Season Could Hinge on Grossman, Ogunleye

The Bears' upcoming campaign is most likely to hinge on the health and performance of two key players. Those two pivotal players are quarterback Rex Grossman and defensive end Adewale Ogunleye.

Jerry Angelo has been relatively successful at restocking the talent on offense and defense over the last two seasons through free agency, the draft and trades. The offensive line looks more settled than it has in years with the additions of tackles John Tait and Fred Miller along with guards Ruben Brown and Roberto Garza. Depth at running back looks particularly good with Thomas Jones and rookie Cedric Benson ready to shine, and fullback Bryan Johnson is an established veteran who should excel in the offense that Ron Turner will bring. At wide receiver, the albatross that was David Terrell has been shot down in mid flight and replaced by a 747 in Muhsin Muhammad. Fleet youngsters who will learn at his wing include Mark Bradley, Bernard Berrian, and Airese Currie. Tight end Desmond Clark is an established veteran who should bounce back from a disappointing season.

At quarterback, the Bears have gone through a "feel, felt, found" process to weed through Craig Krenzel and Jonathan Quinn before realizing that Chad Hutchinson could be viable as a backup. Kyle Orton was a draft day steal and should figure prominently in the near future. This brings us squarely to pivotal player number one, Rex Grossman. Grossman is no longer a rookie, but enters his third season having played in just three games in each of his first two years. He's coming off a serious knee injury, but all signs indicate that he'll be fully recovered. The questions only start there. His career rating of 71.1 isn't enough to get anyone excited, nor is his 3 to 4 touchdown to interception ratio. Supporters will point to his excellent college pedigree, and fine preseason performances in the pros. However, at this point he really doesn't have the body of work as a professional to merit forecasting him as anything better than a middling signal-caller on a team with a recent history devoid of quarterbacking talent.

Grossman has played under similar offenses to the one Turner is going to bring this season. Turner's offense will remind him a bit of some things he saw at Florida as well as some of the timing that John Shoop's offense required. Consequently, it shouldn't be difficult for Grossman to acclimate himself. If he can excel at being accurate, and utilize his football intelligence, he should be a natural for Turner's offense. This will keep defenses off balance, get all of the receivers involved in the passing game, and minimize the pressure on the offensive line. Grossman has all of the tools to be a big play quarterback. It will be up to him to execute.

If Grossman remains healthy, and can become at least an above average quarterback in his first full season, the Bears will have a chance at making the playoffs. Is it far-fetched to believe he can project to that level? Some might argue it is, but if he DOES bring his game to that point, it will truly make a difference for the entire offense and for a team that should be solid enough defensively to be competitive at worst, and reasonably good at best.

On defense, the Bears' secondary looks strong with safety Mike Brown's return to health. Mike Green has settled in as a starter. He will benefit from the switch to free safety. Cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Jerry Azumah are not only solid but offer big play potential. Arguments can be made that Nathan Vasher was the best pick of the second day of the 2004 draft, and his ability to make big plays is even greater than those ahead of him. At linebacker, Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher are top tier players. Hunter Hillenmeyer will be a bit of a question mark but he's not playing an impact position in this scheme and will be leaving the field in most passing situations.

Along the line, Tommie Harris had a fine rookie season and Ian Scott was a pleasant surprise. Alex Brown has shown steady enough improvement at defensive end to merit a rich, new contract. He should be ready to turn the corner into the next echelon of defensive ends. At the other defensive end is the key to this coming season's defense, Adewale Ogunleye.

Ogunleye was never fully healthy last season. If he can have the same impact he had with the Dolphins, he'll ignite the Bears' defense on many levels. Ogunleye was good for 15 sacks in his final season as a Dolphin. That kind of productivity will mean more forced errors by opposing quarterbacks, which will translate into more turnovers and opportunities for the offense to score. Additionally, he'll ensure that offenses will account for him in the passing game, which will either free up other pass rushers or reduce the available route runners to defend. All of this means he'll make life a lot easier for his fellow linemates, linebackers in coverage, and defensive backs in terms of the length of time the quarterback is allowed to scan the defense.

Pessimists will point to Ogunleye's gaudy statistics in Miami (24.5 sacks in his final two seasons) and claim they were the result of playing opposite elite pass rusher Jason Taylor. Taylor amassed 31.5 sacks during the same two seasons. Was it Taylor? Was it Ogunleye? This will be Ogunleye's opportunity to prove the doubters wrong.

It has been a long time since the Bears have had a truly dominant defensive end. A dominant defensive end is a constant mismatch for opposing offenses. He forces teams to scheme against him as if there were another player or a blitz coming from that side. Imagine what will happen when the Bears actually overload his side by walking someone like Brian Urlacher up to the line outside of Ogunleye.

If Rex Grossman can complete 60 percent of his passes and put up 20 plus touchdowns while Adewale Ogunleye is collecting a dozen or more sacks, it will go a long way toward making everything else fall into place around them. With numbers like that, the Bears should be looking at the playoffs. Sure, some other things will have to go right at some of the other positions, but solid performances from the lynchpins of both sides of the ball will be the Kool-Aid Bear fans have been thirsting for.



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