In a disappointing 7-9 season, general manager Jerry Angelo was most dissatisfied with the precipitous drop-off in a defense that plummeted from No. 5 a year ago to No. 28 and with Bears' inability to run the football.
"We have to play good defense, that's first and foremost," Angelo said in his season-ending press conference. "What's good defense here in Chicago? Good defense is takeaways, not giving up big plays, playing aggressive with top effort."
None of that happened in 2007 until it was too late. The Bears intercepted a league-low seven passes in the first 11 games. And even though they got nine picks in the final five games, they still finished with eight fewer interceptions than a year ago.
"Unfortunately we weren't able to get those takeaways, and we gave up far too many big plays on defense," Angelo said. "That pretty much spells the inconsistency that we did have with defense."
Like head coach Lovie Smith three days earlier, Angelo cited defensive improvement in the final two games as a source for optimism, but those modest accomplishments didn't make up for earlier failings. And even in the victory over the Saints, the Bears permitted 415 yards of total offense – the sixth time this season they surrendered more than 400. That happened just once in 2006.
"We got gashed in the running game," Angelo said. "Our defense isn't really, in my opinion, set up to be a run-stuffing defense. But those things definitely got our attention, got my attention. We have our work cut out for us in the offseason."
Opponents had 53 runs of 10 yards or more, while the Bears managed just 26.
The Bears offense wasn't any better, finishing No. 27 in total yards and No. 30 in rushing yards. Despite the spark provided by rookie tight end Greg Olsen, a 951-yard season from wide receiver Bernard Berrian and the big-play factor of Devin Hester, the offense sputtered because the run game failed. A muddled picture at quarterback is another offseason concern.
"I think we have a good nucleus of offensive players," Angelo said. "We have good possession receivers, we have good slot receivers, we have speed receivers. Where we did not perform well was in our running game. We weren't able to get the big plays out of the running backs. That does affect an offense like ours, particularly when I stand up here and say that the mantra of our offense is to run the football. On offense, we're still going to be a running football team, and we have to run the football. After we establish the run, we have to get our big plays with our play-action passing game. And we can't turn the ball over, it's that simple. Unfortunately, we weren't able to do that. We didn't run the ball effectively."
Two of Angelo's first-round draft picks – running back Cedric Benson and quarterback Rex Grossman – will have to compete for starting jobs next season. And in Grossman's case, the Bears will first have to decide if they want to re-sign the unrestricted free agent. Benson, coming off a fractured ankle, will have to win the featured role in training camp, either from a free-agent addition or a draft choice – or maybe both.
"I'd like to think he could still be a feature back," Angelo said of Benson. "But there's going to be competition at that position. If something were to arise and there's a good back in the marketplace and/or in the draft, we're going to look at that. [Benson] started to turn the corner. Unfortunately he got an injury, and we didn't see what we needed to see or what we feel we were going to see with him."
Angelo said he wants Grossman back to try to make those plays downfield off play-action passes but, even if the Bears re-sign their 2003 first-rounder, he won't be guaranteed anything more than the chance to compete for the starting job.
Grossman has said he just wants an opportunity to compete for the No. 1 spot, and that's all the Bears will be offering. Angelo was asked if a re-signed Grossman would return as the starter or as a competitor for the top job.
"Without sitting and talking with the coaches, off the top of my head," Angelo said, "it's got to be competition."
NOTES & QUOTES
Cedric Benson and Adrian Peterson finished with the same sub-par 3.4-yard average per carry, contributing to a league-worst team average of 3.1.
RBs Cedric Benson and Adrian Peterson
"We weren't able to generate any big plays with the running game, which was very disappointing," Angelo said. "If you have a feature back, he's got to make two or three runs over 20 yards. We weren't able to get that."
Benson didn't have a run longer than 16 yards until his 10th game. Peterson didn't have a run longer than 11 yards until his 15th game. The Bears had one run all season of longer than 25 yards, while their opponents had 11.
"Everything we did we had to grind it out, and that's very tough to do," Angelo said. "If you're a running football team, you've got to get big plays in the running game. In part, was that why we weren't able to get big plays downfield? Probably." …
The offensive line has gone from experienced to ancient and from cohesive to decrepit in a year. An offense that constantly struggled was further hamstrung by multiple false-start penalties, lack of running room and faulty pass protection.
"I'm sure that it contributed to the offensive woes," Angelo said. "The false-start penalties were very disappointing, particularly when you have a veteran bunch. We shot ourselves enough in the foot in a lot of areas to lead us to the season that we had, and we have to definitely get those things corrected. That's beating yourself, and we can't do that." …
Free agency, injuries, lack of production and bloated salaries will prevent several players from returning next season, so contingency plans are already being discussed.
Linebacker Lance Briggs won't be back, and wide receiver Bernard Berrian and quarterback Rex Grossman could follow him. While Jamar Williams is in line to replace Briggs, the quarterback spot is up for grabs and the wideout picture is muddled.
"We do have players that can replace these players," Angelo said. "Can they be as good, better, not as good? Time will tell. But we feel good that they fit our scheme. We'd certainly like to have Bernard back, but if it doesn't work out, then we have to have players that will step in, be it a Mark Bradley or somebody that we look at in the draft."
Bradley's meager reception total has dropped in each of his three seasons, down to six this year. Muhsin Muhammad's catches have dropped for four straight seasons, and Devin Hester remains a work in progress – though a talented one.
"The key is to address what our needs are," Angelo said. "There will be a clear delineation between needs and the areas that we want to create more competition." …
According to Angelo, injuries, especially in the secondary, contributed to the Bears' defensive drop-off in 2007 when they allowed 959 more yards than last season.
Strong safety Mike Brown suffered a season-ending knee injury on opening day, cornerback Nathan Vasher missed 12 of the final 13 games with a groin injury, and cornerback Charles Tillman missed Game 4 with a sprained ankle, leaving the Bears with new starters at all four secondary positions for that game.
"Big plays usually happen in the secondary," Angelo said, "and we took a pretty good hit. When we went into that Detroit game, we had four new starters. It took us a while to get back to getting good or decent secondary play."
Injuries have caused Brown to miss 43 of the previous 64 games, so even though he was a Pro Bowl pick in 2005, his future with the Bears is shaky.
"How am I going to count Mike Brown?" Angelo said. "Mike's been a hurt a lot. We certainly would like to have Mike on our football team, but we're just going to wait. He's several months away from being back and healthy."
QUOTE TO NOTE
"We've got to get the [quarterback] position stabilized. We would like to have Rex back in the mix. Rex showed some good play, particularly when he was coming back off his little sabbatical." – GM Jerry Angelo
Linebackers coach Hardy Nickerson resigned Tuesday to spend more time with his family. Lovie Smith was insistent that he wanted his staff back intact unless any of them got an opportunity to better their position, which is doubtful after a 7-9 season. But now he must replace Nickerson after just one season. Nickerson came in a year ago to replace Bob Babich after he was promoted to defensive coordinator.
Asked specifically about the most criticized members of his staff, Babich and offensive coordinator Ron Turner, Smith offered a vote of confidence even though both units nose-dived statistically in 2007.