The Bears head to training camp July 24 and for the fifth consecutive summer the focus will be on how much better the offense can be with a quarterback who is supposed to guide the Bears to the top.
The team has made only one playoff appearance in Jay Cutler's four seasons, reaching the NFC championship game after the 2010 season. The Bears failed to make the postseason in the next two years and general manager Phil Emery used that as his primary reason for firing Lovie Smith as head coach.
The hiring of Marc Trestman pairs Cutler with a respected quarterback mentor and offensive mind, meaning the quarterback will work directly with the head coach for the entire week, from the formation of game plans all the way to play-calling on Sundays. That is significant considering the friction Cutler had with previous coordinators Ron Turner, Mike Martz and Mike Tice.
The hope is the defense can maintain the lofty status it usually enjoyed under Smith despite coaching turnover and the departure of face-of-the-franchise linebacker Brian Urlacher, who passed on a take-it-or-leave-it offer and eventually decided to retire.
Now with one of the oldest rosters in the league — it will be interesting to see where the Bears rank after Labor Day weekend when final cuts have been made — Trestman is charged with reloading, not rebuilding. That's a tall task considering the team is coming off a rare 10-6 season that did not result in a playoff appearance.
Those goals and Trestman's arrival create a long list of storylines to begin tracking with the start of camp, the team's 12th at Olivet Nazarene in Bourbonnais. Here are 10:
- How much better can the offense be?
The easy answer is substantially better. The Bears rarely were a consistent threat on offense in the Smith era. They ranked 16th in points with an average of 23.4 points per game last season, but the scoring figure was with the aid of nine defensive touchdowns (second-most in NFL history) and one on special teams. In Cutler's four seasons, the Bears have averaged 21.7 points and 306.1 yards. In the four seasons before his arrival, they averaged 21.8 and 292.6.
So there is plenty of room for growth at a critical time for the 30-year-old Cutler, who is entering the final year of his contract. No longer is he considered a young gun, but in the prime of his career the hope is he is set to take off under Trestman's tutelage. With a Pro Bowl wide receiver in Brandon Marshall, a former Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte and now a decorated left tackle in Jermon Bushrod, key pieces are in place. Emery also committed $20.4 million ($9.215 million guaranteed) to tight end Martellus Bennett.
The firepower is in place, but this is a storyline we've written and read before. The Bears scored 34 or more points in four of their first eight games last season. Then, the schedule became more difficult and the team produced more than two touchdowns in only three of the final eight games, collapsing in a late-season fade.
Cutler said in June that it takes three years to master a new offense. Maybe the point he was making most is there will be growing pains.
- Can the defense maintain its high level of play?
The Bears hoped to retain coordinator Rod Marinelli from Smith's staff, but he moved on to Dallas, where he will coach the Cowboys defensive line. The Bears brought in Mel Tucker from the Jaguars to replace Marinelli and kept two position coaches — Mike Phair on the line and Jon Hoke in the secondary.
Maintaining an elite level of play will be a challenge. The Bears ranked third in points allowed last season at 17.3 per game (the fourth time in nine seasons under Smith they were in the top four) and were fifth in total defense with 315.6 yards per game. Under Smith, the Bears were in the bottom half of the league in points allowed only once (21st in 2009, when he fired the majority of the offensive staff after the season) and were No. 1 in 2005 and No. 3 in 2006. That was when the defense was filled with elite players in the prime of their careers.
Also consider since 2004 the Bears have been No. 1 in takeaways, three-and-outs forced, third-down percentage and opponent red-zone scoring efficiency. The defense was No. 2 in opponents' yards passing per attempt and red-zone takeaways and third in opposing passer rating.
It's going to be difficult for the Bears to excel in similar fashion with an aging defensive core led by end Julius Peppers, linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman. It's not a knock on Tucker and other new coaches. It's reality. Smith was a defensive-minded head coach. Trestman will make offensive decisions from time to time that aren't going to put the defense in the best position. Maybe the Bears can squeeze two more solid seasons out of the unit before a vast overhaul. That's going to be paramount for the team to compete in the NFC North.
- Will the offensive line come together?
Maybe the most impressive thing about Aaron Kromer's resume was his knack for working with mid-round draft picks that turned into Pro Bowlers for the Saints. How much of that was a product of quarterback Drew Brees and the rest of the New Orleans offense? We'll find out.
The Bears will have two or three new starters on the line, with Bushrod at left tackle and Roberto Garza at center the only two spots solidified right now. Heading into camp it looks like Matt Slauson will be at left guard and J'Marcus Webb at right tackle. The hope is first-round draft pick Kyle Long will win the right guard job, though James Brown was there with the first team for nearly the entire offseason program.