When Bears head coach Lovie Smith says, on the heels of a 7-9 season, "I feel like our arrow is pointed in the right direction," it's almost too easy to disagree.
The Bears defense came within one more missed tackle of allowing a franchise-worst yardage total in 2007, the signature running game was arguably the league's worst, and free agency could poke more holes in the foundation of a team that is already leaky.
But Smith might be right, although there are a few resolutions he may want to consider before his team gets serious about making a playoff run when it reports to Olivet Nazarene University in July, starting with the pace of training camp. Next season's three weeks of training should resemble a boot camp more than a fantasy camp – a little more full contact and fewer days off for veterans for general soreness, which seemed to be an epidemic among the offensive linemen.
That would start with assembling a group whose players are closer to their prime than retirement. If players are too old to make it through the Bears' laid-back training-camp practices, it's a pretty good sign they might be too old to contribute to a winning program. Defensively, the Bears might have missed fewer tackles during the season if they actually practiced the skill full-speed during training camp.
The Bears clearly weren't ready for the start of the regular season, and they lost three of their first four games with the only victory coming against a 4-12 Chiefs team. That left the Bears in a hole out of which they never could climb.
But there are a lot of reasons to agree with Smith's optimism when he says this team is close to getting back to the level it played at in 2005 and `06.
It's not an excuse to cite injuries as a factor in the Bears' demise, and it's not wishful thinking to believe all of those injured players will be back at full strength in 2008.
Good health alone will provide the Bears with an outstanding defensive line, including key players who are young enough to still be peaking, like 24-year-old tackles Tommie Harris and Dusty Dvoracek and end Mark Anderson. Left end Adewale Ogunleye had his best season as a Bear, right end Alex Brown proved late in the season that he should have been starting all along, Anthony Adams is an excellent backup at tackle and more than adequate as a starter.
Dvoracek, potentially the Bears' best run defender, missed 15 games, as did Pro Bowl safety Mike Brown. Pro Bowl cornerback Nathan Vasher missed 12 games, and Harris, another Pro Bowler, played hurt most of the season. That's a lot of top-caliber talent missing a lot of action.
Injuries happen every year, but they don't always happen so frequently and to such key players. A lot of the Bears' success in 2006 was the result of an offense that went through the entire season virtually unscathed, and a defense that had few losses.
Even when Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs leaves, the defense will be only a Mike Brown-type safety away from challenging the elite 2006 group – and Brown could be back, although his long injury history makes him a gamble. The Bears realize that.
But plugging promising Jamar Williams into Briggs' spot and adding a safety in the draft or free agency is typical minor offseason tinkering that will leave plenty of resources for improving the offense. If Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo are competent mechanics, the Bears could be back in the fast lane next season.
NOTES AND QUOTES
The timing of Cedric Benson's season-ending fractured ankle in Game 11 couldn't have been worse.
After averaging a lackluster 3.0 yards per carry in the first nine games and taking constant criticism for his role in a run game that could barely walk, Benson put together back-to-back games where he averaged 7.2 yards per carry. But he never finished the second game.
RB Cedric Benson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
"Things were starting to turn around," he said. "I was taking most of the criticism that the team was getting throughout the year. I was finally answering or shutting up a lot of that stuff or making them look pretty silly for some of the things they said. I wasn't really contributing to a win against Seattle (a 30-23 loss in which he had 11 carries for 89 yards), but our offense was starting to get it together. It was happening."
Critics claimed that Benson's slow start was the result of coming to training camp out of shape, possibly because his sprained knee in Super Bowl XLI prevented him from working hard enough in the offseason.
"My injuries never kept me from conditioning or training," Benson said. "I didn't come in out of shape or overweight or anything like that. I came in well in shape, in great football condition ready to play."
Benson got his cast off Monday and said he's about eight weeks away from starting to run and cut. Although the opinion isn't universally shared, Benson considers himself the incumbent starter going into next year's training camp.
"I feel it's established. I don't feel like I need to prove anything," he said. "I know everybody's looking for the big season, and we were coming on strong at the end, but I just got sidelined. So I don't feel like there's anything I have to prove. I think it's just coming back and getting that big season." …
Garrett Wolfe doesn't consider his rookie season a washout by any means, but he also isn't content to rest on his accomplishments.
The third-round pick from Northern Illinois averaged just 2.7 yards on 31 carries but added 117 receiving yards on nine catches for an average of 13.0 yards. According to Wolfe, that isn't enough production to carve out a niche for himself in the offense.
"I don't think I made enough plays," the graduate of Holy Cross High School in River Grove said. "I didn't have that many opportunities, but I don't think I made enough plays to really establish or really create a role."
For now, Wolfe has at least proved to himself that, even at 5-foot-7, he can play with the big boys in the NFL.
"There's no doubt in my mind," he said. "I never doubted whether I could. It was something that I wanted to prove to others."
Wolfe's biggest play of the season came in the final game when he went 33 yards with a short dumpoff on 3rd-and-27. He also had a 25-yard run against the Broncos in Week 11. As a first-day draft pick, Wolfe showed enough to warrant consideration next season in a muddled backfield picture, even if his role isn't clearly defined.
"That's something I hope I did," he said. "I hope I showed that I can compete at this level and at a high level. But that's something that remains to be seen." ...
"A very disappointing season all the way around," said Archuleta, who was benched last season by the Redskins and then traded to the Bears. "But adversity is nothing new, and we get a better opportunity to go back and work this offseason and make it better."
Archuleta did not come close to living up to his $8.1 million, three-year deal with the Bears, so he might not be back next season.
"I'm a firm believer that what's supposed to happen will happen," said Archuleta, a stand-up guy who never ducked criticism or questions. "I've made my bed, and I'll lay in it. I'll take it in stride, and I'll keep working to make things better. I really didn't hold up my end of the bargain. I'm just not happy with some of the things I did this year. Just disappointment overall in my play." …
The mission for 2008 is clear for nose tackle Dusty Dvoracek, who missed all of his rookie season in 2006 with a foot injury and played just the season opener in `07 before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
"I've got to stay healthy and stay on the field," the 6-foot-3, 303-pound third-round pick said. "That's the hardest part. Once I'm on the field, I can play the game of football. I can play at a high level. I've just got to get myself back rehabbed right and stay healthy."
Coaches had high hopes for Dvoracek this season after he won the starting job in training camp, and they're still encouraged about his future.
"They told me they loved me as a player and what I bring on the field as a leader," Dvoracek said. "They're excited about me, and I'm excited about next year. I guess I showed them enough that they want to keep me around."
QUOTE TO NOTE
"I don't worry about it because I'm far enough in my career where I don't have to. Maybe some of the younger guys do, but that's just part of the NFL. You've got to expect it. When things don't go the way that you want to, of course, there's going to be some changes. You're just going to have to deal with it." – RT Fred Miller
All of that plus much more in the February issue of ...
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