BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- One year after taking over for Jerry Angelo as general manager of the Chicago Bears, Phil Emery put his stamp on the organization by firing longtime head coach Lovie Smith, despite a 10-6 finish to the 2012 regular season -- the fourth time in nine seasons that Smith reached the 10-win plateau.
Emery took a rather unconventional route when hiring a new head coach, bypassing 2012 NFL coach of the year Bruce Arians in favor of Marc Trestman, who spent the previous five seasons enjoying success as the head coach of the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes. But Trestman is no stranger to NFL circles, having spent the bulk of his career coaching quarterbacks and calling plays for the likes of the Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins.
While Smith’s strength was defense, Trestman’s strong suit is the offensive side of the ball, where the Bears typically struggled under the former regime. The most noticeable change in training camp has been the emphasis placed on reinventing the offense, while the defensive scheme has undergone little change under new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.
Trestman’s greatest challenge: maximizing the talent of quarterback Jay Cutler before it’s too late. Cutler’s four seasons in Chicago can be best described as inconsistent -- with the quarterback, coaching staff and substandard personnel all sharing the blame for the team’s mediocre offensive output.
However, in the final year of his contract, Cutler is now surrounded by the most offensive talent during his tenure with the team, and by a head coach determined to make it work.
"I think on every level I’ve enjoyed the process with Jay, the interaction in our meetings, the level of content in our football discussions and his assimilation of the system based on the fact that he’s been in so many of them over the last four or five years," Trestman said. "Jay’s been all-in."
If that trend continues, the Bears have a legitimate chance to compete in the NFC North and earn just their second playoff berth in seven years. If not, the Bears would be expected to rebuild the roster heading into 2014.
1. Cutler’s grasp of the offense: This marks the fifth different offense for Cutler in the last six years, dating back to his time in Denver under Mike Shanahan. After installing the offense approximately three times over the course of the offseason program and the first week of camp, the quarterback said he is still in the process of mastering Trestman’s West Coast system.
"It’s been going well," Cutler said. "There have been ups and downs. That’s any training camp. Guys are learning the offense and we’re moving along. Just the verbiage is the most difficult aspect. Any time you go to a new offense guys are going to be in similar positions on the field. It’s just learning the verbiage and being able to spit it out."
Trestman is constantly pressuring Cutler and the offense to get plays off in 16 seconds or less. This "controlled chaos" is a stark departure from the Smith era, when there wasn’t such an emphasis placed on running plays in such a timely fashion.
"Practice has been chaotic, and that’s the way coach Trestman wants it," center Roberto Garza said. "He wants it upbeat. He wants it competitive and as close to real game speed as possible so you do get those reactions to come out faster. He’s doing it so there’s not a big difference between practice and the game ... that’s his big emphasis."
2. Finding a complement to Brandon Marshall: Marshall joked before the start of camp that his offseason hip surgery was a result of the amount of times he was targeted by Cutler last season. Maybe he was telling the truth. Marshall was targeted a team-high 194 times in 2012. The next highest targets by a wide receiver? Earl Bennett with 49.
The Bears tried to address the problem in free agency by signing tight end Martellus Bennett to a four-year deal. Bennett had 55 receptions last season for the New York Giants, and should be a major upgrade over former Bears tight end Kellen Davis, who had a difficult time catching the football.
"I am [looking forward to having more weapons]," Marshall told ESPNChicago.com. "It was tough sledding last year. I think that's why I had to have the surgery. I had two or three guys on me every single play, but bringing in big boy Martellus, I don't think the league really knows how good he is. I didn't know, and that was one of my great friends in the league. So I'm excited to see him; he's going to be awesome this year for us."
Alshon Jeffery, a second-round draft choice in 2012, is also being counted on to take pressure off Marshall. After hand and hip injuries forced Jeffery to miss six games during his rookie season, the former South Carolina All-American is playing with a sense of purpose in camp, and has clearly established himself as the No. 2 wide receiver on the roster, with Bennett doing his work primarily in the slot.
3. The leadership void left by Brian Urlacher: Although Urlacher’s performance on the field last season may have suffered, his leadership and influence in the Bears’ locker room was as strong as ever. The future Hall of Famer is now retired, having been replaced in the middle of the Bears’ defense by veteran D.J. Williams and rookie second-rounder Jon Bostic.
Urlacher’s close friend Lance Briggs has assumed the role of calling the defensive plays from his weakside linebacker spot, a duty Urlacher handled with ease in Chicago for over a decade.
If Briggs' comments during the first week of camp are any indication, Urlacher might be gone, but he isn’t forgotten.
"It’s tough [without Urlacher]," Briggs said. "But we’re all grown men. We have to move on."
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Four Pro Bowlers (cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, defensive end Julius Peppers and defensive tackle Henry Melton) return to a defense that scored nine touchdowns and generated 44 takeaways last season. If the core veteran group -- which includes seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Briggs -- manages to stay healthy, there is no reason the Bears cannot once again boast one of the top defenses in the league, even with the departure of Smith and respected defensive coordinator/defensive-line guru Rod Marinelli.
