Despite a disappointing 21-14 NFC title game loss to the hated Packers, it would be unfair to characterize the Bears' 2010 season as anything less than a success.
Considering their 11-5 regular-season record was a four-game improvement from the year before, and that they won a division title after they were widely perceived as the third-best team in the NFC North, the Bears made real progress.
Even general manager Jerry Angelo said he might have underestimated the team heading into the season, while he seemed to imply it still did not have tremendous talent.
"We have good talent on this football team," Angelo said. "But when I look at this football team, it was the talent of their character that was most impressive. I think that was really the identity of this team. We did a lot of good things. Again, there will be more positives than negatives when we go and when we start planning for next year. It's not like we have a bevy of holes or a bevy of concerns going into this."
But there is work to do if Angelo and coach Lovie Smith don't want a repeat of the three-year playoff drought that followed the Bears' last trip to the postseason in 2006. The first order of business may be a contract extension for Smith, who will otherwise be entering the final year of his contract in the 2011 season.
The offseason tinkering must begin with an offensive line whose best player is 34-year-old, 13-year veteran center Olin Kreutz, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on March 4.
The Bears found out this season that they could survive with Frank Omiyale at left tackle and Chris Williams at left guard, Roberto Garza at right guard and rookie J'Marcus Webb at right tackle. But they can't count on returning to the playoffs with an offensive line that merely allows them to survive.
And some would argue that quarterback Jay Cutler, their most valuable offensive commodity, barely survived. Cutler missed the first game of his professional career after suffering a concussion and an all-around beat-down while getting sacked nine times against the Giants – in the first half.
Cutler is capable of putting up big numbers in Mike Martz's offense, but only if he has better protection than he did in 2010, when he was sacked an NFL-high 52 times.
Angelo spoke of utilizing free agency along with the draft to improve the team.
"I'm not sitting here saying that we can't get better," he said. "We can get better, and we will get better. We've got a full complement of draft picks. I feel we're going to do business as usual. We'll have a plan for free agency, and I'm sure we will be able to get a few players in free agency. We'll want to bring some of our own back, and I'm confident we will be able to do that."
But if, as expected, there is no new collective bargaining agreement by March 4 and the owners lock out the players, there is no free agency until a new deal is struck. The Bears do not have a strong history of getting immediate contributions from their draft choices, so any quick fixes would probably have to come via free agency.
Another addition the Bears must make if they expect to optimize Cutler's abilities is a No. 1 wide receiver. Johnny Knox took another step in his second year and finished with 960 receiving yards and an impressive 18.8-yard average per catch. But Devin Hester appeared to regress as a receiver, catching 40 passes for 475 yards and a mediocre 11.9 yards per grab. Earl Bennett (46 catches, 561 yards) is strong, tough, reliable and has good hands, but he's more of a possession receiver.
One could make the case that running back Matt Forte was the Bears' offensive MVP. He bounced back big time from a sophomore slump to rush for 1,069 yards with a career-best 4.5-yard average and tied for the team lead with 51 receptions for 547 yards. Chester Taylor was brought in with the intention of being a complement to Forte and providing a backup with little drop-off in performance. But Taylor was a huge disappointment, averaging 2.4 yards per carry, the third straight season that number has dropped – a bad sign for a 31-year-old running back.
Defensively, there are three starters who will be unrestricted free agents: tackle Anthony Adams, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa and safety Danieal Manning. Adams was the most productive this season, starting all 16 games and leading the interior linemen in tackles with 36.
Marcus Harrison is bigger and younger, but he's never played to his potential and was inactive for 11 games. Handing him a job would be a big mistake. Matt Toeaina started 10 games ahead of Harris at the three technique and is valuable for his ability to play there and on the nose.
Tinoisamoa, an eight-year veteran, missed 14 games in 2009 and four this season plus parts of a couple others with knee problems. He'll be 30 before training camp starts. Nick Roach, a four-year veteran who may or may not be unrestricted, depending on the language in a new CBA, has played well in place of Tinoisamoa in the past and might be a better way to go.
Manning started 16 games and has been a full-time starter in four of his five seasons, but it seems like the Bears are always looking for an upgrade, although he is a valuable on special teams as a kickoff returner and has played both safety spots and nickel back. But with last year's third-round draft pick, Major Wright, waiting in the wings, the Bears won't set the market for Manning.
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2010 a Big Success, Decisions for 2011
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