Hours away from facing off against Peyton Manning’s Denver Broncos for their first pre-season game, and the excitement surrounding the Chicago Bears is through the roof. Phil Emery had a busy first off-season in the general manager’s chair. Emery started sprinting out of the gate by reuniting former Broncos teammates Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall. He added significant depth to the quarterback and running back positions acquiring 6-year NFL starter Jason Campbell and Michael Bush. Emery also increased Cutler’s receiving arsenal by signing the versatile former Atlanta Falcon Eric Weems and drafted a sizeable home run threat in Alshon Jeffery from South Carolina. In a matter of months, the Bears offensive personnel at skilled positions were improved, on paper, to contender-like expectations. Signing pro bowl running back Matt Forte to a long-term deal felt like icing on the cake.
However the most important difference in this season’s Bears campaign compared to last year’s may not be an addition, but rather a subtraction. When former offensive coordinator Mike Martz resigned shortly following New Years Day, so began a change in the culture at Halas Hall. Jerry Angelo was “whistling Dixie” out the door. Emery brought in a new approach to scouting and front office philosophies. And Mike Tice was promoted to take over play calling with former Broncos quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates added to work with Cutler. Moving forward without Martz instantly creates flexibility. They have flexibility in team personnel, at the line of scrimmage, and for Cutler’s decision making.
Martz found fame being the architect of the 2000 “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams. The Super Bowl 36 winners gained 7,057 yards of offense (then an NFL record), scored 63 touchdowns (37 passing, 26 rushing) and scored 505 points (34 more than opponents that season, 152 more than 2011 Bears). The system that Martz ran in St. Louis, Detroit, San Francisco and most recently in Chicago was adapted from its originator, Don Coryell, whose philosophy was, “We’ll just score more points than you can.” Unfortunately, the playbook that came with that philosophy was much more complicated than that statement advertises it. In 2000, the Rams benefited from having pro bowl linemen who could block for 7-step drops, pro bowl wide receivers who fully grasped the countless amounts of routes, and quarterbacks who knew the playbook like scripture. Developing and adding players like that over just two seasons was near impossible in Chicago.
Thanks to the Martz system, the Bears were limited to making signings to key positions like Orlando Pace at tackle, Roy Williams at wide receiver, and 39-year old Todd Collins to backup Cutler. After Cutler went down for the season and the team was left in the hands of Caleb Hanie, they had to turn to Josh McCown who was coaching high school football at the time because he was the only person out there who knew the system. While tight ends like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham were making headlines with league leading touchdown totals, Bears tight ends were forced to stay on the line to assist with blocking. The Martz-forced restrictions to personnel decisions don’t necessarily let Angelo off the hook for awful player evaluating and scouting, but it certainly didn’t help the team’s horrendous lack of depth that was a factor in their meltdown after a 7-3 start in 2011. Tice’s approach, as it seems thus far, is tailored to utilizing the roster’s strengths as opposed to molding players into a specific scheme. That kind of flexibility allowed Emery to acquire players like Marshall and Campbell.
A criticism to Emery’s off-season would be the lack of attention paid to the offensive line. Outside of signing guard Chilo Rachal and undrafted free-agent tackle James Brown, the 2012 O-line is not very different than the one that allowed 49 sacks last season. What should improve their play is the fact they won’t have to block for 7-step drops by their quarterback. In Cutler’s first 3 starts last season he was sacked 8 times, more than anyone in the league. After a meeting involving Tice and Lovie Smith to cut down the amount of steps, Cutler was sacked just 7 times in 7 games until suffering the broken thumb injury ending his season. Bears quarterbacks were sacked 34 times in the remaining 6 games of the season back with the 7-step drop scheme. Bears linemen this season won’t have to expect routes to take forever to develop. Cutler will have more freedom outside the pocket, where he has always excelled. And the tackles won’t have to spend as much time worrying about the potential of being embarrassed by elite pass rushers like Jared Allen, Clay Matthews, and Cliff Avril. If anyone understands this collection of offensive linemen best, it’s Tice who was their position coach for the past two seasons. This does not mean they will be better in terms of talent even though they are getting back 1st round tackle Gabe Carimi, but they should have less of an opportunity to hurt the offense.
The cut down in drop back steps won’t be the only immediate benefit for Cutler at the snap. He will also be allowed to audible plays at the line of scrimmage, a simple luxury he didn’t have the past two seasons under Martz. Cutler will be able to adjust the personnel on the field, change plays, and make the right call if he sees something he doesn’t like across the line. He won’t have to burn timeouts early or stick with bad play calls from his offensive coordinator. It seems like a simple no-brainer concept, but that came with the territory having Martz in control of your offense. Cutler has said himself this is the most comfortable he has been with the offense. Being teamed up with pro bowl quality weapons and an offensive coordinator who gives you input on the play-calling will do that.
It should not go unmentioned that Cutler did throw more interceptions in his first season with the Bears (26) than he did both seasons combined with Martz as his offensive coordinator (25 total). His yards per game passing didn’t really change (229.1 yards in 2009, 225.1 yards in 2010 & 2011). He worked with virtually the same level of talent at the receiver position, and made a trip to the NFC Championship game during Martz’s tenure. Now Cutler will have receivers who are expected to make catches thrown in their radius instead of having to use pin point accuracy. Forte won’t be depended on to be the leading pass catcher like he has been for the past two seasons. Forte also won’t be counted on for nearly 60% of the total offense either.
Today’s NFL has evolved into a very pass happy league. The team’s who occupied the top of the standings last season were teams that lived and died by the pass such as Green Bay, New Orleans, New England and even Detroit. Addressing the wide receiver position as much as the Bears did shows that they are also willing to make a similar commitment to the passing game. The constant question about Cutler during his time in Chicago has been “How good can this guy be with the right weapons?” Cutler finally has the chance to answer that question and with the right offensive coordinator. Ask anyone on the offensive side of the ball and they will describe Tice’s playbook as “explosive.” In Tice’s first 3 seasons as Vikings head coach, his offenses ranked among the top 4 in total yardage. His teams weren’t just dependent on the potent passing attack of Daunte Culpepper-to-Randy Moss either as they accumulated more than 2,300 yards rushing in 2002 and 2003. “Explosive” and "balanced" would be very suitable adjectives for Tice’s track record and hopefully that materializes for the 2012 Chicago Bears.
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