The team made one colossal mistake this season: expecting that Caleb Hanie, who had thrown just 14 regular season passes heading into 2011, could take over Mike Martz's offense if so called upon. The team obviously did not expect Jay Cutler – who had missed only one game in his career due to injury before this season – to be out for an extended period of time.
As such, they went forth with Hanie, who put together one of the worst four-game stretches as a Bears starter in recent history. During that span, he completed 51 of 102 passes (50 percent) for 613 yards, three touchdowns and nine interceptions. His finished the season with a 41.8 QB rating.
In desperation mode, the team inserted Josh McCown under center – who was signed off the street the week following Cutler's injury – for the final two games of 2011. He didn't light up the scoreboard but he did a much better job of managing the offense. McCown threw for 50 more yards per game than Hanie, finishing the year with a 68.3 passer rating. Yet he did throw four picks in his two starts, compared to just two touchdowns.
Despite leading the team to a victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the season finale, the 10-year veteran is no slam dunk for the No. 2 job next season. He's earned the right to come in and compete in training camp but the Bears need to give themselves more options than just McCown.
If this year has taught the organization anything, it's the value of an experienced backup quarterback – a familiar refrain around the league. More than half the teams in the NFL are lacking in this department, one of which is the Indianapolis Colts. After losing Peyton Manning to a season-ending neck injury, the Colts rolled out a combination of Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins at quarterback. As a result, Indianapolis finished the year 2-14 and now has the first overall pick in next year's draft. Ironically, the best player in the draft, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, is being called a franchise quarterback in the same stratum as Manning.
Both the Colts and the Bears have proven not only the value of a good backup but also how important the quarterback position is in today's NFL. The 2011 NFL season was a record year in terms of passing. The league averaged 229.7 passing yards per game, which is the highest per-game average in the Super Bowl era, destroying the previous mark of 221.6 set last season.
2011 also was a record year for pass attempts and completions. Dan Marino's 27-year-old single-season passing yards record of 5,084 yards was shattered by not only the Saints' Drew Brees (5,476) but also by the Patriots' Tom Brady (5,235). And Lions signal caller Matthew Stafford came up just short, throwing for 5,038 yards, while the Giants' Eli Manning was just 151 yards shy (4,933). For Brees, he also became the first quarterback in the history of the game to complete more than 460 passes (468), while Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay broke the all-time passer rating mark (122.5).
In the NFL's 99-year history, no season has ever come close to the passing prowess of 2011, and it appears to be just the beginning. Over the past five seasons, average passing yards per game in the league has been 211 yard or more. In the 20 seasons between1996-2006, the league topped 211 yards just twice – and only twice in the 20 years previous to that.
As you would imagine, scoring is up as well. The 32 teams combined for 11,356 points, an average of 44.36 per game. That topped the 44.07 points per game that the league averaged last season. The only season higher was when games averaged 46.12 points in 1965, before the merger. This season marked the third time in the past four years that the NFL established a new scoring high.
In all, there were 79 games, more than 30 percent of the regular-season matchups, in which 50 or more points were scored. Thirty-four games featured 60 points or more, 10 had 70 points, and three had 80 points.
In fact, the teams with the most-proficient aerial attacks have nearly erased the need for a quality defense. This season, the top seeds in the AFC and NFC were the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers. The Packers and Patriots finished 32nd and 31st respectively in total defense this year, yet the two teams combined to go 28-4, earning each a first-round bye.
Think about that for a second. The two worst defensive teams in the entire NFL steamrolled their way through the regular season. That has never happened in the history of the league. For the Packers, it's even more one-sided, as they didn't even have a rushing attack to supplement the passing game, finishing 27th in the league in rushing yards per game. Yet Green Bay averaged 35.0 points per game, which was nearly good enough for an undefeated season.
So for those of you fighting this trend, or believe it be a fad, think again. This is not going away. In fact, we may just now be entering a new era in the NFL, where games will resemble those played in the Arena League, where scores often reach into the 70-point range; where quarterbacks and wide receivers will be the most-valuable and most-coveted positions in the entire sport. It's happening in front of our eyes. Those that refuse to follow this trend will be left behind.
I'm talking to you Chicago Bears.
This year's club finished eighth in the league in average rushing yards per game at 125.9. That is the second-highest per-game average in the past 20 years for the team. Their 456 rushing attempts were the most since 2006 – all this from Martz, a play-caller that is chided at every turn for his pass-happy tendencies.
