The agony of anticipation
The Bears' preseason opener will give fans plenty of ammo to jump to conclusions
SAN DIEGO -- It doesn't take much to throw us Chicago Bears' fans and odd observers (no pun intended) into a frenzy.
Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark snag a few nice grabs in training camp and we're ready to forget the fact that offensive coordinator Mike Martz has barely memorized his tight ends' names on his past teams.
Jay Cutler heaves a pass in frustration toward the hospitality tent and we assume the Bears' offensive line won't have to wait for the season to begin. They may get their quarterback killed in non-contact drills.
We recall that a year ago at this time, Cutler's No. 6 jersey was the No. 1 seller in the NFL and that he completed 5-of-10 passes for 64 yards, one interception and a quarterback rating of 30.8 in his Bears' debut.
We also remember that we were told not to read anything into that 27-20 loss to the Buffalo Bills in the preseason opener.
But we could have.
Saturday night in San Diego, Cutler will, in a sense, debut once again, this time sharing the stage and unrealistic expectations with Martz and the entire Bears' offense.
And this time, while Cutler has just as many reasons to suffer through growing pains, no one can tell us not to read too much into it.
If Cutler zings passes behind, over and through his seemingly surprised receivers as he did a year ago; if the offensive line gets Cutler flattened; if Matt Forte doesn't look like the old Matt Forte and Chester Taylor like a new Bears weapon against whatever the San Diego Chargers throw out there on defense, there will be angst aplenty.
Bears coach Lovie Smith said some starters may play as long as the entire first half, giving us all the more ammo to jump to conclusions, though Cutler hopes his teammates don't join in.
"We want to get off to a good start," he said, "but last year we got into a trap of putting too much pressure on us the first couple of games. Guys were trying to do too much. This offense, if you just go out there and do your job and do it fast, you will be fine."
He makes it sound easy. But Bears receivers coach Darryl Drake has probably spent as much time teaching his young receivers this summer as counseling them, his masters degree in business psychology being stretched to its limit.
"We're in a negative society," Drake said. "Some people want the Bears to be good, some people don't. One thing I told them to do, good or bad, is that when it's good, you have a tendency to be praised too much and when it's bad, you have a tendency to be criticized too much. You have to find a happy medium.
"They're resilient and my job is to make sure when they get down, pick them back up and that's where the psychology degree comes into play."
But that's not often enough in a league in which cocky receivers are often the most successful, and a city where a revival of Martz' Greatest Show on Turf is almost demanded.
"You better be [cocky]," Drake allowed. "If you don't, you can't play this game. You've got to have a swagger. You've got to come out on the field with your chest stuck out and know that when I go against that guy, he's going to have a long day, not me. And that's the mindset that I'm trying to get them to see."
It wouldn't be a bad idea if the Bears' linemen develop a bit of that as well, but that may be asking too much as they take the field Saturday with three players moved to new spots -- Frank Omiyale to the unfamiliar right tackle, Roberto Garza shifting over to left guard from right and unproven Lance Louis, a seventh-round draft pick in 2009, filling in on the right.
Omiyale, whom Martz said this week is "not where he needs to be," must rise to the challenge after struggling at the seemingly less challenging guard spot last season.
Not surprisingly, new offensive line coach Mike Tice, like Drake, doesn't sound worried about the unit as a whole.
"The biggest thing when people have said the O-line hasn't played well is probably the lack of consistency," Tice said. "There were a lot of guys in a lot of different spots last year and I thought in evaluating the whole season that they got better as the season went on and maybe took a little more heat than they should've, but that's Chicago."
That's also a matter of 35 sacks on Cutler in '09, a career-high for him and a middling 14th in the league that could very well be challenged as he goes to a seven-step drop in the pass-heavy scheme.
Tice has worked hard on technique, raising his linemen's hands and improving their footwork. And he has become fiercely protective of his new charges. When the example of Cutler angrily flinging the ball away early in camp came up, Tice responded, "Who's to say that was the O-line's fault and not the running backs or the tight ends?
"I'm not saying it was, but sometimes we as fans or media people look at something and say 'Oh, the offensive line,' and it might have been the tight end. I think they're doing more good things than bad things."
Not a bad goal for the entire team Saturday night.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.