Breaking even

It seems like 2001 was an eternity ago. The Bears brought excitement back to the area and a cause for get-together parties every Sunday. A 13-3 season and the playoffs. It seemed like it couldn't get any better. If only it would last. Last season was the total opposite. The Bears went from darlings to dummies in a 4-12 debacle.

They blamed injuries, and of all things, the field. Playing all their home games in Champaign because of renovation at Soldier Field, the dynamite of 2001 turned into disaster in 2002.

Once again, nobody's giving the Bears much of a chance. A realistic goal is 8-8, but in the NFC North, anything can happen. Green Bay is still Green Bay, but who's to say the Bears can't squeeze past Minnesota and Detroit?

Playoffs are probably out of the question, but like Keith Traylor rumbling downfield with an interception, or Mike Brown twice returning interceptions for touchdowns in overtime, stranger things have occurred.

So pick up the 12-ouncer of your choice, sit back and enjoy the ride. That's because if you're a Bears fan, this one could be another roller-coaster.

1. Back home again.
New Soldier Field is ready for the team's opener Sept. 29. The Packers come to town for a Monday night spectacle. The Bears used playing in Champaign last season as a crutch, now it's time to go out and prove how important true home-field advantage is.

2. Brian Urlacher. There's a reason you'll see Urlacher lined up on both sides of the ball and it has nothing to do with the big contract he just signed. He's a playmaker and the Bears need him to continue that trend. Urlacher will feel the pressure from the loss of Rosevelt Colvin on the strongside, but Warrick Holdman is still there and finally healthy after a season-ending knee injury last year.

3. Marty Booker: Mr. Dependability continues to get it done. He's one of the league's most productive receivers, and proved it with a 97-catch season after grabbing 100 passes in 2001.

4. The two amigos. Center Olin Kreutz and guards Chris Villarrial. The duo should be able to help whoever replaces Rex Tucker. In 2002, when both started every game, the Bears made the playoffs and allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL. Last season, when injuries mounted, the offensive line gave up 44 sacks.

5. The kicking game. Paul Edinger is the best kicker in the NFC North, and is right up there with the best around the league. He's the most accurate kicker in Bears history (hitting over 80 percent of his field goals), and leads the NFL over the last three seasons with 34 field goals of 40 or more yards. He also ranks second in the NFL over that same period, having accounted for 34.9 percent of the team's points. If the game's on the line, this is the guy you want.

Punter Brad Maynard doesn't have the most powerful leg, but the Ball State product has pin-point accuracy and can bury opponents inside their 20. Throw in long-snapper, Pat Mannelly, another who's tops at his craft.

6. Kordell Stewart. OK, he might not be the first QB you took in your fantasy league draft, but he's better than what the Bears have put on the field in a while. Jim Miller and Chris Chandler were statues, while Stewart has the ability to scramble around and make things happen. With capable receivers in Booker,

David Terrell, Dez White and Ahmad Merritt, Stewart has a chance to rejuvenate his career in Chicago.

7. Desmond Clark. A tight end who can catch? Clark might not be the next Mike Ditka, but the former college wide receiver gives the Bears their best threat in years. He had 51 receptions and six TDs in 2001.

8. Better luck. The Bears suffered through major injuries after winning the NFC Central Division title in 2001. They lost 15 players who started a game during the season, and were forced to employ 46 different starters.

1. Offensive line.
Where do we start? Marc Colombo, the team's first-round pick in 2002, was moved from left to right tackle. However, Colombo hasn't returned since season-ending knee surgery last season. His replacement is Aaron Gibson, a mammoth tackle at 6-foot-6, 390 pounds, but the former first-round pick was cut by Detroit and then Dallas before finding a home in Chicago. Veteran James "Big Cat" Williams wasn't re-signed, so the team moved guard Mike Gandy out to left tackle.

2. Backup quarterback. Chris Chandler, also known as "Grandpa," is 38 and as brittle as they come. If Stewart goes down, it will be Chandler stuck trying to pick up the pieces. The offense spent the entire preseason trying to get used to a scrambling QB like Stewart, but will have to start from scratch if "Slash" gets burned. Rookie Rex Grossman is the quarterback of the future, but he's not close to ready. It will be a long year if he's pushed into duty this soon.

3. Jerry Angelo. What exactly has this guy done while in Chicago? He let Rosevelt Colvin go, and then traded Ted Washington for a fourth-round pick! He traded away the team's fourth overall pick in the April draft (to the Jets), instead of trying to grab an impact player. He came in after Mark Hatley following the 2001 draft, so he can't even take credit for the team's 13-3 campaign that season since the roster was pretty much intact. What he's responsible for is drafting Colombo, and last year's 4-12 finish.

4. The running game. The A-Train went from Rookie of the Year to a questionable starter in the blink of a eye. Angelo has questioned whether he's "special," and last year's sixth-round pick, Adrian Peterson, has been pushing for playing time. The team has quietly said it would like to upgrade at the position, which is writing on the wall for Thomas, who finished the year on injured reserve with a broken finger. With the talent at both tackle positions in question, Thomas -- or whoever's running the ball -- might not see much daylight.

5. Defensive line. Ted Washington was traded to New England and Bryan Robinson is being kicked inside after playing end for most of his career. Washington was old and often injured, but he was respected by teammates for the load he could handle. Urlacher and the rest of the linebackers thrived off of Washington and Traylor, who tied up offensive linemen, so they could roam. Now you're asking second-year pro Alex Brown, rookie Michael Haynes and veteran Phillip Daniels to get to the quarterback. Let's not forget about linebacker Bryan Knight, a first-year starter, who is trying to replace Rosevelt Colvin, who led the team with 10 1/2 sacks in each of the past two seasons. The Bears ranked 21st in the NFL with 34 sacks last season and did nothing in the offseason to upgrade.

6. Cornerbacks. R.W. McQuarters and Jerry Azumah. One is into making rap music and the latter is a converted college running back. Neither is a top-notch defender or a guy who can be a lock-down corner. Teams scouted the Bears well in the preseason and went right after both of them.

7. John Shoop. The young offensive coordinator caught heat in 2001, even when the team went 13-3. When the Bears collapsed last season, Shoop was hearing the boo-birds as much as anybody. It's hard to point the finger at him for the 4-12 finish, but Shoop continues to rely on a running game that hasn't been there and a short passing game that is as boring to the players as the fans.

8. Dick Jauron. It's almost as if he's been set up to fail by Angelo. One of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, Jauron just doesn't have a bad bone in his body -- something that unfortunately will probably cost him. However, he had his back to the wall in 2001 and produced a winner.

He's backed into a corner again.

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