Yet when the team needed to lean on the run, Martz did just that, averaging 31 rushes per game in the six contests following Cutler's injury. Chicago's offensive line dominated up front, clearing holes consistently to the tune of 141 rushing yards per game. Yet the Bears could win just one of those six matchups, in the meaningless season finale against the even-more-hapless Minnesota Vikings.
The league has become a track meet, where the team that scores the quickest is most likely to come out ahead. The Packers and Patriots offer nothing on defense, giving opposing teams plenty of opportunities to keep up, yet they just can't do it. Gone are the days of grinding it out on the ground. The new era has arrived, meaning Chicago needs to take the necessary steps to build a team that can keep up with the top passing attacks in the league, two of which reside in the NFC North – Green Bay and Detroit.
The first step is an upgrade up front. Chicago's offensive line did well for most of the year running the ball. They didn't overpower opponents but worked well in tandem, especially at the second level. Yet in pass protection, the front five was one of the worst in the league. Bears quarterbacks were sacked 49 times this year, fifth worst in the NFL. Cutler's ability to move inside the pocket somewhat masked this deficiency but it became plainly obvious how bad they were once Hanie and McCown took over. The group gave up 21 sacks in Cutler's absence.
The main issues were on the edges, where J'Marcus Webb and Lance Louis really struggled. Louis, filling in for the injured rookie Gabe Carimi, started off well at right tackle, yet regressed dramatically over the past month and a half of the season. Offensive line coach Mike Tice said it was a mental problem with Louis, not so much a technique issue. Whatever the reason, he was slow moving his feet as a pass blocker and could not get leverage as a run blocker.
The team will be banking on Carimi's return heading into 2012, although it's unclear at this point what condition his knee will be in come training camp. He dislocated his right knee in Week 2 and has had two surgeries on it since. It's possible he may not be 100 percent to star next year. At the very least, he's obviously an injury risk and may not be as reliable as we all assumed.
On the left side, things are much worse. Webb improved as a run blocker but is arguably the worst pass-protecting left tackle in the league right now. He does not have the agility to work the blindside and was routinely beat off the edge. After a poor season, Webb went out with a bang, allowing 3.5 sacks to Minnesota's Jared Allen in Week 17.
For the Bears to be able pass the ball efficiently enough to keep up with the Packers and Lions, they need to be able to protect the quarterback. This means upgrades at left tackle and at guard. The organization has four picks in the first three rounds of next year's draft – an extra third rounder from the Greg Olsen trade – and ideally, two of those picks should go toward the offensive line. If the Bears can get a franchise left tackle at the 19th overall pick, they need to take him.
The Bears must also make serious changes at the wide receiver position. Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox are solid role players, but beyond that, the cupboard is bare. Roy Williams was a failed experiment, Dane Sanzenbacher could not hang on to the ball and Devin Hester will never be more than a good No. 4.
One of the main reasons Chicago's passing attack faltered after Cutler's injury was that neither McCown nor Hanie could consistently find an open teammate. The team's receivers just could not create the necessary separation from defenders and not a one of them was any good in jump-ball situations. Cutler is a franchise quarterback. Pairing him with mediocre receivers is just wasting his talents.
Free agency is the best option for Chicago at receiver. Rookies typically take a few seasons before they can be consistent contributors and the Bears need a fix right away. A number of big-name wideouts will hit the open market this year. The club needs to be aggressive in landing at least one impact receiver.
Finally, the Bears must find a quality backup signal caller. The team doesn't want to give Matt Forte any money, nor any to Lance Briggs, so why not invest some of that cash in a No. 2 that can actually get the job done? If McCown is that guy, at least make him earn it.
Going forward, the organization should never again put themselves in a bind like they did with Hanie. He wasn't ready, and even Martz knew that. Martz chose the ridiculously inept Todd Collins over Hanie both times Cutler went down last season. He then would not commit to him as the primary backup in the offseason, and even briefly promoted rookie Nathan Enderle to No. 2 during training camp.
Yet the front office still put all of their eggs in Hanie's basket and it ended up costing them a very promising season. They cannot make the same mistake again. Priority needs to be given to the passing attack. Lovie Smith's philosophy of "this team gets off the bus running" needs to be re-thought. If this season is any indication, an emphasis on rushing the ball and defense is no longer enough. If the passing game is ignored, as it has been for a long time in Chicago, the Bears will never again reach elite status.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of Bear Report magazine and BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.