Four Downs: Cutler poised for best season?

Will Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall be a dynamic duo again, this time with the Bears? Jerry Lai/US Presswire

There is plenty of optimism awaiting the Chicago Bears when they report to training camp at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais on Wednesday. Injuries to Jay Cutler and Matt Forte sabotaged a promising 2011 season and ushered in changes most notably at general manager, offensive coordinator and on the offensive side of the ball.

The Bears (finally) have a legitimate No. 1 receiver in Brandon Marshall, a punishing complement to Matt Forte in Michael Bush and a competent veteran backup quarterback in Jason Campbell.

Cutler and Marshall thrived with each other in the past, and the Bears are counting on the same for their Chicago reunion. Will they raise each other's games again as Bears in 2012?

Our panel weighs in on that and more in a Four Downs look at the offense heading into training camp:

First Down

Fact or Fiction: Jay Cutler will have a career season in 2012.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Check the numbers. Cutler made the Pro Bowl in 2008 for the Denver Broncos with Brandon Marshall as the No. 1 wide receiver and with Jeremy Bates on the coaching staff. The Bears, under new offensive coordinator Mike Tice, plan to tailor the scheme to Cutler’s strengths, something Mike Martz refused to do. Cutler might not eclipse the 4,526 passing yards he accumulated that year in Denver, but he could easily set career bests in touchdown passes (27), completion percentage (63.6) and quarterback rating (88.1).

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. That’s not to say Cutler won’t play well. But he won’t put together a career season in 2012 because he won’t have to. True, Cutler is surrounded by arguably more weapons than ever. But it’s important to remember that the Bears plan to revert to their running roots, which means they probably won’t rely as much on the passing game. Cutler racked up a career-high 4,526 passing yards in 2008 with 25 touchdowns. But that team finished 8-8 and didn’t advance to the playoffs. Big numbers from the quarterback aren’t necessarily indicative of a big year for the team.

Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, Bears fans shouldn’t necessarily root for a career year considering that in 2008, when he threw for a career-high 4,526 yards (with 25 touchdowns), the Broncos went 8-8, failed to make the playoffs and two days after the season ended, coach Mike Shanahan was fired. If Cutler is able to fully utilize Marshall, avoid sacks and injury (though Jason Campbell is a lot more capable than Caleb Hanie), and implement a much more friendly and familiar offense under Tice, the numbers will be there -- career-best or not -- and the Bears will benefit.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. He better, right? Even with a still-questionable offensive line -- hey, this is the Bears, don’t expect perfection -- Cutler has everything else he needs to play at his best. He’s got Marshall, Matt Forte, an offensive coordinator from Earth in Tice. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that Cutler should have the benefit of familiarity. This is his fourth season in Chicago. He seems more comfortable in his own skin. All of these things should coalesce into the season we’ve been waiting for.

Second Down

Fact or Fiction: Brandon Marshall will catch 100 passes this season.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. He better. When Marshall is focused, he is hands down one of the best receivers in the NFL. It’s reasonable to expect Cutler to target Marshall an average of eight to 10 times per game. Marshall is already the best wideout in franchise history, even before catching a single pass in Chicago. So use him early and often. But as Eddie Royal showed in 2008, other receivers can have big years when Cutler and Marshall connect over 100 times in a season. Earl Bennett hauling in 70-plus catches also is not out of the question, but Marshall reaching 100 is a must.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. Marshall has pulled in 100 catches in three of his first six seasons, and he’ll come close to the century mark in 2012. But he won’t hit it. He won’t need to, similar to the way Cutler doesn’t need the quintessential “career season” for the Bears to be successful. My guess is Marshall falls into the 85-90 catch range, on the way to becoming the ninth receiver in franchise history to gain 1,000 receiving yards. There just seems to be so many other weapons in the rushing attack and receiving corps to warrant feeding the ball to Marshall. Besides that, defenses would be absolutely silly to not make stopping Marshall -- with extra coverage -- a priority.

Melissa Isaacson Fiction. If Marshall stays healthy, it’s a reasonable expectation that he will be Cutler’s favorite target and make 100 catches, which he last accomplished in 2007, 2008 and 2009. But Cutler also likes Earl Bennett quite a bit; and he’ll have promising rookie Alshon Jeffrey, Devin Hester and dare we say Kellen Davis, not to mention Forte and Bush to spread things around. So again, while it would be great if Marshall had 100 catches, it may not be necessary.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. Because why not? It’s late July, time to dream big. Marshall will be a marked man, of course, but I expect Cutler and Marshall to benefit from an existing chemistry and the former’s eager arm. Marshall caught 82 passes last season in Miami. I’m not even sure the Dolphins had a quarterback.

