEST PLAYS

Peanut’s 1st interception vs. the Bengals. It should have been a touchdown. Whatever. It got the season’s vibe going, and that’s what counts.

Matt Forte’s two 1-yard runs vs. the Bengals, for a touchdown, and for a 4th and inches conversion. Forte’s one consistent Achilles heel with the Bears has been his trouble converting in short yardage scenarios. So these two runs were great to see.

Devin Hester’s two big kick returns vs. the Vikings. The 76-yarder came on the heels of Minnesota’s game-opening 105-yard kick return TD, and the 80-yarder set them up for another would-be score, if not for the aforementioned goalline tip pick. (You remember, this hideous duck.)

The Tim Jennings Pick Six vs. the Vikings. This was after that atrocious Plinko pick Jay threw on the goalline. That nearly killed us, and Tim got it back.

Cutler’s game winner to Martellus Bennett vs. the Vikings. This was great because as the Bears lined up, I had complete confidence that they would score. The matchups were simply in their favor.

Julius Peppers’s TD vs. the Steelers . I loved seeing this because you could tell Peppers needed it. His teammates were all jazzed for him. He made a terrific play. And it all started with our CB1QDPOY Lance Briggs forcing the strip.

Cutler’s TD pass to Earl Bennett vs. the Steelers. Just because it was such a great example of both of their talents.

Forte’s 53-yard TD vs. the Lions. I know I included this above, but let’s do it again here. Just a marvelous run, and a great block from Marshall.

Cutler’s TD pass to Alshon Jeffery vs. the Lions. Good to see Alshon go up and get one, and on a fourth down no less.

Okay, that’s enough from me. Time to go enjoy this day. I’ll take the Bears in a shootout, 38-35. Aaaaaand … BREAK.

Jack M Silverstein runs Eye On Chi, a Chicago media blog on ChicagoNow. His sports writing and Bears coverage appear regularly in RedEye, and his work has also appeared in ChicagoSide, Time Out Chicago, and the Chicago Sun-Times. Say hey @readjack.

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