On offense, the Bears can’t get much worse than they were in 2012 under former offensive coordinator Mike Tice. Trestman is their first offensive-minded head coach since Mike Ditka, and while it’s fair to question how he’ll handle the nuances of running an NFL team, his credentials on offense are legit. With the offseason upgrades made at tight end and on the offensive line, the Bears should have enough talent for Trestman to successfully implement his offense. And if Cutler continues to buy in and respect the new head coach, the Bears should, at the very least, be respectable on offense and not have to lean so heavily on their defense.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
Emery fired a head coach coming off a 10-6 season with 84 career wins -- the third-highest total in franchise history -- three division titles and a Super Bowl appearance. Why?
Most veterans are saying all the right things publicly about Trestman and the new regime, but the writing seems to be on the wall. Unless the Bears have a successful season, there figures to be a massive roster turnover heading into 2014, especially since 43 players on the training camp roster have contracts set to expire after the season.
Emery made it clear he does not anticipate awarding contract extensions until after the season, citing salary-cap concerns. But players don’t care about the salary cap; that’s a management issue. So if the Bears get off to a bad start, will the team rally for Trestman like it did so many times for Smith over the years?
With a difficult schedule that opens with home games against 2012 playoff teams Cincinnati and Minnesota, followed by a trip to Pittsburgh, the fear is that players will be looking to jump ship if the waters get rough. That never happened under Smith. But this is the calculated risk Emery took by firing a popular head coach and failing to extend contracts in the offseason.
• The fact that guard Kyle Long made just five career starts at Oregon didn’t deter the Bears from selecting him No. 20 overall in April’s NFL draft. Long is raw and is bound to make his share of rookie mistakes, but his strength is undeniable. From a physical standpoint, Long can hang in there against experienced defenders. But it’s the mental aspect of his game that needs work after he was forced to miss the Bears’ entire offseason program due to NCAA rules. Despite Long’s steep learning curve, he is on track to open the regular season as the Bears’ starting right guard.
• The loss of Williams for at least a week due to a right calf injury gives Bostic an opportunity to work extensively with the first unit at middle linebacker. But not being responsible for calling the defensive signals, a task held by Briggs, is an adjustment for Bostic and has led him to commit a handful of mental errors. "I kind of feel like when you’re talking loud and calling the plays it kind of helps you in what you are doing," Bostic said. "At the same time, we have this thing called loud and wrong. If you’re talking loud everyone can hear you. But if you’re wrong, everyone can hear you and tell you you’re wrong." Bostic has been in charge of calling signals for the No. 2 defense since OTAs kicked off in May.
• The Bears already boast two Pro Bowlers on their defensive line in Peppers and Melton, but two other projected starters are turning in some of the best efforts so far in camp: defensive end Corey Wootton and defensive tackle Stephen Paea. Wootton sacked the quarterback seven times last season, and entering the final year of his contract he could be in line for a sizeable bump in salary if he recovers from a hip injury suffered in practice last Thursday. Paea is the heaviest he’s ever been (295 pounds) and the fastest since the Bears moved up in the second round to take him in 2011. “I’m doing something right,” Paea said.
• Trestman has been especially high on running back Matt Forte, who besides rushing for 5,327 yards in five NFL seasons is also an accomplished receiver out of the backfield. But for reasons unknown, the Bears failed to utilize Forte much last season in the passing game -- he caught a career-low 44 passes for 340 yards. That is expected to change under Trestman.
• The verdict remains out on 2012 first-round pick Shea McClellin after he posted 2.5 sacks as a rookie in a limited role as a situational pass rusher. However, the offseason departure of veteran defensive end Israel Idonije opens the door for McClellin to receive more playing time in a three-man end rotation with Peppers and Wootton. McClellin gained weight in the offseason but promptly lost it, raising more questions about whether he truly is suited to be a 4-3, hand-on-the-ground defensive end. "My expectation for Shea is simply to get better," Tucker said. "That’s the expectation I have for every player on the defense. He just needs to get better." The likely scenario for McClellin this season is to move around on defense and line up in different spots along the line of scrimmage in both a two-point and three-point stance. McClellin also has the speed and agility to drop back into coverage every now and again.
• Devin Hester seems content in his new role as strictly a return man. Hester has not taken a single rep at wide receiver since Trestman was hired, spending time at practice either with the other specialists or on a side field catching punts from the JUGS machine. "I feel great," Hester said. "I haven’t felt like this in a while. I’m very excited for the season, what’s at stake this year. I do feel like we do have a great chance to make a run for the playoffs as well as the Super Bowl. I’m more excited than a lot of guys this year coming in and hopefully having fun out there on the field." Hester is in the final year of his contract and set to earn a base salary of $1.857 million if he makes the 53-man roster.