Third Down

Fact or Fiction: By the end of the season, the offensive line will go from a weakness to a strength.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. That’s too big of a leap to make before the season begins. There are plenty of concerns on the offensive line, starting with the competition at left tackle between Chris Williams and J’Marcus Webb. Neither have been world beaters in the past and protecting Cutler’s blind side is critical. There also is a little uncertainty surrounding Gabe Carimi after he missed nearly his entire rookie season with knee issues. With questions marks at both tackle spots, it’s difficult to forecast the offensive line as necessarily a strength. The Bears would be happy if it simply wasn’t a liability.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. Recent history tells us this offensive line probably won’t ever be a team strength. But the group will definitely look much better in the new Tice offense, which will eliminate the long drops and emphasize protecting Cutler over getting more targets into a route. As the season progresses, defenses surely will find ways to get pressure on Cutler. So it’s likely the offensive line will struggle on occasion. The biggest difference fans will see under Tice, though, is the Bears will correct offensive line issues much quicker than they did under Martz.

Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Once again, the season begins with similar questions, namely who will end up where. Beyond that, will Williams reach his potential and at which position will that happen? Will Carimi live up to the expectations of a first-round draft pick? Will Webb develop the consistency necessary to be an NFL-caliber player? And will the line as a whole protect Cutler and cut down on mental mistakes? In his final five games last season, Cutler was sacked just five times. With the Bears’ re-vamped passing game, it’s fair to expect the line to come out stronger than the beginning of last season. But it’s also fair to expect them to get better as the season goes along.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. How do you define “strength?” Forget fame and fortune, the Bears should hope the offensive line isn’t talked about at all come winter. Competency should be the first step, and with Tice installing a more normative offensive system, no more seven-step drops and midseason “Come to Lovie” meetings, the line’s individual weaknesses could be covered up and the Bears’ abysmal sack rate should go down precipitously.

Fourth Down

Fact or Fiction: Michael Bush will have more touchdowns than Matt Forte this season.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Forte is one of the best NFL running backs between the 20s. But for whatever reason, the Bears usually prefer to let the second back do the bulk of the work inside the red zone. The Bears paid Bush good money to be Forte’s backup, so it stands to reason the organization is going to want to see a return on their investment. Letting Bush touch the ball around the goal line seems like a smart idea considering the free-agent pickup weighs in at 245 pounds. Bush also has scored 15 rushing touchdowns the past two seasons compared to nine rushing scores for Forte. However, Forte is a terrific receiver out of the backfield, and he will likely catch a few touchdowns from Cutler (Forte has eight career receiving touchdowns). But I expect Bush to narrowly edge out Forte in this department.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. This is a tough one because I certainly buy the fact the Bears will probably hand it off more to Bush in short-yardage and goal-line situations than Forte. But this season, I’m banking on Forte to score more touchdowns from 10-plus yards out. In 2011, Forte -- because of his intense training -- appeared to be a faster player than he was the previous year. I’m guessing Forte (because he trained angry due to the contract situation) will look even more beastly in 2012. In addition, look for Tice to find more ways to get Forte the ball in the passing game. Surprisingly, Forte caught just one TD pass in 2011. That number grows this season.

Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Potentially the best one-two running back tandem in the league, it is certainly conceivable that Bush, who was utilized in a variety of ways with the Raiders, can be used in the red zone or specifically on the goal line, where he is a strong, straight-ahead rusher. Bush gained more than 1,100 total yards in the final 10 games last season and had 13 touchdowns from 3 yards or less over the last two seasons. One way or another, after signing a four-year contract worth a reported $14 million, including a $7 million signing bonus, Bush will be used.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. It’s pretty amazing that Forte only had three rushing touchdowns. But I think he’ll benefit from the changes on offense and with Marshall in tow, the natural improvements to a lackluster red zone offense. Forte was so dynamic when he got touches, averaging nearly five yards a carry. Now that he’s getting paid like an elite back, I think he’ll finally pile up the rewards of his hard work -- the touchdowns -- be they from rushing or receiving.

Jeff Dickerson and Michael C. Wright cover the Bears for ESPNChicago.com. Jon Greenberg and Melissa Isaacson are columnists for ESPNChicago.com.