NFL fans have the patience of my orange boy cat (named Bear, pictured above) once he knows his wet food has been moved from the can to the plate. There’s a lot of walking in circles. His sweet-tempered meow morphs into a more desperate, restless MEOORRRRE. He is so hungry for a taste of what he knows is so close he is unable to control himself.
Telling an NFL fan training camp and the preseason are meaningless is the equivalent of placing Bear’s plate on the ground and then holding him ten feet away. Telling them what I’m about to tell them, that 2014 is but a stepping stone to the mountaintop, will elicit more than a MEOORRRRE. It’ll end with my blogging hands scratched until blood is drawn.
2013’s edition of the Chicago Bears established a new direction under the leadership of Marc Trestman and excommunicated the old direction (Lovie) and leadership (Urlacher). It was only an 8-8 campaign but for a fan base desperate for big league offense it left even the most pessimistic fan with a firm understanding the arrow is pointed in the correct direction.
2013, coupled with Emery’s 2012 offseason, were the first step in what Pat Riley calls “the innocent climb.” Here is a publisher’s summary of that notion:
The innocent climb is the surge that occurs within a team as they are accomplishing more because of the synergy that occurs within a team. Innocence means understanding that the team comes first and being carried along by that; being naive means being ignorant. Innocence doesn’t mean being naive. Teamwork and all of its benefits happen when everyone puts the team first. innocence comes when the leader believes in something and puts him or herself out to accomplish that.
Climbing innocently began with the establishment of this new direction and the building of a new identity. But something funny happened on the way to Soldier Field. Trestman and Emery were successful at a more rapid rate than expected and produced a championship-caliber offense in the first year of this new program.
Now, the defense.
All of the excitement surrounding the 2014 season needs to be tempered with the following: the Bears are coming off the worst defensive season in the history of their organization. And rarely does a true championship contender have so many questions on one side of the ball in August.
Can the Bears young linebackers evolve?
Are the rookie defensive tackles ready to make an impact?
If one of the starting corners goes down, can rookie Kyle Fuller fill the void?
These are all important questions but if the answers are no to each the season does not drift down the drain.
Do the Bears have a professional safety on their roster?
Is there enough pass rush?
Aye, here’s the rub and one of the primary reasons I believe the Bears are another off season away from being true title contenders. The Bears can compensate for their lack of talent at safety with a dynamic pass rush but without that pass rush the defense will be exposed over the top continually.
Lamarr Houston is a serious upgrade but only has 16 sacks through four seasons. Jared Allen is one of the most dynamic pass rushers of the modern era and was ruthless in December of last year but he’ll still be a 32 year-old defensive end when the Bills roll into town. Ratliff and Collins? McClellin off the edge? Maybe.
What put the Seattle Seahawks over the edge in 2013 was their stockpiling of edge rushers that spring. They put the finishing touches on the sport’s best defense. The Bears have only just laid their second coat of paint.
The Bears defense needs to take strides this season. Go from bottom of the barrel to middle of the barrel. Develop a few young players. Get into the postseason and perhaps win a postseason game.
Most important, the Bears need to make clear the targets for Phil Emery this coming offseason. Because March and beyond will not be about rebuilding a unit. It will be a about finishing a champion.