Expectations weren't high in 2008 for a Bears team coming off a 7-9 season, but it was still a major disappointment when they blew a chance at the playoffs by losing to the Texans in the finale.
The Bears had won three straight at home heading into Houston, where they fell 31-24 to finish at 9-7 as, once again, their supposedly talented and certainly highly-paid defense was embarrassed. The Bears allowed 455 total yards, just another example of a defense that underachieved throughout the season.
It was the defense that failed to hold on to leads late in the game against the Panthers, Bucs and Falcons early in the season, all of which resulted in losses and left the Bears at 3-3, although they easily could have been at least 5-1.
The failure of Bob Babich's defense, which was essentially the same group that finished second in the NFL in 2005 and fifth in 2006 under Ron Rivera, who was fired, was ironic.
It was assumed that it would be the offense that dragged down the Bears in 2008. But with Kyle Orton playing at a much higher level than he displayed the last time he was the starter, as a rookie thrust into the job in 2005, the offense thrived – for seven and a half games. In Week 9, Orton suffered a sprained ankle just before halftime against the Lions in a game the Bears barely won.
At that point, the Bears were No. 11 in passing yards. They finished 23rd. The Bears lost to the Titans the next week with Rex Grossman at quarterback and then rushed Orton back into the lineup, probably a week early, for the big rivalry game against the Packers at Green Bay. The Bears were humiliated 37-3, dropping to 5-5.
Up until the injury, Orton looked a lot like the franchise quarterback the Bears have been searching for most of the past 20 years or so. After the injury, not so much. Before the injury, Orton threw 10 TD passes and just four interceptions. After that, Orton threw eight touchdown passes and eight interceptions and had three games with a passer rating under 50.
After the season, head coach Lovie Smith gave Orton a strong vote of confidence.
"Going into the season, we had questions about our quarterback position," Smith said. "I think Kyle Orton did a lot of good things during the course of the season. Not enough to get to the playoffs, just like the rest of our football team. But I like the progress that Kyle made throughout the year. I was asked if Kyle was our quarterback. Of course Kyle is our quarterback."
General manager Jerry Angelo wasn't so sure.
"I'm not convinced 100 percent, obviously," Angelo said of Orton. "I believe in Kyle, but until Kyle puts a [full] year together, we can't say for sure. I saw some really good things out of Kyle, particularly early on in the season, [but] he didn't have the second half of the season that he did the first half."
It was tough to blame Orton when the offense sputtered and died. The Bears had one of the least talented groups of wide receivers in the NFL. It was a group devoid of a legitimate No. 1, so Devin Hester, still a work in progress, became the de facto go-to guy. After him it was the always inconsistent and unreliable Brandon Lloyd, an over-the hill Marty Booker, and Rashied Davis, a try-hard guy with a big heart but limited talent.
The Bears do appear to have found their franchise running back in Matt Forte, who as a rookie supplied a greater percentage of his team's offensive yards than any player in the NFL, was third in the league with 1,715 yards from scrimmage, led the Bears with 63 receptions and rushed for a team rookie record 1,238 yards.
Fortunately for Orton and the passing game, tight ends Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark combined for 95 receptions and 941 yards. Olsen looks like he'll be an integral part of the passing game for many years, but last season was Clark's 10th and he might not have many left.
Defensively the Bears still believe they have superior talent, but they didn't play that way most of the season.
So rather than blame underachieving, overpaid players like CB Nathan Vasher, DT Tommie Harris and LB Brian Urlacher, among others, Smith jettisoned linebackers coach Lloyd Lee, defensive line coach Brick Haley and defensive backs coach Steven Wilks.
But that enabled Smith to hire Rod Marinelli, an old buddy from their days with the Bucs, to be the defensive line coach and assistant head coach. Marinelli may have failed as a head coach with the Lions, but he's expected to get much more out of the Bears' defensive line, which has enough talent to become a force again, as it was in 2005 and '06 under Rivera.
Smith also announced that he would assume most of the defensive play-calling duties from Babich, who will lose some if not all of his game-day decision-making chores but will still coordinate the defense and will add the title of linebackers coach, his original role on Smith's staff.
NOTES & QUOTES
But Smith was confident that his former roommate and fellow defensive assistant with the Bucs would wind up on the Bears' staff.
"I just knew that it was a perfect fit for Rod to be here," Smith said. "It takes a while in the coaching profession to build up relationships where you work with someone the way Rod and I have had a chance to work together. Getting our start at the same time (on Tony Dungy's staff in Tampa), of building a defense up and knowing exactly what you need to do to play it at a high level.
"So to think that Rod would go somewhere else, I was just hoping he wouldn't. I knew that most teams would try to get Rod, and I'm just glad that he liked what he saw from our program. He looked at our defensive line. I know he's excited about getting a chance to coach ... all of the different guys that we have. He will bring a lot to our ballclub, not just our defensive line."
In his final four years in Tampa, Marinelli was also the assistant head coach in addition to the defensive line coach, the same title he will hold with the Bears. …
According to Smith, Babich accepted his loss of play-calling responsibilities in stride. Babich will have the added duty of coaching the linebackers this season.
"Bob is a team player," Smith said. "We didn't meet our expectations this past year, and in the offseason you look to make improvements the best you can, and Bob is excited about that. He's excited about having a more hands-on approach with Brian (Urlacher) and Lance (Briggs) and Nick (Roach) and Jamar (Williams), along with other duties. Just because I'm going to be more involved doesn't mean that Bob isn't our defensive coordinator. There will be a lot of things that he'll be helping me do."
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