Commentary

Not as bad as you think, Bears fans

Optimism in rare supply in Chicago after an alarming preseason, but have a little faith

Updated: September 6, 2010, 11:35 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- It's hard to be optimistic in this city, especially if you live here. Especially if you're a sports fan.

Sure, it's a great place to visit, because the Cubs play in Wrigley Field, the caramel popcorn is always warm and the lake is always blue and inviting.

Don't get me wrong, I love Chicago and I wouldn't leave it for all the Primantis in Pittsburgh. But for those of us who deal with high taxes, pock-marked roads, government malfeasance and 102 years of infamy for that local baseball club, pessimism abounds. You take the good with the Cubs, and you deal with it.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Damen Jackson/Icon SMIThe Bears have a franchise quarterback in Jay Cutler, but can they protect him this season?

That should be the motto for the Chicago Bears, the flagship franchise for a city that works and lives for the weekends: We're the Bears. Deal with it.

It's Bears Week, with the opener against Detroit a few X's on the calendar away. The Bears, just four, long years removed from a Super Bowl appearance, are less a fantasy team and more a cold, hard reality team.

With fantasy, gambling, civic pride and the symbolism of fall spurring us on, the return of football season is practically a national holiday. But does anyone feel like celebrating?

Is anyone optimistic for this season besides defensive linemen in Green Bay and Minnesota?

We should be, on paper at least. The Bears have a franchise-type quarterback, a franchise-type defensive end, coaches that are experts in an offense and a defense that have helped define the past decade of professional football.

Sure the roster is a little odd-fitting, with scant real playmakers on either side of the ball, but few teams are perfect, and it's still a team that should inspire confidence for a playoff berth. The team added some exciting new players and a host of new coaches.

In the wake of seemingly positive changes -- seriously, Julius Peppers is a freak -- we embark on the run-up to the Bears' opener this Sunday, and I ask: How high are your expectations for the team that wears George Stanley Halas' initials on, if not their hearts, at least their sleeves?

If you dare to deem 10 wins on the team, you will be laughed at, treated as a clueless Grabowski homer. It's not just the 0-4 preseason, though the play of the starters in those games doesn't inspire confidence.

Before the fake games began, nine wins was an appropriate high-water mark, a slight upgrade from last season's 7-9 team.

Now, embittered by a lackluster, four-game run-up, the Bears' fanbase, which basically encompasses every sports fan from Antioch to Merrillville, Ind., is only indecisive on the breadth of misery that awaits them this fall. Seven wins? Five? Three? With every day, predictions resemble a countdown. It's amazing even to me, a perennial crank.

Jay Cutler may be the face of the franchise, unhappy, staring into a better future, but Lovie Smith is the focus of the fans' ire.

Just four years after jogging onto the field in Miami, a picture of grace and serenity, Smith very well might be the most unpopular sports figure in the city. And that's saying something, considering Jim Hendry is still employed by the Cubs.

Jerry Angelo isn't far behind his coach. Simply put his name has turned into a radio show punch line, the pigskin Hendry, with every bad decision magnified as proof positive of his incompetence.

[+] EnlargeLovie Smith
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhLike many Bears coaches before, Lovie Smith's on the hot seat entering his seventh season in Chicago.

Just this weekend, his top two picks in the 2009 draft, third-rounders Jarron Gilbert and Juaquin Iglesias, were unceremoniously cut after making zero impact last season. Sixth-round pick Al Afalava, who started 13 games at safety for a god-awful defense, was also a victim of the dreaded numbers game.

When you don't give players more than a rookie season to impress, it says something. Then again, I guess that's why Angelo overhauled his scouting department this offseason. Someone had to take the blame.

The Super Bowl season lives on as a reminder that the past is the past and greatness has passed on for this organization, desperate for a total makeover.

A Super Bowl hangover is as common as a $7 beer in the NFL, and the Bears didn't disappoint, extending the malaise an extra two years.

Things change quickly in a copycat league. Defensively, the "Tampa 2" still works -- it's basic football -- but offenses have adapted.

Receivers are beating early jams at the line and quarterbacks are making that middle-deep throw at the sideline. Film is everywhere. When Brian Urlacher got injured in the first game of the 2009 season, the defense, which doesn't run Cover 2 every play as some fans assume, was downgraded from Mercedes truck to Honda coupe. It still got around, but no one was impressed.

Urlacher's injured wrist is no longer a problem, but he missed most of the preseason with a seemingly harmless calf strain. For the Bears' defense to work, Mark Anderson and Tommie Harris have to team up with Peppers to provide the pressure necessary, while corners Zack Bowman and Charles "Peanut" Tillman have to make up for deficiencies at safety.

Offensively, after a faithless season under Ron Turner, it seems like Cutler, having endured a rocky first season here, has met his coaching match in Mike Martz. Both are smart, dedicated and determined to outsmart the opposition. Martz has espoused such worship for Cutler, people are throwing around the tired "bromance" juxtaposition.

"He's brilliant," Martz said during one backseat-at-the-drive-in smooch session. "Not smart, he's brilliant."

In theory, this pairing should work out brilliantly. Cutler is smart enough to handle Martz's playbook, with an arm capable of making every throw, and Martz has a willing pupil for chalk talk.

The difficulty lies in the offensive line's ability to block and the receiving corps' ability to digest and execute the Air Coryell offense. Neither unit is certain to perform well enough to make this offense better than average.

Martz's multifaceted, pass-heavy offense requires Cutler to throw out of a seven-step drop most of the time, something Cutler admitted early in training camp to be a big change. It showed during his preseason work, when he was sacked 10 times, most due to the line.

In Tim Layden's illuminating new book on football, "Blood, Sweat and Chalk," famed offensive line coach Joe Bugel said it's like "blitzkrieg" for offensive lines.

"If you're going to have your quarterback throw out of seven-step drop, you better have about 12 offensive linemen," he's quoted as saying.

That's an ominous quote for Chicago, considering the Bears' tackles are Chris Williams and Frank Omiyale. Unless the Bears can somehow morph into Bugel's Hogs from his Redskins days, Bears coach Mike Tice is going to need those behind-the-ear pencils to sketch out max-protection schemes.

I could go on and on about the Bears' weaknesses in other areas. The secondary looks soft and ineffectual. The deep middle of the field is an inviting pasture for deep slants while the early lanes are wide open for quick ones. The special-teams play is an embarrassment to coach Dave Toub. On and on, we could go.

And I'm being generous.

Fans, from what I can tell, are less optimistic. They are ready for an uprising. Bill Cowher could lead a coup of Coogi sweater-wearing, mustache-grooming clones to Halas Hall, if he chose.

Fans aren't owed 10 wins and a playoff berth. It doesn't come with those three-figure ticket prices and your cable bill.

But a return to optimism would be nice, wouldn't it?

Call me crazy, I think this team can win nine games and challenge for a playoff berth. But I won't lose a bet if they win six.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. You can follow him at twitter.com/espnchijon.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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