Head coach Lovie Smith thinks the 2008 Bears were close to being a playoff team, but there seem to be several areas that need improvement – even in Smith's opinion.
There are general deficiencies on both sides of the ball that must be addressed to make this a playoff team, and the Bears also need to get better play from certain individuals.
Offensively, the Bears showed signs of a balanced attack early in the season, but they finished No. 26 in total yards, No. 21 in passing yards and No. 24 in rushing yards. They were 29th in average gain per pass play and tied for 26th in average gain per running play.
"Did we do enough offensively throughout the course of the year?" Smith said. "No, just like the rest of our football team. But I think the arrow is pointed in the right direction. I like the core that we can build on."
Defensively, the Bears were usually strong against the run, but they were picked apart too often by passing attacks – even average ones. They were No. 5 in rushing yards allowed, giving up just 93.5 yards per game. But against the pass the Bears were 30th, allowing 241.2 yards per game. Part of the reason was a weak and inconsistent pass rush that tied for 22nd in sacks with just 28.
"I didn't like the way we played the pass," Smith said. "I liked the way we played the run, so it was kind of up and down, and that's how we played the last game. Of course, we let them pass the football too much on us."
The Bears held the Texans to 127 rushing yards, just 3.5 yards per attempt, but they were gouged for 328 passing yards, and they failed to sack Matt Schaub even once.
There was a definite correlation for the Bears between getting to the quarterback and winning. In games that the Bears had one sack or none, they were 2-5. In games in which they had three sacks or more, the Bears were 4-1.
But there was no individual player who brought consistent pass-rush pressure in 2008. Defensive end Alex Brown led the team with six sacks. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris, who had eight sacks in 2007, had just five in '08 when his play was nowhere close to the level of the previous three seasons when he went to the Pro Bowl each year. Harris battled a problematic knee that seemed to affect his play at times and then to not bother him at other times.
"At times, Tommie played very good football," Smith said. "The consistency wasn't probably there as much as we would like, just like our entire football team. We weren't consistent throughout. Tommie was a part of that."
Smith said Harris' balky knee and his overall health are a concern, as they should be after he got a four-year contract extension before the season that was worth a maximum of $40 million.
"When you look at the last couple years, Tommie has dealt with injuries," Smith said. "You have to be concerned a little bit about his health. Him getting back to 100 percent, of course, would help the situation. There is no reason to think that Tommie cannot get back to that same dominant player that we've seen, and at times this year he was that."
Rarely did Harris flash Pro-Bowl form in 2008, and the same can be said of middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who got $18 million in new money added to his existing $56.65 million deal. According to team statistics, Urlacher's 107 tackles were the second-lowest total of his nine-year career and just two more than he had in 2004, when he played just nine games.
In his first eight seasons, '04 was the only season in which Urlacher didn't lead the Bears in tackles, but this year he was third. After getting five interceptions and five sacks last season, he had two picks and no sacks this year.
"Brian at times played well this past year," Smith said, "and other times he needed to pick it up a little bit."
Urlacher will be 31 before the next training camp starts, and it remains to be seen if he can ever play at the level he achieved while making six of seven Pro Bowls from 2000-06. The same might be said of the entire defense, which has regressed in the past two seasons.
"It's hard to say exactly why," Smith said. "Look at our entire football team. We could put Brian in that class. I'm putting all of us in there. For some reason, we didn't get it done the way we like this past year. But 9-7 is still close, and we were close at times. We've seen what Brian can do, and there's no reason to think that, with him dedicating himself and us doing a better job coaching, he can't get back."
But Brown seemed closer to reality after the loss to the Texans, when he said: "I'm very, very tired of people talking about two years ago. We don't have the same team as two years ago. We don't have the same attitude. There's a lot of things different from this team and that team, so please do me a favor and let's not talk about '06 anymore."
NOTES & QUOTES
"We'll evaluate everything," Smith said. "Players, coaches and all. Every year there's change. I don't know if we'll have change right now. I can't comment on any of that right now. We've just started our evaluation process."
Rod Marinelli's Monday firing as the Lions' head coach makes him a logical person of interest for Smith, who was the linebackers coach in Tampa for five years under Tony Dungy while Marinelli was the defensive line coach. Marinelli was considered a candidate to become the Bears' defensive coordinator when Smith was hired as head coach in 2004 and then again in 2006 before he got the Lions' top job.
The Bears' once-stout defense has faltered under coordinator Bob Babich, who was promoted from linebackers coach after defensive coordinator Ron Rivera was not rehired following Super Bowl XLI. The defensive line has also come under criticism the past two seasons under the guidance of Brick Haley, who had no NFL coaching experience when he was hired by Smith in 2007.
"Rod Marinelli is an excellent football coach," Smith said. "I've known him for a long time. I've worked with him. But again, that doesn't have anything to do with what we're doing right now. I was just sad to see an excellent football coach not be the coach of Detroit." …
First-round pick Chris Williams suffered a back injury on the second day of training camp that eventually required surgery, and he missed the first seven games and played tiny roles in the final nine. But the offensive tackle is a big part of the Bears' future according to Smith.
"We drafted Chris Williams to be our left tackle," Smith said. "There is no reason to think that Chris can't develop into that. The next time we come together as a team, he'll be ready to go. From what I saw of him going against our starting defensive ends, he's got a bright future ahead of him." …
With the season completed, quarterback Kyle Orton admitted that his sprained ankle bothered him more and for a longer period of time than he let on when he returned Nov. 16 after missing just one game.
"It was a battle every game, a battle throughout the week to get it feeling halfway decent, and then something would always happen during the game to re-tweak it," Orton said. "But I don't think it affected my game a whole lot. Everybody has to battle through injuries, and I'm no different."
Orton said the ankle wasn't a problem Sunday.
"It actually felt pretty good," he said. "Probably felt the best it has all year since it happened."
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