Going from good to great is never easy but that's exactly the goal of the Chicago Bears offense this season.
Last year, Marc Trestman installed a new system from scratch, while the offensive line featured four new starters. Learning the playbook and developing chemistry was a hill the unit had to climb during training camp, the preseason and much of the regular season.
"We kind of had a little thinking that would hold us back a little bit," Matt Forte said this week during OTAs. "You had to think about formation, think about the play and learn the offense and stuff.
"Last year, we had to figure out what we were going to be good at. We kind of started out heavy pass early in the season and then kind of sprinkling in runs. Then we found out what kind of runs the O-line likes to block and were good at, and with the tight ends. Then we started doing different types."
Despite the obstacles, Chicago's offense – which finished 28th overall and 29th in passing in 2013 – improved to eighth overall and fifth in passing last season.
Forte – who finished the campaign with the second most rushing yards (1,339) in the league and third most yards from scrimmage (1,933) – along with receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, and rookie Kyle Long, were all invited to the Pro Bowl.
This year, all 11 starters on offense return. The learning curve of last season has been erased, meaning this year's group can hit the ground running.
"I think [11 starters returning] is the first time that's ever happened in my career," Forte said. "It's pretty cool to see everybody, the exact same offense come back, the whole starting offense be there. The camaraderie of it just makes us play that much better together.
"We're a little bit ahead of the game right now at that point. If you go out there and you can play with confidence, you don't have to think about it."
After two Pro Bowls in as many seasons with the Bears, Marshall was awarded a three-year contract extension, which made Forte one of the happiest running backs in the NFL.
"Very happy. Brandon and Alshon are part of the O-line," said Forte. "When I get on the outside, they are big guys and they can handle those safeties and cornerbacks out there. Happy to see them back."
It's safe to assume that, barring injury, Chicago's offense should take another significant step forward this year. If that happens, and the group explodes out of the gates, it could be another record-breaking campaign, one that should allow the Bears to keep pace with the high-powered attacks of the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions.
And this is just the start of what could be long-term offensive domination. Consider this: every starter on offense except for 35-year-old Roberto Garza is signed for at least the next two seasons, with six signed through 2016 or beyond.
At this point, the biggest concern for the offense is overconfidence.
"As an offense we saw what we did last year, and every day we have meetings and we all say we can't be blinded by the success we had last year and think it's just going to automatically come this year," Forte said. "We've got to work hard and try to obtain bigger and better things in the offense this year, not just statistically but the whole game-wide. Finishing games and just scoring more and more points each game and not even letting teams get close."
Much of the talk this offseason has centered on the apparent improvement made on defense, which includes the club's first three draft picks. Yet, if the offense develops into an elite unit, the defense won't need to be top-tier, just serviceable. Considering the talent GM Phil Emery infused into the defense, that seems more than reasonable.
So in reality, the onus is just as much on the offense as it is the defense. In today's NFL, shootouts are inevitable. At certain points in the year, the offense is going to have to take over and outscore the opponent.
If Chicago's offense is up to that challenge, there's no reason 2014 can't be special, which would go a long way toward erasing the bad taste left in everyone's mouth from last year's season finale.
"I still haven't forgotten about it," Forte said. "You hate to lose at home, especially to a rival, and then with everything that was on the line. I've already got my finger put on both of the games that we play with them this year. I'm just tired of being at home in a game that means so much and losing to the Green Bay Packers. It's about time we turned that around."
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.