Cutler was well on his way to his best season as a Bear when he suffered a freakish, season-ending fractured and dislocated thumb while being knocked to the ground as he positioned himself to make a tackle after an interception near the end of the Nov. 20 victory over the Chargers. The Bears were 7-3 when Cutler went down, but they didn't win again for six weeks and missed the playoffs. What happened after Cutler was hurt probably ended the Bears career of Hanie, who went 0-4 as a starter while throwing three TD passes and nine interceptions and compiling a 41.8 passer rating. He was also sacked 19 times. McCown, who was signed off the street three days after Cutler's injury, played much better than Hanie, even though he hadn't started a game in four years. The nine-year veteran posted a respectable 68.3 passer rating and looked as though he belonged. He seems to be the ideal backup to a QB like Cutler, who had never missed more than a game because of injury before the 2011 season. Enderle was not ready to play in the NFL, partly because he was not prepared in training camp or the preseason, when coaches rushed to get Hanie up to speed -- or so they thought. The 2011 fifth-round pick should get a longer look next training camp.
Forte was leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage before he suffered a season-ending sprained knee against the Chiefs on Dec. 4. He still finished with 997 rushing yards on a career-best 4.9-yard average, and he led the team with 52 receptions for 490 yards. Forte is an excellent all-around featured back who probably will wear the franchise tag in 2012 if he doesn't lower his demand for more than $20 million in guaranteed money. The Bears offered $14 million before last season. Bell proved to be a reasonable facsimile of Forte after the starter's injury, showing good vision, quickness and power along with pass-catching ability. He was clearly more effective than Barber, whose brain cramps and fumbles were instrumental in two of the five straight losses the Bears suffered down the stretch. Allen is undersized but has enough quickness to be a nice complementary change-of-pace runner. Clutts is a good lead blocker and can catch the occasional dump-off.
Davis caught just 18 passes for 206 yards, but he led the Bears with five TD receptions, even though blocking was his primary duty. He has enough athleticism, size and ball skills to be more of a pass catcher, now that offensive coordinator Mike Martz is gone. Spaeth is also a blocker first, and he did what the Bears asked of him, frequently playing in two-TE sets with Davis. Smith, an undrafted rookie, spent half the season on the practice squad and half as a game-day inactive.
Knox started slowly and was somewhat of a disappointment. Then, shortly after a three-game stretch in which he caught 12 passes for 295 yards, he suffered a horrifying, season-ending back injury. He has deep speed and is a big-play threat, but it remains to be seen how well he recovers. Williams had 37 receptions, same as Knox, but Knox had 727 yards, 220 more than Williams, who was a disappointment in all phases. Hester regressed as a wide receiver for the second straight season, and he might be better off focusing almost exclusively on punt and kickoff returns. He still seems uncertain as a route runner and has some inexplicable drops. Bennett has the most reliable hands of the group and is the best option underneath because of his toughness, but he missed more than a third of the season with a chest injury. He is more in sync with Cutler than anyone else is, but his production plummeted after Cutler was hurt. Sanzenbacher can be effective underneath with his quickness and smarts, but he needs to limit his drops.
Two opening-day starters, right tackle Carimi and left guard Chris Williams wound up on injured reserve. Carimi played just two games and Williams nine. Still, the Bears still rushed for more than 2,000 yards for just the second time since 1990. Pass protection was another story. Bears quarterbacks were sacked 49 times, including 26 in the final six games. That total would have been higher were it not for Cutler's ability to get rid of the ball and escape pressure. Coaches believed the Bears had eight capable offensive line starters at the beginning of the season. They don't. What remains to be seen is if they have five solid starters from this group. Carimi is the long-term answer at right tackle. Louis filled in all season, but it was clear he's a better guard. Although Webb started all 16 games, he didn't convince anyone that he is the right guy to be protecting Cutler's blind side. Garza did a commendable job moving to center after 10 years at guard. Edwin Williams and Spencer, a center for most of his first six seasons, were better than expected at guard.
This group was supposed to be a team strength and a possible area of dominance. It was good but did not live up to expectations. Idonije was very good against the run all season but had just five sacks. Melton had seven sacks, but his play was inconsistent at times. Toeaina is solid against the run but no factor as a pass rusher. Peppers led the team with 11 sacks and was also the group's best all-around player but was not selected to a seventh Pro Bowl, somewhat of a disappointment for the team's highest-paid defender. Adams lost playing time to Okoye and the rookie Paea, who filled in at both tackle spots and flashed some quickness and ability to disrupt to go along with his strength and stoutness. Okoye can play the three-technique and sometimes moves outside to end. Wootton failed to show much improvement in his second season as he dealt with injuries.
Briggs made his seventh straight Pro Bowl, and Urlacher made it for the eighth time. Obviously, neither player has exhibited much of a drop-off, even at the age of 33 and 31, respectively. Briggs led the Bears with 140 tackles, followed by Urlacher's 125. Urlacher also had three interceptions and recovered two fumbles, while Briggs forced two fumbles and tied for the team lead with eight tackles for loss, one more than Urlacher. Roach has quietly been a starter for the better part of four years, and he started 15 games for the second time in three years. There really is no depth behind the starters, and it's probably time to start developing the eventual successors for Urlacher and Briggs, who can't go on forever.
Jennings was briefly benched in favor of Bowman late in the season, but the undersized Jennings is the better player. What he lacks in size and great cover ability, he makes up for with toughness and experience. Tillman made his first Pro Bowl in his ninth NFL season. He's not a classic shut-down corner, but he's big and strong enough to match up with big receivers and tough enough to support against the run. He also has elevated stripping ball-carriers to an art form. He has 27 forced fumbles since 2003, the most among all defensive backs. Wright can't seem to stay healthy to remain in the starting lineup for more than a few games, and he can't seem to avoid making mistakes like missed tackles and blown coverages that make observers wonder why he's starting in the first place. Conte showed great promise in nine starts at free safety, although an ankle/foot injury knocked him out of the final two games. Moore has a knack for being around the ball -- eight interceptions in the past two seasons -- and his lack of size doesn't seem to be a hindrance. Steltz is an excellent, assignment-sound, in-the-box safety who doesn't have much cover ability. Bowman has fallen short in multiple chances to win a starting job but isn't bad as an extra DB. Graham made the Pro Bowl as a special teams coverage guy, and he deserves a better chance to win a starting job, which he might get as an unrestricted free agent. There's a reason the DB-challenged Patriots released big-hit, no-cover Meriweather.
Gould is the fifth-most-accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history, and he hit 27 of 31 this season (87.1 percent) and was 6-for-6 from 50-plus yards. Podlesh's 40.4-yard net average was the highest in franchise history. Hester was a disappointment on kickoff returns (21.9-yard average), although he took one for a touchdown. He averaged 16.2 yards on punt returns and took two the distance. Nearly flawless Mannelly suffered a torn ACL 10 games in, but the veteran vows to be back for a 15th season.
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