Thanks to last season's Seahawks, the Chicago Bears don't have to listen to so many tales of woe in store for Super Bowl losers. Because they play in the relatively weak NFC North, the Bears will have a hard time failing to make the playoffs — though they might have a hard time matching last year's 13-3 record.
Several issues face coach Lovie Smith in his effort to keep improving for his fourth straight season. On the top of the list is quarterback Rex Grossman, who did nothing in the Super Bowl loss to Indianapolis to quiet the skeptics. Until he irons out the inconsistencies, Grossman will have serious doubters.
It will be a surprise if Grossman is allowed to slide through training camp and the preseason the way he did last year, when Smith stayed steadfastly behind him despite cries from fans to give veteran Brian Griese a chance. A 13-3 season should have justified Smith's confidence, but Grossman's most impressive feat was to start all 16 games for the first time in his four-year career.
The Bears are taking a chance on running back Cedric Benson after trading Thomas Jones and his back-to-back 1,300-yard seasons to the Jets. Backup Adrian Peterson will help, but Benson is expected to be a workhorse back like he was in college. Third-round draft pick Garrett Wolfe also will give the offense a third-down running back they have lacked.
The biggest change on offense, however, could be the presence of return phenom Devin Hester in his new receiver position. He looked spectacular during mini-camps, showing great hands and expert route-running. If he can pose a comparable scare factor to defenses that he posed to special teams as a rookie, Hester will make this a dangerous team. Hester could take playing time away from Bernard Berrian, Rashied Davis and Mark Bradley opposite Muhsin Muhammad.
The Bears' top draft choice, tight end Greg Olsen, also is expected to give Grossman a speedy extra target. The Bears did not ignore the tight end last season when Desmond Clark caught 45 passes and tied for the team lead in touchdowns with six. With Olsen, they expect to exploit the position.
Will linebacker Lance Briggs show up? Franchised to the tune of $7.2 million for the season, Briggs has vowed to sit out at least until the 10th game, so the Bears made Michael Okwo a third-round pick, same round that netted Briggs. They also expect last year's fourth-rounder, Jamar Williams, to emerge from injured reserve as a candidate to start if Briggs sits. They do not feel limited at linebacker as long as Brian Urlacher is patrolling the middle.
After releasing defensive tackle Tank Johnson, the Bears also are relying on Tommie Harris to regain full health after missing the Super Bowl with a quadriceps injury. Defensive tackle is the most important position in Smith's system, so second-year man Dusty Dvoracek must come off injured reserve ready to play, and Anthony Adams, picked up from San Francisco, will have to help Antonio Garay and Israel Idonije in a backup role.
Smith wanted to sign safety Adam Archuleta last season before losing out to Washington, so landing his former St. Louis student will bolster the secondary. Mike Brown, who has been injured for much of the last three years, also appeared healthy in the spring, which would be a bonus.
It was inevitable that Benson was going to replace Jones as soon as the Bears made him the fourth overall pick in 2005. But he was the last top rookie to sign and never was able to make a serious run at Jones' job. Still, Jones saw the handwriting on the wall and elicited a promise that he would be allowed to leave after the Super Bowl. While all eyes will be on Grossman, at least as much will depend on Benson because the Bears like to think of themselves as a defense and run-first team.
The Bears fielded the league's best special teams last year and Hester wasn't the only reason. Kicker Robbie Gould and coverage specialist Brendon Ayanbadejo joined Hester at the Pro Bowl and punter Brad Maynard ranked among the league's best. The Bears expect teams to kick away from Hester as much as possible, so second-year safety Danieal Manning will join him as a tandem on kickoffs. Manning returned only one kick last year but averaged nearly 30 yards a return with three touchdowns at Abilene Christian.
Very good. Despite the questions, the Bears remain one of the league's most solid teams on offense, defense and special teams. They remain the solid favorite in the NFC North and their schedule isn't much harder than last year's, when it was the easiest in the league based on won-loss records.
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