Eight won't be enough

The Bears will show signs of improvement this season, but with a new coach and a new system they will struggle at times, finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs for the 11th time the last 13 seasons.

You have to give Jerry Angelo and company some credit. They're trying.

For a team that got a bad rap in the past under the McCaskey regime for not opening up their pocketbook, the Bears have been plenty busy this off-season.

They've brought in a new coach, a new running back, a new offensive tackle, a new pass rusher and new systems on both sides of the ball.

It's a whole new outlook for the 2004 Chicago Bears, but changes aren't always good. It's going to take time for Smith to get the right players in place, get his staff and players up to speed, and to change the past.

That's going to be Smith's biggest challenge: turning the Bad News Bears into a winner again.

The Bears haven't been to the playoffs since the 2001 season and have missed out on the postseason in 11 of the past 13 years. A realistic goal for a new coaching staff is 8-8.

The Bears could do worse and they could do a little better. Smith seems to have a fire in his belly, he's a tireless worker and he's all about attention to detail.

Making the playoffs is probably a stretch for this team. But with the salary cap and free agency making the NFL a parity party each year, surprise teams have also stated their cases against the odds.

1. Lovie Smith. The first-year coach is all business. Unlike Dick Jauron before him, he's a motivator and seems to have the respect of his players. Smith won't stand for losing and won't accept it. Watch for the Bears to make vast improvements on offense, cause more turnovers on defense and become one of the league's up-and-comers this season.

2. Thomas Jones. Sure, he was a first-round flop in Arizona, but who has actually had a decent career in the desert? Jones showed signs he could be a starting running back last season in Tampa Bay, where he finished strong. In the preseason, the strong and quick Jones showed flashes that he can be the perfect back for this offense. He can break it outside, change direction on a dime and make big plays. But most importantly, he can catch the ball out of the backfield. The Bears have lacked the total package in a running back for a while.

3. Rex Grossman. Let's face it, the kid can play. He's got a rocket arm, a short memory and he's a winner. In fact, he's won at every level. The Bears were 2-1 with him as a starter late in the season, and that one loss came to playoff-bound Kansas City. Grossman has the tools to be a starter for years to come in Chicago. He just needs some more weapons around him.

4. Adewale Ogunleye. Saying his name is about as tough as blocking him. But this beast of a pass rusher has been a star the last two seasons. He led the AFC with 15 sacks last season, while his new team had just 18 overall. It's a safe bet to say the acquisition of Ogunleye vastly improves this defense. The Bears were concerned with Michael Haynes and Alex Brown as the starters, so they went out and got Ogunleye. It was a stiff price to pay by giving up Marty Booker, but it looks like the Bears got the better end of the deal.

5. Jerry Angelo. Everybody knows his first pick with the Bears was Marc Colombo, but Angelo has done some good things, too. Jones has looked great thus far, Ogunleye was a huge upgrade, and John Tait should be able to anchor the right tackle position for years to come. The Bears were taken to the bank, no doubt, but Tait started 33 consecutive games the last two seasons in K.C. The offensive line problems of last season are well documented, so getting veterans like Tait and Ruben Brown to work with this group can only help.

6. Paul Edinger. His kickoffs aren't anything to write home about, but Edinger has been money in the bank. He's hit 77.9 percent of his field goals, averages 99 points a season, and leads the NFL with 46 kicks of 40 yards or more the last four seasons. Teams in the NFL are closer in talent and competitiveness more than ever. The most accurate kicker in Bears history could be the difference in a lot of games, and Edinger usually comes through.

7. Brian Urlacher. He didn't have the Brian Urlacher season a year ago, and he's coming off a hamstring injury. But Urlacher has been challenged by Smith to make more plays and cause more turnovers on defense. Urlacher has proved he's a big-time playmaker in the past. He's due for a big season and needs to perform up to standards for a defense that leans on him for leadership.

8. Defensive line. Nobody in the NFC North has a better overall defensive line than the Bears now. Obviously Ogunleye's signing pushed the D-line to another level, but keep an eye on rookies Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson. Harris is already establishing himself and Johnson adds to the depth. With Bryan Robinson and Alfonso Boone inside, and Michael Haynes and Alex Brown rotating at end, the Bears will have plenty of capable bodies to wear down offensive lines.

1. Injuries. All-Pro kick returner Jerry Azumah (neck) and guard Rex Tucker (elbow) are both out for the immediate future. Azumah was the league's top kickoff man last season and Tucker was the anchor of the line with Olin Kreutz. Azumah's injury took R.W. McQuarters, the team's best punt returner, off those duties for fear of injury. It's a long season and plenty of other big names could go down. It's just the nature of the game.

2. Wide receiver. The Bears got Ogunleye, one of the best pass rushers in the game, but paid a hefty price by losing their best receiver in Booker. Booker was the guy all the young receivers went to for help. Now David Terrell, who has been a huge disappointment, is the team's top receiver. That's a scary thought.

Even scarier is the fact Bobby Wade --- Booker's replacement -- has only started one NFL game. Justin Gage, Ahmad Merritt and Bernard Berrian are talented guys, but not blue-chippers.

3. Backup quarterback. If Grossman gets hurt -- cross your fingers -- the Bears are stuck with Jonathan Quinn. The career third-stringer has only three career starts in six seasons. He's a pocket passer, not very mobile and has been battling a left shoulder injury. Worse, rookie Craig Krenzel is behind him.

4. Offensive line. Once considered a strong point, the team's most important unit has been hit hard with injuries. Tucker is out for at least six games and guard Terrence Metcalf is trying to overcome an ankle injury. The offensive line needs time to come together, but injuries and inconsistency haven't helped.

5. Qasim Mitchell/Aaron Gibson. Don't be surprised if you see Tait take over on the left side, especially for the kind of money the Bears are paying him. Mitchell, a former undrafted free agent, is being asked to protect young Grossman's blindside. If he can't do the trick, Gibson, a former first-round flop, is the backup plan. Say your prayers.

6. Tight end. The new offense Terry Shea has installed in Chicago thrives off the running back catching passes and big plays from the tight end. The starter, Desmond Clark, has been hobbled with injuries. Shea had All-Pro Tony Gonzalez in K.C.; arguably the NFL's best tight end. It's a big drop-off with the crew he's been given in Chicago.

7. The schedule. An opener against Detroit on Sept. 12 looks like a piece of cake when you consider the Bears follow with back-to-back road games against NFC North rivals Green Bay and Minnesota. Throw in home dates with Philadelphia and Indianapolis -- not to mention road games against Dallas, Tennessee, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville and the N.Y. Giants, and -- on paper -- you're looking at one challenging schedule.

8. History. It definitely hasn't been on the Bears' side. Until they can change it, expectations will never be too high.

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