Are Bears contenders? It's complicated

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Brian Urlacher got that look on his face Thursday, the one you can't usually make out completely but suspect is there behind his facemask most of the time.

It's the irritated half-smile that says, "Yeah, yeah, go ahead, bring it. And then we'll talk."

The subject was that annual event known as preseason predictions, which, other than two years ago when one national publication put the Bears on its cover with a Super Bowl forecast that went south with a team that finished 7-9, generally goes the same way.

The Bears are picked somewhere behind the Green Bay Packers, sometimes the Minnesota Vikings and this year even the Detroit Lions. Why? Because the Bears are not a team that usually projects well in the offseason, after the draft or, with the exception of the Julius Peppers acquisition, with their free-agent signings.

"We're the underdogs again," Urlacher said, almost yawning. "That's the way it is every year. And we seem to do decent at that role. So we'll just do our best, go out there and try to give a couple teams a game this year."

They have largely been unpredictable under Lovie Smith; that much is true. At the same time, how can anyone say with certainty that the Bears are a better team than last year? That after failing to make a dramatic addition via free agency; after losing their veteran center; playing with potentially two disgruntled key players this season and with no guarantee they will stay injury-free or face another bevy of third-string quarterbacks, they will somehow improve over their NFC championship berth of last season?

I don't see it. Not yet.

The Bears' offensive players will tell you that there is one very simple reason why they will be better.

"Just because it will be the second year in the offense and we won't be out there making dumb mistakes that we made the beginning of last year," offered Matt Forte. "I think it takes the whole season just of experience and getting games under your belt in that offense and knowing what [offensive coordinator Mike Martz] likes to call against defenses and coverages and stuff."

Thus, Forte reasoned, the offense, which didn't find a winning pass-run ratio until the second half of last season, will also be more capable of balance and versatility.

"We're not limited on what we can call because of the learning curve," Forte said. "We have the whole playbook in, so we should be good."

It sounds good if, that is, the players can execute. And there is no question the Bears' young offensive line improved over the course of the preseason.

"The confidence level is definitely there," center Roberto Garza said. "Knowing all the adjustments going through the season last year and learning from that film is a big plus for us."

But the fact that Garza is one of four offensive linemen playing new positions including one -- right tackle Gabe Carimi, who is a rookie -- would seem to lessen that advantage.

Another mystery yet to unfold is that of the Bears' receiving corps with Roy Williams falling short of the upgrade fans were hoping for.

Williams, however, talked a great game this week, conceding that while he understands why Chicago fans and media have already been hard on him this early in his Bears career, his intentions are sure to make him a crowd favorite.

"I'm a ballplayer," he said. "I'm a run-blocker. I understand that running the ball is going to help us win games, so not only am I going to run my routes, but I'm going to also make the blocks. Hopefully people are going to love me not just because I have personality, but because No. 11 is doing his thing."

We can reasonably expect that quarterback Jay Cutler will be better, that somehow the line will reduce the number of sacks from last year's league-worst 56 in the regular season; that his receivers will have tightened up their rather loose grasp of the offense and that his judgment will continue to improve as it did from his league-leading 26 picks in 2009 to an eighth-worst 16 in 2011.

But those are rather modest goals. And once again, the pressure will at least initially be on an aging defense to buoy the Bears, which is where Urlacher gets that look on his face again.

"We're still playing at a pretty high level for as old as we are," he said.

Their strength, he said, will be up front, where almost anyone would be an upgrade over Tommie Harris.

"Our defensive line is stacked," Urlacher said. "We're two-deep at ever spot and those guys get after it."

And with the addition of Brandon Meriweather, the secondary certainly appear to be better than with an improving but still inconsistent Danieal Manning last season. Once again, takeaways will be critical for the Bears if they are to come out ahead in a schedule with seven playoff teams from last season.

"That's one thing I've noticed playing against the Bears for many years," said Roy Williams, a former Lion, "is they get turnovers, and I see why, because they practice it every day and they do different things that other teams I've been on didn't do. ... They come after me every day, and I think that's going to help me during the season, too."

Is it fair that an 11-5 NFC championship contender that has not suffered any substantial losses in personnel would be picked by many to fall short of the playoffs? It is when the defending Super Bowl champ and resident division foe only got healthier. It is when for the past five years, the Bears have never finished above .500 two seasons in a row.

It is when outsiders look in and see the Bears' prized and underpaid running back admit he is disappointed in management for not coming to an agreement on a new contract, and a star linebacker makes it clear he is disgruntled.

Urlacher said Briggs is well-acquainted with trying to prove people wrong.

"I think [Briggs] has had a chip on his shoulder since he got drafted and all those guys who went before him, hardly any of them are in the league now," he said.

"Do I think he should get a contract? Yes. Do I think he's underpaid? Yes. But it doesn't matter that I think. It doesn't matter what he thinks. It matters what people think he deserves. That's all that matters."

Kind of sounds like the Bears.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.