March 12, tomorrow, unlike say franchise tag application day, is a day of actual importance on the NFL calendar. Franchises can be changed forever, both positively (Reggie White, Green Bay Packers) and negatively (Albert Haynesworth, Washington Redskins). The best teams in the NFL don't build their organizational foundation by cutting big checks to veterans. But the smart ones know how to complete their personnel puzzle and add the type of depth necessary in the injury-laden modern NFL.
The finest modern (post-Ditka) Chicago Bears teams were able to compete in January due to decisions made in March.
Where would Dick Jauron's 2001 Bears and their up-and-coming middle linebacker have been without the forces of nature called Keith Traylor and Ted Washington - both acquired as unrestricted free agents in the lead-up to the 2001 campaign.
Jerry Angelo has received his "fair" share of abuse in Chicago but he was able to rebuild the team's offensive line (ironically) in the mid 2000s by acquiring John Tait (2004), Ruben Brown (2004) and Fred Miller (2005). When Lovie Smith was hired and wanted to return the Bears to an off-the-bus run attack Angelo signed Thomas Jones at the drop of the free agency period. (It my memory that signing happened at 12:01 AM but I doubt that's accurate.) Free agency dramatically helped send that team to the Super Bowl in 2006.
There's a reason prospective FA acquisitions are referred to as "targets". The more specific and narrow the scope the greater possibility there is for a team to make the right maneuver. Attempts at grand, sweeping change, at a roster overhaul are almost economically impossible and often end in unrealistic expectations and unsustainable success. (See: Team, Dream) Football is not a sport where championships are won by the best collection of talent. Or perhaps more accurately, since the beginning of free agency football is not a sport where championships are won by the best collection of talent.
Where do the Bears and Phil Emery find themselves on the day before the day?
- They do not have a top forty offensive lineman on their roster. Their best talent (Lance Louis) is coming off a significant injury and while I expect his services to be retained I also expect the Bears to bring in someone with veteran status if only to calm the angry mob of fans who don't want to see another bullshit camp battle J'Marcus Webb can't lose.
- The Bears don't have a pass-catching tight end to own the middle of the field. What nobody seems to know - because nobody inside Halas Hall leaks anything ever these days - is if this sort of player is in Marc Trestman's plans. We assume the answer is yes because all of the league's top offenses utilize the TE but is it any more than an unsubstantiated assumption? If Trestman is planning to throw only 30 passes to the position this year it is something the Bears can address in the middle of the draft.
- People point to the New England Patriots as the model NFL franchise and why not? They win their division every year and seem to win at least one playoff game each time they get in. But one needs only to look at that team's complete lack of depth at almost every position on defense to understand a basic truth: the Patriots win because they have a top-5 all time coach and a top-5 all time quarterback. Depth, as we've come to know it, does not exist in the hard cap NFL without maintained success in each draft round season after season. Adding depth vets in free agency is about short-term security. Signing players like Geno Hayes, Kelvin Hayden and later Jonathan Scott might not have disrupted the balance of power in the NFC but the moves enabled the Bears to survive injuries and win 10 games.
Phil Emery's offseason (and year, for that matter) will not be defined by what he does over these next few weeks. His year will be defined by the man he has put in charge of the football team. But to believe the Bears are in some kind of rebuilding mode is to lack an understanding of the dynamic nature of their current roster.
Imagine the 2012 Bears with adequate pass protection? Imagine replaying the season and replacing every Kellen Davis drop with a Kellen Davis catch? What you're imagining is a division champion. What you're imagining is a title contender. What you're imagining of 2012 is what the Bears could be in 2013.