Red-faced, his hair a sticky, wet mess, quarterback David Fales strolled off the field fresh off his first experience with a Marc Trestman football practice during a recent three-day rookie minicamp, describing it as “chaos, bring the rage, intense.”
In 2014, Year 2 of operating Trestman’s offense after a breakout 2013 campaign, that’s exactly what the Chicago Bears hope to deliver to opposing defenses. The plan to do that involves a mixture of comfort in Year 2 of the scheme and a focus in the playbook on what the players did well in 2013, while also finding ways to expand the system based on the latter.
So far, the process looks promising, according to coaches and players.
“I don’t want to say there’s a comfort level, but there’s not a complacent level with how we’re handling things,” Trestman said. “Our guys have worked extremely hard. They have a tremendous grasp of the offense. With that in mind, we started with 'this is a football,' and we worked our way into each and every phase in a normal progression. But there certainly is a sense of confidence, a sense that we’ve got a chance to be a very good offense; particularly because those are guys that have been together. But they’re not taking anything for granted.”
That becomes quite apparent if you’ve tracked any of the moves made this offseason by the club’s veteran offensive players on social media. There you’ll find group selfies such as the one left tackle Jermon Bushrod posted in March that included right tackle Jordan Mills, receivers Brandon Marshall and Marquess Wilson, tight end Fendi Onobun, center Roberto Garza, guard Kyle Long and quarterback Jay Cutler. So it’s apparent they’re spending copious amounts of time together training, running through repetitions on offense, and building chemistry through off-the-field fellowship, as a good portion of the club’s offensive players traveled to Florida to train at FitSpeed Athletic Performance, which is co-owned by Marshall.
In their first season operating Trestman’s scheme, the offense set multiple single-season franchise records. The unit racked up a franchise-best 6,109 net yards and the passing offense set single-season marks in net passing yards (4,281), completion percentage (64.4), passing touchdowns (32) and passer rating (96.9). The Bears also set franchise records with 344 first downs and scored the second-most points (445) in franchise history.
Yet nobody -- especially the players -- is basking in the accomplishments from last year because let’s not forget the Bears finished out of the playoffs with an 8-8 record last season. Cutler has won only one playoff game in eight NFL seasons, and he recently turned 31. Marshall, meanwhile, despite making the Pro Bowl five times in eight seasons, still hasn't played in a postseason contest.
So despite the breakout performance on offense last season, there's still a feverish sense of urgency for the group in 2014 to reach its full potential. Ask any of the skill-position players about 2013, and there's a good chance you get the standard we-left-a-lot-on-the–field line.
“You know, it was a long journey last year from this first day when we started, just to get the cadence,” offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said. “It was like rookie camp with veterans, and it’s always hard when you have a new staff because you’re working so hard on just the plays, how we call things, what we should be looking at, the technique we want different from other teams, that you don’t get the nuance of the play. You have to get yourself past the whole, ‘This is who I block, this is what route I run, this is who I throw it to.’
"So it’s been refreshing being with Jay Cutler, the offensive line and the running backs. And when you install a play from last year, they look at you like, ‘I remember.’ I’m making a big point, and we as a staff are making a big point of, ‘listen closely to what we’re coaching because you probably missed a couple of things last year.’ So we’re doing everything we can to have them pay attention to the little things.
“What are the little things? The little things are things they didn’t get before.”
When the Bears hired Trestman in January 2013, the staff didn’t even know what type of offense it would run. The coaches had an idea of how the players might fit, but not how they’d actually operate within the system the staff was installing.
That’s why as the year progressed last season “we became more efficient as an offense,” Kromer said.
The club gradually narrowed the playbook to feature what the team did well and what the players -- especially Cutler -- liked to do most. That narrowing continues this offseason. But at the same time, the team wants to broaden the system, as Kromer explained, “from that spectrum” of what the players already do well.
“Any group that can play together for a few years is good,” Marshall told the “Carmen & Jurko” show on ESPN 1000 on Tuesday. “It’s going to be awesome to see us grow because of the experience and the time we’re able to put in during the offseason. Now we bring in Coach Trestman going in his second year, and he’s really putting science behind all of his madness. It’s bringing everybody together, and it’s really cool to see what’s going on in our locker room. I’ve never been with a bunch of selfless guys like this. Everyone is just all-in, whether it’s the running game, the passing game. Everyone believes [and is] pulling for each other. It’s cool, man. It’s awesome to be part of this crew.”
Trestman called the process of working with Kromer, the staff and Cutler this offseason to tweak the playbook for 2014 “excellent.”
“We’ve narrowed some of the things we did last year, and we’ve expanded to some of the things we want to take a look at,” Trestman said. “We still have a pretty long list of plays in our playbook, so to speak, to keep it simple. It’s just the daily process of working through the plays, getting better, evaluating what we did last year, working to improve, and then working into the new football that we’ve put in.”
Will it all work this season? That’s the big unknown. But the body of work the offense put on the field in 2013 provided plenty of reasons to be optimistic headed into the season. In addition to the new coaching staff bringing in an unfamiliar scheme, the Bears put together a brand new offensive line as Garza was the only returning starter from 2012. It’s also easy to forget Marshall spent all of last offseason rehabbing from arthroscopic hip surgery, and was hobbled throughout the early part of the season.
Now, everyone’s healthy, and familiar with the system. Most importantly, they're hungry.
“Team goals, I would say just enjoy the journey,” Marshall said. “But of course we definitely want to be in Arizona [for the Super Bowl]. That’s going to be really tough. We have to put it together. On paper, we look great, but we have to go out there and do it. We have the guys that can upstairs, [and] downstairs. So we’ll see how it goes.”