|David J. Phillip / Associated Press|
|Jay Cutler being unable to finish vs. the Packers with a knee injury put a damper on a surprising run for Chicago.|
Chicago was The Surprise Team in the NFL, winning the NFC North when they entered the season projected to finish behind Green Bay and Minnesota, if not Detroit. So there is something good to reflect upon and build on. The way things finished, though -- the 21-14 NFC Championship Game loss to the Packers when quarterback Jay Cutler couldn't finish because of a knee injury -- opened up a deep bag of issues heading into the offseason.
At the top of the bag is Cutler. Though some empathy has started to replace the vitriol fans, media and some current and former NFL players directed his way for not trying to finish his team's most important game, he has a lot of fences to mend before he's accepted.
Seeing him stand on the sideline while No. 3 quarterback Caleb Hanie played well in finishing the NFC title game left a bad taste for Chicagoans, a tough breed of people who loathe anything and anybody perceived to be less than willing to gut out any situation. Even worse for Cutler, Hanie threw a touchdown and set up another not knowing Chicago's offense. Meanwhile, Cutler, when he was healthy, played poorly and looked like he'd rather be anywhere else than facing the Packers' defense in frigid temperatures.
So let's take a look at what's next for Chicago:
1. Is there any way Cutler isn't the QB next season?
Cutler -- unless injured -- will be the quarterback. As bad as things ended, he improved a ton during the season behind a questionable offensive line and few reliable threats other than running back Matt Forte. There will be calls for a competition with Hanie or whomever Chicago might bring in to replace backup Todd Collins, but unless Cutler's knee injury prohibits him from playing or puts him at immediate risk for further injury, he is The Guy.
Cutler must understand, though, that he has to play his best football. Bears fans are undyingly loyal -- to the team, not certain players. If he starts the season slowly or gets hurt or does something that doesn't win ball games, nearly everyone outside of the organization will be calling for change. Cutler could help his cause by showing some sort of personality. So much of why Cutler is criticized is the way he publicly carries himself, which is aloof and dismissive. That act will grow old -- if it hasn't already.
2. Will Bears extend Smith's contract?
This could be dicey. Lovie Smith has one year left on his deal and did an exceptional job of getting the Bears as far as he did. He also has a Super Bowl appearance on his résumé. Interestingly, much of the credit for Chicago's improvement is being heaped upon defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and offensive coordinator Mike Martz, not Smith.
While Smith is routinely criticized outside of the locker room, inside of it, he is highly respected by his players, and that is huge. Ownership has to figure out whether to commit to Smith, seeing as though his greatest success -- the Super Bowl berth -- was followed by three non-playoff seasons until 2010.
We've seen Wade Phillips in Dallas get his team to play some of its best ball when he was not given a contract extension. We also saw, this season in Cincinnati and Carolina, how a lame duck coach can have the wheels fall off. It would seem hard to think that Smith wouldn't get some type of extension, but with the uncertain labor situation, you never know.
3. Is upgrading offensive line a priority?
It has to be. If they want Cutler to succeed and if they want to take the next step, they have no choice. Cutler was sacked 57 times, including the playoffs, and a lot of his mistakes were routinely the result of him facing immense pressure.
The Bears have to draft at least one offensive lineman high, take another later and also get involved in free agency. They saw this season how a key veteran acquisition in Julius Peppers upgraded the defensive line. The same thing can happen with the offense. If management tries to methodically piece together a line or try to adjust scheme to fit its existing talent, the Bears will be in major trouble (See B.J. Raji and Ndamukong Suh as reminders of what's in store the next few seasons).
4. Is secondary a primary concern?
Cornerback Tim Jennings had a pretty good season but he was frequently targeted because of his size (5-foot-8, 185 pounds), or lack thereof. He could be better suited to play the nickel corner or nickel back. Chicago can address this through the draft or free agency but they'd better make sure to add someone who fits the scheme and acquire an ample supply of depth.
Teams that spend big on corners in free agency sometimes get burned because of inappropriate scheme fits. The money allocated to that spot also lends to going on the cheap for backups. That kills teams if there is an injury and it weakens the special teams. Chicago also needs to upgrade at safety, but if rookie Major Wright improves, they could be okay. Depth at that spot will be important as well.
5. Help at receiver on the way?
Chicago's unit of Devin Hester, Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox was better than they got credit for, but wouldn't the offense function a lot better if they had a big horse on the perimeter? Say a free agent like Sidney Rice. Who knows if Rice or San Diego's Vincent Jackson will be available to Chicago -- we're waiting to see if the franchise tag will return in the new collective bargaining agreement -- but if so, the Bears need to stop kidding everyone and add a bigger wide out that causes opposing defensive coordinators some trepidation.
Rice and Jackson are just two bigger receivers who've played with gun-slinging quarterbacks with rocket arms. Again, Bears management needs to find players who could not only fit in scheme-wise but also with a quarterback like Cutler, who is sometimes a tad off base and needs players that can fight through traffic or make out-of-the-box plays to help his quarterback.
Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.