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 season-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 7 1/2 games. In Game Eight, 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 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, 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 Nate Vasher, DT Tommie Harris and MLB Brian Urlacher, among others, Smith jettisoned linebackers coach Lloyd Lee, defensive line coach Brick Haley and defensive backs coach Steve 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.
Rod Marinelli was old-school. He didn't use computers. He believed character trumped talent. He believed in a system and tried to teach his players to execute it perfectly snap to snap. He failed miserably, going 10-38 overall and suffering the NFL's first 0-16 season.
Jim Schwartz, Marinelli's replacement, is new-school. He is known for using statistical analysis in his preparation. He talks about being multidimensional, molding his scheme to his players' strengths. Lions fans can only hope he has what it takes to rebuild the franchise.
"There's no better feeling in football than turning a situation around," Schwartz said. "That's what drives me here."
Schwartz spent the past eight years as Tennessee's defensive coordinator and built one of the NFL's top defenses. After they lost in the playoffs and before he left for Detroit, he left his players a note.
"The note I left the players was, ‘One day we're going to hold the Lombardi Trophy, and it will be that much sweeter because of this loss and the perspective that this loss gives us,'" Schwartz said. "And I think the same thing applies here.
"Our success will be so much sweeter here because of 0-16 and because of the past."
Schwartz talked about taking "baby steps" toward a turnaround and made an interesting analogy.
"It's a little bit like me at the end of the season," Schwartz said. "I don't exercise at the end of the season, and I eat poorly, and I stay up late, and I gain about 20 pounds.
"What I do when the season's over is, I get on the treadmill and I spend about 15 minutes, and I'm so exhausted, I wipe myself off and maybe eat a little bit less that day."
Then he does it the next day. And the next day. And the next day.
"At the end of maybe six months, I'll have lost that 20 pounds," Schwartz said. "If I tried to lose it all at one time — to lose it all in a week with some fad diet — I'll gain it right back.
"And I think when you talk about changing culture, when you talk about improving the team, my mantra is going to be, it's going to have to be a daily thing. It's going to have to be, let's get better today. Let's not worry about what's going to happen a month from now."
The Lions already have been the biggest losers, though. Can Schwartz turn them into winners?
Schwartz, 42, has an economics degree from Georgetown, where he was an All-America linebacker.
He broke into the NFL as a scout with Cleveland in 1993-95, working with executive Scott Pioli and coach Bill Belichick. After three years as a defensive assistant in Baltimore, he climbed the ladder under coach Jeff Fisher in Tennessee - from defensive assistant in 1999, to linebackers coach in 2000, to defensive coordinator in 2001.
"He's been in a winning organization," Lions left guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "I think that's huge. Being under Jeff Fisher and being groomed in that aspect and then finally obviously getting a shot here in Detroit, to me, that's definitely something positive and something that the town and the community can be excited about."
The Lions had one of the worst defenses in history in 2008. They allowed 517 points, second-most all-time, and had four interceptions, a record-low for a 16-game season.
The Titans ranked second in scoring defense in 2008, allowing 14.6 points per game. The Lions got a good look at Schwartz's defense on Thanksgiving Day. The Titans forced the Lions to fumble in the first minute and went on to blow them out, 47-10.
"Definitely going from how that defense was playing, he's got to know what he's doing," Lions right guard Stephen Peterman said. "For sure, I think that's a good hire. It's sad to see Rod leave and see what happened, but sometimes change is good."
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Mike McCarthy signaled how he was determined to try to turn the Packers' listless defense upside down when he fired the majority of his defensive assistants, including coordinator Bob Sanders, after the season.
The intended 180-degree transformation took further shape last week. The identity of Green Bay's defense with 4-3 base principles for nearly the last two decades was flipped to the NFL's in-vogue 3-4 scheme with the hiring of Dom Capers as coordinator Monday.
"Our starting point will be the 3-4. I'm a big believer in (it)," McCarthy asserted. "It's an opportunity. It's an excellent run defense, creates pass rush on the quarterback. I know from an offensive standpoint, when you look at it, when you play the 3-4, it creates targeting problems just from your initial game-plan meeting, and it really cuts the menu of the offense probably in half of what you would normally do on a four-man front.
"From a personnel standpoint, I'm in favor of the 3-4 because it's the body type that I think will enhance the type of football we want to play here in Green Bay, particularly in November and December."
Although Capers reportedly wasn't McCarthy's first choice to lead the defense - Mike Nolan, Gregg Williams and Jim Haslett interviewed and all may have been offered the job before Capers met with McCarthy late last week — the head coach called his new hire "an excellent fit" for the radical shift in defensive philosophy that is afoot.
Capers is a 3-4 guru and was at the controls of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense in the early 1990s when it gained the nickname "Blitzburgh."
"I think that over the years all defensive players like to play aggressively," Capers said. "I think if you can play aggressively and stop the run, that's the best of both worlds."
The Packers had far too little of both last season as they slumped to a record of 6-10 a year after going 13-3 and reaching the NFC Championship Game. They sacked opposing quarterbacks only 27 times and ranked 26th in the league against the run, allowing an average of 131.6 yards per game.
Neither McCarthy nor Capers is expecting the conversion to the 3-4 to occur in short order. Capers is spending his first few weeks on the job studying film of the players he inherited and will be looking to make the right fits with changes that will occur throughout the entire defense.
"It's an impressive system that utilizes the talents of its players," McCarthy said. "It's about utilizing your players, and this is a system that we will institute."
Capers, who was head coach for the expansion teams of the Carolina Panthers from 1995-98 and the Houston Texans from 2001-05, had a similar undertaking when he was defensive coordinator for Jacksonville in 1999 and 2000 and moved the Jaguars from a 4-3 to a 3-4.
Then-Jaguars defensive end-turned-linebacker Tony Brackens is the successful model that Capers will be looking to replicate in moving Packers defensive end Aaron Kampman to the hybrid spot.
Kampman, Green Bay's best pass-rushing lineman, is viewed as undersized at 6-feet-4, 265 pounds to remain exclusively at end in the 3-4. So, how he makes the anticipated adjustment to outside linebacker will be widely scrutinized in the offseason workouts, when the implementation of the new system takes place.
Depending on what the Packers accomplish in free agency and the draft, the projected starting down linemen would be Cullen Jenkins and Johnny Jolly flanking Ryan Pickett, who McCarthy says is "a pure nose tackle."
Green Bay would be able to utilize a combination of Kampman, Brady Poppinga and Brandon Chillar at outside linebacker, with Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk in the middle.
McCarthy said aspects of the 4-3 would be integrated into the new defensive game plan.
"How gradual you evolve into the 3-4 always depends on your personnel," said Capers, who also was defensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins in 2007 and was a special assistant for the New England Patriots last season.
"I think you make a tremendous mistake if you come in and say you have a cookie-cutter 3-4 defense and this is what we're going to be and try to fit your personnel to that," he added. "I think you fit your defense and have enough flexibility in your defense to fit it to the personnel you have, and you evolve from there."
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