Behind Enemy Lines: Bears outlook

How much will the Jay Cutler trade impact the Bears? Will their offensive line be improved? Does the defense have anything left? Chicago has plenty of questions and Bear Report's John Crist provides his insight on how it should all come together in 2009.

Tim Yotter: NFL fans know the quarterbacking talent that Jay Cutler has, but I don't think he helped his image with the way he handled the last few months in Denver. Have there been any concerns about his presence in the locker room in Chicago, and will he start demanding a new contract?

John Crist: Cutler did give the impression that he was somewhat of a petulant crybaby before the blockbuster deal to Chicago came to fruition, as he was apparently under the impression that he was already in the untouchable category – like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. But there's no question Cutler is incredibly happy to be in Chicago, as he's already dropped the ceremonial puck at a Blackhawks game, thrown out the first pitch at Wrigley Field, and done his share of barhopping in the trendy River North neighborhood. Even though Kyle Orton was an offensive captain and a respected leader in the locker room, it's no secret that there was rejoicing around Halas Hall once the Cutler acquisition was announced.

Fortunately for the Bears, Cutler still has two years left on his rookie contract, although I'd expect general manager Jerry Angelo to lock him up for the long term before too long since he's got plenty of room under the salary cap right now – but the clock's not ticking or anything.

TY: My opinion is that the Bears helped themselves immediately but mortgaged their future a bit with the ransom they paid for Cutler. What is your long-term outlook on the trade and whether or not the Bears would have been served just as well continuing to develop Kyle Orton and address some of their other needs in the draft?

JC: There is no question the Bears surrendered an awful lot to get Cutler, giving up a pair of first-rounders in addition to Orton, especially when another high-upside passer like Matt Cassel just went from New England to Kansas City for nothing more than a second-rounder. Fans of the team have been accepting of the terms so far and didn't mind not having a pick in Round 1 last month, and cynics would say that simply saved them from another Rex Grossman or Cedric Benson disaster. However, if Cutler throws for 4,000 yards but doesn't get this team to the playoffs in 2009, it will be really interesting to see how fans feel next April when they again have to wait so long to be on the clock.

While I think Orton was an adequate starter and still has his best football in front of him, he's not going to be a Pro Bowler one day – and Super Bowls are usually won with Pro Bowlers under center.

TY: The Bears lost John St. Clair and John Tait on the offensive line and added Frank Omiyale, Orlando Pace and Kevin Shaffer. How do you see it all playing out (is that a big upgrade or just patchwork)?

JC: St. Clair was little more than adequate at left tackle and John Tait wasn't nearly the player he used to be at right tackle this past season, so neither is considered a big loss at this point. A lot of experts feel Pace still has plenty left in the tank and wasn't too bad in 2008 on a terrible Rams team, and he came to Chicago partially because he wanted to stay at left tackle. Last year's first-round pick, Chris Williams, makes way for the future Hall of Famer by moving to right tackle, while Omiyale and Shaffer will challenge for starting jobs at guard and tackle, respectively.

The starting lineup should improve if Pace continues to be an above-average option and Williams lives up to his draft status, plus the depth is better with Terrence Metcalf and Fred Miller finally shown the door – but this definitely smells like patchwork to me.

TY: I think the Bears defense was just as responsible for them not making the playoffs as the offense, especially the pass defense. What happened there to rank 30th in the league?

JC: Lovie Smith's D has lived off of reputation for quite some time now, as this unit has ranked 28th and 21st in total defense the last two seasons. Tommie Harris is 26 years old but playing on 36-year-old knees up front, Brian Urlacher is no longer a Pro Bowler in the middle, and Mike Brown isn't around anymore to be an extension of the coaching staff along the last line of defense. While injuries and ineffectiveness have wreaked havoc on the secondary, as Charles Tillman played most of last year with two bad shoulders and Nathan Vasher missing 20 of 32 games since 2007, an insufficient pass rush has been the most glaring problem.

If new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli can't squeeze more out of Harris and Co. in the trenches, the DBs will once again be forced to cover enemy receivers four and five seconds at a time.

TY: I will pose the same question you did to me, only with a Bears slant: What needs to happen for the Bears to win the NFC North and advance in the playoffs? Conversely, is there a chance that besides Matt Forte and Cutler, the rest of this team is simply on the decline and could finish under .500?

JC: If Cutler is as good as advertised and can turn Devin Hester and Earl Bennett into Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, then the passing game will have life and the running game won't face as many eight-man fronts. The Monsters of the Midway have enough big names left on defense to be dominant, and one of the better stories of the year will be how well they do now that head coach Lovie Smith will be calling the signals instead of defensive coordinator Bob Babich. And even if Hester is no longer a touchdown waiting to happen in the return game, all phases of the special teams should be among the best in football once again.

But if you're looking for a reason for the Bears to be no better than the 9-7 club they were a year ago, choose from the following: not enough weapons for Cutler, sophomore slump for Forte, offensive tackles with injury concerns, lack of a pure pass rusher, and question marks at safety.

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John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report. Tim Yotter is the Publisher of Viking Update.

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