Nate Caminata: It seems there has been a drop-off in the traditionally "vaunted" Bears defense. With Pisa Tinoisamoa joining Brian Urlacher and Julius Peppers lining up at defensive end, is the bite back in Chicago? Which addition to that defense will be felt the most in the division?
John Crist: Most of the talk in the Windy City during the offseason has been on the offensive side of the ball, but I'm not buying this defense right now considering how average it has been for the better part of three seasons. Yes, Peppers is an obvious upgrade over either Alex Brown or Adewale Ogunleye, and he looked every bit as good as advertised throughout minicamp and OTAs. The trio of Urlacher, Tinoisamoa and Lance Briggs never got off the ground this last year, with both Urlacher and Tinoisamoa getting hurt in the opener, and even though Tinoisamoa is back, he still has to beat out Nick Roach for a starting job.
Both safety positions remain questionable despite a lot of turnover, but if Peppers finally makes the Chicago front four formidable again from a pass-rush perspective, perhaps the safeties won't be exposed as much in coverage.
NC: Jay Cutler almost threw as many interceptions (26) as he did touchdowns (27) in 2009. How did the bipolar production affect his reputation in Chicago as compared to the more pedestrian style of Kyle Orton? Can he endear himself to the team and city after a somewhat tumultuous first season?
JC: There are still some Orton supporters here and there, just as there were still some Rex Grossman supporters, believe it or not, after he was shown the door. Because the Bears got rid of unpopular offensive coordinator Ron Turner, the prevailing sentiment in Chicago is that Cutler has nowhere to go but up in 2010 and should put together a much more impressive TD-to-INT ratio. He's never going to be Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, who does an amazing job of protecting possession despite all that production in the passing game, but I wouldn't look for Cutler to lead the league in INTs a second time and his TDs should be in the 25-30 range again.
While Cutler will never truly "endear" himself to any community because he has an abrasive personality and is anything but media-friendly, so long as he wins games, most Bears fans won't care about that touchy-feely stuff.
NC: Cutler will now be under the direction of well-traveled – and former Lions – offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Martz's reputation is in a state of flux after not having the best results in his last two posts. Can he resurrect it with Chicago? How are Cutler and the offense responding? Also, how is the chemistry between Rod Marinelli and his former assistant?
JC: All indications suggest Martz and Cutler are getting along just fine, despite the fact that people seem to think a rift between them is inevitable because of their alpha-dog personas. While Orton never particularly cared about putting up big stats or getting individual accolades, Cutler likes to have the weight of the world on his shoulders and constantly wants to show everyone how good he is. Martz places a tremendous amount of pressure on the quarterback position and puts him in charge of everything on the field, and while there have been some hiccups in terms of where the skill-position players need to line up, Cutler seems to be adjusting to the new system as well as can be expected.
Everyone in Chicago is still talking about Martz's accomplishments in St. Louis, not his perceived failures in Detroit and San Francisco, which more than likely has something to do with Cutler being light years more talented physically than the likes of Jon Kitna and J.T. O'Sullivan. And the Martz-Marinelli reunion has been a non-issue, as now they work on opposite sides of the ball and don't even need to have a conversation anymore.
NC: Lovie Smith has only two playoff appearances in his six full seasons as Chicago's head coach, and he hasn't cracked the postseason in the last three. If the Bears don't make the playoffs in 2010, is Smith's job in jeopardy?
JC: When an organization feels the need to announce at a season-ending press conference that its head coach will indeed return the following year, yes, that's an indication he's on thin ice. At the end of the day, Smith is very popular with his players, the front office and the McCaskey family, which is why the heat hasn't been turned up too much as far as his job security is concerned. The Bears were 5-9 at one point in 2009 and had just come off a 31-7 embarrassment at the hands of Baltimore, leading to speculation that Smith could be in trouble, but he ended the campaign with wins over Minnesota and Detroit – he got his vote of confidence shortly thereafter.
But make no mistake about it, after the money committed to free agents like Peppers, Chester Taylor and Brandon Manumaleuna, coupled with the drama of the Cutler trade still fresh in everyone's mind, if the Bears don't make the playoffs in 2010, Smith, Martz and Marinelli will all be out on the street.
NC: Chicago didn't have a first- or a second-round pick due to trades involving Cutler and the late Gaines Adams. Do you feel that affects the long-term future of the ballclub? What can we expect to see out of the Bears' 2010 rookie class?
JC: General manager Jerry Angelo said before the draft this past April that he is out of the business of borrowing from tomorrow to help pay for today, meaning he's no longer interested in trading away high draft picks for established players. In his heart, Angelo is more of a build-from-within kind of guy, but he could no longer ignore the revolving door at the game's most important position and pushed all his chips to the middle of the table once he heard Cutler was available. The Adams trade made sense on the surface, as he was a top-five draft pick and considered a perfect Cover-2 pass rusher just two years before, and there was no way a player of his raw skill would be available in Round 2 – his tragic death Jan. 17 makes it all the more uncomfortable to discuss the merits of that deal.
As for Chicago's rookie class, none of the five draft picks stood out much during OTAs, but Bears fans are hoping third rounder Major Wright develops into a starter sooner than later since safety has been a black hole for quite some time.
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